How did you become a writer?
Desperation and pleasure drew me to writing – I was desperate to understand the significance of the experiences I’d had, to discover their inner meaning. And the pleasure of reading, once I could read by myself, was certainly the most reliable in my life, and so that impelled me, as well. I grew up in a noisy Bronx household, the youngest of four children. I shared a bedroom with a flamboyant, dominating sister. Reading offered calmness and access to a hidden splendor. I always had a book with me. The keen pleasure of reading made me want to write.
But I didn’t really become a writer until I was a member of a writing workshop in my mid-twenties. I just had no idea how to make my writing better, before then. I had no self-awareness on the page. I had no idea how to improve what I wrote. The workshop method was frightening and revelatory, and I slowly acquired some awareness about the shape of my work.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Virginia Woolf showed me a kind of writing that illuminated the way a person’s mind worked. She was one of those writers who made me grab my pencil and underline. I read Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and Moments of Being over and over, to the point where now I must leave them on the shelf since I’ve worn their magic so thin. Colette taught me the sensuality and drama of the page. Henry James, Charlotte Brontë, and E. M. Forster showed the potential power and length of a scene, and the connection between the novel and the play. James Baldwin’s personal essays demonstrated ruthless, unbudging honesty. A friend once said that a personal essay is a reckoning, and I think of that when I read Baldwin – he comes to conclusions. He doesn’t trail off with an ellipsis. He doesn’t leave things merely suggestive. Samuel Butler showed me the power of a surprising turn of events. He made me laugh out loud. “People aren’t allowed to say such things!” I always feel like remarking of the narrator in The Way of All Flesh. And then I smile and turn the page. No wonder so many modernists delighted in this long-hidden novel. He brought a gust of air into the house of fiction that even now feels welcome.
Writers one loves are not necessarily always writers one can learn from. Laconic writers like Didion and Hemingway thrill me but they constrict me as well. Their ways are not mine, much as I admire them.
When and where do you write?
I must write at home, in the midst of surroundings so familiar I don’t see them. I write at the kitchen table, generally in the morning. First I must drink an enormous amount of coffee. Then I must continue to drink coffee.
What are you working on now?
I am revising a novel I drafted years ago. It came out to almost 800 pages because I never printed it out from fear it was too short. Now it is 400 pages but threatens to loosen its corset, which I am forever tightening.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes, although I, like many writers, have for the term a kind of superstitious loathing. It was when I received the contract for my first book, which I’d sold on the basis of two complete essays and an outline. I was able to write all during the time of the block, I just couldn’t write the book I was contracted to write. I wrote other things.
Finally I entered psychotherapy with a woman who promised, “Enter treatment with me and you will write your book.” I did, and I did, and then I wrote a book about that, which became my second. I remain grateful for that psychotherapy, since the doctor introduced me to many truths about my experience that I would not otherwise ever have grasped. I was so averse to conflict that I would merge with whatever strong personality entered my life. I had a strong streak of masochism that expressed itself in going into bookstores and searching out new books by young writers that made my own writing appear negligible. Psychotherapy gave me a method for discovery and growth akin to the method of writing but that, at that time, was perhaps even more useful. After seven years – like a biblical contract – I left the therapist, having incorporated what I needed into myself. My own writing block came about from not believing I inherently made sense. When I trusted that I made sense without having to be fraudulent or strain, the writing returned, and was again alive to me.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Everyone says you should read a great deal, and this is true. Most real writers don’t need to be told to read; they want to. Re-reading is at least as important as reading. That second time through, you can notice how the writer sets up a scene, what he or she leaves out, where they cut, what kind of transitions they make or don’t make, etc. The first reading, you succumb to the magic. The second, you see how it’s done, or at least much more how it’s done. It’s like seeing a movie twice: the second time through, the director’s choices become more obvious.
I am the author of Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy, and Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays. My essays have appeared in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Buddhist Writing, The Best of O., the Oprah Magazine, and The Best Writing on Writing. My website is www.BonnieFriedman.com, for those curious to know more about my work.