Photo: Joanna Smith Rakoff ©Elena Seiber
Ten Breaths of Inspiration for the Writing Life
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST CORINNA BARSAN
Joanna Smith Rakoff’s novel, A Fortunate Age, was awarded the 2010 Goldberg Prize for Fiction. She’s written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines. Her poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals.
Author website www.joannasmithrakoff.com
The Magazine of Yoga On The Lit Mat Interview
Who or what was your greatest influence in picking up the pen?
Well, I suppose my story is the same as many other writers: I was a lonely, unpopular child and spent every free minute reading, so that the characters in my favorite novels—Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden—became more real to me than the actual human beings I encountered at school. Eventually, my head began to be overtaken by characters of my own invention.
But in terms of writing A Fortunate Age, well, two writers led me to start writing in earnest: Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen. Which is not to say, of course, that they’re my dear friends and were, you know, reading chapters and cheering me on. No.
Back in 2001, I was making a living as a journalist, and writing (and publishing) poetry, while struggling to work on a novel that wasn’t going terribly well. I had a kernel of an idea for a very different novel—and had started to write a story, a very long story, about one of the characters I had in mind for it—but was terrified of abandoning this other project.
While I wrestled and fumbled with all this, I read White Teeth—a year after everyone else in the world—and was amazed (like everyone else in the world) by the way Smith had, in a way, written a 19th century social novel about our time. This was what I wanted to do and, somehow, seeing that it was possible gave me permission to commit.
Around the same time, I was assigned a profile of Jonathan Franzen, one of my favorite writers, pegged to the publication of The Corrections. I read the novel in a weekend, shocked by its freshness and brilliance, the vigor of its language, then met with Franzen, who was utterly frank about the years in which he’d struggled to make sense of that novel (nine years, in total), and the ways in which he’d reconceived his goals and ideals as a fiction writer during that time.
That interview changed my life: I was able to commit to fiction, to write the novel I wanted to write, without compromise, but with the knowledge that there would be struggles.
So, in the end, two strangers had an enormous influence on me.
In what ways do you make room for the creative process in your
I’m lucky in that, right now (and for awhile), writing has been my full-time job, so ostensibly my whole day should be about the creative process—and I go through periods when it is. But more often, I get caught up in the day-to-day drama of family life—I have two small children and an aging mother—as well as, of course, the more business-y side of writing, which can take over one’s life if one’s not careful.
I find that if I don’t do my real work—whatever piece of fiction I’m working on (right now, a circle of stories that are loosely related to my next novel), poetry, or essays—before I do anything else, I get very little done. My mind becomes clouded with anxiety and more quotidian concerns, or I simply become too exhausted to think straight, and even if I have the whole day to write, I’m not terribly productive.
In practice, this means that as often as possible, I get out of bed extremely early and write before my kids get up, on the couch, with a cup of tea, a legal pad, and an old afghan crocheted by my mom, which is a sort of talisman for me. Even if I have the whole day ahead of me to write. My husband finds this insane.
Which one word, image, sound, feeling, or memory defines the act of writing for you?
I wrote much of A Fortunate Age at the MacDowell Colony, sitting in a rocking chair, in front of the fireplace, writing on legal pads. The smell of wood-smoke definitely reminds me of feverish writing.
But I also often think about my room in my parents’ house—long sold to strangers—and the desk at which I sat, late at night, as a child and teenager, writing poems and stories and the occasional article for a school or youth group newspaper.
The room would be dark, except for the light from my desk lamp, and as it grew later, and the real world—school, homework, my parents watching the news—was obliterated by whatever I was working on, I’d find myself feeling almost giddy with excitement, the thrill of creating something from nothing.
That delicious feeling of being alone, I suppose, with just the circle of light from the desk lamp, the world supposing me asleep, that’s what I think of when I think of writing.
Where do you find inspiration when the well runs dry?
When I’m really stuck, I go running, and find that my mind just completely opens up. Threads of narrative fall into place, problems unfurl, and everything seems possible again.
Reading, also, is the ultimate cure for any sort of anxiety or difficulty I’m having with whatever’s on my plate at the moment. If I’m stuck in the middle of a story, I’ll take to bed and read dozens of stories. At a certain point, a calm settles over me, I grow tired of reading, and it’s time to write again.
Is there a tidbit of writing advice that has stayed with you over the years?
I have an MFA in poetry and I often think about one of my favorite professors, Marie Howe, who – in order to shake a person out of a philosophical rut – would look at one of our poems, give her comments, then say, “Okay, now write the opposite.” Once, someone brought in a lovely, well-composed poem called “Not Wanting a Child.” Marie said, “For next week, bring me a poem called ‘Wanting a Child.’” The writer nearly burst into tears.
When writing anything—fiction, an article, a review—when I get stuck, I often think of that moment, and try simply reversing the action: having my character stay instead of go, or throw the brick in his hand rather than safely set it back down. I guess I need to remind myself to take risks.
What is something you know now about writing that you didn’t know when you were just starting out?
That it’s work, hard work that requires a sustained effort. I suppose I learned this first from journalism—the beauty of deadlines and editor-imposed revisions and needing to simply keep oneself in a chair until a piece is done.
As a kid, writing poetry and stories, I believed—like many kids—more in the concept of inspiration. I would wait for a line, a poem, to come to me.
Whether you do yoga or another form of physical or spiritual practice, how does it affect your work?
I do yoga and it’s had an enormous effect on my writing, in part simply because it’s given me confidence as a human being. I was a hugely timid and unathletic child, so it was strange, for years, to feel myself turn upside down and stay that way for eight minutes, or even simply to unselfconsciously engage in a physical activity in a room full of other people.
But yoga has also taught me much about patience and about the true meaning of the term “practice.”
Both yoga and writing are, of course, practices: Activities in which one needs to engage with less focus on accomplishment and end product and more on the actual moment. A favorite yoga teacher of mine used to say, throughout class—but especially during very uncomfortable poses—“be here now.”
Writing is often like being in an uncomfortable pose for a long, long time and I sometimes have to tell myself to just be here now.
What is your most favorite guilty pleasure?
Oh, gee. Well, I’m a huge movie person. As a kid, I went to matinees twice a week with my dad. So I suppose the occasional solo movie—which means leaving behind my husband and two little kids, or abandoning work for the afternoon—with an obscenely large amount of popcorn.
I’m also training for the marathon right now, and it takes so much time—again, away from work and family–and gives me so much joy, that it feels like a guilty pleasure. Yoga, too. And maybe anything that isn’t work or childcare. What does that say about me?
If you had to pick one book to recommend as a must-read,
which would it be?
This is an incredibly difficult and slightly horrible question. Perhaps Dawn Powell’s A Time to Be Born, which is perhaps the most underrated novel of the twentieth century. It’s set on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War II and it feels eerily relevant at this particular juncture.
What is on your nightstand now?
Let’s see: Stewart O’Nan’s Wish You Were Here, Sarah Blake’s Grange House, Mat Johnson’s new novel Pym (about which I am insanely excited), Little Dorrit (which I’ve never read), and Sophie’s Choice (same!).
The pause that refreshes! You can find Corinna Barsan’s musings and discoveries on her blog at Shiny White Page.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.