Thursday, August 5, 2010

Novelist Dawn Tripp and I talk candidly about writing, angst, obsession and inspiration

Recently, I met the author Dawn Tripp (whose third novel, Game of Secrets, will be out in 2011). We met on Facebook. We instantly hit it off, and we began having a series of conversations about writing that was so intense, so exhilarating, that it felt as if the world had suddenly changed. I wanted to reprint the whole thing here so that other writers could join the conversation if they wished. So here, reprinted in all its glory, is our talk about writing, obsession, inspiration and more, starting with the Facebook status update that began the conversation:

Caroline Leavitt likes the look of 167 pages of a first draft, but she'd like 350 even better--so back to work.

Dawn Tripp

At some point I am going to have to go a little deeper into this, because I never have 167 pp of a first draft until I have nearly written the novel, because I write long-hand in notebooks and more often on teeny tiny thoroughly disorganized pieces of paper that I have to transcribe into my notebooks within 48 hours or I have difficulty reading my own scrawl, so your ability to map your progress in such a methodical, measurable way makes you something of a hero to me. For that and for those red suede cowboy boots!

Caroline Leavitt

Ah, but Dawn, this doesn't count the years of mind-exploding prep work I've been struggling with! I have been wanting to write this novel for four or five years and simply couldn't figure out how, and I must have thrown away 500 pages (no joking!) and a thousand false starts, before I finally sat down with a really smart writer friend and begged her to let me tell her the story so she could point out the holes. As soon as I did that, as I began to talk about it and she began to ask questions, the novel unlocked and I figured out what it was about. Of course there is still tons and tons of stuff to do, but I cling to my synopsis (it's my little engine that could) and feed myself chocolate!

And also, I'm totally obsessive-compulsive. And my handwriting is totally illegible! (I laughed when you said you had to transcribe within 48 hours!)

Dawn Tripp

I am quite sure I throw away several hundred pages for each novel. I've never actually kept track, but I am quite certain. For GAME OF SECRETS, there was a main character; he was my road in to the world of the story, but once I was in, he became extraneous, so he ( all of his material) was ultimately cut. It was one of those things I knew in my gut 6 months before I'd let my mind know tell me this: the mind-exploding prep work, is that handwritten? or do you do that on the computer? What does it look like? See to me, that IS the work. Don't you think? What comes after is just stringing the beads together, setting the pieces into their interlocking place, whatever metaphor you want to use....

Caroline Leavitt

Dawn, such great questions--it forces me to figure out my process. It starts handwritten. I write the main idea/character that's obsessing me and then just make big messy notes about it and him/her for months and months. (It IS indeed the work). Then I get on the computer. For me, if I have a good first chapter, that's my lifeline. I can't move on until I do, because I need it when I am in the middle and it all seems like junk writing. That first chapter is what keeps me from quitting.) I usually show the chapter to some writer friends, so that keeps me from junking everything, too. I continually do grunt work: character maps, character arcs, story arcs, synopsis, Truby story structure (even though, it's mostly for scripts, it can be helpful figuring out problems), and of course I whine, cry, carry on, obsess and panic at every turn.

But even at the stage I am now, where I sort of know the main through line and things are sort of mapped out, I continually do those arcs and synopsis, which change every week (but not on a major level anymore!)

Dawn Tripp

So fascinating. And for me, this one point that is altogether different: I rarely write my first chapter until the novel is done, but if I don't have my ending easily and early on, I don't have a book. Learned that the hard way twice. Talk about tossing some pages (and years).

Caroline Leavitt

Oh I agree with you, Dawn. I also have to know my ending--it makes it easier when you are writing toward something. With Pictures of You, I had my first chapter, and then halfway through, I started writing my last chapter--it surprised me, but when I wrote it, it suddenly made the novel make sense. I wish that would always happen. Do you outline, Dawn? There is still, for me, so much discovery to be made. My outlines are really just the basic dramatic line--the question the novel is asking and possible ways to ask it. I know John Irving outlines every line. I sort of know vague directions and for me the pleasure is getting there and figuring out the best way. But also, I'm really pretty neurotic, and this method seems to ease my panic!

Dawn Tripp

Yes. But like you, I let the outline change if it needs to. I try to keep it fluid. Of course that can be challenging, because once you set a map in place, you have this sense of obligation to follow the map. Like I said before, sometimes I need a device, a character, a scene even, to find my way in, or to go deeper, or into some undercurrent, but then that scene or character or device that got me there, may or may not still be necessary. I find that an outline emerges at a certain point in the writing--in the longhand, notebook, illegible scrap of paper kind of writing--when the outline coming into focus, that is often the point at which I move my work from the page to the screen. Sometimes when I have a gap in my outline, I push to figure it out with my brain, and that is almost always a mistake. It's best when I can just leave it open. If I can just leave things open, often something better than what I could have done with my mind, comes forth. I know writing is supposedly 90 percent sweat work or whatever, but i-n-s-p-i-r-a-t-i-o-n I think is grossly underrated.

As is the work that takes place in the dark: that curious melding of all the little scraps and bits and elements that live the other side of daylight, yet that stuff is distilled, ultimately, through the filter of the mind/the intellect. Writing is particular as an art form. You can't entirely drop your thinking mind to create. I have read so many letters of visual artists that I love and they often will describe that sense of dropping their mind as they create, moving into color, form, moving into a space of no words, but as writers, words are our medium, and the intellect of course is a tool, and yet the best writing, that writing that is ALIVE, comes from an altogether different place.

Dawn Tripp

One more quick question from me, Caroline: have you ever had writer's block? I am guessing 'no.'

Caroline Leavitt

Hi Dawn, I used to have it all the time but then I discovered I had to plan ahead for it, by having other projects in the wings. And I do indeed have days when I can't write, when the stuff is junk, but I've taught myself that that usually means my subconscious is brewing and the next day something will happen. I always try to have another idea in the back of my mind because I tend to panic about what the fuck I'm supposed to do when I finish this particular novel?

Dawn Tripp

I always have to have another idea in the back of my mind for when I finish a book. And yes, of course, I have days of not writing, many, but I actually never call that 'writer's block,' so maybe it's a question of semantics. I tried once to finish a novel and have nothing afterward. I thought I was going to lose my mind. Everything felt so dead. I am not balanced unless I am living with one foot in another world. Which seems absurd. But it's how it is. :)

Caroline Leavitt

Dawn, this is so fascinating to me! Would you mind if I collect our responses and put it on my blog as Dawn Tripp and Caroline Leavitt talk about writing?

I know that feeling--of not having anything to write and feeling dead inside. I've always somehow known that writing is the one thing that has kept me sane and happy. I just load myself up on things I have to do, and I've found that since I started doing synopsis and arcs and etc., it's much easier to avoid that "oh my god" stage. But I do remember being pushed to write a novel by my then publisher who wanted something "Commercial." I never felt in the zone for the whole writing of it. It was a horrible experience and the book got horrifically bad reviews before it died. I've learned I have to somehow feel some very personal connection and obsession to the material.

Dawn Tripp

Obsession I think is the term. I have often said this at readings: there's that old adage: write what you know. I don't buy it. I believe you need to write what you have passion for, what you are inspired by, what you want most, dread most, what you love, fear, hope, crave, desire, what MOVES you. No matter how it moves you. You have to go there.

And yes, that would be super, you can absolutely collect our responses, for this and as well, if you like, the exchange with Joe, all of it fits together. I just moved to messages, because somehow asking about writer's block always feels a little taboo--it's private you know. I don't like to say that I don't get it. I feel like I will jinx myself. I am absurdly superstitious. I only write in one kind of notebook. I have to order them. I order 14 or so at time. (nuts isn't it? )

But this conversation is inspiring to me. I could care two little whits that I have completely disregarded my copyedits for this past hour. This is a complete joy.

Caroline Leavitt

Yes, obsession. I get nuts when my students at UCLA tell me they are trying to write for the market or for their readers. I say write the book YOU are desperate to read, write about the things that totally obsess YOU and then it will be universal. And ditto with you have to go there. It's funny, but I never, ever wanted to write about my childhood asthma--too full of grief and shame and emergency rooms, but it somehow found its way into my novel, and now that seems one of the things early readers/critics are responding to--and it ended being one of the questions I was most obsessed about.

I'm with you on superstition. I actually have lucky earrings and choosing a pair every morning (I have about 75 pairs now) is tight rope walk because I never know when the luck in them might change!

Dawn Tripp

Oh, that is so funny! I used to wear a necklace. Some girls I taught made it for me--it was lovely--their mom is an artist, and it is melted glass, but the girls designed it and I wore it a while, but then it didn't feel right, felt off, like it was making me off--which of course makes no sense but who cares--and my mom bought me an opal necklace, that I thought I loved, and I wore it one day and my son got a fever, and so I took it off and never wore it again, and for a while, I wore my son's turtle necklace, until he asked for it back. And now I wear nothing around my neck. And all my luck seems to be in a better place (but of course I should never say that out loud, or worse, on FB) xxx

Caroline Leavitt

That is hilarious! I'm the exact same way! I wear a necklace my son gave me when he was four (it's really pretty--a tiny little red (my lucky color) bead on a cheap chain) but earrings--well, they just turn on you, don't they!

I'm so suggestive--a perfect candidate for hypnosis and I admit I tend to believe anything incredible (spirits in the house? you bet! )

Dawn Tripp

The other piece about obsession: you can find things that obsess your mind. That your mind is desperate to explore, and move into. And you can write well. But the stuff that is best, is the stuff that comes from that elsewhere--call it heart, gut, soul--call it the muse that lives in the walls. Sometimes it is secret. Sometimes it is the thing you don't look at straight on, because looking at it straight on, hurts, or shame, or scalds, like looking into the sun, but even if it is secret, that doesn't mean it doesn't write its way in. And the best writing, I feel, from outside mind. I can look through my novels and find those pages. There is one character in my new book, which I hope will be reaching you soon--I know they are sending, sorry it has taken so long--and he was like wild horses, that's what he was. Came into me, out of me, from I don't know where. And he may not be the character a reader loves most. I dislike so much about him. But he is the one my heart broke for.

Now, one more little story before I go to pick up my boys. After I finished my second novel, SEASON OF OPEN WATER, I did what any good writergirl would do, and embarked upon my third. And I never had the ending. And I wrote for two years and four pages, and then read the book through one day, and said 'oh dear, this is a bit dead.' And I sent it to my editor, and she had a similar assessment. 'You can do a lot of things to a book, but it's quite hard to put in a heart.' Ouch. But she asked me what I wanted--did I want to try to go back and rework?--sure, I said, but by the way, there is this other thing, that I can't stop thinking about, this other idea, that keeps me awake; I'm a bit feverish, feel like I have the flu, it's just a little idea, but here, let me tell you, because I have to tell you, because I can't really stop thinking about it, because it seems to have set me slightly on fire."

And so I told her the idea, and I know it wasn't the idea she fell in love simply, it was how obsessed I already was without really even knowing I had already lost my heart to a world and a story I had barely begun to conjure. So that became the next book. And Winter Man (the four hundred pages/two years/slightly dead thing) is under the bed. (along with one other I will admit), and it was a fabulous title. The Winter Man. Which was the only part of leaving it that I still seem to regret. :)

Dawn Tripp

I knew that GAME OF SECRETS was a good book, even before it was done, because my heart broke for four years while I was writing it. The flu symptoms continued--not all the time, but intermittent--and that feeling of my heart breaking, over and over again. I don't read my work when it is finished. Do you? I am almost afraid to. (another crazy dawnism)

Caroline Leavitt

I LOVE all this, the obsession, the flu, your heart breaking. I can read my own work, but the funny thing is, I ONLY do it when I am stuck in present work, as if to prove to myself, you did this before, you did this before.

Oh my God, this is fun!

Dawn Tripp

Oh, that is so fascinating. When I am stuck in present work, I read poetry, mostly, not mine--mine is a closed room, only I go again. But other poetry--favorite poets--or I go back and read books that have moved me, really moved me. But it is for the same reason: to remind myself who I am.

Caroline Leavitt

You have no idea how excited I am by this whole conversation. I feel the neurons firing in my head!

Caroline Leavitt

Oh yes, here are some questions--I'll put it up next week. Love this idea.

Do you find that certain themes and ideas find you? (I find that my obsessions do lead me to ideas, but there are surprises, like my writing about the shame of childhood asthma)

How does a novel start for you? With a character, an image, or a question? (I usually have a question--how do we really know the ones we love? Why do we see only what we want to see? How do we forgive the unforgivable? I hold onto that question with an iron grip, because it seems to lead to plot for me and character development.)

Do you have problems reading other authors while you write? (I used to until I began reviewing, then I had to learn to compartmentalize very strictly, so I wouldn't be influenced by other writers' ideas.)

Who do you show your work to and at what stages? (I have about 3 writer friends I count on to tear things apart. They all have different sensibilities. My husband reads last--)

How do you handle the constant nagging insecurity about what you are doing? (I've learned to just notice it and let it go. I can't seem to cure myself of it and there are moments when I read someone else's book and feel sick with grief that I have not written it.)

Dawn Tripp

Themes and ideas do find me. Yes, of course. I don't set out to write a novel about a given theme. It's the story that compells me. The characters. And the world they inhabit. Their landscape--their natural world, but also their emotional, psychic, relational terrain. But over and over, ideas and themes, connections will surface in my writing that I was not consciously intending. I am sometimes not the person who makes this discovery. There was a critical discovery in GAME OF SECRETS that was made by one of my editors at Random House after I turned in an early draft. She said: 'why didn't you make this more explicit?" And of course, I had no idea that it was even surfacing there. Now, it's been developed. And it's an engine for the story. One of the secrets, though, I can't tell you what it is.....

Dawn Tripp

I love that you start with a question. That reminds me of Rilke, what exactly was it he wrote once: try to love the questions themselves.

Novels for me almost always start with a character--who takes up residence with me (and my family, to my husband's slight chagrin); and there is so much discovery, and it is wild, those early days of a novel--like falling in love, all discovery. So much stumbling around in the dark, writing into the unknown. There is often a scene, or rather, a fragment of a scene, but there is a feeling to it, a heat, a drive, it's driving me, and that is how I know it will work. I only write novels. I don't write short pieces. So it has to have a lot of heat, that first idea, that first glimpse, to be the kind of engine that I need. I also am aware that there are things I know about these characters... and there are things that are still dark for me. And then there is other stuff too, leaking out, --what I wrote about in our FB conversation--about how those scraps and bits what live the other side of daylight, get filtered through the mind, and gradually honed....

Dawn Tripp

It is difficult for me to read other author's while I write. But I will take conscious breaks throughout the year--two weeks or so--when I will still take handwritten notes on my novel, but I won't technically 'work.' And then I read. I read like I am starved. I have already set aside a week in January 2011 to read Pictures of You.

Dawn Tripp

I am extremely protective of my work when it's raw. Because that's what it is, and that's what I am around it: raw. I also have three readers who read my work when it is complete, before I send it to my agent, or editor. And I will usually work through a draft or two, before I send it off to NY. They each have their blind-spots, but I have been working with the same three for so long that I know what those blind-spots are. All three are able to take a given piece of my work on its own terms, a quality that, to me, is crucial. My husband is one of those three. He is an amazing reader. He will feel things in a book when it's in a rougher stage--a potential, an opening, a possibility. He'll say to me: what if she did this, instead of this? He has keen keen instincts, and a strong sense of story, and when things are good, they ring in him, and if they don't ring, I'm in trouble, or at least I need to take another look. I didn't know this when I met him. I just lucked out.

So you know, I went to pick up my boys and then swam in the river and I was thinking about your comment--about the neurons firing--and how curious it is, because I know this: although writing is so solitary a pursuit, there is this magical synergy that can take place when your mind meets a like mind and this kind of conversation can take place.

I had a thought and feel free to take it or disregard--why don't you pull together what you want, out of our various conversations today, pull it together into a conversation form, as you want to see it--feel free to pick and choose from what I wrote and then, if you don't mind, shoot it to me, so I can edit my thoughts, and add a line in here and there if it makes sense. When I said I write on little scraps of paper, I do. that's where most of the energy, most of the raw fire in my work takes place--on this slips of paper that can be so easily thrown away. That's what keeps me free.

Dawn Tripp

I realized this morning, as I was in the car, driving (yes, where so many of the best ideas slip through), that I had not responded to one of your questions-the last one--about 'how do you handle the nagging insecurity about what you are doing?'

This is how it is for me, Caroline: the insecurity does not dog me, most of the time. Writing, I believe, is an act of faith. Faith that you can dive into nothingness, led only by a glimmer or a spark, and out of nothingness, that blank page, create a thing of beauty or heartbreak, a world. Faith that there is something you have to say that is unique and is worth saying and if it has been said before--as most great things have--it will be rendered, by you, by your words, new. Faith that what you do, alone in your room, at your desk, at your keyboard or with your pen against the page, will move someone else. Will make them feel, even if only slightly, more alive, more awake to their own life. All of that said: Faith is nothing without doubt. And there are times--like I say, it doesn't dog me, but there are times-- when I ask myself if it matters--this thing I do. And it can be caving, that kind of doubt, but it can also push me to question: am I doing in my work, on the page, all that I can do? Am I taking a risk? Enough of a risk? Am I writing something original, meaningful? Or am I writing safe? Am I shying away from some dark I am meant to walk into, some dark a given story, or a given moment in a story, is intended for? And when I read another writer's work and love it and wish that I had written it, is that because I am not somehow letting myself be as free as I am meant to be? To be honest: those questions that come out of the doubt drive me, although it aches when you are in it. At the end of the day, Caroline, writing for me is not a choice. From the time I was five, it's what it is what I have done. It is how I make sense of the world.


Jessica Keener said...

Wow, you two. This is a gold mine of creative processing. It's wonderful that you have inspired each other as you do.

Kirsten Steen said...

'Wow' doesn't begin...Almost to tears reading this I think because it was exactly what I needed, right now, right here in this chair I'm sitting in, to understand more clearly, to make more sense of the process that I continue not trusting, to be able to keep going when I'm feeling stalled. Such inspiration you have created in here with your own creative, inspired, wildly static electricity between the two of you. Sincerely...thank you!

Carla S said...

Thanks to you both - I really enjoyed reading your insights. There is a "synchronicity" of sorts going on here - you both sharing what I most needed at the exact time I needed it! Blessings to you!

heather said...

I'm loving this dialog! if only i had a hard copy so i could comfortably curl up with the pages and read them at my leisure. i haven't completed reading the whole piece but will. brilliant that you decided to print the whole thing. any literary magazine worth its salt should pick this up. thank you both!

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