Reviving Herstory, the Contributing Editor of the Saturday Poetry Series on As It Ought To Be, and a columnist for the iPinion Syndicate. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and is a professor, writer, editor, comic artist, and attorney emerita.
Laura Davis: Describe the process of making a recent poem or story. Lightning? Slow-dripping faucet? How long did you work on it?
Sivan Butler-Rotholz: I have been working on my first novel since November 1, 2013. The idea had been percolating in my mind for quite some time, and a creative writing student of mine challenged me to participate in National Novel Writing Month, so I rolled up my sleeves and dove in. During that dedicated month the words flew from my fingertips like wildfire. Some days took more effort than others, but I wrote every day and met the 50,000-word goal by month’s end.
There is something very freeing about a challenge such as NaNoWriMo. I believe that, as writers, we wear two hats: our creating hat and our editing hat. Because I had a goal based on word count alone, I did not allow myself to put on my editing hat whatsoever during the month of November. The goal was to write, write, write. I knew that, after the month ended, I would have years to edit and rewrite as needed. So I gave myself the freedom to write whatever came to me—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Every good writer revises; I think aiming for perfection from the outset can have a crippling effect on writers. Such an approach may be the beast known as “writer’s block.”
After November ended, I gave myself some time away from writing the book. Because my novel is historical fiction, I am working on the novel even when I am only researching. So after November I read a lot—history books about the period in which my novel takes place (the era of King David), and also some great books on process. I’m a poet by training, so I had to give myself a crash course in what makes good fiction writing. In April I signed up for another NaNoWriMo challenge—Camp NaNoWriMo—which is a less-structured version of National Novel Writing Month. I did not meet my goal in April, but I had a major breakthrough with the book that was invaluable. Currently I’m in it again, doing Camp NaNoWriMo for the month of July.
Writing a novel, I am discovering, is a long and involved process. It is like a long-term relationship, whereas writing a poem can be more like a cherished fling. I hope to finish the novel in the next year or two, and hope that what I am learning now will translate into my ability to complete a novel every couple of years.
The work of writing a novel is ongoing and variable. Sometimes I write as if struck by divine inspiration or as if taking dictation for Martians. Other times I write not a single word, and instead let the lives of the characters and the landscape of the novel unfold in my mind. Whenever anyone asks me how the novel is going I tell them it’s coming along great. Whether I am writing daily or haven’t put my fingers to the keyboard in months, I always feel that the novel and I are moving forward. When people tell me they can’t wait to read it, I respond, “Me too!”
LD: How do you decide that you are finished working on a story, essay, or poem?
SBR: Ahhh, this is such an interesting question! For me, it is a gut feeling. After I have read, edited, read, revised, read, tweaked, and repeated these steps ad nausea, there comes a moment when I give it a read through and find that I don’t have any more changes to make. Then I may put it aside, come back, and apply the process again. Eventually it just feels done. It is, absolutely, a gut reaction.
I am a perfectionist, so anything I write has seen a lot of personal scrutiny before my instincts tell me it’s finished. For me it’s done done when I send it out into the world—when I submit an opinion editorial piece to the iPinion Syndicate, when I hit the “schedule” button on an entry in the Saturday Poetry Series that I edit for As It Ought To Be, when I finish a blog post for Reviving Herstory, when I submit poems for publication, etc. Even then, sometimes I revise after submission or posting. Most infuriating is when I notice a typo in an already published piece. Nothing drives me more bananas than that.
All that being said, the thing I always think of when I consider the question of whether piece of writing is “finished” is this: I heard a story about Yusef Komunyakaa. That his personal copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book is marked up with his newest edits. That when he gives readings from this book, he is reading newer, revised versions of poems that already won the Pulitzer Prize. I tell this story to my creative writing students when they ask how they know if a poem or story is finished. If Yusef Komunyakaa is still editing his Pulitzer Prize-winning poems, I’m not sure our work is ever finished.
LD: How long have you been writing? What’s the first thing you remember feeling good about having written?
SBR: I started reciting original poems before I learned to read and write. My mother used to take dictation of the oral poems I composed. I believe that being a poet is something older than this body, this lifetime. It is something more akin to a soul or to the energy that comprises us; something that existed before we did in this earthly body, and something that will continue to go on after we are returned to dust.
I am really blessed in that I have always been encouraged in my writing. First by my family, then in school. I remember little books and poems I wrote in third and fourth grade being chosen as competition winners. My family, teachers, schools, and locales all encouraged me. So I grew up feeling good about my writing. Of course I’ve become more critical of my own work with age and experience, but I’ve always felt really good about being a writer, and I think the expectations I have for myself now only serve to make me a better writer. Now I have my sights set on becoming a New York Times bestselling novelist, and I think it’s a combination of the encouragement I have received throughout my life and my belief that I can do anything I set my mind to that is going to get me there.
LD: How do you motivate yourself to write?
SBR: I do much better with a deadline and some accountability. My most productive writing periods were while working toward my BA and MFA in creative writing, while taking continuing education courses in creative writing, while participating in residencies, and the like. National Novel Writing Month motivates me because I set a goal based on due date and word count; even if I’m only accountable to myself, I work better with even a self-imposed goal and deadline. Most recently a friend and I have started a writing group that meets once a month. Having to submit even a few pages of work to other people once a month ensures that I actually write those few pages. So the answer, for me, is that goal-setting and accountability are my greatest motivating factors.
LD: Let’s talk about your writing soundscape. Do you listen to music? Cafe rumblings? White noise?
SBR: Essentially, as a lyricist, I prefer to listen to music with words than without. But I find that music with lyrics inevitably distracts me from my writing. I tried classical music for a while, but it was too calming for me. I need a little pick-me-up when I write. So I listened to Tiger Rag for a long time, but found that I can only listen to music without lyrics for so long. Most recently I discovered that the best writing music for me is Edith Piaf in French. It turns out that lyrics in another language give me the voice and the words that I crave, yet don’t distract me from my writing. This is probably the only time I will ever be thankful to be ignorant of foreign languages.
Aside from music, which I listen to when writing at home, I love to work in cafes. I love the way the hustle and bustle of café life becomes like white noise to me. It is often easier for me to write in a café than at home alone. At home there are too many distractions.
Most important for me, when working from home, is that I be alone. I share my relatively small, open floor plan apartment with my wonderful husband. He is a big fan of my attention. Even if we are both working side-by-side, he is compelled to perpetually interrupt me to show me whatever thing he is excited about at that moment. Needless to say, I get very little work done when my husband is home with me. Lots of love, very little work. So my at-home writing process comes back to Virginia Woolf, and the importance of having a room of one’s own.