Elizabeth Berg: Trusting herself
Novelist Elizabeth Berg follows her own path
Published: July 25, 2002
In looking back at novelist Elizabeth Berg's now flourishing writing career, it is a little difficult to connect the dots. First, you begin with a college dropout with no writing degree or writing classes to her credit. Then she earns a nursing degree and works as an RN for 10 years, before quitting to spend more time with her children. Then she starts freelancing nonfiction articles. And last but not least, she manages--starting at age 44--to become the popular author of 10 novels, nearly all of them bestsellers like Open House, which gets picked by Oprah's Book Club.|
It is a career trajectory, Berg admits, that "still seems miraculous to me, and I can't think about it too much because it just sort of makes me nuts. It makes me nervous."
Her unconventional journey has shaped a novelist who, perhaps unsurprisingly, has never gotten locked into rigid rules. If you want reassurance that writing should be as difficult and painful as a root canal, try someone else--for Berg, it's a good time, even fun. If you insist that a novel must be carefully plotted in advance, try someone else--sometimes Berg starts out with a feeling in her head and nothing else. If you think that your short story or novel has to be a certain way and must contain certain elements, don't ask Berg to back you up; she has a disdain for such "regulations." And if you're agonizing over how you might please a particular publisher, Berg has a basic message: Write "to please an audience of only one--you."
Her main strength as a novelist is an emotional directness and an ability to create characters and situations full of pain, tears, confusion, love and growth that speak to many readers' lives. "Reading a book by Elizabeth Berg is like sitting down for a long chat with your best friend," said reviewer Judith Handschuh."
In Berg's first novel, Durable Goods (1993), a young girl, Katie, comes to terms with a difficult childhood and a villainous father. Two later novels take up Katie's story: Joy School and Berg's newest, True to Form. In The Pull of the Moon, Nan, a woman of 50 temporarily escapes a "pleasantly" suffocating marriage for a solo journey of spontaneity and rediscovery. In Talk Before Sleep, perhaps Berg's most popular novel, a group of women helps one of its own in her battle against breast cancer. Open House is a tale of a woman who divorces and must remake her life, while Range of Motion is about a young man left comatose by an accident and his wife's persistence and love during the ordeal.
One reason for Berg's loyal following among women is that she so clearly appreciates them and their special camaraderie in her writing. In The Pull of the Moon, for example, Nan writes to her husband, "It seems to me that the working minds and hearts of women are just so interesting, so full of color and life." Women are born with a "reservoir of sacred strength," says Ann in Talk Before Sleep. Berg's characters are ultra-domestic and careers are secondary, giving them a somewhat retro quality. But their open, searching good hearts give her women a broad appeal. So intense is their search, in fact, that they frequently need to escape for a while to sort it all out.
The men come off not nearly as well; indeed, Berg sometimes seems to stack the deck against the males in her tales, who so often are clueless and silent. (Two of Berg's men, however, get to speak their piece in "Martin's Letter to Nan" and "Take This Quiz," two stories from her recent collection, Ordinary Life, which contains some of her best writing.) She has drawn praise from male writers like Richard Bausch and Andre Dubus, but also was included in a snide reference by Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley to "Oprah authors" as being "a lot stronger on squish than substance."
Gender issues aside, Berg's writing is spare and direct, and her passing observations can be dead on. In Talk Before Sleep, she has us watch a long-married couple at a restaurant, concluding: "All their lights were out." Her treatment of female sexuality can be quite frank. She can skillfully suggest a world of marital tension in a wife's simple statement, or capture the challenges of aging, and the weird thoughts and ironies of dying. Samantha, the estranged wife in Open House, watches her sleeping 11-year-old son, now past the point of being cuddled, and wishes she could have known that the last time she held him "was going to be the last time." Nan in The Pull of the Moon ruminates on being 50 ("the age of losses"): "It's been a while since I turned any heads ... Now I am seen by men as a number in line, a bakery customer; some old gal who needs her sink fixed; the driver of the nice Mercedes passing through a road-construction site." Nan writes in her journal:
"I need a jump-start to have sex ... I'll suddenly think of how we look, two middle-aged people, going at it. I'll feel like I'm floating above us looking at our thickening middles and thinning hair and flabby asses and any desire I had will feel like it's draining out the soles of my feet. I'll think of what are we doing? Why are we doing this? Martin will be moving against me, moaning a little, and I'll be thinking, I need to clean that oven."
Berg grew up an "Army brat," living six years in Texas, six years in Germany, on a farm in Indiana, and in Oklahoma, Minnesota and St. Louis. Her father, now retired as a major, was a career military man and her mother a homemaker. As a child, Berg did a lot of creative writing and even submitted a poem to American Girl at age 9. It was rejected. Young Elizabeth lay on her bed and wept--and didn't submit another thing for 25 years. She never envisioned a writing career. "I thought writers had to have an education abroad, and wear tweed, and be interestingly tormented," she once wrote.
After dropping out of the University of Minnesota, she took a variety of jobs, then earned her nursing degree. She worked in nursing for a decade then quit to be a full-time mom, while finding time on the side to write for a small-town newspaper. She won an essay contest sponsored by Parents and started writing articles for that magazine and others, including the now-defunct Special Reports. The latter expanded into television, and for a time, Berg did video essays. A book developer's proposal led her to write a book on family traditions in 1992, but she kept writing fiction on the side. Durable Goods, her first novel, came out in 1993.
Berg was divorced in 1996 but is now happily engaged in a six-year-long relationship with Bill Young, an author escort and publicist she met on a book tour. In 2000, Berg relocated from Massachusetts to the Chicago area to be with Young, and they live in Oak Park. Berg was interviewed at her idyllic summer home in Wisconsin, as her 85-pound golden retriever, Toby, bounded about. Friendly and open, she spoke candidly about her life, the process of writing, and the importance of honoring your individuality.
There's a freshness about your writing, like you haven't had people pummeling you to do it this way or do it that way.
Well, basically I don't know what I'm doing and I don't want to know what I'm doing. It's very much driven by the subconscious, truly it is--when you're writing and you get into that zone. I think it must be like joggers feel when they reach that level [where the hormones kick in]--I don't feel like I'm writing any more; I feel as though the story is writing itself and I'm typing.
I often have the experience of not realizing I wrote something. When it comes off the printer I say, "Oh! I don't remember writing that at all." It's really akin to a trancelike state. I don't ever look under the hood, and I don't ever want to.
I get really worried sometimes when I do a reading or go to someone else's reading and the questions focus so much on: What is your practice--what do you write on, do you write a certain number of pages a day, do you write a certain number of words per day, how do you maintain your discipline, and all that stuff. There isn't a formula; I think it's so critical for writers, as well as artists of any kind, to ask what is unique about themselves. And that's really what I wanted to focus on in my book about writing--to just please pay attention to what you have. It might not be like what anyone else has done and that's great. But don't just think that there's a winning formula.
Just recently I did a reading in Wisconsin and someone was asking all these questions about agents and I said, "What have you done?" and she had barely [started her book]. People are worried about marketing and how they're going to ride in limousines before they write anything, and that's really putting the cart before the horse.
|Where did the urge to write come from?|
I think I was a very oversensitive and overly dramatic kid, and I think it needed to go somewhere. I would imagine things all the time; I would imagine stories. I'd say to my mother, "I'm bored, I'm bored," and she'd say, "Go out and count cars." Being the dutiful child that I was, I would go out and count cars, which is pretty boring. So I would make up stories to entertain myself in my head while I was counting cars. And really, very early on, teachers commented on my writing ability; that was always a strong source of support for me.
How is it that this future bestselling novelist became a nurse for 10 years, and did it influence your writing?
I was such a good girl in high school that when I got to college, I had to quick make up for all that, so I was a bad girl. I never went to class. Also, I didn't know what I wanted to do. And it occurred to me that if I wanted to be a humanities major, if I wanted to know about life, the last place to be was school, which was insulated from "real life." So I dropped out, and I got a series of jobs, and then it really came as a kind of epiphany: I decided that I wanted to be a nurse, in a kind of dramatic moment, and I wanted to hurry up and do it. I figured, I'll just go for 2 years and end up with an RN degree. So I did. And I really liked it.
It certainly informed my writing, oh my God. First of all, [many of my] characters are ex-nurses or, in fact, nurses. We were taught in nursing school to have what was called "unconditional positive regard" toward our patients, no matter who they were. And that's an amazing concept--I mean, try it for a day. It's really hard to do. Just accepting them for what they are. It makes you open your heart, and when you do that, people respond. So the relationships that you have in nursing are--it's an overused word--but they really are very special. When you see people so vulnerable and sick, they don't bullshit, you know. You are provided a unique kind of access into someone. That kind of emotional intensity and immediacy is something I prize, and that is in a lot of what I write.
It's certainly one of the central traits of your writing.
Yeah. I think it's only when you look back on your body of work that you begin to understand the pattern of what you're doing. I believe writers write the same thing over and over again, in different ways. There seems to be a central theme. When I look back on my own novels, it seems like I'm still nursing, like I'm still trying to heal, not only my issues, but characters who have issues who need to heal from that.
Somebody once said, "Your books ought to be in the self-help section," and it's true that, again looking back, I do pick issues. Talk Before Sleep was breast cancer, Durable Goods was coming to terms with an emotionally abusive father, Range of Motion was about understanding the extraordinariness of ordinary life no matter what befalls you--that's a book about a guy who's in a coma and his wife's unwavering belief she is not going to give in to what everybody else is telling her, that he's not going to make it. When I wrote it, I wanted to write a book that, no matter what happened--and I didn't know whether he was going to live or die--I knew that she would feel that she had come to this acute appreciation of her life. She was the kind of person who was a pretty happy person--that was hard to write! [Laughter.] A really happy person!
And a decent husband, too!
I know--everyone was so shocked. But I knew that I wanted to have her come to that place of deep appreciation regardless.
You're not really plotting or outlining in advance, but just starting with a feeling?
Yeah. Range of Motion, for example, was written because I wanted to write from the point of view of someone in a coma--there's a writing challenge. And I wanted to celebrate the extraordinariness of ordinary life; I wanted to make a big point about that. And I really like the 1940s, so I put in a ghost character from the '40s who lived in the house before the main character did. With Never Change [about a man with brain cancer and his nurse], the ending is the opposite of what I intended to do.
What We Keep is a book about a woman coming to terms with a mother who abandoned her and her sister 35 years ago. She's not seen her mother for 35 years and she goes back, and while she's on the plane, she reminisces. She goes back in time to that last summer with her mother. When I wrote that book, I just felt like writing the first scene. And it ended with, "That was the summer that Jasmine Johnson moved into town and changed our lives forever." I had no idea how that was going to happen or who this person was. I knew that after I wrote that scene, I wanted this exotic creature to move in next door to the most normal of 1950s families, and I wanted her to impact on every single member of that family in a different way. I wanted her to seduce every member in some way. And that's all I knew.
What would you tell developing writers about the issue of whether or not to plot or outline in advance?
I would tell them there are so many answers already inside them that they just need to pay attention to, and to try different things and do the thing that feels truest to them. Again, I think that people who look for a set of rules and regulations about how to write are missing the boat. It's magical. It's intuitive. It's creative. I mean, you can't put it in a box and parcel it out. You have to give yourself, I think, a lot of freedom. That having been said, other writers will tell you that they do plot, that they put things on index cards. So you have to honor your own way. And I think your way of doing things will tell you if you let it.
On the issue of whether you're a so-called "women's writer," do you write self-consciously at all for women?
No, I write for myself, but I happen to be a woman. I remember when that phrase was coined, in fact. It was after Talk Before Sleep, because in Publishers Weekly somebody said: "Berg may be creating a new form of fiction." And they called it "women's fiction," as separated from other things. It wasn't romance but it was "for women." And I think it was because Talk Before Sleep really did celebrate women's friendships, women's relationships. So then they started assigning that label to me.
One of the things I feel deeply grateful for is that when I get letters, when I go to readings, the audience for my books is predominantly women, but the age is from 8 to 80-something, literally. So the bulk of my readers tend to be women about my age--that is to say, in their 50s, 40s--but it's all across the board. And more men are coming on board. A lot of times the women make them [she laughs] read portions of my books, especially The Pull of the Moon, for some reason.
Your fiction offers a rather bleak view of relationships. Are things that bleak between the sexes, between spouses?
Two answers, one yes and one no. I think that there are basic differences between men and women, and I think what we need to do is honor those differences rather than chafe against them. I don't think men try to make women be like them, but I think women try to make men be like them, a lot.
And also, what I write is reflective of the life I'm living; maybe there's no getting away from that. I had problems in my marriage, and I think it's reflected in my writing a lot. Since I'm in a relationship now where I feel more compatible and more comfortable, and also more heard, by Bill [Young], I notice that I have a gentler take.
A woman at a reading asked, "Are the men in your stories all obtuse?" I said, "No, they're not." In fact, in Ordinary Life there's a story about a woman who just won't leave her husband alone--"Take This Quiz." She just won't leave him alone, until she breaks it. So she's the one who's obtuse in that situation. I just finished a novel from a man's point of view [Say When, due out next year].
You're very fond of writing in the first person. What does it offer you?
A kind of emotional immediacy. In fact, Open House I wrote originally third person past tense, and I just wasn't happy with it. I put it on the shelf for five years. I knew there were things in it that I liked, but I just didn't like the book as a whole. So all those years later I took it out again, rewrote it from the first person point of view.
I'm a really easy boss; if something emerges, I let it be; I feel there must be a reason for it. But most of the time I do write in first person. It's interesting, because I'm doing a novel now and I began it in first person present tense, and then I wrote a scene that was third person past tense, so now I'm debating, well, how do I want to do this? I think you have to be open to letting yourself grow and change as a writer.
Ordinary Life is your first collection of short stories. Can you compare the challenge of doing stories versus your novels?
I know that a lot of people say short stories are much harder. I don't find that to be true. I find them both easy and both difficult. The difficulty in doing a novel is sustaining it. I remember worrying, how am I going to remember what I said on page 1 when I'm on page 200? So keeping that level of intensity and interest up is the challenge for me in writing a novel. Whereas in a short story, it's this burst--it's done. I write them very quickly, so I'll finish it in a day, typically, and then I'll go back and edit it. But I tend to write with economy anyway, which you have to do in a short story, so I find both forms really pleasurable and, in fact, would like to do more stories.
Do you keep a daily regimen?
No, not at all. But I love to write, and I usually do write. The normal routine is, I write in the mornings, Monday through Friday. But, for example, now, when I'm trying to [outfit my new summer home] and all I'm thinking of is fabric and wall coloring and furniture, [I let the writing ride for a while].
For me, I can tell if it's a really good writing day; it just happens immediately that the words come and the metaphors and all that stuff; it's just happening. And other times it's more labored. I've learned that if writing is labored for me, don't do it; it's not going to be the stuff that I want to keep anyway. It will be flat, lifeless.
One of the striking parts of your writing book is the idea that writing should be play, should be fun. That goes against the grain, because we're brought up thinking that nothing of substance is supposed to be easy. You take the opposite point of view.
I guess it's a little strong to say it should be fun. I want to make the point that it is fun for me. You hear a lot of talk from writer after writer that "this is really difficult, oh God, I've got to force myself, I've got to open a vein, blah, blah, blah." I just wanted to say a word against that and say, well, that may be true for them, but it certainly is not for me. So don't decide for yourself that, "Well, I might as well get used to it; it's going to be really hard." I think it's really joyful. And I've gotten letters from people who have read my book on writing who have said, "You know, I felt weird that I thought it was so much fun, but now I feel OK."
You gave them permission to not feel guilty about having fun.
Yes! And I mean, don't you want to just do a little dance when you write a good page or a good moment? There's nothing like it.
What would advise writers about getting into that zone, that trance, where you become a "typist"?
For me, if I know that I have to leave in a while, I can't get there. The reason I try to schedule everything late in the afternoon is so it's not at the back of my mind that I have to do something. [But] I want to preface everything I say about other writers by saying you have to find your own way, and honor your own instincts. Some people get up at 5 in the morning and write before they go to work; that wouldn't work for me, because I'd be looking at the clock all the time.
I was listening to a Paul Simon song on the way up here and he talks about, "You want to be a writer? Find a quiet place and a humble pen." And I think that's it. I think it doesn't matter whether you write longhand or type or use a computer or use blood--just find a quiet place and something to write with and trust in what your self is trying to tell you it wants to do.
I think writing is really difficult compared to other arts. With a painter, you don't have an editor coming along and saying, "Move that blue a little bit over there." I mean, it's ridiculous! It's so fraught with shoulds and shouldn'ts and what a story is and what a story isn't. If you're going to write a short story it must have this, and if you're going to write a novel, it must have that. I don't believe that. I don't even think the people who say it believe it, because I think often times editors will tell you what they're looking for and then they get something completely different and say, "Oh, isn't it wonderful--it's totally unlike anything we've ever seen!" So how will that come about if people don't trust themselves to do something altogether different or uniquely their own?
Do you have any parting advice for developing writers?
It's helpful to remember if you're just starting writing that both magazine and book editors really want to find good material. I honestly believe that if you have some talent, you will get published. It's a matter of sticking to it and trying not to take rejections personally. Don't write for anyone but yourself, believe in yourself, and understand that this is a business: They need you as much or more than you need them. You wouldn't know it from the walls you run up against, but where are they going to be without new writers?
Ronald Kovach is senior editor of The Writer.