Soon After First Light: Sam Lipsyte
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 Sam Lipsyte about language, impossible expectations, and remembering to be playful.
Sam Lipsyte's most recent book is Hark. He is also the author of The Ask (New York Times Notable Book for 2010), Home Land (New York Times Notable Book for 2005 and winner of The Believer Book Award), as well as The Subject Steve and Venus Drive. His fiction has appeared in The Quarterly, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Noon, Tin House, Open City, n+1, Harper's, McSweeney's, La Nouvelle Revue Francaise and Best American Short Stories among other places. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Esquire, GQ and the Washington Post Book World. He was a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow. His novel, Hark, was published by Simon & Schuster in late 2019.
What is a typical workday like for you when you’re in the middle of a project?
Sam Lipsyte: My routines have always changed over the years depending on what my life situation is. When I wrote my first book, I had a nine-to-five job and I would come home at night, put on a pot of coffee, and just work through the evening and into the night—then get up and go to work. I was often tired, but I was not really a morning person, so that was when I was able to get the work done. After that, I had a few books where I had advances and I was able to not work so much outside of writing. I didn't have a family, so I was in this very luxurious position of having the whole day to write. I always laugh about those times because the amount of time I wasted to get some good hours in strikes me now as preposterous. I would wake up, I would drink a pot of coffee I would read and pace around and listen to music and get myself “ready for writing,” And after a few hours of that, I was pretty tired and needed a nap (laughs). But when I rose from the nap, I would be very energized. And that's when my really good hours would happen—somewhere in between three and seven or eight. Then, of course, life changed again. I became a full-time professor. I had a family. Life got very busy. So, now we’re talking about the difference between the summers when I really do still have those full days to write, and the school year where it's a very different enterprise and it's really about finding pockets here and there. But to me, the main thing is always to stay connected to a project. Even if today I might not get to it, I have to look at it—even if it's 10 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes, even if I just move a comma. An old teacher of mine said, “You pray at the altar every day.” Even if it's just for a few minutes, you have to go into the document and mess around a little bit, read it, feel it, and then you can go on and do the thing you have to do that day, but you'll be connected for the next big writing session.
I'm usually doing something—if I'm not writing a book, I'm working on a short story or an essay...or maybe even a blurb!—just working on something that's keeping my writing muscle occupied in some way. But sometimes, long periods can go by where I'm not really doing the heavy lifting of a long piece of fiction. In that case, I think that reading and taking notes and thinking, walking around and making connections and listening to language as it’s deployed in the culture, is a big part of my practice. I spend a lot of time doing that as well.
If I'm teaching during the semester, it's very hard for me to get real writing done—but I can do a lot of real editing. So, if I already have something I've been working on over the summer, that's when I can really dive back in, edit, come out, go back in. The rhythms of reading other people's work and critiquing other people's work and having classes and meetings and all of that actually serves as a buffer between those editing sessions.
Do you ever experience periods of creative block? How do you counteract these?
SL: People get paralyzed in a certain way, and sometimes I think that it comes from too much planning or, sometimes you just can kind of keep trying the wrong door. So, you convince yourself, This is the way into this material, and you keep trying the door and it doesn't open, and it doesn't open, and it doesn't open. It feels like writer's block, but really, it's that you're coming in through the wrong door and maybe you've got to try some other entrances. So, I tend to think of it that way. It's not some larger, existential impediment. It's more that whatever you're working on is resisting your angle of approach and you need to find another one.
Do you have a routine or ritual that helps you "stick to" your work?
SL: I do pace a lot, and nap a lot (laughs). I can't write tired. I can do lots of things tired. I can live my life tired, but I can't really write tired. I have found that I can't get too hung up on the rituals because I have to be able to be flexible about where I'm going to do the writing. I need to be able to sit down on the couch and work today, but tomorrow I might work at the desk or deal with someone borrowing my computer. When I was younger, the rituals were a lot more important to me and they helped get me into that place of being in a zone with the sentences. As I've gotten older, I've just learned to go to that place without as many rituals.
Do you write in a notebook or do you go straight to the computer?
SL: I've used different methods over the years, but I just finished a novel where, to slow myself down, I wrote the first draft in a big notebook with a fountain pen. I found that tactile process really important. My fingers were always smudged with ink and the pages got all messy with my revisions and emendations that I made as I went. Then I typed that into the computer and repeatedly edited, printed out, edited, typed those edits back in, printed it out again. That was the process. But typically I do all my editing by hand with a hard copy and then input the changes.
This is a great time to talk about editing. What is your advice for writers who may find the editing process daunting or difficult?
SL: A lot of it was practice and learning to read something from the perspective of someone who hasn't written it. Trying to imagine what it's like to read it from outside of my own skull. There are things that are special little jokes to you, or have a precious association for you. But you learn to see that with a cold eye and say, well, If I weren’t me, how would this resonate? That's a really important place to get to. The whole point of an MFA, as far as I'm concerned, is not to learn how to write, it's to learn how to edit yourself.
Anxiety about editing also comes from a certain kind of obsessiveness. It’s the same way that there are people who are constantly fixing their hair. It’s the ‘No, it's not ready yet. Ooh, this is out of place. That's out of place.’ People get into this obsessive grooming of their prose, and in the end, they worry about editing too much. My usual response is you are nowhere near that (laughs). But there is definitely a point where you have to stop and let it go.
There’s a phrase that has been used by so many creatives—The work is never finished, it is simply abandoned.
SL: I totally agree with that. There's a quote I love—I think by the philosopher Emil Cioran— which essentially comes down to You never finish the work. You just turn away in disgust (laughs). Ultimately the great editor is time, of course. You put it away for a month or two, and then you look at it again and you can really see everything that's working and not working. Time is a great friend to the editing process.
You've spoken before about the sonic quality of language and how playing with language will help you "get into" the piece you're working on. Can you tell us a little more about this process?
SL: Language is our medium, and I really respect all the different ways people come to it. I don't think there's a ‘right way’ to come to language or a right way to render it in prose fiction. But, you will find in every writer that you like to read, no matter how wildly divergent their styles are, an attention to the language. It might be a maximalist, bursting of language or it might be very stripped down and spare. It might be elliptical. It might be interested in white space. It might be interested in playing with lots of different kinds of syntax. There are so many ways to approach it, but it's always somebody paying attention rather than just thinking of words as little carts, carrying some ideas to your destination.
I always think of every sentence as being an opportunity to create some music, to create some mood, to create some atmosphere, to astonish in some way, to surprise, subvert expectations, all of these things. So I think that there's the “what” of your narrative—what's going on—and you’re paying attention to that, but you're also paying attention to the “how.” We're all pretty much stuck with the same “what,” anyway—we’re born, we die, stuff happens in between (laughs)—but the “how” is a way of finding your own place in all of that.
Does the specific voice—or maybe the “how”—of a piece come to you first, or is it something that develops as you draft?
SL: It can go either way. Sometimes a voice comes to me or a few sentences or even an image, but it needs to be an image that comes through some interesting collision of words. Then I just begin and keep writing until something stops me. If nothing stops me, I keep going, and if it keeps opening up and opening up, maybe the project is something big. If it goes for a while and starts to close down and its logic starts to turn in an interesting way, maybe it's a short story.
I might have a sense that I want to write something that involves itself with a certain world or situation or some characters or some certain pressures; but until I find that way in, that door—that's the thing I'm looking for during those times I'm walking around and not really writing, but rather letting things flow through me. I'm waiting for that kind of offhand moment where I find the right way in.
And this might go back to block. Actors talk about how you have to be relaxed. When someone's really acting, they're relaxed and receptive and letting themselves be present. There is something about writing, especially a first draft, that I consider something close to an improvisation. So, I think it's important to be relaxed. One of the things that writer's block might be, is anxiety about being able to do it. We put all this pressure on ourselves to write and to write well—you know, But this is the week I had off to write and why isn't it happening? I think it's really key to remember that writing is play, especially in the development of that first draft, that discovery draft. It has to be loose, playful composition. It'll build an intensity and the important themes will emerge; but if you sit down already anxious about doing something great, it's going to be tough going.
Do you have any advice for people that have gotten to this point where they're trying to take their writing seriously and they've forgotten how to relax into it?
SL: It was very useful for me at a certain point in my early writing apprenticeship to come to the realization that nobody cared (laughs) and that my friends and family—they wanted me to be relatively happy and they hoped I would find a way to have some health insurance—basically nobody else cared whether I wrote this novel or this story or not. They didn't wake up in the morning thinking, Well, I hope Sam solves that problem on page 15, I'm going to be really tense if he doesn't. Nobody else is thinking about you or your work. That relieved a lot of pressure that I was putting on myself. I accepted the sense that this was just about me and if I got up in the morning and did this, it was because I wanted to be in that—there's a Beckett phrase, the “fabulous zone”—I wanted to be in the fabulous zone where all the other stuff fell away and I could control these sentences and I could create things and shape them and arrange them. Where else can I do that? So, it was a revelation that if I went and did something else, no one would be disappointed, no one would be upset. It freed me and allowed me to be both more playful and more fierce and not worry so much.
How have the pandemic lockdowns affected your creativity?
SL: A lot of my artistic life was bound up with conversations with other people who think about similar things and friends who I can confide in and talk to about the ongoing process—that has really changed. I feel much more kind of isolated and alone. And I don't believe in some mythology about the lone artist. I think that we are social beings and we're constantly exchanging artistic energy with each other. I miss that a great deal. Other more solitary pursuits that feed into my writing—like taking long walks—I can still do those.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life would you say most influences your writing?
SL: Oh, I mean, I think that's my family—my partner and my kids. I don't even mean that in a sentimental way. I think I'm constantly listening to them talk and asking them questions and trying to understand the world through their eyes. That informs a lot of the ways I see things. That's also just where language comes from. Even last night, my wife came home and she'd had a nice, socially distanced visit with a friend, and they'd gotten some food somewhere and she said to me, “We had three interesting cheeses.” The phrase three interesting cheeses, just...(laughs). Amazing. I've also told this story of going into a supermarket—and we’ve all heard the phrase a million times at supermarkets when the cashier needs to undo something on the machine and a manager needs to come over with a key and the cashier says “I need a void”—so, I remember one day in the supermarket just hearing someone scream, “I need a void, I need a void,” over and over like that. That was thrilling to me. That's the everyday inspiration. If you keep your ears open and listen, it’s there.
What are you working on now and what’s next?
SL: I'm in a very late editorial stage with the novel I finished over the summer. I've gotten editorial notes back from my editor after I've been through many drafts of it. So I've been working on it for three or four months now. Then I have this little essay on a film from the seventies I'm going to write for Criterion. Then it's wide open—I'm going to play around and experiment and see what happens.
What advice would you give to artists who are just starting to figure out process and routine?
SL: It's all about what I said earlier about staying connected to whatever you're working on. Even if you can't write that day, spend ten minutes with the thing you wrote yesterday or the day before. Just always look at it and play with it. As we all know, we do a lot of our writing subconsciously or without necessarily having it in front of us. So keep praying at the altar.