By Kim Suhr
When/How did you realize you wanted to write? Who were your literary and personal writing influences?
I always wrote, it was like breathing. In my twenties I spent whole weekends at the typewriter. When I traveled, I wrote 2,000 word letters crammed with details and scenes. I just did it. I didn’t think about publishing until my late thirties. I’d never have said, I want to be a writer, certainly not I am a writer.
I don’t think my “style” is much influenced by any particular authors, but it was important to me to discover contemporary women writers. I first encountered Mary Gordon, Marge Piercy, and Margaret Atwood, in the back of Redbook. The real influence, however, was that I read books by people who knew how to use language, who wrote fulsome, complicated, densely populated stories. I didn’t grow up when popular fiction had to be so cute, so tricky, so shocking, so high premise. When so few people care about language.
When I was forty, I went to a workshop to study with Joy Williams. But she took me out for coffee and said, “I can’t let you be in my class. It wouldn’t be good for the other writers. You don’t need me.” She sent me to Stephen Dunn for a week of poetry; it was one of the happiest accidents of my life.
What are “hard truths” about writing you wish you’d have known when you were starting out? What is your advice for dealing with them?
I think a lot of “hard truths” weren’t so hard for me and I didn’t need advice. I didn’t mind that it took so much time, that I did things over and over, that nobody read what I wrote. Writing was all about me—my experience, my imagination, my sorrows, my dreams. By the time I tried to publish, I was mature enough to handle the suspense and disappointment and false thrills of publishing. All I know, for advice, is: make a choice. Write like a job, learn the craft, and make a living. Every year some literary writer has the stars shine on him (sometimes her), but it’s rare. Keep your day job!
In The Scene Book, you describe a self-directed apprenticeship, in which you studied other writers’ work in order to learn elements of craft. How do you think these lessons have found their way into your writing?
I did reach a point where I realized that in order to improve my skills I had to understand how fiction went together, and I could best learn that from a different way of reading. I’m analytical and intellectual by nature. I loved outlining stories. Figuring out chronology was one thing, but all the rest of it wasn’t just an accident: the images, the insights, and so on. I invented my own vocabulary and organizers. It was a big step to think about scene vs. summary, for example. To sort out exposition and introspection from action.
Do you think writing can be taught?
Absolutely. It’s silly to think not. You don’t teach talent, you teach craft. All arts have the same approach: Look to the masters. Copy. Analyze. Practice. Learn to self-evaluate. Find your way. A cellist learns to read music; a painter learns from drawing cast models of classic sculptures. All arts have a body of knowledge and skills, writing included. It’s a shame that so many writers haven’t already mastered elements of composition, of putting words down in beautiful sentences. They haven’t been made to struggle with ideas. Learning to do that as an adult takes a lot of will. Especially when there’s so much crap out there.
You are accomplished in writing fiction and nonfiction. Could you say a bit about your creative process in the different genres?
Even though there is much in common, I see them as greatly different. Nonfiction requires a different discipline of the mind, a rigor and honesty and curiosity—which is also true of fiction in a different way! For me, nonfiction starts with a different impulse—I have to say what’s true, I have to say what I think. When I write memoir, I do very little planning until I revise. It makes its way into, through, and out of discovery. My novels are pretty clear in my head before I write them. My essays surprise me in a way that fiction doesn’t. Fiction seems to swell; nonfiction has a thinner thread.
And the mentor’s relationship with the apprentice writer? How do you approach your work with your students at Solstice? How do you hope they approach their work with you?
I feel my job is to awaken the apprentice writer’s self-consciousness. I want him to see what he’s doing and not just write out of impulse. At the same time, I hope I help writers grow more courageous in themes and subjects. Mind you, I know I’m famously critical and picky and demanding, but it’s all surface stuff, mostly the things they didn’t master as young students. I want to save them embarrassment, and I want them to set high bars for their writing. This requires them not to be defensive, and that can be tough. I also like to think writers have fun with me. When I take on a student, I care a lot about the person and the work. A lot.
You are also a painter. How do the two art forms influence each other?
In painting, we talk about negative and positive space, for example, and that gives me a different way to think about what I want to be the most important matter in my text. In painting, we talk about the importance of varying shapes and being conscious of how they abut or dominate one another. Wow, think about a story manuscript that isn’t working, and look at length of scenes and how they are placed in space.
Painting has also helped me rethink style. I started out with a lot of formality and I moved toward more playfulness, more color, more experimentation. All of a sudden, I started writing short short stories for the first time ever; I doubt I’ll ever write a conventional story again. For forty years, I went to bed at night thinking about whatever story I was working on. Now when I fall asleep, I’m thinking about colors.
Publication, awards, teaching, and making deep connections with readers—you have experienced them all. What have you found most satisfying and gratifying in your writing career?
Once in a while I think: Why didn’t I ever really make it? Why aren’t I on lists? But the rest of the time, I am honestly grateful that I did only what I wanted to with my writing. I had a wonderful agent, met wonderful people, and thousands of people read my books. Is it so bad for it not to be a quarter million? Is it not amazing that eight thousand, ten thousand people read a book? Or four hundred? Or ten? To reach one consciousness is a privilege.
When I read for fifteen minutes at a Solstice Residency to a roomful of attentive, intelligent, sensitive people, am I not one of the luckiest people ever? Not because I feel important—I don’t—but because I’ve connected.