Eizabeth Stark Powers is a beacon and anchor for many writers. She is the author of Shy Girl, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award. (She’s also finishing a complex and brilliant novel that I’ve been lucky to read in the early stages.) In addition to writing, Elizabeth also has a unique coaching service called Book Writing World (http://bookwritingworld.com) that works with writers through an ingenious combination of webinar and shared manuscripts. I was a guest on the webinar and came away impressed by Elizabeth’s insights and her deft ability with a group. In addition to teaching, Elizabeth writes columns that are available to everybody. And even though I’ve published six books, I often go to them for solace becaEuse they remind me of what I often forget—namely that writing is hard and finishing is a priority. I always come away with a phrase to remember: For example: It is harder to think about writing than to write. And Dialog is about rhythm. Elizabeth was recently chosen to moderate the panel, Like Me/Unlike Me: Re-Imagining Women in Fiction at Pegasus on Shattuck in Berkeley on September 25th. (http://www.pegasusbookstore.com/event/2013/09/25/day).
Thaisa: Thanks so much for agreeing to an interview, Elizabeth. I’ve read Book Writing World (http://bookwritingworld.com) for a long time and I always look forward to your columns. You have a keen sense of what stops writers from writing and are able to articulate that in ways that are positive instead of punishing. For example, in your column called Celebrated Chunks, Looking at a Writer’s Schedule (http://bookwritingworld.com/2012/10/celebrated-chunks-looking-at-a-writers-schedule-by-elizabeth-stark) you say that “meaningful work must have a daily goal that supersedes the overarching goal.” Can you elaborate on this?
Elizabeth:. The rush to the stable can stall progress, especially if the stable keeps ending up just out of reach. It’s the habit that matters for a writer, the daily dose you do, day in and day out, whether it’s any good, whether it contributes to bringing the project home. I don’t quite work this way myself, however. I am always aiming for the stable, but I am learning that if it’s up over another hill or out of sight around the corner, I still need to keep trotting.
Thaisa: That’s good advice. I know that I can get stalled by a novel that seems to be lagging yet write something short that I didn’t have in mind. Also, you seem to know almost all the psychological hooks that writers use to hang themselves. Were you always aware of them or did something specific get your attention?
Elizabeth: The combination of teaching and writing forces one to this awareness. Don’t you think so, Thaisa? I find I do my best teaching and my most sincere advising when I do it from my own edge, from the place where I am struggling. I guess I am intimately familiar with those hooks because on any given day I’m hanging from one or the other of them. When I sit down to write my newsletter, I have first to face the fact that to write about writing requires writing. Already I’m tangled on the hook, you see? So I start there—as my own bait I suppose, and see what I can reel in.
Thaisa: You’re right—teaching and writing focus on awareness from either side of the woven cloth. I noticed that you’re able to help many different writers, ranging from memoirists to writers of fantasy to writers of what we call “literary fiction.” Do you find yourself leaning toward a particular genre? For example, do you ever blur lines between what is considered “real” and “magically real” or “surreal?”
Elizabeth: My teaching and editing come from my deeper skill set as a reader. That is, I am a more experienced and advanced reader than I am a writer. And I am a gullible reader, too, which I think is the best kind for editing. You want to start out likely to fall for the characters, story and world, and from there find only what throws that gullible reader out of the tale. No need to hunt for writerly strategies or failings.
My first book started out with a whole magical twist, but I think the gender-bending (female-ish) hero was already magical to me and surreal to my grad school readers, so I ended up cutting the other magic, which was a bit more parlor-trick-y than substantial. But I was heavily under the influence of Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion—“I’m telling you stories. Trust me” and Laura Esquovil’s Like Water for Chocolate—the movie more than the book, in fact, because the visual presentation of the magical realism pinned it down so much more strikingly. To see the impossible is a form of ecstasy.
Thaisa:I’m a gullible reader, too, so that reassures me! I know that you’re finishing a new book because I was lucky enough to read one of the early drafts. Has your writing changed since you wrote Shy Girl?
Elizabeth: Oh my gosh—I hope so! I have studied craft a lot more. My ideas about writing went, especially, into my latest editing pass. I cut so much interiority and “telling,” and went with trusting the reader to get the story from the experience of the characters. Having lived a lot longer and had my heart broken more, I have a better understanding of people. I have more faith in the beauty of a transparent sentence than a language-laden one, though I can still fall for preaching and density. There’s now a book-in-a-drawer, too. Actually, a couple. Every writer should have such a drawer, right? You realize that nothing is more precious than the habit of work itself
Thaisa:You and Angie have two boys who are almost the same age. How do you work writing into your schedule?
Elizabeth: Yes, they are six now. I get up early—about 5:30—and meditate. I usually sneak a little reading in there, too. It’s my “quiet time.” My kids more or less know that if they wake up then, they can sit with me and meditate or read, too. Turns out, they love quiet time with me, better than all my blah, blah, blah. After I drop the kids off at school (or while Angie does), I head to a café to write. After lunch I do work for the business and some afternoons and evenings, I teach. I’ve heard that full-time working mothers now spend more time with their kids than stay-at-home moms did in the sixties, and I believe it. My kids only get an hour or two of screen time each week and only on the weekends, so either Angie or I am with them when they are not in school. Thank god for grandparents. And I will say that my income doubled when they started kindergarten. Before that, I did a lot of writing after they were asleep—when I myself was nearly asleep. It does cut off the censor, that receding consciousness . . .
Thaisa:Wow. When my kid was little, exhaustion was one of the weirder and less appealing of perks. Meanwhile you’re going to moderate a panel about women as they’re portrayed in fiction at Pegasus Books on Shattuck tomorrow evening. . Do you have any pre-panel thoughts that you want to share?
Elizabeth: I’m not sure I’ll go into this during the panel, but my perspective is that all gender is a fiction. It is created, partly through our own conscious effort (from plucking and dressing and adopting mannerisms to silencing ourselves in some ways and giving ourselves permission in others) and partly through the shaping social forces do to us. We are looking at the “likeability” of women in fiction, and this begs the question of whether women’s interiority is ever “likeable”? It may be that the move from object to subject is in itself objectionable. That sounds too sweeping, a bit rhetorical.
I have never thought much in terms of liking or not liking people, and I’m not sure that all my friends are tremendously likeable. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? What I mean, instead, is that it is not to likeability that I am drawn. And the things that do draw me—intelligence, a going against the grain, creativity—often prickle.
Claire Messud’s book, which was at the center of the controversy that renewed this topic, contains an intoxicating anger that, in the end, turns out to have a perfectly reasonable cause. That was almost disappointing, because I think the unharnessed rage of the protagonist about the limits placed on her by the world and also by forces like time and the ankle-brace of childhood was dangerous and compelling and more significant than the bruising of betrayal contained in the plot. On the other hand, if it moves her into the happy ending of a maelstrom of middle-aged creativity—fabulous. That’s a heroine we’ve seen still less than the angry and bitter one, and yet a common-enough and lovely creature in the real world. Many of them people in my classes!
Thaisa: What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I just want to add that having studied with you a couple of decades back and then having gotten to be in conversation with you from time to time, in person and as a reader, I am indebted to your own nuanced and wonderful thinking about writing. I quote you often—on the destruction of Tibetan sand drawings as a metaphor for publication; on the difference between understanding something and believing it. I am greatly looking forward to your blog!