Category Archives: Writing

An Interview with Hugh MacLeod of

Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod of talks about creative sovereignty, the business of art, and the pursuit of blinding moments of clarity.

AC_MacLeod-280For people who haven’t read your book yet, can you share one or two of its key themes?

HM: The book’s called Ignore Everybody. I first published it on the blog under the title How to Be Creative. And it wasn’t really an instruction manual — I wasn’t telling people what to do. I was talking about the landmines I hoped they wouldn’t step on because landmines are expensive to step on.

My main thesis is that when you first have a good idea, there’s no one who can really tell you whether the idea is good or not. For it to be any good, it has to be so out there, there’s no point of reference. Also, really good ideas, once they’re executed, tend to alter the power balance in relationships, and people are very conservative about changing power balances. I think it was chapter 4 where I said that good ideas have lonely childhoods. The initial loneliness of a good idea is to be expected.

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An Interview with National Novel Writing Month’s Chris Baty

NaNoWriMo's Chris Baty talks about why novel writing is like pick-up basketball, how to make your creative work a priority, and The Year of Big, Fun, Scary Adventures.

Chris Baty

Photo credit: Susan Burdick

How does National Novel Writing Month define a novel?

We define a novel as a minimum of fifty thousand words of fiction. Which is just kind of a ridiculous definition, but it creates a sense of structure, and the boundaries of the game are set. That’s about as close as we want to get to coming up with a definition for it. Leaving it malleable and open fits in well with the idea that, really, what we want to do is be sort of a creative kick in the pants for everybody.

We get a lot of emails saying, “I’m doing X. Am I allowed to do that in your contest?” And the answer’s usually, “Well, as the official keeper of the Great Rule Book of Month-Long Creativity Escapades, the answer is no, but as somebody who understands the joys of making stuff, we’re gonna pretend we didn’t get this email, and you just go about your business.” [laughs]

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Category: Writing

An Interview with Dana Reinhardt

Novelist Dana Reinhardt talks about why she rarely uses her notebook, how her first book may have been the easiest to write, and getting a sixteen-year-old to translate dialog into IM.

Dana Reinhardt

Photo credit: Chelsea Hadley.

Do you have a writing routine you hold to?

I do. I try my best to stick to writing every workday. It’s a bonus if I do any writing on a weekend. I try to write Monday through Friday as if I had a real job. My goal for each day can change but in general, my rule is that my workday’s not done until I have three pages, which is roughly 1,000 words, maybe a little less. So it’s somewhere in there. I generally don’t let myself off the hook until I’ve done that. And sometimes I can do that in 40 minutes, and sometimes it takes me ten hours. But I try to have that done every single day.

Is there an outline you work off?

I don’t work with outlines. I know a lot of people do, but I don’t. I mean, I know where I’m headed, usually. Before each book so far that I’ve written, I know generally the arc of the story and how I want it to end. And sometimes I’ll have certain things I have an idea that I want to have happen halfway through. But in general, for me, the fun about writing is finding out what happens between the beginning and the end of the story.

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An Interview with Ianthe Brautigan

Writer Ianthe Brautigan talks about applying fiction-writing techniques to memoir, the power of cookies, and rising up to contribute your best.

Ianthe Brautigan

Photo credit: Nancy Bellen.

What sort of writing had you done before you started working on your memoir?

I was actually a Theater Arts major, and I was going to the Junior College, and I fell in love with my English 1A class and ended up writing nonfiction essays. At that point I realized that I was going to be torn between the two worlds, and I decided to choose writing. I still went to New York and worked for Roundabout Theatre and was in the theater world and toyed with that for a little while. And then I came back to Sonoma County and really started writing in earnest and did all the things that writers do — I took creative writing courses and did workshops and worked with Robin Beeman, who’s in the county and is absolutely phenomenal. I got my undergrad in English Literature at Sonoma State, which was the best thing I could have ever done…. You need to read a lot of stuff and get an idea of what’s going on. Then I got my MFA at San Francisco State University, and I don’t recommend that for everybody.

Going back to my memoir, God, I had started that in the form of poetry right after my dad died. And I’m a terrible poet. But I wrote a prose poem and Don Emblen read it and he said, “You’re onto it — this is what you should be doing; stay away from that poetry stuff.” [laughter] And I began writing about my dad. And as you might imagine, it took a long time.

Was the transition from short stories to poetry to memoir writing difficult, or did you feel like you were finding your natural genre?

I think it’s important to try all sorts of stuff. I love writing short stories. I’ve written a novella. I think that in memoir and nonfiction writing, you’re using the craft of fiction writing. In fact, a lot of what makes, I think, a good memoir is that it has a lot of fictive elements, except it’s based on truth.

Can you elaborate on that — how fiction-writing techniques can play a role in memoir writing?

Well, you just are set free. Because you’ve been writing short stories and working in fiction-land, maybe starting novels that you discard, you develop your muscles for description and for structure.

How much of the way you approach structure and description in memoir writing is driven by the linear flow of events versus stepping back and applying a frame to life?

Well it has to be truthful. Memoir has to be truthful. Like, [if] you were speaking about your father and the way that he taught you to jog, that’s a memory that’s very clear in your head. And you know that that’s truth. If you just wrote that down, in three sentences it would be done. But if you wanted to write about that as a chapter of a book or as a turning point in your life, it would be longer, and you would reach into the tools that you’ve learned as a fiction writer to make that scene work.

You would start to go, where was I? What was there? Were there trees? Was there grass? What kind of tennis shoes was I wearing? All those details, which are real, evoke incredible memory for you as the writer, so you’re able to get the soul, you’re able to get at the heart of what you’re trying to write. But at the same time you’re painting a fictive picture.

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An Interview with Keri Smith

Artist and author Keri Smith talks about why she writes creativity books, the importance of play, imperfection, and impermanence in her work, and why we need to aim for "the all-consuming place."

Keri Smith

Photo credit: Jefferson Pitcher.

What got you started making creativity books?

I’ve been trying to figure this out for myself. For some reason I cannot stop making activity books based on the subject of creativity. I seem to be obsessed with it, even though I will admit that I get tired of talking about it directly and would rather just have people do something (as opposed to talking about doing something) — a conundrum for an author, yes?

I can tell you a few things that I know about it in list form (just because I like lists):

  1. My medium is most definitely books. I have been obsessed with books my whole life and worked in bookstores for years. As a child I had a favorite activity book (called Good Times) that I think had a lot to do with forming my creative brain.
  2. I love the idea of creating books that give people more of a direct experience with life instead of walking through it passively. Get up out of your chair and take a look at things around you for crying out loud! Turn off the TV and use your brain cells before they deteriorate completely! There is no time to waste. Aren’t we all just aching for a bit of adventure? It’s all there in various forms. It’s just about a conscious decision to “tune in.” My books are just a little reminder of why and how to do this (for myself too).
  3. I am drawn to experimenting (in various forms). My favorite artists and authors are often those who are “playing,” trying things, not necessarily succeeding at them, but seeing where an idea takes you. This concept of play comes up constantly for me and is in large part the foundation for all of my work. To truly conduct an experiment, you must not know where you are headed. It can be scary at times, but that fear is what excites me about it. What happens when I try “this”? A direct confrontation with the UNKNOWN. It is such a great metaphor for life because none of us truly know where we are headed. We can try to control it but at a deep level we aren’t ever really in control.
  4. My family life growing up was not about taking risks (make sure you have all your bases covered, don’t attempt things unless you know what the outcome will be, take the safe route). I think in part my life/creative work is a form of rebellion against this and about choosing to do the opposite in a given situation to see what happens. I had to learn to trust in my ability to deal with whatever comes up in the moment. And guess what? You really can deal with “whatever comes up.” You are much stronger and more creative than you think. But you have to jump off a cliff all the time to figure that out. Every time I do, I learn how amazing a feeling it is. There is nothing that can hurt you in this. Fear of taking risks is a fear of living.
  5. For a while now I have enjoyed working with the concepts of imperfection and impermanence (the Japanese refer to it as wabi-sabi). I think this concept is quite rare in Western culture, which seems obsessed with making things as perfect as possible — technology, bodies (plastic surgery), mechanization of life, etc.

So I see the books as another way to present the idea of embracing imperfections and actually incorporating them into your process (Wreck This Journal is a good example of this). I guess what I am saying here is that books are a way to share my philosophies and get some different ideas out into the culture at large. At some level I enjoy the thought of taking ideas from some slightly edgier artists and thinkers and incorporating them into my work so that a new audience can experience them.

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An Interview with Kim Addonizio

Poet Kim Addonizio talks about "poem feeling" vs. "prose feeling," asking her characters to talk to her, and salvation.

Kim Addonizio

Photo credit: Joe Allen.

When did you first start to identify yourself as a writer?

I remember my first unfinished work. I wanted to write a novel when I was around nine. I wrote ten pages. It was a mystery, I think. I don’t remember why I stopped — probably because it was too hard. I remember writing a short story at fifteen and being eager to show it to my dad, who was a sportswriter.

Do you remember what drew you to writing poetry?

I wrote down my feelings in lines in high school and after, but it was hardly poetry. I seriously started trying to write it in my late twenties. I think poetry drew me to it — I think I was always meant to find it.

How has your creative process changed since then?

When I was younger, poorer, and raising a kid, I had a lot less time for consistent creative work. So I was less connected to my own process. I feel I’m able to tap in a lot more often now.

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Category: Writing

An Interview with Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, Part 2

Writer Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, talks about making the switch from poetry to prose and why he loves it when things are going badly.

Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony SnicketWelcome to the second half of this two-part interview with writer Daniel Handler. If you haven’t already read Part One, be sure to check it out to hear about making the switch from poetry to prose and why Handler loves it when things are going badly.

The plot for A Series of Unfortunate Events is incredibly rich. How did you approach plotting the series and how much of the plot was worked out before the first book was published?

Some of it was planned. And then more and more of it was planned the more I wrote. I’m a big outliner and note-taker, so I had a bunch of things [worked out in advance], but I also left myself room to improvise. I didn’t want A Series of Unfortunate Events to feel like a coloring book that I had to fill in for the next few years.

So I would think, “Well, the twelfth book is going to take place in a hotel, and it’s going to have this kind of revelation and this kind of action,” and then I would say, “Okay, that’s enough that you know. That’s five books ahead or four books ahead.” Every so often I would make a note of something specific that I wanted to put there. But I tried to discipline myself to be undisciplined. I wanted to get there and feel like there were all these vistas to explore, and not that it was a specific path that I’d already assigned myself.

Reading the last book in the series, which deals in part with the trade-offs between security and personal freedom, I wondered if what’s been going on in the real world was informing that?

Well, I would think it would have to…. But then also, while I was writing the books I went from my late twenties to my mid-thirties, and I got married and had a kid. And I think all that also makes you think of the world in different terms, and it’s impossible to separate that from what’s happening in the world…. You have a baby, and then you have this delicate creature and you spend at least the first year of their life sort of brainstorming about things in your home and things around town that can harm this child, even if you’re not a particularly paranoid parent, which I don’t think I am. And that’s most certainly going to color any work you do, no matter what work is….

It wasn’t as if I was shrieking about it, but I would just often think, “OK there’s a vase there, and we’re in the house of an uptight person, and that vase definitely can’t break, so what is the strategy there?” And certainly, I didn’t think that when I was twenty-two and I walked into the room. I basically thought, “Where’s the gin?”

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Category: Writing

An Interview with Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, Part 1

Writer Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, talks about plotting A Series of Unfortunate Events and how real life influences his work.

Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket

Photo credit: Meredith Heuer 2006.

This is Part One of a two-part interview. Be sure to also check out Part Two to hear Handler talk about plotting A Series of Unfortunate Events and how real life influences his work.

Do you remember the first thing that you wrote that you felt, “Well, that’s something”?

By the time I was in college, I was writing a lot of poetry that was being published in tiny journals and was winning little student prizes and things like that. And I think that was probably the first time that I began to think of myself as a writer who was producing work that was of merit, at least for the age that I was.

I actually visited my high school literary magazine yesterday — I grew up in San Francisco. And they had found some of my old poetry on file and given it to me. And it was pretty interesting to read. It was lousy of course. But I felt like it still had some respectability to it.

It was two poems that I had written shortly after I had started having sex, and so they’re both about love and sex. And so of course they’re mortifying. But they have an air of detachment, I guess, and one of them rhymes. And it’s interesting to me that I was already trying to find an acceptable format for perhaps embarrassing ideas.

Do you still write poetry?

I still do sometimes. I don’t do anything with it. When I was in college, my poems started getting longer and longer and more and more narrative. And I have a very clear memory of talking to a poetry professor of mine who finally said to me very gently that there was actually a tradition of long, non-line-based narrative poetry called “prose” [laughter]. And it was like he just took me across the hallway or something [and said] “There is this thing you can do in which you don’t have to worry that your sentences are long and that you seem to be telling a story.”

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Category: Writing

An interview with John August

John August

Photo credit: Jen Pollack Bianco

You’ve written an impressive number of scripts over the last several years. Were you always this creatively productive?

I’ve always written, but it wasn’t until I started approaching writing as a full-time job that I really felt any mastery of it. Sometimes I’m an artist, but mostly I’m a craftsman. I write for very specific purposes, and I can sort of switch it on and off. That came with experience.

I think “productivity” is a pretty limited concept. If you’re writing a lot, but you’re writing crap, that’s not particularly helpful. I think what I hit in my early-to-mid 20s was a sweet spot between Getting Stuff Done and Getting Stuff Perfect. My first drafts are pretty strong. They feel like the final movie. Some writers do what they call a “vomit draft,” which is long and messy, then edit it down. I don’t. I write the script that could be shot.

I labor pretty hard over each scene in its first incarnation. I play the entire scene in my head, in a constant loop, until I really feel I know it. Then I do what I call a “scribble version,” which is a very quick-and-dirty sketch of the scene, handwritten, which would be indecipherable to anyone but me. Then I write up the final scene from that.

In terms of the number of scripts with my name on them, that really comes from picking projects carefully. The frustrating thing about screenwriting is that you can spend a year working on a project that never gets made, and it’s like you never wrote it. I like to say that my favorite genre is, “Movies that get made.”

What drew you to screenwriting, as opposed to other kinds of writing?

I didn’t know what screenwriting was until fairly late in college. That was before the Internet, so the only scripts you could find in Des Moines, Iowa, were the occasional screenplays that were published in book form. I remember reading Sex, Lies and Videotape and being awestruck by how closely it matched the finished movie. It sounds naive now, but I really didn’t understand movies were written.

The screenplay form didn’t come naturally. I’m not sure it should; it’s pretty artificial and unlike conventional writing. The closest equivalent is certainly the stage play, which is pretty much just dialogue. The screenplay has evolved into this strange beast that’s meant to be a blueprint for the entire movie — not just what the characters say and do, but how the film is supposed to look and feel and sound. Most of the time I love it, but it has very frustrating limitations. I get sick of writing in the third-person present tense. I yearn to write about scents and textures and the inner thoughts of characters. One of the reasons I keep up the blog is that it’s a chance to write in my own voice rather than the detached, omniscient “screenplay voice.”

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Category: Stage/Screen, Writing

An Interview with Jon Carroll

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll talks about Clay Felker's pockets full of ideas, dealing with the worst column of the week, and the importance of details.

Jon Carroll

Photo credit: Terry Lorant Photography.

Over the past twenty-five years, you’ve written well over six thousand columns. Were you always this creatively productive?

There are a lot of writers in a collateral branch of my family — John Gregory Dunne is a cousin of mine, and his brother Dominick Dunne. And my father was Irish, and of course there’s a tradition there. And I put out a neighborhood newspaper when I was nine. In high school I worked for the literary magazine and the annual and the newspaper, writing for all of them. And I was sort of the all-purpose go-to guy for captions and intros and all of that stuff that needs doing and nobody else wanted to do. And I loved doing it. I still love doing it.

Here’s a story: When I got to the Chronicle, I was nineteen and I was working on a section that no longer exists called “This World,” which was sort of a news round-up section…. The first day I was there, I was given assignments, and the idea was, you’d turn it in and they’d give you another. And I did six stories. And an old hand came over and told me to slow down, that I was making the rest of them look bad, and that I should know that my quota was around three. So I took it to heart. I didn’t want to piss anybody off. So I did the three.

When you moved into column writing, was that a relatively easy transition?

Well, there was a whole period in between where I was a magazine editor. I wrote only occasionally, and once again [it was] captions, headlines, an editor’s note, things like that. And I was always looking for a chance to write. It’s just that in 1970 there was money in magazine editing and not a lot of money in freelance writing, and I couldn’t get a staff job on a magazine; there weren’t many staff jobs on magazines.

Then when I got back to the Chronicle and was asked if I could provide samples for a column, it seemed to me like I had a million ideas and there was just stuff all over happening, none of which I’d been able to write about. So that was pretty easy. There’s an A. J. Liebling quote that “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” And that’s sort of the way I feel about myself.

And it’s entirely a gift; it’s nothing that I trained for or worked for or planned for. I’ve tried to nurture it and husband it when it became obvious that that might be a good idea. But it’s just something that I know how to do, and it’s the only thing I know how to do at the level that I’m doing it. So it’s a good thing that I got a job doing it.

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Category: Writing