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Trust Your Audience and Write Well: Roxane Gay on Writing

August 29th, 2017     by Lauren Kirshner     Comments

Photo: Gay in Montreal, 2015, by Eva Blue []

Last month I saw Roxane Gay in an on-stage interview in Toronto, where she was discussing her newest book Hunger, a powerful memoir about trauma and living in an “unruly body.” Gay was fascinating, moving, smart, and funny (as her work always is). As a creative writing teacher, I was especially excited when Gay talked about how she approaches writing.

Early on in the interview, Gay discussed one of the most important decisions a writer must make: what material to engage with. “The things that scare me most,” Gay said, “tend to be the things that are the most intellectually satisfying.” Yet, how does one take the risk of working with intimidating material and then sharing it with the world? “I do what I always do when I write,” Gay said. “I tell myself no one’s going to read it, so I put anything I want in it.”

This method clearly works, because there are few writers today who are as prolific, passionate, and galvanizing as Gay. In the last five years, she has written an acclaimed novel, An Untamed State (2014), a NYT bestselling collection of essays, B_ad Feminist_ (for an introduction to Gay’s brilliance and wit, watch this Ted Talk excerpt), two short story collections, Ayiti (2011) and Difficult Women (2016), and a Marvel comic, World of Wakanda (2016).

This record might suggest that Gay is an overnight success, but she isn’t. She published her first piece of memoir in 2007 and spent a good decade before that experiencing the inner-chest thud of rejection. In a great piece about Gay’s writing in Bustle, Jayson Flores quotes a 2014 interview in The Great Discontent, in which Gay talks about her determined path towards success: “I continued to write stories,” Gay said, “but literary magazines didn’t appear to be terribly interested in them…I started working on becoming a better writer.”

Trying to become a better writer is an ongoing project for anyone who writes. I try by reading widely, scrutinizing writing I admire to understand how it works, striving to be clearer, more concise, and true to my own writing voice. I sometimes find voice tricky because, like most, I speak and write in multiple registers every day. (Some writers have found voice less tricky. Sylvia Plath once said, “I write only because there is a voice inside me that will not be still”). Roxane Gay seems to have found her writing voice through dogged practice. “Slowly, but surely,” she also told The Great Discontent, “I started to find my writing voice. And the more I found my voice, the more easily I was able to publish my work.”

In her on-stage interview in Toronto, Gay also addressed another crucial writing issue: the troubled relationship some writers have to editing. There’s the old adage that 80% of good writing is editing, but many who write are uncomfortable with the editing process, which, on the surface, might seem to threaten writing that already seems complete, or worse, wreck it. Sometimes, people edit too much as they go, stalling the creative process until the brain offers only wooden pellets, leaving one with a dry, limp, or even unfinished piece. For fear of all of the above, some avoid editing altogether.

Gay seemed most concerned with the over-zealous self-editor who never lets go of a piece at all. “I know people who might say, ‘yeah, this is my 35th draft!’ and I’m like, ‘what the fuck are you doing?’” Gay said. “I think we over-polish and over-edit.” But how does a writer know when to stop editing? “There’s a difference between rawness and sloppiness,” Gay said. “If I waited for the work to be perfect, I’d still be sitting on my first book.”

After the interview, I thought about the difference between “rawness” and “sloppiness.” Here’s my take. To me, “rawness” means writing that comes from an urgent place in the writer and that, in turn, makes the reader feel something deeply. Maybe some of the piece’s sentences could be refined or the organization tweaked; maybe if the writer sat with the piece for another year, they could deepen some of its ideas or further focus it. But the piece is necessary, emphatic, and alive. Sloppy writing, on the other hand, is not carefully thought through, it lacks a heartbeat, is slipshod, emotionally detached, and numb. It makes no demands of the reader, but it doesn’t offer much either. Gay’s writing is raw and packed with feeling and significance; yet, her writing is also beautifully crafted and addictively readable. It’s the kind of easy reading that is very hard to write.

Balancing rawness and concision can be one of the great writing challenges, among others. In a number of interviews published online, Gay has shared many writing tips, including these:

On thinking of the reader: Writing “offers solace and salvation for both readers and writers,” Gay told The Writer Magazine. But she also tries to “make sure that what I’m writing is not just for me, but also for readers.”

On improving one’s writing: in a 2014 interview with Erika Dreifus, Gay suggested reading one’s work aloud. “Hearing a story or essay really helps me find places where a story needs work,” she said.

On embracing one’s obsessions: Gay said to Vogue, in 2017: “I think that writers have obsessions. Often we write the same story over and over, in slightly different ways. It means you have found your voice.”

On rawness: In 2015, Gay sent out a series of tweets (@rgay) about why most essays get rejected by literary magazines. Two of the many reasons: “The essay doesn’t take risks, offer new insights, or make me feel something strong” and “The essay is too chronological. First this happened, then this happened, and this other thing happened.”

In short, be personal, but look beyond the self too; read your writing aloud to make sure it flows and sings; follow your obsessions; and don’t feel tethered to a particular sequence when telling a story.

Given her own journey, it is no surprise that Gay also suggests tenacity. “Be relentless,” Gay said at the Antioch Writer’s Festival in 2016. “You have to be able to take rejection. You have to learn to believe in your own voice.” (For more gems, check this article on her Tumblr).

Back in Toronto, someone in the audience asked Gay a question: if you could tell your 12-year-old self one thing, what would it be? Gay answered: she would tell herself that all of those things she wrote as a very young woman would one day “get her somewhere.” It was an inspirational comment for all writers, but I hoped, especially, that there was a 12-year-old in the audience who heard it, too.

It also reminded me of something Gay had said earlier in the interview, which, for me, is some of the best and simplest writing advice: “If you trust your audience and write well,” Gay said, “people will read you.”

Lauren Kirshner’s first novel, Where We Have to Go (M & S), was a finalist for the City of Toronto Book Award. Her fiction, non-fiction, and memoir have appeared in publications including Hazlitt, ELLE CANADA, The Globe and Mail, and Carousel. She is the Founding Director of Sister Writes and an Assistant Professor of English at Ryerson University.

Tags: advice, art


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