“You have to go after a story or an essay like a pit bull with a piece of raw meat, and you cannot stop. You cannot let anyone get in your way.” —Mira Bartók
Bartók’s advice appeared in the July 2018 issue of The Writer, and her words have stuck with me months later. But how do successful writers maintain a steady creative practice – hanging on their stories like pit bulls, barriers be damned – and still keep their key personal relationships strong? Curious, I asked Bartók, along with three other writers whose careers are well-established:
Mira Bartók is the author of the middle-grade novel The Wonderling and the award-winning memoir The Memory Palace.
Chris Dombrowski wrote the memoir Body of Water and two books of poetry. His work has appeared in over 100 journals, including Poetry, Orion, Outside, The Southern Review, and The Sun.
Hester Kaplan is an award-winning author of novels and short story collections (most recently, Unravished); co-founder of Goat Hill; and on the faculty at Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing program.
Jane Yolen, an acclaimed children’s book author, has written more than 365 books.
Three of the authors are married, and Yolen’s husband (a computer scientist) died a few years ago. Each of the authors has children (Bartók has stepchildren). During our conversation, we discovered that three of the four authors had a parent who wrote (although only two of the writers grew up with that parent).
How do you identify yourself, and how does that identity affect your key relationships?
Kaplan: I don’t generally call myself a writer, but instead I say I write.
Bartók: I identify myself as an artist who serves the idea, whatever medium it needs to be, whether it’s a novel, a play, a series of collages or drawings, a collaborative game design, or a movie treatment.
Yolen: I am a writer (I don’t say author except when pushed) and storyteller. Occasionally, I will call myself a poet. Most of my closest friends are writers or artists or musicians. (I am in a band!) The four words I call myself the most are widow, mom, grandmother, and writer/storyteller.
Dombrowski: I think of myself as a husband/partner/father first, then a writer.
Growing up, did you feel your parent had strict boundaries around their writing time?
Kaplan: My parents had strict boundaries around their work – which happened to be the work of writing. I grew up with an understanding that writing well requires determination and a great deal of discipline. I hope my children have come away with the same understanding.
Yolen: No. My mother mostly wrote when we were in school. My father wrote at the office, not at home. What I remember most is that even at 4 and 5, I had the complete run of their rather extensive library.
How do you structure your writing schedule?
Kaplan: I found that once I had kids, I needed to set a firm schedule for myself to write every morning, and I still follow that schedule today. The mornings are when my mind is not yet distracted, and I can write without censoring myself. In the afternoon, when I’m not teaching, I’m often revising, which requires the kind of tough, critical eye that isn’t so much in play in the mornings.
Bartók: I do office work all day on Monday, so it hopefully doesn’t spill over too much into my writing time. As for writing, I do my best work in the morning but can’t seem to get going until around 10-10:30. After 3 p.m., I’m toast. This year has been tough. I had three new head injuries in two years, and since I always have a permanent TBI (traumatic brain injury) from 1999, I can tell my brain has changed rather drastically. I have a very hard time concentrating and starting things, among other issues. It’s been really difficult to stay on task. I wake up and go to my studio to write, but the slightest thing can distract me. I’m hoping that, over time, this improves a wee bit.
Dombrowski: When it’s writing season – late October through May; I guide the rivers [as a fly-fishing guide] June to October – I try to write each day, starting early before the kiddos wake up, and breaking briefly to get them breakfast and off to school. I take breaks to walk the dog, clear my head by the creek, make an afternoon espresso, etc., but I try to stay at the desk most of the day. The productivity varies, but as Rodin said, I have no time for inspiration.
I used to be able to survive on a few hours each day early in the morning (before the world wants in), but as I’ve aged, and life has grown more beautifully complicated family-wise (my wife, Mary, and I have three children: Luca, 14; Molly, 10; Lily, 8), I’ve found I need far larger chunks of time to work in, more time to further divest myself from the rigmarole. Also, as I began to work with long-form nonfiction, I discovered I needed longer days to sort out issues that spanned, say, 70 pages.
Yolen: It has changed over the years. Once I thought I could write only in the mornings, but once we lived a semester in Scotland, I realized it was the light that was important. And during the summer, it is light till 11 p.m. May, June, July. Once I thought I could only write when a baby was asleep. Now, with no children in the house or grandchildren, I could write all day, but I try not to sit in one place, so have made walking outside a habit. But I do get in (usually) four to six hours of writing a day. When I am not on a book tour or teaching or visiting family.
Kaplan: When I’m deep into something I’m working on, the writing continues in my head long after I’ve left my desk. Sometimes doing the most mindless activity, like the laundry, actually cuts down the mental noise and helps me toss around answers to the questions I’ve been struggling with.
Which of the important people in your life is or have been affected by your artistic practice? How have you managed those relationships?
Bartók: My husband, who is a musician, has been affected, or rather influenced by me, as I have by him. Always in a good way.
My main goal is to try to get my friends to understand my need for long periods of solitude. My family totally gets it. My non-artist friends don’t. Nor do my needier artist friends. I guess I manage this by disappearing for about three weeks, then emerging for social activities for a week, then I go back into my den.
Yolen: My husband was completely supportive of my writing. (I’d already published poetry and journalistic pieces when we met.) And my children grew up knowing I was a writer. In fact, the youngest thought for years that writing was what all mommies did.
Dombrowski: The person most affected by my writing practice is also the most supportive, and that’s my wife, Mary. There’s no way I could have sustained a writing practice for roughly the past two decades without her spirit and steadiness – she’s also, for the better part of those 20 years, held down steady employment as an incredibly gifted elementary school educator, so there’s a practical nature to her support, too.
Our children are wonderful about it, too, very curious about what goes on in the writing shack out behind our house. It’s just a 10- x 12-foot outbuilding built by a friend, but there’s a loft bed above my desk that’s reserved for the girls and their books and colored pencils. They come in after school and hang out quietly. Luca, our 14-year-old son, seems to think it’s at least a novelty to have a writer for a dad. He tells his friends his dad is a “crazy poet,” which is inarguable at this point. I’ll bounce ideas off of him, he’ll ask what I’m working on. I got about 50 pages into a novella last winter, and I was telling him about the plot on the way to a soccer game – he stopped me and said, “Dad, that seems way too cliché,” and proceeded to give me some editorial suggestions.
How does your spouse/partner support your writing career? How do you think this has affected your writing practice and career overall?
Bartók: He leaves me alone! I couldn’t be with anyone needy. I did that once in my life for less than two years and vowed I’d never be with anyone needy ever again.
Yolen: He called me a genius and thought I wrote beautifully, but he was also my first reader and was willing to tell me when something had gone off the rails. He took the kids off for day trips to buy me writing time. He came to conferences when he could (especially once the kids were grown) and was more interested in befriending writers and illustrators than computer scientists! He also insisted on getting me out of my chair to take extended serendipity trips, so I had landscapes to write about other than my front yard.
Kaplan: My husband, who also writes, is my first reader. I know that he won’t pull any punches when he reads what I’ve handed him. I do the same for him. To have a reader who understands how a piece of writing evolves and finds its shape through revision is invaluable.
Dombrowski: Mary’s dragged me out of some pretty desperate situations, existential quandaries, if you will, over the years. She has not once given up on my work, nor has she allowed me to give up on it. She’ll still listen to me read new passages aloud, too!
How is managing the business aspect of your career different from the art of writing, vis-a-vis your most important relationships?
Kaplan: Like many people who write – and who tend to be introverted – I sometimes find the business aspect of my career not always easy to navigate. Talking about this with my family and friends is a way to start managing the challenges – and necessities – of self-promotion.
Yolen: My daughter has been my PA for the past 15 years, so we see each other every day (she lives next door). And together with our agent, my business stuff is handled. But I always read my contracts, keep an eye on movements in publishing, am very collegial with editors.
How is your creative practice affected by social interactions? Do you find yourself writing in your head when you’re with other people?
Bartók: I write in my head mostly when I walk in the woods every morning. Sometimes it happens in other random moments. It rarely happens in social situations, which tend to exhaust me. If I get an idea when I’m out and about with someone, and I need to write something down, I just do it and tell them to be quiet or something.
My problem is memory loss, so there’s always the chance that an idea will slip away. Anyway, I never do first drafts on a computer – everything is done in a sketchbook, along with drawings. If I make sure that I have a sketchbook in almost every room and with me at all times, I’m usually fine.
Yolen: I am thinking of story possibilities all the time, but I rarely write in my head – maybe a line or two of poetry. But at nearly 80, I have trouble remembering stuff if I don’t write it down. That’s different from [writing in my head] at parties or spacing out when folks (or dates with old men) fall into small talk.
Dombrowski: William Carlos Williams said – when asked how he managed to keep writing poems and practicing medicine – he said, and I paraphrase, that it has to be a continual conversation. I feel the truth in that notion. You have to be able to pick up a manuscript you set aside months ago and find a way to converse with it the way you would an old friend. On the best of days, this seems to transpire.
—Rebekah L. Fraser is the author of the novel The Orderly: a dark love story and the nonfiction book A Farmer’s Guide to Climate Disruption, both published in 2018. Her articles, creative nonfiction, and personal essays have appeared in publications throughout North America. To learn more about the author, her creative process, and upcoming works, sign up for her email list at bit.ly/RLFReaders.