Meg Howrey: Writers on Writing

"I want to write a little bit more like a monster. It requires some practice in finding the right beasts to deploy. It takes a village of Godzillas."

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Meg Howrey
Photo by Mark Hanauer

Meg Howrey is a Los Angeles-based author of three novels: The Wanderers, about three astronauts training for a mission to Mars; The Cranes Dance, about a New York City ballet dancer; and Blind Sight, about the teenage son of a TV star. She is also the co-author, writing as Magnus Flyte, of City of Dark Magic and City of Lost Dreams, both of which were New York Times best-sellers. Howrey’s nonfiction has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Vogue, and elsewhere. Prior to becoming an author, she was a dancer with the City Ballet of Los Angeles and the Joffrey Ballet.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?

I have to answer this by talking about something other than writing.

A story from my dancing days: Once I had a ballet teacher – one of a number of sweetly terrifying Russians – who was coaching me through a solo. There was a sequence of steps within the solo that I felt very uncomfortable with and always danced rather badly. I thought these steps exposed my worst weaknesses as a dancer, and they filled me with shame. One day, after I had moped my way through the dreaded part of the choreography, my teacher stopped the pianist, walked over to me, and shoved me in the chest. “No. Bad. Why you do like this?” she asked. “You tall girl. Dance like tall girl. Do again.” I knew she was right but I was embarrassed and frustrated and 15, and my public response to self-loathing was sarcasm. I decided to prove how dancing like a tall girl was only going to make everything worse and amplify my awfulness. When the pianist picked up the music, I danced the steps like a monster of epic proportions. I gave my teacher the Russian equivalent of Godzilla, a total thrashing, stomping, clobbering version. I nearly knocked myself into the piano. My teacher brought the music to a halt and I waited to get the gulag. I do think she considered it, and certainly I deserved it. But my teacher was an artist and very wise. She gave me a full moment of punitive and terrifying silence and then she laughed. “See? Is not so hard,” she said. “Good. Now we make nice.” Well. Even I could recognize that it was the first time I had actually danced those steps. My previous attempts had only been a mixture of faking and thwarted ego. And even though I had just danced the steps in a ridiculous way, I’d done them. They weren’t beyond me after all. I even got interested in trying to go and make them nice, which I needed to do because the ballet was not, alas, about the destruction of Tokyo, and also Russian Godzilla was off the music.

How has that helped your writing?

I had to relearn that lesson as a writer. Same old problem in a slightly different costume. Luckily, self-doubt and being ashamed of one’s work is a boring problem, and it’s possible to lose your enthusiasm for maintaining it. Also, I came to see my version of it as essentially insincere. (More faking and ego.) If I really thought I couldn’t write, why was I writing almost constantly? What I needed was to conjure up my own inner sweetly terrifying Russian. What I’m talking about here is stuff that happens around the act of writing, but I hope I am getting closer to crashing into pianos on the page as well. I want to write a little bit more like a monster. It requires some practice in finding the right beasts to deploy. It takes a village of Godzillas.

—Gabriel Packard is the author of The Painted Ocean: A Novel published by Corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown.