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February 23, 2009

Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, January 2009

Posted by carol
It's a new year of book club visits for novelist and creative writing professor Joshua Henkin. He speaks regularly with reading groups across the country about his novel Matrimony, and each month he shares behind-the-scenes stories with us. One of the groups that Josh met with in January is contributor Shannon McKenna Schmidt's book club. Click here to read her re-cap of the meeting.

Check back tomorrow, too. Josh will be answering an intriguing question he was asked in January: What do you think of book group facilitators?

January's Condensed Statistics
Number of Book Groups I talked to: 10
Number in Person: 3
Number by phone: 7
Number of states represented: 6 (New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois)
Total Number of Participants: 102

January's Writing Process Question Number 1: Do you write every day?

I certainly try to write every day, though with teaching and raising two small kids (and meeting with book groups!) it isn't always possible. I certainly don't wait for inspiration, largely because I don't believe in inspiration. Sure, there's writing that's inspired and writing that's uninspired, but I don't think the quality of your writing correlates to how you're feeling when you sit down to write. If anything, I think the relationship is inversely proportional. Often when I'm feeling most inspired I produce my worst work (perhaps because I've fallen in love with the sound of my own voice), and when I'm feeling least inspired I produce my best work. In any case, I think writers do best when they demystify the writing process, when they treat their work as a job. And it is a job. You pack your lunch pail and go to work like everyone else; you tie yourself to your chair every day. You don't write a novel. You write a page a day or however much; only looking back do you have a novel.

In that sense, a novel is like life. It's only once you've taken a certain path that you realize you've taken it; you look back and realize, This is the job I've been at for the last ten years, this is the person I've married, this is the life I've chosen to lead. I don't mean that it happens haphazardly, or that people don't make decisions. But I do think that our lives come most into focus as we look back. And the same is true of a novel. You look back when you're done and realize this is what you've written. When you're in the actual process of writing, you can't see the forest for the trees.

As for how often to write, I tell my students that even if they have next to no time to write, it's better to write as often as possible. Better, that is, to write ten minutes a day six days a week than to write for an hour on a Sunday. Now, obviously, if I were writing only an hour a week, I'd never get my novel done, but the same principle applies. Although it's important for a novelist to have big chunks of time in which to write, what's even more important is to be constantly engaged with your characters. If I go several days without writing, it's like I'm starting over when I come back to the book. But if I'm writing every day, then I think about my characters even when I'm not writing. They stay alive for me, and that's a crucial thing. You need to check in on your characters. They're like plants that need to be watered.

January's Writing Process Question Number 2: When you started Matrimony, did you know where it was going?
Absolutely not. I never know where I'm going, and to the extent that I have some sense of where I'm going, I'm relieved to learn that I'm wrong. When I started Matrimony, I thought it was about a love relationship and that it was taking place at a college reunion. Well, it is about a love relationship, but it's about other things too (friendship, class, health and sickness, betrayal), and though there is a college reunion in the book, it doesn't come until around page 270 and it lasts for all of six pages. So pretty early on I realized I had no clue. Which is as it should be. When a writer has too much of a clue, that's when s/he gets into trouble. Of course, you want to have a clue eventually, but for the first draft, certainly, you want to proceed much more intuitively; you want to be writing in a dream-like state.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but chief among them is the fact that if you want your characters to come to life, you need to give them room to surprise you. That's because the relationship between plot and character is complex and symbiotic. Think of our own lives. We both create our plots and are created by them. Things happen to us, and we become different from who we were when we started. The same is true in fiction. If you're too determined to make your characters do something, then they're not going to be the complex people you want them to be. As a writer friend of mine said, if you inject your characters into a predetermined plot, you end up with Lipton-Cup-a-Story. Another friend of mine wrote her undergraduate psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, and the kids group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that kids are more natural story-tellers than adults are. One of my jobs as a writer and as a teacher of writing is to teach myself and others how to think like a child again --- albeit like a smart, sophisticated child. And the way to do that is not to plan things out too much --- to allow your characters and your story to carry you on their sails.

In any case, planning out a book never works, in part because the writer changes as s/he goes along. When I started Matrimony, I was 33, single, and living in Ann Arbor, and when I finished Matrimony, I was 43, married, the father of two daughters, and living in Brooklyn. I wasn't the same person as I was when I started. But the book needs to feel seamless. And in order to do that, you have to make so many adjustments as you rewrite and revise. Often it means cutting scenes that you love but that don't belong in the book. At the very least, it means throwing away all those plans you had and looking at things afresh.

---Joshua Henkin

Previous Posts by Joshua Henkin:
Book Club Adventures, December 2008 Part II
Book Club Adventures, December 2008
Book Club Adventures, November 2008
Book Club Adventures, November 2008 Part II
Shouting Matches and More