The Construct of the Writing Process

by HRM on July 23, 2012

Reading at Shakespeare and Co.

Nathan Englander

On Monday, July 9th we returned to another event at Shakespeare and Co. featuring a group of acclaimed American writers. Nathan Englander read an excerpt from his title piece short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (which just won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award); Helen Schulman (of This Beautiful Life) gave us a brand new piece describing the mess of post-mortem parenting; and Rachel Zucker, who recently published Home/Birth: a poemic with Arielle Greeneberg, read new work  replete with references to S&Co., Parisian-based poet Alice Notley, and the Venus de Milo.

Discussed: Stories which can cure cancer; maturing into collaboration; ever-present insecurities; Henry James’s “germ”; potentially un-publishable memoirs.

Q: How does the story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (excerpted for the reading) end?

Nathan Englander: What happens is they start smoking pot…

You know, it’s too late for me to go to the summer Olympics—I can’t be a gymnast now. What I love about this life is that every book feels like your first book, and there’s this ability to be constantly reborn. And you get to say, every project I’m just starting, I’m just starting.

I usually write distant, and I never took a half-step back.

But my sister and I, now that this book’s been in the world, we’ve been fortunate to see that this game is played in every country, in ever culture…you can play the Underground Railroad version, there’s a million versions. My sister and I used to play this game that I didn’t know was a universal, which was: in the event of a second Holocaust, which of our Gentile friends would hide us?

And then, when we were like twenty, this couple we knew, she said about them, you know he would hide us and she would turn us in. And I thought about that. He would totally hide us, and he would go to work, and she would totally turn us in. And I couldn’t shake it. For twenty years I thought about what that meant. I thought about this game

…So these couples play the righteous Gentile game, or the Anne Frank game, or whatever you want to call it.

Reading at Shakespeare and Co

Q: How many drafts did you write for “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank?”

NE: I used to measure drafts in feet, or meters when I’m in France. This [story] less than usual, but I’m a compulsive re-drafter. But I’ve started to hold the stories in my head for twenty years, and they come out differently. I used to write them immediately and draft them for a decade, and now I just let them age. The end.


Q: To follow up on that, how would you describe the writing process for you; how and where do you come up with your best work?

NE: The writing process—the whole thing is a construct. That’s the whole point. The reason it’s a process is because there are parts to it, you can’t write your last draft first because you have to write your way to. So I look confused at that very obvious question.

But to me it’s become central to my whole life. It’s a super existential set up. You have to decide that something has meaning in life, and to me I feel like stories can cure cancer and grow your hair back and save your life and bring world peace…so it’s the same [question] as ‘why do you eat?’ I’m just always hungry.

Helen Schulman: I just have a lot of things in my head that I want to write about, and then a story presents itself to me somewhere in the world, and then I can layer all the things I’ve been thinking about with the story, so it’s like a skeleton. We’ve been talking in my class a lot about finding stories, finding characters, eavesdropping.

Henry James called it “the germ.” Something presents itself and it snaps into place.

Helen Schulman

Q: How do you go about the process of collaboration?

Rachel Zucker: My recent book is a collaboration between myself and another poet, although it’s really nonfiction.

One of the reasons that I became a writer was because I always thought of myself as not a good team player. And I wanted to do something that I could do all alone and have complete control over.

When I was in graduate school I took a class where I had to collaborate with a musician, and it was the worst class, and I hated every single moment of it. I hated everything about collaboration, the idea, the process, the product…nothing.

Then I got a little bit more mature. And actually the process of collaborating on this particular book in some ways has made it very difficult for me to come back from the process of collaboration and write on my own, in that real kind of lonely silence. It’s something I didn’t quite anticipate. So I’m sort of struggling with that a little bit.

I think, first of all, I found the right collaborator. Although now I’m like a collaboration floozy. Anyone who asks me to collaborate on anything, I’ll try, because I’m so interested in the process. I’ve started, I guess, to rethink all of writing as a process of collaboration, whether it’s with a text that’s no longer visible in my own text, or the poem I read that invokes Alice Notley. I’m very much, in my own one-sided way, trying to communicate with her, both as a human being and her writing.

Reading at at Shakespeare and Co.

Q: How do you remain insecure, after the success and critical acclaim to which your books have been released?

RZ: Are you asking me how I remain insecure, as if that’s a difficult process?

I’m looking at Nathan, as if he’s going to help me with this answer…

I don’t know the answer to that question, because I’m too insecure.

NE: I’ll be Rachel Zucker.

I always say the same thing, “Nice guys don’t finish last.” Everything that you think is the right thing to do, if you want to be a really nice moral good-headed person, actually is the best thing to do for your book. So to not be in competition, to be happy for everybody else.

If everyone tells me I’m cute tonight, and I make myself cute because of that, and tomorrow you all come back and say I’m ugly, then I have to be ugly because I was cute by your definition. None of this is your business.

The way to continue is your obligation to story forever. And if you think about it, the work doesn’t get done when any of us are present. It gets done when the writer falls away. So your only goal all the time is what you want from the story.

Rachel’s ready.

RZ: I have a better answer, not better than Nathan’s but better than my last one.

It’s kind of bad news though.

I think that I thought, when I published my first book, that everything would change. But nothing changed at all. I thought that when I published my fourth book, everything would change, the writing process would change. And it hasn’t really changed very much. I think in the sense that the fear is still there.

In some ways I take the whole process much less seriously, and that is helpful.

I feel like there are things—just for myself, there are things that are more important to me than writing. There are relationships that I have, and things that I do. I hate to say this, but there are moments where I say ‘This thing that I’m doing right now is more important than helping someone else write a good poem, or even than myself writing a good poem.’

That said, I think that I both consciously and unconsciously keep upping the ante. So as soon as I think ‘Oh, there’s no more fear left in this,’ I then think about the most scary thing I could write about, either formally or in terms of content. And then I do that, and it’s terrifying and horrible, and I’m back in that place.

And even if I’m not choosing to do that, I think that it’s always very scary. Even these poems that I just read feel too narrative and too weird, and too not weird, and I don’t know what I’m doing formally, and the whole process is terrifying. And I feel like I’m right back where I started when I wrote my first poem.

Nathan Englander

Q: How do you know what material to publish, what material to keep just for you?

RZ: It’s always scary to think about how that might change your relationships in the real world. I think that question is really terrifying, and I don’t know the answer to it. It’s something that I’m struggling with right now. I have an unpublished memoir, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. And I think my poems are very close to memoir, and I don’t know the answer.

There are writers who I know and admire who say “None of this is your responsibility. You write, and you put it in the world, and you don’t have to worry about it.” And there are writers who I know who say “I will not write about living people.” And I’m somewhere in between, and I don’t know the answer.

I actually talked about this a lot in my class the other day. And I said, if you’re only writing poems that you would be comfortable with your grandmother reading, you’re probably avoiding a lot of things that you need to write about.

On the other hand, I think that peoples’ relationships with other people are really important.


Q: Why do you write, and how do you continue to do so?

H: If I don’t write, I start going crazy. So it allows me to live my life.


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