Ellen Feldman touched the hearts of readers with her novel Next to Love. Her latest, The Unwitting, is historical fiction set in the literary Manhattan of the 1950s while the Cold War looms ominously over the lives of American citizens.
Ellen Feldman is no stranger to the page. She is a Guggenheim fellow and the author of four novels (one of which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction). Today, Ellen joins us to share her thoughts on writing…the things she loves and the things she hates.
Four Things I Hate about the Writing Life; Four Things I love about the Writing Life
Four things I hate:
Solitude: For years I wrote in the lonely silence of my apartment, but after finding myself still in my jammies at five o’clock in the evening more often than was sane or even hygienic, I began haunting writers’ rooms in the New York Public Library and the New York Society Library. The latter is a subscription library fourteen blocks from my home, which turns out to be the perfect walk to get the words flowing in the morning and cool me down in the evening. Though I’m not alone in either of these venues –- the rooms are filled with writers tapping feverishly at their laptops, a phenomenon I can usually ignore, unless I’m sitting there mournfully pressing the delete key -– and we exchange greetings and the odd piece of publishing gossip in the halls, for long hours at a stretch, each of us is isolated in the faraway realms of our individual imaginations.
Beginning a new novel: It has been my experience, and that of most of my writing friends, that after we’ve finished a book we’re sure we’ll never be able to write another. In its worst form, this neurosis, for it’s nothing less than that, entails the proverbial writer’s block. In its milder configuration, it takes the form of what I’ve dubbed “last book syndrome.” You keep trying to write the last book you wrote, again and again and again. This maddening spiral can take months to escape.
Research: Probably the only thing worse than not being able to find information you need for a book is having found the information and somehow misfiled it or not written it down at all because at the time you came across it you thought it wasn’t relevant to what you were working on. Some writers simply fudge it, but I admit to being too compulsive to risk that. I have spent days, sometime weeks, on quests that result in nothing more than tears of frustration.
Publication: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crackup that “at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and … in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” That’s pretty much what the publishing process feels like. For months or years you’ve been in control. Now everything is out of your hands. You lie awake imagining all the things that can go wrong in the process of getting the book into stores and on line. (In my youth I worked for a publishing house that once printed a mystery without the last page.) You don’t believe the good reviews and are sure bad ones are on the way. You end up in lonely hotel rooms far from husband and dog having nightmares about looking down in the middle of a talk to discover you’re stark naked. You wonder why you ever thought publishing a book was a good idea.
Four things I love:
Solitude: While my days are not spent in the company of other real people, when I’m writing, and I’m always writing in my head, my imagination is crowded with characters, some of them already good friends, others auditioning for a role in the book. When I was writing The Unwitting, I occasionally slipped and called my husband Charlie. My husband’s name is Stephen. Most men would suspect adultery. Stephen has been living with me for long enough to know it was only obsession. The husband in the book is called Charlie.
Beginning a new novel: A blank screen is an intimidating sight. That’s the reason for the last-book-syndrome I mentioned above. A first line is a recalcitrant animal. The crucial thing is to remember the delete button. Anything you write now can be struck later. But once the words begin to come, once your characters start whispering in your ear in their own voices and doing things you had never expected them to do, you are off on a thrilling adventure, one that often takes you places you never expected to go.
Research: I love libraries. I love ferreting around in old books and papers and archives. I love learning about people and events and states of mind. And on the rare occasions when I unearth an anecdote or turn of events or fact that has not been written about before, I feel a little like Columbus discovering the New World.
Publication: For all the fear, for the occasional heartbreak, there is nothing like looking up on a plane or in a library and seeing your book in someone else’s hands. On second thought, there is something even better. Hearing from readers that your book has taken root in their lives.
If you are a writer yourself, we’d love to hear your thoughts! What are the things you love and hate about the writing life? Share with us on our Facebook page!