Photo: Jeffrey Rotter ©Margaret McCartney; Art Direction: The Magazine of Yoga™
Ten Breaths of Inspiration for the Writing Life
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST CORINNA BARSAN
Jeffrey Rotter is the author of The Unknown Knowns (Scribner). His short fiction and poetry have appeared in The Literary Review, Five Chapters, and a few other places. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Spin, The New York Observer, and elsewhere.
He grew up in South Carolina and is a longtime resident of Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and son. He is currently at work on a novel about alligator capture and friendship.
Author website www.museumoftheaquaticape.com
The Magazine of Yoga On the Lit Mat Interview
Who or what was your greatest influence in picking up the pen?
I’ve picked it up and dropped it so many times over the course of my life, I can’t name just one greatest influence.
Going way back, though, I might blame my high school English teacher. She was one of these Norton Anthology worshippers who elevated the author to a ridiculous ethereal plane. If you didn’t have ruffled sleeves and a cubicle in Tintern Abbey, you had no business being a writer. I think I started writing to prove how stupid that attitude is.
In what ways do you make room for the creative process in your
It’s less like making room than clawing out a crawlspace. Between my day job and my son, it’s tough. But to write novels you have to have continuous contact with the story, so I aim for two pages a day.
Which one word, image, sound, feeling, or memory defines the act of writing for you?
Well, this will sound like a cliché, but I like the Moon.
When I was toddler Apollo mania was still in full swing. It still represents for me the unknown, and that’s why I write: because I don’t know what’s going to happen next, what kind of creatures I’ll find living on the next page.
Where do you find inspiration when the well runs dry?
Man, metaphors are insidious. Eventually they all claim primacy over the thing they were designed to represent. It isn’t useful to me to think of invention as a well. Wells dry up.
Ideas operate in an atomistic, clustering way. I think of those molecular models with the balls and sticks. You get new ideas when memories, sensations, reading—whatever—connect in unexpected ways. If I think of inspiration in those terms, as long as I’m putting something in, something will come out.
Is there a tidbit of writing advice that has stayed with you over the years?
You’ll know this one because it comes from our MFA teacher Peter Carey. He always made us ask, “What would it really be like?” If you can answer that question semi-honestly in every scene, you might come out with something that doesn’t completely suck.
I also like this bit of advice from Colson Whitehead: “You know you’re doing something wrong when you start having fun.” I can’t tell you how many hours of fun I’ve had writing passages that are certain to be deleted later.
What is something you know now about writing that you didn’t know when you were just starting out?
Totally obvious, but it took me forever to internalize it: Writing is rewriting.
I took a class from the poet and novelist James Dickey as an undergrad. He delivered a long and tedious lecture about revision. His conceit concerned prisoners condemned to wring water out of a long piece of cloth while guards spritzed it with a hose. Dickey was a fighter pilot in Word War II, so basically he wanted us to feel like POWs.
Whether you do yoga or another form of physical or spiritual practice, how does it affect your work?
I used to do yoga, but these days my physical practice mostly involves Greco-Roman wrestling a four-year-old who doesn’t want to put his socks on. Felix actually practices yoga in pre-school. His Tree Pose is spectacular!
Writing is so internal that I sometimes forget I even have a body until I’m forced to look at beach photos. The only thing approaching a spiritual practice is what I do inside a sentence. The act of rearranging it, deleting it, rebuilding it—I can get a real sense of rightness in the universe from that.
What is your most favorite guilty pleasure?
I feel guilty about almost everything.
If you had to pick one book to recommend as a must-read,
which would it be?
Contemporary: The Literary Conference, Cèsar Aira. Best book I’ve read about giant silkworms and the cloning of Carlos Fuentes. Older: Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser. It’s one of the strangest and saddest prep-school novels ever.
What is on your nightstand now?
Peanut butter jar converted to drinking glass, The Tanners by Robert Walser, children’s Tylenol, The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch.
The pause that refreshes! You can find Corinna Barsan’s musings and discoveries on her blog at Shiny White Page.
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Name may be withheld by request.
© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.