by Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate
In this very special, and close-to-final blog post of mine as the 2016 Piedmont Laureate, I asked the 2017 Piedmont Laureate — the ever fabulous poet Mimi Herman — to join me in answering some of the more interesting questions we writers get. We each answered without knowing what the other had to say. It’s a pretty interesting read, if I do say so myself. If you grab a beer or glass of wine before reading this post, it will almost be like you are sitting at the quiet end of the bar with me and Mim on a cold winter’s night. Enjoy!
Where do you think creativity comes from? What is it made of?
Herman: I find creativity in the mysterious merging of a problem that needs to be solved with the time and space (and willingness) to take risks. For me, creativity is composed of time, urgency and indulgence in ideas, plus a passion for pursuing them.
Munger: I think creativity is a combination of hopes, dreams, past experience, past lives, the collective unconscious, and random electrical impulses of the brain — all mixed up in a stew that we attempt to make sense of. It’s a beautiful, chaotic expression of our individuality as well as our connections to the world around us. I like to think of it as a holding pen for our brains, where all that has gone before us and all that might be lives. I’d wander through that space forever if I could.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Herman: I spent most of my childhood doing my best to be invisible. But then, when I was 10, I had a Language Arts teacher, Miss Stephens, who actually saw me. She taught me to write poetry, so I became a poet. If she’d taught nuclear physics, I might be a nuclear physicist now, thought I have to say that poetry later saw me through a tortured adolescence and allowed me to emerge on the other side, relatively sane.
Munger: As a child in first and second grade, I wrote a family newspaper, painstakingly written out by hand in columns just like the newspaper my father worked for. I published news items, usually unfavorable ones about my siblings, cartoons (my favorite was a beauty contestant shivering in her bathing suit while one judge says to another judge, “That must be Miss Chile!”) and, eventually fiction. The rest is history.
When did you first realize what your subgenre was going to be?
Herman: I’m not sure I’ve settled on a subgenre–or even a genre–yet. I love writing poems in free verse and I love writing formal poetry. Then, of course, there are the novels that keep creeping in.
Munger: I think it was when I sat down to write after selling my first book, which was a mystery, and realized that every plot rattling around in my head involved someone breaking the rules and that I would never be able to come up with a plot that didn’t involve someone breaking the rules. I suspect this is what happens when you grow up seeking the approval of teachers and other adults by being a goodie two shoes… yet you secretly have oppositional defiant disorder.
Do you have an author or book that left you in awe? If so: why?
Herman: The first time I read Kay Ryan, I was stunned. How did she wreak such magic with sound and meaning and make it seem as if it took no effort at all?
Munger: Many books have left me in awe, but A Prayer for Owen Meany changed my world. It seemed so contemporary compared to the classics I had been reading up until then, and I was thrilled at the idea that a book about my world could be a great book. Plus John Irving made some shocking and audacious plot choices, and the way it all made sense and came together at the end in an Altmanesque sort of way reaffirmed my badly-needed belief that everything happens for a reason. After that, I was hooked on plots that converge in unexpected but deeply meaningful ways.
What’s your guilty pleasure when it comes to reading, television, or other forms of narrative?
Herman: Must I admit it? Really? Okay, I have what I call “popcorn reading,” for times when my life is packed full of work but I still need to read (since reading is pretty much like breathing for me). The more I’m working, the smaller my bandwidth is for real literature, so when I’m on overdrive, I escape into (gasp!) J. D. Robb mysteries.
Munger: True crime, for sure. It’s either incredibly interesting from a psychological standpoint, or you feel deeply superior to all the boneheads out there thinking they can get away with sloppy murders. And usually true crime is about cases where the person has been caught, and I love to see people who have destroyed other’s lives caught and punished for their selfishness. I read true crime books like other people eat potato chips, and I am a true crime podcast junkie. If you’ve got some suggestions of good podcasts to listen to in that genre, let me know in the Comments section! I’m going through my current line-up like wildfire.
Do you have a writing ritual, special place, or method you must absolutely follow when you write?
Herman: Nope. Though I’m rather fond of my couch. And Earl Grey tea is generally involved. But the writing can happen anywhere, and sometimes seems to pop up when I’m swimming laps. It’s a bit tricky to write down my ideas underwater. I’m still working on that one.
Munger: I have practiced different methods in my life, out of necessity, but I prefer to roll out of bed, as close to the dream state as possible, grab a cup of coffee, then sit down at my computer in my pajamas and write with my dog at my feet. Two hours later, I usually fully wake up from my writing reverie, realize I have twenty solid pages newly written, and head for the showers to finish my day. That’s heaven to me.
What do you think is the single best thing you have ever written?
Herman: Isn’t that kind of like asking, “Which of your children is the most intelligent?” It’s probably wisest not to answer. Poems can be so sensitive. I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Munger: My Dead Detective series, hands down. Sometimes I read passages in it and I wonder who is living inside my body writing all that stuff. Who is this creature who understands life so much better than I do and how can I invite them to come out and stay awhile? My favorite in the series is the second book, Angel Interrupted. I’m not saying the writing is the best, but the concept of why that little malformed angel is the way it is? That’s everything — to me and about me.
Do you think writers will be obsolete in the future? Why or why not?
Herman: Never. We will always need writers to say the things that everyone feels, but can’t always put into words.
Munger: I think writers will be more important than ever, prized for their storytelling abilities. Already, every element of our lives, from commercials to political campaigns to entertainment to religion all have a narrative element to them. We depend on stories to learn and understand the world more than we ever have. But the format of those narratives will no doubt change. And writers will need to change with our formats to be heard.
How do you get over failure as a writer? (Describe what you see as “failure,” if that helps clarify.)
Herman: For me, failure comes in two flavors:
1) When I don’t make writing a high enough priority.
2) When I write something that doesn’t begin to get at real feelings or ideas, but instead skates prettily (or awkwardly, with wobbly ankles) around them.
The solution for the first is to look at my calendar and actually ink in writing days, or, preferably, writing weeks. Then I pretend I’m not home, turn of the phone, forbid myself to go online, and write.
For the second, the answer is either brutal revision, or walking away from those ideas or feelings and returning to them from a different angle.
Munger: I would define failure as going through the monumental effort of writing a book or writing a substantial chunk of a book and having your agent tell you it’s not worth event trying to sell (or not being able to sell it). And you know what? It’s pretty easy to get over. Most writers have dozens of stories living in their heads. Once you’ve written one out and made it real on the page, it can be surprisingly easy to let go and move on to the next one. The important thing was that you brought it to life. I’ve had several ideas for books that failed in this manner and you just move on. If you’re a professional writer, a real writer, you are driven by the need to give voice to stories and so you move on.
What’s the single most ridiculous thing another writer has ever asked you to do or done to you?
Herman: When I was twenty-three, and in a writing group that met in the basement of a pub in Dublin, Ireland, I read a particularly maudlin poem about a friend with anorexia. After a stunned silence, the oldest man in the group (I think he was about 85) gave his response as if it were a pronouncement from Olympus. “You read so beautifully,” he said, “no one can tell your poems are _______.” It wasn’t a very nice word, so I’ll just leave it to your imagination. It took me years to get over that one.
Munger: There is another mystery writer who decided I was the reason she did not have the career she wanted. Her books were tepid and monumentally uninteresting, but it’s tempting to take your disappointments as a writer and put them on someone else so you have a target to take those frustrations out on. She made a habit, and still does, of pretending to be someone else and leaving bad reviews for my books. One day, there was a glitch at amazon.com and people’s real identities showed up briefly. She was busted. I thought of all that time she had wasted setting up fake identities just to slam my books and I felt sorry for her. Life is too short to waste on petty crap like that. She could have written another entire book with all the effort she’s put into trying to malign mine.
What is the first piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to be a writer today?
Herman: Pay attention to everything that is inside you and around you. Then try to write it as simply and honestly as you can, in your own words.
Munger: Know why you write. Know from a very personal standpoint why you are going through the Herculean task of becoming a writer. Stop every now and then to take a hard look at your motivations and figure out if they have changed. If you always keep in mind why you write, the many decisions you have to make as a writer will come far more easily and your conscious intent will make your writing better.