On Creativity: William Alexander

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.

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William Alexander writes:

William Alexander

I read the news every morning. Please don’t do this if you can possibly avoid it. I can’t avoid it. I am addicted to staring into that particular abyss. The headlines alone create a flailing, sputtering, inarticulate mess of frustration and rage that writhes inside me for the rest of the day. This makes it almost impossible to productively focus on anything else. It feels irresponsible and decadent to carry on and keep writing goofball stories about haunted Renaissance festivals and aliens masquerading as kumquats. Neither has the opposite strategy worked; I’ve tried to confront these feelings, to channel their subject matter into some sort of art, and it doesn’t go well. The mess is too raw and immediate. It won’t listen to discipline or allow itself to be shaped by craft. Molten lava can’t be sculpted. We just burn ourselves if we try.

Music does help, though.

Every day I drink my coffee, put on headphones, and listen to a single piece of angry, eviscerating music. This offers catharsis that I desperately need and can’t find a way to directly express. But I don’t have to. Others have been here before me. Others are here with me now. I’m not alone. The music shifts my panicked, racing pulse into the rhythm and momentum of a protest march.

Small rituals like this have always helped me structure my writing time. Just as brushing teeth gives shape to the day and thereby resists chaos and entropy—or at least keeps chaos and entropy away from our teeth–any small action can become a ritual that shapes our writing time. Tea, coffee, votive candles, angry music, a five-minute dance party in the privacy of an otherwise empty apartment, or reading a random paragraph of a favorite book out loud will, if consistently repeated, transform into an act of devotion to the muse. Sing in me, coffee, and through me.

I also try to remind myself that we need fiction—especially fantastical, historical, defamiliarizing fiction—to foster the understanding that the world could be otherwise, that it has been otherwise, and that it will continue to change. But positive, transformative changes are impossible if they remains unimaginable. Mental muscles need to be stretched. Haunted Renaissance festivals and alien kumquats will hopefully stretch them.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that “The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.”

Susan Cooper said at the CLNE conference last November that, “It is possible to fight your way to the horizon without seeing it. None of us is secure. Ever. We can’t give children security, but we can give them this one true defense against despair.” Then she quoted Phillip Pullman: “It is our duty to hope.”

Saint Augustine insisted that “Hope has two beautiful daughters named Anger and Courage—anger at the way things are, and courage to make sure that they do not remain the way they are.”

It may be our duty to hope, but that sense of obligation will not necessarily tame volcanic responses to current events. But small rituals help, and so does music. The story that we are in has a soundtrack. Listen to it. This will not scry out the future, or tell us how the story ends, but it will help us march.

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William Alexander won the National Book Award in 2012 for his first book, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. He has since written three more novels for Middle Grade audiences: Ghoulish Song, Ambassador, and Nomad. Will studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Workshop. He currently teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Visit his website.

On Fantasy: Will Alexander

For the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this space will feature a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. First up, Will Alexander.

Will AlexanderQ: What is the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: Getting lost. I’m not sure that I build fantasy worlds so much as grow them in secret. Margaret Atwood compared writers to magpies. Or maybe ferrets. Both creatures collect shiny things. A pet ferret will hoard forks, coins, paper clips, and bits of foil underneath your couch.

My fantasy worlds start out as similar piles of strangely shiny ideas. I hoard them under the couch in the back of my mind. Each pile grows until it becomes a place, and then I go exploring. It’s a fun process, but inefficient. Sometimes I get lost.

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: I can only guess! None of my fiction is realistic. My brain lacks the knack for realism. Goblins and/or ghosts will show up no matter what kind of story I set out to tell.

I do believe that there is a significant overlap between fantasy, history, and the two sets of fiction that use either (or both) as raw material. Ursula K. Le Guin describes that overlapping territory in her introduction to Tales from Earthsea, so I’ll defer to her wisdom:

The way one does research into nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened. I believe this isn’t very different from what historians of the so-called real world do. Even if we are present at some historical event, do we comprehend it–can we even remember it—until we can tell it as a story? And for events in times or places outside our own experience, we have nothing to go on but the stories other people tell us… When you construct or reconstruct a world that never existed, a wholly fictional history, the research is of a somewhat different order, but the basic impulse and techniques are much the same. (xiv)

NomadQ: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

A: Lots. Endlessly. Especially when I was eleven. The books we read at that age change everything—maybe because we’re about to change ourselves. We can see puberty coming, and we’re justifiably scared, so we need to gather resources, explore possibilities, and explore impossibilities to figure out the sort of person we want to become.

When I was eleven I read Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Jane Yolen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Susan Cooper. I don’t think I can choose any one favorite from that magnificent pile of books, but I will say that Le Guin’s Earthsea taught me the most about the grownup that I wanted to turn into.

Q. Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A. Semele the goblin playwright. I suspect that we would swap backstage ghost stories. Maybe she knows why all theaters are haunted. I’ve often wondered.

Thank you, Will, for sharing your thoughts with my readers. I hope you’ll read all of Will’s masterful books but especially his most recent, Nomad, and his National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets. Learn more about Will on his website.

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bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. Kirkus Reviews gave it a star, “The eventual revelation of just who unleashed the destructive power manages to be simultaneously unexpected, plausible, and thought-provoking. Despite her self-doubt, Grayling is cut from the same cloth as the author’s other sturdy heroines, but she is also an entirely original and endearing character that readers will cheer on as she seeks to save her mother and return her world to rights.”