Next for me at New Yorker Festival was The Writing Process, a panel with Jeffrey Eugenides (“The Virgin Suicides” “Middlesex” “The Marriage Plot”), Sheila Heti (“How Should a Person Be?” “Ticknor” “Women in Clothes”), and Ben Lerner (“Leaving the Atocha Station” “10:04” “Angle of Yaw”) moderated by Cressida Leyshon (deputy fiction editor of The New Yorker.
Leyshon started at the beginning – “What do you do when faced with a blank page?” Eugenides said that it’s not a blank page but pages with the wrong words on them. Heti mentioned a lot of editing. When transcribing interviews it reads flat, so you need to edit to make it live. Lerner said he first has to convince himself that he’s not working. He also said he listen for glitches to become features. Eugenides said to think about the sentence and the rest will come. Heti needed to retrain her brain from playwriting by writing whenever she needed to. Lerner, who is both a poet and a novelist, said poetry is a way to imagine language and emptying yourself out. In poetry each line is its own event. Lines get lost in a novel.
Heti and Lerner have people they will send their novel to review as they’re working on it. Eugenides works alone and no one sees the draft until it is finished. He wanted to know how he could find a reader.
All three have interviewed novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. Eugenides said Knausgaard is an old-fashioned writer; Heti said he sends the pages from each day to a reader; and Lerner called him the anti-process writer.
When asked about writers who say they wait for their characters to tell them the ending, Eugenides said that only bad writers say that. Characters don’t dictate – the writer is creating the characters. Heti said there is an element of stream of consciousness to writing.
Asked about research, Lerner said he spends a lot of time on Google Earth and he steals language more than he researches. Heti said she does not do a lot of research on point.
In response to a question about one of his novel’s endings, Lerner said he likes ending books on a threshold rather than moments of closure.
One audience member said her instructor said she should show rather than tell. Heti quoted from a Paris Review interview with Jean Cocteau – “Listen to early criticisms and emphasize that because that’s how you’re different.” Earlier Lerner had said if you had a problem to write it into the book – like creating a preface.
Asked how to deal with interruptions, they all responded that you can’t. You simply have to live with them.
By Carene Lydia Lopez