Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A 1/2 Dozen with Lisa Borders

Lisa Borders joins us to talk about her love/hate relationship with the page, the pros of dating a graphic designer, binge writing (and TV-watching), as well as offering us a brilliant take-down on why a high-dose of reading experimental writers can hurt young writers, which is really a beautifully articulate defense of writing with heart. 

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

One of my favorite short stories is Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer,” and your question brings to mind this bit from the story: “Occasionally a date with a face blank as a sheet of paper asks you whether writers often become discouraged. Say that sometimes they do and sometimes they do. Say it’s a lot like having polio.”

It’s always been a love/hate thing for me, as it is for many writers I know. I don’t love the act of writing per se; sometimes it’s exhilarating, sometimes it’s painful and frustrating. But I always feel better after I’ve written. It’s probably the way I would feel about running, if I actually did that.
I think I enjoyed writing the most when I was really young and only writing for myself, not revising, not even really knowing how to revise, just trying to get my thoughts on the page. I tried to capture this feeling in my novel, The Fifty-First State, with my teenage character Josh. There’s such excitement and poignancy in that early stage of a writer’s life. I don’t regret developing as a writer, learning craft, aiming for an audience and taking the reader into account; but it’s a very different writing experience from that naïve early work.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.
I was in grad school for creative writing from 1988 to 1990, in a program that heavily favored experimental works from the 60s and 70s. We were fed a diet of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon; my all-time favorite novel back then, The Great Gatsby, was dismissed by one of my professors as “sentimental.”

I don’t mean that now, so many years out of my writing program, I believe there’s no value in the work of the writers I named, or that experiments in form can’t end in work that moves me. But I deeply loathed much of what I was forced to read at the time, and I realize now that it boiled down to four issues.

1.    A steady diet of experimental fiction encouraged some really bad writing in graduate workshops, as student writers felt they could just throw any damn thing down on the page and use, as their defense, “It’s experimental.”
2.    A lot of the experimental fiction we were reading didn’t seem to take into account the experience of the reader. The stuff I hated the most seemed designed almost exclusively to delight the writer, to prove how smart/imaginative/difficult to comprehend he could be (and I say “he” because the author was almost always a “he.”) There was often little character development, no discernible desire or yearning or plot arc. These stories had little capacity to transport this reader.
3.    So much of what we were reading had no heart. It was all intellect, no emotion. I’d been a biology major who shifted gears from science to creative writing specifically because I wanted to engage emotion as well as intellect. Sheesh, I thought – if I want cold abstractions, I could just go back to the lab.
4.    Much of what we were assigned to read was deeply sexist, in that special way that only experimental writing done by white men in the 60s and 70s can be.

My regard for story – for a narrative that, while hopefully taking some risks, could also provide a satisfying ride for the reader – was probably forged in opposition to those plotless works I was forced to read in graduate school. But I’d like to add that a few writers really changed my thinking in this regard. Nabokov’s Pale Fire was part of our grad school reading list, and it was experimental in the very best way – it had a story, and heart, but really played with form, and turned me into a lifelong Nabokov fan. Likewise, the later works of David Foster Wallace showed me that innovation in form doesn’t have to be at the expense of character.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

In a word: no. I tend to be a binge writer. When I’m still mulling an idea or starting to write something, I do it haltingly, and other aspects of my life can easily intrude. But when the work really takes hold – with novels, for me, it’s usually when I get past the 50-page mark – then I’m so obsessed that I tend to let everything else take a back seat: jobs, bills, relationships. I don’t recommend this approach, but sadly, I can’t seem to get myself to do it any other way.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

My boyfriend is a graphic designer and creative director of a small advertising agency. Writers, forget those fantasies of dating another author who line edits your work; I'm here to tell you, you want the guy or gal who can design your website and promotional materials. It's not a great deal for said partner; I often joke that I'm the worst client he's ever had, because I'm constantly asking him to change or tweak things he's designed for me, sometimes on short notice, and he's not even getting paid.

In addition to graphic design and promotion skills, emotional stability is a must-have trait a writer should look for in a partner. I'm not suggesting we writers are nuts or anything, but let's face it: we tend to be high-anxiety, high-strung folk. If you can find someone who talks you down from freaking out about the font that magazine used when it published your story online, or who doesn't flee in terror when you have an inexplicable emotional meltdown after an incredibly successful book event, well, you've struck gold. I can neither confirm nor deny whether any of the two previous scenarios has happened in my life, but I can say this: my boyfriend is way more even-tempered than I am.

What's your worst writerly habit?

I really love watching TV – both highbrow and lowbrow stuff. I have been known to watch a Frontline documentary and an installment of Teen Mom 2 in the same night, and I’ve seen certain episodes of Gilmore Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer so often that I can pretty much just play them in my head. There’s certainly much for a novelist to learn from the writing of a show like The Sopranos or House of Cards, but it’s pretty hard for me to justify the fact that I have watched episodes of Friends repeatedly.

All of this TV watching used to make me feel like an intellectual fraud until I read that David Foster Wallace had the same problem. There was something he said that really resonated with me, about finding it very soothing to watch a narrative where a problem gets solved in a half-hour. But that may all simply be justification for the fact that I’m sometimes intellectually lazy.

Your top writing tip.

Don’t trust anyone who tells you to “never” do something. Yes, you need to learn the rules, but often the best writing comes from a writer’s ability to know when to break certain rules (see, I really did learn a thing or two from those experimental writers I was forced to read). When I hear wholesale admonitions like “never use exclamation points” or “never use adverbs,” I feel immediately suspicious. Those of us who teach writing understand why these rules are widely touted – beginning writers often use adverbs in a way that flattens the story, or they go crazy with the exclamation points in an attempt to manufacture emotion – but still, it must be taken on a case-by-case basis. It’s appropriate to tell writers that adverbs are often overused to fortify weak verbs, or that an explosion of exclamation points can trivialize the work, but when it comes to writing, I’d never say never.

Lisa Borders’ second novel, The Fifty-First State, was published by Engine Books in October, 2013, and was selected by New Jersey Monthly magazine for its Holiday Reading List in December. Her first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was chosen by Pat Conroy as the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award, and received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards.  Lisa's short stories have appeared in Kalliope,Washington SquareBlack Warrior ReviewPainted Bride QuarterlyNewport Review and other journals. Her essay "Enchanted Night" was published in Don't You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes. She has received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Somerville Arts Council and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and fellowships at the Millay Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hedgebrook and the Blue Mountain Center. Lisa lives in the Boston area and teaches at Grub Street.