Author Photo: Alan Heathcock © R. Heathcock
Ten Breaths of Inspiration for the Writing Life
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST CORINNA BARSAN
Alan Heathcock’s fiction has been published in many of America’s top magazines and journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review, VQR, Five Chapters, Storyville, and The Harvard Review. His stories have won the National Magazine Award in fiction, and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology.
VOLT, a collection of stories published by Graywolf Press, received starred reviews from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, was named an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times, named by Publishers Weekly as a debut to watch for 2011, featured as one of three notable debuts to watch on The Huffington Post, selected as a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Month, as well as for inclusion in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers series.
Heathcock is currently the Writer-in-Residence for the city of Boise, and a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho. A Native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.
Author website www.alanheathcock.com
The Magazine of Yoga On The Lit Mat Interview
Who or what was your greatest influence in picking up the pen?
I’ve always loved stories, and even as early as grade school I was writing stories. But it wasn’t until college that I got the bug and took it seriously. The people who inspired me to write were the authors I read.
On one particularly hot July day, I was sitting on a picnic table in Keokuk, Iowa, looking down on the Mississippi River, and I read three stories. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, “The Five Forty-Eight” by John Cheever, and “Winter Chemistry” by Joy Williams.
Something about that day, in that heat, in the place, the summer light dull on that big river, making me dream big dreams, coupled with those magnificent stories, made all the tumblers fall into place and the lock was opened to the future.
I looked up, a little bleary, and knew I had to be a writer.
In what ways do you make room for the creative process in your
I write five days a week, from the time I get my three kids off to school until they return home. When I say I “write” all day that doesn’t mean I’m actually creating new words. I’m a thinker, a note taker, a planner.
I read books, watch movies, do research, trying to prepare my imagination for what needs to be written. In fact, I’m always in the creative process. I’m always a writer.
If I do the job during those hours, I’m much more capable if I’m always open, always listening, watching, as I drive or shop or walk in the Boise foothills, or listen to my son sing or watch my daughter play soccer, always willing, waiting, ready to find a volt of story that will light up my imagination.
Which one word, image, sound, feeling, or memory defines the act of writing for you?
One word: River. There’s a saying that you can’t push a river, but only let it flow. That sounds about right.
Where do you find inspiration when the well runs dry?
I take an accounting of the things in my life, the world, that make me feel something, or think something, or imagine something, intensely.
Is there a question I need answered?
Why does war exist? Why does the leaf turn to the sun? Why do I keep dwelling on that image of the flooded out town? Why do I find Picasso so interesting? What brings me joy? What makes me angry? What makes me swoon?
I turn inward, look to the things that make me feel most potently alive, for these things are the seed and fertile earth of drama.
Is there a tidbit of writing advice that has stayed with you over the years?
Do not look beyond yourself for validation. Be brave enough to take yourself seriously. The moment you decide to look fearlessly inward, to take yourself seriously, you will stop imitating others and will become original.
What is something you know now about writing that you didn’t know when you were just starting out?
When I started out I just thought it was neat to make up stories. I tried to copy my favorite writers. I thought about sentences and plot points and story structures. I worried about point of view and verisimilitude. It was all craft, all blank ink on white page.
Now I know that being a writer is not a job, but a lifestyle, and one that allows me to indulge any and all of my curiosities. Every day I sit down and think, “What fascinates me today?” Isn’t that the way we all should start our days?
In my humble opinion, there is no better life than the life of a writer.
Whether you do yoga or another form of physical or spiritual practice, how does it affect your work?
I’m a naturally reverent guy, and I think the act of writing is fundamentally an act of meditation. At least for me, I need to quiet my mind in order to let the imagined world come to life. If it’s yoga, or a long walk, these practices help slow the world enough for me to see clearer, into some truth otherwise obscured, and through that clarity I find inspiration to return to my office and create.
What is your most favorite guilty pleasure?
I’m a sucker for a great hotdog.
I was raised in Chicago, where hotdogs are high art. Really, I’m a simple man. You put me at a ball game with a nice cold pint of beer and a good Chicago dog (Vienna all beef dog, steamed bun, mustard, onion, green relish, tomato, sport peppers, all sprinkled with celery salt, and NEVER ketchup – ha), and I’ll smile my biggest smile.
If you had to pick one book to recommend as a must-read,
which would it be?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. There are few books I consider to be perfect, but for me, in style, story, insight, in all ways, The Road is perfect.
It’s a hard book, unflinching in its post-apocalyptic despair, and yet the love between the father and son in that book is one of the sweetest, most tender, depictions of men I’ve ever read. I found it incredibly moving.
What is on your nightstand now?
Touch by Alexi Zentner
You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen
The pause that refreshes! You can find Corinna Barsan’s musings and discoveries on her blog at Shiny White Page.
We may publish any content, comments or ideas sent to us.
Name may be withheld by request.
© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.