Category Archives: Writing

An Interview with DyAnne DiSalvo

I had no doubt that I wanted to do what I wanted to, and this was the way I was going to do it. Which meant going to publishers, and calling back agents, and getting in editor's faces, and not ever thinking that I wasn't going to get what I wanted. Because of course I was. Just, somebody give me the contract!

DyAnne DiSalvo

Photo credit: Brian Butler.

Your creative output is pretty striking, with dozens of children’s books to your name. Is there anything that you attribute your productivity to?

Well, I try not to judge myself. I try to be “my own best friend.” [laughter] Which is a lie. But I try not to get too wrapped up in the difficulty of the moment because I’ll just wallow in that for as long as I like, feeling bad for myself. So what I do is, I read. I play music. I have conversations with my friends about poetry or writing or whatever they’re working on. I walk my friend’s dog. I travel a lot. Whatever fills up that time. And I’m always thinking about my story, whatever I’m doing, as I’m doing it. And I think that’s incredibly helpful. I just allow myself to never lose sight of my art-piece and to live life.

Do you ever worry about burning out?

I think yesterday at one point it went through my head that “you’re not going to write this story, so why don’t you just quit it now?” [laughter] And I thought “But oh no! I have all these other things I have to do!” Because I have so many different story ideas that I can’t wait to pick up again and write. So I’m not at a loss for ideas. I’m just sometimes at a loss for how to put it together.

Right now I’m teaching myself how to write a novel. I’ve never written a novel before. The Sloppy Copy Slipup was humorous. And it’s pretty easy for me to be humorous and write short, clippy, fun things. But this is for fifth grade as opposed to third grade and they want a little bit more.

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An Interview with Bob Holman

Poet, teacher, and impresario Bob Holman talks about riding along on the tip of an eyelash, the importance of orality, and how performing is editing.

Bob HolmanAre there any habits or tactics that you use to help feed your creativity?

I’m a poet, I guess, because the tempo of a poem fits into my life. If I had a different kind of discipline, I’m sure I would write infinitely long novels. Poems ride along on the tip of your eyelash and can come and go in a blink. It’s important that you be there when they want to happen. And the way to be there is to give yourself time to percolate; you can read, you can walk, you can sit there and dream.

The other part is to be ready when they are. Which is to say, a notebook and a writing implement are your passport. I love writing in darkened theaters and at art museums. But it’s also important to have [these tools] beside your bed so no dream gets lost.

What do you do when you’re feeling creatively dry?

I read. There are a few marvelous exercises I love. I studied with Kenneth Koch at Columbia, so I’m in love with imitations — writing imitations of the greats who came before you. Finding out your own tastes as a poet, creating your own lineage is part of the job.

The thing to remember about a poem is that it is not made of emotions. It’s not made of wisdom. It’s not made of your most secret interior life being vomited out on a page. It’s made out of words. So start with words — what word is working for you right now? And put that down.

If you need a word, I also suggest going to the bookshelf and saying, well whose word do I need? I find myself often needing a John Ashbery word, so I just go to Ashbery, and I open him up, and I find a word in there that’s going to work. All poets’ vocabularies are distinct, so what kind of word do you need? If you need a Wanda Coleman word, you’re going to go to Wanda. Translating experience into words, all you need to do is open your eyes to the silence like John Cage did, and the poem’s right in front of you.

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Category: Writing

An Interview with Howard Kremer, aka Dragon Boy Suede

Stand up comic, sitcom writer, and rapper Howard Kremer talks about the upside of getting bored easily, the power of changing one thing, and finding his name scribbled in a copy of The Artist's Way.

What techniques do you use to help you come up with new ideas?

Howard Kremer, aka Dragon Boy SuedeI take walks. I find that if I’m stationary, sometimes it’s not going to happen. I take drives. I’ll force myself to go to bed if I’m not tired, because if I lay there and toss and turn then I get ideas. Other than that I have — I guess they’re formulas? I’ll change one thing. I’ll look at an object or a situation or a show and just change one thing about it. What if oranges were square? What if Gilbert Gottfried was the star of 24? If you change one thing in a dynamic, it changes all the other relationships, so you start to be able to abstract it and look at it in a different way.

Does listening to music help your productivity or get in the way? For me, for example, taking a long walk without music can be a big help.

Oh completely. An iPod, or even having the radio on in the house, or if you’re going for a drive and you have a CD in, you’re just not going to really create during that time. Which sometimes is good because you have to absorb too. Joe Strummer said that — you have to have input to have output.

Can you describe the creative process you use when you’re working on a sitcom script? Is there anything in particular that you do to stay focused and get your work done?

Yeah, well, we have deadlines.

[laughter] That’s pretty straightforward — have deadlines and hit them.

Yeah. You know, I have a writing partner. A lot of times, we come up with the raw ideas for the story and then go meet at a coffee shop to work them out and distill them down to what we want to do. One of us will have an idea for a show, and then we’ll try to see if we can expand it into a pitch. And we’ll get together and flesh that out day by day. We meet for a couple of hours about three times a week.

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Category: Stage/Screen, Writing

An Interview with Maggie Nelson

Author and teacher Maggie Nelson talks about why research is "like throwing crap in a cauldron" (in a good way), and how she handles those tricky times in between.

Maggie NelsonCan you describe your creative process?

I have few to no patterns, and even less dogma about how to write, or how I write. Poetry tends to come to me naturally or not at all. I spent years trying out different exercises and forms like most everyone, but the truth is that I don’t do that anymore. It may sound mystical or retro or simply depressing, but I increasingly feel myself to be a hostage to poetic impulse. I usually have to wait until a poem comes along, or until I see what’s there to be written, as Robert Creeley once put it. For me a poem often begins as a constellation of words coursing through my head like little electric shocks. This often happens when I’m in great pain or pleasure, doing laps in a pool, or in the bardo between sleeping and waking. I don’t know why. The words feel like irritants in the soft lap of an oyster, as Henry James had it. Then the pearl — if one could call it that with a straight face — starts to congeal around the irritant. A snowball in the muck.

As for non-poetry projects, that’s a different story. Usually I do a lot of reading or research until something takes possession of me. I think of research like throwing lots of crap in a cauldron — bones, feathers, blood, everything — and turning up the heat: eventually it has to come to a boil. (Whether you make something edible is a different question.) Or, let me put it this way: Often a baby in a subway station will scream back at a loud train hurtling through. If you send a train of information hurtling through your brain often and fast enough, and if the train screeches loudly enough, you may eventually find yourself yelling back.

Are there any techniques that you use to spark new poems or gather up ideas?

I don’t use any techniques per se…but I take a lot of notes, wandering around in the world. I used to keep diaries, then legal pads; now I don’t know what I keep. Scraps, I guess. I tend to write a poetry based on fact and feeling, or the fact of feeling, or the feeling of fact, etc., which mostly means I write down “facts” — observed things that interest me in the world — and, alongside, my feelings (loosely defined). Painter Joan Mitchell once described her gargantuan abstract paintings as “remembered landscapes which involve my feelings”; I think of my poems similarly, though I usually try to write from within the landscape rather than from my memory of it — to avoid nostalgia, or bad faith. Two sections of my next book of poems, Something Bright, Then Holes, bear this out literally: The first section, “The Canal Diaries,” was written in a single notebook at the shore of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn; the second, “The Hospital for Special Care,” was written at a friend’s bedside in a hospital by that name. I like site-specific projects. Maybe because if I plunk myself down in a place with a pen, I rarely find myself bored.

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Category: Writing

An Interview with Jeff Raz

Clown, playwright, actor, and teacher Jeff Raz talks about sneaking up on a laugh, writing a play in a week, and what to do when inspiration shows up at 6:30 Sunday morning.

Jeff RazDo you have any techniques you use to help you get into a more inspired mode?

You know, I usually don’t think in [those terms] because I’ve made a living doing this since I was 15. I’m kind of a blue-collar guy in that way. I go to work. The way I look at it and the way that works for me is, I just keep plugging ahead.

I started as a juggler. As a juggler, you can always get up and throw the balls. Or you get up and you throw the clubs. No inspiration needed. Throw the damn things. If they’re in the air, wonderful. It they’re on the ground, throw ’em again. It’s kind of simple.

When I write a play, what I do is, once I’ve got the research going and I’ve got it floating around in my head, I’ll try to write the whole play in a week. Just write the f****r. And it’s terrible. (I got this from Annie Lamott, from her book Bird by Bird.) So I just do that, and then I can edit it, which I do better than creating from whole cloth. And again, both of those [steps] are kind of designed to make sure I know what the job of the day is. I don’t do well waiting for inspiration.

Now, the other morning I was working ten-show weeks, which means I’m on stage for twenty-five hours a week, which is a huge amount of stage time. I get done at 11 o’clock. I get home and the turnaround between Saturday night and when I have to be back on-site at 11 o’clock putting on makeup the next morning is the tough one. And then we had a cabaret after, so we actually had an eleven-show week. I was getting really tired. But sonofabitch if I’m not up at 6:30 on Sunday morning with ideas about the show.

And why do you think that is?

JR: Just because inspiration has its own schedule. It’s not particularly good about sticking with my schedule. But my theory on that is, OK, great. I mulled them over, I wrote them down, tried them in the show, they went great. I was happy….

Laughs are elusive. You can’t head right for a laugh — it’ll go away. You can get people to cry. You can head right for a dramatic moment or a sad moment, and you can usually get it. But you can’t head right for a laugh. You have to let the laugh come or sneak around the side. The same thing for inspiration. For me, just keep working, and if inspiration chooses to show up, great. I rather it not show up at 6:30 in the morning. It could’ve waited till 9. But the job is to write down the inspiration when it comes and know how to use it later.

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Category: Stage/Screen, Writing