How did you become a writer?
I first wanted to become a writer because I loved to read - I was one of the kids always buried in a book. And then, as I got older, I found that writing was the way I could understand the world, the way I could ask hard questions and think about different ways to be. I grew up in a religious world where I always had the sense that many things were being left unsaid, and writing became a way to say those things.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I have had the gift of several teachers who have influenced me. In high school I had an English teacher - a poet with a renegade spirit who was marvelously out of place in my strict Orthodox Jewish high school - who first opened me to the possibility of writing. In college, I had the privilege to study with Mary Gordon, a brilliant writer and extremely generous teacher who first made me believe in the possibility of my becoming a writer.
When and where do you write?
I write during the day when my kids are in school. I try to sit for long stretches even when I don’t feel like it. I write different places depending on my mood - often in bed, sometimes in coffee shops, always with my headphones in to block out any noise.
What are you working on now?
I am just about to start a new novel, and though I’ve written four book, I still feel a sense of immense fear that I don’t know how to do this. Right now I am trying to slowly sneak up on the novel, making notes, doing some reading, letting myself think about what I want to write about before actually diving in.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Oh, all the time. I feel like its just part of the process for me - a back and forth between motion and stillness, between ease and frustration. I know all too well how maddening it can be, to feel used up or hollowed out; to feel like I have run into a wall. And then sometimes, that feeling of being empty or stuck gives way and opens the path to the next breakthrough.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Mary Gordon once said to me (when I was talking about not having enough time to write), “If you are a writer then you write.” I have never forgotten this straightforward and crucial piece of advice. I have learned the importance of sitting myself down, of putting in the hours.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Revise even when you think you are done. I know how strong that urge is to just be done with something - to send it out, to declare it finished. But don’t let that urge blind you to the need to go slow, to go back, to write it again. Be relentless with yourself when it comes to revision, with pushing yourself as hard as you can to take each sentence closer and closer to the truth.
Tova Mirvis is the author of the memoir The Book of Separation, which was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. She has also written three novels, Visible City, The Outside World, and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various publications including The New York Times,The Boston Globe Magazine, The Washington Post, and Psychology Today, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio.