Lucky number seven! In the seventh installment of The Mentor Series please enjoy this lovely conversation between Lisa Locascio and her mentor Aimee Bender.
Aimee Bender is the author of five books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a New York Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was a Los Angeles Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) which won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award, and The Color Master, a New York Times Notable book for 2013. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, the Paris Review, and more, as well as heard on PRI’s “This American Life” and “Selected Shorts.” She lives in Los Angeles with her family, and teaches creative writing at USC.
Lisa Locascio is the author of Open Me, published by Grove Atlantic in 2018, which will be published in Spanish as Las Noches Púrpura by Planeta in 2020. Open Me was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a semifinalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, an O Magazine “Top Ten Titles to Pick Up Now,” and was named a most anticipated book of 2018 by many magazines. Lisa is also the editor of the anthology Golden State 2017: Best New Writing from California (Outpost19), and of the magazines Joyland and 7x7LA, a magazine of ekphrastic collaboration. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Review of Books, No Tokens, The Believer, n+1, Tin House, Electric Literature, and many other magazines. She is Executive Director of the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference and currently lives in northern California, where she is at work on several book projects.
Lisa and Aimee discuss the importance of a long walk, the shifting practice of writing over a career, and how to keep the work safe from the outside world.
– Monet Patrice Thomas, Interviews Editor
Lisa Locascio: I’ve spent a lot of time taking walks in the last three days, trying to zoom in on the best way to begin. Writing isn’t just the act itself—it’s all the thinking about it when you are not actively writing, and also living your life with the knowledge that you are a writer, that literature is available to you as a means of processing and seeing. Or at least that’s what it is for me, processing and seeing. How did writing begin for you, and how has it changed?
Aimee Bender: I think about your question all the time, and how perfect that it came up during a walk, which is a writer’s good friend. So much easier to think while walking sometimes! I think of it kind of like a bullseye—at the center is the work time, and that time is precious, and needs protecting, and is where the actual stuff happens, and the other stuff is outside and murky and floaty and important but doesn’t need parameters in the same way. Is this anything like a bullseye? Maybe not. But the circles radiating outward are the writer’s life, the ways of processing and seeing, as you say. One of the best things, and hardest things, about being a writer is it is always tied to everything in one’s life, and cannot really be separated.
But, writing is also a break from the usual thinking, a different way in. I like hearing about writers who have revelations in the shower about their novels or get work done while driving/thinking but for me the more I can separate my own thinking from the work, the better. My own thinking is so blah, so often. So one of the main purposes of a set writing time, for me, is that it seems to let my brain off the hook about thinking about writing for the rest of the day!
In Sarah Ruhl’s marvel of a book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write—do you have this book? I so recommend it!—she says: “I do believe that thinking is an overrated medium for achieving thought,” which is itself a thought I could live inside for days.
Locascio: In thinking about your discrete containers of writing and of life—or at least the idea of the shape of those two categories, the one sacrosanct and held apart—I struggle to describe what my thinking about writing is like when I am not writing. One reason for the struggle is because despite years of writing and the evidence that I am fairly prolific, I still have not figured out how to really make sure I write every day. So I do a lot more thinking about writing than I do writing, these days.
Ideas live whole life cycles in my thoughts, a process that goes back to when I was very young and would make up musicals by myself and perform them in front of the mirror. This certainly feeds my writing, when I get down to it—but it is also sometimes at odds with a given writing task. I have a whole complicated guilt feedback loop around the difficulty of being consistent with my writing, and over the years I’ve learned to forgive myself as much as possible. When I can enforce that daily or near-daily productivity, however, it creates a consistency, in work and in life, that is very pleasing. After all these years, I don’t completely understand why it is so hard to maintain. Because of this, I’m enamored of processes like Melissa Broder’s, in which she dictates into a phone and only edits after producing a complete narrative. Not that I’ve done it that way yet, either. How did you come to the daily writing practice you have now? Have the shifts you have gone through (teaching full-time, finishing books, having kids) changed your practice, or more deeply entrenched it and proven its sturdiness?
Bender: Made-up musicals! What were they? I love that.
I certainly understand the guilt feedback loop—that’s really my origin story, is that I spent so much time thinking about writing and how I wasn’t writing that once in grad school I thought I’d try to write every day to manage the dread. For me, to set aside time and not need to do anything productive in that time but sit there and essentially wait meant that my writing got a lot looser and stranger. And then the worry went away, mostly because I knew I’d be sitting and trying to work, for a limited amount of time, and that meant I didn’t have to think about it at all at other times of day. And that happened for seventeen years! Which is shocking to me. Two hours every morning. Some mornings light and productive, other mornings agonizingly long and boring.
Then I had twins and for a while I did nothing but write extensive logs of their milk intake (which a friend, when she saw me scrawling in a tiny notebook, said clearly was a way for me to keep writing because really, did I need that much detail? I hardly ever consulted them). The most interesting latest phase for me was when the babies were about six months old I started writing ten minutes a day. It was so grounding. So I suppose if you like the consistency, I’d say try adding something that seems ludicrous like that, for the sake of simply building consistency and see what it’s like. I did get work done in ten minutes a day—not a lot, but not nothing! And then I could add a few minutes here or there over time. I really, really like making overly structured writing schedules, that are detailed, and absurdly ordered, so that the writing itself can be as nutty as it wants to be. Mainly, I just like that I don’t have to do anything but sit if that’s where I’m at.
When you think about what you’re writing—what is it like?
Locascio: My musicals and plays were often derived from man-on-the-street-type news interviews—I was obsessed with the format of stopping people and interviewing them about what was going on. Of course, the person I was interviewing was always me, too, or maybe my baby sister. And then I’d just start free-associating into song, which is something I still do; I have an inner monologue comprised almost entirely of weirdly maudlin, deep-timbred, solo barbershop style tunes, which I belt out about everything: my cat, coffee, my choice of sweater.
I’m lucky in that I don’t feel I really have experienced writer’s block (although maybe this is what it is?). The idea is still there. It’s that I feel scared about the act of writing. It’s like opening a dam. I know it will flow (maybe this is a sign I’m already feeling better and coming out of it) and I want to make space for it. So I idealize what that space would be. And end up not writing.
During the act of writing it’s all language. Words and sentences. I hear the small voice speaking to me in my head and I do my best to transcribe it. As I said before, or did I, I’m trying now to intervene less in the first draft. If I can come up with a body of work that is something like a completed book shape, I can start really editing. But I definitely in-line edit and move sentences around. When I’m not writing but thinking about it, it’s like a feeling that develops into a plot. And some downtime is very good because it helps me understand what I am writing, follow the decisions I have made to their logical end, and dream more about what can happen next.
What do you think about when you are writing and when you are thinking about your writing? Do you have a ritual for starting after a while of not writing?
Bender: I just have to say I very much love that you have barbershop tunes about coffee, cats, etc.
I like hearing that language is a starting point for you; Michael Ondaatje was just at USC and was talking about following an idea or image or moment and seeing what it led to, and then using that as a diving point into research, too. It was calming to hear, as it always is for me when writers talk about finding the work through ways other than the more muscled pushes of character and plot.
When I’m writing, I try not to think or even try to distract myself from thinking—a state of a kind of mild concentration works for me when generating pages, but not full concentration, not until the rewriting process. Like tricking myself a bit. And, then, when I’m not writing, I really try not to think about the work at all. I would say ninety-nine percent of my thoughts about my own writing during the day are very dumb. And actually not just dumb—anxious. And the anxious piece corrupts the exploration. (The dumb part is fine, just not fruitful.) So, part of the joy of writing with a time limit for me is that once I’m done, I’m done, and anything that bubbles up during the day will do so because it really has to (and it rarely does!).
After an absence of writing, it’s all kind of the same—I just have to put in the time and it’s the hardest stretch because there’s nothing to work on, but then there are older files, and other things to look at again, to rejoin the river. The main thing is to try to find something, anything, to get absorbed in. I think one of the key things I cherish about writing time is that it allows me to step out of daily time, and go into something else. And whether the work is good or bad, I’m participating in the world in a different way. That feels like such an enormous gift.
Locascio: I just learned a recapitulation technique in which you lie in bed at the end of the day and recall a memory for each of the senses—a sight, a smell, a sound, a touch, a taste—as well as a feeling and a “knowing.” The purpose of the technique is to help develop the ability to remember one’s dreams by practicing an exact remembrance of one’s day. I have found myself more able to remember my dreams, but I also think this is a great jumping-off point for fiction, an interrogation of what we recall and why. I have felt creatively charged by it.
Given all we have shared with each other about our writing processes, I wonder if you have any thoughts about how to keep navigating these delicate creative processes with agents, editors, publishers, Goodreads, Amazon, et al in the mix. For many writers—for me—I wrote so hard towards book publication, for so many years, I fantasized that these added forces and voices would only make me more powerfully committed to my work and more capable of producing it. That this is a naive way to think is only visible to me—and many other writers, I’d reckon—in the aftermath. The interest of the world is an ally but also a challenge in the struggle to maintain a creative practice. Has publishing become part of your creative process? Have you figured out useful techniques for keeping your writing safe from these stresses, hopes, fears, and dreams?
Bender: I love the sense memory exercise. Maybe I’ll try that, too—for dreams, and also for the evocation of really anything. I used to bring in cups of smells and students would write off of those and that was very fun and Proustian and I haven’t done that in a long time, and ought to bring that one back.
About agents, editors, publishers… I mean, I don’t know. I feel very low on wisdom here. And Goodreads is newish to me. I did, when my first book came out, have a small team of ultra supportive friends—a couple writers, and a couple non-writers, who were willing to go over Amazon reviews with me and other reviews, too, and help me process them if they stung. That was extremely helpful! It was a kind of cheerleading and also sharp analytical takes on tiny word choices. I wouldn’t say publishing is part of my creative practice, no; both my agent and editor are wonderfully kind about giving me space to reckon with what I’m working on, and insightful when it’s time for feedback, but publishing and the world of readers is just a larger pond of the same imaginings that always get in the way when involved with the work while it forms (the old Anne Lamott “I’m a genius/I’m an idiot” KFCK radio station she talks about in Bird by Bird).
Do I wonder how a new book will be received? Yes. Is it helpful to wonder such a thing? Not really. Is it helpful to imagine a reader, or someone that will eventually read the work? I find it can be helpful. Or, the way it seems to help me most is to know I’m trying to send a little wordboat to someone, and that someone is fuzzy, but there, and if the boat isn’t sailing somehow, or I’m keeping things too close, or they’re too impenetrable, then that’s good information as I edit. I do think when a reader seems truly responsive to something I wrote that I probably wrote it for them. The goal is contact.
Photographs of Aimee Bender and Lisa Locascio by Lawrence J. Locascio Jr.