How’s the Writing Going, Deesha Philyaw?
“For me, getting better as a writer is learning how to get to the essence of things and boil down all of that exposition and backstory.”
The Secret Lives of Church LadiesThe Secret Lives of Church Ladie
Sari Botton: So tell me what’s going on with you and your work.
SB: Where are you moving from and to?
SB: So you’re writing a new book. That’s exciting. How’s the writing going? And has it been maybe a little easier now than it might have been in the depths of, say, pre-vaccination Covid-19 times?
SB: You’ve also got a new podcast, Ursa Story, with author Dawnie Walton and Longreads founder Mark Armstrong, focused on short fiction and amplifying underrepresented writers. You are doing a lot! Is this new for you, this whack-a-mole approach, or is it part of how you’ve always worked?
SB: I sort of work that way too. I call it “cheating.” I often need to toggle between at least two projects. When I’m stuck on my primary project, I need to be able to cheat on it with another one. And then when I get too stuck on the other one, I need to cheat on it with the primary project.
I’ve got to bang this outI’m gonna spend a week finishing up the short story that I’ve been working on. And then I’ll spend three weeks working on the novel.Excuse me, the story took as much time as it needed to take.
SB: Are you struggling with the novel?
Church LadiesChurch LadiesI understand now why I got stuck on the novel. Now I’m gonna pour myself into the novel.Church LadiesI’m not gonna write about this
SB: Sometimes I think you have to be open to what wants to be written when. If you don’t surrender to that, you can really get your mind jammed up. Did you figure out what was jamming you up about the novel, or was it just not the time for it? Did the other things need to be written first?
I should be writing my book right now
SB: So you’re now working on this novel again?
SB: So “character is plot,” as one of the Greeks said, I think.
SB: Are there ways in which you get in your own way as you’re writing? I know that often I have to trick myself into getting started, especially when I have multiple deadlines. I have to promise myself a cookie if I work for an hour. Or I have to Pomodoro my way through it: Let’s just set the timer for twenty-five minutes. Do you ever get so stuck that you have to, like, make bargains with yourself about how to get going?
SB: Yeah. I think talking is really good, especially with other writers.
SB: That is such an important thing for me also; I need to put writing away for a bit, especially if it’s giving me a hard time or even if I think it’s amazing, I need to put it away and come back to it a week, two weeks later. The mind just does its own thing. Too often I think writers get caught up in “I’m not writing enough. I’m not producing enough words. I’m not sitting long enough for long-enough periods.” I feel like the breaks are almost as important as the periods when you’re throwing yourself in there and writing.
this is the kind of break that leads to a breakthroughthis is just me avoiding and playing on Twitter
SB: There’s some anonymous Twitter account where it’s just all the non-writing things that qualify as writing. Like walking your dog is writing, cooking dinner is writing. It’s kind of true. Sometimes you need to do the Zen thing of another activity. You’re always writing, even when you’re not sitting at your computer or at your desk writing longhand, however you write.
SB: Pressure is a huge obstacle. I’m always trying to find ways to lower the stakes for myself. Shitty first draft. Pomodoro for twenty-five minutes. Kill the perfectionist.
SB: Earlier you referred to yourself as long-winded, but I think of you as such an economical writer. You achieve so much in such a spare way.
SB: Wow. You wrote about him so beautifully for magazine
That’s it, I’m not writing about him againPipe Wrench Pipe Wrenchan essay about generations of black men in Los Angeles who tend to pigeons and train them to compete in flying competitionsWell, if my dad had done something like this, maybe he would’ve been a better personOh, I can’t write thatI guess I’m gonna write that
SB: Okay, one last question. I know that for me, the judicial coup the right-wing majority of the Supreme Court is in the midst of—including the overturning of , which forecasts the destruction of more basic rights and bodily autonomy—has greatly affected my brain. It has ratcheted up my own sense of terror, and burying myself in work until I can’t think straight seems to be the only antidote. Well, that and donating to abortion funds, et cetera. Is it having a similar effect on you? Does it infringe on your ability to get work done?
Sari Botton is the author of the memoir in essays, And You May Find Yourself...Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo. She is a contributing editor at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. She edited the bestselling anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NewYork and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. She teaches creative nonfiction at Catapult, Bay Path University and Kingston Writers' Studio. She publishes Oldster Magazine, Memoir Monday, and Adventures in Journalism.
Photo credit to Sylvie Rosokoff
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At last, I took my teachers’ and mentors’ advice, and scrutinized my own behavior more than anyone else’s.