Friday, January 21, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Laurel Snyder

Here is a 1/2 Dozen with
Laurel Snyder -- a poet, essayist, anthology editor, novelist for young readers and picture book author who explains why ...

"...writing is hard. Inspiration only changes the way in which it's hard..."


"If you feel like you've exhausted faith as a subject, you aren't actually thinking about faith."

And here goes:

1. I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I actually feel like I went from believing in inspiration, as a melodramatic teenage poet, to NOT believing in it at all, as I studied, got serious, began to learn craft. It was like I needed to believe that hard work and reading would pay off on their own, if I was going to bother doing the work. But now I feel like I'm in a place where I believe in the limits (and the magic) of both hard work and inspiration.

My next book, Bigger than a Breadbox, and my last book, Penny Dreadful, are opposites with regard to inspiration. Penny was not "inspired" so much as I sculpted an idea. I whittled it. The book went through four serious drafts, changed radically, and ended up nothing like I initially imagined it. I had no moment of "inspiration" to cling to, and so I was able to be more malleable. I was more able to "get out of the way" of the book that wanted to be written. I changed the tone, the plot, the main character, the ending. I changed everything.

Breadbox is the very opposite. I was sitting in a car, on my way to Iowa (my husband was driving) and I said to him, "When something appears magically, where does it come from? What if a kid had a magical box that would give them whatever they wanted, but then they figured out they were stealing?" And that was that. I pegged that whole idea of loss/theft to my own memories of my parents' divorce, and the book sort of wrote itself. This is not to say I didn't slave and revise and pull my hair out over it. Emotionally it was the most brutal book I've ever written. It nearly killed me. But part of that was because of the inspiration. I was trying to write a book that would match the initial thought, the moment of lightning-strike. Does that make sense?

Either way, writing is hard. Inspiration only changes the way in which it's hard.

2. Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I love to write once I'm at it. I hate to sit down and start. I'm not sure what that says about me. I will spend hours noodling online to avoid opening the word document, but once I'm inside a poem or a story, I don't want to leave it. One day, when I was revising Breadbox, I stayed in bed for 18 hours. I just never got up that day. My kids kept coming in, and I kept shooing them away, and my husband kept asking if I was going to take a shower, and then suddenly it was 2 in the morning, and my breakfast coffee was cold on my bedside table, and I was starving.

3. What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner?

Ha! I think finding love you can live with is just hard for most people, and staying in love is work too. I think that a writer would do well to look for someone with a good insurance plan and job stability. I got lucky-- I married a musician, but then then he decided to go get an MBA and a straight job. Not sure how to advise people in matters of the heart.

4. What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

Well, my main job is being a mom. Before that my main job in life was being a waitress. If nothing else, both gigs have set ridiculously low standards for me-- in terms of compensation and appreciation. I joke about this a lot, but really, I think they've been helpful that way. I talk to some writers, and they can't understand why I'd slave at a book for years without any promise of reward. But my waitress-brain still thinks in terms of hourly wages, and my mom brain-- well, my mom brain doesn't think like that at all. My mom-brain just thinks, "I just need to get through the work in front of me, because I have to believe that what I'm doing has value, no matter how hard or frustrating or covered in vomit it might be."

In the end, neither of those jobs is directly related to me being a writer, but both have made me a better writer, a more patient, tolerant, appreciative writer.

5. Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

Yes. I've had several, but most important of all was Dr. Blankenberg, my high school writing teacher. He's a poet in Baltimore, and in the years when he was my teacher he was pretty depressed. He taught me to write, and to read, and to take myself seriously as a poet (which is not something most 15 year old writers get at all). But also he taught me something a lot of people never learn-- which is that if you expect your work to make you a happy person, and you judge whether you should be doing that work based on how happy you are, you will eventually stop doing whatever it is. By being honest about being depressed (while still functional, and productive, and a writer) he taught me that people aren't always happy, and that's okay. He taught me that you can write through the unhappiness, use the frustration or depression or sadness or boredom or fear, or whatever it is. Not because it's dramatic and poetic to be unhappy, but because it's a human thing to be unhappy, and that in the end-- writers are human. How many kids get a role model for functional unhappiness?

6. Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

Faith plays a big part in my writing. To begin with, I tend to write about it as a subject (mostly in my work for adults, but also in some of my picture books).

But also because I think, for me, magic is faith and faith is magic. On some level, I have never stopped believing in unicorns and fairies and witches and wishes and parents who remarry after a divorce and mean girls who turn into nice girls and endless love that finds you when you least expect it. Basically I believe in absolute potential. I don't know that any of these things truly exist, but I don't think we can disprove that they do, ever. So for me a unicorn or a handsome sensitive guy who sweeps a girl off her feet is akin to God. The process of believing it might still be out there, and the process of imagining that story-- that's religion. Faith is believing the story you tell yourself (and that you tell others), as well as believing the story someone tells you. I could go on about this forever, which is why I write religion essays. It's the topic that never gets fully unpacked. If you feel like you've exhausted faith as a subject, you aren't actually thinking about faith.

Laurel Snyder is the author of three novels for children, Penny Dreadful, Any Which Wall and Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess (Random House) and two picture books, Inside the Slidy Diner and Baxter the Kosher Pig. (Tricycle).

In addition to her books for children, Laurel has written two books of poems, Daphne & Jim: a choose-your-own-adventure biography in verse (Burnside Review Press, 2005) and The Myth of the Simple Machines (No Tell Books, 2007). She also edited an anthology of nonfiction, Half/Life: Jew-ish tales from Interfaith Homes (Soft Skull Press, 2006) A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Michener-Engle Fellow, Laurel has published work in the Utne Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Revealer, Salon, The Iowa Review, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere. She is an occasional commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, but most of all, she is a mom.