It disrupts marriages and irritates Muggles. At its best, it strips nice people bare and drives them to drink in desperation. It demands nothing less than their very lives and in return it delivers relentless doubt and a precarious livelihood. In short, it is the writing life.
Nina George (41), international best-selling author and BücherFrau member, delivered the keynote address titled On Writing before the 140 established and emerging authors attending the Deutsche Schreibtage 2014 (German Writer’s Conference) in Berlin. Excerpts of the address now appear for the first time on the BücherFrauen blog.
“What? You want to be a writer?!” my grandmother exclaimed. “Good lord, that’s no way to catch a husband.”
Which brings us to the first truth about writing. You will have to resolutely turn your back on ordinary reality and toss out the rules, advice and fears of non-writers.
I’ve been a professional writer for 22 years—since the age of 19. Now that I’m 41, I have been a writer longer than a non-writer. Since the age of 16, not a single week has passed in which I did not write or think about what I was going to write, not a week where I did not revise what I had written or speak about the writing process. Throughout it all, I have been driven by a profound sense of doubt: Am I getting to the truth? Am I expressing this truth clearly enough? What should I write about tomorrow? A life like this cannot help but leave its mark on a person’s psyche.
All the sex we writers describe. The murders planned and carried out on the page. So many yearnings, the foul moods, the glorious euphoria, the desperate search for words. So much living and observing, the plundering of our inner selves—all for the sake of telling a story! The alcohol, the long nights, the endless doubts. Who is going to read this? How will I survive the night if I can’t come up with even one line of truth? A former colleague of mine, who unfortunately passed away, once told me: “Honey, writing is not for the faint of heart.”
So what is writing all about? (Apart from being one of the three most dubious professions, right up there with journalism and politics.)
Ten things you should know about the writing life.
1. Writing will strip you bare
Ernest Hemingway wrote in the nude, even while standing up. Victor Hugo used to lock himself in his room naked while writing the Hunchback of Notre Dame. James Riley wrote in the buff to prevent himself from heading down to the bar and tossing back one drink after another, while Agatha Christie plotted cold-blooded murder while lying naked in a hot bath. But this external nakedness is not what I’m talking about. I mean the internal kind.
It’s often difficult to put one’s finger precisely on what sets a good book apart from an unforgettable, moving story. It isn’t the word choice, voice, pacing or characters. No, it has to do with the author’s inner force, the attitude that the writer brings to the storytelling. This force, this attitude, is what I call daring to be naked.
The more an author strips herself bare—brazenly, clearly and bluntly saying what she (or he) really wants to express with meaningful, carefully chosen words and heartfelt, unfiltered emotion—the more powerful the story will feel.
Beginning writers shy away from literally stripping themselves bare, especially when it comes to the dark, unsettled aspects of life. When it comes to sex. Or the desire to kill. Overindulgence in alcohol. Envy. The feeling one gets when two men kiss. The brutality of childhood. The drive to commit suicide, the fear of death, the smell of the hospital floor where a loved one lies dying.
After all, the more authentic the writing, the more naked and exposed the author feels, and she may have to put up with questions like, “Do you really write about sex? Have you done all those things yourself?” Or: “Why do you write about murder so much? How does your husband feel about that?” Or even: “Is your story autobiographical in some way?”
A writer has to be able to endure this sort of thing.
Anyone who wishes to write about dangerous, unconventional, difficult things, about things that go beyond social conventions, will strip herself bare. Every time. If not, her story will be intolerably tedious, since by trying to please everyone, she will inspire no one.
Life is too short for feeble stories that stomp on the literary brakes. Take a stand! Strip yourself bare!
By the way, it helps to write in the nude from time to time. Try it sometime. Maybe not right this minute…wait till you get home. Which brings us to a point that is closely related to being naked:
2. Writing is having a room of one’s own
A writer needs three things: paper, a pen—and a room of her own. A physical space, but also a temporal, intellectual one. In any case, one that is private. I have an Israeli colleague whose house is bursting at the seams. Whenever he enters “his” mental writing room, he puts on an enormous purple hat that belonged to his grandmother, which sends a message to his five grandchildren: I’m not here. The children respect this magic trick, and the hat gives him space to think.
A friend of mine who writes crime fiction seeks out the Berlin University Library. Jonathan Franzen rents an office on an industrial estate for each novel and works on an old IBM laptop without Internet access. When a Hamburg-based author lies on the couch and stares at the ceiling, her children have learned to read her message loud and clear: “Mom’s not sleeping, honey. She’s working.”
A colleague in Edinburgh is a pedicurist in his other life. While massaging other people’s calluses, he’s thinking about his next novel and sits down to write it in his empty salon after hours, before heading home to the noisy apartment he shares with roommates.
A room of one’s own—you’ll find them everywhere. Claim one for yourself. When your children are out of the house, the play room is yours. Make it your refuge. Writing needs privacy, but not everyone can afford to build her sanctuary next door to the bedroom.
A room of your own is the living space for your writing, a refuge for the mind. It gives you independence and the solitude you need to finally hear your own voice. You are free here, behind closed doors. It’s where you can be wicked, excited, crazy, childish without anyone watching. Where you can be YOURSELF.
3. Writing disrupts relationships
It is unfortunate, but women in my workshops often tell me that the men in their lives feel threatened by their writing, disparaging it as merely “typing” or “scribbling.” The object of such jealousy is an activity in which, to the man’s annoyance, SHE has no need or desire for anyone. Or perhaps it is an occupation that builds a better world than the one he has to offer. There are many reasons why men resent their partners’ artistic achievements.
These women get up two hours earlier than usual in the morning in order to write in secret on the top of the toilet tank; they write while riding the train to their primary jobs; they hide their notebooks in laundry detergent boxes. A few men told me about girlfriends whose jealousy drove them to wipe their partner’s hard disks clean of files. The author May Wilson once said, “I left my husband for my art long before he left me for other women.”
All art—writing, painting or composing—demands a piece of you. If you don’t give art what it wants, it will torment you more than your husband does.
Unless you are willing to give up your writing—or your husband or wife—you must learn to manage an open ménage a trois. Both relationships require time, attention—and love. They both do.
4. Writing will drive you to drink
Writers are twice as likely to develop a serious drinking problem than non-writers. Two or three drinks make it easier—apparently—to trust one’s ideas, to tap the well of creativity and above all to open the door to that otherworld from which our stories flow. Alcohol is the ticket to transcendence.
Not only is writing bright, passionate, pure, rational and intellectual, it is also dirty, demonic, fear-inspiring. Drinking while writing was long considered essential to creativity.
Normal people wake up the morning after and groan, “Oh, my poor head…” Authors say, “Oh, what a terrible chapter…”
I’m not going to encourage you to either to indulge or to abstain. Let me just say this: I’m damned happy I’ve learned to write without cigarettes and can face my demons without a drink in hand.
However, one thing I do want to impress on you is this: Never use social media while drunk.
5. To write is to read
Artists practice many rituals to get into the right frame of mind for writing. Since muses rarely show up from 9 to 5 to offer their input and deliver a profusion of words, authors must keep preparing their minds and souls for the creative and revision process on a daily basis. Writing often demands discipline, resistance to distraction and forcing oneself to buckle down to work day in and day out.
Colette liked to delouse her cats before writing. Schiller sniffed dried apples. A colleague of mine cleans her kitchen—and many others read passages in a book.
The best choice is a book they hate, one that is so bad it boosts their confidence in their own creative abilities.
Or they pick a book they love and admire. A book they’ve been reading every day for the past 30 years. Most importantly, one that brings forth that internal buzz, the state of relaxed tension in which free writing comes so easily. These books are motivational reading, far removed from the writer’s own voice, plot and inner life. They are catalyst books. I turn to authors such as Jon Kalman Stefansson, Anna Gavalda, Dominique Manotti and Erica Jong to induce the buzz when it’s absent. What’s more, unlike alcohol, you can indulge early in the day.
What is your catalyst, the book that entices and seduces you, that motivates you to write?
6. Writing will give you a split personality
When it comes to handling criticism—from agents, writing coaches, editors, reviewers, critics or your own mother—one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard comes from a book by Dorothea Brande, written in 1934: Becoming a Writer.
Her advice is to split oneself into two personalities. At least two. One personality is the artist, complete with all her complexities—childish playfulness, curious enthusiasm, passion, narcissism, unplumbed depths, sensitivity, boozing, unbridled desire to create. This is the side that absorbs the world and writes. The other personality, strictly separated from the first, is the inner censor, the internal critic—or, as I like to call her: the skilled craftswoman.
This part of you is not strictly required during the writing process, Brande says. You need her for revisions, which can begin only minutes after creation. Sometimes, the two sides switch off so rapidly that you are hardly aware of the transitions. You need the craftswoman—the critic—in the planning stage and in dealing with self-imposed or external critiques. If activated too early, however, your inner censor will slow down the creative process by offering comments such as: “Who would ever want to read this … what makes you think you can do this…your mother will be horrified...”
If you cannot avoid criticism, call forth your inner craftswoman. She is the only one capable of separating the work’s quality from its creator and the context from which it emerged. After all, when reader comments or criticism hurts us so terribly, it’s only because we absorb the words in our role as sensitive, damaged, vulnerable artists. Not as craftswomen who can clearly tell overly subjective comments apart from constructive criticism.
Beware of becoming so thin-skinned and vain that you avoid or disregard criticism of your work. Develop a strong, knowledgeable, emancipated craftswoman deep inside, and I promise you in all sincerity that feedback will never again wound you to your very soul. Because the craftswoman is able to differentiate between criticism that is important, unimportant—and utterly nonsensical.
7. Writing is about perception and leaving yourself behind
Now and then, journalists ask me where my ideas come from or whether I have a very fertile imagination. Usually, I refer them to this website: www.guteideenfürschriftsteller.de (Good Ideas for Writers). Or I tell them the truth: I don’t make anything up.
It’s all real. Because I pay close attention to the world around me. For a long time now, I haven’t had to invent anything—it’s all there, in abundance, in this world and all the others. Writing does not mean searching deep inside yourself. For me, the essence of writing is careful observation.
Seeing. Hearing. Listening! Feeling. Empathizing. Sympathizing. Putting oneself in another’s shoes. Not overthinking. Thinking. Reflecting. Sometimes letting yourself be driven to thoughts, that erratic thinking you experience just before falling asleep, when everything you’ve heard, seen and read undergoes a chemical reaction and gives birth to an idea. Perception of the world.
Perception is always a matter of desire. Some people really don’t enjoy sitting in a drafty café and watching people, which, by the way, is an activity that never led me to single idea. I prefer to watch people in the sauna or shoppers in an H&M clothing store as they admire themselves in the mirror. Or the way restaurant patrons treat the waiter when they’re trying to impress someone.
Everyone has their own special way to perceive the world. Feelings fly at me; all my senses are hyper-sensitive, which is both wonderful and terrible at the same time. My husband is extraordinarily good at interpreting silences. Find out how you perceive your world—are you a visual or auditory person? Do you feel deeply? What you absorb and how you absorb your surroundings is the source from which you draw your stories, your characters, colors, landscapes, sounds.
This is why narcissists rarely write good books. They are always writing about the particular landscape of their navels.
8. Writing means finding your own theme
It took me around eighteen years to discover what I really wanted to write about. Over the years, I’ve had plenty of time to practice and thereby develop the ability to write about what truly interests me. My writing routine and moxie are well developed, practiced, and I’m now ready to plumb more (thematic) depths.
In my opinion, one of the two life-long missions that a writer must undertake is to discover her real theme—and to simultaneously flex her writing muscles in order to reverently refine this theme to the best of her ability and turn it into literature. It is what he or she must want to learn over the course of a lifetime. No matter how long it takes.
Giving up is not an option. Remember: writing = not for the faint of heart.
It took me 20 years to become famous overnight—from 1993 to 2013, when The Little Paris Bookshop landed on the bestseller list. This long journey was necessary. I had to live, write a great deal, love and weep. I had to lose everything before I could write what I was capable of, what really interested me. Everyone must follow their own journey. Usually a painful one.
The Little Paris Bookshop was the result of a breakthrough. I’d always known I wanted to write about death, about the fear of death and how this fear holds us back from living life to the fullest. This is my theme, and I will return to it over and over again.
In the coming years, find the answers to these questions: What am I compelled to write about? And: “What am I able to write about? These things are not always the same. Sometimes you have to hone your skills before you can address your true interest as a writer to the best of your abilities. Let me submit two requests—with due consideration and yet conviction:
1. Never imitate another writer.
2. I forget.
Add your own rule here ________________________________________,
because writing is also this: Never listen to those who have made it. After all, no two people follow the same route to success. Yours will be different than mine, different than Nele Neuhaus’s, and Stephen King’s.
9. Writing is never being able to say it all
I spent four or five weeks thinking about this 30-minute speech, feeling my way into it. I talked to colleagues about their writing. I revisited the turning points in my writing life. I reread books where authors reported on their lives as writers. How they drank too much, loved, failed and worried. How they got their butts in gear and how they lost face. I drowned myself in the sources—this short speech emerged from dozens of hours spent thinking, reading, discussing, dreaming, remembering, deciding and leaving a great deal unsaid. And writing is like that too: Accept that you must make a decision and are never able to tell the whole story.
You book, your short story, is only the tip of the iceberg. The countless hours you spend feeling, thinking ,researching and revising remain hidden from view.
10. Writing is to be misunderstood (by those you love)
Because to write—come on, YOU…want…to write? You, of all people? You want to practice this…at best…exotic hobby? Shouldn’t we leave it up to someone like Günter Grass? Isn’t it for people who have something to say, or even worse, who think they have something to say? Who do you think you are, dreaming that you can do this? Do you really have what it takes? Is there even anything left to be said? Do you actually think you could write the next Harry Potter? You? Are you trying to get rich or something? Give me a break!
When a person admits that he or she is going to write something—this incredibly thrilling, joyful, heroic confession leaves the people around them with a queasy, disturbing feeling. If you spend much time with people like this, you notice something else. They feel less and less capable of writing. They’re crippled. Oppressed. Congratulations: They’ve fallen victim to belittlement.
Beware of people who want to bring you down. In the face of doubt, guard your secret of becoming a writer.
Set up a writers’ group in your neighborhood. Even if you have only two members, you will breathe more easily, think more clearly and write better if you occasionally get together with likeminded people who enjoy exploring worlds. This is the place where no one will look at you with scorn, pity or bafflement simply because you want to write. Where no one thinks you should be less noisy, less amusing, less serious or less despairing. Which brings us to what is probably the ultimate truth: No one will understand who you are and what you do better than other writers. Welcome to the club of world explorers, people for whom one reality is never enough.
On Writing. With this keynote address, Nina George opened the Deutsche Schreibtage 2014, which took place on November 1, 2014 in Berlin.
On becoming an international bestselling author
Nina George reports on her journey to international literary fame.
How do you say “Lavendelzimmer” in Latvian? What is a double taxation treaty? Which sex scenes did the U.S. publisher ask to be revised? Nina George’s bestseller, Das Lavendelzimmer (The Little Paris Bookshop), has been translated into 26 languages. In her essay for Federwelt, the author discusses the joys and setbacks she has encountered in her literary career as well as the peculiarities of the international book market.
November 18, 2013, 8 p.m.: “Are you sitting down?” my agent asks.
“No, but I’m lying down. On the carpet with Daniel Kehlmann.”
“Good. Put the Kehlmann aside for the moment. Crown has requested a pre-empt. New York is giving us an ultimatum until five o’clock. Do you want to know how much they’re offering?”
“Nah,” I lie. There is no way this can be happening. I picture my agent sitting on her moving boxes, eating pizza and drinking red wine. You never get calls like this in real life. It’s past five o’clock, in any case. I must have fallen asleep over the Kehlmann book and I’m having a disjointed dream. After all, my life has been nothing but chaos for the past six months. I wrote a novel that surprisingly outsold the publisher’s projections by a whopping 849 percent. I don’t know what I did right. I’ve been on all the bestseller lists for months, and yet it still feels strange to see my name there. The critic Denis Scheck called my novel “dumb” and “frivolous,” while thousands of readers wrote letters telling me how much Das Lavendelzimmer consoled them in their grief over the death of a loved one. Despite everything, my father—my confidant, my inner strength—is still dead. He doesn’t know that his offbeat daughter, who feverishly wrote a story about books and grief in ten short weeks, will soon see her work read in Italian, Finnish and Chinese. And in 23 other languages, enough to console the whole world. And yet, my bedroom ceiling leaks, and I’m asleep on the carpet, unaware of what is going on.
An obscene offer
My agent pauses for dramatic effect before shouting Crown’s offer in my ear—a six-figure number in dollars. It’s only four p.m. in New York. I have one hour to decide. Then we both scream into the phone and dance a wild jig, my agent in her pajamas.
With its pre-empt, Crown secured the U.S. translation rights to Das Lavendelzimmer, thus avoiding an auction and the need to compete against other potential buyers.
I now share a publisher with Michelle Obama and Gillian Flynn. I can’t begin to imagine what has happened to me.
The Italians acre difficult, the Americans jealous
A miracle is what has happened. Or perhaps a logical progression, because once the ball gets rolling, this is how it goes: The German book market is the third largest in the world, after the United States and China. When a German novel lands among the top five hardcover titles on the SPIEGEL bestseller list, the scouts perk up and take a closer look. Italy is considered a difficult market, but when the Italian publisher, Sperling & Kupfer, buys a German title, the U.K. also pays attention—the Italians are known to have a keen eye for good material. When England acquires a book, the Americans get all territorial. An English-language edition means access to the world market, Hollywood and aggravation. New York prefers to keep the world market, Hollywood and aggravation to itself: Random House and its Broadway imprint, for instance. Once Broadway gets on board, Taiwan and China become restive. Meanwhile, Russia…
My head hurts as I listen to my agent explain what it really means for an author to be translated into 26 languages. It means fame, merciless Goodreads reviews and a new photo for the dust jackets. It also means filling out exemption forms for double taxation treaties—in Korean, Finnish and Italian. My tax advisors feel the stress, both globally and locally. For each contract, I must wait an average of two years to get my money. I will receive huge e-book percentages in markets where digital piracy has destroyed the e-book market (the Netherlands and Spain). While bibliophile cultures pay enormous percentages, the readership in these countries is so small, I could stand every fan a round of drinks from the royalties I’ve earned there (Latvia, Bulgaria). Then there are markets like the United States, where people toss around six-figure numbers (of any kind) as easily as we German engage in lamentation.
At the time this article is published, I will be giving a reading in Riga. In English, with the Latvian translation projected onto a movie screen. Kind of insane, I think.
Cover and title design: voluptuous blondes and old-world Europe
The novel’s title and cover are getting a complete makeover in all countries. The Italian image has a voluptuous blonde strolling along a shady lane. The United States and the U.K. chose The Little Paris Bookshop as the title (“old-world Europe rocks!”) and placed the Eiffel Tower in a dramatic panorama. The Dutch cover shows a riverboat bookshop sailing down the Seine. The French associate “lavender” (Lavendel in the book’s German title) with laundry detergent rather than Provence and rewrote the title entirely: The Forgotten Letter. Because Poland has active reader communities, the Polish publisher replaced the customary blurb and its few lines of praise with reader reviews on the back of the book and inside the cover. Ever since the first six translations were published, I’ve been answering messages on Facebook from Poland, Italy and Spain, from California and Tunisia. The whole world is reading my work.
And I’m reading the whole world.
Have I mentioned that all this attention is not making it any easier or more pleasant to write the next book? Success has invited writer’s block in a way that failure never did. In the past, I “only” had to worry about language, voice and plot. Now I agonize over “substance.” Will my next book be “substantive” enough to embrace the whole world?
It took me a year to banish my fears, and now I’ve come up with material that is powerful enough. However, I still need to grow into it.
The captains of literature: female, tough as nails and sincere
Let me end with a couple of observations I find particularly pertinent to the steampunk submarine known as the “international book market.” The captains and navigators in publishing are women! From agents to list managers, women negotiate with other women on everything from money and content to sales. The translators, on the other hand, are male. Men virtually rewrite the book. They seek linguistic images that will resonate in Israel, Norway or Russia. They look for a comprehensible equivalent for “Wünschlichkeit“ (“wishableness”), one of the new words than Max invents for Samy in Das Lavendelzimmer. The Americans get all finicky when it comes to the graphic nature of my erotic scenes. They prefer to leave a lot of it up to the imagination: more Barbie doll sexlessness, less Anais Nin eroticism. It’s because of the linguistic censorship that Apple imposes on e-books. Too much explicit sex means the book won’t be sold through iBooks. At least not without ******.
However, the author has the final say. Always. And I want to keep the ******.
The agents and publishers always sign their first names to their e-mails: Vanessa, Cecile, Mirjam. From New York to Paris, they write: “Best regards/Yours, Christine, Rowan, Anna, Hedda, Elise.” They discuss money with the cold clarity of a glass of vodka. No dancing around the issue as is so often the case in Germany. What’s even more cathartic, though, is the praise I’ve received from Cecile, Rowan, Anna, Hedda and Christine.
No praise for my work has ever been as profuse and sincere as the compliments I’ve received from these foreign publishers in Paris, New York, Rome, Amsterdam and Riga. First they bought my book, then they wrote me long letters explaining what they liked about it.
I suspect the reluctance to compliment authors and their novels is a typically German phenomenon. What if it makes the author too expensive? Or if the accolades go to her head? Or if she becomes…somehow…too difficult to work with? Nonsense! Bring on the praise, my dear German book people! It is pure joy. And just between you and me, it will not necessarily make us more expensive. It will make us better.
But that is a story for another day.