Molly Peacock

How did you become a writer?

My grandmother wrote in her daily diary and kept up her correspondence as she baked, sewed, and pushed clothes through an old wringer washer. Mondays she made pies, Tuesdays did the laundry, Wednesdays got out the sewing machine…but every day she wrote. Her habits showed me how to craft a routine.

My mother went to the library weekly, took out a stack of romance and western novels, and gobbled up one a day. Because she was often lost in her reader’s world, I often think I became a writer to have her read me. And my grandmother gave me the basic tools. Every writer has to craft an everyday life.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

Friend: Phillis Levin, poet, with whom we have exchanged nearly every serious word we have written for nearly forty years.

When and where do you write? 

In the mornings at home, or, deliciously, in hotel rooms.

Poetry: In the blue bathrobe. In a hypnogogic state. On paper. No radio. No email. No talking.

Prose: Yoga routine, breakfast, make bed, water plants, feed cat and converse with husband. Then sit down at a computer and pound it out for three hours.

What are you working on now?

I’m pleased to say that W.W. Norton and Company has just accepted The Analyst. The poems spiral off from a relationship between a patient and a therapist that drastically changes when the therapist suffers a brain hemorrhage but survives and suddenly devotes herself to painting-- an art she abandoned at 18.

My new biography is about the fabulous, unknown 19th-century American-Canadian painter Mary Hiester Reid.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I’d call it “rusty pump syndrome.” In the spring, the well for a house that has been closed up for the winter has to be primed again. You pump it till your arm practically falls off, and then a thin stream of rusty water trickles into the bucket. In my early thirties, after the discipline of undergraduate school and a graduate program gave way to exhausting full-time work, I let the work stop my writing. Winter, so to speak. Then when I’d have a vacation, I’d have to prime the writing till a sickly stream of words came out. It would take the whole vacation to get going again.

But what if you just don't close up the house for the Winter of Work? Sick of the syndrome, I resolved to write a poem every week on Saturday morning. Even producing something awful had to be better than stopping and starting up again. I would make space in my head during the week to think about a poem, say, about Thursday, and then on Saturday morning write it down. The discipline is exhilarating, comforting—and banishes rust in the pump.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write to the next head on the pillow.

Molly Peacock is a widely anthologized poet and biographer. Her latest work of nonfiction is the bestselling The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, and her latest book of poetry is The Second Blush. Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions is her book of very short stories, with illustrations by Kara Kosaka. She is the Series Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English and the subject of Jason Guriel's recent monograph Molly Peacock: A Critical Introduction.

Daniel Brown

How did you become a writer?

In steps:

1. Came to feel (rightly or wrongly) that I had some facility with words.

2. Tried to write fiction, but found I was doing so much chiseling and whittling that it was taking forever to get anything done.

3. Had the thought that my slow rate of production was probably more suited to poetry than prose. 

4. Didn't know where to begin, since I knew next to no poetry, had no models, and didn't have anything "poetic" to say.

5. Stumbled on Randal Jarrell's appreciative essays on Robert Frost and was blown away by the essays and Frost's poems alike.

6. Started writing pieces that sounded like Frost (and were about "country" subjects--a problem since, as someone who grew up in and around New York City, I didn't know the first thing about the country.

7. Happened to try to write a poem about something I really had, forget poetry, to say: a poem to my mother (I was in my early twenties) telling her it only looked liked I was idling in my life; that even though I wasn't producing anything, I was working hard at trying to 7) Was driven, in attempting to say this thing I really had to say, to say it as I really would.

8. Realized, in considering the resulting poem, that a) some of the "unpoetic" things on my mind were suitable subjects for poetry b) my actual voice could be the voice in my poems.

9. With these related realizations was off and running.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

As mentioned above, Frost (via Jarrell) was my first influence; came to love many poets, old and new, but wouldn't single out any of them as remotely comparable to Frost in terms of influence.

When and where do you write? 

I've always had 9-5 jobs, so my writing has necessarily been confined to evenings and weekends (and the second hour of the occasional two-hour workday lunch).  Maybe a word or two is in order on my not taking the MFA/academic route.  Having an "ordinary" job has been beneficial in my not having to look to my writing to support me (hard enough with prose, not to mention poetry), not having to write about anything I don't feel truly moved to, and not having to fit my poetry to current fashions/expectations.  The downsides are not having ready access to a network of fellow writers, mentors, sponsors, and not having as much time to write as I'd like to.  (I've tried to keep to jobs that haven't been too high-pressure or demanding, so as to have time and energy to write.)  If I weigh the positives and negatives of a 9-5 life against each other, I'd have to say the positives win (of course that's just for me; my path could be all wrong for the next person).

What are you working on now? 

Poems for a next collection (no theme or "project"; just miscellaneous things).  Also essays, since some of what I feel moved to say seems more suited to prose. (So it turned out that, my answer to 1) above notwithstanding, I am able to write prose--but expository rather than fictional.)

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

No.  I think it's because I don't start a poem until I have a strong desire to say something--and then do what people tend to do under that circumstance, which is get it said.

What’s your advice to new writers?

I have none; can only say what's worked for me--which is to start with something (an anecdote, a joke, a thought, an exhortation, a cri de coeur...) that I think would interest a stranger, and say it on the page as I'd really say it to someone.

Daniel Brown's poems have appeared in Poetry, Partisan Review, PN Review, Parnassus, The New Criterion and other journals, as well as a number of anthologies including Poetry 180 (ed. Billy Collins) and The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (ed. David Yezzi). His work has been awarded a Pushcart prize, and his collection,Taking the Occasion won the New Criterion Poetry Prize. A new collection, What More?, was recently published. His Why Bach? is an online appreciation of the composer. Brown's poetry can be sampled at his website, daniel-brown-poet.com.

Bonnie Friedman

How did you become a writer?

Desperation and pleasure drew me to writing – I was desperate to understand the significance of the experiences I’d had, to discover their inner meaning. And the pleasure of reading, once I could read by myself, was certainly the most reliable in my life, and so that impelled me, as well. I grew up in a noisy Bronx household, the youngest of four children. I shared a bedroom with a flamboyant, dominating sister. Reading offered calmness and access to a hidden splendor. I always had a book with me. The keen pleasure of reading made me want to write.

But I didn’t really become a writer until I was a member of a writing workshop in my mid-twenties. I just had no idea how to make my writing better, before then. I had no self-awareness on the page. I had no idea how to improve what I wrote. The workshop method was frightening and revelatory, and I slowly acquired some awareness about the shape of my work.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

Virginia Woolf showed me a kind of writing that illuminated the way a person’s mind worked. She was one of those writers who made me grab my pencil and underline. I read Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and Moments of Being over and over, to the point where now I must leave them on the shelf since I’ve worn their magic so thin. Colette taught me the sensuality and drama of the page. Henry James, Charlotte Brontë, and E. M. Forster showed the potential power and length of a scene, and the connection between the novel and the play. James Baldwin’s personal essays demonstrated ruthless, unbudging honesty. A friend once said that a personal essay is a reckoning, and I think of that when I read Baldwin – he comes to conclusions. He doesn’t trail off with an ellipsis. He doesn’t leave things merely suggestive. Samuel Butler showed me the power of a surprising turn of events. He made me laugh out loud. “People aren’t allowed to say such things!” I always feel like remarking of the narrator in The Way of All Flesh. And then I smile and turn the page. No wonder so many modernists delighted in this long-hidden novel. He brought a gust of air into the house of fiction that even now feels welcome.

Writers one loves are not necessarily always writers one can learn from. Laconic writers like Didion and Hemingway thrill me but they constrict me as well. Their ways are not mine, much as I admire them.   

When and where do you write? 

I must write at home, in the midst of surroundings so familiar I don’t see them. I write at the kitchen table, generally in the morning. First I must drink an enormous amount of coffee. Then I must continue to drink coffee.

What are you working on now? 

I am revising a novel I drafted years ago. It came out to almost 800 pages because I never printed it out from fear it was too short. Now it is 400 pages but threatens to loosen its corset, which I am forever tightening.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Yes, although I, like many writers, have for the term a kind of superstitious loathing. It was when I received the contract for my first book, which I’d sold on the basis of two complete essays and an outline. I was able to write all during the time of the block, I just couldn’t write the book I was contracted to write. I wrote other things.

Finally I entered psychotherapy with a woman who promised, “Enter treatment with me and you will write your book.” I did, and I did, and then I wrote a book about that, which became my second. I remain grateful for that psychotherapy, since the doctor introduced me to many truths about my experience that I would not otherwise ever have grasped. I was so averse to conflict that I would merge with whatever strong personality entered my life. I had a strong streak of masochism that expressed itself in going into bookstores and searching out new books by young writers that made my own writing appear negligible. Psychotherapy gave me a method for discovery and growth akin to the method of writing but that, at that time, was perhaps even more useful. After seven years – like a biblical contract – I left the therapist, having incorporated what I needed into myself. My own writing block came about from not believing I inherently made sense. When I trusted that I made sense without having to be fraudulent or strain, the writing returned, and was again alive to me.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Everyone says you should read a great deal, and this is true. Most real writers don’t need to be told to read; they want to. Re-reading is at least as important as reading. That second time through, you can notice how the writer sets up a scene, what he or she leaves out, where they cut, what kind of transitions they make or don’t make, etc. The first reading, you succumb to the magic. The second, you see how it’s done, or at least much more how it’s done. It’s like seeing a movie twice: the second time through, the director’s choices become more obvious.

I am the author of Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy, and Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays. My essays have appeared in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Buddhist Writing, The Best of O., the Oprah Magazine, and The Best Writing on Writing. My website is www.BonnieFriedman.com, for those curious to know more about my work.