Terese Svoboda, interviewed by Tracy Young
Terese Svoboda is the author of five novels, most recently Bohemian Girl, named one of the ten best 2012 Westerns by Booklist, five books of poetry, and a memoir Black Glasses Like Clark Kent that won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction in 2013. Currently at Southampton/Stonybrook, she has taught writing at Williams, Columbia School of the Arts, William and Mary, San Francisco State, Bennington, Fairleigh Dickinson, Sarah Lawrence, New School, the Universities of Tampa, Miami, and Hawaii, as well as in St. Petersburg and Nairobi.
I have had the good fortune of taking two of her workshops here at the Center for Fiction, where I found her to be down to earth (despite the daunting resume), extraordinarily kind, slyly humorous and, ultimately, inspiring.
Here’s what she has to say about writing, workshops and the expectation of miracles:
What we are talking about when we talk about craft? Do we mean technique?
Craft always sounds like basket weaving to me, which I have tried, and suffered sore fingers. But even there it's all about the weaving, how you make the sturdiest basket. The tighter the weave, the more water it will carry. But I kind of think crafty is better when it comes to writers. It's all about persuasion.
Or are we talking about a work ethic—writing a certain number of pages a day or keeping a journal?
The more writing you do, the better you'll write. Every piece of writing offers a different challenge. In this reading of craft I'd say it's more like picking an ergonomically appropriate desk.
Often when I hear talk about technique, I often wonder if the terms aren't more obfuscation than enlightening. (I once once read a discussion by a group of Gordon Lish devotees, and I didn’t understand a word).
Technique is just words on the page arranged in an order that keeps the reader reading. That's what I got out of Lish.
You write in a lot of different genres—are there principles that apply across the board, or do their differences help you solve problems?
Grammar rules when it comes to switching genres. Poetry is where I learned it. It's the only genre that worships the word as building block. No escape.
How important is language?
That's all we've got. My preference is to squeeze connotation and grammatical muscle out of it but others like the transparent approach and use language more as a vehicle. I like the whole experience to move, not just the vehicle.
You once remarked that you never met a student you didn't like. What do you like about them, especially?
Shared obsession. We come together with excitement over an endeavor that's endlessly rewarding.
What do you learn from them?
Anybody who spends hours staring at a computer screen using a word processor when they could be playing video games wants to say something. I try to find out what that is.
Does teaching make you more sensitive to glitches in your own writing?
I try not to be too hard on myself during the first few drafts. If I don't get everything right, it just means I have more work to do and that's exciting. Hopefully I transfer that excitement to students.
The writing workshop is the butt of jokes—how do you make the most of it?
A doctor who took one of my classes later published an anthology in which she referred to me as her “reviewer expert.” It filled me with sadness that, unbeknownst to me, she couldn’t acknowledge a teacher/student relationship.
What can students learn from each other?
Fortunately writing problems are often similar. Each of course has its own taxonomy, but generally it boils down to Is this clear? and Is this believable? The first is informational, the ability to pay out details to create a world, the second is voice, how those details add up to truth. A reader other than the writer can most easily pick up on where confusions lie but every review of every piece of work yields answers to those problems that, if a student is listening, can be applied to his own writing.
What kind of piece do you bring to a workshop, ideally? At what stage?
When you're stuck, as when you should see a shrink. Stuck can also mean you're finished. If you're trying something entirely new, a pat on the back can also be helpful. Discouragement is never useful. Experimentation, branching out, new subjects—the writer has to find a way.
In six weeks, what can you expect to accomplish?
I like to closely review at least three works in a three-hour class. If I have nine students, that comes down to two readings apiece. Don't forget, however, that if those students are listening, lots of pertinent suggestions apply to their works-in-progress. Miracles are all I expect.
Self editing is very difficult for most people, especially if they've never worked as an editor, or had a good one. What would you suggest students pay attention to when they are revising their own work?
The sound of their voice. Whenever it veers into self-pity or exposition—those are the two worst offenders.
I just read that Lola Ridge, the subject of your biography, lied about her age—shaved off ten years. This despite her radical politics! Clearly her image was something she thought about. Today writers seem overly concerned with marketing, branding. How important is this to developing as a writer?
Marketing and branding has nothing to do with writing.
What do you think is the most important thing you can tell your students?
Low rent, that's what Grace Paley told me.
Tracy Young, interviewed by Terese Svoboda
What makes for a good class?
Some of what matters to me about a class is the small stuff, like numbering pages, and not turning in too many pages, or hogging all the discussion time. Maybe that’s just common courtesy, but it can really alter the dynamic for me.
What makes a class exciting is having a bunch of smart stranger/readers, all with very different backgrounds and tastes, who are willing to carefully read and thoughtfully respond to my writing. Not just for free—they have to pay to do it!
It’s especially exciting when you hear something useful that’s not coddling…or hostile. Just an observation, given in a dispassionate way. I think the Buddhists would call that skillful.
One of my favorite things to do in class—and something that as an everyday reader I don’t always slow down for— is to take a published story, or section of a story, and pull it apart to see what makes it work. The more granular the better. It doesn’t ruin the story for me; it makes it all the more amazing.
Did I help with anything?
You gave me the courage to be a little more ruthless with my own work. I am someone who tends to start with a lot of throat clearing and end on what I think is an aria; you taught me that cutting from both ends could be as liberating as leaving a dull, but familiar, relationship. I probably learned a bunch of other things too, but that seems like the most important one.
Recipient of a 2013 Guggenheim, Terese Svoboda is the author of five novels, most recently Bohemian Girl, named one of the ten best 2012 Westerns by Booklist and an Historical Book of the Year Finalist in Foreword. Tin God, a finalist for the John Gardner Prize, was reissued last spring, with Publisher's Weekly deeming her a "fabulous fabulist." "Astounding!" proclaimed The New York Post in a review of her memoir Black Glasses Like Clark Kent that won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and The Japan Times "Best of Asia 2008." Vogue lauded her first novel, Cannibal, a female Heart of Darkness.
Tracy Young, who won the Seventeen magazine short story contest before you were born, spent more years than she can count as a magazine writer. Now she is counting on Terese Svoboda and Dawn Raffel to guide her back to the promised land.