Author Photo: Lisa Brackmann © Anne Fishbein
Ten Breaths of Inspiration for the Writing Life
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST CORINNA BARSAN
Lisa Brackmann’s debut novel, Rock Paper Tiger, set on the fringes of the Chinese art world, made several “Best of 2010″ lists, including Amazon’s Top 100 Novels and Top 10 Mystery/Thrillers, and has been nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best Debut Novel. Her second novel, a literary thriller set in Mexico, will be published by Soho Press in early 2012. Her first published short story appeared in Akashic Books’ San Diego Noir (June 2011).
Lisa lives in Venice Beach, CA.
Author website: www.lisabrackmann.com
The Magazine of Yoga On The Lit Mat Interview
Who or what was your greatest influence in picking up the pen?
I really can’t say. Both my parents are/were readers, and I think that had a lot to do with it. But I have been writing fiction of one sort or another as soon as I learned how to spell a few words. I began my first novel at the age of 5 or so. It was to be an epic of cats that went camping. Unfortunately I did not know how to spell “tent,” and sadly, the project was abandoned.
I think for some people, writing is almost on the level of an innate impulse. It seems to be for me.
In what ways do you make room for the creative process in your
I tell myself very firmly that I won’t make money if I don’t write.
This is a pretty good motivation, but not one that I would recommend for authors who are not yet published but who aspire to be. It’s way too much pressure, and something I really struggled with when I was working on my second novel, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I wrote many, many mediocre drafts and was on the verge of chucking the whole thing more than once, but I told myself, “You worked really, really hard to become a published author. You’ve finally had some success. You are not going to screw it up now.”
In terms of positive motivation, I enjoy the problem-solving, the creative work, the incredible satisfaction that comes from nailing a scene or a paragraph or even a sentence. Finishing a novel is a marathon of a process, but I can’t think of work that’s more satisfying to me. It’s really hard, and honestly, I think that’s a lot of what I like about it.
Practically, that means when I’m writing a book, I try to work every day. I block out time in the evening, because that’s when I’m the most creative, and I try to write a little bit every day, five hundred words or a couple of pages. If it’s not going well, a paragraph or two will do. If I’m on a roll, I do two writing sessions a day. I also make a lot time for research.
Other days, especially when I’m beginning a new book, I need a lot of unstructured time to take in data, to mull it over, to let it simmer a bit. Right now I’m in China, where I’ve been traveling the last three weeks to research Book #3. I say “research” but a lot of it is simply being here and observing what’s around me. The ideas come that way if you relax and let them.
Which one word, image, sound, feeling, or memory defines the act of writing for you?
Sometimes “exhaustion.” Other times, “joy.”
Where do you find inspiration when the well runs dry?
Long walks. A good workout. A good book. Showers. I don’t know what it is about showers, but they are one of the best places for me to problem-solve. I am very worried about the ongoing drought in this context. ; )
Also, completely breaking my routine and traveling someplace. Particularly because I am really inspired by place—my first novel was set in China, mostly in Beijing, the second, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and the third will be back in China—being where I want the book to be is incredibly helpful.
And research—relevant books, articles, documentaries, etc.
In both cases, there’s an element of serendipity involved—I don’t always know what it is that I need to know, until I discover it. Then I realize I’ve found a piece of a puzzle I didn’t even exactly know I was constructing.
You have to be patient with yourself, in my experience.
Is there a tidbit of writing advice that has stayed with you over the years?
As resistant as I was initially to the idea, setting a schedule really helps. It’s a way to train your mind to be more productive and creative: “Okay, time to work now.”
Along with that, treating writing like a job. The first rule of a job is, you show up, whether you feel like it or not. You can’t just sit around and wait for inspiration to hit. But if you create the space, more often than not, inspiration will fill it.
What is something you know now about writing that you didn’t know when you were just starting out?
That sometimes it’s really necessary to go to a painful place to make the writing work. No matter what you do, you can’t just hide behind craft. But also, that you aren’t your book. Your emotions and experiences are the raw material that you use to create something that is separate from yourself.
Also, that there are a whole series of tremendous ups and downs that come with getting published that are just impossible to prepare yourself for, regardless of how well you think you understand the process intellectually. Then, that success can be a little scary. It comes with a whole new set of assumptions and expectations.
After that, that it’s possible to adjust to being a professional author.
There are victories to be had, and satisfaction at all kinds of points along the way, from the big milestones like finishing a book and having it published, to the little ones like crafting an awesome sentence. But you’re never “done.” There’s always another mountain to climb.
Whether you do yoga or another form of physical or spiritual practice, how does it affect your work?
I do yoga for a year at a time and then stop for a while, and then take it up again. I’m not sure why I stop, because I always get a lot out of it (and I think I’m about due to start up again). But I have to do some kind of exercise on a regular basis. Otherwise my mood goes to hell and I feel like crap physically. You know, when you’re writing, you’re sitting a lot (too much!); you’re staring at a computer screen, you’re in your head. I absolutely have to get up and move to counter that.
I think, however, that there are similarities in doing yoga (or some other form of regular exercise) and the ideal mental state for writing. Both, to me, are about focus, about shutting off the mental chatter, of creating or allowing the kind of open space where creativity can take place. I’m not putting this very well. But of course you’re working with words when you’re writing, you’re thinking about characters and plots and how to get Joe from one side of the room to the other in an interesting way. You have to be able to focus to do that, but also, to be able to think obliquely, that is, to not exactly think about the problem you’re trying to solve but to approach it sort of sideways—to sneak up on it.
To do all that, you have to be able to both concentrate and to let go.
What is your most favorite guilty pleasure?
Probably red wine! But I have a bunch of guilty pleasures.
If you had to pick one book to recommend as a must-read,
which would it be?
Impossible for me to say. It so much depends on the reader and what she is looking for in a book. Plus, I have a terrible memory for lists and favorites.
A book I read recently that really has stuck with me is Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It can be read as a metaphor for how societies chose winners and losers; who is valuable and who is considered disposable. Or more broadly, about the nature of life and human suffering.
What is on your nightstand now?
Just finished Franzen’s Freedom. I’m reading a mystery by Mo Hayder called The Treatment and have Tana French’s In the Woods up next.
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.