Sunday, July 11, 2010

One Writer’s Process: Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt has written nine novels for adults, four books for children, numerous essays and short stories, and her work has earned her comparisons with writers like Anne Tyler, Sue Miller and Jane Hamilton, yet she admits that it still takes her many, many drafts to figure out what her stories are really about.

“I have no idea how it happens,” she says, “but what I always strive for is that level of intimacy when I'm writing so I feel that I'm channeling these people, that they are breathing on the page. Usually it happens after a great deal of rewriting.”

Leavitt teaches online novel writing in The Writers Program at the UCLA Extension Department of the Arts (and received a Teacher of the Year award in 2004). Her students are well aware that Leavitt knows what it's like to be halfway through a novel without knowing what it's about or where to go with it, and, unsurprisingly, she’s beloved for sharing with her students some of the strategies that have worked for her over the years.

“Give yourself deadlines,” she advises. “Try to write 1,000 words a day and push forward without worrying if it's any good. It will be, but it doesn't have to be right now. Always stop writing when the writing is going well so you'll look forward to going back to it the next day. Try writing out a page in a different font and it may reveal something new to you. Write the novel in sections instead of in linear fashion.”

Leavitt grew up in Waltham, Massachusetts, a major outcast in a working class high school, she says, “where being smart was a disaster.” She “lived in my writing,” always carried a notebook and books, and had one ally--the art teacher--who gave her a pass to the art room, where she ate lunch and went instead of home room, and that saved her life.

“I kept telling myself that I would go to college (only about one-third of my graduating class did) and be a writer and most of these people would be married at eighteen, divorced by twenty, and working at the local market injecting red dye into the meats to make them look fresher.”

Now married, Leavitt lives in Hoboken, NJ with her husband and son. When not writing, she reviews books for the Boston Globe and People Magazine. Her newest book, Pictures of You, is coming out from Algonquin Books in January.

Leavitt recently took a break from her work to share her thoughts on writing with wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming... how do you get into the water each day?

Leavitt: I have to prepare. I usually put on music, something with a beat that gets me going, and I always have something set out to work on so that I never have to face that “what do I do now?” blank-page feeling. I give myself rewards—chili-infused chocolate is one of my best motivators, even at eight in the morning. But, truly, I’m so busy with all of the other components of my life (raising a child, having a husband, teaching full-time for UCLA Writers Program online, book reviewing for People and Boston Globe), that I know how precious every moment is, so I make the most of it. I think, too, I realize that I know how to swim, and I love the water, and I haven’t drowned yet. Every day, I really can’t wait to dip in!

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Leavitt: I’ve always felt that writing is what keeps me sane. I crave it like a drug. Without it, I just feel out of sorts and so cranky my head is in danger of exploding. Short work is easier than long work, but it’s not as satisfying to me. Writing a short story or essay is like having lunch with a friend, but work on a novel is like a long, satisfying marriage. I love the whole process—even the tough times.

I’ve had full-time job-jobs before, and I always felt like I was drowning—something I’ve never felt while writing. I never understood the wasted time in an office that goes with the endless schmoozing, the meetings, the office politics. I was awful at all of it, and I’d usually finish my work by noon and then be sitting around, thinking, “Well, now what do I do?” When I left corporate-land work for good, friends asked me, “But aren’t you going to be lonely on your own? How will you get your work done?” It’s such bliss for me to be at home, to be a writer, that staying afloat is a privilege.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Leavitt: Honestly, I’ve never really had a dry spell. I’m always writing, and I always try to have at least one new novel idea bubbling in the back of my mind so there is never that blank section of time. What I have had are spells when nothing is working, when the writing feels flat, the story seems stupid. I wander about in a haze then, wishing I were a dentist or a carpenter or anything but a writer. I am convinced my career is over and I can’t sleep or eat. What I usually do is throw myself at the mercy or two or three close writer friends who know what this feeling is like, and they usually look at my synopsis and point out flaws or story holes. Or they talk to me and urge me to get back into the water, stop complaining and swim, that once I get in, I’ll remember how to do the right strokes. It’s like treading water for a long time, and you can see the sharks swimming towards you, but suddenly, someone throws you a lifeline and you grab it, and then you get back to work.

I never doubt that I will get back to work, that I will get out of the way of the sharks, but it’s hard not to see the fins.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Leavitt: The self-doubt that comes on like muscle cramps. The realizing that there are better swimmers who are further out there, and that no matter what I do, they’ll always be further out (which leads to the realization that it’s not a competition and that’s a mighty big ocean out there). When I can’t get something right, self-loathing sometimes rears its ugly head. Sometimes I forget that I know how to write, that I’ve had story problems before and solved them, and I sink into deeper despair.

What’s hardest for me is the length of time it takes to finish a novel. I know it takes me a year to figure out what I really am writing about. It takes me another year to realize my wrong turns. Last year, after two years of work, I threw out 100 pages of my novel and started all over again, but this time I feel as though I finally got it right. When I first start a novel, it’s always filled with false starts, way too much back-story (do we really need to know the character’s life as a baby?) and characters who wander in from another novel I haven’t written yet. I don’t know if there’s an easier way to do this, but this seems to be my process.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Leavitt: I have a few lifesavers. Sometimes I pull out John Truby’s story structure book. It’s meant for screenwriters, but it can still help you pull a novel into shape. I find Truby’s thinking about a character’s moral and psychological wants and needs as invaluable as water wings. I wander about my writing office a lot saying out loud, “But what does he need? And how is that different from what he wants?” I outline a lot to see if there are story holes. There almost always are, but I can fix them, and I almost always change or throw out the outline as I write. Sometimes I may rewrite a page that works just to boost my confidence, and if I’m feeling really hopeless I might even resort to shamelessly rereading my old reviews (the good ones) and repeatedly reminding myself that other people, and not just my family, believe I can do this and they even praise me for it!

Mostly, I know these obstacles are part of the process. Even a champion swimmer gets a cramp now and then, right? And I’ve learned to even love these moments because it’s almost as if it’s priming my subconscious, pushing me to go deeper. I find after tough patches, the writing actually seems better to me, but maybe I’m being delusional.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Leavitt: I love writing. To be able to get out of yourself and into another world—what greater, more amazing gift is that? I love being in the world of the story, when everything else falls away. I don’t notice the outside world or feel it, because I’m so heavily in the zone. It’s the magic of living another life. My characters are breathing beside me, I feel their struggles and hear them talking to me, so insistent that I’m dizzy with their lives. To me, that’s an incredible gift, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t remind myself how lucky I am and how thankful I should be that I actually get to do this. I could swim like that forever.

For more information about Leavitt and her work, visit her website and her blog

If you’d like to read more interviews with Leavitt, take a look at:


David Abrams said...

Lots of inspirational advice here. Thanks, Caroline!

Susanne said...

Wonderful. Such a great description of how it often feels to write. Thank you Caroline!

Naseem said...

So good to read this and realize that though we writers may be alone in our kitchens, or bedrooms or cars or wherever it is we write, we are not alone in our struggle to find and perfect our stories.