Spontaneity, Meet Control: A Q&A About Creativity with Writer Alice Mattison
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THE KITE AND THE STRING by Alice Mattison, a new nonfiction book about creativity and the writing life.
My friendship with Alice Mattison started as a delightful accident. I was her literary agent, and we bonded after a career-strategy session shifted into strategy of a more basic (and panicky) sort: how to shoo a wayward bat from her kitchen. I’d long admired her creativity and storytelling powers: she makes ordinary life and situations scintillate with surprise, in plain language that similarly glints with unexpected humor, courage and beauty. Her writing, in a word, is spot-on.
Alice read my stories and offered advice. We exchanged holiday cards for years, seemingly without object – until I happened to move to New Haven, CT, within walking distance of her house. Thus began the more purposeful phase of our friendship, when we co-curated The Ordinary Evening Reading Series with two other writers. We’ve been friends and comrades in writing ever since.
Alice’s literary chops are considerable: she’s published six novels, four collections of short stories and a collection of poems. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Ploughshares as well as anthologies including Best American Short Stories. She’s also taught creative writing in the MFA program at Bennington College for twenty-plus years. That experience prompted her latest book THE KITE AND THE STRING: How to Write With Spontaneity and Control – and Live to Tell the Tale. While the book focuses on writing, its advice applies to anyone tussling with the dirty, exhilarating business of creativity. We discussed more by phone.
You’re a fiction and poetry writer who also teaches creative writing. Why did you decide to turn your teaching into a non-fiction book about creativity?
My agent, Zoë Pagnamenta, thought it up. We were drinking coffee. I told her about a student, and she interrupted me: “You constantly talk about teaching. Write a book about what you teach.”
Also, the program I teach in started paying us extra to give lectures, so I wrote one about coincidence in fiction. When coincidence is real, it’s exciting, but if you make it up it’s not. Yesterday I ran into a friend on the Brooklyn Bridge—fantastic; but in a novel it would be a cliché. It’s tricky to put coincidence into a story. I gave that lecture, then wrote five more—they gave the book its start.
The kite and the string is really a beautiful metaphor for writing – or any creative work. The kite flies freely when you give your imagination full rein, but the string grounds that fantasy and gives it control and structure. Creativity demands almost two contradictory states of mind.
Books often discuss either the writing process OR the writer’s feelings, as if you might need help with one but not the other—like needing a dentist and not a podiatrist. One expert to help you get over anxiety and another to tell you how to structure a story. But if your anxiety is about making your story too melodramatic, you may leave out the most interesting part. It’s all mixed up together.
Your book mixes up nonfiction with fiction wonderfully, too. I love how you slip these examples in, and suddenly you’re immersed in a story unspooling from nowhere. At one point, illustrating how stories get more powerful when grounded in tangible actions, not just feelings, you write: “Say you’ve made your character Babette say something hurtful to a guest…What if you skip the description of the guest’s hurt feelings and tell us what she does? Perhaps – insulted – she leaves Babette’s house and then must stay at the only hotel in town, where she can’t pay the bill and must ask Babette to bail her out.” It’s like you’ve tricked us, and yourself, into writing an engrossing story.
I learned to tell little stories when I teach from my college classics professor; he’d even use our names. Once he was explaining the Greek word kenos, meaning “empty.” It’s the root of “cenotaph,” an empty tomb. So he says: “Alice’s father goes on a business trip, but he’s killed in a plane crash and they can’t find the body. So they erect a cenotaph.” As it happened, my father was at that moment on a rare business trip. The word stuck with me.
How did you decide on the book’s structure?
Fiction—what I’m used to—is structured chronologically. It may move backwards or include two different stories told at different speeds, but life happens chronologically, and fiction purports to tell what happens in life, so one way or another, time is involved. Writing nonfiction, I found it terrifying to do without chronology. You need logic to take you from A to B. In KITE, after many rewrites and editorial help, I started with the emotional nature of writing, then discussed the content and shape of stories and novels, and then returned to feeling—managing the writing life.
Probably the most boring, but also terrifying, question any creative person faces is: “Where do your ideas come from?” How do you answer that one?
I don’t think it’s boring or terrifying. Ideas come from strange sources. What makes it a bad question is when people think there’ll be an answer: “When I need an idea, I do such and such.”
For me, writing always starts with despair: there will never be anything! But then I see: No, no, there will be something. It exists, I know this one little thing about it. Then I learn another thing, and another.
You recognize what you’ll write about, more than devising it. Something feels charged or somehow relevant. Any creative project exists unconsciously: we grope to find it. You’re feeling your next book gestating. I absolutely recognize that feeling when you talk about it: that book is real.
Writer Alice Mattison. Photo by Sigrid Estrada.
Your confidence always cheers me up, Alice. Proceeding as if a book or creative project already exists can really buck you up to press on.
Speaking of confidence, I loved your chapter, “Revising Our Thought Bubbles,” about the importance of thinking constructively—about getting fine with the notion that creative work may never make you rich or famous. Lots of writers hesitate to acknowledge these unpleasant realities, which only lends those thoughts more force, I think.
Isn’t it terrible that this is still news to people? All the writers I know have books that didn’t earn back their advances, and we all think we’re the only ones. Hardly any books earn out. If you earn royalties, that’s fantastic.
It’s funny how earning money from your creativity can make people feel bad, too – like they’ve sold out. We can’t win for losing. That’s a big debate among designers: getting paid for your work is important to live, but if you only do client work, are you really creative?
Some artists have trouble if they feel too useful, some if they’re not useful. Weavers go through anxiety about whether their work is craft or art—apparently some weavers need their work to be useless (like wall hangings) and some need it to be useful. Scarves.
KITE is an unusual book in that it’s simultaneously comforting and spicy. I love the part when you suggest lurking at the supermarket, making up stories about intriguing strangers who wander along. You write: “Part of what makes this exercise work is that it’s ethically suspect to go around staring at people. Writing is often ethically suspect, but wrongdoing is stimulating.” Why is breaking rules so important for creativity?
Art tells truths we might be more comfortable ignoring, and it does so by lying—by claiming that man on the stage is King Lear when we know he’s just an actor, and so on. We know art lies, but it makes us cry anyway. Many people are afraid of art and I don’t blame them. If we want to make art, we have to overcome the wish to be quiet and polite. We have to be sufficiently truthful and original that at times we make people cry.
You started your writing career later in life, when you were busy parenting small children. And you’re honest in KITE about the identity struggles that entailed. What do you say to creative writers who are finding their voices later in life?
I grew up slowly. Even if I hadn’t had kids, or needed to earn a living, I wasn’t mature enough to write something a reader might want to read when I was twenty-two. Some people are. So what? There’s no right or wrong about any age.