Robin Black’s story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, (Random House, 2010) was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Fiction Competition, a summer reading pick for O. Magazine, among Best Books of 2010 in the San Francisco Chronicle and Irish Times, and the winner of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia Literary Award. Her essays and stories have recently appeared in Conde Nast Traveler UK, O. Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Georgia Review, One Story and others. Robin lives in the Philadelphia area with her family.
Q (Meg Pokrass): Have you had mentors? Do you mentor? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance for a writer…
I have had a few wonderful mentors. Steven Schwartz was my first supervisor at the Warren Wilson MFA program and through the eight years since has been the person I can turn to for advice ranging from highly practical to neurotic – me, not him. I studied with Allan Gurganus two hundred years ago – well, thirty years ago. Two decades after our work together I wanted to get back to writing I got in touch with him and he wrote me the most exquisitely generous letter full of great advice and encouragement. Dani Shapiro has held my hand through the entire publication process, there to answer every question and to steer me away from a couple of humongous mistakes I might have made.
I try to be a good mentor to my students. I think – I hope – they feel comfortable coming back to me for whatever help I can give. I’m still relatively new to a lot of this myself but I do try to share what I’ve learned. But there’s this other thing that happens with writers which doesn’t exactly fit the term “mentoring” but seems somehow related. So many of my friends are writers who are at similar career stages to mine and we sort of mentor each other. Maybe there’s an element of the blind leading the blind to that but I think it is so, so important to have peers and colleagues while going through what could be a very lonely, isolating profession. And some kind of good faith attempt to help the other folks seems to me like the best way to combat all the inevitable competitive bs that arises in us all.
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired… suggestions for unblocking creativity?
When I feel stuck – which happens more often than I like to admit even to myself – I switch forms. Sometimes I’ll write some “poetry” – the quotation marks are there because it’s so bad it barely qualifies. But that’s what I like about it. There is zero pressure on me to do it well, so I can do it without that crazy-making pressure I feel sometimes with prose. I also paint and draw. Sometimes I do cartoons – narrative drawings. Again, I’m not very good, but I find that remaining creative while shaking off whatever project is blocking me for a while is really helpful. So, so often my feeling stopped comes from worry about whether the work is good or not. So the first step is to remove that worry, unlink it from my creative impulse. I used to bake at those times, but then I hit middle age and each calorie became a longterm committed relationship, so I’m safer with watercolors and lousy verse.
Are there favorite writing practices/exercises that you can share?
I have never been much a writing exercise person. Unless I count the gazillion projects I have started and never finished. I envy people who have routines, warm-ups, all of that. To me it is a huge mystery still why on some days I write like a house afire and on others I feel like I can’t possibly ever have done so.
How well do you know your characters before you start writing them? How firm are your ideas on that…?
I know pretty much nothing about my characters when I start. My stories tend to begin with odd little observations, hunches about human interactions. Quirky things. And the people develop while I worry through whatever that situation is. I try to know as little about a story and about the people as I possibly can for as long as I possibly can. The people develop as the story does. The story develops as the people do. I find that when I begin with too fixed an idea about anything I get into trouble.
Regarding plot, my question is about firmness of ideas vs. letting the plot develop in the writing… is it a tug of war?
It’s really hard to describe how unattached I am to the idea of any particular plot in a story as I’m writing it. I’ll often write ten, twenty versions. In this version the couple gets together, in this one they don’t even cross paths, in this one, he has a terminal disease in this one she has three sons, in this one two of those sons are his. It’s all incredibly amorphous. There really isn’t a story until there’s a finished story. I’m pretty much wandering around in the dark with each one. “Okay, how about this? No. Not that. How about this? What could happen here? What might these people be capable of? What might they think of doing? What wholly non-character driven event might intervene here?” The more teaching I’ve done the less attached I’ve become to the idea of knowing a story before it’s done. I see it with students so often, this over-attachment to the original idea for a story – which is totally understandable, and definitely a jam I’ve gotten into. But it stops people, this feeling that certain things MUST happen. Stories have lives of their own. In my experience when you don’t allow for that, those lives can end pretty fast.
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. Please tell us what you loved about the process of birthing this collection.
When I started writing short stories in 2001 after a hiatus of many years it was just about an experience as pleasurable as any I have ever had. I was thirty-nine years old and I felt like I had suddenly discovered the key to my own happiness or maybe just the key to myself. Nothing felt as compelling to me as trying to convey things. That sounds so simplistic. But that was it. I had spent close to forty years being an obsessive noticer of how people interact, a private theorist about human behavior and also a collector of the sorts of metaphors that occur in daily life, the way our lived lives seem to run parallel with a kind of naturally occurring symbolic scheme – something of which I was always, always aware – and suddenly I knew how to convey all of this stored up information. At the same time, I had been through some very difficult times, and I had all this heavy, thorny grief in me. I’m not sure I can explain this well, but I knew somehow that the way to work through my own grief was to work through the griefs of imaginary people. The whole book for me, every story in it really, was an exercise in rehearsing for myself the fact that we do recover from losses, that we do move forward, that humans are unimaginably, profoundly creative when it comes to crafting and recrafting reasons for hope. Not that every story is happy by its end – not at all. But to me all of the characters I invented are just doing what we all do. They are finding ways to go on. It’s our great and lovely gift, that ability – and it’s especially beautiful because it’s often irrational. Wanting to keep going. Writing stories, making stuff up, somehow helped me understand that.
But the other less new age crazy sounding joy I got out of writing those stories has to do with discovering what a complete craft nerd I am. I am terrible at math, at foreign languages, could never learn to read music but suddenly for the first time I found a system that made sense to me. The craft of writing. It’s genuinely nutty how much I like that stuff and that has been a huge, huge pleasure to me. Most of the stories in the book, along with being whatever else they are, are experiments in different forms of narrative, little tasks I set for myself. And I really loved playing with all that stuff.
The best advice you ever got? What helped you as a young writer?
As a young writer, back in the early 1980’s, I worked with Allan Gurganus at Sarah Lawrence and he had us write a story a week for a year. Along with a great deal of other wisdom he imparted, the experience was tremendously helpful because I learned not to be too precious about my own work. If you have to write fourteen or so stories in a semester, some of them are just going to be god awful. So I got used to the idea that some of my work would be god awful, that not every word I produce is meant to be read by others. I find that very, very useful.
What is next for you?
I’m at work on a novel. (The standard short story writer answer, I know.) I just realized that I still think I am somehow going to figure out who I really am as a writer – that one day I’ll understand the best way for me to do this in some way I never have. And of course once I figured out that I think that, I realized how ridiculous it is. So I guess what’s next, along with the novel, is trying to be a little more accepting of the fact that I am never going to feel like I really know how to do this. And even to enjoy that fact if I can.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.