I first met Elizabeth Reeder when she was a Writing Fellow, funded by the Scottish Arts Council, for whom I worked at the time as a Literature Officer (strangely military title, I always thought…). Alan Warner and I later published an extract from what was to become her second novel in one of our Long Lunch Press books.
Originally from Chicago, Elizabeth lives in Scotland and is the author of two critically acclaimed novels: Ramshackle and Fremont. Ramshackle was shortlisted for the 2013 Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Best First Book of the Year Award, the 2012 Saltire First Book of the Year, and long-listed for the Authors’ Club Best First Book Award (2013). Her short stories, dramas and abridgements have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and her stories, poems and essays are widely published and often explore questions of cartography, identity, ambiguity, family and memory. A chapbook of her hybrid/lyric essays, one year, was published in May 2016 by The Essay Press: http://www.essaypress.org/ep-66/ (it’s lovely, digital and free!). She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and is co-convenor of that program. She has a slow-time website at ekreeder.com and is on twitter as @ekreeder.
This is the seventh interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:
When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?
Have a sense of humour about the process and setbacks, and be tenacious. Demand curiosity and commitment from yourself to your own writing and process (and editorial prowess). Make your own way.
Merce Cunningham stuck the following suggestions up on the wall of his dance studio for all his dancers. He got them from John Cage (who got them from sister Corita Kent). They’re simply sound and a bit raucous: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/08/10/10-rules-for-students-and-teachers-john-cage-corita-kent/
Consider everything an experiment.
Also, I did actually get some great advice when I was 18 or so. A friend of mine said, If you want to write just write. At that point I hadn’t done anything more than scribble a few proverbially bad poems. I was a keen reader, however and that year I was falling in love with Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’, and being awed by writers like Angela Carter. I hadn’t begun to believe that I could be the one putting the words together. And this friend was right, I was waiting for someone to say, sure you can do that. No one was going to validate it for me and so I just needed to get started.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?
I’m not keen on the phrase writer’s block, it’s not forgiving enough or motivating enough. Writing isn’t always easy and I don’t always have the answer to a question or problem right away. So I have things I do to keep moving. I have a full life that includes family and friends, I love to walk especially up north in Scotland, I read (a lot), watch movies, teach, cook and eat well etc etc. Writing is vital, but it’s not all I have, and everything I do feeds me and my work and my life.
Importantly, for the writing, I have more than one writing project on the go at any one time. Each project is usually at different stages (just beginning, deep into the writing, deep into the editorial) and so I can turn to a different project depending on the time I have to commit to it or with a sense of my mindset. I also do some editorial work and the occasional abridgement for radio. So I do different things that allow me to engage with words (and living) in diverse ways. This helps me be productive.
Importantly, I forgive myself the days when I can’t focus and call these processing days. I don’t allow myself any daytime television and I limit my social media but exercising, reading, cleaning, walking, cooking, having a coffee with a friend etc are all okay activities. You are often processing questions about a story or piece when you are doing other things, as long as those things are giving you space. I read for inspiration and enjoyment and I close read often to help me problem-solve a question I’m having in my work. Alice Munro’s ‘Friend of My Youth’ helped me find one of the narrative voices for my third novel – a gnarly, intense first person narrator. During the writing of Fremont I turned again and again to Angela Carter and to Judy Budnitz’s If I Told You Once and they rooted me in something I needed for that book. Music too, sometimes. Everything But the Girl’s Protection was key for Fremont too. (I’ll stand in front of you, take the force of the blow…). I suppose I’m saying that I seek out inspiration and grounding outside the worlds I’m creating in my work and this helps to keep me writing.
Do you write every day?
I make the very real and mostly successful attempt to write everyday. It’s much harder during teaching semesters when I’m pretty much flat out with teaching, prep and reading students’ work. It’s important to note that some of this writing is fluid and not-goal orientated writing – just sitting down and putting words on the page without worrying where they’ll end up. I often write almost everything down and just let it flow and cull later.
In terms of more final, focused words, when I have set aside time for my writing, especially intense times, I’m ruthless with this. When I was on a residency last year at the MacDowell Colony, I set an ambitious word count (daily and for the full residency). Most days I was near to my daily goal, a few days I was over and occasionally under, and I made the total for the residency. More importantly, they were good words. During that residency, when I was starting a new novel, I decided to try to focus and keep only the scenes and writing I felt would contribute to the whole. I actually deleted a lot of words almost immediately, which was a new experience for me that early on in the process, but it did help the focus of the book. Sometimes I put writing I wasn’t so sure about into an archive file. I’ve started to use Scrivener for my novels (it’s a literary software) which, for the way I work (with multiple voices and timelines for my third and fourth novels), really helps me to be able to be nimble with where and how I place different narratives, scenes or fragments of text. It has a nifty organizing structure so you can just cut and paste and keep notes and archive material in the same doc but out of the way.
In busier times (when I’m teaching intensely), I write when I can. I go to a café first thing in the morning and write for 20 minutes. This writing is often very productive and actively reminds me what my main purpose is in this life (writing!), and connects my mind and body together (and allows me my morning long black).
Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?
I prefer to get out of bed and roll over to my desk. Morning is my best time but I can work really long days when the writing is going well. I need to get out of the house at some point everyday. Exercise is important, but I resist it. It’s important for perspective and fluidity of thought and movement. During the summer I sometimes house sit for friends and I’ll get up and write for a few hours, go for a long walk in the hills, and come back and write. I tend not to drink much when I’m writing intensely and I try to eat well. I need a strong cup of coffee in the morning. Just the one. Okay, maybe two. I’ve been known to dance or sing in the privacy of my own room just to let everything connect together. This is something I’ve done especially around the first drafting of the fourth novel, which is a lot about happiness. Another of the Corita/Cage/Cunningham suggestions: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.
Have you ever kept a journal?
I have a catch-all notebook. A4, oxford, thin lined. I write in pencil and I throw everything in there from notes about this or that to to-do lists to ideas or problem solving for whatever project I’m working on. It’s chaotic, messy and most of it is unreadable to anyone but me. As I said, I’m usually working on more than one piece at a time. As the notebook fills up, I tend to go through it and on each page I’ll note what piece of work the writing belongs to. My abbreviations at the moment are B, TWB and AAOH. Each is a distinct project. This notebook also contains to do lists, general rants, notes of things I want to remember, books people have recommended that I want to read.
Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?
I write into a book or story or essay. I usually have a very strong image or two that I carry with me. For Fremont it was the map on the wall and the kids walking to school when Flo demands a toll for safe passage to school; for Ramshackle it was the door (submerged in the water of the lake) and a girl sitting at a window predicting the stories of people walking by. These images are key and often have an emotion associated with them as well. Whether or not they remain in the final book/project, they’re important to the writing. I also usually have some strong sentences that guide the voice, point of view and style. Often I have a start and an end in mind (and drafted). It means I know what I’m writing from and towards. Again, these may or may not be the final beginning and end. This is true for novels and fiction and for the writing process as a whole.
I can also really enjoy writing to a spec, for a shorter project. One of the stories I’m most proud of (‘A Prevailing Wind’) was written when someone asked me to write a fairy tale. My essaying, which is often hybrid – poetry, memoir, fiction – happens differently. They tend to emerge from raw notes and then I start to see the form for each shorter piece and then, also, the shape of the whole. Maybe like how a poetry collection comes together. Collaborations are, of course, different again and generate new ways of thinking, writing and producing work. My writing-into can be a challenge if my collaborator is a planner… Sometimes ‘trust me’ only gets you so far. If you write into a project you need to be both very open and curious and let things happen and also be thinking, all the time, about how everything will fit together and how readers will meet the text.
Also, I’d like to say that our brains are amazing. As I write my brain makes unconscious connections I’m not always aware of immediately. My job is to become aware and to capitalize on the connections and the different ways they might work, to make sure they work for the piece at hand. Importantly, I’m not a helpless conduit. Writing is a craft and a discipline. As the author I am responsible for what works and what doesn’t. Making a draft into a final piece is my favorite part of the process. So, although my process is messy and chaotic and discovered as I go, it’s accompanied by a rich, rigorous, intense editorial focus that creates the final piece.
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Seaside Writing Workshop: Unlock Your Creativity
Come and spend Saturday 2nd July writing with some like-minded people by the sea in pretty North Berwick – more info here.