How did you become a writer?
I took a super circuitous route. Growing up, I wanted to be an actress and a singer, ambitions that I dropped the second I arrived at Sarah Lawrence and saw the theater kids there. They were so sophisticated, so cool, I nearly died of social anxiety, and gave up before I began. (My decision-making skills are not always the best.) In my sophomore year, I took a fiction writing class with Allan Gurganus and very quickly became convinced that this was the new path for me – but then, again, various anxieties intervened, and I took a nearly twenty year detour during which time I married, divorced, remarried, had three kids, lost two pregnancies in emotionally devastating ways, and spent a lot of time mad at myself for letting go of one dream after another.
In May, 2001, when I was thirty-nine, my father died. My relationship with him was complicated (like the sky is big) and I can’t help but make the connection that I started to write three weeks after his death – and have never looked back. I think in the end that though he certainly wasn’t consciously doing this, there were ways in which he inhibited me and contributed to a set of pretty well-developed neuroses that not only kept me from writing, but kept me from making much of an effort at any kind of professional success.
Fall 2001, I entered The Rittenhouse Writers group in Philadelphia, and July 2003, I entered the Warren Wilson MFA Program. I’m not a bit convinced that everyone needs an MFA, but in addition what I learned there, I also wanted that professional stamp, in part just to believe in myself.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Allan Gurganus and Steven Schwartz are without question the teachers who have had the greatest influence on me. In both cases what I would say is that they have an incredible combination of knowledge, talent, compassion, humor, and a sense of responsibility to their students. Other teachers of mine also have had those characteristics, but if you're lucky some matches “take” and those two have for me.
Authors who have influenced me include Virginia Woolf (of course!), Henry James, George Eliot. Many, many short story writers, notably A.S. Byatt and Mavis Gallant. And then, in some weird way, the greatest influence on my work may be a writer about whom no one ever speaks, due for a revival: Margery Sharp, whose genius novel Britannia Mews may well be the book I have read most in my life. I am trying to be influenced by Jane Gardam because I want to write just like her when I grow up, but influences are funny things. They tend to sneak in, while you’re looking the other way - while anything forced ends up merely as poor imitation.
When and where do you write?
All the time and all over the house. My kids are grown, and writing – which includes magazine work and reviews, and occasional teaching too – is my full-time job. I am incredibly fortunate that way. So I have a lot of time in which I can do it. And I am a wanderer. Have laptop, will sit in different room. I am currently, though, trying to make a study for myself – we will see if I stay in it.
What are you working on now?
I am working very hard at revising, reshaping and adding to a collection of essays that will be out from Engine Books in April 2016. It’s called Crash Course, 52 Essays From Where Writing and Life Collide – and for once I actually think my title explains exactly what the book is.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
That would be 1982-2001.
And then, post 2001, it depends how you define it. There are periods when I “can’t” write – but I think those are probably appropriate and necessary breaks. There were definitely periods when I couldn’t get my novel going, but I wasn’t blocked as a writer, just on that project. Maybe it’s because I am willing to shift genres constantly or maybe it’s because I’m content throwing away nine tenths of what I write, but I never actually stop writing. It may be also that after losing twenty years, I am just smart enough to know I have no time to waste.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Don’t confuse help with unkindness. Don’t buy into the bullshit view of writing that we all have to learn to “take it” in order get better and that anything other than scathing criticism is coddling. Don’t buy it as a reader or as a student. Criticism is good and necessary, but by no means improved by insults or one-upmanship. Kindness counts. Similarly though don’t take all criticism as an insult. Be discerning.
Don’t try to make other people’s work into what you want to write and run like hell form people who do that to you.
Forgive yourself for jealousy and never act on it – except maybe to protect yourself by shutting down Facebook the day the NEA’s are announced and such private, harmless acts as that.
Pay more attention to the people who like your work than to those who don’t. Interesting fact: Once you reach a certain point in your career, you will ONLY work with people who like your work, because the ones who don’t won’t accept it or buy it or commission it. Pay attention to the negative responses, just to learn, but your people, your readers, are the ones who are excited when they read your stuff. Critical, maybe, but excited, for sure.
Robin Black is the prize-winning author of the story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this; the novel Life Drawing (newly in paperback, April 2015); and the forthcoming book Crash Course, 52 Essays from where Writing and Life Collide - which Engine Books is publishing and will be launching at the AWP Conference, April 2016. Her short work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, One Story, O. Magazine, and Conde Nast Traveler, UK. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.