By Travis Trombley
As part of their travels sponsored by the Great Lakes College Association, published authors Alan Heathcock and Shane Book visited Albion College to read some of their work and share some of their writing wisdom.
Alan Heathcock, a fiction writer and author of Volt, grew up focused on sports far more than reading, despite his admitted passion for stories. But upon experiencing writing as something that could be “cool” as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, which has a legendary writing program, Heathcock discovered the addictive taste of fiction.
“I took a couple fiction workshops in my junior year, and I remember distinctly feeling for the first time that I could say what I wanted say, which felt very intimate and liberating,” Heathcock said.
After three years of working as a “corporate asshole,” Heathcock, who says he was always writing on the side, applied to graduate school, and, “by some miracle” got into an MFA program. However, after only reading around five books in his undergraduate career, Heatchcock felt extremely overwhelmed and underprepared.
“I just felt completely like a fraud and inept, so I asked my professor for a list of books I needed to read, and he gave me his PhD reading list, and I read, I think, 223 books in one year,” Heathcock said. “So, all I did my first year was read books, watch movies and write, but I also fell deeply in love with words and stories. I married my sugar mama later—a school teacher, just what you want for paying the bills.”
Shane Book, a poet and filmmaker who has published a book of poetry called Ceiling of Sticks, experienced a similar introduction to writing as a profession. Growing up with a father and a grandfather who wrote poetry, Book had models, but he used his writing for more juvenile purposes.
“I wrote stories because a girl in class thought they were good, and it gave me a way to talk to her and start trying to date her,” Book said.
Like Heathcock, Book also found himself absorbed by sports in high school, and, true to the cliché, he says he thought writing was for sissies. But then Book was paralyzed for seven years due to a rugby accident, and, as a result, he was forced into a more contemplative mentality.
“My life changed from the high school jock who was going to go to law school and become another corporate asshole and not be very thoughtful to having a lot of time on my hands because I couldn’t walk,” Book said. “So I started reading and got really serious about doing things I was passionate about instead of doing things society said I should do as a male.”
However, many more years would pass until Book entered an MFA program. For a while, he says, he told people he was working on a novel.
“I wasn’t, I was drinking beer,” Book said.
Eventually, a friend encouraged Book to attend a writing conference, so he drafted up what he calls “the worst thing” he had ever read and sent it in, and the conference accepted him. There, Book met a woman whom he would follow to an MFA program after many months of “faking” the life of a writer.
Q and A
Why do you travel across the country to do readings of your work?
Shane: Well, sometimes it’s for money, but always it’s for joy, because I do like to read. I think the interesting thing about poetry reading is, and I’d say for reading fiction as well, versus showing a film, is that it’s more intimate to do a reading, because you’re kind of having this almost-conversation with the people you’re reading to. Through the human voice, the audience gets the sense that a person made this work, despite all their flaws. That’s different than having your book out in the world and knowing people are reading it. So it’s kind of nice to interact with readers, some of whom have read your book and have smart questions about it.
Alan: Like what Shane said, there’s an element of keeping some finances coming into the household, but there’s more than that. There’s the intrinsic value of travel and seeing the different parts of the country. I’ve been south as far as Brazil and as far north, to the Arctic Circle, as you can get doing readings. It’s amazing how I can sit at a desk for months and write something that will take me all over the world. Since I’m travelling and I absolutely love the written word, I see myself as kind of an ambassador to the arts—just going around to talk to people, even students today, who have a burgeoning interest in writing themselves. I like to let them know that there are real people out there doing it and that it’s worthy and noble and all of those things I believe it is. That has a lot of value to me, especially as I’m figuring out why I’m leaving my wife and two kids and traveling across the countryside.
How have you dealt with the phenomenon known as writer’s block?
Shane: I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think that, in my experience, it’s more of procrastination or a lack of feeling to move me to work. When I think of blockage, I think of constipation, and that’s a weird way to think about it. It implies you have all this stuff backed up inside of you and you just can’t access it or something. I just feel like there’s times I don’t write much, and other times I do. It’s more a function of being regularly engaged in some sort of practice where I’m spending some certain amount of time writing each day. So, sometimes, I’m just going to suck for long periods of time, but it might be that if I labeled it writer’s block, it might turn into some neurosis.
Alan: I agree with him. There are times when I finish a project and I don’t know what my next project is going to be, I just take time to figure it out. I don’t get into a fight with it, I start asking myself questions like what do I want to work on, what do I find interesting in the world right now, what makes me angry, sad, what makes me swoon, or what fills me with hope, but I don’t think of that as block. Block, like Shane said, sounds like I can’t do something, and it’s never I can’t do something; it’s what do I want to do, so in a way it’s a liberation into my next project.
Shane: One of my first teachers was a poet named Philip Levine, and he had a simple method for dealing with so-called writer’s block: don’t have such high expectations. Just lower your standards. When I feel tapped out, I’ll write the world’s crappiest poem. If you take away that critical voice and just write total crap, then at least you’re writing something. I think it’s OK to just sit there and stare at the wall.
Alan: Yeah, the percentage of time that I’m composing new words is a relatively small percentage of my day as a writer, but I’m never not a writer. I’m a writer right now. I’m a writer walking around this campus talking to other writers. I think it’s a lifestyle—a way of viewing the worlds. So I am always engaged, trying to figure out what I find interesting or what catches my eye: interesting bits of dialogue, people I meet on an airplane or the way the wind blows snow across the road when I’m driving, for example. I’m a collector of these things, and every once in a while I collect them into a narrative with characters and write it down, but I don’t get into a fight with it. I think it’s fear and doubt—this psychological constipation, as Shane said—instead of engaging with the lifestyle of being a writer. I just do my work every day. I sit there and think about the world and think about the characters and, sometimes, I write passages about scenery I saw. I may not be actively engaged in writing the great American novel, but I am engaged in being an artist.
Why do you think literature is important?
Alan: I think we have a hard time looking at ourselves outside of art. And perhaps the high of art is to present with a way of seeing ourselves in a way that’s bearable. It’s a way to investigate ourselves, the good things and the bad things. It’s even hard for us to investigate love without being self-conscious, but, ya’ know, we can read Pride and Prejudice and be engaged with these feelings and understand the beauty of falling in love and wanting love, and then the bad things, as well, like violence and moral poverty and different things like that. As a writer of stories, every day I participate in the process of becoming someone who’s not me—it’s an act of empathy. And if there’s one skill set the word desperately needs, it’s empathy. The act of reading is engaging in empathy.
Shane: I’m not sure I agree with its being noble. I have a conflicted sense of art’s importance. I think it’s important as a means of, as you say, empathizing and experiencing the consciousness of another person—that’s something. But I’m really against this notion that literature needs to be useful or culminate in something we can quantify and say why it should exist. Some poetry, like avant garde poetry, has come along to clean the language and revivify it. When politicians, for example, abuse the language by using stock phrases devoid of meaning. Athletes speak in a series of clichés: “We did our best,” “We have to push forward,” “We’re going to ramp up.” I think poetry reclaims some of those empty phrases and reenergizes them.
Beyond that, I think it’s just something humans have to do, whether it’s to tell stories or to use the language. I like the David Foster Wallace quote where he said something like he read novels to not feel alone. I think there’s something to reading any kind of writing, even the most alienating writing, where you have a sense that you’re not surrounded by robots—that there are people in the world who have consciousness, and it’s somewhat similar to one’s own consciousness. So I guess it’s reassuring—it lets people know they’re not in this alone. And that brings us back to reading and why reading is so important.
What do you want people to get from your writing?
Alan: When I write, I always write for myself. I understand that there will be a reader on the other end. The story I’m reading to tonight is me trying to figure out a story my grandfather told me about a violent incident in his life. I engaged with writing it in large part to figure out why he told me that story. I understand there will be reader on the other end, but I try not to think about that too much. But now that there is, I hope I can get them to think about the invasive nature of violence in the world, the tenuous nature of peace in our lives, and how violence, beyond the physical, does great psychological damage to us as a people.
Shane: My book is based on many memories of what I experienced growing up mostly in a third world country, so I saw a lot of things that little kids shouldn’t see, especially North American kids, like famine, or kids my age starving, or civil war, coup d’état. I wanted a way of documenting these things I’ve seen because I feel like they’re the things that history doesn’t remember. It’s the people that are never ever in history books and don’t get noticed and are forgotten. So I wanted to reclaim the names of these lost people, at least these aspects of their stories. I hope people are moved to look at these topics, these completely human made disasters that are completely preventable.
What do you want to tell aspiring writers?
Alan: Adopt writing as a lifestyle. It’s a way to interact with the world. It’s the greatest way to live. I get to indulge all my curiosities and look at all the unanswerable questions, and that’s enough. Erase all this stuff about publishing and getting agents. I get the practicality of it, but, in my experience, it was when I stopped worrying about all that stuff that I began writing stuff that I valued enough to see it through, and that’s the stuff that will find its way onto an agent’s desk and be impressive.
Shane: I think, for poets, I’ll just repeat Phil Levine’s advice: “If you can do anything else, do it.” You’re never going to make a living with poetry. You probably won’t even make half a living. It’s the kind of thing you do if you really must do it. Practically speaking, it’s a good idea to have another plan to make a living. In effect, you have to make yourself stupid by ignoring the fact that what you want to do will not pay very much and you will probably never be famous, certainly not as a poet. If those things are important to you, I wouldn’t do it, but if you’re pulled into the art form, you’re joining into a conversation that’s super long and reaches as far back as the written word and into the oral cultures. The world of the poet is deep, and it’s a repository of all the early knowledge, what we now call philosophy and science and history—it was all once poetry. So there’s an amazing human knowledge base to tap into.
Finally, and this is a stumper, if you could be any type of candy, what would you be?
Alan: Hang on. Let me think of something witty.
Shane: There’s this Canadian candy called an Eat More. It’s a chocolate bar, but it’s not very sweet, and it has the consistency of a turd. I think I would be that because it would make my odds of being eaten less.
Alan: I think I’d actually be a Now and Later. When I was growing up, they were cheap, and everybody wanted them.
Photo of Shane Book courtesy of stmarys-ca.edu, photo of Alan Heathcock courtesy of Amazon.com.