Episode 204 #HowtoGetPastWritersBlock(slowly)
Feeling a wee bit stuck? Struggling to get anything on the page? Well, we all are—and not only does this week’s guest know from writer’s block (her last book came out in 2004), but she gave a raging case of it to her protagonist in her new novel, which allowed her—and us—to really dig in deep into what happens when the words don’t come.
Join KJ and Sarina as we talk to Laura Zigman, author of Separation Anxiety (a perfect book for this moment, all about how we’re all, every single last one of us no matter how weird or obnoxious or even put-together-seeming, just doing the best we can with what we’ve got) about writing funny, the edge between humor and empathy, and how life can get in the way of publishing even when it seems like you’re on the right track.
Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, Jennifer Finney Boylan
Podcast: The Long Form
Weather, Jenny Offill
Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
Separation Anxiety: A Novel, Laura Zigman
Podcast: Beach Too Sandy, Water Too Wet
So, we know it’s rough out there. It’s rough in here, too, but I guess, in a way I’ve personally never experienced before, we really are all in this together. And we’ll come through it together whether we like it or not. As I say in the intro, we recorded this just as the Covid19 shutdown wave was about to crash over us all, and we’ve got a few other episodes we recorded in anticipation of cancelled travel that just take us right back to the olden days—those are coming in weeks ahead, along with more timely episodes.
Thanks for listening and for sticking with us. We feel supported by every one of you. If you feel like kicking a little into the production kitty, (and getting #Minisodes and #WriterTopFives) click the button.
This episode was sponsored by Author Accelerator—training book coaches and matching coaches and writers.
Find out more: https://www.authoraccelerator.com/amwriting.
If you enjoyed this episode, we suggest you check out Marginally, a podcast about writing, work and friendship.
Transcript (We use an AI service for transcription, and while we do clean it up a bit, some errors are the price of admission here. We hope it’s still helpful.)
KJ: Hello it’s KJ here and this is going to be a slightly longer than usual pre-roll announcement. Jess, Sarina, and I want you to know that Sarina and I recorded this episode, an interview with Laura Zigman, just as the covid crisis was just beginning to hit. We do mention it, but probably not in the way that we would now. And on that same note, this week our sponsor Author Accelerator is giving their time over to our effort to encourage you to support your local independent bookstore during this. Remember, Amazon is not going to have any trouble making money while we're all shut up in our houses. But your bookstore is - if you want them to still be there when this is all over and it will be over and we will want them - please do the less convenient thing and support them now. Here's how when you're looking for some new books (for example Laura Zigman’s Separation Anxiety) call your favorite independent bookstore and see if they're offering curbside pickup or home delivery, many of them are. Hopping in your car getting out there and just letting them drop that book in your window is entirely still possible for a lot of us. The mail is at least still coming, or check the website to see if they have an online store. If they don't consider purchasing your books via Bookshop.org. Bookshop is the new site designed to give away 75% of their profit margins to independent bookstores. We have a small presence on Bookshop, I'll try to include that in the show notes for this episode. Profits go to all independents, we’ll have a list of them there. If you listen to audiobooks, try LibroFM. That’s Libro.FM - when you start a membership with the code shopbookstoresnow you get two audiobooks for the price of one and 100% of your payment will go back to the independent bookstore of your choice. Everyone that has an internet connection should be following our favorite bookstores and sharing them all over the place, even if they don't have a social media presence you can talk about them and share how their store is personally important to you. Help your local stores tell their story. Do take a minute to subscribe to Author Accelerator’s weekly emails, a number of their online courses are free to subscribers during this crisis. It's a hard time to keep writing (and more on that in a later episode), but this could help. Is it recording?
Jess: Now it’s recording.
KJ: Yay. This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone like I don't remember what I was supposed to be doing.
Jess: Alright, let's start over.
KJ: Awkward pause, I'm going to rustle some papers.
KJ: Now one, two, three. Hey, I’m KJ Dell’Antonia and this is #AmWriting. #AmWriting is the podcast about writing all the things - long things, short things, emails, proposals. In short, as I say every week this is the podcast about getting your work done.
Jess: I'm Jess Lahey. I'm the author of The Gift of Failure and the upcoming Addiction Inoculation, coming out in 2021, and you can find my work at The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
KJ: I am KJ Dell’Antonia, the author of The Chicken Sisters, which is coming out this summer. well as How To Be a Happier Parent, out now in paperback and coming out in hardback this summer. You can also find my work at the New York Times, and all the things. I’m the same person I am every week. We have a guest today I'm so excited about. We have Laura Zigman she is the author of (as you probably know) the new, and current, and very timely (in a weird way, but we'll get into that shortly) book Separation Anxiety, as well as Animal Husbandry which was made into the movie Someone Like You starring Hugh Jackman and Ashley Judd, Dating Big Bird, Piece of Work, and Her. E2 is a contributor the New York Times, as well as the Washington Post other places. She produced a popular online series of animated videos called Annoying Conversations I know that she pulled some annoying conversations into her own writing. We're so excited to have you here.
Laura: I’m thrilled to be here.
KJ: So, Separation Anxiety is your first book in how many years?
Laura: 14 years has passed since my last novel was published in 2006. It was a completely different world.
KJ: Yes, and the amazing thing about that, or one interesting thing is that you gave your protagonist a similar case of writer's block, which unlike you she did not triumphantly overcome before the book was written, because that wouldn't make for a very good book. It’s wonderful that she has that, it works so well, but as a writer myself I feel like I would hesitate to put something autobiographical into my person. I would feel like it was wrong somehow, but it was so great that you did it. Talk about the choice to do it.
Laura: You know I've always written what I call semi-autobiographical, which really starts from a place I'm always at. So my first novel was based on my experience of being a single woman living in New York and working. All of my other books sort of followed the starting point where I was, and this was no exception. I couldn't really imagine writing from another place. My experience when I started writing this novel in 2015 was just a point where it felt like the aperture on so many parts of my life had really darkened and shut down. And so that's where I was, I completely had writer's block and had had writer's block for quite a while. And I just had to start there and so I gave that to my character as well.
KJ: Well it really works because it becomes a way to approach about life, but before we even get into that I would love to talk about the writer's block itself. Sorry, but we have listeners who are right there in that position whether it's for some of the same reasons like there’s just so much going on in your life or whether it's because the words just aren't coming. Back in 2006, when did you know this was big?
Laura: Well, you know what happened was my fourth novel was published in 2006 and very quickly it tanked. Let's be frank, it just didn't do very well. We've all been there. I have often forgotten this little piece of the story in my head because I usually take responsibility for everything that happens to me, my own choices whether I choose to stop writing or wasn't able to overcome a lack of confidence. I forgot that at the time the book came out my agent (when it was clear the book wasn't doing very well) called me at home and said maybe I should take a break from writing fiction for a while. At the time it really crystallized my own lack of confidence so I didn't question the fact that my agent was telling me this and it would have been nice if she would have given me a different message and so I take responsibility for internalizing the message, but it really had an effect on me. It really was like somebody in a position who could have encouraged me was saying why don't you take a break because this isn’t working for you? That very quickly pushed all of my shame buttons, you know I was already embarrassed that the book didn't do very well, it just really shut me down. And then everything else started to happen - I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my parents got sick, a lot of stuff happened in my personal life which just cemented my pre-existing condition of writer’s block. And that lasted a really long time, even though there were things I did along the way that were kind of baby steps. But for the most part, in terms of writing fiction, writing a new novel, I totally shut down.
KJ: Yeah, I mean that is exactly what you don't want your agent to say to you. First of all, you don't want your agent to say that and second of all, who says that?
Laura: Right, it was unfortunate.
KJ: You know, perhaps with the best intentions. I don't know, it’s hard to grant that one. Wow. So, rule number one - no shooting down people’s life work, and saying maybe you should do something else for a while. Now that we've established that, moving on. You may not have been specifically writing a book or working on fiction not shut down creatively. So tell us some of the things you found you could do. And let's just owned that you're time was sucked up by having breast cancer and having your parents as well. This was like all day, every day for a long time.
Laura: Right, so it was like “sandwich generation” for many years. What happened was, one of the first things I did was sort of accidentally pivoted to ghostwriting. In 2007 or 2008, I was able to start ghostwriting. And that was something kind of lucky I felt that I had found. I had blogged about a television show I had started watching while I was recuperating from my surgery and then I was contacted by the show's producer and I ended up doing a book for a television matchmaker, which led to a few other projects. That led to some really interesting memoirs that I wrote for people like Wendy Davis and Eddie Azard, who is a British actor and comedian. And those were great projects and that was a great thing to do in terms of earning a living in writing, which was helpful to not have to write my own stuff. It was a relief not to have to come up with ideas for plot or characters, I was just able to use my skills almost like a job.
KJ: It's almost as if by using someone else's words you could kind of guarantee that when you sat down there was work.
Laura: Exactly. It lowered the pressure.
KJ: Whereas if you are relying on yourself and you're feeling blocked, you might sit down and nothing may come out. That must have been terrifying.
Laura:Exactly. I was doing that over the years and I think it was 2011 I discovered this platform on the internet called extra-normal. And you could write these little scripts and have these animated characters speak your words. And so I discovered it and thought Oh my God this is the best thing ever, because I would sit down in the morning and just whip out two or three minute scripts that were based on something annoying that happened the day before - either a conversation with my son or couples my husband and I were socializing with, whatever it was there were lots of annoying conversations. And so I would sit down in the morning, whip out a script, and have no writer's block because it wasn't like I was writing a novel.I just sat down, wrote it, and it would take a few minutes to generate the video, and then I would post it on social media. People really loved them. I think I would have still done them if the platform hadn’t shut down back in 2013. But I made 75 of them and I really loved doing them. And I loved that it made writing feel fun again. And then of course, I felt like a failure because I couldn't monetize them. I thought, it's only a matter of time before I have a show with these, but nothing happened. A lot of us feel that if we can't monetize something in some way then we've failed. Or I did, anyway. Then a few years later I tried again and wrote a script from scratch, like a film script, and my agent at the time really loved it and couldn't sell it, and again I felt like a failure. And it wasn't until 2015 that I finally had a break in my writer's block and decided I was going to try to write a novel again. So I went back to that script that was about a couple who couldn’t afford a divorce and had all the same issues that the novel dealt with, but I ok went back to that script, took just a little piece of it and used it to sort of seed the novel. And I went back to some of those old little videos and found little things in there that I used. So in retrospect, nothing that I did was wasted. In fact, they were really useful when I started again. But in the moment I still felt frustrated that I wasn't able to get the flame to catch.
KJ: I was waiting to see if Jess might want to weigh in so I wasn't dominating the conversation.
Jess: No I'm just listening. I find it fascinating. I always love the idea of you know when I get stuck sometimes and recently I've been stuck on sort of how to move forward with this new thing, so I really have just been going back through David Sedaris's book and my old notes. And so that idea of being able to go back to the script and say well I really like this story why it doesn't necessarily have to exist in this format and finding new inspiration in something you've already put out there. Especially when it's something you've already put out there that didn't come forward in the way you wanted it to. KJ and I talk about this all the time, we both have things in the drawer that didn't see the light of day - some of those I was able to use for articles in magazines. And I love the idea of recycling and repurposing things you love in a new format. I think that's a great way to jump-start yourself out of writer's block.
Laura: It was great because I realized I had the script itself and it was sort of a road map, but I had the characters and a few scenes to start with. It was just a great way and if I hadn't done it a few years later I think it would have been so much harder for me to start. Not impossible, but it was such a gift to start with. And that made all the difference.
Jess: Actually, can I go back? Since I've never had the writer's block (and I guess it can be described differently for lots of different writers), but for you does that mean literally you sitting there and not having any words to put down on the page? For some people I know it manifests anxiety and panic attacks, authors have described it in lots of different ways. I'm really just curious on a nitty-gritty level how it came about in your life and what it felt like and looked like.
Laura: That's a really good question. I think for me it felt like just a total shutdown after that fourth novel. I have had a lot of success - I use that term loosely as we all define success and failure in relative terms. Always really happy with my career and so when the fourth book came it just felt like going very well. There's a certain sense of ambient shame like everyone knows if your book didn't do well, you know and you get filled with this sort of shame. I think it was a lot of that shame and it was also a sense of even if I wrote another book would I be able to sell it and that mushroomed into a complete lack of confidence. And it was interesting because years later around 2015 when I started to be friendly with a group of writers in Harvard Square someone told me about the quotation that Norman Mailer had said about writer's block, which he defined it as a failure of confidence. And something about that when I heard it I realized it really didn't have anything to do with the fact that writers are writing, whether they're good or not, whether they're commercial or not, whether they're literary, they just keep writing. They have confidence. And once I saw it in terms of that and not about my skills, it was about my sense of myself. Then I was somehow able to say I'm going to try again. There was something about taking out the personal and making it more about my lack of confidence. Because I saw all of these other people writing and I thought you know I can write as well as they can. You know less good than some, but maybe better than others - it's all about confidence. Which seems so simple, but I don't know.
Jess: I think reading other people’s crappy writing can sometimes be a good jumpstart, too.
KJ: So what else did you think shifted in your life to allow - I just want to point out that you had writer's block, you didn’t stop writing . You just stopped writing that. You had fiction block. You had novel block. You had voice block. You didn't have word block. But what moment freed you up again sort of loosely in your life that allowed you to be able to sit down and actually say okay I'm starting again? Were you able to do it that way or did you have to trick yourself into it?
Laura: I still had to trick myself. What happened was I was working for a startup in Boston, a wellness app similar to the one described in the book. And I was there for about a year and then I left. It was then that I decided okay the universe has given me some time and maybe now is a really good time to start. I was able to make a little start because I rented a shrink's office by the hour in Harvard Square. I wanted some space and I was ghostwriting a lot and I thought if I could just have a dedicated day that I decide I'm not going to do ghostwriting today - so I went on Craigslist and found an office to rent by the hour, which I did on Mondays. So I would show up, sit in the chair, look at the art on the wall, and some days I would write, and some days I would play Solitaire on my phone. But by the end of a few months I had a #amwriting on Instagram and had gotten to a few pages and I feel like that was the way I really got started.
KJ: Did you work on it in between the Mondays? Or was it just like only when you were there?
Laura: I really just did at the office at first. After I gave the office up I felt like I had made enough progress in those three or four months, having those 50 pages I felt like I had something. I started something. Then I started to take little trips with a writer friend of mine and we would go away for a few days to work. And I was really able to start to feel like I was onto something.
KJ: I love that pieces of the book came and you were able to pull pieces that had been around awhile. Because one of the amazing things about Separation Anxiety is just how funny every detail is. You know, you don't miss an opportunity to drop in some humor. When you talk about the depth of the material but you were working with, I can feel that. So when you sat down to write how much of the funny comes out of you or how much do you put in later? It's a thoughtful and empathetic book, yet also very funny. So it's not like it is just funny - it manages to be funny as well as all the other things.
Laura: You know, that’s a really good question, too. Because I know when I sat down to start it I had no interest in writing a really funny novel. And I didn't feel funny at the time. I started writing it before the political situation had changed. But when I really started to really get going on it it took a while. And so by 2017 is when I really started to feel like I was making really good progress. And by that point the world didn’t really feel funny, it felt frightening. And I wanted to be true to that, but I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with how the world and my world had changed. In the decade that I had stopped writing I had lost my parents and several close friends. And middle-age just felt different. And I also didn't want to write a completely grim book because I don't think that’s necessarily what people want to read either. There had to be space for the light to come in, a kind of feeling of hope. So I was really conscious of just trying to be true to all the parts. I wanted the sad parts to be sad and the funny parts to be really funny. Because they often just really coexist. Maybe at the time that I was going through the most difficult periods of time there may not have been humor in the moment, but looking back it was always really side by side. I remember in some of the saddest times getting an email from my son's school that inspired me to include these people puppets. I just ended up using them in the plot; in reality but they seemed like a potentially funny plot device.
KJ: They work with the overarching plot because as someone who writes fiction I've had the problem of a plot device that doesn't match the rest of the book, but this one matched.
Laura: And back to your question, in the old days I think I would have just used them as a sight gag and let it go, but this time I understood things differently. I was like each character has to serve a purpose. A bigger purpose here - and what is the purpose? For my message in this book it was like everybody is suffering and struggling. And even when we don't know it, everyone has a story and everyone is really doing the best they can to get through their life and I found that that was the important message I was trying to communicate in this book. Because when I had so many years of struggle, whether it was with my sick parents, or with friends, or my career so many people helped me. I was so grateful for that level of humanity that I really wanted the book to encompass that.
KJ: It’s an amazing achievement - there's not a word wasted, there's not a character wasted.
Laura: I'm glad you feel like it worked.
KJ: It definitely works. The last thing I want to touch on with this writer's block and you not having another novel coming out again is financially how did you handle it? Like how did that affect your writing?
Laura: It's a really hard thing. Because on the one hand when you are financially strapped you have the impetus to work because you have to, to hustle every year. So I did that with the ghostwriting, but I was also very lucky in that I had earned a fair amount with my first book and I had been careful with that. And so we were living off that for a while. Every year with the ghostwriting I managed to get a gig that was just enough to get us through. It’s exhausting and that is one of the things taking away from the more creative aspects. We all khow that to write a novel you need to be firing on all cylinders of your brain for that. We all know what that's like. You just have to have that kind of mental energy; so much of it is diverted into stress thinking. It is exhausting and is a really fine line. Part of it helps you churn out words because you have to and the other part depletes you - every year I was just walking that line.
Jess: And of course what fills us back up is the reading. So can we talk about what we’ve been reading? I'm excited to talk about mine.
Laura: I am behind in my reading, but I'm very excited to read KJ’s book The Chicken Sisters. I also have right in front of me Weather by Jenny Offill. Because I love her Department of Speculation I'm so excited to read Weather.
KJ: I have heard that if you liked Department of Speculation then Weather is just the right amount of goodness that she offered up the first time. I haven't read it either yet. I just finished Separation Anxiety and you have been listening to me rave about it and the characters just stuck in my head. As it turns out I could totally handle, it called me and I put down books without hesitation. it was a really fun read. I went to my local bookstore and bought a bunch of things.
Laura: Some of them, like Politics and Prose in DC are doing free shipping through the end of March.
Jess: Eric Larson’s new book I had been really excited to read for a while. It’s called the Splendid and the Vile. I love Eric Larson and love how he uses historical research and weaves it into this just compelling tale and I’m getting drawn into the world of Churchill and it’s really been delightful, especially since this is an area I’m not particularly expert in. I haven’t read a ton on it. So I’m really loving it, I’m a fan of Eric Larson. And on the flip side of that, I’m reading a book I’m really enjoying, it will be out in May I think. Good Boy: My life in 7 dogs by Jenny Finney Boylan. I have to tell you that there’s a dog on the cover and dogs in the title, but it is not a dog book. It’s hard to describe, but it’s very much about trying to figure out who she is and in conjunction with her dogs. I don’t think you need to be a dog person to love this, I think you need to be a Jenny Finney Boylan fan to love this book. I highly recommend pre-ordering it. And lots of podcasts, I was on the road a lot, but a lot of my speaking gigs have been cancelled and I’ve found myself unexpectedly at home so I’ve been on a podcast deep dive. I have to put a plug in for the Long Form podcast, if you haven’t been listening you have to. A good starting place is episode 378 with Ashley Sea Ford where she gets nitty gritty on money and she talks about figuring out what you’re worth.
KJ: If anyone wants a super dopey podcast, guaranteed not to stress you out, I have been listening to Beach to Sandy, Water to Wet, Dramatic Reading of One Star Reviews.
Jess: This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.