Writing is not just for dead geniuses
Professor-writer Peter Grandbois examines how his teaching and writing fit together, shares what he’s learned about writing over the years and discusses how his latest book of poetry came about.
by DEANNA BENYO | Copy editor, future novelist
Peter Grandbois has written eight books, his latest, in 2017, being a book of poetry titled This House That. One of his favorite lines in the book, about “the barking odor of being alive” can be blamed on his two dogs. As a professor, novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, editor, husband and father, Grandbois has to maintain a tight schedule in order to make time for his family, his work and his writing. His writing, however, was nearly left off the schedule.
When somebody asks you what you do for a living what do you say?
“I actually say I’m a teacher, and a writer. I put it in that order. The teaching pays the bills more than the writing anyway, but also, it takes more time. I mean, the truth is that probably the smallest part of my day is writing. You try to have time to write but oftentimes you don’t. … But being a creative writing teacher, it’s so important to practice what you preach, … so I do try to write as much as I can.”
“I am inspired by my students. Just having the conversation about writing and about great books and great stories and poems inspires me and sometimes leads me to projects.”
Do you think that your teaching feeds into your writing or your writing feeds into your teaching?
“Definitely. Probably nowadays most writers are teachers, but there are definitely some that are not. … But I think there are real benefits to being a teacher-writer. … I am inspired by my students. Just having the conversation about writing and about great books and great stories and poems inspires me and sometimes leads me to projects. If I’m teaching a class on a particular subject I find that suddenly I might be writing something related to that subject. … And vice versa, so whatever I’m interested in in terms of my writing often leads into my teaching as well, leads me to think about new courses or new subjects within the courses.”
What does a typical work week look like for you?
“On a good work week I’m writing three mornings a week. … Oftentimes mid-semester I don’t get to write at all because it just gets too busy. … Then I go and teach my classes. Meet with students. Plan the classes or grade in the afternoon and evening. Then come home, drive my kids to various activities. … And then go back to grading or planning my classes for the next day.”
Being a teacher … that’s always something that I’ve been reluctant to do, because I know how much work it takes.
“I do believe … that teaching is an occupation that will suck everything out of you that you’re willing to give it. … One of my reading teachers gave me some good advice early on in my career, in my MFA program. She said, ‘Listen, when you become a professor, be sure and guard your writing time, because the university will keep trying to take more and more of your time and they won’t care.’ And it’s true. … Everybody needs time.”
How much time do you usually spend (writing) in the mornings?
“On a normal year when I’m teaching I might get three mornings a week for two or three hours, so anywhere from six to nine hours a week.
“Last year I had a sabbatical. Which was great. … I got paid to sit at home and write. I didn’t have to teach at all. I spent five hours a day every day, so, probably twenty five hours a week. Four or five hours, that’s my maximum, I think. Even four hours is tough … I get drained mentally by then, so I’m not as good at the end. But … if I could do it, I would do four hours a day. That would be amazing. Sometimes in the summer … I’ve done stints of a week or two where I can do eight hours a day, but it can’t last very long.
“I tell my students this and I believe it’s true, although I’ve been failing at it recently: if you could just find a little bit of time to write every day, or even every other day … that’s pretty good. I think the problem with writing is it does, for most people, myself included, take a little while to dip into that space where you can find the words. … It’s hard to just do it for a short time. Probably an hour would be the minimum. … But if you can do that, that’s worth it.”
This question is very important to me: are you good at sticking to deadlines?
“I don’t know if this will help you or hurt you, but I’m pretty good at sticking to deadlines. Not every writer I know is, especially poets. The poets I’ve known tend to be pretty bad at it, and also many writers, … so I don’t think it’s a precursor to being a successful writer. … Everybody has to go about it the way, you know, they go about it.
“For me the discipline has been important because I came to writing much later in life than most people do, so I already had a family, and a job, and a career, and so it became very difficult to juggle my time. So if I wanted to write I had to be very disciplined about it. I think if you start writing before that you don’t have to worry as much about that.”
So you had to fit writing into the structure of life that already existed.
I’m also curious to hear what your journey was, writing-wise, from high school to present time.
“It’s bit of a different journey from many people. I remember writing a poem or a story here or there (in elementary school), but not a lot, not very often. I certainly didn’t think I was going to be a writer. … By the time I got to be a senior in high school the thought about being a writer entered my mind, but it still seemed way too scary and far away.
“The idea of being a writer, that seemed like … you had to be this dead genius person, that was a writer. I couldn’t possibly do it.”
“I came from a sort of working class family. Neither of my parents went to college. We didn’t have a lot of books around our house, we had a lot of TV. So, the idea of being a writer, that seemed like … you had to be this dead genius person, that was a writer. I couldn’t possibly do it. So that fear kept me away from it for a while, but I did write off and on in college as an undergraduate. And then was rejected promptly a couple times by the University of Colorado literary magazine, and so, gave up writing for a while thinking I was untalented and couldn’t do it.
“Something just clicked in me, and I realized that time was wasting, that I was getting older, and if I didn’t start doing something with this thing that I loved, I would never do it.”
“Then I got involved with life. I was into the sport of fencing for a while, I did a lot of different jobs, I started a family — well, I got married, anyway. Then somehow, about a month after my first child was born, I started to write again. And something just clicked in me, and I realized that time was wasting, that I was getting older, and if I didn’t start doing something with this thing that I loved, I would never do it. So I overcame my fear, this fear that I wasn’t good enough or wasn’t smart enough, and just started writing.”
Was there anything that you wished you knew about the writing world when you first started out in it?
“I wish that I knew to take it more slowly. I think when you’re just starting out you try to rush through everything. You wanna find success, and you don’t realize it takes a very long time. You try to get things out to be published and they might not be as good as they could be. … I wish somebody would have told me just to take it slower and just relax a little bit. And to enjoy that part of it. I think that’s important.
“I kind of learned this myself … but I wish maybe somebody would have told me a little earlier. To me success is not measured by the number of books sold or the amount of money made. It’s about touching another person with your work, and if I can just touch one other person, I feel like it’s a success.
“I learned pretty quickly … your ego takes a bruising. You get a lot of rejections no matter what you do. Whatever art, whether it’s performing arts, music, action, etc., or painting, or writing, you’re gonna be in for a lot of rejection. No matter who you are, how successful you are. And that bruises your ego and beats you up for a while. You start to realize, even if you do get something published, it’s probably not gonna sell a lot. The average book, even from the major publishing houses, … sells five thousand copies. And you get about sixty cents a book, so that means you make maybe three thousand dollars on something that took you several years to do. And that’s a success.
“You realize pretty quickly your ego has to readjust, and that you need to either decide how you want to find success, or do something else.
“(It) took me a little time, but I realized that those sort of numbers weren’t as important to me and all I wanted to do was write something that I thought was good, … (and) hope that it touched somebody else. And I think I’ve done that.”
Was there anything that you were scared or nervous about when you first started writing?
“As I kind of said a little bit before, I never had confidence that I could be a writer. I was always afraid of actually saying I was a writer … or trying to commit to that because I didn’t think I was smart enough or good enough. … You know, my first book was actually my most successful commercially. It did very well. Sold a lot more copies than the average, and it was contracted to be a movie a few times. … It won awards and stuff. But even then I still didn’t believe I could be a writer, that I was good enough. … (It) took many years and a few books to realize, ‘Okay, I can do this. It’s okay, I don’t have to be afraid of it anymore.’”
What inspired you to write This House That?
“I didn’t start out with any particular inspiration. I was just writing poems and then realized that … I had a lot of poems that dealt with difficulties in a relationship — about how hard it is to love someone sometimes despite your best efforts. … Once I realized that, I started collecting them together … then it was with more focused effort, to say, ‘Okay, let’s mine this material and see what I want to say or have to say about it.’ But it didn’t start out right away that way. I was just writing whatever was inside me each morning, basically.”
So did these poems come out of your own relationship with your wife?
“Yeah! So they’re very personal poems, and that way it is a bit like confessional poetry. They’re very much about a difficult time with my family.
“I wanted to get … away from the sort of fairy tale happily-ever-after that most movies and stories … end with. You don’t really get to see what else goes on. Any relationship that lasts a long time, at least, any one I’ve ever seen, goes through difficult times … when you have to try to struggle through that love and look for ways to rekindle that love … and I don’t think that gets talked about enough. We tend to focus on just the romance part of it and leave out the rest.”
What was most challenging about writing these poems? Was it the emotional element to it?
“Yeah, I think it actually was. Any time you’re a writer, if you’re being truthful, even if you’re writing fantasy or some sort of fiction, there should still be an emotional core that has part of your life in it. I think that’s one of the most difficult things about being a writer or an artist — facing yourself and facing that emotional core, those things in your life.
“Akira Kurosawa, who’s a Japanese filmmaker, says being an artist means never having to avert your eyes, and I think that’s true.
“I think it’s also quite difficult if you’re writing a book that you know … affects other people in your family. … (That) was a tough thing to get past, because you realize you have to shut down that filter that says, ‘Wait a second, your kids are gonna read this.’ You can’t say that. That becomes its own censorship device, that, if you really want to write truly and write your own personal truth, you have to try to shut off, and that can be difficult.”
“I’ve reached a point in life where poetry is the form that speaks most directly to the human spirit. … I think it’s been the form that’s probably most connected with those deepest parts of ourselves, and gives us the most direct access to that, and I want to write that.”
Are you continuing to write poetry?
“Yes. I started out as a fiction writer many years ago … but for whatever reason, for the last few years now I’ve been obsessed with poetry. … I find the endless permutations of form to be fascinating, that the endless possibilities with a line break are fascinating. There are so many possibilities that I just enjoy writing poetry so much, because of those formal choices that you have to make. But also because I think I’ve reached a point in life where poetry is the form that speaks most directly to the human spirit. … I think it’s been the form that’s probably most connected with those deepest parts of ourselves, and gives us the most direct access to that, and I want to write that. I don’t feel that I want to play around with plot anymore, which seems a sort of distraction. I want to get right to the meat of things.”
What are you working on now in your life?
“I haven’t had a chance to write much of late because this semester just has been so busy. … So that’s been frustrating. But I am just finishing up a third book of poems. … Each poem is in conversation with a historical figure who suffered from a mental illness. That’s sort of the conceit to the book of poems, and it covers from the classical age Greeks, all the way up through Medieval and Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, up to contemporary America.
“Mental health issues have been a big thing for my family, … and there’s not a lot of talk about that in this country. … I’m trying to have these poems converse with these figures who have sort of been silenced because of their mental health issues. So hopefully it’ll bring up something in terms of the conversation.”
I think the thing that interests me the most with that is the fact that it’s you looking at historical figures, because even when we do talk about mental illness in this day and age it’s in this day and age. We don’t ever talk about the past.
“Right. Yeah, it’s kind of interesting to see this long list. … Of course, many people suffered greatly because of their mental health issues, but also many, even if they suffered, they achieved great things. So that’s also kind of interesting, to see that that stigma that you’re on the outside of society is not always true.”
Is there anything else that you think I should know about your writing, or writing in general? As an aspiring author?
“Well, I think you hit on the main things. The other stuff, people said it in lots of other interviews … if you read, read, read, and keep reading, and write a lot, that’s the only way to get better. … You can’t become better by not doing it. So, … schedule time for yourself and get some writing done. That’s the best thing to do. And it’s good for you too.”
Yes, it is, I know, my mental health does suffer so much when I can’t write.
“Yep, that’s me too. I think in the end the writer does it because they have to, because most of the time you’re not going to make a lot. I mean, there’s the one-in-a-million person that makes money on it, but most of the time you’re not going to. So it’s really there because it’s something that’s very important for you to do, because you love it and because it brings you happiness. And that is really important.”
Despite how scandalized I felt when Grandbois claimed plot as a distraction, so much of what he had to say resonated with me. He talked about writing as a serious endeavor that, for a true writer, is vital. Yet he also made it clear that writing must be done deliberately. So many of the activities in our lives — namely teaching for Grandbois — will expand to take up what time we give them, so we must be disciplined with our time. I struggle with this, but perhaps I can manage it for something I love.
Grandbois also gave me some writing adviceI had never heard before: He advised me to take it slow. This is in great contrast to what my dad (disclaimer: a businessman) once told me: I had to publish a book before I was out of high school if I wanted to make it as an author. Frankly, I’m inclined to listen to Grandbois.
How can I properly put into words what this interview has given me? I can hear a wisdom in Grandbois’s words that goes beyond the mechanics of writing and into “those deepest parts of ourselves.” He touched upon such concepts as self-image, family, failure, time management and what it means to succeed. I’ve dealt with these concepts before, of course, discussed them, pondered them. But there’s something about having a stranger take time to speak with me about these matters that gives them extra weight.
Someday, I will be the stranger.
This interview has been edited and condensed.