A few weeks ago, writer Jason Howell messaged me on Twitter and asked if I would like to take part in that week’s discussion on his website Howlarium. I did, and from there grew the idea of flipping the tables and getting Jason to answer some writing-related questions for once rather than just ask them. He didn’t want to, at least not if it didn’t involve him asking questions at least half of the time. I think Jason really likes asking questions.
Jason is a short story writer whose work has appeared in The Sun, The Mental Illness Happy Hour, and in other outlets, and who runs Howlarium, an online weekly Q&A where he grills writers about all sorts of stuff related to being a writer.
So here’s the product of our conversation, conducted over several weeks through Twitter.
JH: So, would you mind if we start off talking about the novel you are writing, Maia? In particular, your drafting process. In your blog you described each successive draft as being very different from the one before. Do you know why this occurs? Is it even in your interest to know? And is this an enjoyable process?
MN: The drafting and re-drafting is not something I am used to all that much. What I mean is that I don’t tend to do several drafts when I am writing anything else. I worked as a journalist back in Russia, in the late 1990s, and I did use several drafts when writing articles. But with short stories I tend to just jump in and go, and not change much after it has been written. I almost feel uneasy at the thought of changing anything. It would be like changing my kids once they are born. But novel writing is different. For me, anyway. There is more to say, and some of the things I am trying to say I have never said before. I have never even formulated those things as worded thoughts. They were unspoken, unformed thoughts before I wrote them down, and so I think the reason for many drafts is that to say something that I have never even thought in words, I need to try saying it in several different ways before it rings true. Sometimes this process of saying the same thing in different ways can feel frustrating, but it is always enjoyable. It feels a little like being a sculptor who takes off layers and layers of clay or stone to finally get to the sculpture within. Do you write this way too Jason? How you know when to stop? A painter friend of mine said to me once, that to know when to stop is the biggest dilemma, the biggest task for any artist. How do you know when the draft is the final version?
JH: I’m constantly putting pressure on my stories to end. If I’m writing well, I’m looking to end with each new sentence. This is my own little internal way of making sure newly generated material actually needs to be there, and that I’m respecting the reader’s time. Whether it works or not is, of course, not up to me. As you’d imagine my finished stuff comes out short, and since this principle can be applied to first sentences, often what results is “Well, don’t need to write that one today.” Revision-wise I just keep poking and prodding and peeling at the thing until whatever’s on the page stops bugging me. So with that combination of pressure and taste, I don’t normally have trouble with endings. My problems are usually generative ones. I heard Mary Karr say in an interview that most writers either have a generative gift or an editing gift. If I have any whatsoever, they’re in that second camp. It’s interesting that novel writing demands you excavate these thoughts you’ve never put language to. Some people might find that scary. Like walking into a dark cave maybe. How have you gotten to a place in your life where you enjoy that sort of thing?
MN: No, I don’t find that scary. If anything, I find the idea of not writing those thoughts down much more terrifying. So for me the association with a dark cave doesn’t work because when I find a way to say something for the first time in that true way I feel as if I have come out of a dark cave into the brightest sunlight. The question you ask, and the way you formulated it, is very interesting. I don’t like to agree that writers are a certain type. But I do sometimes catch myself mistrusting the kind of extrovert writers that you talk about in one of your recordings. They seem too put together to create the kind of thing I would read. Whether they are that way naturally, or out of the necessity to promote their books, I don’t know. On the other hand, I don’t believe that being an introvert, or strange, guarantees the quality of writing. I think that a writer and their writing are separate entities. If a ‘normal’, well-adjusted writer produces a book I love, I wouldn’t care about their personality or worry about them being too happy. Talking about being well-adjusted, I’d like to ask you about your writer/life balance. You said in an interview that you only see three choices in this dilemma: sack the personal life and be the writer you always wanted; sack the writing life and be Mr. or Ms. Well Adjusted; or integrate writing and personal life as thoroughly and healthily as possible. Which one of these have you chosen for yourself?
JH: I totally agree with you about quality. I don’t think being a loner, in and of itself, makes you a better writer. Could just be my age. I’m in my 30’s and I remember a time when writing selected for misfits, deep readers, people who spent a lot of time alone as kids (and who carried that into adulthood). The internet has sort of changed that. When you walk down the street half the people you pass are staring into the palms of their hands, dead to what’s going on around them, but communicating with someone at the same time. So introversion and extroversion seem tricky to pin down in 2016. Writing still demands you spend huge amounts of time alone, but even life-of-the-party types are doing that with devices. So it’s no wonder we’re seeing more writers who are outgoing people, and some of them are probably very good, like you I’m just less likely to be interested in reading them. When it comes to “integration” I’m trying to tug my way toward it. This is the second time I’m going to mention Mary Karr, which I wasn’t planning on, but I asked her a Howlarium question recently, just sort of cold-contacted her, and this is what she sent back:
oh jason sorry i am
my publisher makes me
Dumb as it might sound, that was eyeopening to me — her going about a boring drudgery (i.e. saying no to some random nobody’s request) and using it as an opportunity to exercise form. At least that’s how I chose to see it. So to me that’s master-level integration. Always being in-practice. How do you handle this sort of thing? Or how do you look at the problem of managing an everyday life and also being deeply immersed in imagination and craft?
MN: I’m still learning to find that balance. On a typical day, I now spend a couple of hours writing and the rest of the time, as I go about my day, I tend to think about the next page if there is something to think about, or to let it lie at the back of my mind if it needs a rest in order to rise. I have found, after years of feeling bad when I needed that time alone with a notebook or the laptop, that I am a much nicer person when I allow myself to be me, to write every day, and to say what I think. I’ve heard women say that their thirties are the times when they finally stop caring what other people think, and this is true for me too. Do you ever think about your reader, about their reactions when they will read something you wrote? And if you do, do you have a single reader in mind, or a group of imaginary (or real?) readers?
JH: I do think about the reader — possibly too much, and for the blandish reason that I’m always in conversation with other writers, and that those are the people likely to see my stuff before anyone else. So they’re always kind of in my head, either as an amalgam or as a few individual personalities bubbling up as I pop from phrase to phrase. I don’t know if this is good or not, for reasons that are probably obvious. Meditation could come in handy here, but I like to keep a noisy head when I write. What do you mean by “reactions” though? Let me throw that same question back to you and maybe your answer will open up new vistas for me.
MN: I used to think about the reader. Sometimes it was a fellow writer, sometimes a friend or even a whole group of people, maybe a country. I found that it was very distracting. I am, by nature, a people pleaser, so it is better for me to please no one else but myself, so as not to find my writing stifled by the various ideas I may come up with about what such and such would think. I can also be, like many writers, quite a paranoid person, so having a reader in mind would inevitably bring forth some imaginary reaction or response they would have. Now I write with an attitude of come what may.
JH: Mind if I pour a little of that in my coffee? I could definitely use more of that outlook. Well, my work could. Maybe we can round things out by talking about the novel you’re working on. How does it feel to be almost finished? Is it nerve-wracking, exciting, anxiousness you’re feeling? Do you think you’ll explode when you’re done?
MN: There was a point, not long ago, when I realised that I had what I had been searching for. That was very exciting, and it propelled me to write much more than what I usually write. There were days when I was frantic, getting six, seven thousand words down in one go. Then I suddenly saw, without actually realising it, that once it’s written, it’s done. Like a bar of chocolate one devours until the last strip, and then spends ages prolonging those last few squares, wanting them to last as long as possible. When I write short stories, once I get to the point of no return, to the point when I can see it all so very clearly, I tend to get quite emotional. I can sometimes laugh out loud, or have a little cry. It would be comical to watch if anyone ever recorded it, I’m sure. This point comes much later in a novel, at least for me. A short story I can see, first in glimpses, then it just opens up to me. With this novel the process has been largely the same but much more drawn out. The whole thing took much longer, and opened up so suddenly, one day, that it was a massive emotional upheaval. I was quite hermetic for a few weeks after that, just writing and staying indoors. And now I am very fired up, and excited, not yet nervous or anxious but I’m sure I’ll get there once I start sending the novel out and getting people to read it. Does it work in the same way for you Jason?
JH: The only frame of reference I have is a novella-lita that took me five years to complete. A frighteningly deformed, endearingly goofy thing when it finally stood up and spoke. I may have cried, I don’t remember. But I definitely prolonged, not just near the end, but throughout. You described the whole of the experience better than I could. There is nothing like that feeling.