On March 17, 2020, a teacher friend of mine named Michael asked me some questions via email because he actually wished to know the answers. After answering him, I thought I might make it available to you.
Michael: “My first question is to what you attribute your prolific nature or how you are able to finish entire novels and collections, how they pour out of you, and what advice you might have for struggling writers to see projects of any kind to their end?”
Robert: “I suffered writer’s block for years, then the dam broke in 2008. It’s a combination of things: my highly strung nature, my active imagination, and my desire to leave a legacy for my children. Perhaps most important of all is that I love to write. My wife hates writing, but I love the act itself. Since I love doing it, why wouldn’t I do what I love? I don’t know how long this phase of inspiration will last, but I am grateful for it while it does.
“I always tell people not to write if they don’t feel like writing, because the inspiration will come when the time is right. But I know it’s hard and frustrating to wait. So if someone doesn’t wish to do that, my next advice would be to throw mud at the wall until something sticks. Just write until you find yourself writing something you like. If you have an idea, start with dialogue.
“Oh! The other thing, also very important, is that I only write about things I consider important. I write about the issues and topics that concern me on a daily basis. So: politics, religion, et cetera. That is why I am interested in seeing them to their conclusion.
“Pick an issue: global warming, sexism, racism, anything LGBTQ+. Choose your message. Then just start writing. You don’t need to flesh out characters first, at least I don’t think so.
“So: issue: racism.
“I am going to write about an Asian teacher at a rural White high school.
“Then you start with him waking up and going to work. What is he thinking? Is he dreading it? Write it, write it, write it.
“Now you pick your own issue.
“You cannot write if you don’t have something to say.
“You can’t have something to say if you don’t have something you need to say.
“What do you need to say?
“Now, notice what just happened there. I wrote off the top of my head until I eventually came around to the heart of the matter: what do you need to say?
“I think we often think, “I want to write a cool story.” But that’s not how it works.
“If we need to write something and make it enjoyable to us along the way, then it will be cool. But we can’t set out with the coolness as the goal. The goal is to express some universal truth our own way.
“So: what do you need to express? Not want, need.
“Only you know that.
“It’s like writing an essay. Once you have your thesis, the form and function will follow.
“Now, my creative prime began in 2008, when I was 38. I don’t know your age, but I do think it is in some small way a function of age and maturation. It may be that you are just in the phase I was in until 38, which is a sort of resting, comfortable phase. Once things become unbearable, then you can let it all out, more and more.
“I will say that as I have written I have pushed myself not to be afraid, to pull out all the stops, to go where I would not have dared to go previously. There is much trepidation and hesitation to shed.
M: “And in terms of your prose, do you feel you’ve been equally adventurous or experimental, or has pushing the boundaries of your writing been relegated primarily to story conventions?”
R: “Oh, I referred to content. I will talk about things I wouldn’t before. Of course, I have also expanded my pushing of conventions, but, as with movie special effects, that must always come in service of the story rather than overwhelm it. Form follows function.”
M: “Is there a way to do both, or does one inform the other for you?”
R: “Let’s say one wrote a first-person narrative from someone losing her or his mind. It would make sense that as the mind disintegrates, the conventional forms would as well. I would say the one always informs the other, otherwise it is special effects without justification.”
M: “And out of all your works, which do you feel is vastly different from the rest of your work? Which is a balance of plot and prose being new and uncharted, bold and fearless?”
R: “I feel that it has been a long, slow progression but that certain individual works are more adventurous now. I feel that my new novel is vastly different, as it is written in the first person from the point of view of a twenty-three-year-old religious woman.
“I think if I write my truth, that counts as ‘bold and fearless’, and all my work falls into that category. It was at least my truth at the time, though I might write it differently now. Every work is new and uncharted—that’s what makes it exciting.
“If being bold and fearless is an issue for you, that means to me you do have things you wish to express but are hesitant to do so. I would start by writing about that—and why you think that is.
“There are some topics I won’t touch, either due to who I am or my career, but those can wait until later or never. There is more than enough to say right now that a substitute teacher may cover.”
M: “Lastly, which two books represent the biggest leaps in your prose?”
R: “Sisyphus Shrugged, my first novel, because for the first time I knew I was good and used every tool at my disposal. I pulled out all the stops for the first time. And my new novel, The Sun Children, because now I am letting it all hang out without caring who doesn’t like it.
“I think it is very important to say to you that readers rarely remember the words used; they remember the meaning. I always tell fellow writers not to get hung up on the words or the perfect sentence. Write your meaning, and the reader will get it. Getting hung up on the form is the writer’s greatest peril.”
M: “Which showcase your greatest artistic growth and why?”
R: “I would say my fourth collection, The Time Before, is my best book, because of that reason. It contains the widest variety of topics and conventional devices. One story is in the form of an adventurer’s notebook, another is in the form of a hearing transcript. You do what the story requires, but that book definitely showcases my artistic growth. It’s the book with the green cover. I think it was the first book I gave you, summer 2018.
“Then, again, The Sun Children, for the reasons given above. It is the deepest and fullest.
“I should also mention that my most recent collection, 8, features two stories that are slightly more risky than previous works. The first is a story (‘Coming Forward’) about the violence women suffer in our society. It includes the real rape story of a friend of mine, told in retrospect by the female lead character. The second is a story in which a man gets a teaching job at a school in which the students are actual demons from Hell. This could be taken the wrong way by a school district and get me into hot water, but I only wrote it about a school because I happen to work in schools.
“More and more recently, I have been drawing upon my own real life and the people I know. It also occurs to me that Les Miserables can offer an instructive lesson. The whole story is started by Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread out of hunger. The officious police officer Inspector Javert spends his whole life hunting Valjean. It is a study in placing the law over morality. Many different subjects are covered in the story’s thirteen volumes (yes, Les Miserables was released in thirteen volumes!), but the story started with the theft of the bread.
“Any incident can lead to such exploration of issues. You just need to decide with what incident to start. Either make one up or take an incident from your own life and let the story take you where it will. Oftentimes you will start writing about one thing and find yourself writing about another. Then you drop the first part in favor of the second.
“You just need to write. You need to take an incident from your childhood and turn it into a story, I think.”
Really, though I didn’t say this to Michael, it could be anything: something from one’s childhood, something from the news, or something from one’s current daily life. There is stuff happening everywhere all the time.