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Juan Martinez Has Two Tips To Help Highly-Anxious Writers

The Colombian-born author shares some of his creative process.

Author Juan Martinez admits lots of uncomfortable things in Best Worst American, his new collection of oddball stories. Among them? His awkward, undeveloped boy-nerddom.

He talked to Anxy about how he uses 3x5 index cards to compile his story ideas, doodles and ramblings, and why he gets up at so early to write.

Tell us about the note cards. What do you do with them?

I keep them in a little index-card-sized metal box. That’s one of the many nice things about office supplies. There are little organizers for just about everything, random notes included.

I’m not a natural diarist or natural journalist. That’s why I like them. It’s a way of breaking things down to make things manageable because they don’t have to be very big. I just have to write one thing down every once in awhile. It keeps me grounded. It’s about being aware of what’s out there in the world and just jotting it down so you don’t forget. [The note cards] helped me keep that practice going and keep it honest and humble. You can’t really boast too much if it’s a little index card. There’s not room to have grand theories or anything.

You mentioned your writing day starts very early. How do you manage it?

It’s not natural to wake up at 5 a.m. It’s not easy. What helps is knowing that (for me) writing can be painful and terror-inducing, but not writing is this oppressive blanket of painful, terror-inducing dread that hangs over the whole day — so getting writing out of the way first thing is a powerful motivator. Most of it is just habits, good habits like programming the coffee-maker the night before.

Why write about yourself as an awkward boy-nerd?

Oh, that actually felt honest. I recognized myself. “Maybe give him 10 years. He’s going to be fine, you know, he’s going to be a functional human being. Blah, blah, blah.” That doesn’t really mean anything to that person at that moment. Things are going to suck. They’re going to suck for some time, and you just have to live with that.

You make a point in the book that it’s a work of fiction. But should we take that with a grain of salt?

I’m a fiction writer. I wouldn’t trust me with getting it right. These memories are many, many years removed from the moment when they occurred. I just went back to a period of my life and said, “What was I thinking?”

Writing boils down to trying to make order out of disorder — to tell a story that picks out what’s important. Even if you’re writing about chaos, about disorder, the very act of writing allows you to think through what is often just visceral, inchoate, difficult experience. So writing does help with life. It’s a lifesaver, because it allows you to remember that what you’re feeling is transitory — it really will pass — and you’ll be able to reflect on it.

That’s a core Buddhist thought, that our emotions aren’t real and that if we take a step back and allow emotions to rise up and we just examine them, and examine ourselves examining them, then we’ll make something out of them. I’m a terrible Buddhist, a lazy meditator, but I’m often struck by how the practice mirrors writing.

Interview by Matthew Zampa.

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