Do you remember about two and a half years ago I started Authors on Authoring, a “series” talking to authors talk about the minutiae of their writing lives? The rituals, the quirks; the paralysing self-doubt? Well, in timely fashion, I now bring you the second instalment!
Today’s kind volunteer is Jen Larsen from Ogden, Utah. Her new memoir Stranger Here (How weight-loss surgery transformed my body and messed with my head) is, “the brutally honest, surprisingly hilarious story of her journey from one extreme of the weight spectrum to the other, and of the unexpected emotional chaos it created”.
After stalking Jen’s brilliant prose around the internet for over a decade, it was a joy to hold her book in my mitts. It is a cracking, compelling read.
Now let’s delve into her brain…
1. As well as authoring you have a full time job. How does busy-ness affect your writing? Does the variation in your days keeps you inspired or do you fantasize about writing full time with a butler?
Even if I weren’t a writer I am pretty sure I would need a robot monkey butler just to have. Because robot monkey butler.
Lots of writers believe writing all day For the Man means you are selling out and also draining dry your secret underground creative lake in your imagination grotto. But I love the fact – and feel pretty lucky – that I am supporting myself with a day job as a copywriter. I think it actually helps me be a better fiction writer, because I’m not content to churn out crap content at work. I want to write stuff that’s as engaging as possible within the parameters I’m given, and so I have a lot of fun doing that. Of course and obviously if someone offered me a million dollars I’d immediately be living in a garret somewhere and writing only my own stuff.
But seriously. Robot monkey butler.
2. What’s the earliest piece of writing you can remember creating? Do you remember a moment when you first thought, “Righto! I want to be a writer!”?
From the second I realized that books were things created by people, and not just magic objects from magic town, I wanted to be a writer. I could be one of those persons who created books! And then I wandered off into the woods and forgot about it.
I never actually wrote anything on my own until maybe 8th grade? It was a terrible story about a woman who is sucked into a haunted mirror and the end and I have to tell you it was pretty awesome. I gave it to my English teacher and she read it and looked at me and said “where’s the ending?” I was super cross she didn’t get me as an artist, man. I never finished a single piece of writing except blog posts until I went to grad school. That right there is pretty much the only reason I went for my MFA – I wanted to actually finish something.
3. What’s the most…
… thing that has happened since the publication of your memoir?
a) Okay, so, I enrolled in community college because I didn’t take my SATs. And the plan was to get my two-year degree with fancy honors, transfer to a four-year school via the magic of a scholarship, and get my bachelor’s degree. After a year I transferred out scholarship-free because Public Speaking was a required course.
Which is to say, I am terrified of the idea of speaking in front of people. And yet, to promote a book you have to talk a lot. Somehow I have so far managed not to explode in a shower of embarrassed sparks every time I have to get up in front of a room full of people or talk to an interviewer and I’m not sure why.
b) The emails I get from people about the book. One of the reasons I wrote the thing was because I felt so stupid and so alone and incompetent and completely convinced that I was the only human in the whole world who couldn’t get her shit together and couldn’t figure out how to do this life thing right and I was broken. And I wanted to reach out to people who have felt this way and still feel this way. Hey, yo, you are not alone. I am still a big mess! People respond and say yes, me too. And we understand each other. And maybe we’ll figure it out because we’re not the only ones.
c) The scariest thing is that people are reading it. It’s a book that basically catalogs the mistakes I’ve made and the stupid things I’ve done and people are out there reading all about it and it makes me feel a little vulnerable and kind of fragile. It is the possibility of rejection on a massive scale, you know? It also makes dating tricky because the two most common reactions have been that they either think they have a secret owner’s manual, or they are TOTALLY WEIRDED OUT.
4. What do you think are the most common misconceptions that the general public have about writing and/or the author’s life?
At my day job, they’re convinced that because the book is doing okay, I’m about to quit any minute and go live under my showers of sparkling silver royalties that rain down from the magic money clouds, which is really cute.
People also think, especially if you’ve written a memoir, that you’re going to steal their soul and put it in a book. Or that they’ve got an idea and you should use it. Or that the only reason they’ve never written a book themselves is that they just don’t have time even though they have so many great ideas and I must have so much time. And I want to say please just write your book okay? Stay up late or something. No, seriously.
5. Can you describe what it feels like when you’re in the middle of a good writing day?
It is basically better than the best thing ever. Everything else vanishes and hours go by and I am not really thinking, I’m just typing. And when I wake up — it really does feel a lot like really waking up from good sleep — I feel euphoric and exhilarated and absolutely, utterly amazed that I managed to write something again. And then, I get slightly terrified as I become convinced that that’s the last time it’ll ever happen and I’m done now, because I have no idea how I did it in the first place.
6. When writing, what’s your favourite…
a) place to write
b) background noise (music/silence/etc)
c) beverage and/or snackage of choice?
a) In bed, or a coffee shop if I’m really stuck.
b) Usually silence, but noise without words is really good, because tuning it out helps me focus tremendously. It is nicest when my roommates are playing video games in the next room. Sometimes I sit on the couch with them while they play and I write. At the coffee shop I usually put headphones on and play something with a lot of bass because if I’m at the coffee shop I am totally blank and scrabbling and need something propelling me forward.
c) Diet Pepsi is the only thing that keeps me alive. Snacking makes a mess.
7. Do you now feel some distance from the Jen you write about in your book, or do you feel one and the same? When readers write to you does it feel like they are talking about you as an author or you as a character? Or both?
I think it is incredibly hard to separate out the main character/narrator of a memoir from the actual author. Because it’s a true story, right? Yes right of course but it’s also not the only story. It’s just a fraction of who the writer is. The narrator in my book is basically me chiselled down to the essential bits for the purpose of storytelling. And she’s also very much the very early prototype of the person I am now. And a little bit of a dumbass.
People who read the book generally assume that she is me and I am her and that’s both pretty awesome (because that means they’re connecting to the voice and the book, right?) and a little strange to me, because that girl seems very far away. I like to think I am slightly less of a dumbass.
8. I know there’s a lot of budding writers reading this blog… if you could give them a Twitter-style maximum 140 characters of advice, what would it be?
Dude, stop worrying about sucking and just write a first draft. No one ever has to see it but you.