Here I blog about writing, editing, reading, books, submissions, freelancing, getting published (and rejected), journalism, revisions, life after the MFA, teaching writing, and living the writer's life. Welcome. BUT -- if you are a writer: Write first, read blogs second.




Monday, January 24, 2011

Guest Blogger Elizabeth Buchan on Becoming (and Staying) a Writer


Elizabeth Buchan is the author of 12 novels, including the New York Times bestseller, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, which was made into a 2004 film, and was called a "shrewd and mature observation on marriage." Elizabeth also writes short stories and contributes to several major newspapers in London, where she lives. Her latest novel, Separate Beds, goes on sale in the U.S. today.

Please welcome Elizabeth Buchan.

If I had a dollar for every time I’m asked: how did you become a writer? I would be rich beyond a lottery win.

Here, I should admit that, twenty years on from the moment I announced to my ashen-faced family, that I was going to write full-time, I still have to shake myself. Am I really a writer? It seemed such an impossible dream, such a distant goal. But, you know what? I did become one.

I used to work in publishing – first as a blurb writer for Penguin Books. Later, I worked as a fiction editor for Random House. As an editor, you might reasonably assume that you know everything there is to be known about publishing – I should point out that I was the editor who turned down the opportunity to publish the paperback of the Bridges of Madison County in the UK. Clearly, I wasn’t that hot. But even had I been, I realised within twenty-four hours of resigning that I knew nothing about being a writer.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that a reader is more intimate with a novel than with human beings, and that relationship constitutes the living centre of writing fiction. As the writer, therefore, your business is to strive to create, sustain and infuse that relationship and it has nothing whatsoever to do with publishing.

Writing muscles are different from publishing muscles and moving from one to the other is like changing your gym and being told to work on a whole new set of muscles buried deep in the midriff. Not easy and, at times, painful. I am not sure that anyone who isn’t a writer quite appreciates the depths of neurosis, paranoia and irrationality to which a writer can sink as they wrestle with this birthing process.

As an ex-editor, I also suffered from a disadvantage because I was an expert on publishing vernacular. I knew exactly what that tiny sucking in of breath denoted when I rang up my editor to ask what they thought of the manuscript or for a tally of the latest the sales figures.

It was a question of stripping oneself down and returning to the basics. I soon discovered it was necessary to rethink the mechanics of concentration, to pace myself and to find hidden reserves of courage to carry on when all seemed bleak.

There were plenty of surprises ahead on this journey. I had no idea that, far from choosing subjects, subjects would choose me, arriving in my head and staying there until I was forced to write about them. As a result, I have learnt patiently to wait out the fallow period between novels (when agents and editors agitate).

Other rules include: do not waste energy on envy. One of the quickest ways to leach vital writing energy is to fuss over bestseller lists and to make negative comparisons with successful writer friends (or enemies). Don’t.

Rather, cultivate the art of observation. I think of it as walking into a dark room, switching on a bright light and looking hard at everything in there. Curiosity is what fuels a writer and I reckoned that, unless I was prepared to devote time to raising consciousness about this process, and to become good at it, then the writing would suffer. After all, the material for novels lies – to quote Virginia Woolf again – "all about one, in the drawing room and kitchens where we live, and accumulates with every tick of the clock."

What are my novels about? Thinking about it, I have concluded that I am trying to ask the questions: how do we live well? What do we do with the time between birth and death? How do we give our lives meaning? Putting it simply, I am trying to write novels that I would like to read – novels which climb into the reader’s head and take up residence. That is what great writers achieve with their novels and it is an aspiration which preoccupies me daily.

Twelve novels in I have not one second of regret, however hard it is at times – and there are days when I feel I am labouring in the salt mines. Then I remember what the writer Red Smith once wrote: "there is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit at a desk and open a vein."

He was right. It could not have been put more clearly or succinctly.

Note from Lisa: Viking Penguin is offering free books to two readers of this blog. To be eligible to win a copy, please leave a comment on this post no later than midnight, Monday, Jan 31. You must have a U.S. postal address for shipment (not a P.O box).

11 comments:

Andrea said...

Great interview--and that opening the vein part is easy...it's actually sitting down at the desk that seems to be so hard!

dirtywhitecandy said...

Terrific interview. So many powerful ideas to take away - I especially liked Virginia Woolf's observation about the reader's relationship with a special novel. I'm doing deep edits on my WIP and at the moment I feel nothing is as real as the story I am living in it. At the same time, I am worried to death that I am the only person who will think that. Thank you, Elizabeth, for being just as vulnerable - and thank you, Lisa, for posting this.

drew said...

What a refreshing and insightful post. Thank you!

Please enter me in the drawing. I'd love to read more of Elizabeth's work.

lksienkiewicz said...

I love the Virginia Woolf quote about where the material for novels lies "...in the drawing room and kitchens where we live, and accumulates with every tick of the clock."

Thanks Elizabeth, and thanks Lisa!

Sarah said...

This is wonderful. I love the simply excellent reminder to "cultivate the art of observation," and the wry anecdote about the Bridges of Madison County.

Audrey said...

Great interview! Looking forward to reading Separate Beds...would love to have my own copy!

Liane Kupferberg Carter said...

I'm going to tape this one to my computer:

"Writing muscles are different from publishing muscles and moving from one to the other is like changing your gym and being told to work on a whole new set of muscles buried deep in the midriff. Not easy and, at times, painful. I am not sure that anyone who isn’t a writer quite appreciates the depths of neurosis, paranoia and irrationality to which a writer can sink as they wrestle with this birthing process."

Thanks for an excellent post!

Uli said...

What an inspirational journey -- thank you!

Laura Maylene said...

Lovely post. We often hear that publishing is not related to the act of writing, but this was a nice, concrete reminder.

Lisa Romeo said...

Congratulations to Laura and Drew, you are the winners of the two books.

Please send me an email with your U.S. postal address, so I can forward it to Viking.

Thanks, everyone for reading and for your comments!

drew said...

Thank you Lisa, and Elizabeh, and Viking!

Can't wait to read "Seperate Beds."