Soon After First Light: Ben Marcus

BY Nicole Saldarriaga, March 11, 2021

Soon After First Light is a series where we talk craft, process, and pandemic with Columbia's accomplished writing professors. 


Here, we talk with Professor Ben Marcus about language, abandoning work, and developing your inner editor.  


Ben Marcus is the author of several books, including The Flame Alphabet, The Age of Wire and String, and Notes from the Fog. His short stories and essays have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, Best American Short Stories, The New York Times, McSweeney's, Conjunctions, and Tin House. He is the editor of New American Stories, and The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. Among his honors are a Whiting Writers Award, a Creative Capital Award, an NEA Fellowship in fiction, a literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and three Pushcart Prizes. In 2013 he was a Guggenheim Fellow as well as a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Last year he was a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. He has been a member of the faculty at Columbia since 2000.

What is a typical workday like for you when you’re in the middle of a project? 


Ben Marcus: Well, it’s really varied over the years. I think because of having kids and having a teaching job, I've really tried to be less priestly about it and just work when I can. If I don't have anything else going on, I like to work first thing, before I ruin my mind with anything else, but usually I'm getting up and maybe making breakfast for my kids or getting one of them to school and clearing the decks a little. Then I just try to close things off for a little while and get down to work. I honestly just try to grab work when and where I can, rather than feeling too stressed about it having to happen in a certain way. Within any given project, I might steal some time and go up to the woods and do a real isolated, maybe two or three weeks of 18 hour work-days with no real self-care and just work (laughs). Usually somewhere in a project I'm ready for that. I kind of know what I'm trying to do, however awful it might be, and I'm ready for concentrated time. But other times I'm figuring things out and I'm having more fragmented days.



Do you have a routine that you follow, and how does that routine help you "stick to" your work?


BM: Yeah, I do; but I will also say that I sometimes don't follow it. So it's like an idealized thing. When I'm following it, one of the things I do at the end of a workday, or right before I start, is I write a sort of summary of what I worked on the day before. Just something like ‘worked on scene, tried to figure this out, this out’. And honestly, I'm not sure why I do it cause I never really refer back to it, but it somehow helps me from spinning my wheels a little bit. I don't listen to music. I sometimes have noise blocking headphones on. I really like an empty desk. I don't read while writing. And so I really like austerity and silence—just nothing and no internet, which is hard. That's why I go to the woods (laughs).



Do you write in a notebook or are you a straight-to-keyboard kind of person?


BM: I just go right onto my computer. I do have notebooks and I write a lot of things in there that never come to anything. My notebook is like a trash can that I carry with me. I’ll think, Oh, I've had this great idea. And I put it in the notebook. It's never a great idea, and I look at it again and I'm embarrassed and I'm glad no one can see it, but I do it.



How have the pandemic lockdowns affected your creative routines?


BM: Honestly, I have felt a little less urgent about getting writing done. That’s also partly part of my own recharging system. I don't just force myself to work all the time. I don't believe I have to sit down every single day for X number of hours. I have done that, but I guess I've just felt less urgent about it lately. I wait to get very excited and if I can get excited, then discipline's easier and everything falls into place; but I never think, Oh, I need to just force myself to do this. My feeling really is that the world is full of writing. No one needs our books and very few people want our books, just to be blunt. If it's something you have to force yourself to do every day or you'll never do it, then I don't know what the upside really is. Now, if you force yourself and then you're happy and then you're excited, then I think that's great. But I guess I never feel like you have to, no matter what, write all the time. I feel like you should do what you want. If you're not getting any writing done, it's your fault and you’d better figure it out. There is a doctrine around writing every day that works for some people, so I shouldn't really say either way; but during the pandemic, there were other things that came first. I did a lot of cooking, did a lot of running around with my son and I don't really know what else I did. Honestly, I would like to know. I would like for someone to reveal some security footage of what I was doing with my time. I'm still trying to reckon with what happened.



You've spoken before about the fact that you don't put much pressure on yourself to finish projects if you feel that they've 'died' or are just not going to work. What would you say to writers who are trying to figure out whether to keep pushing through something or let a project go? 


BM: If you've finished a few books, then maybe you might feel that dynamic differently. I will say, I think boredom comes easily to a lot of people and it has to get probed. Boredom could be a defense and it could be something that's protecting you from exploring something more. It depends on who you are and like how your boredom manifests. I think that I have found that if I'm thinking about the project when I'm not working on it—like if I'm falling asleep imagining things someone might say or something that might've happened or a sentence—that's a sign to me that I've internalized it a little and it's become something I'm a little consumed by. I feel like I write a little better when that's going on.


If I really don't feel any of those things, then it's like I'm writing a school paper—and then I just wonder why I'm doing that. Now there could be an argument to write through that feeling as well. To see what's on the other side. Because it's possible that your ambivalence is masking something that's really vital. I do know that if I'm in an intensive work phase, there are days and weeks and longer where nothing works and nothing is exciting. If I am persistent, I can get to where I get excited. That itself becomes a process of looking around the backside of the boredom and trying to figure out what's there. So I think I'm committed to that, but I suppose in certain instances I can look at a half finished thing and I can see what it'll be when it's done and I can decide that the world doesn't need it and I don't need it.


I think both things can happen; but when you're really just starting out, it's important to finish things—to see what they are, to measure your fantasy of what this thing could be versus the reality. For all of us, there's always a big distance. I know what I dream of writing and then what I'm capable of writing and there's a chasm there. But then with my next piece, I think, How can I get closer? And I think if you haven't finished much, that's a much harder thing to work through because then you can always stay in the fantasy of what you might do, and that's less productive. I think it's really good to know what you're actually capable of. It's sobering and it's hard to confront, but then it gives you tangible things to think about, to work on and to wonder about.



Do you ever experience periods of creative block? How do you counteract these?


BM: I think that writing is really private and it's a very peculiar act. Some people plan their work ahead and execute the plan. Other people write without a plan. Teaching has exposed me to a lot of different paradigms for how really interesting work gets done. And so I feel that it's dumb to say, but everyone's really different. Some person’s block or resistance is something to be wrestled with for others. It could be a sign that they're writing something that they don't care enough about, and that's why they're blocked—because they don't give a shit. Other people are blocked because they lack a set of techniques. They might have yet to develop an approach to ‘point of view,’ for instance, that's going to unlock the work they're trying to make. Writing is a set of techniques with language and we make something out of nothing and there's a lot of tools to use. So sometimes that block could be connected to technique. Other times it's more emotional. It might be a fear of telling a kind of story for a bunch of reasons. I honestly think it all comes down to self-awareness, understanding yourself and what gets you to the next page.



You often employ a kind of clinical or bureaucratic language in your work. How can you achieve humor and pathos with language like this? How did you develop this voice as an emerging writer?


BM: I think language and the way in which we articulate things in prose and fiction dictates everything. You can take a basic scene and describe it ten different ways and generate ten different tones and feelings. I do sometimes like a clinical or colder voice because it doesn't look like it's pleading for feeling so it doesn't traffic in anything quasi sentimental. I like the vacuum and the uneasiness that can create. Sometimes in that vacuum, not always, but sometimes, feeling can rush in and the dissonance between the way the thing is told and what gets told becomes a kind of dramatic irony in the story. So, often at the beginning of a project I am trying different ways of telling it and trying to figure out which might be the richest or the most complex or the most disturbing.


I'm looking for those tones or some sort of agitation or uneasy feeling. I'm just always trying to pivot and attempt things that might get me where I want to be, because I know how I want to feel, but I don't at first know what's going to get me there. That involves just trying different linguistic approaches to narrative.



You often use a seemingly unsympathetic character to reveal something true or sympathetic about humanity. Why is that?


BM: I think that there are states of mind that we're uncomfortable recognizing in, let's say, a fictional narrator, but I think I rely on those being relatable to a degree, even if the thoughts aren’t acted on. To me it wouldn't be interesting to create a kind of monstrous character that people saw as something quite far from them. I think it's more that I'm interested in interior spaces. Privacy is vanishing, but really we still have our interior space. We still have our thoughts and we have this territory that nobody can access for the moment, and it's lawless. It can be frightening. I mean, at least mine is (laughs). I think that when I try to make portraits out of it, even partial and distorted ones, I feel like it's something that writing is suited for. The technology, let's say, of third person perspective where you're rendering the thoughts out of a character that they're not directly reporting themselves—I think it's a really vast and still uncharted technology. And it's totally artificial—this whole mechanism of reporting on thoughts in the third person—but it's a way of revealing what we're like.



One notable thing about your work is that you resist over-explaining things—new terms or speculative elements—to the reader. Can you talk about your philosophy behind this? 


BM: Well, the fact is that I do write the explanation and then it's so bad that I take it out. I think about this question a lot and I guess there's a certain kind of explication that can feel inert and it can feel like it drains the narrative of energy. Let's say we're reading a story in class and something speculative happens. A critic in class might legitimately say, I want to know more about X. It's easy to assume that if only you knew more, you would like the story more. We always chase after that question in class and say, Okay, let's just say you knew everything there was to know, tell me why the story is any better.


We're imagining as readers that our curiosity has been fully satisfied; but when I really try to think about what I've been most gripped by when I read, it's the work where my curiosity stays really active and not satisfied. When it's satisfied, the work goes into a lull and it feels flat. I like to think about productive mystery and maintaining tension. The danger of course, could be annoyance. Someone might find it so mysterious that they're no longer interested, no longer engaged. So there's a balance there, but I'm just not sure our primary role is to give information.


I think narrative does something very different than give information. Now, certainly there's some information that comes along for the ride. But if we think about our primary role, it's maybe more to captivate and to engage and to mesmerize. Too much information tends to do the opposite. So, I think for me, the criteria for explaining is always Is it dramatic? Or Is it the kind of thing people want to skip?



What is your relationship to drafting/editing and what is your advice for writers who may find the editing process daunting or difficult? 


BM: I'm sort of a bad case study. I can write slowly and kind of try to do everything, including revising as I go. There are also some things that I don't really revise much beyond, let's say, copy editing. If I'm writing something longer though, that's really not true. In that case there's a lot of overriding and cutting and all that kind of stuff. I think one thing I’ve noticed sometimes with students is they'll write a draft and we'll have a conversation about it and they'll really get down on themselves for not having seen a bunch of the issues it might have. I think that the writing workshop structure and system is artificial to a degree in that you're showing your work before you might naturally show it to an editor. So you're interrupting your process in order to get feedback, and then you're expecting that you should have done everything right. So I believe in, as much as you can, writing a draft, giving it a couple of days and reading it as a critic and trying to be your own best and worst reader so that you can keep iterating and getting it closer to where you want it to be. If early in that process you have to show the work to your peers, I think that really changes the dynamic and makes it a lot harder to develop your own critical standards and your own critical practices where you can read yourself at least a little more objectively and then act on those concerns and get yourself to the next place. So I try to encourage students to build some time into their process before their deadline, where they can finish early, take a day off, then reread and just keep doing that as much as possible.


It's also important to realize that it takes people three years on average to write a book. But if you're writing every day, it probably only takes like six weeks to write a book, right? So what else is happening? Sometimes a writer starting out just needs to keep getting an accurate view of how long it takes and then to wonder, Well, what's all that time used for? That way, maybe they feel less as if they’re an outlier because it's taking more time, and rather more that they're part of a tradition where you have to write, take a break, read, critique, rewrite.


I think too, it helps to move away from the superstition that you're going to make everything worse by editing. I think people are afraid to change things because they believe in the magic of the original expression; but it's also important to believe in all the power of really microscopic, incremental changes. If you go through and let's say, use a yellow highlighter and just isolate all your physical descriptions, you might discover, Wow, I keep using the same vocabulary, or all those sentences are the same length and pattern. You'll get a kind of diagnostic insight about what you're doing, and it's kind of fun and interesting. Then you can manipulate things and make calculated decisions that are a lot harder to make spontaneously. The project of reading yourself is pretty bottomless. To read yourself diagnostically and then make strategic adjustments—that just takes time. It's sort of a fantasy that you'll just write something out and it will be perfect. I would say the point is for the editing process to become internalized in you—that you do it rather than looking to an authority figure and thinking, Oh, they can tell me when this is good. It's all about establishing the reality of what it really is to work on a piece, how long it takes, how deep you can go, how never-ending it is and how unsatisfied we should probably always be while staying relatively productive.



Where do you normally find inspiration for your work? Has this changed for you since the pandemic lockdowns?


BM: I don't want to negate the question—but I guess I'm not really on the hunt for inspiration as this ‘thing’ outside of myself. I might find inspiration by writing a sentence and hoping that a sentence follows it. I do read a lot of nonfiction and I guess I look for ideas—but often those are just ways of learning. So I'm not sure I've mechanized my hunt for inspiration. It's honestly just an unknown for me. I guess I don't exactly use the word cause maybe I just never have it (laughs).



What advice would you give to artists who are just starting to figure out process and routine?


BM: My advice is don't listen to my advice. Pay attention to yourself, read a ton, look at what's out there, but more importantly, look at what drew you to reading and writing in the first place and try to write the sorts of things that don't exist in the world—the things you wish did.