It’s with some sense of irony and slight shame that when I was asked by Lisa Kirchner* to take part in this blog-based “row row row your boat” of writers and writing, I said “Yes.” Because I haven’t written anything in almost four months. Sometimes life gets in the way, but fortunately it’s provided some good story fodder.
So here’s the deal. This blog series is a chance for you to read about how other writers write, and perhaps discover some new writers in the process. We each answer four questions about our writing, then tag three other writers who publish online. In a week they’ll post their answers, tag three more writers each and it will be just like that shampoo commercial with Heather Locklear from the eighties. I wanted to tag a whole bunch of people because I know so many great writers/storytellers, but unfortunately I had to whittle it down to three who have an active blog in which to post their answers.
What am I working on?
I have a date to perform later this month, which is good because having an external deadline is about the only way I can get myself to write. I’m working on a new story about the thing that has consumed my life for the past 10 weeks, which was adopting two cats who turned out to be very sick. It’s not a story just about sick cats. It’s also about illness, suffering, acceptance, recovery and, ultimately, love. But it’s mostly about sick cats.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Well, the stories are different. I’m half joking. Here’s the straight answer: I don’t think it’s that different, although I’m trying to push beyond linear narrative these days. For example, I performed a story last year called “Dream House” in which the stories of Sigmund Freud’s creation of his theories of dream interpretation and Sarah Winchester’s creation of her Mystery House were interwoven with a story of my own. In another, called “Mourning Person” (performed, but not published yet), I described a year-long a period of depression that featured me dragging a dead version of myself halfway around the world as my story co-star and metaphor for despair (which I know isn’t really that original, but there are no original ideas anymore). The story I’m working on now will involve some props and will also probably jump around chronologically. I have no idea if that will work or not. I like to challenge myself and the audience. I’m also working on something for the fall that involves a xylophone.
Why do I write what I write?
I’m not clever enough to write fiction and I don’t have the patience or discipline to write a memoir. Playwriting doesn’t appeal to me and the one crack I took at screenwriting made me realize how much of screenwriting is visuals plus heavy subtext in dialog and, again…not clever enough. So short-form creative non-fiction is a natural fit. It’s also what I like to listen to. I don’t particularly enjoy performing, but it’s good for me to do for various reasons and having the feedback makes me a better writer. It’s also magical when an audience reacts in a way that I didn’t expect, or when I feel things are going well (which is rare). It’s a high I can’t get any other way. I also write standup (and, very rarely, perform it) and that has taught me a lot about writing economy, structure and how to fuck around with audience expectations for maximum impact. Both art forms are so pure and immediate. And vulnerable, so vulnerable. I don’t think there’s anything that compares to storytelling and standup for keeping a writer/performer honest. I have a deep respect for any storyteller who can tell a true story of personal evolution in a compelling, intelligent way.
How does my writing process work?
First of all, I apologize in advance for how long this answer is.
I started out writing stories about past events, because (frankly, isn’t this the case for all of us?) it was the only way I could process them. Here’s another totally unoriginal observation: our most intense memories are stored along with intense emotions, so I find that if I just lie down in a quiet room for a couple of hours and dredge up memories, the stories come on their own. I call these “Idea Fridays.” The majority of my stories take place anywhere from several years to several decades ago. Recently, however, I find that if I’m having some sort of intense experience there’s a detached part of me that observes and says, “Huh. Well, this could be something…” and so I make notes about why I thought that and store it away. Then there is a lot of “walking around time” — I think about a story for months or a year and have a bunch of disparate fragments and then they eventually coalesce. That part is a mystery to me, like a kind of alchemy that’s independent of any thought or effort, and I so wish I could make it happen on demand but a story only ripens when it’s ready. I have a list of around 20 to develop and usually have 2-3 in semi-finished state. So if I can get someone to give me a spot in a show then I’m forced to take one and pull it together. Then I sit for what’s usually a pretty intense series of weekends, writing, editing, revising. I get lots of ideas when I’m out walking around, and then of course I’m creatively constipated the moment I set down in front of my computer. My friend (and another really good storyteller), Julie Polk, introduced me to the “talk now, edit later” method — you just talk into a recorder and see where your ideas flow naturally. This has helped me tremendously and now I mix the two methods: recording my free associations, and sitting and writing. It seems like such an obvious idea but, like I said NOT CLEVER ENOUGH, and so I’m eternally grateful for her talking to me about her own method.
HOKAY. Who’s next?!
Next up on the tour are three more storyteller/writer/performer/comedy-ha-ha people: David Crabb, Kambri Crews and Selena Coppock. David and Kambri will follow up with their own answers (check the links in a week!). Selena’s on vacation, so she’ll be a bit later in the month.
DAVID CRABB is a performer, writer, teacher & storyteller in New York City. He is a Moth Story Slam host, three-time Moth Slam winner & co-creator of the live storytelling series ASK ME. His solo show BAD KID was named a New York Times Critics’ Pick and he is currently working on the accompanying memoir. David is a lead instructor in The Moth’s High School Slam program and has taught storytelling with The Story Studio, Manhattan Comedy School, Peoples Improv Theatre, Washington DC’s Story League & NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2012, the New York Times showcased one of his classes in their Arts Section. David also serves as a writing mentor for veterans across the country with The Writers Guild Initiative’s Wounded Warrior Project.
KAMBRI CREWS is the author of Burn Down the Ground: A Memoir (Random House) about her life as a child of deaf parents and her relationship with her dad who is serving twenty years for attempted murder. In addition to writing, Kambri is a storyteller and public speaker and runs a PR and production company in New York City specializing in stand up comedy. She has appeared on storytelling shows such as the Moth’s Mainstage, Risk!, and Mortified.
SELENA COPPOCK is a standup comedian, writer and storyteller based in NYC. In May 2013, she published her debut book, The New Rules for Blondes (It Books/HarperCollins). The book is collection of hilarious, personal essays celebrating and subverting the blonde stereotype. She’s been published all over the place and performs all over the place and she’s a lot of fun to have a drink with. (I’m winging this bio since she’s on vacation, but you can read more about Selena here.)
*Lisa is, like all the other writers mentioned here, a fellow storyteller and an excellent choice of seat mates. She is currently on a book tour to promote her soon-to-be-released memoir, Hello, American Lady Creature: What I Learned as a Woman in Qatar (Greenpoint Press). She also hosts an inspiring podcast called The Courage to Change.