How did you become a writer?
I’ve been interested in books for as long as I can remember—my parents are both historians and I grew up surrounded by them, with bookcases crammed floor to ceiling wherever we lived. Maybe because of my parents’ focus on the past, and maybe because my English classes tended to focus on long-dead writers from the literary canon, it didn’t really occur to me that writing was something you could do—present tense—as a vocation and a career, in the here and now.
I didn’t really figure that out until a teacher of mine suggested I apply to the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, a summer camp staffed by MFA students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, when I was 15. We wrote and workshopped all day and went to readings at night, and it was the first time I ever interacted with working writers in their natural habitat. This was a revelation: You could devote your life to the literary project and, if you were lucky, even make a career of it. I went home knowing that I’d found my people, and it’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I’m lucky in that The Atlantic lets me run a column where I ask writers to share the books that have inspired them above all else—it’s called “By Heart,” and it’s the basis for the collection I just edited, Light the Dark. I’ve talked to many of my favorite writers over the years, who have in turn introduced me to now-favorite books I might not have otherwise read.
Along the way, they’ve taught me so much about process, too—not just craft, but strategies for sticking with a challenging creative endeavor over the long haul. I rarely have a writing session where I don’t think back to some piece advice I’ve picked up from Light the Dark. Sometimes it’s a craft thing, but often it’s more simple and elemental—the many ways writers convince themselves to keep going, trick themselves into never giving up.
When and where do you write?
For now, I’m a journalist by trade, so I spend all day every day writing or editing something or other. But I can really only write fiction—my first and most enduring love—during the early morning, or very late at night.
For some reason, there’s a quietness of mind that I access best when everyone else is sleeping, when emails slow to a trickle, when the world somehow seems to turn a little more slowly. In Light the Dark, Andre Dubus says that writing fiction is closer to dreaming than thinking, and there’s something to that for me. I’m better able to suspend my own skepticism, and follow the work to new and surprising places, when I can cut shut off my more critical, intellectual instincts—something that seems to be easiest in the small hours.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on a first novel since 2012 that I think I’ll finally finish this year (fingers crossed). But other projects keep me busy, too: my Atlantic column, writing essays and journalism, and writing dance music with House of Feelings, a collaboration with my longtime creative partner, Matty Fasano. Music is spontaneous and collaborative and public, and it makes a wonderful break from the private world of fiction.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes, terribly. I don’t so much with short fiction, where you can always find a way to push through on sheer energy, or with essays and journalism, where you can always fall back onto the stone cold facts of the case. For me, nonfiction is just so much easier to write, even when the subject is difficult. For better for worse, you are limited to what happened and that’s an incredibly freeing constraint.
In writing my novel, I’ve often felt stunned by the sheer number of possibilities. You can find infinite ways to tell a long story, and it’s hard to know what will work without trying a million different things. I tend to get blocked when I start looking for a shortcut, a way to just write the scene the right way right now and move on. That’s when I start overthinking the possibilities instead of just jumping in headfirst, and that’s when I get stuck.
Most of the writers I’ve interviewed seem to have learned a simple way around this, an approach I try live by as often as I can bear it: Write now, ask questions later. You can always revise. But you can’t improve material you’ve not yet written.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s a little hard to say, as I spend so much of my time trying to get writers to tell me as much as they’re willing about how they work, and what they’ve learned about what works well. Light the Dark is filled with craft and productivity advice mined directly from the lives of working writers, and it would be hard for me to choose just one. But one thing I’ve noticed across my conversations, and which has worked for me, is this: the writers who publish are the writers who write. Above all else—above ambition, above talent, above vision—you have to show up. If you’re not finding the time to work, the work won’t get done.
Some people write three times a year at residencies, and that’s enough for them. I’m a big believer in setting aside time—whatever you can spare each day, it might just be half an hour—and keeping it sacred five days a week. The magic starts to happen when you make it habit, and it’s amazing what you can get done when you make consistent time.
What’s your advice to new writers?
This could be irresponsible, but I would say: Lighten up. I wish I hadn’t taken myself so terribly seriously in my late teens and twenties. I spent a lot of time forcing myself to write when I still didn’t have much to say, time I could have spent exploring. But most people don’t publish in their twenties, and those who do often come to wish they hadn’t. I wish I hadn’t put so much pressure on myself, especially because I had no idea what I was doing.
Success in writing—thank god—does not depend on youthful appeal, at least to the extent some of the other arts do. You have time. So instead of worrying about writing something great, take weird jobs. Meet interesting people. Stay out late. Get up early. Volunteer. Organize. Travel. Learn about the world and your place in it. Work and hang out where here are other artists, and read as widely as you can. These are the experiences that will sustain you through a lifetime of creative work—the moments you’ll rely on as you sift through memories and reach for precise details.
By all means, write, but don’t do it at the expense of living. Because when the time comes to get serious, you’ll find that writing tends to happen at the expense of everything else.
Joe Fassler is editor of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he regularly interviews authors for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” series, and his fiction has appeared in magazines like The Boston Review and Electric Literature.