5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became an Author: “Play, persevere, and stay with the pain” with Gabrielle Glancy and Chaya Weiner
Play, persevere, and stay with the pain. There’s always pain in writing. But that’s ok. You can move through it to the other side. Expect rejection. Don’t let it bother you. Keep sending work out. And no matter what, keep writing . . . as the spirit moves.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gabrielle Glancy, an award-winning poet, essayist and novelist whose work has appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The American Poetry Review and many other journals and anthologies. Winner of a New York Foundation for the Arts award in Fiction, an Albee Foundation Fellowship and a Writer’s at Work Prize, Ms. Glancy has also been a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, Yale Younger Poets and The Colorado Prize. She is one of the translators of the acclaimed French writer Marguerite Duras. Ms. Glancy’s memoir I’m Already Disturbed Please Come In was chosen as one of the top books you may have missed in 2015 by The Advocate. Curve Magazine said about her novel Vera: “ . . . a queer gem of a book . . . wonderful, literary, sexy and funny . . . by turns mystifying, hilarious, admirable and hard to put down.” Ms. Glancy is also Founder & Director of New Vision Learning. She has helped thousands of students — all over the world — locate and get into the colleges of their dreams — the honest way and has written two books on the subject, The Art of the College Essay and Unstuck: How to Break Through Writer’s Block, Find Your Voice and Get Into the College of Your Dreams. She has recently been featured on NPR and USA Today.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I’m a writer who makes her money getting kids into Harvard (among other places ;-) — the honest way. I use everything I’ve learned from being a teacher, an admissions director, a poet, a dreamer and a born entrepreneur to help students realize their dreams.
So I have two simultaneous careers that are separate but related.
As a writer, I would have to say, I’ve always had an intense ability to observe what’s around me, almost clairvoyantly, and a natural inclination and talent for finding words for what I see. I seem to be most interested in trying to express the ineffable — that feeling you get when you have a déjà vu, when you are first falling in love, when you can sense that someone is about to die.
I had an intense writer’s block for a long time. I almost became a doctor because of it. Then one day, the floodgates opened. I never looked back. And I realized I could share my secret with the world, which is partly what gave rise to my career as a college essay writing guru.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
“Write a poem about Houdini,” I told my class of 10th graders many years ago. While they were writing, I turned over an old xerox to use as scrap paper and scribbled out a poem myself. A few years later, cleaning my desk, I found the poem. I couldn’t really read my own handwriting. I had to kind of make up what I thought the words were.
A few months later, at a writer’s workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I sat in on a class taught by Jorie Graham. I was signed up for the fiction writing class, actually, but I didn’t jibe with the teacher, so I snuck into Jorie’s class and slid into a seat in the back row. She was talking about the eels the Romans used to purify their water. I knew I was in the right place! When the class was over, she came to the back where I was sitting, and said, “Who are you?” I told her that I was supposed to be in the fiction class, but I found it intolerable so I snuck into hers. “Let me see something you’ve written,” she said. I handed her the only poem I had ever written to that point, the one I just described. It was called The Way the World Appears. “That’s genius,” she said. “It is?” “Send it to The Paris Review and tell them I sent you.” So that’s exactly what I did.
My first poem was published in The Paris Review. I felt so encouraged I went on to write thousands of poems after that. I guess I’m a poet, I thought. My first book of poems, almost all of which have been published, in great places, even The New Yorker, I titled The Way the World Appears. It was a finalist for the Walt Whitman Prize and for Yale Younger Poets.
The Way the World Appears has yet to be published. I wrote five other books of poetry. They’re still sitting underneath my desk. After I woke up from my hundred years sleep, I’ve been too busy writing to exhume them!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just finished my newest book Unstuck: How to Break Through Writer’s Block, Find Your Voice and Get into the College of Your Dreams. I’m busy promoting that book right now, giving interviews, speaking at events, doing book signings.
I have a few books in the wings asking to be written.
One is called One Gun about (my experiences with) gun violence in America, but the last time I sat down to write a chapter of that book, a gunshot flew through my writing cabin which is in the middle of nowhere. I’m not kidding! And since then, I’ve been, well gun shy, I guess you could say.
I do have an uncanny ability to manifest things. Seems like I get an idea and it comes to pass. So I have to be very careful what I ask for — and even what I think!
I’m not sure when, or if, I’ll get back to that book.
I hope one day to start a global think tank whereby lay people from all over the world are brought together in (possibly even virtual) roundtables to solve world problems such as global warming, Ebola, AIDS. I have this idea that intelligent people who don’t know anything about the ins and outs of the problem they are trying to solve come to it with fresh eyes — outside of academia, outside of corporations, outside of competition. I call this start up idea — ShareThatThought.com
I would be thrilled to one day make this a reality.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
I have cultivated my unique ability to free associate and move between worlds. I have a very porous mind. I absorb a lot, sometimes without even knowing it, and can see below the surface of life at the same time as living in it, if that makes any sense.
My mother tells me my first word was hippopotamus. I guess I have to believe her on that one. She also tells me that when I was about a year old, she would sit me on her lap and point to pictures in a book to teach me the words for things. She said I would deliberately mix them up. “Cucumber,” she’d say, pointing to the cucumber. “I would shake my head. “Turtle,” I would say. Then when she got to the turtle, I’d say “cucumber.” I’m not sure exactly what this says about me, but I guess I had a spirit of (word) play right from the get-go.
So I guess I would say I value the power of association and allow myself to enter into unknown territory. I never make myself write if I don’t feel like it, but when I’m working on a book or a project, I’m like a dog with a bone.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
I started playing tennis when I was eleven. By the time I was thirteen, I was teaching tennis to adults. I had natural ability. By all accounts, I should have become a world-class tennis player. Unfortunately, I had what I came to call “a jolt.” My wrist would quiver and all bets were off. The ball would tip the end of the racket and fly over the fence. Mouths would fly open. I mean this unexpected wildness threw everyone off. I didn’t realize at the time that I could still have become the champion I was destined to be if I hadn’t started to fear the inevitable.
One day, I read The Inner Game of Tennis. It changed my life. I came to understand that there was nothing to fear but fear itself. Although I did not end up reaching my highest potential in tennis, I learned a lot about myself and about what would become super-important to me — The Power of Positive Thinking.
I could have called Unstuck The Inner Game of Writing.
And I am sure my power to realize my own dreams, and teach others to realize theirs, comes in part from my experience with tennis.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
There is always a realm a hair’s breadth away in which you can access your deeper, higher, most powerful self. And you need access to that self to be successful — in writing, and in life.
But you don’t need a topic to start writing. You need to start writing to find a topic. Allow yourself to play. Feel in your body what that feels like. Return to that feeling when you’re writing and let the river take you.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
About twenty-five years ago, I wrote a book called Vera. I was living in London at the time. I ended up seeing an ad in The Herald Tribune placed by a literary agent looking for maverick American writers. His name was Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. I wrote him a 3-sentence cover letter that read:
I read your ad in The Herald Tribune. What you’re looking for describes me exactly. When I thought about writing you, I thought Why the hell not? Jonny Geller called me the day he received my letter. The next day I went to his office to meet him. He loved the book and saw its potential for great success. Unfortunately, 30 years ago, the book was way ahead of its time! It went all the way to the top at all the top publishers in the UK and the US, but ultimately, no one knew what to do with it. I found this process so painful — I found the marketplace so painful — so I went underground, like Rip Van Winkle, for almost twenty-five years. I kept writing, but I refused to send work out.
It was not until I saw Jill Soloway’s Transparent that I realized that the time was right for Vera, which had trans, non-binary, gender fluid characters in it. I took Vera down from the attic. Vera was published in 2015 and featured in Publisher’s Weekly.
I am now fully ready to take my place in the world of letters.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I read a lot of non-fiction — about relationships, food, quantum physics, cultural analysis and the power of positive thinking!
I have to be careful when I’m working on a new book because the style of someone else’s writing can seep into me and influence my own, even without my knowing it. Sometimes I use this to my advantage. I pull books off the shelf for inspiration.
I love reading sublime descriptions of the natural world and literature that touches on the mystery of life. For that, I pick up Leaves of Grass or Walden, even John McPhee or Annie Dillard. I really love great poetry, but am very picky! ;-). And then there is the likes of Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
I push the envelope while still being accessible. My hope is that what I write opens minds and hearts and shows readers that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [their] philosophy.”
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
Play, persevere, and stay with the pain. There’s always pain in writing. But that’s ok. You can move through it to the other side.
Expect rejection. Don’t let it bother you. Keep sending work out.
And no matter what, keep writing . . . as the spirit moves.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Some, or most, of these I’ve mentioned already, but here goes:
1)Accept your own flaws as part of the beauty and uniqueness of what you do and what you write.
2) Expect rejection and don’t let it bother you.
3) Keep your eye on the prize: I sent poems to The New Yorker for 10 years! Alice Quinn wrote back after the first poem I sent and told me to keep trying. I did. In April of 1995, The New Yorker finally published my poem An Exercise in Sadness.
4) Don’t be afraid to imitate those you respect. Imitation is the highest form of praise. There is much to be learned from the masters.
5) Write first, think later. The inner game of writing involves putting the thinking mind aside and allowing yourself to free associate. I wrote a whole book about this. It’s called Unstuck ;-)
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d like to think my book, Unstuck, could trigger a movement in how writing is taught — not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Teachers always speak to students about what the product is supposed to contain; they really say very little about process. I am sure this contributed to my own writer’s block. In fact, I would be wearing a lab coat with a stethoscope around my neck if I had not learned what I teach my students. I would train students in free association, in Write first; think later. Aside from that, I really do hope one day to get ShareThatThought.com off the ground.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on Facebook, both personally as Gabrielle Glancy, and for my business, NEW VISION LEARNING, and I have a Twitter account I barely use.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.