Alice Mattison’s new book has disabused me of the notion that I’m a special writerly snowflake.
Other aspiring writers—wannabe writers—mostly stay-at-home mom/writers—okay, writers, are self-conscious about the title. Many more than I feel too scared to confess to their friends or colleagues how much time they spend working on something for which they receive no money.
But most unlikely of all: Mattison also had her own, imaginary third-person omniscient narrator to describe the banality of her life as a child! Who knew? Actually, novelist and MFA writing instructor Alice Mattison knew. And she’s sharing her experiences as a writer and a teacher of writing in her new book The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control–and Live to Tell the Tale.
Written as part memoir/ part good advice from an understanding MFA professor, The Kite and the String begins with Mattison’s own journey as a writer and proceeds to advise others on how they can improve their own writing. She agreed to join Book Club Babble for a deeper dive into her latest work.
Mary Sullivan: Alice, reading your book made me feel like you had a portal into my life! It was cathartic to read that you were also a young mother who struggled to find time away from your baby to work on your writing. It’s easy to feel guilty (and fraudulent) plugging away while earning no money. But in your book, you encourage people to think of themselves as writers, even if they can only devote a few hours a week to the task. Why did you start your book talking about this issue? Why was it important to address?
Alice Mattison: Many people I’ve met (and I too, when I began writing) feel—as you say—guilty and fraudulent because they don’t publish or don’t publish much, or because they don’t have much time for writing. They can’t help but start thinking that surely if they were any good at it, they would somehow write all the time, protected from interruption. They’d instinctively know how to do it, and they’d make money at it. I’ve been the woman chasing the baby in the playground while wondering if she’ll ever make it as a writer, and the teacher marking stacks of papers, and I have enough imagination to recognize writers in people I see who at the moment are taking somebody’s blood pressure, updating the boss’s calendar, or designing somebody’s website. The notion that such people probably can’t be writers arises, I think, from unexamined assumptions about who writers are, what they look like, how they spend their time—which often turns out to be the assumption that writers will come from families with enough money to support them while they get started, or with helpful connections. And I think it’s always been a little easier for men—or at least a certain kind of man. When I was young, bios of new writers might say they’d once been lumberjacks or ranch hands. They never said the new writer had been a third grade teacher. It’s hard enough to find time for writing while taking care of children and holding down a job—let’s get over the assumption that the very life we live proves we can’t really do it.
MS: Much of the book confronts common problems first-time novelists face. The mistakes that resonated with me most were: writing an entire novel without a plot (guilty!), hating for bad things to happen to beloved protagonists (they’re such good people!), and being afraid to make stuff up. I learned these lessons the hard way by spending years writing unpublishable manuscripts. Why do you think so many of your students also share these issues? Why, as readers, are we unable to see that these fundamental elements are, in fact, in the novels we love?
AM: I know! Why is this so hard? I wrote stories for years in which nothing happened—oh, maybe the agonized main character suddenly became a tiny, tiny bit less agonized when she realized that a duck swimming around was comparable, in some subtle way, to her difficult mother—but trust me, nothing happened. I don’t know why not, except for the obvious: our characters are real people to us (or they are based on actual people we know, though with different color hair). If the sweet uncle in the story has aggressive cancer or a criminal past, that will be upsetting to write about! And what if the story comes out in The New Yorker and Uncle Howard recognizes himself, despite the change in hair color? We decide it will be better just to give him an ingrown toenail.
Making significant action happen in stories may also be hard because writing fiction—the act of writing about people we imagine—is pleasurable, something like daydreaming. It’s soothing to write a description of someone drinking coffee and worrying, or getting off a bus, vaguely fearing trouble. Writers are imaginative people, and in our imaginations our children get hurt or lost, our lovers get terrible diseases—and the act of imagining is all the excitement many of us need. Then, writing a story, we reproduce our experience, and make a character in a story also imagine that a child will be lost, or a lover will get sick. We’ve forgotten that within the fantasy, the trouble is real. Good stories aren’t about what happens in somebody’s mind, but about what happens. There are a few exceptions, of course, but it’s unwise to start with the exceptions—let’s learn to write a basic good story first. Say you’re a travel writer, and one day you find yourself daydreaming about Yellowstone Park. Your travel essay won’t be about a daydream, it will be about Yellowstone Park.
MS: If writers are serious about writing, most want to be published. You caution the reader to temper her expectations: fame and fortune could come, but it isn’t likely. That said, what can writers do to bolster their chances for success (i.e., a publishing contract)? You recommend revisions and critique partners, but what about the other mysteries of publishing? How does a writer know if maybe their topic is off-putting or if another subjective element of the text is inhibiting? How can writers overcome being told no one knows what “shelf” to put a book on?
AM: This is hard. We write the book we want to write, which is probably the only book we can write just then. It’s painful to be told that though it’s a good book, in some mysterious way it’s not precisely the right sort of good book.
I think it’s futile to try and imagine the market in advance, and most of what we’re told is wrong, anyway—warnings like “Nobody is buying books about hunting dogs” or “There are already too many books out there about tap dancing.” An editor seeing your book may want it because the topic is new to her—or because she saw two books like it yesterday, and wants to benefit from the trend. Or because yours is better than the others. Write the book you want to write.
When it comes time to publish, it’s a mistake to think of mainstream publishing as the only publishing that will make us happy. For some books, a small press or university press is preferable. The remark you quote about not knowing which shelf to put the book on may mean something like, “Part of this book is a philosophical meditation and part of it is fiction. We wouldn’t know how to market it.” Somewhere there’s a small press looking for books that span genres. Go to the next AWP conference and talk to the people at the tables in the book fair until you find someone who is looking for books like yours.
But often I think the comment about the shelf is just a polite way of saying your book needs one more draft. It’s painful to prolong conversations in this situation, but if you can bear it, see if you can get the person who has rejected your book to explain a little about what category she thinks it’s in (women’s fiction? chick lit? literary fiction?) and why it doesn’t quite make it in that category. Maybe you wouldn’t be compromising the integrity of the book if you changed it. (Or maybe you would be—you’ll have to decide.)
However, what the editor interprets—or politely pretends to interpret—as an effort to span categories may just be you fumbling around, doing the best you can. Twice I’ve read manuscripts by former students who had received many respectful rejections—by editors in one case, agents in the other—saying this excellent book just wasn’t quite right for them. When I read the manuscripts it was clear that they just needed a little more work. In one case the beginning pages lacked forward momentum, which the editors apparently regarded as an attempt to be terribly literary. In the other, the tone was too insistent, which apparently seemed to the agents like something the author wouldn’t compromise on. After one more revision, both books were published. The trick is to find someone who’ll tell you what’s wrong, if the editors or agents won’t. So I guess I think the answer is still revision—and finding the right people to read the manuscript. Which, I know, isn’t simple.
MS: As I said already, one of your most resonant points for me was when you encouraged writers to go ahead and write fiction. It does sound obvious, but I’ve also felt intimidated to write about something or someone I didn’t know from an intimate perspective. There’s a push for diverse books, yet I worry about “speaking” for someone else’s perspective and would hate to get it wrong. What can a writer do to accurately portray a gender or ethnic group or age they don’t embody?
AM: I think we have to take some risks, and push ourselves to write what makes us uncomfortable—and then, if we’ve written something that we might get wrong, ask for help from someone who knows. We need to try to imagine being other people, but be open to criticism. But I don’t say we should undertake to write about what it’s like to be a member of a category of people we don’t belong to, to speak for someone else, for a whole category of person. The nature of fiction is that we will usually be writing about particular people we’re not. They will have wide or narrow feet, a taste for beets or a dislike of beets—and also ethnicity, sexual orientation, perhaps a disability. We’ll avoid trouble if we write about anybody, but avoid stereotypical subject matter. The problem is when we assume that groups we don’t belong to exist only to have clichéd experiences—that black people don’t have wide feet or narrow feet, they just spend all their time being discriminated against, that people with disabilities don’t like or dislike beets, they spend all their time trying to do what they can’t do. Let’s see your diverse character buying a hat. Losing a job. Running for congress. Falling in love.
MS: You say in your acknowledgments section that your agent urged you to write The Kite and the String. Why did you agree to do it? What about your perspective made you right for this project?
AM: I was flattered and grateful for my agent’s suggestion, but more than that, this was one of those suggestions that springs to life in the mind. I had lectured a number of times in the Bennington MFA program, where I teach, and had published some of those lectures, and I too had thought there might be a book in them—but I had simply imagined a pile of lectures. My agent was suggesting something I’d never thought of—a book with greater appeal, about what it’s like to be a writer. My old lectures all eventually made it in some form into The Kite and the String, but they’re fragmented and re-imagined, because the thoughts that now came to me took me further. Most of what’s in The Kite and the String is new.
I’d been observing and counseling students for years—especially but not always women—about taking their work and themselves seriously, about persisting in the face of disappointment. And to my delight, when they stopped selling themselves short, they often turned out to have unforeseen strengths. I believed that I happened to be blessed with extremely able students, but when I began to think about this book, I realized that what I had to say might be useful to many writers.
MS: Here at Book Club Babble we specialize in author interviews and book reviews, but we “Babblers” are all writers ourselves—as are many of our readers. What piece of advice can you offer serious writers who have yet to take that last step toward publication? Or put another way: what would you tell your unpublished self about what you know now?
AM: I read that question and started thinking way back into the past, taking a look at my unpublished self. I said to her, “Get over yourself! Stop suffering! You won’t be any good until you can relax a little!” She said, “You have no idea what it’s like to be me.” I pointed out that writing is never secure, never safe—getting published doesn’t make it easier. To which she said, “I’ll decide that for myself!”
Which made me remember a little of what it was like to be her: shy, inhibited, too worried, too cautious—but unable to change. If I could have relaxed and been bolder, good writing might have come out of me sooner. Maybe you’ll figure out how to write what someone will want to read more easily. Or you won’t. Or you’ll be slowed by a job, or kids, or sick family members, or a disability, or some other interruption.
Better accept the pace of your own life and just keep trying. It seems to me that the students I’ve taught who publish are mostly the ones who have revised their work and tried again and again, submitted it again and again, despite ridiculous numbers of rejections. I regularly hear about books coming out ten to fifteen years after they were begun.
One of my father’s favorite expressions was “What are you knocking your brains out for?” Some people will decide, quite reasonably, that they’d rather stop knocking their brains out. Some won’t.
You can find The Kite and the String at your local book retailer. Ms. Mattison is also the author of When We Argued All Night and Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn (among others!). Alice is found online at www.alicemattison.com