Friday, April 15, 2016
"I wanted to tell the truth. I did and life improved." Robin Black talks about her incredible series of essays on life, loss, becoming a writer and writing, and so much more. Trust me. You. Need. This. Book. Now.
I haven't yet met Robin Black personally, but I feel like I know her--and I adore her. First came the work, her short story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a finalist for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize and an O Magazine Summer Reading Pick. Her debut novel Life Drawing was called "a magnificent literary achievement" by Claire Messud." And then there is Crash Course, a brilliant series of essay about life and writing and loss and survival. You need this book. Every one of you, whether you are a writer or not. Go out and buy copies for friends, too. It's truly a book that spoke to me, that did what great art does--it changed me, and I know it will change you.
Take a look at just some of the praise:
“Crash Course is an exhilarating hybrid, part memoir and part literary analysis and part craft book—Crash Course will be an oasis for writers at every stage, and for lifelong readers thirsting to explore the vortical intersection of life and art. Black’s essays are beautiful and hilarious and searingly honest articulations of ‘questions both unavoidable and unanswerable’—the questions we have to keep asking, to go on living, and to go on writing.”
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia
“I wasn’t more than two pages into Crash Course when I pulled out a pen and started underlining like crazy. In these essays, Robin Black is simultaneously a wise teacher, an encouraging mentor, and that friend who gives you the real dirt on what the writing life is like. Crash Course is an invaluable resource and reassurance for any writer.” —Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You
“Robin Black is an astonishing writer. There’s no one I trust more to offer wisdom about writing as both a craft and a way of life.” —Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
“ Black has stared into the writing life’s darkest abysses and come out triumphant, full of authentic wisdom that actually inspires. Crash Course has the power to give you a precious gift: to pick you up and make you want to get to work.” —Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves
”Crash Course is not only one of the most entertaining and insightful books on writing I’ve ever encountered, it’s perhaps the most useful. It wasn’t long before I started jotting down, in the table of contents, the people I needed to share each essay with—the colleagues and students I needed to grab by the collar and say, ‘Look, here it is! That very thing you’ve been needing to read: She went and wrote it!’”—Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred Year House
I cannot thank you enough, Robin, for the book, for coming on the blog, for everything.
I am gobsmacked by Crash Course. I think because it delves into all the things writers think about, but are too afraid or uneasy or mortified to say—things like fear of failure, fear of success, self-sabotage—and it does it in such a brave way that we can’t help but listen. So, was it difficult to get this on the page? To be this brave? Was there ever a moment when you thought, stop, I can’t do this?
Thank you, thank you! That means so much. Truly there have been a lot of moments at which I’ve wondered why I, in many ways a private person, felt compelled to share so much about the experience of becoming and being a writer – some of which is definitely risky material for me. I think my need to write this book grew out of a particular loneliness I felt during the decade when I was starting out. My hope for this book is that it can be, for other people, the conversation I wanted to have then. And it’s also, apparently a conversation I want to have now. Arguably the fact that these things are so complicated to discuss in “polite society” meant that the only way to do that was in this form.
I’ll also just add that publishing fiction still feels more exposing to me in many ways. Here, I had some control over what I chose to expose about my life. Sharing fiction is like showing people your dreams!
You wrote that you needed to completely rebuild yourself in order to write, and as I was sparking with recognition, I thought, that’s right—too often writers think that it’s the outside that is going to give us what we need—but it never is. Can you talk about that?
I have a lot of sympathy for people who have a lot of outside interference with writing. I think having to work full-time, having to do caregiving, many other things are genuine impediments to getting the work dome. But they aren’t necessarily the only ones. In my case, I did need my kids to reach a certain age, I guess, but more than that I needed to overcome fears, to understand my own ambitions, to be able to think clearly, freed to some extent of the static of emotional problems. And I see this so much with students, people who so want to do this and have the time, or could find the time, but something is holding them back. As a teacher it’s always a puzzle how involved to get, because it can be tempting to think that you’ll be the one to unlock this writer, show her her own power – but in fact writing teachers aren’t therapists, and it’s usually a mistake, in my experience, to get deep into someone else’s reasons for being silent, especially when you’re in a position of authority.
I wrote out a series of lines from Crash Course because they resonated so deeply for me. “I wanted to tell the truth. I did, and life improved”—was a revelation for me. I think that what banishes shame (Now, I think this—I didn’t before) is coming out and owning what shames you, speaking it out loud, and then you get other people whispering, “oh, me, too.” And you also realize it isn’t that terrible. I think that is something that works in life—but also in writing. Do you feel that the writer’s job is to get at those truths that no one wants to touch?
I definitely feel that way. And as someone whose life was overshadowed with shame for many, many years, I completely agree that it’s a case of sunshine being the best disinfectant. “Oh, you mean you had an alcoholic parent, too?” “Oh, you mean you have caught yourself resenting a friend’s success, too?” The answer is, we are never alone with these things.
I grew up in two situations for which an absence of denial would have been a great help. One was my father’s alcoholism, and the other was the ADD that made school and also social interactions so difficult for me, for so long. The latter wasn’t exactly denial, more that no one knew what the issue was, but in both cases, so, so much good might have come from openness and from dealing directly with issues. I think those experiences, and really looking, as an adult, at the long-term damage hidden facts, secret truths, did to me, I am practically incapable of denial.
And as far as other writers go, I think it’s okay to want to write just to entertain, so I can’t say that everyone has to be processing what they see as truth, in order to write. Or trying to get at the difficult realities of life. But for me it’s the attempt to reach that level and somehow share what I learn that keeps me at this.
It’s interesting that you talk about how you thought Life Drawing was about one thing and then years later realized it was about something else. I also always think that the meaning of what you write doesn't just change because you change—it also changes for readers, who have their own issues and hot buttons—and that’s the reason why not everyone loves all books. Would you agree?
I have learned so much about the process of reading through writing fiction, including the degree to which a reader’s response to a book is so individual, so shaped by their history and emotions, that truly no two readers read the same book. Life Drawing is the sort of novel that can bring out some pretty strong responses to the characters. Some readers hate the husband, some love him. Some hate the young woman who is at the center of things, while others feel sympathy for her because of her youth, her vulnerability. It’s like some kind of Rorschach Test though I confess I haven’t learned how to interpret it. Except that I often suspect that at least some of the people who really dislike my narrator, Gus, a woman who has had an affair, have been cheated on themselves, or betrayed in some way. I just run up against a kind of brick wall at times, a reader saying, or just exuding: I can’t sympathize with an adulteress. So for those people the book is just not at all what it might be for someone who is open to caring about someone who has done something wrong. Speaking of hot buttons. And then, of course, there are the people who just don’t warm up to the book.
I have definitely been odd-woman out on some books that the world, the whole entire world loves, and I think: meh. And when that happens I wonder if the book has hit some sensitive spot in me, some experience I’ve had that keeps me out of the story. Though whether it’s my book, or someone else’s book, it’s always okay not to much like it. Stories are such personal things that subjective responses are not only inevitable, they’re good.
I absolutely loved the Line Edits you did which visually show how a fact can turn into a story, how a single sentence can start to breathe and take on weight. I also loved the line, “You have to be good at being a writer. You have to be able to survive it all,” which I think is the best definition of being a writer. I’ve had high school students who truly thought being a writer meant having a beach house and lots of lovers and lots of time to sit around and daydream, but the truth is, it is extremely difficult and you do have to have a thick skin. I deeply appreciated your talking about how even Pulitzer Prize winners worry about their careers or are hurt by a one star review on Goodreads! “Be jealous and feel generous,” is wonderful advice. I find that by immediately congratulating someone who got a prize I wanted, I do two things—I put out something good in the universe, and I feel better about myself, because jealousy really can eat at the soul. Can you talk more about all of this? (I know this is a disjointed paragraph!)
I love the way you ask this, because it so well represents the part of writing that is about following threads, and not worrying too much about tidiness. Layering in ideas. And of course I love that you love those parts of the book. Thank you!
The line edits were important to me because this book wanders at times pretty from the pen-to-paper part of writing. There’s a good chunk of my personal history, stories about my family, lots of career stories; but I wanted there also to be some reminders that in the end, it is me —or it is you—and it is a page and it is trying to find the right way to say something. So those copyedit pages are really there to bring a reader back to that.
The endless emotional challenge of being a writer—and I’m sure this applies to other careers as well, I know it does—is weathering the continual affronts to your ego and the pursuant damage to your confidence. That’s really the heart of the challenge—the challenge that isn’t exclusively about getting words on the page. I say “exclusively” because of course all the bruises to one’s confidence make it hard at times to write at all. And the jealousy! Truly my own ability to feel like a complete failure is almost always the reason I take occasional Facebook breaks. And I hear others say that too. When you are in the mood to beat up on yourself for not having achieved whatever the fantasy goal is, all you have to do is turn on Facebook, and there’s someone else who just achieved it.
And yes, I try hard to make myself write something nice when that happens. For exactly the reasons you say. Good energy into the world, and a strange loosening of envy’s grip.
As for me writing about all this, I do it because I feel terrible for the people out there who think they are especially petty, or that if they were real writers they wouldn’t feel so insecure. We all feel it, we all struggle, we are none of us alone, and for sure we are none of us perfect.
Crash Course isn’t just about the collision of life and writing, it truly is applicable to any human being struggling with living a life that matters. So, I have to ask, do you feel better and stronger having written the book? Or are the same fears, etc. still there, but now they are manageable?
There’s a specific way in which I feel better. I feel an almost physical sensation of relief, a weight lifted. I can’t articulate it well, but perhaps it is having waged a kind of personal war against denial for many years, I feel like I have now done so in a public way, in a book I can hold up, saying, “Look! It really is okay to tell about the hard stuff, the low moments, the workarounds and failures. It’s all right to be massively flawed. You still get to keep trying.”
And, as I discuss in the book, I suffered from agoraphobia for close to twenty years. So this very public act, this true stepping out, of my home, and also out from behind the screen of fiction, feels to me like a sign that I am doing okay along those lines. I’m not sure that when you’ve suffered from something like that for so long, you ever relax. But this makes me feel pretty solid.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Truly? The first thing that comes to mind is that my daughter Elizabeth Simins, who is my oldest child, just won an honor from The Society of Illustrators, for a narrative comic—a memoir piece in which she beautifully, sparingly, touches on some hard times of her own. I’m so proud of her, for her hard work (without which, even the gobs of talent she has wouldn’t do much) and her amazing narrative instincts, and the emotional sensitivity she infuses into the work. And also, of course, I can’t help but celebrate that though I was scared of my own shadow at her age, afraid to leave my house, afraid to speak up, my daughter is not. And she is, so movingly, sharing her story with others, good times, bad times, and all. That feels like progress to me. That feels big.
As for my own work, I am obsessed with some short stories I am working on, and, at this moment, with hearing how people react to this book! As you know the lead-up to a book’s launch is not a restful time. But it’s a time for which I am very grateful.
As I am for getting to do this back and forth. Thank you, Caroline, for inviting me back to your blog. I so enjoy and value these exchanges!