Alexis Landau is a graduate of Vassar College and received her MFA from Emerson College. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.
The Empire of the Senses is her first novel.
1. The ‘Writing Mindset,’ Debunked
“If you show up for the muse consistently, then she will start showing up for you.”
There is no “writing mindset” — if I waited for that, I would never write. The only thing that helps is sitting down every day, at the same time (roughly) and having peace and quiet, even if it is just an hour, to think, without the pressures of the outside world. I don’t check email or take any phone calls. It is a reserved time, just to ponder and explore various ideas, scenes and characters. Mary Oliver once said something about how if you show up for the muse consistently, then she will start showing up for you consistently, as if the psyche knows that you are writing and preparing, and so after time, you get something back, but you have to be there to receive it, no matter how painfully slow or awful you think it’s going.
I also try to remember not to dismiss any idea, no matter how arbitrary it may seem in the moment, because sometimes the small detail, or phrase later generates a great scene or moment in the story which was unexpected, whereas oftentimes you think writing a certain scene is going to be so monumental and important, and you start to write it, and it falls flat because you’ve built it up so much in your mind. I always try to remind myself that what makes something interesting are the small human details and moments, not the grand sweeping gestures.
2. Writing Quirks.
“My favorite place to write is in the conference room of my father’s office.”
In terms of quirky traits when writing, I would say coffee is paramount — double shot cappuccinos — and maybe not running out of snacks. It is really hard to write if you get too hungry, but a little sting of hunger can actually help — that desperation, felt on a physical level, can inspire me even more to keep going, with of course the knowledge that at some point, I’ll get to eat.
My favorite place to write is in the conference room of my father’s office — I know it sounds strange, but it is always dark, quiet and infused with the fact that “real work” is being done all around me so I better get to work too. Where I can’t stand to work is in a café. I’ve tried to do this many times, but I always overhear conversations about various yoga practices, insane diets, and sweat lodges — I live in LA, so that’s what one hears. Sometimes I can work at home, but I have two young children so if they are awake, that proves impossible.
3. Writer’s Block.
“What is it about the material or the theme that I can’t figure out?”
So far, I have not really had real writer’s block — but if I do feel temporarily blocked or hesitant or unable to write something, I stop and think about why — what is it about the material or the theme that I can’t figure out? Maybe there’s something operating on a deeper level that I’m not being honest about, don’t want to fully face, or that I don’t really care about. If I really care about something, and feel that I must communicate it, then that urgency takes over and guides me, but if I don’t care enough, then I suppose that’s when I’d experience writer’s block.
“Losing myself in the stacks is the first step toward finding the story.”
To begin, I usually start with a combination of characters as well as more abstract themes and ideas — one or two characters that are vivid and strong in my mind is enough to get me started, then minor ones eventually emerge. But setting and location — the city, the climate, the geography — and time period is essential to my process and I like to research a lot first, reading a number of books and looking at various photographs from the era to get a sense of how things must have looked and felt, before I can really delve into scenes and characters. I love research and I love the old dusty antiquated library stacks — losing myself in the stacks is the first step toward finding the story.
5. Develop the Fragments.
“The best ideas happen at any time, so one must be ready to receive them.”
The best ideas happen at any time, so one must be ready to receive them — I’ve written down thoughts while driving on the freeway (not recommended) or while listening to music in my car, or an idea will come when I’m doing something entirely different from writing (cooking driving, taking care of my children) — a phrase, an image, or an idea for a character or scene — will arise and the important thing is to write it down, otherwise I’ll forget it entirely later on. Then when I’m actually at my desk, I will develop the fragment, and see if it becomes something real, that I can use, or if it is just an ephemeral aspect of the creative process that doesn't serve the story.
6. The First Words.
“Have the confidence to cut.”
The first words of the story oftentimes remain the first words with little revision. But other things get cut, added, or totally rewritten. I tend to overwrite so my main task is usually cutting away details, scenes and even characters that just end up slowing down the pace of the narrative. Even if something is interesting and well written, if the tension of the story is lost or lags because of it, I cut it. Sometimes this is hard, but it really helps to have outside readers advise you to get rid of it, and to have the confidence to cut, which is hard but ultimately useful.
7. A Set of Limitations.
“Without any planning, the process feels too rudderless.”
I start a novel by usually writing up a 3–5 page summary of what the main plot points are in the narrative and what each character’s arc is with the knowledge that I am writing this for the very purpose of later deviating from it. If anything, having some kind of outline/treatment helps me feel free enough to change things radically later on. Without any planning, the process feels too rudderless, as if sinking into an abyss with too many possibilities — sometimes having a set of limitations results in greater creative freedom.
This article originally appeared on Biographile.