Soon After First Light: Joshua Furst
Soon After First Light is a series where we talk craft, process, and pandemic with Columbia's accomplished writing professors.
Here, we talk with Associate Professor Joshua Furst about writing by hand, propaganda, and the merits of constraint.
Joshua Furst’s critically acclaimed novel Revolutionaries was published in 2019. He’s also the author of The Sabotage Café—named a 2007 year-end best book by the Chicago Tribune, the Rocky Mountain News and the Philadelphia City Paper, as well as being awarded the 2008 Grub Street Fiction Prize—Short People, a collection of stories, and with the illustrator Katy Wu, The Little Red Stroller, a picture book for children. His work has appeared in, among other periodicals, Esquire, Salon, The Chicago Tribune, BOMB, and The Forward, where he is a Contributing Editor. From 1993 through 1998, he was an active participant in the New York alternative theatre scene. Among other accomplishments in this field, he helped organize and run Nada Theatre’s 1995 Obie award winning Faust Festival and was one of the producers of the 1998 New York RAT conference which brought experimental theatre artists from across the United States together for a week of performance and symposia. His plays include Whimper, Myn and The Ellipse and Other Shapes. They have been produced by numerous theatres, both in the United States and abroad, including PS122, Adobe Theatre Company, Cucaracha Theatre Company, HERE, The Demarco European Art Foundation, and Annex Theatre in Seattle. He studied as an undergraduate at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, receiving a BFA in Dramatic Writing in 1993, and did graduate work at The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, from which he received an MFA with Honors in 2001.
What is a typical workday like for you when you’re in the middle of a project?
Joshua Furst: My process has changed in various ways throughout my development. Part of it has to do with changing life circumstances, and part of it has to do with the evolution of habits. In recent years, when I'm deep in a project and things are hopping, I start work around 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning and I work until about noon. I do that five days a week. That includes one day off for teaching and one day off on the weekend, but I carve out that time every day, every morning, and it's a rigid schedule I stick to.
I write everything out longhand. I've always written longhand, and I meticulously count my words. So if you look at my manuscript pages, there's a little box with a number in it every so often. Every 110 or 120 words, I stop and count; and I'm not allowed to stop working until I have 500 words. If it's a really good day and for whatever reason I don't have other responsibilities in the afternoon, I do a second session of 500 words. I can sustain that. It becomes a self-fulfilling structure so that the project moves forward.
Is there any reason you chose 500 words?
JF: Well, Hemingway used to have to write 500 words before he could go fishing (laughs).
What is the merit of writing by hand for you, especially if you have to keep track of your word count by hand?
JF: The less interesting answer is that there's a rigidity to it. It becomes a habitual factor in the process. Counting acts like smoking a cigarette. I'm taking a small break. Giving room in my head. It's the thing that creates the air by which the idea can be loose enough to spark with new proliferating elements. I know writers who write directly into the computer and spend half of any given workday fucking around with the pagination. That’s their way of creating the air. For me, writing directly into the computer changes the work in negative ways. I type a sentence and I look at that sentence. Every word is its own unit and there's unlimited space between every word. I can mess around with that sentence for five hours, which is a waste because, inevitably, the sentence turns out to have no use in the story and I end up having to cut it. So the story is not moving forward in any measurable way. The elements of creating a piece of narrative fiction that require less language based decision-making and more story-based, more characterological, more exploratory decision-making, start to fade, and those first-level narrative questions don't get asked and don't get answered with as much creativity. But if I write it out longhand—and if you were to look at one of my manuscript pages, my handwriting is so tiny that I can fit five typed pages on every one page of an 11-inch legal pad—there's no room to edit. I have to push forward. I have to let the problem with the sentence go and deal with the problem of what the next sentence is going to be. That forces me to focus on the problems I need to be focused on in my first draft.
I’m thinking now about the merits of constraint. Some constraint in the work—even if it’s just the form you’ve chosen—can actually generate a lot of ideas and inspiration. I think the Oulipian writers who used to set rules for themselves—like writing a whole book without using the letter "e"—were wildly inventive, for example.
JF: Oulipo is the extreme of constraint. We're living in the era of content, and discussions around literature focus on content to such exclusivity that explorations of form and its effect on meaning are seen as gauche by ‘the serious people in our society’. They’re wrong though. Form and formal constraint are central to the creation of good fiction. The thing is, there has to be a balance between form and content. They have to work together. And this is what’s so hard to achieve. Oulipo writers didn't worry about their content for the most part, which is part of why Calvino stands out so much among Oulipo writers. Calvino found ways to merge the content and the form. For the most part, the others were happy to just perform the exercise. That's interesting academically, but is that interesting literarily?
If you're interested in form and you also have things you're trying to communicate, you can find yourself pursuing paradoxical goals. When my own work is going poorly, it’s usually related to formal problems—some dissonance between the form and the content. I make the same mistake every time. I fall in love with a formal conceit or a particular constraint that is not connected—or not connected enough—to the content and the story itself. It’s imposed rather than integrated. There comes a time in the process where that becomes clear.
Do you have a routine that you follow, and how does that routine help you "stick to" your work?
JF: I need to leave my living space. I have an office that I share with another writer and sometimes I go to the office, sometimes I go to cafes, but I need to move to a location at which what I'm there for is to do the work. Sometimes I go sit on a park bench. Much of my first novel was written in Riverside Park. And I always write on these large yellow legal pads. I have a specific pen that I always use.
As someone who has to leave their living space, how was your process affected by the pandemic lockdowns?
JF: There were so many other complicating factors during the lockdowns for me because when the lockdown started, I had a two-year-old and a six-year-old. They were both home from school. I was teaching you (laughs) and I think that the children sometimes made appearances in our classes. So I wasn't getting any work done during the early part of lockdown. At a certain point, my wife looked at me and said, We have to get out of here. She looked through Airbnb and within three days we were in a little cottage on the top of a mountain outside of Asheville, North Carolina. That cottage had this big wraparound porch and I was able to turn this porch into a kind of separate space where I was able to do my work. It's really about having a location that is not filled with the rhythms of living, but is structured around the rhythms of working.
Do you ever experience periods of creative block? How do you counteract these?
JF: Writer's block is kind of a misnomer. I'm always generating new ideas but there are two different scenarios in which the writing may or may not amount to sentences that move toward a finished version. One of those scenarios occurs in the space between projects. This has happened with every project I've ever done. When it's really going well, and I'm on the roller coaster and the car will not fly off no matter what I do, and every decision is self-evident, I find that ideas for other stories just fill my brain when I'm not sitting there with my notebook. During that time, all of those ideas are viable and workable and would make good stories too. I can see all the answers to the questions. But I can't work on them because I'm locked into the project that's going so well. What I find happens when I finish a given project is that those other ideas immediately evaporate and I'm left not knowing what to do next, or I still have those ideas in my head, but I've got 15 of them. And it's very hard to figure out which one of those 15 ideas is the most pressing one or the most necessary one or the most aesthetically interesting one. So then I have to deconstruct them on some level or just take stabs at each of them until I run into problems, which I inevitably do. That can last for a long time. That can last years.
During those times, I really just wander around and I take notes toward the various projects on my phone or in the notebook. I experience whatever's going on in my life. Life is complicated in one way when you're in the middle of the project and that project is taking up 90% of your brain. It's complicated in a very different way when you're going stir crazy because you can't figure out what your next project should be. And when things aren't hopping, I wander around in a daze and get myself in trouble with the world and generate whatever it is that will allow me to see the world again through a new lens.
What often happens is that I'll start working on stories because I can see them more fully—the major decisions, the scope of the project, everythings much smaller and more manageable. I'll go through a span of time during which I'm churning out shorter chunks of writing while I work toward figuring out what the next big project is going to be.
What is your relationship to drafting/editing—and what is your advice for writers who may find the editing process daunting or difficult?
JF: This relates to the question of ritual, because there was a time when I was a young writer when I was so amazed I could exercise my own self through my writing that I could pick up the pen or sit down at the computer and place words into sentences into paragraphs on paper and simply be amazed that the result was a thing I had created that was uniquely mine. My amazement at my ability to assert myself in that way was such that I was in love with the fact of it. I was play acting at being a writer, in retrospect. I didn't know enough about the sentence or the paragraph or story structure to really have the ear that I needed to know when it hit or not. In my mind, it all hit.
So the assertion of self is the first barrier. That's an interior barrier. You have to train yourself to accept that you are allowed to do this. Then you have to train your habits of mind. A lot of the rituals around writing are tools by which to trick yourself into having the habits of mind. Once you've done that, then it becomes integrated into the way that you interact with the world. So if once upon a time editing was excruciating to me because I felt that wow, I'm telling a story, this is my story—at a certain point, what became of interest to me was not the telling of the story but how to tell that story perfectly. How to write a perfect thing. Now, the definition of perfect is relative. People will say that creativity is creativity. There's no one way to do things. I would argue that no matter what aesthetic choices you're making, if you're smart enough about them, there's still a place at which those aesthetic choices lead inevitably toward the perfect.
So we've got two steps here, right? One is I'm creative. I can create. Two is there are ways in which I can create, that will produce something that gives the reader more. This is where editing comes in. It is intolerable to me to create something that is not perfect on that level.
You’re well known at the School of the Arts for being a professor who breaks a story down to its smallest details to analyze what the piece is doing. Why did you start thinking about stories in that way?
JF: I didn't start as a fiction writer. I started as a playwright. So I was working in an entirely different form of art that communicated via entirely different tools. Both use words, but in the theater, words are one of a multitude of components by which the final act of communication is constructed. I think that looking at the difference between what tools are used in a theatrical setting and what tools are used in a prose fiction setting—and what tools are used in both but in different ways—just started to lead me down a thought process by which I really had to define the aesthetic capabilities of each form. I started to notice that, across forms, the most interesting, nuanced art is constructed on terms that the writer has set him or herself, terms that are specific to the singular work being examined, as opposed to terms that have been inherited. So, in order to write something—if you’re aspiring to write something that isn’t just operating on inherited terms—you have to break down each aesthetic choice because you don’t even know what the right questions are. If you don’t know what the right questions are, then you can’t get the right answers and your project’s going to fail.
I'm smiling because you're reminding me of the little kid who takes apart the microwave to figure out how the microwave works. It’s a really good way of learning anything—to deconstruct it so that you can understand what it is that you're supposed to be doing.
JF: Exactly. If you're limiting yourself to your instinct, then you just have to wait around until you're hit by inspiration, and the thing is, working on instinct can sometimes get you all the way to the end, but you can’t repeat it. If you've taken the microwave apart that’s a different story.
Why did you make the switch from theater to prose?
JF: The glib answer is that I don't play well with others, but while I was in theater I was always also writing fiction. A lot of the plays that I wrote would consist of long monologues, and the particular problem I was trying to solve in a theatrical environment was how to put the internal drama on stage. There's a variety of tactics by which one might do that, but they don't sit very well within the norms of contemporary theater--especially not the commercial theater. The natural mode for a piece of theater is external. So, if that's what was interesting to me—How does the internal change occur? How is the internal drama made vivid for the audience?—it became slowly clear to me that fiction was the way to go.
This is a good time to talk about Fred in Revolutionaries. A big part of the reading experience for that book is being inside that voice and watching Fred’s internal journey. What was it like to create that experience?
JF: One of the challenges with Fred was that he was speaking in time. He’s talking to an invisible interlocutor. As the book goes on and he begins to trust this interlocutor, his voice evolves, he gets less defensive until by the end, he's able to admit to the vast gulf between the myths he’s grown up with and the realities of his own and his parents’ lives. One of the challenges was figuring out how to calibrate this evolution in the voice and move him forward to that lack of defensiveness.
I've found in general that, if you're working within voice, the more acutely ironic the relationship between that voice and the reader, the more interesting the dramatic possibilities. Because then the drama is not just existing on the page, it's also existing in the space between the voice on the page and the ear or the eye of the reader. There's a conflict, a critical distance, between the reader and the voice—you can't simply sink into that voice. Instead, you’re put in the position of seeing the character as separate from, and possibly, in conflict with you. You have to interpret the voice through the ironic prism of the narrator’s motivations, self-delusions, socio-cultural assumptions, and any of a hundred other elements that go into making us individuals. Some people would call that an unreliable narrator. I don't know what an unreliable narrator is. If you're in the voice of the character, the character is by definition unreliable because individual experience is subjective and the character, like any human being, will inevitably be subjectively him or herself. I mean, you can write a character who’s actively, consciously trying to trick the reader, but that’s not what people mean when they talk about unreliable narrators. They mean there’s a gulf between the narrator’s subjectivity and the reader’s subjectivity, which...duh!
Where do you normally find inspiration for your work? Has this changed for you after the pandemic lockdowns?
JF: This is the tricky thing, right? All the stuff we're talking about—form and habits of mind and being engaged in the world in a way in which your sense of time and your mode of thinking is structured around the act of writing—none of that changes the fact that to write something worthwhile, there has to be something compelling you enough to want to write it.
So a lot of the fallow time consists of either not knowing what it is that I need to communicate or not knowing which narrative vehicle would usefully communicate that on a formal level. The first-tier problem is still the issue of inspiration, but that inspiration is only as meaningful as the container I find to put it in. I write best when I'm aggrieved. I write out of a sense of anger or a sense of having been wronged, a sense of combat with the world. And there's a lot to be aggrieved about right now (laughs).
If you find yourself inspired by current events, how do you keep your work from becoming polemic?
JF: Propaganda is the enemy of art. The history of art teaches us this. It might be an interesting artifact of its time, but it doesn't resonate outside of its polemical purpose. So the important question is, what's the difference between art that engages with politics and art that is intended, in and of itself, to be a political act by which to achieve change?
One basic difference between art and propaganda: art leaves in its contradictions. The paradoxes contained within human experience are part and parcel of what makes it complex, right? That's not allowed within propaganda. Contradiction means that you're weakening your case. So art celebrates how those cases are weakened, which creates the room for irony. The politics being examined are exposed to be simultaneously sound and faulty—and most importantly, incapable of solving the human dilemma. This is why good art is useless as propaganda—because even when it’s clearly about people who have these strong, impassioned, political points of view, it allows them to be fallible, to be faulty in a clearly articulated way. There’s always a ghost in the machine. There’s no one right way to think or to be, no eternally correct political point of view or right side of history or ideological aleph that in and of itself will solve all the world’s problems. The world’s constantly changing and we as human beings are constantly struggling to figure out how to survive in it. Acknowledging this is useless to a piece of propaganda. But it’s essential to creating a good piece of art.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life would you say most influences your writing?
JF: This question of politics in relation to the arts. It's an animating thing for me. I've been an activist in the field as well as an artist, and so I'm very conscious of being true to the art. If I have to sacrifice being true to the politics or being true to the art, I'll take the art.
How did the pandemic lockdowns affect your creativity overall?
JF: I spent days, weeks, months in that place where you're on the edge of crying, but you never quite actually get there, you're just emotionally raw in that way. It was a constant state of emotional rawness. In a lot of ways, I think that that's the most fertile artistic space. That's where you really know what's at the core of what you need to say. But living in that space is debilitating. Every once in a while I was able to dip up above the water and get something down.
How do you feel about all the books and TV shows about the pandemic that are being released now? Do you think it’s too soon?
JF: Some of the short stories I've been working on have referenced the pandemic, but the problem is the same as the question of politics in fiction. These shows and stories about the pandemic are not necessarily propaganda, but they’re flat. A lot of this stuff—the television shows, particularly—is flattening and not about the experience of human beings. They're about the fact of the pandemic. The pandemic is the point. A good work of art, regardless of the historical moment in which it’s set, is not about that historical moment. It's about people, and the historical moment happens to be what's influencing them in that time and place.
What are you working on now and what’s next?
JF: I've been working on these short stories that in theory are meant to be interlinked in such a way as to create a novelistic experience. So I'm calling it a novel, but it's a novel that is a patchwork quilt. I don't know if that's going to lead to anything, but in any case I've been writing these stories and I'm working on a few longer things that are harder to explain right now.
What advice would you give to artists who are just starting to figure out process and routine?
JF: First, stop thinking about the market, stop thinking about being a published writer, stop thinking about a career. If you're going to be a good writer, it has to be a vocation. You can be a bad writer and have a great career. You can be a good writer and have no career at all. You can, if you're really, really lucky, be a good writer and also have a great career—but if your goal isn't vocational, then you're going to hit stumbling blocks that will be insurmountable because you're doing it for reasons that have nothing to do with the hard thing that you're trying to accomplish, the work of becoming a better and better writer. Second, I would say to a young writer something that E.L. Doctorow said in an interview many, many years ago—which was that for a good 10 years before he figured out how to write, he pretended to be a writer. That act of pretending was what allowed him to become a writer.