A Friendship with Words

27 January 2019

Last summer Bonnie Nadzam ’99 visited Carleton English professor Gregory Blake Smith at his Northfield home, where the two acclaimed writers talked about their writing process, works in progress, and whether or not inspiration really exists.

Sara Rubinstein ’98
Bonnie Nadzam ’99 and Gregory Blake Smith

Bonnie Nadzam: Tell me about the word creativity. You say it’s been following you around like a stray dog all your life.

Gregory Blake Smith: I’ve always hated the words creative and inspiration, mostly because I don’t believe in them. I’m not even sure inspiration exists. You get an idea to write a story or a scene—who knows where it comes from? Often it comes from sitting down and writing. This idea that creativity is a magical force and great works of art are born thereby, I just don’t believe it. Everything I’ve ever done has come from putting one foot after another and hopefully getting someplace. Where’s the inspiration in that? It’s hard work.

N: Maybe gumption is better. Or nerve or gall. There are things that fuel me—like seeing beautiful language in others’ work. Beauty wants to repeat itself. I feel compelled to respond to it or imitate it.

S: Art engenders art, beauty engenders beauty. If you’re lucky. To me there’s just a basic misunderstanding in the nonartist world about what motivates or generates art.
     Oh! Look! There’s a fox! Fox fox fox!

N: What a beauty. Listen. The crows don’t like it. God, look at it. Let’s go write poems. Have you ever resented the need or impulse to write?

S: No. I don’t know. When writing is going well, there’s nothing better. I don’t mean to suggest that it goes smoothly. The idea of writing brings me pleasure. It’s the idea of not writing that’s bad.

N: That anxiety of needing to get to a blank page and you can’t.

S: There’s this great cartoon divided into two panels. In one panel, the writer is at his writing table with a thought bubble of him with a beach ball enjoying himself at the beach. The other is a panel of him on the beach with a beach ball and a thought bubble of him being back at his writing desk. You can’t escape this thing. You should be writing!
     Talk to me about place in your writing. You grew up in the Midwest, but your novels have migrated to the West. What is it about that place?

N: When I moved west, I had that outsider perspective. I was amazed by these western towns. It was like an exquisite stage set. I was enchanted and appalled. But by the time I wrote Lions [2018], you can tell that I’m fully disenchanted with the West. The book I’ve just finished takes place in a sort of imagined interior Cleveland.

S: So Cleveland is a cure for disenchantment?

N: No one in Cleveland pretends or believes it’s anything other than Cleveland. And there’s such sad, terrible beauty in some of it. Gorgeous million-dollar homes that have collapsed. Empty brick factory buildings with all the glass punched out, and ivy growing from the inside. The wreckage of integration, which was really just segregation. I just can’t not repeat it on the page.

S: As a New Englander, I have a soft spot for that industrial architecture of the mill buildings. They’re beautiful somehow, even as you’re aware that back in the 1840s, people, girls, were working in these buildings 13, 15 hours a day and it was horrible. But there’s still some romantic historical bloom over these places. The novel I’m writing now takes place in one of these mill towns in Massachusetts.

N: Real or fictional?

S: Real. Lowell—the original mill town. I’m sure our novels are very different, but we’re following something similar.

N: What can you tell me about this new novel, or are you not talking about it yet?

S: It’s difficult to talk about because it’s a bizarre book. I’m worried it’s either stupid or too complicated. What most stunned me when Goodreads and Amazon reviews started coming in for The Maze at Windermere [2018] was how much trouble people had understanding what was going on. And that book was straight realism.

N: That’s disturbing.

S: It is, because Windermere’s plot isn’t that difficult. So people are going to have a hard time with this new one. I must have a self-destructive gene. If it works, it will be good. I’m not sure it’s working.

N: But you’re committed.

S: So far. Though, that’s another thing, I’ve had a number of 20- to 60-page novels.

N: Me, too. Into the trash.

S: Yes. Usually by page 50 or 60 you know . . .

N: Is the voice there? Is the “page 70 turn” happening? You can just tell. Although, there’s the “bad-faith conversation.”

S: Oh no! What’s that?

N: That’s when you tell yourself it’s working, but you’re lying to yourself.

S: That’s scary to hear because maybe that’s where I am. I usually know by page 50 or 60, and here I am at page 110 and I still don’t know. Your new book, though—it’s done? You’re happy with it?

N: Of course not. Here and there, yes. Fundamentally, never. The newest manuscript—just under way—is a 180-degree turn in the opposite direction from the one I just finished. When you need another reader, let’s trade manuscripts.

S: I might take you up on that. But you’d have to have the nerve to say it’s not working.

N: I’ll just call up the scathing comments you made on an Emily Dickinson essay I wrote for your class in my sophomore year.

S: I did? Scathing?

N: I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to write about the author’s biography in a close reading. I didn’t know anything.

S: I always forget how much undergraduates don’t know.

N: Speaking of teaching undergraduates, is summer when you write?

S: Yes. When I’m writing, I try to write every day. There’s no time for writing when I’m teaching school—and there shouldn’t be. I’m a real believer in sitting down and facing the page. You hear about Faulkner writing As I Lay Dying in three weeks. I am so not the person who writes in a white heat. Maybe that’s why I hate the word creativity. I’m a plodder. I think this sentence is okay? No, maybe let’s change it.

N: You told me that when you finished a draft of Windermere, the book was done. That seems extraordinary to me. I find the story first and only then work on the sentence level.

S: How come?

N: It’s so much easier than holding a thousand threads all at once. And I find that working on the sentence level as I’m going can mislead me.

S: You feel like you have to get the things out there.

N: I think what helped me this time was literally not having the time. I used to say, “Oh, maybe I’ll light a candle before I start.” “Maybe I should go running first.” This time, it was like, “Okay, I’m in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot and I have 37 minutes. Open up the computer and go!” For the first time, I actually followed the advice I give to struggling students.
     Write without stopping. Write without knowing where you’re going. Pick up where you left off the day before and then do it again. And the next day, do it again.

S: Yes, but I need the security of good language behind me. You see these first versions of poems, sometimes, and my God! I just saw the first version of Frost’s “Design.” It’s terrible! Frost! I’ve also seen the original draft of “Leda and the Swan.” I just think, really? This is how people do it? Maybe this says something about who we are as writers, and the ability to keep refining is critical to who you are as a writer. I tend to refine early.

N: Tell me more about that term refinding.

S: Refining, my dear.

N: I thought I understood what refinding meant, too!

S: What were you hearing?

N: Something like: Is it here? Yes, it’s here. Is it there? Refinding the story, or poem, over and over.

S: Actually, yes. And there’s the flip side of that: Is it here? Ugh, no. You always hear from writers that one day something seems so good, and the next day, it’s terrible. Which one is real? Which one can you trust?

N: This is the heart of it. I think about that when I’m teaching creative writing. I don’t know if Student X is going to publish or if the work is any good. But “Student X, let’s talk about that turn on page two. How did you know it was the right turn? Where in your body did you know? And are you sure?”
     Intuition is a word I don’t love, but this part of the writing process feels like the same kind of muscle or compass I
use in daily life for big and small decisions. Writing has made me better at identifying when I’m right and when I’m deluding myself.

S: And it is applicable to life.

N: Yes, to life, to work, to painting, to science—to any number of things. It’s critical thinking. It’s intuition. It’s neither.

S: Maybe intuition is just a type of internalized experience or education. You read novels, and something goes inside you so you know that this scene needs to turn now, and in this way.

N: It has to be both something you were born with and something you’re cultivating.

S: Right. One of the things you learn to recognize when you’re teaching 19- and 20-year-olds is very stark evidence of talent. Here’s a student who has a friendship with words. They love each other. Where does that come from? Yet, you really can get better. I wasn’t a talented 20-year-old.

N: But you loved language.

S: I loved language. It meant a lot to me. I tried to use it. I overdid it. I was a drunk-with-words kind of kid. There’s got to be that initial something. And there is such a thing as talent.

N: By itself, it’s useless.

S: Necessary, but not sufficient.

N: I cannot wait to see this new book of yours. I cannot wait.

S: I just don’t know if it’s working.

N: But it could be.

S: It could be.

Sara Rubinstein ’98
Gregory Blake Smith and Bonnie Nadzam ’99