Love you to Pieces takes its title from the words of Clare Dunsford’s son J.P. in her essay, “Speaking of Love/Reading My Son.” The collection is organized by chronological age of the children in the stories, beginning with an essay by Vicki Forman. Vicki took the time to answer some questions about her essay, and writing in general, here:
“Coming to Samsara” is an essay that looks at the premature birth of your fraternal twins, and the events that flow from that experience, which is also the subject of your forthcoming memoir, This Lovely Life (Houghton-Mifflin, 2009). Which came first, the essay or the memoir?
VF: The essay is actually the very first piece of writing I completed after the birth of my twins. I remember sitting down at my kitchen table, ready to tell the story, or at least the start of the story, taking a deep breath and hoping against all hope that I could write something true and meaningful and not overly subject to self-pity. I also remember that the piece came out more or less all at once–something that rarely happens with me, since I am such a plodding writer who relies so heavily on revision to make something work. When the time came to write the book, I knew that the essay was probably also the beginning of the book, so I put it right there at the front. My task then became teasing out the essay, which is only about eight manuscript pages, into the first chapter of the book, which is more than four times as long. Proof that essays do indeed succeed best when they are mightily compact.
What were the challenges of writing the essay, versus the challenges of the book?
VF: With the essay, I’d never written about this subject matter before (death, disability), and I’d honestly never written anything so personal. When it was done, I felt both exposed and empowered, and then the real challenges began, to wit: convincing others that there was an audience for this material. When I placed the essay (with my great friend and editor Andrew Tonkovich at the Santa Monica Review), I was greatly relieved not only because it had found a home, but also because that freed me up to keep writing, and , more specifically, to begin the book.
Writing the book, the challenges were similar to writing the essay in terms of subject matter and the personal nature of the story. However, with the expanded landscape of the book came, naturally, additional challenges. First, while the essay is metaphysical in nature, I wasn’t interested in writing a book that was purely spiritual. There are many spiritual aspects to the book, but there is also a good dose of science, medicine, politics, and ethics. I knew that I wanted the book to have that scope, and while the book would have had tremendous value solely as a spiritual journey, my story and the story of our family also encompassed those other elements and I knew I wanted and needed to include them.
Second, with the book I rediscovered a principle I once read and often teach my students, to wit: in writing a book one must find a way to be extremely generous with the reader. The essay was eight pages of what interested me (Buddhism, Springsteen, grief, reincarnation) and my playing around with how to connect them. The book had to include what would interest the reader–as well as me. Before I began, and all along the way, I thought long and hard about what others would want to see and know about our story. I also gave the manuscript in draft form to a superlative reader who helped me see what else had to be included. Sometimes these weren’t elements I would have opted to include, sometimes they were, but they were always necessary. For example, my friend wanted me to write more about my own religious background and upbringing (which is the story of a mongrel) and even though I found myself less interested in the material, I made myself do it and now I see she was right. It’s a necessary inclusion.
Finally, writing a book is hard. No getting around that. An essay is over in a month or so; a book can take years to get out the door.
This Lovely Life recently won the Bakeless Prize for nonfiction. How does it feel?
VF: To quote my favorite songwriter Glen Hansard, “Brilliant!” I’m stunned and thrilled. I didn’t think anyone won book contests. When I was a kid, my mother once won a jar of mayonnaise from the supermarket. This feels like mayonnaise, but much much better.
In all seriousness–winning a book prize is the kind of break a writer dreams about. I am very grateful to the Bakeless folks, and to the judge, Tom Bissell, a writer whose work I have been happy to discover.
You are a writer and a teacher of writing, too. What advice do you have for beginning writers?
VF: Work hard and then expect to work harder. Be patient and persistent. It’s not only or always about talent–I’ve seen many talented writers give up and fall by the wayside. It’s about keeping at it.
What are the most common mistakes you see in beginning writing?
VF: A lack of specificity. I am like a broken record when it comes to this: be specific, be concrete. Abstractions don’t keep a reader’s interest. Then there is also the counter-error, which is the overabundance of detail. Details are necessary, but they must also feel purposeful. Selection is key. There’s more, but those are the main lessons I try to remember in my own writing and hope to impart to students.
What do you wish everyone knew about writing?
VF: I wish everyone who wrote understood how important it is to be honest and authentic as a writer and how that honesty begins with some pretty direct engagement with one’s self. I read Dorothy Allison once say that when she feels herself getting close to what is uncomfortable, that’s when she knows she’s on the right track. I would like to be able to give a writer that instinct in pill form. It’s one of the hardest things to learn, and the hardest thing to teach, but if you can do it, your work will soar.
How do you find time to write, and what is your process?
VF: For This Lovely Life, I drafted the entire manuscript in bed, with various props spread out around me: medical records, key inspiring books, etc. etc. Since then, I have read of many writers, including Collette, who liked to write in bed. It strikes me as a very secure place from which to let one’s mind travel, the most important ingredient for a draft, which, as a teacher once told me, is where you put on your “crazy hat.”
When it came time to revise, I packed up my computer and my sack lunch and took myself every day to my local public library where there were no distractions. I believe in writing every day, for as many hours as the day gives you. The very first pages of the book happened in the dark at five am, because my kids were still home at the time. It was all I had and I made it work.
As for the question of time, I wish you could hear me laughing right now! When I’m teaching, my writing life tends to take a pretty distant back seat. I continue to write a monthly column at Literary Mama and otherwise plot future projects in my head. That often includes reading and mulling things over, what my friend Bonni Goldberg calls “percolating.” I percolate a lot.
When I’m not teaching, I try to make the very most of the time, and use uninterrupted days or weeks to make headway on longer projects, which require a bigger head of steam to get going and stay going.
What projects are you working on now?
VF: After spending so much time in the world of nonfiction and true stories, I’m ready to lose myself a bit to fiction, and invention. I have a political novel I started several years ago, one that is set in Los Angeles and has the requisite natural disasters to go along with it (fires, earthquakes, etc.) Being a non-native to Southern California, I’ve always wanted to write a book set here, and so here I go. Hopefully I won’t be lambasted for inaccuracies or writing like a fellow traveler. In any event, I miss writing fiction, and I’m eager to dive in.