We Wanted to Be Writers
Eric Olsen visits my blog this week to talk about his new book We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which he wrote with co-author, Glenn Schaeffer. Olsen and Schaeffer attended the famed workshop in the 1970s and recently interviewed their friends and classmates from the workshop.Hi Eric. Thanks for being here. Let’s get this one out of the way: Where do you get your ideas? And did being in the Iowa Workshop make those ideas come faster and easier or not? Also, where did the idea for THIS book come from?
This is the eternal question, the fundamental mystery, I suppose. Lots of the writers in We Wanted to be Writers talk about how they make themselves available to an idea and work in such a way as to not scare off a good idea should one come along.
Ideas have three basic sources I suppose: Your own experiences; the experiences of others; and stuff you make up. A lot of the best writers I know draw from all sources, whatever’s available. They also tend to do a lot of research.
As for the idea for the book, about four years ago Glenn was starting a rewrite of his MFA thesis, the first 60 pages of a novel called Holy Shaker, which he’d decided, finally, to finish. He asked me to edit it for him. We were sitting in his place in Las Vegas one afternoon going over some pages and we started thinking: here we are, 30 years later, still at it. What the hell is wrong with us? What is it about writing that keeps pulling us back? Next thing we knew, we were calling old chums from Iowa and asking them that same question. Everything else seemed to follow from that first question and pretty soon we had the start of a book.
In general, what did the writers you interview see as the advantages/disadvantages of a Writing Program like Iowa?
There’s a huge advantage to spending two years in a community of writers. Writers write alone, but they need a community to truly thrive creatively. As Sandra Cisneros put it, it’s like giving yourself a haircut. At some point, you need someone to help you with the back, so people don’t go: “Damn, where’d you get that bad haircut?”
Whose idea was the “Books by the Bed” segment? What were the biggest surprises from that segment?
“Books by the Bed” was my idea. Like most writers, I suspect, I’m always curious to know what others are reading. I deliberately asked about books by the bed, as I figured that one’s late-night reading might be somewhat different than what one has on display on the shelves elsewhere. More intimate, maybe….
The biggest surprise was how many foreign authors I’d never heard of these people were reading. Experimental stuff, with single sentences that go on for pages. This was bed-time reading, you understand. Incredible. I go for murder mysteries late at night.
What was the best part of the program for you? The biggest disappointment?
I think Glenn and I agree that, getting back to question #2 above, the best part was being in a community of writers. Each of us found a small circle of other writers who would read our work and critique it honestly and constructively, just as we’d read and critique theirs. This was hugely important to our development as young writers.
The biggest disappointment? I suppose that some of the big-shot famous writers they brought in were jerks. When you’re young, you don’t realize that geniuses can be complete assholes who are there for the buck, not to teach. That said, most of the writers who came to teach were generous and truly interested in helping young writers. John Irving, Lenny Michaels, and Anthony Burgess come to mind, in particular.
Did you contact anyone who refused to be in your book? What reason did they give for declining the invitation?
A couple poets. One said she was just too busy, what with being a poet and all. Another simply didn’t respond. I assume she was too busy being a poet, too. Otherwise, everyone else was quite generous with their time.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
I love giving advice. I could go on for a couple hundred pages answering this one. But let me offer two bits of advice that have always resonated with me. One, read a lot and read widely. When you look at the careers of very good, very prolific writers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Jane Smiley and TC Boyle, reading is a huge part of what they do. Two, put in the time at your desk day after day after day; stay at your desk and don’t do e-mail until the day’s work is done. This is crucial. As Michelle Huneven put it in our book, a writer must “privilege” writing. “One’s creative life has to be put in the forefront, ahead of social life, domestic life (grocery shopping, housekeeping, taking the dog to get her shots).”
Who is your celebrity crush? (Justification optional)
Celebrity crush as in writer I really like? Assuming any writer can be a “celebrity” in our culture these days. I think if there’s any novelist I wish I could write like, it’s Anthony Burgess. And I wish I could write essays with Dave Hickey’s wit, concision, and elegance.
I noticed a lot of the interviewees saying things like “In my first marriage. . .” Is that just the state of things or is there something about being a writer that is inherently difficult on relationships? On the other hand—and maybe this didn’t come up in the interviews—quite a few of us have been in marriages of 20, 30, even 40 years. I would be willing to bet that among the group I interviewed, the incidence of failed relationships is no different from that among the general population. I’m not sure writers are any worse in relationships than anyone else; they are, after all, good communicators. That has to help.
I discovered Raymond Carver on my own, just browsing in the bookstore and he became one of my literary heroes. Did either of you know him and what can you tell me about him and what might he have said in your book?
Carver had left Iowa by the time Glenn and I arrived in 1975. He did come back while we were there to give a reading or two, a master class. Others in the book who did know him and they all found him to be a generous, gentle teacher. Doug Unger, who’s in the book, was Carver’s brother-in-law, knew him well, and tells some great stories about his tenure at Iowa. And Carver was a wonderful writer. Minimalism was hot at the time, and I was trying to be a minimalist, so I read Carver and re-read him and tried to learn from him that way.
My wife, who’d been in the workshop the two years before me, did have Carver as a teacher. She loved him.
How did the book trailer come about?
The Workshop celebrated its 75th anniversary in June. We knew a lot of the folks we interviewed would be in town for the festivities. So we organized a little pre-book-launch soiree in Iowa City with plenty of booze and food, just like the old days. We hired a local videographer to set up in a side room and we just snatched folks who are in the book to be taped. A few got away, but we ended up with about three hours of raw footage, which we edited down to about three minutes.
You focus on the Iowa program in the 70s. How do you suspect it’s changed, if at all? Based on my own observations, what I know about how the workshop operates today, I don’t think the basic “workshop method” has changed much if at all. Young writers today have the same drives and fears and concerns as we did. And the basic “creative process” hasn’t changed at all, hard-wired as it seems to be into the human brain. A good workshop accommodates this process, nurtures it, supports it.
But one change I’ve noticed is cultural, or political. When we were there, the “writing culture” was still dominated by the macho Hemingway/Mailer school, or so it seemed. This culture was already going through some profound changes at the time, but we were guys and wannabe members of the macho Hemingway school, so Glenn and I were both oblivious to that sort of thing. Only later, as I worked on this book and interviewed lots of women who’d been there with us, did I realize what was really going on back then. And my wife has had plenty to say on the topic. These days, there are many more women in the workshop and the whole macho Hemingway school has given way to more diverse cultural models, I suppose. But, guys being guys, I’m sure the women there today still have to put up with a lot of macho crap.
How did the interviews work? E-mails back and forth like this one or some other format?
I did some interviews in person, and taped them with an audio recorder. Others I did by phone, and others by e-mail. In most cases, it was a combination of phone, e-mail and in-person, as I’d do several rounds of follow-ups. I worked however the person preferred.
What are you reading now?
I’m always reading several books at any given time. Right now, I’m reading Dark Star by Alan Furst (a novel set in Europe in the ’30s, the run-up to WWII); Infinite Dreams by Joe Haldeman (a collection of his early short stories); The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowan (about the economic collapse); and The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony (about the people of the Eurasian steppes in the bronze age, research for a novel). Not sure what Glenn’s reading at the moment; he’s been in New Zealand the past couple weeks. Figure he’ll manage to get the WSJ and NY Times down there one way or another. I’m sure he lugged a half-dozen books with him.
In terms of writing, what are you working on now?
As with my reading, I’m always working on several writing projects at once. I could probably use one of those drugs they give people with ADHD. Right now, in the works are a historical novel (thus the book by Anthony); a science fiction novel; and a revision and update of LifeFit, published 15 years ago, about exercise and health (I used to be a medical writer). And of course, I’m always working on a screenplay, god help me. Glenn and I are working on a short book about the creative process in business, an expansion of chapter 4 in We Wanted to Be Writers. And Glenn’s wrapping up Holy Shaker, which I’m editing.
Scribophile is going to giveaway a copy of WW2bW to the reader with the best comment on how to overcome writer’s block, which you are going to judge. Before our readers tell us their methods, what are yours?
Depends on the nature of the block, I suppose. I’ve never been stuck to the degree I couldn’t write something. Especially when I’m writing for a buck; then you can’t afford to be blocked, so you just crank it out. But on any given day, when I’m working on fiction, I’m always bumping up against little moments when it’s just not coming. The next line, the next word, whatever. Or sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that what is coming sucks. Then I’ll “look away” for a time. I’ll pick up whatever book’s sitting nearby, read a bit. Thus I keep a lot of my favorite authors close at hand, for just those moments. Also art books. I’ll look at the pictures. It seems to give the verbal part of the brain a rest. Sometimes I’ll go for a jog, which is mindless and repetitive, another way to give the verbal, logical part of the brain a break, which might give the other part, where the aha! supposedly comes from, a chance to work. Warm showers also help, I’m told. Sandra Cisneros recommends naps with small dogs.
I write on a computer, but when I’m really struggling to get the words going, I’ll take a notepad and pen to a coffee house, leaving the computer at home, and sit there and scribble on the pad. The switch in scenery and writing tools changes the whole dynamic of writing, for me, and this sometimes opens things up a bit.