Ted Thompson

Episode 11: Lynn Schmeidler & Ted Thompson

catapultreads:

In this episode: lost love, found accents, following Phish, rare neurological diseases, the Great American Novelist that never was, thunderstorms, sleeping bags, and indescribable mystical experiences. Otherwise known as: poetry and fiction.

I was so happy to participate in this podcast. I recorded this yesterday (!) and look—it’s already here for your listening pleasure. Thanks to Jaime for including me. It’s a great podcast she has going, so please check it out.

littlebrown:

Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 6

In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.

Anonymous asked: As an aspiring novelist, I often have ideas that I think would make great books and then I write 30 pages and find that there’s nothing more to tell. Is this something you’ve ever struggled with? Have you abandoned ideas that haven’t gelled? How far into the first draft of your book did you know that it was going to be a novel?

This is an interesting question, so thank you for asking it, whoever you are. I suppose it’s easiest for me to answer the last part first, which is to say that I didn’t know I was writing a novel until I was many iterations into it. The truth is that I had purposely kept myself in the dark about that fact, mostly because I had somehow at a young age gotten it in my mind that novels, especially first novels, had to be Grand Statements About Society, or at the very least a stage on which to announce my talent. I had written my way into a few of these projects and I doubt it’s surprising to hear that they were grandiose and terrible. But still this was my deep, private, unspoken vision for myself, that I wouldn’t just “write a novel” but would come thundering onto the cultural landscape like Godzilla, with a book—whatever it was about didn’t really matter—that allowed me to transcend my polite, everyday, innocuous self and tower above the public in a way that caused them to marvel. Novel writing for me was synonymous with a young man’s desire to be seen, the place I had poured all of my need for recognition.
Whereas a short story, a simple, light-hearted twenty pages, didn’t carry any of that baggage. It was, most importantly, private. How it would be perceived was less important for me than the pleasure of articulation, of finding words for the many tiny movements of my internal life, which at that time was plagued with self-consciousness and aching with ambition, so that in the course of my day I felt every minute slight or gesture of approval as either a crushing failure or soaring triumph, an exhausting experience that I tried to carry without letting any of it on. Anyway, that short story then became a forum for expressing this over-reactive internal life, for using narrative to somehow communicate all that was for me in my day-to-day life incommunicable. In those pages, unlike in just about every other place in my social world, every gesture and phrase didn’t have to be directed toward the end goal of being loved, and thus the more complex (which I know is often just code for “unpleasant”) feelings could find expression.


I realize that’s a little wishy-washy and also might sound like I’m advocating for something that sounds suspiciously like the emotional barf of confessional writing, but all of it is to say that before this particular project (and if I’m honest, during most of my time in graduate school) there was no such thing to my mind as writing for myself. When I sat down to work it was all directed toward the imaginary perceptions of others. But in this project, which I kept hidden and refused to put up for critique in workshop, I had been able to silence that impulse long enough to begin to understand what was beautiful about the forces of narrative, and the compression and clarity required by storytelling: that it unearthed in me the articulation of that which I had felt acutely but hadn’t understood.
The problem was that the project didn’t work as a short story. Like in any way. No matter how many drafts I wrote. So it grew into something I called a novella (which meant it was long and formless and I didn’t know what it was), then into something I called a novelito (which was a new literary form I told myself I was inventing). Finally, after Googling “minimum word count novel,” I gave myself reluctant permission to call it what it was.
And that was how I wrote the first draft.
As you can probably tell, the process of writing, and probably creating anything in general, is for me inextricable from the processes of psychology and self-esteem, which is to say in my case having the confidence not only to speak but to say something that isn’t uttered solely for the approval of others, or as an attempt to shape how they might perceive me.

So when it comes to your predicament of starting novels, getting thirty pages in and feeling like you’ve said everything you have to say, my gut tells me (having been there oh-so-many times myself) that perhaps rather than running out of material, you actually haven’t spent enough time to truly find it. Perhaps, like me, the project in your mind is already being reviewed in the New York Review before you’ve written the first sentence. Perhaps you haven’t yet trusted the idea enough to push through the uncertainty, to go beyond what you already know of it and allow it to transform into whatever it wants to be. Perhaps you haven’t yet allowed yourself to cede control. My experience is that novels find their expression, that if you stick with them long enough and follow the writing that feels the most vital, they end up being about what is most vital to you.

My primary challenge is always in shucking from myself the instinct to please (or to shock, or impress, or enamor). Because there is a gargantuan difference between the public and private selves and when facing a blank page they can so easily become entangled. And while of course the end goal is to write something worth making public, it seems to me the only way I’ve ever done so is through a long and convoluted process of duping myself into not being conscious of that. Creating for me is as much about silencing the urge to perform as it is about silencing doubt. In fact those are probably the same thing. It takes a while to see it, but there is always tremendous richness and depth and meaning in your own subjectivity. That is the substance of your voice. The trick is to find a way to sit with it, to not decide its fate. Because you really can’t. In the end you have no say over how your work is perceived. All you can do is take the time to listen to that private part of you, the dank, languageless part, and pour your energy into being as precise as possible in its articulation. I am continually elated to discover how fascinating anything is when you take the time to look closely enough. 
*
Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:
On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.” 
On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
On Self-Publishing, or Not: “Yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them.”
On Writing and Money: “I have seen just about as many paths as there are people.” 
Have a question for Ted? Drop it in our Ask Box.

littlebrown:

Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 6

In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.

Anonymous asked: As an aspiring novelist, I often have ideas that I think would make great books and then I write 30 pages and find that there’s nothing more to tell. Is this something you’ve ever struggled with? Have you abandoned ideas that haven’t gelled? How far into the first draft of your book did you know that it was going to be a novel?

This is an interesting question, so thank you for asking it, whoever you are. I suppose it’s easiest for me to answer the last part first, which is to say that I didn’t know I was writing a novel until I was many iterations into it. The truth is that I had purposely kept myself in the dark about that fact, mostly because I had somehow at a young age gotten it in my mind that novels, especially first novels, had to be Grand Statements About Society, or at the very least a stage on which to announce my talent. I had written my way into a few of these projects and I doubt it’s surprising to hear that they were grandiose and terrible. But still this was my deep, private, unspoken vision for myself, that I wouldn’t just “write a novel” but would come thundering onto the cultural landscape like Godzilla, with a book—whatever it was about didn’t really matter—that allowed me to transcend my polite, everyday, innocuous self and tower above the public in a way that caused them to marvel. Novel writing for me was synonymous with a young man’s desire to be seen, the place I had poured all of my need for recognition.

Whereas a short story, a simple, light-hearted twenty pages, didn’t carry any of that baggage. It was, most importantly, private. How it would be perceived was less important for me than the pleasure of articulation, of finding words for the many tiny movements of my internal life, which at that time was plagued with self-consciousness and aching with ambition, so that in the course of my day I felt every minute slight or gesture of approval as either a crushing failure or soaring triumph, an exhausting experience that I tried to carry without letting any of it on. Anyway, that short story then became a forum for expressing this over-reactive internal life, for using narrative to somehow communicate all that was for me in my day-to-day life incommunicable. In those pages, unlike in just about every other place in my social world, every gesture and phrase didn’t have to be directed toward the end goal of being loved, and thus the more complex (which I know is often just code for “unpleasant”) feelings could find expression.

I realize that’s a little wishy-washy and also might sound like I’m advocating for something that sounds suspiciously like the emotional barf of confessional writing, but all of it is to say that before this particular project (and if I’m honest, during most of my time in graduate school) there was no such thing to my mind as writing for myself. When I sat down to work it was all directed toward the imaginary perceptions of others. But in this project, which I kept hidden and refused to put up for critique in workshop, I had been able to silence that impulse long enough to begin to understand what was beautiful about the forces of narrative, and the compression and clarity required by storytelling: that it unearthed in me the articulation of that which I had felt acutely but hadn’t understood.

The problem was that the project didn’t work as a short story. Like in any way. No matter how many drafts I wrote. So it grew into something I called a novella (which meant it was long and formless and I didn’t know what it was), then into something I called a novelito (which was a new literary form I told myself I was inventing). Finally, after Googling “minimum word count novel,” I gave myself reluctant permission to call it what it was.

And that was how I wrote the first draft.

As you can probably tell, the process of writing, and probably creating anything in general, is for me inextricable from the processes of psychology and self-esteem, which is to say in my case having the confidence not only to speak but to say something that isn’t uttered solely for the approval of others, or as an attempt to shape how they might perceive me.

So when it comes to your predicament of starting novels, getting thirty pages in and feeling like you’ve said everything you have to say, my gut tells me (having been there oh-so-many times myself) that perhaps rather than running out of material, you actually haven’t spent enough time to truly find it. Perhaps, like me, the project in your mind is already being reviewed in the New York Review before you’ve written the first sentence. Perhaps you haven’t yet trusted the idea enough to push through the uncertainty, to go beyond what you already know of it and allow it to transform into whatever it wants to be. Perhaps you haven’t yet allowed yourself to cede control. My experience is that novels find their expression, that if you stick with them long enough and follow the writing that feels the most vital, they end up being about what is most vital to you.

My primary challenge is always in shucking from myself the instinct to please (or to shock, or impress, or enamor). Because there is a gargantuan difference between the public and private selves and when facing a blank page they can so easily become entangled. And while of course the end goal is to write something worth making public, it seems to me the only way I’ve ever done so is through a long and convoluted process of duping myself into not being conscious of that. Creating for me is as much about silencing the urge to perform as it is about silencing doubt. In fact those are probably the same thing. It takes a while to see it, but there is always tremendous richness and depth and meaning in your own subjectivity. That is the substance of your voice. The trick is to find a way to sit with it, to not decide its fate. Because you really can’t. In the end you have no say over how your work is perceived. All you can do is take the time to listen to that private part of you, the dank, languageless part, and pour your energy into being as precise as possible in its articulation. I am continually elated to discover how fascinating anything is when you take the time to look closely enough. 

*

Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:

  1. On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.”
  2. On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
  3. On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
  4. On Self-Publishing, or Not: “Yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them.”
  5. On Writing and Money: “I have seen just about as many paths as there are people.”

Have a question for Ted? Drop it in our Ask Box.

littlebrown:

Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 5
In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.

Anonymous asked: More than a question of to MFA or not to MFA, did you ever consider pursuing more stable career interests (law, dentistry, consulting, whatever) to write on the side? If so, what made you decide against it?
Anonymous asked: When you were writing the book, how did you get enough money to eat, pay rent, etc.? Did you have jobs, or grants, and what did you have to do to get them?
I used to be really interested in the back flaps of books. For most of my twenties I was a serial wanderer of bookstores, and often I was more interested in the back flaps than I was in reading the books, glancing at the blurbs and flipping to look at the photo and mostly to see that one-paragraph bio. They fascinated me, and I collected the data they offered with a similar fastidiousness that, as a child, I’d seen among the kids who were collectors of baseball cards. I tended to remember most of the stats—who had gotten a Stegner and who came up through the Fine Arts Work Center, who’d been published by Open City and who’d miraculously broken the cryogenic seal of the New Yorker, who lived out in the crops of Indiana and who was already ensconced in New York or the Bay Area. I knew so much more about writers than I knew about their writing, and I had opinions, a little hierarchy in my mind of who had been anointed and why, all of it in the service of my own ambition, an attempt to map exactly how one day I wanted to do it.
I’m fairly certain these reconnaissance trips were my attempt to answer some version of both questions above, which is to say the question of money, specifically how you went about dedicating yourself to an endeavor that takes a tremendous commitment of time and in turn offers no guarantee of payment.
As far as I could tell there were two strains of bio that answered this question. The first was either a pedigreed list of academic institutions, colonies, conferences, and foundations, peppered with a handful of publications in established lit journals, or it was a list of certain magazines that had employed them (Harper’s, say, or really any publication with “New York” in its title). These bios functioned as a kind of checklist of smaller votes of confidence by the literary establishment. “I have been nurtured by institutions,” it seemed to say. “I have gotten here because all of these discerning people saw my potential and supported me.” Then there was the second kind of bio, which tended to be a long list of wildly varying (often entry-level) jobs—ice cream truck driver, jujitsu instructor, dog groomer, park ranger, kindergarten teacher, drywall mudder, freeway exit lane painter, on and on. The implication being that this was largely an individual effort, the sacrifice and dedication their own, this book an achievement in spite of the silent indifference of the rest of the world. “I’ve seen some things,” this bio seemed to say. “I’ve done stuff, and I know how to work, and most importantly I’ve believed in myself the entire time.”
Ultimately, the route I took, as I suspect is the case for most people, was some combination of the two. I worked jobs, some full time, and I still work part time as well as teach and consult and do some assistant work. And most significantly my wife has had a steady income through this, which includes our health insurance. That’s been enormous, the quiet month-to-month security that has made choosing a less stable path possible. But I also applied for stuff—MFA programs, fellowships, grants, colonies—some of which came through. Each of those tiny triumphs fueled my persistence and, perhaps just as significant as the funds and time they provided, also acted as the affirmation I needed to believe that I wasn’t wasting my time.
All of which is to say that while I used to have strong opinions about the “right” way to do this, I no longer do. I have seen just about as many paths as there are people, and of course everyone finds their own one. Work a demanding job, couch surf, stay at home with your kids, borrow money from your uncle or sister or spouse, be a doctor or a lawyer or a tow truck driver—hell, be all three. The only thing that matters is that you prioritize the writing in your life. It has to matter, the doing it. The greatest gift anyone ever gave me, when I was working full time and trying to write, was a coffee maker. The reason was that not only did it help me to get up, but for me it also ritualized the process—add the water, clean the filter, grind the beans—so that those very early mornings, when I could steal two hours before work, soon became the essential part of my day. Nobody could take them from me but myself. And that was hugely liberating, the fact that there was time, always, if I cared to take it. Working a job and writing a book did not have to be antithetical. There was space for both, if I took the writing as seriously as I took earning a paycheck.
I suppose the only concept that I bristle at, Anonymous, is the one of “writing on the side.” When it comes to writing, the difference between a hobbyist and a professional isn’t really money. Instead, I’ve found the difference is more internal than external, an issue of priority and persistence and self-seriousness, all of which I also understand are things that can be difficult to maintain when the demands of work and family and laundry (always laundry) are pressing on you, and especially when it feels like nobody else believes in you. It would be a little disingenuous of me to imply that every acceptance I have received hasn’t acted as a kind of lifeline, a reason to keep going, or that they still don’t. They do, of course they do. But I guess what I’m saying, mostly to myself, but also to you and to anyone else who might be struggling with this, is that you don’t need a book deal for your commitment to your writing to be valid, you do not need a grant or a residency or an MFA. All of those things are nice, and by all means you should go after them, but I guess what I’m saying is that you do not need permission. You give yourself permission, one day at a time, you find the hours and protect them, you treat them as important and they become important, you treat your work as valid and it becomes valid. The kind of resilience this requires is probably not natural, it certainly wasn’t to me. But I’ve found it can be learned, through repetition and routine, through the quiet power of habit and consistency. I still think the day I became a writer was not the day I sold my book, nor the day I was accepted to a la-di-da program. It was probably the first time I set an alarm and actually got out of bed, when I went to the kitchen and ground the beans and poured the water, and most importantly when I told myself to sit down and get to work because this mattered
*
Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:
On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.” 
On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
On Self-Publishing, or Not: “Yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them.”
Have a question for Ted? Drop it in our Ask Box.

littlebrown:

Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 5

In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.

Anonymous asked: More than a question of to MFA or not to MFA, did you ever consider pursuing more stable career interests (law, dentistry, consulting, whatever) to write on the side? If so, what made you decide against it?

Anonymous asked: When you were writing the book, how did you get enough money to eat, pay rent, etc.? Did you have jobs, or grants, and what did you have to do to get them?

I used to be really interested in the back flaps of books. For most of my twenties I was a serial wanderer of bookstores, and often I was more interested in the back flaps than I was in reading the books, glancing at the blurbs and flipping to look at the photo and mostly to see that one-paragraph bio. They fascinated me, and I collected the data they offered with a similar fastidiousness that, as a child, I’d seen among the kids who were collectors of baseball cards. I tended to remember most of the stats—who had gotten a Stegner and who came up through the Fine Arts Work Center, who’d been published by Open City and who’d miraculously broken the cryogenic seal of the New Yorker, who lived out in the crops of Indiana and who was already ensconced in New York or the Bay Area. I knew so much more about writers than I knew about their writing, and I had opinions, a little hierarchy in my mind of who had been anointed and why, all of it in the service of my own ambition, an attempt to map exactly how one day I wanted to do it.

I’m fairly certain these reconnaissance trips were my attempt to answer some version of both questions above, which is to say the question of money, specifically how you went about dedicating yourself to an endeavor that takes a tremendous commitment of time and in turn offers no guarantee of payment.

As far as I could tell there were two strains of bio that answered this question. The first was either a pedigreed list of academic institutions, colonies, conferences, and foundations, peppered with a handful of publications in established lit journals, or it was a list of certain magazines that had employed them (Harper’s, say, or really any publication with “New York” in its title). These bios functioned as a kind of checklist of smaller votes of confidence by the literary establishment. “I have been nurtured by institutions,” it seemed to say. “I have gotten here because all of these discerning people saw my potential and supported me.” Then there was the second kind of bio, which tended to be a long list of wildly varying (often entry-level) jobs—ice cream truck driver, jujitsu instructor, dog groomer, park ranger, kindergarten teacher, drywall mudder, freeway exit lane painter, on and on. The implication being that this was largely an individual effort, the sacrifice and dedication their own, this book an achievement in spite of the silent indifference of the rest of the world. “I’ve seen some things,” this bio seemed to say. “I’ve done stuff, and I know how to work, and most importantly I’ve believed in myself the entire time.”

Ultimately, the route I took, as I suspect is the case for most people, was some combination of the two. I worked jobs, some full time, and I still work part time as well as teach and consult and do some assistant work. And most significantly my wife has had a steady income through this, which includes our health insurance. That’s been enormous, the quiet month-to-month security that has made choosing a less stable path possible. But I also applied for stuff—MFA programs, fellowships, grants, colonies—some of which came through. Each of those tiny triumphs fueled my persistence and, perhaps just as significant as the funds and time they provided, also acted as the affirmation I needed to believe that I wasn’t wasting my time.

All of which is to say that while I used to have strong opinions about the “right” way to do this, I no longer do. I have seen just about as many paths as there are people, and of course everyone finds their own one. Work a demanding job, couch surf, stay at home with your kids, borrow money from your uncle or sister or spouse, be a doctor or a lawyer or a tow truck driver—hell, be all three. The only thing that matters is that you prioritize the writing in your life. It has to matter, the doing it. The greatest gift anyone ever gave me, when I was working full time and trying to write, was a coffee maker. The reason was that not only did it help me to get up, but for me it also ritualized the process—add the water, clean the filter, grind the beans—so that those very early mornings, when I could steal two hours before work, soon became the essential part of my day. Nobody could take them from me but myself. And that was hugely liberating, the fact that there was time, always, if I cared to take it. Working a job and writing a book did not have to be antithetical. There was space for both, if I took the writing as seriously as I took earning a paycheck.

I suppose the only concept that I bristle at, Anonymous, is the one of “writing on the side.” When it comes to writing, the difference between a hobbyist and a professional isn’t really money. Instead, I’ve found the difference is more internal than external, an issue of priority and persistence and self-seriousness, all of which I also understand are things that can be difficult to maintain when the demands of work and family and laundry (always laundry) are pressing on you, and especially when it feels like nobody else believes in you. It would be a little disingenuous of me to imply that every acceptance I have received hasn’t acted as a kind of lifeline, a reason to keep going, or that they still don’t. They do, of course they do. But I guess what I’m saying, mostly to myself, but also to you and to anyone else who might be struggling with this, is that you don’t need a book deal for your commitment to your writing to be valid, you do not need a grant or a residency or an MFA. All of those things are nice, and by all means you should go after them, but I guess what I’m saying is that you do not need permission. You give yourself permission, one day at a time, you find the hours and protect them, you treat them as important and they become important, you treat your work as valid and it becomes valid. The kind of resilience this requires is probably not natural, it certainly wasn’t to me. But I’ve found it can be learned, through repetition and routine, through the quiet power of habit and consistency. I still think the day I became a writer was not the day I sold my book, nor the day I was accepted to a la-di-da program. It was probably the first time I set an alarm and actually got out of bed, when I went to the kitchen and ground the beans and poured the water, and most importantly when I told myself to sit down and get to work because this mattered

*

Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:

  1. On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.”
  2. On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
  3. On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
  4. On Self-Publishing, or Not: “Yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them.”

Have a question for Ted? Drop it in our Ask Box.