Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Iowa Review's Interview with Chris Offutt

Here’s a good interview in The Iowa Review with writer/TV writer Chris Offutt (in particular, I’m a fan of “Weeds,” a show he wrote for). 

Despite an intrusive interviewer, there’s a ton of smart stuff:

“Writing is an uphill battle, and it’s impossible to recognize progress because the progress occurs without you being aware of it, and the only way for you to be aware of it is to do it and then look back. It’s not like math, where you learn to add, then you learn to subtract, then you move on to long division and geometry. With writing, it always feels as if I don’t have much skill to begin with, I’ve lost what little I had, and everything sucks [laughs]. I think it’s the writer’s lot.”

And I know I shouldn’t quote at such length, but I thought this was such helpful advice about revision:

"AD: What are some of the things you teach your students about revision?
"CO: The first one is to write about what you care about. Write about something that hurt you. Write about something that you’re scared of. If you choose a subject with those three attributes, regardless of the quality of the first draft, you will have an emotional involvement in it. That’s the first part. The next one is to really step away from the manuscript. It’s hard for young writers—and for me—to realize you have a lifetime ahead of you. This thing’s not going to be perfect in two weeks or two months. I step away from manuscripts for several months, sometimes years.
 "To revise adequately, you have to be objective, and therein lies the tricky part: if you generate a first draft that you have an emotional relationship with and that you’ve staked your identity on, you’re heavily invested in that. Well, that means it’s subjective. You put everything in. You cut your veins and bled on the page. It’s impossible to be objective very soon after.
"I believe that if you both embrace and surrender to the writing process, something’s going to happen there on the page that’s very separate from what you anticipated and what you thought you were doing—separate from what you had set out to do, and even separate from what you wanted to be doing. If you give it some time, you can look at the work and learn what it really is. That’s when you cut everything out that doesn’t support it. That may be huge chunks and huge scenes. It could be the first twenty pages, because on page twenty-one, this thing took off. No one in their right mind is going to cut the first twenty pages of a manuscript within the first few days of writing it.
"On a smaller scale, what I tend to do with my own work is cut the first few pages and cut the last few pages. In the first few pages, there’s that terrible self-consciousness, the blank page, trying to write something on it, knowing you’re setting out to write a short story, wondering if your idea is sufficient enough. Will it be as good as any other story I’ve written? Eventually, that fades and the story begins. The same thing happens when you approach the ending. When you know the story is approaching the ending, that selfconsciousness kicks in again. And there’s a reluctance to leave that imaginary
world. It starts out difficult to access, then it’s a fucking pleasure to inhabit, and then you have to leave these people and this world alone. For me, there’s a tendency to prolong it a little bit and stay with them. And then there’s also the self-consciousness about ending a story. Endings are important, and they’re difficult. There’s this tendency to write this big, glittering, wonderful ending that reads like someone tacked on this big ending to a short story. It hangs there like a chandelier in a shack."

And there’s more! Read the rest


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