How did you become a writer?
I’ve always been a writer. For as long as I can remember, writing is how I worked through my emotions, how I recorded my daydreams, and acted out my frustrations.
Over the years, I’ve tried my hand at every kind of writing – short stories and poems, essays and songs, journalism and novellas. A lot of those have been spectacular failures, but I’m a fan of Samuel Beckett’s advice: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." So each time I had a piece of writing go disastrously wrong, I would do my best to learn from it, and then go on and make entirely new, better mistakes.
Because I knew writing on its own isn’t a great way to make a living, I have spent my life doing all sorts of other things – coordinating weddings, teaching 7th grade, working at a bank – and it turns out that is the best sort of preparation you can have to be a writer. That life exposed me to all sorts of people with all sorts of stories, and I mine those experiences all the time for fiction.
As far as becoming an author, my first published works were essays and short stories, but I really wanted to write a novel, so I kept at it, writing terrible novels and failing better until I failed my way to bestsellerdom with The Weird Sisters.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
For teachers and mentors, I would follow Steve Almond, Dani Shapiro, and Liz Gilbert to the ends of the earth.
I’m a pretty indiscriminate and voracious reader, so my influences include everything from Stephen King to Kurt Vonnegut to Maeve Binchy.
Books I return to over and over again: Gone With the Wind, Stephen King’s The Stand, Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline, Evening Class by Maeve Binchy. But right now I’m judging the Barnes & Noble Discover Awards, so I’m reading an incredible variety of books I might never have picked up on my own, and I’m reminded of how much wonderful writing is being produced all the time.
When and where do you write?
I usually write during regular work hours at home, in my office, but I have learned not to be precious about where or when I write. If the only time I have to write on a given day is in the doctor’s waiting room, that’s when I write.
My personal favorite was when I was waiting to pick someone up at the airport, so I set up an impromptu standing desk at the back of the car and wrote 1000 words in the cell phone waiting lot until her flight arrived.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing edits on The Light of Paris, which will be published in summer of 2016, and I just started the next novel. It’s so new that I am afraid to even talk about it yet. There is this magical period when my work belongs only to me, and I try to preserve that for as long as I can. Once you let the world in, it destroys that creative honeymoon. I believe in Stephen King’s advice to “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
In various forms, yes. More often than total writer’s block, I’ve had creativity block, where I’m putting words on the page, but I’m not writing anything good. That was usually a function of writing the wrong thing. I think writers need to learn to finish things – the world is full of the brilliant beginnings of stories – but sometimes you need to take a break and figure out what you’re doing.
A few years ago, when I was really struggling creatively, I couldn’t make my 1000-word-a-day goal. A friend of mine suggested I make that goal 500 words a day. As I recall, I simply looked at her in misery.
“Can you do five words a day?” she asked.
And so that became my goal. Of course I wrote more than five words, but setting the bar that low eased the pressure long enough for me to find my way again.
What’s your advice to new writers?
3. Finish what you start.
4. Critique groups are hazardous to your creativity.
5. Write for yourself and worry about audience later.
6. Read some more.
7. Write some more.
8. Finish what you start.
Eleanor Brown (www.eleanor-brown.com) is the New York Times and international bestselling author of The Weird Sisters. Her second novel, The Light of Paris, will be published in summer 2016 by Putnam Books. She teaches writing at The Writers’ Table (www.thewriterstable.net).