Author Photo: Stuart Nadler © Nina Subin
Ten Breaths of Inspiration for the Writing Life
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST CORINNA BARSAN
Stuart Nadler is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. Recently, he was the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic. His debut collection of short stories, The Book of Life, is published by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown, and will soon be translated into French, German and Italian.
Author website: www.stuartnadler.com
The Magazine of Yoga On The Lit Mat Interview
Who or what was your greatest influence in picking up the pen?
The easy answer is that I became a writer because I loved to read.
At the beginning it was the typical stuff young boys read: The Hardy Boys, Huck Finn, Treasure Island. I had a very, very abridged version of the Count of Monte Cristo that I loved. Once you fall in love with books, it’s awful tough to fall out of love. I really believe that.
At a certain point, before we got our first computer in the house, I had a typewriter. It was my dad’s—a big orange IBM Selectric that made a racket when you turned it on. What I’d do is I’d read Tom Sawyer or I’d read some sports book and then I’d try to write my own version.
I feel blessed now to have grown up in a house where my creativity was always encouraged. At the time I thought nothing of it, but I realize now how lucky I was, and how rare a thing it is to have parents who, for better or worse, encouraged their children to become artists. My mother is a painter. As kids, my sister Marissa and I played music in the house.
The process of making things—music, pictures, stories—it was just what we did. I’ve never stopped.
In what ways do you make room for the creative process in your day-to-day?
I’m lucky to be able to write full-time. It’s the greatest gift, and it’s something I wake up feeling fortunate about every day. I write early in the morning. It’s the first thing I do after I make coffee.
I love the morning. I’ve always loved it. My head is clear. For whatever reason, I’m able to be articulate then in a way that I’m incapable of later in the day.
Part of this, I’m sure, is a fact of habit. I’ve worked like this, early in the day, for ten years now, six or seven days a week. I don’t really ever take a day off. Because of the routine, I’m utterly incapable or working in the afternoon. When I try, it’s like I’m trying to write in a different language. Nothing comes. My grammar gets corrupted in terrible, ugly ways. Once the actual writing is done, I spend most of the rest of the day turning the stories around in my head.
So much of a writer’s life happens away from the page. All of my best ideas come when I’m not at the computer. All of them.
Which one word, image, sound, feeling, or memory defines the act of writing for you?
When I’m being coy I always say writing is a compulsion. Why else would we put ourselves through all of this? But there is some truth to it. I don’t write because I use it to express myself, or because I believe that the writing process is somehow cathartic.
I do it, I’ve discovered, because storytelling is how I process the world. It’s the same impulse that drives people to an after-work happy hour where everyone’s standing around trading stories and gossiping about the office. You can call it whatever—narrative, storytelling, or that awful, silly word creative writing.
It’s the impulse to nudge your buddy and say, “you wouldn’t believe what happened to me today.” That’s writing to me. It’s not so different than what everybody else does every day. I just make up it all up and put it down on paper.
Where do you find inspiration when the well runs dry?
I tend to think that if you’re searching around and hoping to be moved, then you’re bound to miss the things you thought you’d find. Most of the time, the inspiration is already there, around us, and collecting it all to do something with it is just a choice you can make if you’re willing to open yourself up. It’s a process of engagement with the world. It takes practice.
But to do something well—to learn a musical instrument, to write short stories, to make films—necessitates that you become intimately acquainted with failure.
I feel very, very deeply that anyone can be an artist, that talent is a myth, and that simply by doing these things over and over, by paying attention, by practicing, by refusing to answer to the doubting, distrustful voices we all have, that you can make art. I’m certainly not the first person to think this. But this idea—that anyone can do this, that I’m not really very special—I find this very inspiring.
Is there a tidbit of writing advice that has stayed with you over the years?
The single best piece of advice I ever got was something I heard Marilynne Robinson say, as an aside, one day in class while she was discussing Sophocles or Moby Dick or Faulkner. I can’t remember. Her mind is the most amazing thing. But she just turned and looked out at all of us and said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “of course, you should always just write the book you’d want to read.” How simple!
That tiny moment jogged something loose for me. Whatever I’d been doing before, whatever work I’d been struggling over, I just needed to ask myself the simple question: would I want to read this?
What is something you know now about writing that you didn’t know when you were just starting out?
That my best work comes when I’m being patient. When I was younger, I trusted the process less. So much of that was a facet of my being so impatient. And impatience, like any other bad habit, is something you have to unlearn.
This isn’t to say that I believe in endlessly worrying over a story, or a chapter. I try not to do that. Generally, I think that perfection is an accident. It’s not something you can work towards. And as a reader, or more broadly, as a fan, I love art that is plainly imperfect—the bad note on the guitar, Glen Gould humming while he plays, the fact that between Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn Mark Twain forgot Becky Thatcher’s name.
So, I work fairly quickly, and I trust myself. No matter what medium you’re working in—music, painting, prose—trusting your impulses is the important thing.
Whether you do yoga or another form of physical or spiritual practice, how does it affect your work?
I exercise every day but Sunday, and I don’t think there’s anything I do day-to-day that affects my work more. A certain part of this, I’m sure, is the routine of it all. It’s something I do, more or less, at the same time every day. The physical benefits of it are clear. But I find that the mental benefits are even more valuable, especially when I’m in the middle of a long project, or if I’m stuck trying to figure out, say, how to get a character from point A to point B, or how to fix a broken story.
Exercise unclutters me. It breaks up those endless loops and the dead-ends that every writer runs up against. My workout has become such a necessary part of my day that if I miss a day, my work suffers.
What is your most favorite guilty pleasure?
Bad movies and bad television. The worse the better. But I try not to feel guilty about it. Where’s the fun in feeling guilty?
If you had to pick one book to recommend as a must-read,
which would it be?
Cloud, Atlas by David Mitchell. David Mitchell may be one of the absolute best writers we have right now. This is such a beautiful, beautiful book, and the less the reader knows about it before opening, the better the experience will be.
I will say this: it’s such a relief to see a writer daring to tackle the big subjects—humanity, civilization, progress, love and life and death—and succeeding. I was in awe of this book when I was reading it, and I’m still in awe of it now, long after having finished it. A truly transformative read. Go get it.
What is on your nightstand now?
Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls. This is John Banville’s pseudonym, under which he writes terrific, dark, pulpy detective novels set in 1950’s Dublin. Great stories, great writing. Also set to go: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes; and Reynolds Price’s first novel A Long and Happy Life, which may have one of the greatest first paragraphs of any book.
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.