"I always think every word, or every new idea, is either a firecracker or a pebble. If it’s a pebble, then it’s just sitting there doing its job of making it progress, but if it’s a firecracker, it could be an inspiration. It could send you in a different direction." -- Jane Smiley
The following are highlights from a conversation with Jane Smiley about her process of writing and advice on craft. Smiley was the keynote speaker for the 2017 Montana Book Festival. To hear the full conversation, click the audio link above or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: About your own theory of creativity, you write, “The first and the last rules were, get on with it!” Where does this non-avoidant pragmatism come from in you?
Jane Smiley: Once you’ve written a number of books you understand that what you think as the book is going on—you know your own judgment of your own work—is probably wrong, so you have to get all the way to the end of a draft and then reread it and understand “Oh, I didn’t think that part was going to work but that’s pretty interesting,” and “That part I thought was going to work but it’s just boring.”
You also have to understand that in the first draft, especially, what you’re doing a lot of the time is just talking to yourself about stuff that you don’t know yet, and so you babble on and on about it.
. . . You have to be self-forgiving and you have to avoid judging your work as you’re writing it. Then, when you come back and do the next drafts, you have to be analytical rather than judgmental. You can indulge in the idea of “Oh, this is a piece of s***,” but you don’t want to let that stop you. You have to ask yourself, “If that’s my instinct, what exactly is wrong with it and how can I fix it?”
What do you think has allowed you to avoid the pitfalls you mention [in your craft book]: perfectionism, low self-esteem, depression, alcoholism, diseases, riches, economic hardship. . . What is it?
Partly it’s luck. I always say to my son, who’s quite like me, we should write a book called “The Blessings of ADD.” One of the blessings of ADD is that you’re very focused on what you want to do. It’s not that you have attention deficit, it’s that you attend to what you want to do rather than what everybody else wants you to do. It’s almost instinctive. I don’t know where it comes from and I don’t know why I have it. I’m sure that if I was in school now I would be diagnosed with ADD. Even though I was a pretty good student, I liked to read what I liked to read and I did well on some tests if it was what I was about things I was interested in. I did poorly in some things like math, which I wasn’t at all interested in, and I just couldn’t help myself. So, having ADD is a form of being very self-directed and that’s just they way I was.
As far as things like alcoholism and drugs, I’m one of those people who drinks a half a glass of wine and is ready to go to sleep, so why bother? There’s no reason to do it. The things I like to do are to cook, to ride horses, to write books and to read books, and to knit. Of all those things, only riding horses is dangerous and I do my best to avoid the dangers. And you know you could poke yourself in the eye with your knitting needle but it’s highly unlikely.
It seems in this book, "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel," that you also write about receptivity. That there’s a planfulness to writing but also this sense that if you put yourself at the right place at the right time, maybe every day, or maybe in a disciplined fashion, it will come. Does that resonate?
Well, I’m like one of those writers like Dickens or Trollope who just do it and I think that there is a difference between pleasure and addiction. Addiction is something you really want to do and then you feel bad afterward, and a pleasure is something that you’re too lazy to do but you feel good after it for some reasons, whatever those reasons are, and I think you should engage in those pleasures. I also think, if you’re a novelist, you have to keep going in order to retain your sense of what’s actually happening. If you let your self-judgement stop you or make you put stuff away, then you’ll forget what’s happening. But to me the most important thing is to say you say to yourself, “I’m going to write 1,000 words today,” or “1,000 words every day five days a week,” when you get to word 750, you might think “Gosh, what next, what next, what next. . .” then you look around the room and see some little thing that you could stick in there. And so you stick that in there and all it does for the moment is let you keep going. But then you come back to it the next day when you reread what you wrote and you think “Wow, that’s really interesting.”
I always think every word or every new idea is either a firecracker or a pebble. If it’s a pebble, then it’s just sitting there doing it’s job of making it progress, but if it’s a firecracker, it could be an inspiration. It could send you in a different direction. One of the things about novels is that there’s an energy in the novel. If the energy is always pointing in one direction, toward the thing you planned, then it begins to dissipate. If you are feeling inspired by a whole bunch of things that are unexpected as you go along and then you can shape them and stick them in the novel, then the energy doesn’t dissipate, the energy keeps going because there’s a kind of a newness quality . . . and you yourself are jacked up about that, and so that energy that you feel gets into the narrative.
About the Author:
Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and most recently, Some Luck and Early Warning, the first volumes of The Last Hundred Years trilogy. She is also the author of five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.