I’m also working on putting together an online magazine, which has been inspired by publications such as The Rumpus and Rookie. It’s called Early Morning, and I’m hoping to have it out by late September.
Listen to me read this piece here:
I was tagged by Helen Jacobs of The Little Sage — whose elegant new iteration of oracle cards just popped onto my front step today — for a blog-hop about why we write. The blog-hop poses four questions; I’m then passing the baton, so to speak, onward to a handful of people whom I admire who may or may not then choose to answer the questions themselves.
What am I working on?
Right now, I’m (primarily) working on a book titled The Collected Schizophrenias, which I began in earnest while at the Hedgebrook residency this past April. Sometimes I call it a collection of essays about schizophrenia, or a memoir-in-essays, but it’s much less a memoir than I’d originally planned on writing. It’s influenced by books such as the recently published, and much acclaimed The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, or some of Joan Didion’s more personal essays. The first essay to be published from the collection is called “Perdition Days,” about the experience of Cotard’s delusion — the rare delusion that one is dead. That essay received what felt like a shocking amount of attention, for which I’m grateful. It’s not as though there isn’t any writing about schizophrenia or psychosis out there (The Center Cannot Hold, by Elyn Saks, for example), but there also exists more than one love story.
I actually have another idea for a book lined up after that one, which is unusual for me. The novel that came before what I’m working on now took about five years to write, and I couldn’t see past it at all; I thought I’d be writing it forever. That is, thankfully, not true.
I’m also working on putting together an online magazine, which has been inspired by publications such as The Rumpus and Rookie. It’s called Early Morning, and I’m hoping to have it out by late September. However, now that it’s already early September, I’m starting to see the error of my ways — anyway, it’s going to feature top-notch fiction, essays, and articles, and if things don’t go too sideways, I have ideas for what it could become past a website. But we’ll see.
How does my writing differ from others in its genres?
This is a tough question. My fiction is both influenced by all of the writers that I admire, and also borne out of a core voice that I developed over years of writing. In fiction, I tend toward the epic and the grotesque. I care a lot about prosody and about beautiful sentences — I remember that a friend, who later went on to become a critical darling, once told me that if I didn’t build a better opening chapter for my novel, no one was going to care if I wrote beautiful sentences. An editor once said that she could “only think of a handful of other books [she’d] read that [had] been able to so adeptly capture the heartbreaks, frustrations, and complexities of mental illness,” which I guess speaks to my tendency to write about mental illness, both in fiction and in nonfiction.
My nonfiction is very much “in my head,” undoubtedly because I’m so much that way. Whereas my fiction relies tremendously on external details, especially details about the ways in which people look and act when they move, my nonfiction focuses on mental gymnastics — mine and other people’s. I suppose what separates my nonfiction is my ability to write from inside “strange” mental states. The opening line of “Perdition Days” is, “Let’s note that I write this while experiencing psychosis, and that much of this has been written during a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that she is dead,” which I’ll shamelessly mention was tagged by The Toast as “literally the best opening sentence to a piece ever.” I wrote that line on my iPad while lying in bed, psychotic, and unmoored. I enjoy the challenge of trying to translate something seemingly ineffable into something intelligible.
Why do I write?
Oh, I don’t know, really. This question makes me think of Flannery O’Connor saying, “Because I’m good at it,” or something like that, when I think of that question. I love the brazenness of it.
I’ve been wondering lately whether I’d write if there were no one to read it. It’s a tougher question than I originally thought. I know that I’d write in some form. Journaling, most likely. But when it comes to laboring and laboring over something? When it comes to working on something while knowing that someone that you’re going to want to impress will be looking at it, and likely making some kind of decision about it, and thus taking extra care to shape and hone and make something that feels as close to exquisite as you can hope for? Maybe not.
I write to make sense of things for myself, to make a narrative of things that otherwise feel like socks tumbling in a dryer. I write because I see or hear or feel something that I want to be able to transmit to someone else. I write because I can’t imagine not writing.
How does my writing process work?
I have a notecard system for The Collected Schizophrenias, which is based off of a notecard system described here. (I’m hoping to teach a book-writing intensive in early 2015, which would also include a version of this notecard system.) The tactile nature of the notecards is a big help to me.
Recently I added an app called Drafts to my phone — that’s been a tremendous help to me. It has a simple interface, which doesn’t allow me to muck around with fonts and things, and I use it to make notes. I make notes on dreams I’ve had, business ideas, ideas for blog articles or essays. I do draft full pieces in that app, too.
Evernote and Scrivener are another couple of programs that I use. Evernote is my catch-all home for… well, everything. I pay monthly for the Pro version, so I try to make full use of it. But Scrivener is what I use for writing books. I wrote my novel with it; I wrote Light Gets In with it; I’m currently writing The Collected Schizophrenias with it. They’ve been promising an iOS version for a while now, but that seems to be perpetually in the works.
My writing process involves watching everything. Paying attention. Writing things down. Making notes in the middle of the night, when I’ve woken up and have an idea. Sitting in front of the computer and feeling like an idiot. Reading, reading, reading. Eleanor Catton, who recently won the Booker for The Luminaries, just announced that she’s creating a grant for writers in order to give them time to read, which I think is absolutely fantastic — reading is such a big part of it. I didn’t read nearly enough until I went to graduate school, when Michigan’s language exam was replaced by (I was in the first cohort to be faced with this) a reading exam. I wouldn’t have read Moby Dick or Bleak House or the collected works of Chekhov if I hadn’t been threatened with a test, but I’m terribly glad that I did and was.
I’d like to tag the following: Abby Kerr, who’s a friend, colleague, and incredible at what she does at the Voice Bureau; Rachel W. Cole, who does important work surrounding women’s hungers, and writes well about it, too; Jillian Lukiwski, whom I adore, makes jewelry so gorgeous that I actually had my ears pierced a few months ago so that I could wear her earrings, and is a fabulous writer. Again: no pressure, ladies!