The Creative Blueprint: Elissa Schappell

My guest today, writer and editor, Elissa Schappell, has reminded me of two common assumptions about highly creative individuals:

1) ” … it seems a lot of writers are born missing a layer of skin. We feel things more keenly than others. We hear and see things others don’t. We know stuff you don’t want to know, feel stuff you don’t want to feel, and obsess over things you don’t want obsess over.”

2) “You really can’t give a shit about what people are going to say about your work.”

I agree 100 percent.

Now, can someone explain to me how these two important concepts are supposed to work together?

I’ve been thinking about this since Elissa’s insightful interview answers popped into my inbox.  Okay, that’s a lie.  I’ve been obsessing over it for years.  I repeatedly tell myself that I don’t care what people think about my writing and art, but I do.  I’ve never written or painted for a particular audience, but once it’s out there, I absolutely care what people think.  I let it hurt me; I let it thrill me.  Telling myself not to care is akin to telling a gay or lesbian individual to just stop, a black man to turn white, or a short woman to put on a few inches … as if they can, and should want to.  Ignore the wiring, conquer it, or deny it; there’s something wrong with you.

Here’s my theory … about myself anyway.  I spent half my life building alternatives to keep me emotionally safe. Yet I need that skinless me (the real me) to experience all the things that feed my creativity and enable me to reflect honesty in my art.  So back and forth I go, building up and tearing down, over and over again.

This brings me to a third common assumption: the highly creative tend to be screwed up.

Go figure.

I’m tired of building alternatives for my skinless nature.  I’m ready to be real like the women in Elissa’s great new book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls.

What is your writing story–in a nutshell?

I’ve always been a writer, since the time I was a kid. I started keeping a diary when I was in fourth or fifth grade. It’s a bit mad. I started off writing in a different persona—why? I don’t know. It was where I channeled my anger. There are pages of swear words. And a troubling amount of godawful poetry, plus a dirty limerick or two. Perhaps I was smart enough to not to want to have my named attached to that business.

Really though I just read and wrote all the time. We weren’t allowed to watch TV save for one the weekends, so I spent a lot of time in my room listening to music and writing. It’s really the only thing in my life I’ve been even passably good at, other than limbo and drawing fairies. Oh and making prank phone calls, which came in really handy when I had my first real job where I was paid to write, which was at SPY magazine.

Now, I’m unfit for anything but this life. Which is unfortunate.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

My parents always encouraged my reading, and writing. It kept me off the street. Honestly, the only thing I believe that I ever got a lot of positive attention for was my writing. Which was nice because though I did well in my academics—save for math–most of the attention I received was for being a wisecracker, drawing in my notebook and talking to my neighbor.

However, if I were to point to one person, who early on inspired me, I’d say my grandmother on my father’s side. She was always making things, crafts—embroidering, sewing, knitting, making beaded jewelry–she stressed how important it was to use your imagination. I remember clearly sitting on the sofa with her reading, and then her asking me to close my eyes and imagine my own story. I seem to recall it was about mice driving race cars. I remember thinking, Wow that’s pretty amazing. Imagine someone caring about that.

I recently watched a video where you talk about the need to write exactly what you feel compelled to write. Can you share with us why you believe it’s critical for a writer to bravely tackle tough subject matter even when it seems the world doesn’t want to embrace it?

I have discovered through painful trial and error, that I have to write the stories that want to be written. The ones that feel the most immediate, and a little scary to me. I need to be excited by them. A little obsessed. That’s the trick for me, hook into the obsession and then let it pull me along, stay with it, ride it out. Understand, these stories aren’t always the ones I think are the cleverest, or the most “important”. I just know that to try and do anything else is folly.

I’m not at all suggesting that other writers should, or shouldn’t, tackle certain subject matter. Everything is permissible. And everybody’s got their own jam.

What I am saying is that for me, personally, this is what I feel compelled to do. It’s my sickness. To say what other people are thinking and feeling, but can’t articulate, or won’t articulate. My job, as I see it, is to be truthful. I detest phonies. Lying is not one of my strengths. And I’ve learned that any writer who doesn’t work in the direction of their strengths is a stone cold idiot.

I don’t feel brave. I feel lucky that, for the most part, I get to do what I want with my life. I’m in a position where I can say what I want. No one is going to knock on my door in the middle of the night, break my glasses, and drag me off to prison. Or not yet, however, given the rise of anti-intellectualism if Obama isn’t reelected I may start answering the door with a kitchen knife in hand.

You really can’t give a shit about what people are going to say about your work. Embrace it, don’t embrace it, I don’t care. I believe if you are writing truthfully about an authentic human experience in an engaging, original way a reader will connect to it. Perhaps only one reader, and perhaps it will be your mother, who is not without prejudice, even so. Even if they don’t embrace it, you didn’t compromise, you didn’t pander. That is something, or at least it is to me.

You surely can’t worry about the reader’s reaction to your work when you’re writing. Not if it’s going to stop you. You have to write as though your audience is going to understand perfectly where you are coming from that your motives are pure, and, of course, that these characters aren’t in fact you.

With regard to your new book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, was there an “ah-ha” moment you can tell us about? 

I realized what the book was becoming, and what I wanted it to be, when in reaction to a voice I’d had in my head for a while–the voice of the party girl in “Out of the Blue”–saying, “Why don’t you write about me?” –I answered, “Because you’re a ridiculous person.” I realized then that what I was doing, dismissing this character because I thought she wasn’t worth writing about, I knew her story already, was exactly what I was railing against in the other stories. The way the culture labels women, and judges them and how damaging it is.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life’s aberrations, or both? How so?

Sure. It’s such a cliché though, the tortured artist. All I can say is it seems a lot of writers are born missing a layer of skin. We are over-sensitive. We feel things more keenly than others. We hear and see things others don’t. We know stuff you don’t want to know, feel stuff you don’t want to feel, and obsess over things you don’t want obsess over. It is any wonder we live in our heads so much? Is it any wonder we start knitting together alternate realities?

Being crazy isn’t a bad thing. The trick is sustaining a level of sanity and calm in the rest of your life so that you don’t flame out.

For me, writing is the place to dump out my anger, anxiety, pain, and sort through it, obsessively. To make sense of it. And make something out of it, however gaudy or ugly.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you’ve dealt with it?

Of course, but there’s really little you can do about that. You can try and pass as normal to please people, to ingratiate yourself into the company you want to be a part of.  You can apologize for feeling what you feel, you can make yourself small in order to make other people feel bigger, but it will kill you by inches. I’ve been very fortunate that while I didn’t really find “my people” meaning other writers and people who were passionate about making art until I moved to New York after college, my family has, as much as humanly possible, always been tolerant.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role the discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?
Discipline and organization aren’t sexy, they’re not nearly as exciting as being almighty god and creating a world, about but they’re essential if you’re ever going to make a living as writer. Frankly, if you’re going to suffer like this, making some money is a really nice thing to do.

Being a writer is a job like any other job. You could argue it’s not nearly as important as being a bus driver. If a bus driver doesn’t show up for work or is late, hundreds of people suffer. People are late to work, kids are late to school, sick people miss doctor’s appointments, and the lovers, each waiting in the rain miss each other and are never reunited. Each dies alone with their cat.

The writer doesn’t do their job, who cares?

The writer may lose their contract, they may have their lights turned off, they may go hungry, but really outside of those who love them and support them, who cares? You can’t get too precious about it.

I need to write in the morning, before the really super critical part of my brain wakes up. She sleeps in because she is up a good part of the night screening home movies of all my various failures and reciting my list of recent crimes. It is best if I get out of my house, so I go to the studio, sit at a proper desk, put in my earplugs so I can’t hear anyone else there typing, and work until I can’t.

Has writing Blueprints for Building Better Girls changed you and your ideas about being a woman in any way?
Not that I’m aware of yet, but surely it must have.

You are also a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former editor of The Paris Review, and a founding editor and now editor-at-large of Tin House. What are the differences and/or similarities between the skill set and talents required for great editing and those required for excellent writing?

You can’t be a writer without being an editor of your own work. Ninety percent of my writing time is spent revising and editing. That’s where the pleasure is, the fixing, figuring out what you’re trying to say and saying it as clearly and compellingly as possible. Editing yourself requires you to get some distance from your work so you can look at it dispassionately, and do what needs to be done. Whereas editing others requires you to get closer to the work. You have to think like the writer a bit. Figure out what their intent is, and looking at the work through that lens figure out how to improve the story.

I find it much easier to see what I perceive the weaknesses in someone else’s work versus my own. I am very lucky to have a few trusted readers who help me out in this regard.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life?

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage. –Anais Nin

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