Soon After First Light: Lynn Steger Strong
BY Nicole Saldarriaga, February 24, 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 Professor and alumna Lynn Steger Strong '14 about early mornings, input phases, and giving your drafts space to breathe.
Lynn Steger Strong is the author of Hold Still and, most recently, of the novel Want. She had a recurring column in The Guardian's “Two in Five” on the disappearing American middle class and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Time, Harper’s Bazaar, Los Angeles Times, The Paris Review, The Cut, New York Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia and Catapult.
What is a typical workday like for you when you’re in the middle of a project?
Lynn Strong: My go-to when I'm in a project is definitely early mornings. I try to get up around 4:30 am, and write until my kids get up, whenever that is. Depending on the day—I guess, pre pandemic—I would be able to take them to school or camp or whatever, and if I didn't have to teach that day, maybe I would get in other bits of work; but I've always found something sort of magic about the time in the day before life comes and takes over your brain. So when I'm working, I try to preserve that 4:30 to 6:30 am slot, no matter what.
I used to teach night classes to adults with jobs and kids, and I used to say to them, you have found a way to get this time, now don't give it back. I think I was always an early riser, but then I had children and they got up at ungodly hours. Eventually they slept more, but I just kept that time. I wrote a good amount of my first book on my phone while I was nursing our first baby. So, I think they introduced me to the stretchiness and malleability of that particular space of time. I think that the logistical demands of life, I find very overwhelming. It's hard for my brain to come back from that. So, I think if I start the day with no clutter, it's a lot easier to get inside of whatever I'm working on.
Can you speak a little bit more to the logistical demands of life?
LS: My husband's mother's friend once said to us that life is 90% maintenance. I found that both so depressing and very true. As soon as you spend an obscene amount of time feeding your children and thinking about feeding your children and making sure your children are sufficiently fed and happy, and then cleaning up after the feeding of your children and cleaning up after the making of food for your children—I feel like that takes up a good portion of our days, always. Now there’s the added fact that they're remote schooling. So we're finding a flare pen and making sure they're not reading a book instead of paying attention or sneaking onto YouTube instead of paying attention.
I mean, honestly, the biggest answer to that question with regard to how I'm able to be a writer is that I have a really good partner. He's a much better cook than I am and understands that sometimes I need to go running or sit in the room quietly and he will help with the logistics and doing a good amount of the logistics. The other day I thought that I was going to die because the bathroom was so dirty and I just didn't quite feel up to cleaning it. And then I came in to teach a class and I came out and he'd cleaned the bathroom and I thought our vows were renewed in that moment (laughs).
Do you have a routine within your writing time that you follow, and how does that routine help you "stick to" your work?
LS: My go-to is to be merciless about making the time and then pretty merciful inside of that time. So when I'm working on something—and I should also say that I go long stretches without actually writing, where I am thinking and taking notes, and I hate those stretches and they're maddening and frustrating and they feel unproductive, but they're necessary—so I'm only getting up at 4:30 in the morning for maybe two month stretches. But when I am in those stretches, I do it every day and I'm merciless about the fact that I do it every day; but then within that time, I'm pretty merciful with regard to how I take that up. Some mornings I will go for a run, some mornings I will lie on the floor. Some mornings I will read a book. And you have to be willing to call yourself on your shit, right? It has to be a book that's relevant to the thing that I'm working on. It has to be a lying on the floor that's relevant to the thing that I'm working on. But I am definitely one of those writers who spends almost none of their writing time actually writing.
I think as you get older and as life gets more demanding, it becomes harder to rationalize lying on the floor, right? Because your children are saying, Mommy, why aren't you helping me? And the bathroom is messy and you have to make another meal and all of those things. So, that's why for me, cordoned off spaces are really useful because the idea that at two o'clock in the afternoon, I might lie on the floor—my brain can't even touch that idea. I'm having a physical reaction to the idea of being unproductive during my children's waking hours because things would fall apart. So I think I’ve had to make my peace with the fact that the reading and lying on the floor is writing, but because it is writing, I will put it in the writing time slot so that I don't feel such extraordinary levels of guilt that I can't function.
Do you ever experience periods of creative block? How do you counteract these?
LS: I don't know if I necessarily believe in that idea. I'm in this period right now because I've just come out of a thing and I'm trying to find my way into a new thing. And so I'm in a period where there's a lot of running and walking and note taking and a lot of reading. The idea that that's block, because I'm not typing any pages, I just reject that idea. I think that you need input before you can produce output and I'm in an input phase—which is also maddening because I am disgustingly beholden to capitalist concepts and get nervous when I'm not productive, but I'm also a writer because I love reading. Right now, I'm just consuming books at a very high rate, and that feels so essential to my idea of myself as a writer, that it doesn't feel like block. It feels like returning to the most magical, precious part, which is getting to read other people's ideas.
In a lot of your work—both nonfiction and fiction—you discuss precarity and you've been open about your own financial struggles. What keeps you writing during these times and what would you say to young writers who consider giving up on writing because of financial anxiety?
LS: Maybe it's worth prefacing this by saying that one of the greatest hindrances, in my mind, to a literature that's more expansive is the way that the solution to this problem has just been attrition, and that rich people write books and people who don't have any other obligations and can suffer a little more than others write books. There are fewer people like me—a mom with no outside resources—writing books. My children have not to my mind hindered my creativity in any way. What they have made clear to me is that precarity is much scarier and feels much sadder when other people are beholden to what you make. So, with regard to how I deal with that, it is very day to day (laughs). I have no answers and I have not found solutions. My career is better right now than it has ever been, and I'm still scared all of the time.
One thing I've been thinking about a lot, especially in the past few months, is the particular way that, especially in this country, pressure is placed on the individual instead of on the system that's breaking the individual. One way that feels like the beginning of a solution is to shift the conversation from the single individual—maybe I'll be okay, but what about all of my incredible, brilliant students who are going into debt at Columbia University, a space that I'm implicated in because I teach there? It feels like the answer is in the systemic, in the collective and in acknowledging that everybody can talk on and on about how they want diverse books, but until the system stands up and actually supports the production of those diverse books, it's bullshit.
And maybe another thing we can do is take some of the shame off of it. Because one of the reasons I think that an adjunct might not tell her students that she's an adjunct and therefore not make clear to them how the institution that they're inside of and paying for is not actually supporting their professor is because there's shame associated with it. You don't want to be the professor who's sitting in front of your students and saying, well, I don't have healthcare. That feels like a problem to me, but it's not your problem. So, I think if we take the pressure off the individual and we acknowledge that it's systemic, maybe more people would be willing to talk about it and maybe something more could be done. In so far as I have hope about a culture that is not quite so nefarious toward the individual, it lives there.
Sometimes it feels like we're only at Columbia to "talk about the art"—and not the financial or business side of art. Do you think MFA programs like Columbia's should be more transparent about this?
LS: The problem is so much bigger than MFA programs. Even at Columbia, my bosses are extraordinary human beings who I love deeply and who have done everything they can to give me classes from semester to semester—the problem I think is so far past them. 70% of university instructors are adjuncts. This is a massive problem. I never thought that I would be able to support myself on my writing alone. I felt so grateful and excited to love teaching as much as I love writing; and I thought that the two would work in congress really well, which they do. I did not realize neither would be able to support me.
I do try really hard to talk to my students about these things; and I think generally professors are trying more to do it. When I was at Columbia, I was really frustrated by this thing you just described, which is, the idea that we're here to talk about the art. It's only the art and yet we're in New York. Columbia is so expensive. Why are we not talking about the business of the art? But I think one of the reasons some professors don't talk about it is that almost every professor wants deeply to give their students something valuable and solid. At the end of the day, I feel more capable of giving my students the techniques to be better thinkers and writers. I have no idea how to help you learn to live as a writer because I just don't have the answer to that.
What is your relationship to drafting/editing—what is your advice for writers who may find the editing process daunting or difficult?
LS: I think that becoming a writer happens in between the second and 77th draft. One of the reasons editing feels scary early on is because it's a process of prioritizing and choice-making, and when you don't feel like you understand wholly the consequences of the choices or the terms upon which you want to cast your own priorities as a writer, it can be terrifying. Right. So, in so far as grad school can be useful, I think it's largely to do with teaching you what your choices are and what their consequences are so that you can make them better and more pointedly. Because it's not, in my view, workshop's job to fix your story. It's not workshop's job really to do anything with your story. It's workshop's job to observe for you the choices that you're making as a writer in order that you might more thoughtfully make them.
In that way, all of the fun is in editing for me. Give me a 10,000 word essay and tell me that by tomorrow at noon, I have to make it 5,000 words, and there is no greater pleasure to me in life than that. I mean, besides my children who I love very much (laughs). Editing is the most fun part because it's when you're in control again. When you first start writing—that first rush of excitement when you're telling yourself, Oh, this is truth (laughs)—that feels like the most thrilling thing; but that is quite messy. Also, that is truth according to you, that is not a truth that you have made comprehensible and graspable to a reader. So, maybe another way that I find editing so exciting is that it’s the process of translating ideas that feel interesting to me into a form that I might convince, or even seduce, someone else to find interesting. That's a good amount of where the art is, to me.
Do you normally produce a lot of drafts?
LS: It shifts a lot between fiction and nonfiction and it shifts a lot between the size of the project. To me, the biggest thing is being patient enough and smart enough to constantly force distance on the piece. I can get sort of compulsive and obsessive. I sent a draft of a novel to a friend a few weeks ago and she emailed me and said, okay, I finally have time to read it now, but I just wanted to make sure there isn't a new draft. My response was, of course there's a new draft (laughs). Once I'm in, I just can't stop tinkering and redrafting. So in terms of what’s useful for me, I think redrafting is really important, but even more than that, it's how long can I not look at it? And then that redrafting is so much more pointed and useful to the project. So, I'll probably do some obscene amount of drafts, like a hundred drafts over the period of a few weeks, but then I'll take a month away and I'll do one edit that is so much more useful than all of those frenzied tinkerings that I did when I thought I can fix it, I can fix it. That never works for me.
How have the pandemic lockdowns affected your creativity (for better or worse)?
LS: So much of what's interesting to me or exciting to me has to do with shifts and transitions. Riding the subway, dropping my kids off at school, walking anywhere, especially around the city. So much of writing is, again, not writing. One of the ways I used to make it possible for myself to legitimize the not writing was I built in transitions. So I would sit at a coffee shop and then pretend that I had to get lunch 70 blocks away, even though obviously I didn't have to get lunch 70 blocks away. So I'd walk those 70 blocks and that would actually be so much more useful to me than the two hours I had just spent sitting in the coffee shop. Now all of that is gone. I'm also well fed by visual art, and the inability to go to a museum on a Wednesday—it's not hard, right? People's lives are actually hard—but there are all of these input lacks that have been a challenge or have just been a shift with regard to how I make things and what I can use or engage with that feels as nourishing or interesting.
And that too is really interesting to me—just thinking about how these shifts in register are informative or interesting. When I was in labor, because I'm a sociopath, there were moments where I was like, okay, this hurts, but it's also narratively interesting (laughs). I think there's a part of my brain that thinks, okay, pandemics are awful, but with regard to how my relationship to time and space will be forever altered, that is narratively interesting, because so much of narrative is about time and space.
What are you working on now and what’s next?
LS: I have reasonably finished a manuscript that insanely, I think, is attempting to be about hope. That was the task I gave myself—I wanted to do what felt hardest at the time and what felt hardest ten months ago (when I figured out that this was the book I was writing) was to write about hope. So that's what I tried to do. Whether or not I pulled it off, I don't know.
What advice would you give to artists who are just starting to figure out process and routine?
LS: I think it's the merciless and merciful thing, and I think it's on the level of the daily, but it's also on the level of the macro. Most of us spend a lot of time feeling like we're not writers because we have to be lots of other things too. But if you give yourself little pockets in which you still let yourself also be a writer—that's always been really useful to me. Before the pandemic, we had a monthly dinner with friends from Columbia that we called our writer dinner. Once a month, we met and we were writers. And this was very constructed because we saw each other regularly in all sorts of capacities as friends and moms and people who needed to get a drink. But once a month we sat down and we went around the room and we said what are you working on? What are you not working on? I think that sort of thing is equally as important because in grad school it's understood that you're a writer, but in most of your life, it's not—unless you remind yourself of it in clear and concrete and consistent ways.