Dispatches | July 05, 2013

Welcome back to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com

Today’s working writer is Becky Tuch.

Becky Tuch

Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I’m a Brooklyn gal who moved to Boston in 2002. Like many writers, I’d been writing fiction all my life. (My first novel, completed at age eight, was entitled CINDY, WENDY, AND DANGER: A NOVEL OF MYSTERY AND EXCITEMENT!!!) But I didn’t know that pursuing writing as an adult was actually allowed. I’d come to Boston for a research internship and I was planning on going back to school for a Psychology degree.

It took me several months to work up the nerve to take my first adult-ed writing workshop. But once I took that class, there was no going back for me. I quit my internship, began waiting tables, signed up for more writing workshops, wrote constantly–novel chapters, short stories, essays, poems. At the end of almost every day, I would call my father and I would read my work out loud to him. He was and still is one of my biggest supporters. He would listen to each sentence I read, telling me where to slow down, where to get to the point, where I was losing my reader. I could not have survived all that early effort if he wasn’t there at the end of the day, telling me, “Okay…what are you trying to say here? What’s the point of that scene?” And his favorite quote, which he still repeats to me constantly: “Every sentence is an arrow moving toward a target.”

Now, it’s about ten years later. I know more writers, so lean more on my colleagues for feedback and advice. I teach novel workshops at Grub Street, and have taught kids, teens, and adults throughout the Boston area. When I can manage it, I write every weekday, a minimum of three hours per day. When I have zero time in my schedule, I try to at least get something down in my journal. Notes for a story, bits of a dream, rants, questions, feelings, images.

It’s always seemed funny to me that people have described writing as a lonely profession. Personally, I’ve never felt less lonely than in the past ten years that I’ve committed seriously to writing. My parents and I have gotten closer. I’ve come to understand my family and its history more clearly. I have made some of the best friends of my life. Through my writing and my work at The Review Review (which I founded in 2008), I have met so many great writers, literary magazine editors, students, teachers, and mentors.

What can I say? I don’t always love writing, the struggle to get the story down, the blinking cursor that sits there accusingly. I don’t always love revision, or being workshopped, or trying to say something in a new way. But I can’t help myself. I do it anyway.

I’m kind of curious what happened to your first novel? Also, since you mentioned that you’ve become closer to your family history as you write, is that a place you go to for inspiration?

Do you mean CINDY, WENDY, AND DANGER: A NOVEL OF MYSTERY AND EXCITEMENT!!!? I still have it and actually just showed it to some friends. They really liked that pizza played such a dominant role in the narrative.

As for my family history, yes, it’s one place that I go to for inspiration, absolutely. Families are fascinating. Not just the internal issues and conflicts, but also the lineage that defines all of our lives. If you took any random person on the street and started asking, Where do your parents live? When did they move there? Where did their parents come from? What country were your great-great grandparents born in?… and just kept asking these kinds of questions, you would have story after story of language, culture, war, thwarted love, sacrifice, hard choices, patterns of good and terrible behavior. One family could be enough material for a hundred novels.

I also think many stories that aren’t directly about family are still somehow about family–the search for a home, the hunger for a sense of differentiation and identity. And, of course, this is true in that first novel I wrote because Cindy and Wendy are sister detectives.

I’m sure you hear this all the time, but I’m a huge fan of the Review Review and really love it as a resource for my own writing. Have there been any challenges with balancing your work at the site with time to write?

Thank you. I’m so glad you’re finding the site useful.

Yes, balancing TRR with my own writing is an ongoing challenge. The time is one thing but I struggle more with the hat-switching thing. Editing work is concrete and finite. When you’re done with a task, it’s done. With writing, there’s much more uncertainty. Fixing an aesthetic problem is a much more mysterious process than handling a technical glitch or following up on some emails. I often struggle between my role as someone who has answers and who is eager to solve problems to someone who is more interested in exploring problems than solving them, someone who has only questions.

Since you’ve both taught and attended writing workshops, how have those experiences helped you shape your own aesthetic?

I don’t know that my aesthetic has been changed by workshops. And in fact, I’d be hard-pressed to define what my aesthetic actually is, or has been over the years. I know what I like in other people’s work, but my own material feels more nebulous to me, each writing project with its own internal rules and goals and limits.

I do know that I’ve become a much more thoughtful reader through teaching. At Grub Street I teach a novel workshop where we read one novel together as a class. We discuss how the novel is structured, how characters are developed and change over hundreds of pages, the use of backstory, subplots, secondary characters and so forth. I assign writing prompts based on plot points we discover in the novel. So, say, if a love interest appears halfway through, the writing prompt will be, “Introduce a love interest for your protagonist.” It’s great for students (and for me) to see work-in-progress as a direct response to work that’s out there, part of a fluid and dynamic literary conversation.

In this workshop we’ve read Flaubert, Balzac, Russell Banks, Sue Miller, Ha Jin, Richard Yates, Julia Alvarez, and this term we’re reading Pynchon. Sitting down and interrogating every paragraph of a single novel over the course of ten weeks and discussing that novel with other writers–I can only hope that my aesthetic is evolving for the better.

What is your process for choosing the novels to dissect with your class? And how did you end up with Pynchon this year?

There are a few basic criteria: The novel must be under 400 pages so that students–many of whom work full-time and/or have young children–can read it over the ten-week course. Also, I try to alternate the author’s gender each term, so it’s male author, female author, male, female, etc. And, aside from the first two terms in which we read Flaubert and Balzac, the novel should be one I’ve never read. I want to discover the work along with my students.

Beyond that, it gets tricky. Initially I wanted to choose a quintessential novel, something that would typify perfected elements of craft. Thus the first book I chose was Madame Bovary. But far from exemplifying craft elements, this book breaks just about every craft rule we know. The point of view is inconsistent, the descriptions are far longer than most contemporary work, and the narrator seems to have an open disdain for all of his characters.

This led me to realize that there is no “ideal novel.” Every great book departs from convention in some way. Balzac’s narrator (in Pere Goriot) intrudes in the story to expound upon political views; Russell Banks (in Lost Memory of Skin) stretches the limits of plausible characterization; Julia Alvarez (in In the Time of Butterflies) has four point-of-view characters, one of whom narrates in diary entries and drawings.

Every novel, it seems, is its own expression of the story it is trying to tell. It’s important for students to understand the rules, of course–consistent point of view, forward momentum, inciting incident, etc. But few great novels follow these rules exactly, and it’s great to see how the rules can and should also be broken. (I’ve actually blogged about this in “Ah, the Perfect Novel.”)

I chose Pynchon this term because I felt like taking a risk. If we’re going to accept that novelists break rules, then why not go all the way and explore one of the most renowned rule-breakers of our time? Also, I recently read this fantastic interview with Jonathan Franzen at The Paris Review. Franzen talks about Pynchon being an influence on his work. Since I consider Franzen an influence on my own work, I am curious to read what has influenced him.

How do you deal with the quintessential difficulties of writing and publishing, where, as you said, the blinking cursor stares at you accusingly?

The best antidote to all writing and publishing anxieties is simply writing. Every time I get into a mind-puzzle or start down the infinite downward spiral of self-doubt, it’s usually because I’m thinking too much and writing too little. Once I get back into story land and the simple act of putting words on paper, I remember what’s important–writing.

In her wonderful essay “Letter to a Young Writer,” Joyce Carol Oates observes, “The novel is the affliction for which only the novel is the cure.”

Also, I’m reminded of a wonderful interview with Leonard Cohen in which he’s asked about his song-writing process. Cohen says he brings to it, “Anything that I can bring to it. Thought, meditation, drinking, disillusion, insomnia, vacations…” When asked if some methods work better than others, Cohen says, “Nothing works. Nothing works.” Of course, Cohen is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, so clearly something is working. But his creative process is one of constant searching, brooding, and hard, hard work.

Like most writers, there are days when I wake up and I resist everything. I battle. I feel bitter, tentative, frightened, unsure, defeated before I even begin. But my characters are like actors standing around and waiting for rehearsal to start. While I’m struggling with my feelings, my characters are tapping their feet, looking at their fingernails, checking their watches, saying to each other, “Is she going to get to work or what? Hello, we’ve been waiting for like an hour here.” Gradually I recognize that my thoughts and worries are irrelevant. My characters don’t care what kind of mood I’m in. They don’t care how badly I’ve slept or whether my apartment’s clean or if I’m thinking about some recent argument I’ve had. They just want to be put to work. So I have to tell them, “Okay, okay, I’m coming, I’m here.” And I get to work.

As for anxieties about publishing, well, every writer has them. Every writer I know compares herself to others, worries about her own accomplishments, wants to be published more, in bigger places, wants validation, recognition. But the best writers I know are able to step back from concerns about publishing, to not get too caught up in it, to say to themselves, This is silly, I can’t control all that, I need to get back to work.

Again, sitting down and focusing on what’s important–the writing–usually takes care of all that unhelpful mental chatter.

Could you tell us a bit about what the impetus was for starting the Review Review?

In high school, my friends and I used to read each other’s stories. If we liked something, we’d laugh and say, “It’s great! Send it out!” It was an ongoing joke because we didn’t know what the hell that meant. We were like, okay, sure, send it out–Where? To what? To whom?

Years later, as a working writer, I realized I still harbored some of that teenager attitude. It was like, Oh, this story’s done, I’m going to send it out! But what lit mags were exactly, what distinguished one from the other, who their editors were, what their editors cared about…I really had no idea what I was doing. Except for maybe The Paris Review and The New Yorker, I didn’t have a clue what any lit mags published.

That began to seem weird to me, that I would invest so much time in trying to get published somewhere, yet have so little knowledge about what the venues actually were and why they were important.

I wanted to start reading more lit mags. I wanted to start talking to people about the lit mags I was reading. And I wanted to recognize lit mags in a public way, to say, hey, they’re more than just stepping stones in writers’ careers, these journals are actually pretty cool in and of themselves, producing some of today’s most cutting-edge and exciting writing.

I wanted to create a place where writers could have a deeper engagement with literary magazines. I also wanted to acknowledge the great work that so many editors are doing, which most of the time goes unacknowledged. So I guess the site was the answer to that question from my teen years, the response to the cry to “Send it out!” Now writers can know where, exactly, to send it out and why they want to send it out to the places that they do.

BECKY TUCH is the founding editor  of The Review Review. Since founding the website in 2008, she has spoken about her love of literary magazines with The Somerville News, Writer’s Relief, The National Writing Project, and Ploughshares. In 2011 and 2012 The Review Review was chosen by Writer’s Digest Magazine as “Best of the Best” among 101 Best Websites for Writers. Becky has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and The Somerville Arts Council. Her fiction has won awards from Briar Cliff Review, Byline Magazine, and has been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award. Other stories and essays have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Hobart, Eclipse, Folio, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. In 2011 and 2012 her work was included in The Drum’s audio series at The Boston Book Festival. In addition to founding The Review Review, she is one of the founders of the literary blog, Beyond the Margins. She’s on Twitter @TheReviewReview.