There is an interview called “Inside the Writing Life” in my high school alumni magazine. A prominent English instructor is interviewing Joan Wickersham who graduated nearly two decades after me. Ms Wickersham has been writing most of the time since graduation; her work includes her memoir and 2008 National Book Award finalist, The Suicide Index; a book of short fiction, The News from Spain; and The Paper Anniversary, a novel. She writes a regular op-ed column for The Boston Globe; her writing has been published in prominent literary journals; and she has read her work on National Public Radio.
Two questions and answers in this interview caught my eye.
Q: (David Weber) “You’ve sustained your output over many years. Does the problem of writer’s block seem remote to you, or have you struggled at times to give your work the priority required?”
Wickersham: “There’s a very funny little moment in a movie I once saw, where a bored, impatient woman is trying to figure out where a piece fits in a jigsaw puzzle and she finally just puts in somewhere and smacks it in with her fist. Writer’s block is a sign that what I’m doing isn’t working, and I can’t fix it by trying to ram something into a place where it doesn’t belong. It can take months to figure out that what I thought was a piece of the sky is actually a piece of the ocean, or that its a part of a different puzzle altogether. I hate writer’s block, but I’m always grateful to it in hindsight. It usually means that what I’ve been writing is somehow false, which is just as bad in fiction as nonfiction. Writer’s block slows me down and makes me throw out pages and drafts – after I’d been working on the book about my father’s suicide for nine years, I threw out a 400 page manuscript and started over – but getting stuck can be an important investment in finding the right way to tell a story.”
I like this way of thinking about writer’s block: it’s not you that are the problem; it’s the story. Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I feel cornered. I’ll look back over what I’ve written, and ask myself ‘what’s not working?’ Other times, particularly when I’m lying awake at night, I’ll start feeling uneasy about the direction of a particular novel. That feeling generally leads to surgery. When I was writing Sable Shadow & The Presence, I threw out and re-wrote whole chapters of the book, which has gone on to win eight awards.
Q: “Does a fully realized piece require its own new form, not just descriptive skill and the authority of honesty?”
Wickersham: “A lot of what I’m doing when I write is trying to figure out the inherent rules of a particular piece – the form or structure which will be most true to the story. My husband, Jay, is trained as an architect. A long time ago, when I was struggling to write about my father’s suicide, he told me that the students at the École des Beaux-Arts begin each design with a parti – an organizing principle. I found this idea of the parti exciting and liberating. I’d been wresting for years with how to organize the messy and painful story of my father’s death, and part of the problem was that the story defied any attempt at a conventional linear narrative. When I stumbled in the parti of organizing the book as an index, suddenly I had this cool, numb structure that simultaneously imposed order and ridiculed the idea of imposing order on an inherently chaotic experience”.
I never heard of the term parti before, but it makes sense. The novel I’m currently working on has an unusual organizing principle: two increasingly hostile narrators, whose identity is obscure at first, tell alternating chapters about three, very different, young protagonists over whom they have influence, but no control. The setting is present day East Africa.