Monday, November 9, 2009

Big Think

Post subtitle: In which I turn into a squee-ing fangirl

I hereby give my undying thanks to Nathan Bransford for linking to the Big Think Interview with John Irving. Give it a listen; it's the most wonderful half hour ever.

Nathan linked to it because Irving expressed sympathy for young writers, but I'm linking to it because I think he says some amazing things about how he writes (and rewrites), about recurring themes in his work, and about his own literary inspirations. Also, because he's my favorite living author, and my admiration for him and his work is overwhelming... he just takes my breath away.

When was the last time you revisited the authors who make your heart skip? It has been way too long for me. I've been doing my how-to-get-published research and I love my copies of On Writing and Bird by Bird and I've been reading plenty of entertaining novels because (1) they're in my genre and I need to learn about what's happening in my area of publishing right now, or (2) a friend wrote it, or (3) it's a genre I don't write in, and I'm trying to expand my horizons...

But what about the novels that don't just entertain, but have actually moved me? The books that changed my life? When was the last time I reread those? It's so easy to get distracted.

John Irving moves me. And getting to hear him... scratch that. Getting to see him, talking directly to the camera as though it was a private writing class just for me, is making my heart flutter again.

He talks about how he writes the last line of his novels first, and then uses that as a kind of touchstone to help him guide the story towards its final destination. I write my last lines very early on in the process as well.

He talks about writing all his first drafts in longhand. I only write longhand intermittently, but in retrospect I'm starting to realize that many of my best scenes, the ones that hardly needed any editing at all, were written longhand in their first draft.

He talks about consciously taking the elements he admired from writers like Melville and trying to recreate certain aspects of that kind of storytelling in his own writing. Why the hell am I not doing exactly this with Irving's books?

I think I've been afraid. I think I haven't been daring enough. I think I was thinking too small. I am in awe of books with grand scope, and I have consciously thought "I could never do anything this good" after reading novels like Franzen's The Corrections, and Irving's The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.

But I haven't even tried.

Don't get me wrong, I still I love my first novel. And in many other ways, it is quite ambitious. Another book that I love, Commencement, was described on the back cover as "hitting the sweet spot between Serious Literature and chick lit" and that is what I have been saying I want to do...

But I think maybe I've been spending too much time trying to make peace with the "chick lit" label (it's not all about shopping porn and desperately seeking Mr. Right!), and not enough time making sure that my writing shines a little more brightly on the Serious Literature side of things.

I didn't set out to write chick lit, it just -- apparently -- is. From a strictly industry perspective, that's the category for a first-person female narrative with a confidential tone. It just is. And so I'll embrace it for that novel (at least until I find an agent who "gets me" and can help me figure out if that's the right label going forward). But actively planning to write another "chick lit" novel because of all that stuff I've been reading about the importance of brand for new authors... I think that's a mistake for me. If it is, it is. But genre -- any genre -- isn't something I should be aiming for. I need to find my next story in another way, and I'll have to trust that my author's voice will be enough of a brand.

I've been very scared of writing my second book because I wasn't sure if I'd find material that means as much to me as the material in the first novel does. And I have something that I've been idly working on, and I'd hoped NaNoWriMo would jumpstart it into something bigger, just like the first book. But I don't think the extra keyboard/typing time is going to do it. I think I need more thinking time. More outlining and handwriting with my fountain pen and legal pad.

I'm intimidated as hell. But I've got my new John Irving in hardcover, and I'm getting the rest of his books out of the back shelves and onto my desk front-and-center. I'm going to raise my aspirations. I may fail, and I hope you'll all stick with me if it turns out that I am a "small writer" and this experiment ends up going horribly wrong.

I have to try.

Because I'm pretty sure that's why I started writing in the first place.

John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut.

*brain explodes*

ETA: additional John Irving amazingness here.


  1. I know the feeling all too well. I wanted to hold on to my last story because I loved it so much and wasn't sure I'd love the next as much. I'm thankful for this editing process because it gives me more time--and closure to move on.

    On Friday I'm going to feature my favorite author. His books move me in a way that no others do. I completely understand how you feel about John Irving.

  2. Great post, Carrie! Hopefully I might find the time to check out that interview. I talked about time in today's post. I still need to organize my time better, but life keeps happening and sometimes I have to get out of my writing office to do other life things.

    I kind of like the idea about writing last lines and maybe I should try that. Right now I've been doing beginning and middle things in my novel and then filling everything else in. If I had a clearer destination point then I might see where everything else was going more easily.

    So keep grinding away. Sounds like you've got the fire inside of you. And you're keeping it under control and not letting it just turn into a wildfire or a crash and burn scenario.

  3. Nice post Carrie. I think a revisit to the authors who inspire is incredibly valuable. I like your thoughts on genre and not being pigeon holed into one, either.

    However, it's a good thing to recognize your talents, too. I love mystery but I can't write it. I don't think that way (and the punch line in mysteries always fool me). What I write naturally tends to come out as women's fiction/chick lit. As we know very well, some may not credit us for that, but it's what I love to write and what fits with me.

  4. Wow, I'm going to have to check out his interview. You know for a while I believed he was dead? I live in a cave, what can I say?

  5. It always saddens me a little when great authors write one incredible book and never follow up with you MUST write that second one!

  6. Wonderful post. I must admit, most of what I read are 'deep and meaningful' type books. I will read anything, but the ones I come back to changed the landscape of my life in some way. Thanks for sharing about the author that moved you. It is amazing to find someone like that.

  7. Amazing post Carrie! Good for you digging deep. Striving to become what you love is what every writer should do. That is the only way you can become it.

    I'm praying that you find the momentum with your second MS that will catch like fire.

  8. I'm listening to this interview right this moment.. 'bout half way thru. it's great. really great.

  9. I'm going to have to listen to this interview. I love discovering writers who move writers that I know. I'll be honest; I've never read Mr. Irving's work but I am familiar with the book titles. Thank you for the marvelous introduction! Good luck with your next book. Just listen to what moves you, what your soul is compelling you to write. It sounds hokey, but that's the only way to write. Even if you're scared to death, put pen to paper and see what happens. You may astound yourself :)


  10. Great post, Carrie! I think studying authors we want to emulate is key. I write for children. (I only have one credit to my name, so far.) I started taking notes as I read. It makes me think harder and hopefully improves my writing.

  11. Hi, Carrie, my first time here. I like how you went back to your inspiration(s) to jumpstart your spirit and mind into writing what you desire to write.