Soon After First Light: Lincoln Michel
BY Nicole Saldarriaga, January 15, 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 Adjunct Assistant Professor and alumnus Lincoln Michel '09 about the idea generation, writing exercises, and making sure to finish things.
Lincoln Michel is the author of the story collection Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press, 2015) and a novel forthcoming from Orbit. His fiction appears in The Paris Review, Granta, Tin House, NOON, Terraform, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. His essays and criticism have been published by The New York Times, GQ, Rolling Stone, Lit Hub, and The Guardian. He is the former editor-in-chief of Electric Literature and the co-editor of the science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds (Gigantic Books 2015), the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated noir anthology Tiny Crimes (Catapult, 2018), and the horror anthology Tiny Nightmares (Catapult, 2020). He has received awards and residencies from The Millay Colony, VCCA, LMCC, The Mastheads, and Lighthouse Works.
What is a typical workday like for you when you’re in the middle of a project?
Lincoln Michel: I've seen various writers have these amazing writing routines of three hours in the morning before 5:00 AM and then lunch, and then two hours after jogging or whatever they do. But I am a little scatterbrained and not the best on that. So a lot of my own tactics and habits are around forcing structure onto my day. The most basic thing I do which really has been the biggest help to me is that I use a timer and time myself pretty strictly. So if I take a break from writing to go dig around online, I stop the timer and give myself a certain minimal hourly goal of time each day.
I try to hit that every day. The amount of time changes depending on my circumstances. If I'm in the middle of the semester, it's maybe less than if it's summer and I don't have as much other work to do; but using a timer really helps me. I know a lot of people often advocate for word count goals, but for me personally, I can vomit up words really quickly. So when I used to do a word count goal, I could just do a thousand words very quickly. Measuring time instead of word count allows me to edit as I write and allows me to take my time with writing without feeling like I'm just rushing to put out words, but it still forces me to get work done.
Is that something that you try to do every day?
LM: It's a goal, but you can't always meet it. It really depends on, you know, one's life circumstances. If someone is a single parent and they have a full-time job, they probably just can't write every day. I have a lot more free time now than other times and I try to write every day, but I can't lie and say that I succeed in that, especially when we have something like the election chaos that happened this year. I got very little writing done. But I do think that the more you can set a routine for yourself, the better.
Gustav Flaubert said “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I think sometimes it’s easy to believe this myth of the passionate, struggling artist who only writes or paints or whatever when inspiration hits and that's how they come up with wild radical work. But the more you talk with even very experimental and original artists, often they have a pretty strict routine and are very serious about their work. I think the more routine that you can give yourself, the better; but you know, we all have different lives and things change, and that can't always be the case for me personally. I, like many writers of my generation and many people of my generation, cobble together my income from different sources. So I can't really set such a rigid routine. Cause sometimes I'm teaching, sometimes I'm doing freelance writing, sometimes I'm doing other things and jobs are kind of haphazard, so I can’t be too rigid in my writing in terms of, you know, writing at the same time every day.
Do you ever experience periods of creative block? How do you counteract these?
LM: I have the opposite problem really. I think writers are all driven by different aspects of the craft, right? Different aspects really propel us and there's no right or wrong way to be inspired. Some writers are really character driven and they come up with characters and they sit with those characters for years. Other writers are very language based and other writers are very world-building based and so on and so forth. For me, I'm pretty idea-based. I think that often my stories come from some kind of concept I want to explore, some type of idea—and I probably have too many ideas. I think ideas are kind of easy to come up with. I typically have a dozen stories or projects in the works. And so if I'm stuck on one, I just jump to another one. That's kind of how I get out of creative blocks.
Has your process for generating ideas or following through with them changed at all during the pandemic lockdowns?
LM: I remember reading studies about how it's bad to read in your bed because you start to associate reading with sleeping and you fall asleep when you try to read. Our brains take a lot of cues from our environments. So I usually go to a cafe to write and do that kind of Brooklyn cliché; but obviously I've not been doing that during the pandemic. So I've had to kind of set aside part of my living space for writing and try to go there to write. The other thing that I've done a lot more of which again is extremely basic—but very helpful for me—is write in a notebook and that way I force myself to get offline and write.
You are one of the only professors I've had who encourages us to do in-class writing exercises and to play with writing in this small-stakes way. When did you start using this technique in class and why?
LM: When I went through the Columbia MFA program, a lot of my professors would give in class exercises or out of class exercises, and a lot of those really stuck with me and a lot of pieces that I wrote in those exercises became ones that I published later. That's one reason that I give exercises in class, but I also do think about those kinds of exercises in my own writing a lot. It's not so much that I give myself exercises exactly, but I find constraint very useful for writing. I quite admire the Oulipian writers who use very extreme constraints, and I find constraint very useful for idea generation. So I will often give myself constraints to see if that generates something or maybe I have an idea and I figure out a constraint to pair with the idea and then the story will take hold. So if a story is not working for me, I might give myself constraints.
I also find that genre functions as a constraint for me for idea generation. Often I’ll think well, is there a way to take the constraint of a genre and subvert it in some surprising way that will then generate ideas for the story? For me, it's all about finding those things that generate new ideas.
It sounds like the idea generation process is where a lot of the energy is for you. Do you ever have trouble finishing a story?
LM: It's not the most common problem for me in that I tend to have my openings and endings kind of appear to me before I really get to the page. Then it's a question of, How do I get from A to B? Which is to say, How do I get the middle? The middle is the harder part of it for me, but that's still sometimes a question of finishing the story. There are a lot of revision tactics that I advocate to my students and use myself. One of those is to print up a draft of a story and go through and edit it. As I do the editorial process, I come up with new ideas for the story that then make the story longer. And there's this thing that happens when I edit where maybe the opening of a story has been edited a bunch of times and the ending has been edited last, because I do believe in the principle that the work should be drawn out from itself. When I reread the opening of a story, I may see, Oh, there's this theme that has been emerging in the work. That might be something to tie into the ending.
Did you come to that drafting process naturally or is something that you had to get into the habit of doing?
LM: I would say that my philosophy has always been a very catholic one, not in the religious sense, but in the sense of universality. I think there's a million approaches that work. And it's truly all about finding the approach for you as an individual writer. So I would never say that my own approach is better than anyone else's. Different approaches produce different work and they work differently for different writers. For whatever reason, in addition to being very idea-driven I’ve also always been very language driven and get a lot of my ideas from the language itself. Because of that, I've never been the type of writer who could vomit up a draft and then think, Oh, here's 2000 words of garbage, but there's two interesting ideas, now let me take those ideas and start a new story. God bless anyone who can write that way. It just doesn't work for me. So I've always been more of a slow writer who writes a paragraph, then looks at that paragraph and thinks, Oh, here's some voice or conceptual or syntactic ideas that I can tweak into the next paragraph.
I have an essay that I published on LitHub about this idea where I use the metaphor of different engines powering the story. I think for some writers the engine that powers the story is character and sometimes it's plot and sometimes it's language, but any of those engines will kind of power the story in different ways. For me, it's typically ideas and language that power the story, so I draft more times and write slower.
You teach a class on speculative fiction, and we’ve spoken often about the tension between the “genre world” and the “literary world.” Typically, people tend to think of literary fiction as being more language driven, but you play heavily with elements of genre fiction in your work. Can you speak to that?
LM: First of all, I think that “literary” as a term is really only useful as a description of quality. Which is to say literary fiction, to me at least, is fiction that is focusing more on the language and is striving for a certain kind of inventiveness and originality as opposed to more formulaic commercial fiction, which has more than its place in the world. Secondly, “genre,” to me, is a kind of conversation between writers and readers and critics, right? So genres are not in my mind any kind of platonic form that is, you know, the only way fiction can or should be written. Genres come about through history and through that conversation. “Genre fiction” and “literary fiction” are separate and overlap. Work can be genre and literary; work can be neither genre or literary.
When I was in high school and starting to get really interested in fiction and thinking maybe I could write, the writers that inspired me the most were writers like Franz Kafka and Italo Calvino. Those are writers who were firmly in the literary fiction field, but also have a lot of genre interests. They write about animal transformations and torture devices and magic and all these kinds of things. They bring in elements of fairytale and horror and science fiction and so on. So for me as a reader, I never ever bought into the idea that literary fiction was just realist fiction and that things that have unreal elements were not literary—it just never occurred to me.
When I was young and reading Raymond Carver alongside Ursula K. Le Guin, I didn't really think of them as being very different. When I went through undergrad, there was this sense that, Oh, literary fiction has to be sad people in Brooklyn, dealing with their grandmothers having cancer while they drink in bars and have unsatisfying sex or whatever clichés we might come up with. I rebelled against that, I think, and also maybe bought into it a little bit. The more I've gotten away from that, the more I feel like I've kind of returned to my love of writers like Calvino and Le Guin, who I read in high school and who just kind of fully embrace the fantastic and the unreal.
There is a real lightness and playfulness to those authors as well.
LM: I always thought play was extremely important and the writers I'm drawn to always have a sense of play in their work. I think a sense of humor is very important too. Play is a very vital part of art; and there's a lot of play in speculative fiction for sure. Writers like Italo Calvino and Donald Barthelme and Shirley Jackson and Haruki Murakami—they all have a very big sense of play in their work, and that's never stopped them from being published in the New Yorker. I’ve seen people have this overly serious attitude, but I've never bought into that myself. Play is important.
You're the former Editor-in-Chief of Electric Literature. What was your time there like? Did this type of work affect your personal writing life at all?
LM: I’ve read interviews with writers who talk about how they don't want to work in a field that is related to what they're doing—which is to say editing or teaching—often because they think it takes up the same brain space. For whatever it's worth, I've never really felt that way. For me, it's always a question of time—the more work more hours I'm spending at a day job, whatever that day job is, the less time I have to write—but personally I never felt like I was being drained in my brain space working at literary magazines or teaching. I find teaching and editing to be kind of inspiring because I tend to get most of my ideas from other art, whether that's fiction or not. When I'm reading or teaching and discussing other art forms, that produces ideas for me, or I notice craft elements and I think, maybe I can steal that craft element for myself in the future.
And it's also not always so direct, right? Sometimes I am listening to a piece of music and for whatever reason that music produces a plot idea for me, but it's not coming from the lyrics or anything. It's just something about immersing yourself in art and creativity.
When I was at Columbia, I started a literary magazine with three other MFA students called Gigantic. We did that literary magazine for a while, then I was hired to be the Editor in Chief of electricliterature.com. Before then Electric Literature was a print magazine, and they wanted to start a literary website that would publish nonfiction. I was editing the nonfiction, which is to say reviews and interviews and essays. I left that job a couple of years ago, but even since then, I've been editing anthologies. I've essentially been editing since I was in my MFA program. I've always found that’s something I love to do it, and that it is also useful for my own work.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life would you say most influences your writing?
LM: Writers are scavengers to a degree. We are constantly processing what we're seeing or reading or hearing for things to steal. It's like a bird flying through the forest, looking for little shiny things that it's going to take back and build a nest from. And so I think as long as I’m outside, as long as I can get myself into a space in which I’m open to things coming in and open to what I’m seeing and hearing, that's great; otherwise there's nothing too specific that I do. I don't always take a bubble bath before I write or whatever that might be, but I try to get into a mental space in which I'm open to what might be coming towards me or what might be around.
When I was a student at Columbia, I remember Alan Ziegler telling my class that all the stuff you need to do before the writing—like take a walk or a bubble bath—is part of the work too. If that's part of your process, that's part of the work. It's also very important for us to be kind to ourselves and forgive ourselves if we don't have time to write and to celebrate doing these things that help us write, whatever those are.
What are you working on now and what’s next?
LM: I sold a novel earlier this spring, so I'm awaiting edits on that and for the past couple of months I've been working on a bunch of other projects to distract myself. Per what I was saying before about my scatterbrained mind, I've been working on a bunch of different short stories as well as two different novel ideas. So I’m kind of bouncing between those things.
What advice would you give to artists who are just starting to figure out process and routine?
LM: The best advice I ever got was maybe the first real advice I got as a writer. I met a writer in an informal context, and he heard that I was going to be a writer; and he just turned to me and said, “Finish things.” The longer I've been out of an MFA program, the more I find that that is truly the best advice. Despite doing all the different projects I’m working on, I try to make sure—especially now—that I finish things. I finish a story. I finish a draft. You can never sell something until you finish it and you can never publish something until it's done. You can never get a final draft until you get a first draft. Even if you finish a book or a story or whatever it is, and it doesn't work, you teach yourself something about your own process and about how to finish work by doing that, which will help you on the next piece. So, make sure you finish things.