Posts Tagged how I became a writer
In search of enhanced weirdness – novelist Kate Brandt @kbrandtwriter
Posted by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris in How to write a book on March 20, 2023
Kate Brandt likes her work to pose the biggest, deepest questions. She’s a shortform writer (essays, travel writing and short stories) but when she embarked on a novel she knew she’d found her instrument. It allowed her, she says, the luxury of ‘creating a world without having to fit what I have to say into a shorter form’.
I like my writing to go deep. I use writing to pose and puzzle out the questions I ask myself in life — who are we, and what are we doing here. Not too long ago, I went to a lecture of a literature professor I had in college –Lee Schlesinger. Lee spoke in that lecture of ‘the enhanced weirdness of the universe’. I want my writing to reflect that weirdness.
I love that! I think I’ve always looked for enhanced weirdness too.
I’ve struggled with depression most of my life, so the question for me throughout the writing of my novel Hope for the Worst was: what do we do with our pain?
You describe Hope for the Worst as ‘informed by experiences of Tibetan Buddhism, magic, self-delusion, desire, despair and healing’, as well as your own travels in Tibet. How do they combine into one story?
There are different kinds of magic. One kind of magic is the it-can’t-be-true kind of magic we see stage magicians produce—rabbits are pulled out of hats; women are cut in half, but live. But there is another kind of magic also, which is the magic of being enchanted by someone.
We all know what it is to fall in love–how the world shifts and everything glows and seems to have a deeper meaning. There’s a poem by a Polish poet that reads something like this: Now that you’re gone,/a glass of wine is just a glass of wine again. That is the kind of magic I wanted to capture in Hope for the Worst, which is really about passion and the way it lifts us higher than we’ve ever been, but can also drop us into free fall from a great height.
In the novel, Ellie, who is in her 20s, gradually falls in love with her much-older Buddhist teacher Calvin. Ellie is at a low point in her life—quite disenchanted by what she finds in the capitalistic frenzy of 1980s New York City. She is also carrying emotional trauma from the breakup of her family, and as a result, she is leery about humanity in general. Calvin seems like exactly what she needs —he is shiny and distracts her from the emptiness of her life, and he also seems to have the answers to all the puzzles she hasn’t been able to solve.
When Ellie is later rejected by Calvin, it’s a catastrophe for her. In the end, it’s her women friends who not only help her heal, but also help her realize that we have to save ourselves.
The title has quite a twist.
The title is an ironic twist on the notion of tantra. Most Westerners think of tantra in the sense of tantric sex, but a definition that I have heard is ‘everything in the service of enlightenment’. This means that you don’t shy away from the ugly aspects of life—anger and despair. Rather, you learn to use them as energy for transcendence. In the story, Ellie’s life comes to a point where it really feels like it couldn’t be worse. The only hope is that she’s hit bottom – there’s no place to go but up.
Are you a practising Buddhist? Or anythingelse-ist?
I’m very serious about Buddhism. It is my go-to for answers and my belief system. I’ve studied, read many books, and had certain experiences that have helped me realize, rather than just conceptualize, aspects of Buddhist philosophy. But when it comes to actual practice, I am half-assed at best. I do try to meditate 15 minutes every day, and I’ve been to one short retreat, but I’m no yogi, unfortunately.
You took an MFA. What did you gain from that?
I completed an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. I was 35, and most of the other students in the program were in their 20s, so I didn’t fit in with many of them. The MFA gave me the time to write, and also gave me the chance to meet one-on-one with teachers, which was really helpful to me.
To be honest, I don’t always find writing workshops helpful. There are 15 people sitting around a table, and each of them gives you feedback that seems to contradict the feedback of others. Also, these people may not yet be experienced writers, and have their own agendas. Most valuable for me were the one-on-one meetings with teachers who were experienced writers themselves, and felt no competition with me. I learned some valuable lessons from my teachers there—Joan Silber, Kathleen Hill and Myra Goldberg—and I’m very grateful.
In the end, what was most transformative was the friends I made there. We’ve stayed friends, and we now have a writer’s group that I simply cannot imagine my life without. These are women I have grown through decades with, sharing marriages, the births of children, and various catastrophes like cancer and divorce. They know me as well as or better than I know myself, and I can trust them with my work and my not-always-confident self.
When did you decide to take your writing seriously?
I first started to write when I was backpacking around the world in 1986-87. There were so many moments when time seemed to stop, and I wanted to capture those moments and feelings. I kept a journal of my experiences, and when I returned, I kept writing.
What I’ve realised over the years is that writing is a necessity for me. I’ve mentioned that I’ve often suffered from depression. Writing was, and is, an escape, and I take it seriously because I want what I write to be worth reading.
What writers have steered your style or opened your eyes?
I suppose Joan Didion has influenced me, as she has so many. For this book, I would name Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder as models for this kind of story — you go someplace far away, and it changes you.
Was anyone in your family a writer?
My father is a writer. He’s been a huge influence on who I am. When I came home from elementary and middle school, I would go up to his study and he would sit in an armchair and read aloud to me from the classics, while I lay on the rug underneath. When I got older, he would slip typewritten poems by Wallace Stevens under my door, and give me books to read. He taught me the joys of the life of the mind, and the way that the world of books could be an escape and a refuge.
But we have also had a rocky relationship ever since I was 14. I saw first hand the impact that writerly ambition can have on loved ones, and have consequently tried to distance myself from the egoistic, compare-myself-to-other-writers aspect of writing.
You’re also a teacher in adult literacy. Is that something you’ve always done?
My entire adult working life has been spent in the field of adult literacy. I fell into it by accident, but immediately realised how lucky I was to have happened on to it. People treat each other like human beings. Imagine that, in a workplace.
Teaching is a wonderful complement to writing, because it’s creative, but in a different way from writing. And it always gives back. I’ve been teaching since 1990, and I am very fortunate to work with some of the most creative and dedicated co-workers you could wish for, learning along with them, and with the adult students who pass through our classrooms.
Of course, my favorite aspect of the job is teaching writing. My students are mostly immigrants and the working poor. It’s pretty much a given that they have been through multiple traumas. Their stories are very moving, and I feel privileged to help them get those stories out.
What are you working on next?
Nothing. And I’m very depressed about it. It’s been very difficult to finally finish a 10-year project, and then start all over. I’m trying to coax myself gently into being a beginner again.
Are you happiest writing or revising?
Writing is that fantastic flow experience when every word seems to come on its own and you think you’re a genius. It’s wonderful, but to me, revision is queen. I always ask visual artists: is there a point at which you can no longer save a painting or drawing? I am so grateful that, with writing, you can always go back to the drawing board.
I revised this novel extensively. When I look back through my old Word documents, I chuckle because the names of the documents are increasingly desperate. There’s ‘If at first you don’t succeed’, ‘Try, Try, Try’ and my favourite, ‘Ahhhhh’. To me, trying to figure out how the parts of a story need to fit together is like struggling with a Rubik’s cube.
What’s your process?
My process is to write the best draft I can, then give it to my writer’s group and get feedback. Those friends are my eyes, and help me see the story differently when I can’t see it clearly myself for the life of me. This was a long process, and there were times when I doubted whether I could pull it off, but they believed in me and kept me going.
Early bird or night owl?
I’m a morning writer. I think I’ve heard that morning writers are analytical writers, while night writers are intuitive.
What’s on your writing desk?
I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but most of the time I write sitting up in bed.
Five books you’d save if your house was on fire:
The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer. My father gave me this book when I was in my teens, and I still love it. Zimmer was the less well-known teacher of Joseph Campbell, and his writing about Eastern religion and philosophy was formative for me.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Magic! This may be the only book I’ve ever read twice.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, by Suzanne Clarke. Magic!
Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey. When I read this book, I saw what could be done with the epistolary form.
One Night Two Souls Went Walking by Ellen Cooney. Such grace!
Find Kate Brandt on her website, Facebook and tweet her on @kbrandtwriter . Find Hope For The Worst here.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
How I made my writing career – novelist, writing coach and educator Connie Biewald
Posted by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris in How to write a book, Interviews on May 24, 2021
How do you get a career working with words? We each have our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their lives, have been recognised with awards and grants and have become a guiding light for other writers. Today: Connie Biewald, who teaches literacy and creative writing to both children and adults, and is about to publish her fourth novel, Truth Like Oil.
Roz How did you start writing?
Connie As soon as I could hold a pencil. My first novel was about two friends, entitled Josie and Susan. My mother typed it up and made carbon copies. (That shows how old I am.)
I always read and I always wrote. When I read this Eudora Welty quote, it resonated. “Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.”
I look back at journals from elementary school and I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer. There were other ideas like being a pathologist—I thought cutting up dead bodies would be interesting. But teaching and writing were the through lines.
Roz Was anybody influential in this?
Connie My schooling felt boring and restrictive. But in fourth grade, I had my first experience of a teacher reading aloud to us. We put our heads on our desks and for a beautiful half-hour I was happy in school. I wasn’t even in school. I was in the NY subway with Mario and his cricket, (George Selden’s Cricket in Times Square) on the Saskatchewan prairie with the owls, Wol and Weeps (Farley Mowat’s Owls in the Family). And time passed more than pleasantly. I was not used to that happening in school.
My mother read to me before bed. I remember one night listening to Louisa May Alcott’s Old Fashioned Girl, watching the clock hit the 8:30. My mother was not one to extend bedtime by a minute, yet the big hand kept moving. There were more pages to the chapter. The combination of anxiety and wonder…the power of literature to make even my mother forget the clock.
Roz Were any of your family in the creative arts or are you the trailblazer?
Connie My parents encouraged creativity—all that typing my mother did! One of my brothers is a musician. Our mother loved genealogy and sewing. Our dad was an industrial arts teacher. They built all our furniture.
Roz Did you do other jobs before you concentrated on literary arts?
Connie Literary arts were always my passion on the side. I was realistic about needing money. I worked in a bakery in high school which provided material for my book Roses Take Practice. I also worked with children through high school and college which became the foundation of my career in education. I didn’t want to do a job in literary arts, thinking that it would take my writing energy away. And I think I was right. I have been able to write what I want.
Roz How did you start to prioritise writing?
Connie The first writing I did with real intention of publishing was after college when I took a day care program director’s job so I could use the morning for writing. That book later became Digging to Indochina. When my children were young I wrote every Saturday morning.
That was enough for a while. As my kids got older I was able to go away to residencies. Grace Paley, my most significant mentor, said, “If you want to be a writer, keep your expenses low and don’t live with anyone who doesn’t support your writing.” I’m grateful to my parents for providing childcare while I went to workshops and residencies and to my husband who has never questioned my need to write.
Roz If you went back to age 16 and saw where you are now, what would your thoughts be?
Connie At 16, I was a mess. I had an idea that if I was going to be a writer I needed to have as many life experiences as possible and some of those experiences were risky. And some were psychological issues as much as intention. I’m lucky I made it through.
Roz What would you tell your younger self?
Connie I’d tell myself, “You will still have these female friends when you are 63. The approval you are craving from these boys doesn’t matter. You’re so much more beautiful in every way than you realize right now.”
Roz That’s exactly the kind of advice we can’t believe at that age.
Moving on, you have four novels – Bread and Salt, Roses Take Practice, Digging to Indochina and – about to be published – Truth Like Oil. Do they share any common themes or concerns? What makes a Connie Biewald novel?
Connie Connie Biewald seems obsessed with 17-year-olds. There’s something very powerful to me about that age. My novels all seem to have this theme—life is tough, but ultimately worth it. And power fascinates me.
Roz Did any of that come from your life experiences?
Connie Yes! The first three books seemed to come from within—Digging to Indochina and Roses Take Practice are autobiographically inspired fiction from my own experiences. Bread and Salt is a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life, coming of age between World War I and II in Germany.
Truth Like Oil is different. When I finished Bread and Salt I thought I’d written everything I had to say. I was being pushed to write nonfiction about my work and parenting, but that wasn’t fun for me. I write to escape my daily life; not that it’s a bad life, but people crave escape and writing is mine. I had an effective writing habit established , but nothing to say.
At a reading, an audience member asked what I was working on next. I said I had no idea. My mother, who was also in the audience said, “You do have another grandmother, you know.” This was true, but I was not close to her. At that point she was in a nursing home and pretty bitter, also very racist. I wasn’t interested in writing about her, though she did become the inspiration for Hazel in my novel. Then a new character, Nadine, a Haitian-American nursing assistant, began whispering in my ear.
I travelled to Haiti because of her. I wanted to understand her background. I ended up returning to Haiti for the next decade, working on literacy projects with teachers and kids at Matènwa Community Learning Center on Lagonav—all because of Nadine. It’s amazing that a fictional character had such a powerful impact on my life.
Roz Three of your books are self-published with iUniverse…
Connie I had folders full of positive rejections that all said ‘We don’t know how to market/categorize this book. Is it commercial or literary, young adult or adult?’ My dad kept suggesting self-publishing but I resisted.
Roz You were reluctant to self-publish?
Connie For me there was something shameful about self publishing. But whenever I ran into former students or their families, they’d ask about my books. I was tired of having no publishing news.
I picked the book least important to me, Digging to Indochina, and put it out. It was a big success. And fun! I did lots of readings, and won some awards. IUniverse republished it as one of its star award books. Then I published the others. I wish I’d had the benefit of a developmental editor like I had at Vine Leaves Press. They would all have been better books. Yet I am still proud of them.
Roz Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press – how did you find your way to them?
Connie On the website, Vine Leaves says it seeks work that blurs the line between commercial and experimental. I sent the novel and forgot. When I received an acceptance, I was thrilled. My school had just switched to online teaching because of the pandemic and it was a shock to all of us and the technology was tough for me. At that point there was so much fear. The publishing offer was a giant consolation prize. The Vine Leaves developmental editor told me to cut 60 pages and helped me do it. I knew I was in good hands.
Roz All writers have to build a relationship with their readers. What are your thoughts on this?
Connie Marketing is a stretch for me as it is for many writers. I’ve depended on word of mouth. I need to step it up and am not sure how. I signed up for a three-session class at Grub Street.
Roz What other kinds of publishing do you do? Short stories, personal essays… Do you do that too?
Connie Sometimes. I do have short writings on my website. But novels are my thing. Once I know a character well enough to write a short story about them, I’m attached enough to write a novel.
Roz Me too. My soul works in longform.
You also have another defining role – for several decades you’ve taught reading and writing in schools, including a programme for homeschoolers. And you’re a librarian and growth education specialist. Education seems to be a personal crusade for you.
Connie Thank you for noticing that! I really enjoy being with kids. I appreciate their energy, their sense of humour, their ways of looking at the world. I’m constantly learning from them. So many of our issues with power start with how we were treated as children.
As a progressive educator, I think deeply about teaching and how we teachers use our power. I use the way the environment is set up and the schedule and the kid culture of the classroom as much as possible, instead of being an adult who tells kids what to do. I always strive to understand each kid and their interests, strengths and challenges.
I struggle with the fact that I am a better teacher than writer. There’s a passage in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life about how no cares if you write. They’d rather you do things to benefit them! And I think about Grace Paley’s poem which I love, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” about people preferring a pie to a poem. But I need writing to make me a happy teacher and a happy baker so that’s something.
Roz Being a teacher requires considerable energy. As does writing. How do you juggle these demands?
Connie Grace Paley talked about how balance is impossible. At any time in life, one demand supersedes another. That’s okay. During certain times in my teaching year, I can’t write at all. During the summer, I don’t teach so I have lots of time to write. When I was parenting young children it felt much more difficult than it feels now.
Roz You’re building a body of creative work and helping others to flourish. Are you living the dream?
Connie You know, I really am. I never thought of it that way until you asked. I love having grown children who more than earn their carbon footprints and the time that frees up to do my own thing.
Roz What do you like to read? Are there any writers who changed you, either as an artist or as a person?
Connie I read constantly, deeply and widely. On the “reader” section of my website, I list many of the books that affected me most. I’ve also crafted my own writing education, taking workshops from writers I admired. Grace Paley, Michael Cunningham, Allan Gurganus, Marie Howe, Elizabeth Strout, to name a few. I love Alice Munro’s work and my husband and I have read most of it out loud.
Recently I LOVED the book Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. I’ve read it twice and listened to the audio version, which is amazing. I also love Danielle Evans’ work, most recently The Office of Historical Corrections.
Roz What’s next?
Connie I have two projects that I haven’t been able to do much with during this pandemic. One is a novel for adults that takes place in 1870 in a New England mill town. The other is a middle grade novel. I’m excited about diving into one or the other this summer.
Roz Give me some stirring final words!
You can find Connie on Facebook and her website. Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here
If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’d like to know more about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.