Reading, Listening and Participating
Reading, listening and participating, these are the three things that are ongoing for me that really have helped me become a stronger writer. Reading widely and a varied amount, I'll read anything. Of course you want to narrow your focus as you're learning how to grow your writing voice so that you're learning which books and which authors stimulate your own desire to read and what you're really able to learn from. But in general, reading super widely is really important. Listening to other readers read their work, to writers read their work and live literary events I think is super crucial. It's been really helpful to me and I know I was really lucky, I sort of came of age as a writer in a place and time in San Francisco in the nineties where open readings where really popular, everyone was going to them. And it was this really wonderful way to listen to literature. And I learned that you don't necessarily learn if you're just on the page writing by yourself. So I think it's a great t...
hing to do. And participating in literary culture and sometimes you have to create that culture for yourself. But if you guys all live in Seattle, I think you're good. But all you guys out there in TV-land, you might have to create your own literary culture, but I'll talk about that a little bit too. Understanding your literary lineage, who's your personal cannon of writers? Who are the writers that you dream of like oh gosh if I ever wrote a book and that person blurbed it? If I ever got to write a book and was in reading with that person, you know? If I ever go to shake that person's hand. Knowing who these people are for you I feel like can be super supportive and keep you going as a writer. As can also those writers who you love that don't make you necessarily want to write. Like Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers in the whole world, but when I read her I'm like what is she doing? It's like math, I don't understand how she creates her stories. It's so different from the way I create my stories. But none the less, I feel like as I'm reading her, I am still so soaking in a lot of what she's saying and her tricks and her language still has a sort of osmosis effect on me. And what I feel like it's doing and what all reading does is fills up my reference banks. I think about reference banks a lot when I think about writing. I think that what makes your story really individual to you is that it's going to be informed by just your history, your experience. So things you've seen in the world, the effects it's had on you. That is like your giant reference library that's like inside your person and you draw from that when you write. It's obvious if you're writing memoir you're drawing from that, but you're drawing from that if you're writing fiction, anything that you're writing. You can only write your story framed by your experience of the world. So I feel like part of a writer's job is to take in as much of the world as possible and we do that a lot through reading, right? This is like my literary lineage. Eileen Myles is my favorite writer and when I first read her my head exploded. Because I'd been writing poetry and then I started writing short pieces, but they were true, they were about my life, so it was kinda memoir but they were short. And I grew up in a house where reading was Stephen King paperbacks, which I love still. But that's kinda what reading was and so I didn't know if if what I was doing counted. And when I read Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles, that's what she's doing, she's writing these little things about her life and it validated what I was doing, it gave me hope that there was a readership out there for it, that maybe I could get published someday. And I loved her writing so much it made me feel like I wanted my work to talk to her work. And so I think it's so wonderful to let a book mentor you, let a writer mentor you without even meeting you. I think one really good trick to kind of keep you going sometimes is to pick a person that you're writing for and write for that person. Like half of my books I wrote for Eileen Myles. I don't know if she knows that or not, but I wanted to impress her, I wanted her to like my writing because she meant so much to me. And there's other things that I've written that maybe I was a little bit more inspired in a different direction. When I was writing young adult I was thinking of maybe other writers who write young adult that I wanted to sort of be on par with. It doesn't matter whether or not your book is ever on par with anything, it's just in that moment it's a trick to kind of keep you going. And I think that sometimes the hardest thing with writing is just those tricks that keep you going, that keep you sticking with your piece and sticking with your work, because it can be thankless, it can be solitary, you can be your own worst enemy. So I feel like these are tricks that can be really helpful. Is there anyone that makes you want to write? Who do you guys have? Do you know who those writers are for you? These are a bunch of the writers, I really believe in having a shelf of those books that there's something about it, they make it look easy, they make it look exciting, I want my work to respond to their work. These are some of the writers that I really love and when I read their book, it's so conversational almost that it really triggers my writing desire in me. Do you guys have writers like that that work for you? Who are they?
So mine is Julie Sinitta, because of her world building that she does.
Okay, and world building is so crucial, right? And we'll talk more about that also. Anybody else have that writer that their dedicating all their books to in their heart? Oh, you're shy, you're shy. (audience laughs) That's okay, I won't push you. I won't push you. Let's move on now from reading to listening. Here's Jerry Stahl reading from one of his books, he's a great reader. Being a great reader doesn't come naturally to all writers, but it's a skill that everybody can improve upon. And if you're in it for the long haul and you want to write a book and publish a book and represent that book in the world, it really behooves you to learn how to give a really strong reading. It just helps you get more opportunities, it helps you sell your books and publishers love it. From a learning point of view, a craft point of view, it's so helpful to be in an audience and listen to a way a work sounds read aloud. It's just really different from reading it on a page. I've had experiences good and bad where I've read a work on a page and I thought it meant one thing and then I heard the author read it and I was like oh, that's what he meant. Oh I hate this piece now. (audience laughs) It's like really strange how that can really transform a written work, to hear it out loud. Coming of literary age in that spoken word scene that I mentioned, I really learned so much about rhythm and pacing. And even though it was mostly poetry that was being read aloud, that sort of commitment to that sort of poetic rhythm, it infused my writer brain. And even now when I'm writing fiction or anything I feel like I still have a little bit of that rhythm in it because that's where I learned to write. I think it's benefited me and i really recommend get out to readings, which takes me to me singing karaoke. No, I'm kidding. (audience laughs) I'm reading something there. By reading your own work out loud, you also get to experience a whole different dimension of what you're working on. I have had pieces that I've been so excited to read, I think it's gonna be so fun to read this and I get in front of a microphone and I'm stumbling through my sentence because it's actually not clear, it's super convoluted, I took the most roundabout route to get to it to make a point. And I didn't realize any of this until I fumbled through it on a microphone. So I really, really encourage you guys to find open mics, start open mics if you can't find one or create a writing group for yourself, there's all kinds of things that you can do. At the very least, read your work out loud to yourself and see can you move slowly and smoothly through the page or are you kind of getting tripped up on stuff? I find it really, really helpful. Look, here's an open mic in San Francisco that's really fun. And I know that Seattle is a really literary town and I know there are literary towns all over the United States, all over the world there are places where people are putting together open readings. And so I really encourage people to seek those out. You just learn so much. If the crowd goes wild for your piece, it's a huge ego boost, it's also like okay, I was clear, my words made sense. And if they're not, sometimes you can feel like okay, maybe I need to figure out a different way to say this, maybe my work needs a little bit more punch. There was something about the kind of open mics that I went to in the nineties, there was a lot of hooligans in the audience and a lot of drinking. So partly you had to get up on the stage and what you said needed to really command the attention of almost like a bunch of toddlers. (audience laughs) So it helped shape a sort of style in my work, probably. But I think that it's helpful because it taught me to be bold and use bold language and not be afraid to have punchy sentences and things like that.