By Leslie Lindsay
Oh my goodness. This book. Every writer, would-be-writer, aspiring writer, closet-writer, bestselling and debut writer *needs* this book. Trust me. It’s like Robin Black crawled inside my head and accessed every single thought I’ve had about motherhood, the writing life, and the life in writing. It makes me want to be a better writer. And that, right there, is hugely powerful.
CRASH COURSE is an insightful, beautiful, and searingly honest account of the writing life told with wisdom, humor, and self-awareness you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. It’s fantastic. I laughed, nodded in agreement, gasped, and maybe, quite possibly could have shed a tear or two.
Just listen to this:
“I wasn’t more than two pages into Crash Course when I pulled out a pen and started underlining like crazy. In these essays, Robin Black is simultaneously a wise teacher, an encouraging mentor, and that friend who gives you the real dirt on what the writing life is like. Crash Course is an invaluable resource and reassurance for any writer.”
—Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You
Exactly. My copy isn’t underlined or highlighted—yet—but it should be. It definitely has been dog-eared. And water-logged. CRASH COURSE was read poolside as a cluster of little girls splashed and created synchronized swimming routines in a hotel pool. It was one of those girls’ birthday. Mine. And I so, so wanted to write. But reading about writing was a close second. Watching the smiles on those girls faces fueled my love for them and made me understand that I’m a better mom because I write.
Today, I am honored to sit down with Robin Black and share this amazing collection of essays about the writing life. Trust me, you need this book. Now.
Leslie Lindsay: Welcome, Robin! At one point in CRASH COURSE, you mention something about the conception of stories. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was along the lines of, ‘it’s so unique, to every story and every writer, almost like asking, where was your child conceived?’ So, I want to know, how was CRASH COURSE conceived?
Robin Black: Very gradually. When my first book came out in 2010 I started blogging, supposedly just to promote the book, but while doing it I discovered a real desire to share my experiences coming to writing “late” and also to synthesize that with some of what I’ve learned about writing – craft lessons. I was surprised by how strong an urge I felt to share those things and by how responsive people were. It seemed like the more I took risks about sharing tough stuff, the greater the rewards. In 2011 I was invited to join an amazing group blog called Beyond The Margins. It’s gone now, but for several years I wrote a post every few weeks, taking turns with an incredible group of writers. And by the time my second book came out in 2014 I had a couple hundred pages of blog posts. It was a pretty easy decision then to try to make that into a book though it still took a lot of work to shape those essays into something cohesive. A LOT of work!!
L.L.: You speak so openly about things that might be challenging to speak of: your own struggle with AD/HD and your daughter’s special needs. I applaud this vulnerability. Hugely. In fact, both of those struggles resonate with me as well. My daughter has AD/HD and childhood apraxia of speech (CAS), both of which stumped me a bit, but from those struggles, a book emerged for parents raising a child with apraxia. And a sensitivity arose in parenting. Her struggles might have made me a stronger writer and a better parent. Can you speak to that, please?
Robin Black: It’s so wonderful that you were able to use your experience with your daughter to help other people. I truly admire that.
I think that parenting my daughter has made me a better mother for sure. Her issues have forced me to be more patient than comes to me naturally, and have taught me to think less in any given situation about me, me, me. Because truly her needs trump mine – most of the time. I’m not sure though that I think the whole ongoing process has made me a better writer. Some of that is simply practical. Parenting a child with so many needs is exhausting, and to some extent that weariness has slowed me down, I think. But she has certainly enhanced my life, brought me great joy and incredible pride, in her. But in the end, as I write in CRASH COURSE, her life is her story. Whatever she has brought me, amazing and also at times exhausting, she’s the person who matters the most. And I have endless admiration for how she handles her life.
L.L.: So I’m reading CRASH COURSE at a time I really, really needed it. Everyone, essays in this book included, keep saying, “Don’t stop. Keep going. Never give up on your dream…blah, blah, blah.” But guess what? I want to give up. I want to say, eff-it all. One of your essays is titled, “A Life of Profound Uncertainty.” I’m nodding because—yes—I get it. There are no absolutes in writing. Except, maybe, writing. What would be your advice to a fledgling writer?
Robin Black: My advice is to keep writing – by which I don’t mean anything as simple as “write every day” because writing every day is only good advice for some. I mean something more like, “don’t give up thinking of yourself as a writer.” And don’t be too focused on specific goals. Unless it helps you to be. And there’s the rub, with all writing advice: It’s all good except when it isn’t good. And it’s all bad, except when it helps. So the real trick for a fledgling writer is to plow through and sort through the tons and tons of advice out there and only take the advice that keeps you on course. And stay on course.
L.L.: And let’s talk about that S-word. Subjectivity. For awhile, a critique partner and I were raking in, I mean RAKING IN the rejections. And nearly 90% of them said, “of course, this is just my opinion, some other agent may feel differently.” The next part of this question deals with the R-word. Rejection. Does any of it matter?
Robin Black: That’s such a tough question. It would be so nice if we came equipped with a way to weight these things appropriately, if rejections came with footnotes saying things like *Ignore this, this guy is a fool.” The problem is that some rejections contain wisdom, and it’s a shame to miss out on those by just ignoring all rejection as unimportant. I guess the closest thing to a rule that I can articulate is, if the person seems wholly outside your project, just brush it off. If they seem like they get what you’re doing, and appreciate it, but feel you haven’t fully realized your own intent, then it makes sense to pay attention.
But in general the main point about rejection is that we all experience it. So the fact of having a lot of rejections is kind of like knowing it will rain on some summer days. It may be a bummer but it’s not a portent of anything terrible.
L.L.: I think I connect so much with CRASH COURSE because you write about all of the things we writers obsess about: self-sabotage, fear of failure (a big one for me), fear of success (“Oh my—I made it, now what?!” Also, a pre-emptive fear of mine), and just general unease about being able to produce anything—ever. Can you talk more about that, and how might we get over it?
Robin Black: I think the goal is not exactly to get over it, because the temperament that writes is probably nearly always also one likely to be plagued by doubt. I think, as with rejection, the goal is to try to learn not to attach extra significance to those fears. Every single time I am in the thick of a project I go through at least one long period of being “certain” that I can’t finish it. And now, after years, I have a strange two level response to that. On one level, I sort of buy into the panic – that’s my heart or my spirit. But intellectually I know that the fact of doubting that I can finish something doesn’t really have much bearing on whether I will or not. It’s just part of the process. (I admit, my husband usually has to remind me of that. . .) It’s incredibly helpful to try to remember even as one is panicking that all of that stuff is just noise – and also never to let it let you give up.
L.L.: My mother was an interior decorator who worked from home. Nearly daily, I would be greeted with a bolt of fabric wrapped in a newsprint-like casing propped up on our front porch. A sparkly iridescent or a flowing Damask, or a floral Chintz. Sometimes, I would prop the bolt on my shoulder, haul it into the house, and slide it down the stairs to her studio. It always amazed me that she could churn out a dramatic jabot or a flirty balloon valance from those bolts of fabric. Yet I had no desire to do it myself. Instead, I became a keen observer. Of life. Of human behavior. The long and short of it is: you talk about material in CRASH COURSE. And material isn’t always tangible, like for you in on Fourth Street, or my mother’s clients. Can you talk more about that?
Robin Black: So interesting, because if I weren’t a writer, I probably would be some kind of designer. Or a therapist. And, as an aside, a writer is a bit like a combination of the two, making arrangements and also delving into motivations. (I admit that’s a bit fanciful!) Material for me, in fiction, is very close to never something that appears whole in real life. I never think: “Oh, that would make a great story!” And then go write it. Material for me is much more a matter of stumbling over some odd situation that then makes me think of a different situation, one I make up. I guess the fabric I use in my work – to stretch the metaphor – is just what you describe: a lifetime of observing human behavior. And having a pretty deep well of thoughts about why people do what they do. And also a desire to communicate all of that.
L.L.: And homes! Oh my how I love them. And how you talk about them in “House Lessons.” You say, “We have lived novel after novel in this home.” But there’s so much more to it than that? What is it about houses that tell our story?
Robin Black: Everything! A lived-in home is a form of narrative. Not just because of the history it carries, but because homes are formed by the habits and needs and failings and strengths and wants and excesses of their occupants. And because of that they are incredibly rich resources for writers. A room tells you so much about its occupant, from the things they have chosen, to the things that are out of their control. Like, I am incredibly messy and anyone walking into my house knows that. But they’ll also learn that I am into decorating, because my messy living room does look like someone took care to set it up. So right away, there’s a character contradiction: A person who cares a lot about her environment but also keeps it kind of messy. And of course there are an infinite number of such traits to be found in homes, real and fictional too.
L.L.: One of your essays in this collection talks about your to-do list. Novel, novel, novel! Is on mine today (yes, I borrowed your mantra). What’s on yours today?
Robin Black: Today, I need to work out, to make sure I eat 3 decent meals instead of garbage snacks, to read a book I may blurb, to catch up on some other reading, to walk my dog, to run some errands with my son, and to try to have time to paint in the afternoon. It’s summer, so a pretty fun day!
L.L.: Oh, I have one more—you just accepted a new position at Rutgers Camden MFA Program (Fall 2016). What excites and terrifies you about this? And can I come?!
Robin Black: I love teaching. So that’s the exciting part. I never tire of watching people figure out that it [writing] isn’t all hocus pocus, that there are craft techniques to learn, and approaches that will help. It’s just fun. And I also always learn a ton when I teach. So often it’s difficult to work through your own writing issues only by looking at your own work, or even by reading works that’s published and fully-realized. There’s a kind of lesson that can learned from other people’s work in progress that’s incredibly helpful. And it’s a real privilege to be trusted to read that work. What scares me always is that I won’t do justice to the students’ work. I really do see teaching as a kind of sacred trust and I very much don’t want to let anyone down.
L.L.: Robin, it’s been a pleasure to chat with you. Thank you, thank you for popping by!
Robin Black: Thank you so much for inviting, and for the great questions – and also for your generous words about CRASH COURSE.
To connect with Robin on Twitter, please see: @robin_black,and more on her Website.
Robin Black‘s story collection, IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and named a Best Book of 2010 by numerous publications. Her novel, Life Drawing, was longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Impac Dublin Literature Prize, and the Folio Prize.