The initial steps of any task can at times be daunting, whether it’s the thought of getting out of bed in the morning or the initial keystrokes of one’s first (or umpteenth) novel. But there can and often is also excitement, in the possibility of bringing life where it once was not or of simply returning to a familiar routine. For Alice Mattison, beginnings are to be embraced and celebrated. They hold within them the inherent abilities to affect the creator as well as those who may coexist within their orbit, the exceptional beings who elect to engage with a work and as such to also evolve.
Mattison’s newest book, The Kite and the String, is a meditation on her lifelong journey through the craft of writing. Taking a balanced approach of warmth and realism, she welcomes readers into a conversation about not only what makes for good writing but also of the necessary balance between the independent, solitary writer and the social writing community. She draws upon her years as a poet and prose writer, supported by her many decades of teaching children and adults alike. Accessible and unbiased, Mattison is an encouraging guide for new and seasoned writers; she is cautious in advising that a strategy of success for one will easily not work for all, but pushes her readers to try most anything that may better enhance their work. Nerves are to be harnessed and channeled into production, while the quieter, more sedentary moments between writing spurts must be equally cared for and valued. We are reminded through wit and honesty that a career in creative writing is most certainly an uphill endeavor with innumerable and unpredictable obstacles. The rewards, however, can be of equal if not unparalleled significance.
Here in the promising calm of early summer, Alice Mattison champions sincerity and directness, calls to the need for empathy toward both fictional and actual lives, and suggests that the value of one’s writing is uniquely determined not by the industry but by the writer herself.
The Rumpus: What motivated you to write The Kite and the String?
Alice Mattison: It was my agent’s idea. She said, ‘You’re always talking about teaching; why don’t you write a book about it?’ I think she was tired of hearing me complain about publishing novels and how hard it is to publish fiction. So she said, ‘Write a book about writing!’ I had been vaguely thinking about something like that because I teach in the MFA program at Bennington College and we have lectures given by the faculty. I’d been writing and talking about more general issues that I was seeing among all my students, so I gave a lecture about coincidence and then one about the shapes of novels. I’ve given six lectures and published all but the last two in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle.
I had never written about what it’s like to live the life of a writer, and I had never read a book that combined talking about the life of writing and how you can do it, how you can stand it, how you can emotionally manage it, with the choices that we all make on the page. It seems to me now that you can’t really make a distinction, that you can’t tell a writer they should just be more confident. Telling someone to be confident in the abstract is not going to make it easier for the unconfident writer to actually get herself or himself to the point of being able to put in the upsetting stuff. More and more I wanted to write a book that was both about the intellectual and the emotional aspects of writing narrative. There are all kinds of emotional reasons why we don’t put enough of it into our stories.
Rumpus: Do you think that a writer’s nerves or anxiety can positively affect their form?
Mattison: It’d better! It’s not something that goes away. Sometimes I write well when I’m very upset. Recently I had come home and there was a phone message from a doctor, so I called her back and she couldn’t come to the phone. There I was, sitting and waiting for the phone to ring, and writing. I think it was easier for me to make my characters go through something intense because I was going through something intense, even though it was completely unrelated.
Rumpus: And so often we don’t want to put our characters through these unfortunate situations because we don’t want that for ourselves. We’re human, though, so we’re inevitably going to get into trouble. Does making misery for our characters make them more real?
Mattison: It makes them part of stories. I think a day in your life on which nothing bad happens may be a wonderful day, but it probably isn’t going to be the basis of a story. We have to give our poor, innocent, and undeserving-of-our-badness characters trouble in order to make them characters in a story.
Rumpus: In a way, showing sadness and unpredictable misfortune through fiction allows us to reflect upon our own situations.
Mattison: I think so. And I think that inevitably, the trouble our characters go through is a kind of metaphor for what’s happening in ourselves. It may be that you and I are anxious about what someone will think of the manuscript we just wrote, which at its worst is not the end of the world. But we somehow translate that fear into the experience of someone who’s afraid of something much more significant. It’s like dreaming. The making of fiction takes literally what is suggested by our imagination.
Rumpus: It also takes guts to tell the truth and call a spade a spade, even if you’re occupying a fictional universe. Can indirect writing be a marker of fear, rather than wit?
Mattison: Yes, and I’ve seen that often. When an editor first explained to me the difference between direct and indirect writing, I just thought it was a stylistic choice. Direct writing is to say, ‘My sister lives in Oregon.’ Indirect writing is to say, ‘While I’m on the West Coast, I might take a detour to visit my sister in Oregon.’ I’m not actually coming out and saying it, but I’m somehow putting it in a way that you’ll figure it out. For a long time it seemed to me like it wouldn’t really make much difference, and a lot of writers do tell their stories indirectly. I began to see, again and again, stories that were first confusing and second where the emotional impact was muted because the big scene came before the explanation of what was going on. There was a reverse chronological order as well as a concealment of what exactly was going on. I think often that comes out of the fear of being boring, and sometimes I think it’s just an attempt to seem clever.
Sometimes indirect style and varying chronology is great, but quite often I’ve seen it be just something that gets in the way. It turns out when I talk to the writer that she or he, and more often it’s a woman, that she’s worried. I’ve been astonished how often, when I convince a writer to tell a story more straightforwardly and to tell it more simply and directly, it turns out that this author is great and the story is wonderful.
Rumpus: But like anything there’s the danger of being too simplistic and just being too cut and dry.
Mattison: I think that happens in early drafts, but it’s easy to fix. We probably do that because we are trying to get ourselves to feel the physical reality of a story. If you have a character stand up and put on her shoes and open the door, in order to do that, you’re imagining her shoes and her clothes and her house and her door. The character becomes more real. But once you’ve done that, you can probably just get it all across with a couple of details.
Rumpus: What do you see as the difference in speaking for someone versus speaking as someone who’s different from yourself?
Mattison: It’s a scary thing for fiction writers, when you’re always writing from the point of view both as and for someone who is different. We’re always inventing, even if we’re making someone who’s fairly close to ourselves. I think we need to develop the courage to write from the viewpoint of people who may seem quite different from ourselves, who might have a different sexual orientation or a different race or a different ethnicity. I think the difference between writing as someone and writing for them is that when you write for someone, you take on a kind of political burden or message, which I don’t think we have the right to do. I don’t think a white person can write accurately and convincingly about what black people experience of oppression. But anyone with an imagination can write about the day-to-day experiences of someone he or she is not.
Rumpus: Writing another’s experience, whether it’s a known one or unfamiliar, requires a tremendous amount of empathy. How do you evoke that and not sympathy, which acknowledges emotion without connecting to it?
Mattison: It has to do with paying attention to the literal and physical moments of reality as much as possible. Sometimes people want to know how to write a story from the point of view of a murderer and make her sympathetic. I think the answer is that you start by having her look for her car keys, because everybody knows what it’s like. Even murderers, I suppose, experience the loss of car keys the way the rest of us do. I mean, how can they not? Once you make this person scramble around the house looking for her car keys and finally find them, get in the car, and run into traffic, we can identify with her enough that when she stops the car and pulls the gun out of her purse and heads in to kill somebody, we’ll be with her as much as is possible.
Rumpus: Does one need to have mastered control to embrace spontaneity, or do we lose the ability to surprise ourselves the more we lay down constraints?
Mattison: For some people, it’s very easy to be spontaneous and they can pour out the most wonderful stuff. But it’s really hard to exert control over it, to think, ‘Well, this could be different. This could go in the opposite order, there could be more here and less there.’ For other people, it’s much easier to have rules and a methodology, but much harder to let loose and allow their feelings to come pouring out on the page. They’re more shy or they’re just more distant from their emotions. I think everybody starts with one or the other. Then you have to kind of learn how you go about it.
Sometimes it’s interesting to see what people who have too much control need to do to write freely. I remember I had had one woman who had three or four kids, and some of them were having problems. I said, ‘Maybe you could go write somewhere else, away from your house.’ And sure enough, all kinds of wonderful stuff emerged. She was keeping too much charge of herself because she couldn’t stop being a mother when she was in the house. You have to find your own way of letting loose, if you’re one of those people. I actually think it’s sometimes easier for the control freaks to let loose.
Rumpus: There’s so much of this craft talk that’s accessible and made public through books, lectures, or the Internet, while the act of writing generally requires privacy and solitude. Do we want readers to see the man or woman behind the curtain, and how much mystery surrounding the details of one’s drafting process do you think can be made known without causing harm to the writer?
Mattison: I don’t like to know how stories came about. If I read a story in Best American Short Stories and it’s about a woman who had a pet elephant, and then I look at the back where the authors get to say something and the author says, ‘I never had a pet elephant, my aunt did.’ I don’t want to know that, I just want to live with the story. There seems to be a tremendous desire among many people now to know authors and how they work, to know what’s autobiographical and what isn’t. I love to read nonfiction and memoir, but I’m mostly interested in the piece of writing more than the person.
Rumpus: At what point in your own writing do you step away from being by yourself and move toward sharing your work with others?
Mattison: After several drafts. I’m very secretive. I’ll write a whole novel and revise it, which might take me two years or more, and the people I know best don’t know what I’m writing about. I get to a certain point, and I think in a novel it’s about the third draft, when I want other eyes on it. I love it when people can help me with my work, so I do show it.
Rumpus: Do you feel more exited after you’ve penned a first draft or when you see your final revision in print?
Mattison: When I finish the first draft. The other is so scary, sending it to print. What if there’s a typo? You’re more motivated in the first.
Rumpus: Where do you think we learn to censor our writing and to avoid saying what we truly wish? Might it be inherent as we grow, or is it engrained through others?
Mattison: I think it comes from others. Little kids don’t have it, they’re very free, and small children are so imaginative. When I’ve taught writing to five, six, and seven year olds, it’s not very different than talking to an adult writer. They’re writers then, and when they get to be young teenagers they’re not anymore. You might go and talk to them about writing, and they’ll be very self-conscious or will have detached themselves from the group. Little children are all writers.
There is a lot of censorship about writing that’s exerted from all directions, from families or governments and society, even the fear of being offensive in some way. I heard a white writer say, ‘Oh, I’d never put black people in my writing, I’m afraid I would offend someone by doing it wrong.’ I can’t bear that! You have to write fiction that mirrors the actual world, which has people of all sorts in it. So people are afraid in that way, and then there’s also the belief that we can’t be smart enough to write. And certainly censorship of women, too. In many cultures, women are sometimes literally kept from learning to read or from going to school. We still have so many cultures in which people are imprisoned and whipped and killed for writing what they think. Censorship is all around us, I don’t think it’s innate.
Rumpus: Do you think it’s possible to prevent younger generations from self-censorship and intense self-editing, to really get them to say what they want with the least inhibition possible?
Mattison: I don’t know. Truly things are better in general now, in this country, than in the past. Certainly children are being encouraged far more than they were seventy-five years ago and are more accepted as they are. So maybe it is possible.
Rumpus: When writers need to take a step away from the page, whether it’s due to fatigue or block or just needing to stand for a while, what might we do to embrace this time and to honor it as a time for rest, thought, and regeneration?
Mattison: Writers who go through that often produce much better work when they come out of it than probably if they made themselves write all the time. I don’t have the courage not to write all the time. The poet Jane Kenyon was my very close friend, and she did not write often. She would go through periods that were very dry, when she didn’t write, and she felt terrible about it. And yet there was a disagreement between us about this issue, because I would feel bad that she was feeling bad, so I would say, ‘Why don’t you just go sit in your study every day and maybe something will come?’ We used to talk about the UPS man bringing a delivery of writing that would come down into our heads, and the expression we’d use was, ‘If you’re not home when the package comes, the UPS man can’t deliver it.’ So sometimes she would go and do that, but I think at some level she and I suspected that the work was so astonishingly wonderful because she didn’t write all the time. When a poem came, it had great authenticity and intensity. She would sometimes get mad at me and say, ‘You’re writing too much; your writing is willed. You should stop for a while.’ And of this I was incapable. Maybe we’re stuck with who we are. It’s hard to say which of us is luckier, the ones who go through long periods when they can’t write or the ones who can write pretty easily.
Rumpus: Writers know the work they put in; they write because it’s their livelihood but it’s often a career as well. What small steps can all writers, regardless of experience or salary, begin to take toward showing that their work has value?
Mattison: Inevitably we start by thinking that if our work is any good, we’ll get money. It’s as we would if you started up a business or if you work in another profession. Writers sometimes are paid a great deal of money, but much more frequently they’re not paid or are paid only a little bit. Somehow we have to detach from feeling as though money is a quick and easy standard by which we can gauge how well we’re doing. This is true in other fields, too, that a legal aid lawyer gets a whole lot less money than a Hollywood lawyer who handles the estates of celebrities. Maybe the legal aid lawyer is doing something better, though, and maybe they’re happier. It’s not a completely unheard of idea, but I do think we have to remind ourselves at times to look for satisfaction in other ways.
Being part of a community of writers is huge. I really think that’s why people go to MFA programs. Every once in a while someone says, ‘You can’t really learn anything, if you’re really a writer then you wouldn’t need to do it.’ But I think what people need is the sense of not being alone. They go to MFA programs to be part of a community of people who care, and then you start caring about your friend who is trying to edit a magazine and your other friend who is stuck in the middle of her poem. There you have all kinds of things to worry about besides your own success.
We have to diversify, we have to find work we can do that helps other people while helping ourselves, work that has to do with writing that isn’t necessarily just writing saleable novels or getting huge advances. You may be somebody who writes best for a small press that doesn’t pay very well, but you might have a fascinating and intricate style that might not appeal to as many readers but will be incredibly meaningful to the readers you have. Truly, that’s as wonderful if not more wonderful.
Rumpus: What do you do to bring joy to your practice?
Mattison: I just like doing it, I like writing. Teaching is also very important to me, and it has become more important as I get older. I find that I get very excited about what my students are up to and that I get to be the hurdle they need to jump over. At the moment I have two wonderful thesis students who are just about to graduate, and they’ve both worked very hard. Just seeing them finish their theses will be fabulous. But on the other hand I have former students who are publishing books at this moment, who have had all kinds of success at small presses and large presses, foreign tours and readings at the local public library.
Rumpus: When you encounter a student who may have lost their sense of curiosity, how do you help rekindle it?
Mattison: I tell them to write when they’re sleepy and stupid. I thought I made up that phrase, but it’s in Alice in Wonderland. And I tell them to try and find what it is in their lives that will enable them to get excited and to express feeling, whether it’s waking up early in the morning and writing or doing so late at night. Maybe it’s writing away from home. I don’t really like to tell people to get out drugs. There are so many different ways, most of them helpful and legal, to get yourself into a state of mind where writing is possible. It’s going to be different for each person.
Rumpus: How might readers be kinder to themselves without losing their drive?
Mattison: The main thing is to explain to yourself that everybody suffers. I had a student write me an email just a few weeks ago, in which she said, ‘Maybe I can’t really do this after all, if I have this problem with my story.’ The problem she had was the same kind of problem that every student I’ve ever had has ever had. I think you have to remember that writing is hard; my first editor used to say that to me. They have to realize that the reason they’re suffering is because this is a crazy way to live. Whoever would write books? It’s suffering as well as greatly satisfying. And certainly there’s suffering in the sense that you don’t know for a long time how to do it. I think people feel for a long time that they ought to know how to write a novel in two drafts. I am at this moment on I don’t know what draft this is. My agent has read it twice and then before that my friends read it and I revised it. It’s gone on forever, but that’s how it is.