Thursday, August 9, 2007

Guest in Progress: Mary Kay Zuravleff

Mary Kay Zuravleff was in my writing group for several years; we read her wonderful and hilarious novel The Bowl Is Already Broken in draft. (And how fortunate for the world that she ignored our continuous whining about how we “felt uncomfortable with” the omniscient narrator; the book is a zillion percent better for her steadfast vision.) For those people who like to complain that there aren’t enough literary books set in Washington, DC, check out Mary Kay’s work. She takes readers to the really interesting parts of the city beyond what the tourists get to see.

She’s also an inventive teacher…or is it crazy? Last year she led a workshop at George Mason University where the requirement was to write a whole novel in one semester. !! Even more admirable (or crazy?) than that modest goal, was that she worked along with the students, writing her own novel in that short time span. You can read her inspiring newsletter about the class here.

Say What?

A good quote can spur a writer on. And I do mean spur. Although I copy down the occasional carrot, my inspirations are generally pointy sticks that goad me into plodding along. When writers gather, they invariably take turns reciting their motivational quotes, and my turn comes after the luminous words of Roethke or James, Blake or Woolf. Would you believe a call-out quote from a Science Times profile, namely: “Two biologists peered at dead fruit flies every day for two years.” That’s the clipping I hung above my computer for more than two years.

I have others, equally humbling, like Annie Dillard’s “Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?” or Flaubert’s “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” I find those quotes heart-breaking and soothing in equal measure. Another, more matter-of-fact quote whose author I’ve lost, says, “We have this idea that we have to be in the mood to write. We don’t.” And last year, when I was leading a class to write a novel in ten weeks, I calmed myself with Teddy Roosevelt’s advice: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

But time after time, I return to those biologists, peering at dead fruit flies under magnification, taking note of every blessed gene as it relates to that fly’s distinguishing features (they’re fruit flies!) in order to push forward the study of living creatures writ large. That’s what I do too, on my best days. And on my worst—well, not the very worst, because at least I’m writing—I think of the tedious hours those biologists must put in before any patterns emerge, before clarity begins to break on the horizon and they have a better inkling into who we all are, what we suffer from, and how they might help. As Woolf might have written in response: On then, on to the next fruit fly. ~Mary Kay Zuravleff

About: Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of two novels, The Bowl Is Already Broken, and The Frequency of Souls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). You can read more about her at


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.