How did you become a writer?
I was always a reader, but I first became a writer in sixth grade, when our English teacher had us write short stories for a contest. The winner would get to spend the day at a writing conference for other sixth grade writers at Oakland Community College. That sounded very glamorous to me. I worked hard on my story, but the day it was due, I forgot it at home and had to scribble something at the last minute. As a result, I did not win the contest, and so I decided to show the teacher that she had made the wrong choice by becoming a published author, and that's how my career started. Fortunately for me, it turned out that I loved writing. Over the years, I wrote a great deal and read a great deal, tried to learn whatever I could until my senior year of college, when I asked a professor, how do you become a writer? She said there was no set path but what many people did was to take some time off, get life experience, and then pursue an MFA. Good, I thought. A homework assignment. I can do that! So I took some time off and left Michigan, where I grew up, and lived in different places and worked. During that time I taught English in Prague for a year, right after the Cold War, and that experience informed what would become my first book, a story collection called The View from Stalin's Head. That's a big part of what I was working on while getting my MFA at Columbia University. Toward the end of my grad studies, I started researching agents, and I found the name of Lorrie Moore's agent in the acknowledgment pages of one of her books. Since I loved Lorrie Moore, I thought maybe Moore's agent might like me. I wrote to her, and after some back and forth of sending work samples and more work samples, she took me on and sold my first book. That's how I got started.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
So so many. There was my English teacher in middle school, Ronna Rosenbaum, who encouraged us to keep a journal. I had never really heard of journals before, and it became an important part of practicing viewing life through the lens of language. In high school, I participated in my first writing workshop with Emily Dietrich, with whom I recently reconnected after twenty years while on book tour with my latest novel. She gave me so many wonderful writing tools and the permission to express myself fully and freely. In college and grad school, I studied with wonderful writers like Tish O'Dowd, Eileen Pollack, Thylias Moss, Mary Gordon, Binnie Kirshenbaum (I fear I'm leaving out so many others, but those are a few), who perhaps more than anything gave me hope! And I remember studying with Richard Locke who taught me the art of close reading. In terms of influences, I love the Brits, Hardy, Forster, Woolf, Isherwood. I also love Hemingway. Kind of an odd combo, but somehow it works. And I love the scrappy voices of writers like Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, the wit of Lorrie Moore, the elegance of Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. When I write, I really focus on language, sentences, details. I'm in love with writing that's so clear and immediate and effortless but that in fact requires a great deal of effort to create that illusion.
When and where do you write?
I have a goal: three hours a day, five days a week. Those hours don't have to be cumulative and in fact given my work schedule, they can't be. Sometimes I exceed the goal, sometimes I don't, but it's there to remind me. I used to like to write in busy cafes, but over the years I now prefer silence, in my office.
What are you working on now?
I recently finished a novel titled Nirvana Is Here which came out in May. (Get your copy!) It's about a medieval historian who's meeting up with his high school crush for the first time in 20 years, and that prospect leads him to recall their intense relationship in the early 90s, when grunge broke big. Part of what's so interesting about this book is that it focuses on themes of race and the #metoo movement that feel very timely, though I began it before these issues were dominating the headlines the way they are now. Currently I'm working on a new novel set in 1920s Cuba.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
So I teach a class on that phenomenon popularly known as "writer's block" and I've also written about it, and here's my take. No human being can be 100% productively creative all the time. We're not machines that make widgets. We're people with lives and feelings and all the rest. Fallow periods are just a natural part of the process, though for all kinds of reasons.
So if you call those times when you're not able to write "writer's block," it's a convenient mental dodge that absolves you the writer of any control or choice in the matter of your writing. It allows you as the writer to really avoid the underlying issues at play. What are you going to do if you are suffering from an illness known as writers block? Go to CVS and take a pill for it?
But if we reframe here, and just say, "Right now, I'm unable to write" or "Right now, I'm choosing not to write." Then you can look at the reasons and maybe just maybe feel a bit better about them. For example, "Right now, I'm unable to write because my pet just died and I'm consumed by grief." That's a pretty good reason not to write. Go and deal with the grief and come back when you're ready. Or "Right now, I can't write because I don't have time." Take a cold hard look at your schedule to see how you could make time. Or "Right now, I'm creatively spent. I just finished a big project and I don't know what to do next." Totally fine and part of the process. Why not spend your writing time reading great fiction or non-fiction or whatever it is that you write for inspiration until you do feel inspired? Or if you're stuck, think of someone you dislike or you're mad at. Write about that person. Write a letter to that person telling them exactly what you think of them and why. (But don't send it!) I guarantee your "writer's block" will fall away.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The writer Ken Liu in an interview talked about advice he received from a friend named Tobias Buckell, which is that in writing (and maybe in life) you have to learn to distinguish between goals and things you'd like to have happen to you. So a goal is something you can have control over. Like, "I'm going to attempt to write for three hours today." Something you'd like to have happen to you is something you wish for but can't control, like "I want to get published by the time I'm 30" or "I want to get published period." You never know what's going on in those publishing houses and how those decisions get made.
When my first book was out on submission, an editor told my agent that he loved my book but it was set in Eastern Europe and his house had just published a book set in Eastern Europe so they couldn't do another one. Is that my fault? That's why you really want to watch out for relying too much on external validation as a writer. Success is a day when you get your work done. That's what you can control. Focus on working consistently and being the best writer you can.
What’s your advice to new writers?
As stated above, focus on being the best writer you can. Read widely. Read a lot. And please, please, please learn about grammar. Learn where the commas go and why. Buy books and go to readings and support your literary community. Write every day. Better to write fifteen minutes a day six days a week than eight hours one day a week. Trust me. And finally, remember that writing is an act of faith, and like acts of faith, the doing of it is its own reward.
Once I had a student who said, "I don't want to end up wasting my life like my grandmother who had four unpublished novels in her attic." I said, "I don't think she wasted her life. I think she got a lot out of the process of writing them." That consistent dedication to your craft, that is the point of it. I love to play tennis. I'll never win Wimbledon. So? Does that mean I'm not allowed to play tennis or that I'm wasting my time if I play tennis? Why should writing be any different?
Aaron Hamburger is the author of the story collection THE VIEW FROM STALIN'S HEAD (Rome Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters), and the novels FAITH FOR BEGINNERS (a Lambda Literary Award nominee), and NIRVANA IS HERE. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Crazyhorse, Tin House, Subtropics, Poets & Writers, Boulevard, and O, the Oprah Magazine. He has taught writing at Columbia University, the George Washington University and the Stonecoast MFA Program.