Saturday, April 14, 2012

Frances Greenslade talks about writing routines, Shelter, and more

Frances Greenslade is the author of two nonfiction books, A Pilgrim in Ireland, a Quest for Home, and By The Secret Ladder: A Mother's Initiation. Her fiction debut Shelter, about a mother who vanishes, leaving her two girls behind, kept me awake thinking about it long after I had turned the last page. (That's my litmus test for novels.) I'm thrilled Frances agreed to write something for my blog. Thank you, so, so much, Frances.

I remember when I gave up the idea that writers had to live on the brink of disaster in order to be creative. Hardship, the idea goes, keeps you on your toes creatively, doesn’t allow you to grow complacent. I once read that Vincent van Gogh drank forty-eight cups of coffee a day to stave off hunger. And he was creative, right? He also spent hours writing to his brother and fellow artists about how to sell his work, and died at 37, but never mind.

The year my son was born was, for me, the beginning of the end of the romantic notion of the suffering artist. I didn’t give it up at first for the sake of my writing. I gave it up because I’d never felt such a need to be competent. I had awakened from the trauma of giving birth to the terrifying realization that my son relied completely on me. I set about ditching the unnecessary perils to our security. And once I achieved some stability, I recognized how good it was for my writing life. I didn’t have to spend all my creativity on finding ways to pay (or not pay) the bills. I could relax enough to go deeply into the world of whatever story I was working on.

It’s probably the dream of most writers to give up the day job and write full time. But it’s not the only way to do it. I wrote Shelter mostly in the mornings before going to teach. I became aware that my best writing happened in the first three hours after I woke up. At that time, I’m in a slightly altered state of consciousness, not far from the dreamland of sleep. I dropped easily into Maggie and Jenny’s fragile happiness on the edge of the jackpine forests of the Chilcotin.

So I began a writing routine that I still follow. Once I get my son off to school, I write through the morning, avoiding email and putting off telephone calls that can lead me off on day-long tangents that leave me feeling that I’ve accomplished nothing. The prolific Neil Young, one of my writing heroes, once said that writing songs was the one thing he did that didn’t make him feel like he should be doing something else. I understand that feeling. The story pulls me; I leave it reluctantly. Part of me stays in a smoky canyon where a forest fire rages and Maggie is camped beside the river, sifting memories.
It helps that I have a flexible day job.  It also helps that occasionally I pack the car full of books, yellow pads of paper, and medium ballpoint pens and head to a cheap cabin/motel beside a lake two and half hours from home. No phone, no Internet. No electric heat or toilets, either. Recently I went to India, where part of my next novel is set, and spent two weeks at a writing retreat. My son is now fifteen. Our life is calm. We thrive on routines, and so does my writing.

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