I knew dozens and dozens of actors, a few playwrights, but nobody who wrote fiction. “What do you think?” I’d say. “Um, cool,” they’d answer. “Very nice.” No one, with the exception of my husband, was able to give me feedback. So I decided I needed some lessons.
Novel: Kind of Kin
Video Interview (link)
How Rilla Askew Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Eric Bosse for the recommendation, and thanks to Rilla for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I didn’t set out to become a writer, I set out to become an actress, and along the way discovered that I am a writer. The process was at first a gradual awakening, and then a slow, reverberant boom that settled deep in my gut as recognition. I’d moved to New York in my late twenties to “become” a famous actress, spent three or four years waiting tables, studying acting, scrounging for parts. Probably it took no more than a quarter of that time, though, for me to realize that I hated the business of acting. Not the acting itself, but the business. I hated standing on a tacky tile floor in a nondescript room hearing the dispassionate “Thank you” from the casting director, hated poring over casting calls in Backstage, hated the hungriness and personal-ness of it all. More than anything, I hated that I had to have the job first before I could practice my art. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, of course, and in time a good friend, the actress Beth Broderick, and I decided we would put on our own production of Jean Genet’s The Maids—an ambition that fizzled behind the realities of how much it cost to rent Manhattan rehearsal space—but the notion of taking the pursuit of art into my own hands led me very soon to writing plays. Not long after that, I turned to fiction. Then came the boom of recognition: sitting in a theatre district restaurant one night, talking with my husband for hours, trying to let go of the dream of becoming an actress in order to allow myself to be the writer I am. At some point the release happened—I felt it viscerally, in my chest, like the firing of a distant cannon, followed by a kind of lightness, a sense of recognition, release. By closing time, the deed was done. I’ve never looked back. So it wasn’t ever a question of “wanting” to be a writer but the slow and then sudden realization, the aha experience: “Ah, so that’s it.”
I never had the self-consciousness about my writing that I’d had as an actor, I would show my stories to anyone: “Here!” I’d say, slapping the pages in front of the other waiters at the mid-town restaurant where I worked, the busboys and bartenders, Broadway actors and techies. I knew dozens and dozens of actors, a few playwrights, but nobody who wrote fiction. “What do you think?” I’d say. “Um, cool,” they’d answer. “Very nice.” No one, with the exception of my husband, was able to give me feedback. So I decided I needed some lessons. I saw an ad in the New York Review of Books: “New York’s Best Kept Literary Secret: the MFA Writing Program at Brooklyn College.” I applied, was accepted, enrolled right away. Turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I found community, validation, craft. I found good mentors in Jonathan Baumbach and Peter Spielberg and a terrific lifelong writing friend in fellow MFA student Jessica Treat. It was Jessica who taught me by example not to say “I want to be a writer” but “I am a writer,” and this was well before we were both seeing our work appear in print. It’s a vital first step, that internal affirmation. We’re writers if we’re writing—whether we’re getting published yet or not.
But yes, so, the process: I began getting stories published in literary journals, finished my thesis, a collection of short fiction, sent out stories and got them back with rejections, and sent them out again, collecting enough rejection slips to satisfy any writer’s early sad tale and just enough acceptances to keep me going. I kept revising my thesis, wrote a couple more stories to add to it, and sent out that collection, which eventually was accepted by Viking. That was my first book, Strange Business. So I came up through the usual route, I guess—or the route many hope for, the route MFA programs are designed to help apprentice writers achieve. All I can say is, in my case, it worked.
There are so many who have helped, including all my writing friends who’ve shared work over the years, that it would take more space than we have here to credit them all. A few of the more significant ones: RC Davis-Undiano, Executive Director of World Literature Today and a big supporter for many years, has provided literary friendship, the chance to present my work in China, a fine writer-in-residence teaching gig at the University of Oklahoma that gave me freedom to write for a few years. I completed my fourth novel Harpsong there.
My best friend Constance Squires and her husband Steve Garrison—both wonderful fiction writers, terrific teachers, outstanding critics—are my first readers, along with my husband Paul Austin. For years Paul and Connie and Steve and I have all shared our work with each other, which makes for these great literary feast nights: three of us giving detailed feedback on the fourth one’s new novel or play or poem, talking for hours with knowledge not only of craft but of the writer’s entire body of work and backstory. It’s a terrific four-way writing friendship.
Above all, though, most important, has been the support of my husband, Paul Austin. He’s a man of the theatre, an actor, director, acting teacher, but he’s also a poet and playwright and essayist. Long ago, when I was still that aspiring young actress and he and I were newly engaged, we had a bad fight. I was afraid we were going to break up, that the relationship was finished, but I couldn’t articulate in spoken words all that I felt and thought. So I wrote him a five-page single-spaced typed letter that was essentially a short story, written in third person, about our fight (“his thick longshoreman arms” is one not-very-felicitous phrase I remember), trying to explain all that was in my heart. When I finally gave it to him, three days later, I watched his face intently as he read, thinking, Now he’ll understand me. He put the pages down, looked over at me and said, “You know, kid, you really can write.” He’s been my greatest supporter, sounding board, critic, ever since. He supported me financially while I went to school to get my MFA, continues to give me space and freedom to write; he goes with me to my public readings and gives me such helpful feedback it amounts to free acting lessons. For real. Paul believed in me before I believed in myself—long before I embraced Jessica Treat’s model phrase. It was my husband’s patience and belief in me that made all the difference that night at the restaurant years ago, when I segued from my long-held ambition about “becoming” an actress to that low, resonant boom of recognition: I am a writer.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
Flannery O’Connor’s tenacity to write and her abiding Catholic faith in the midst of her debilitating illness (“sickness is a place,” she said, “…where nobody can follow”) have been an inspiration. Even as her lupus worsened and she became bedridden much of the time, she still worked as many hours a day as she had strength to write. I’m also inspired by the way William Faulkner remained on his “little postage stamp of native soil” and wrote about the people and the landscape around him. Faulkner’s biography is where I first came to understand that the people and the land I come from are worthy subjects for fiction.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
This is adapted from a letter to an aspiring writer that I actually did write—a note to a former student, Zachary Rupp, a very talented writer who’d just completed his MFA at the University of Central Oklahoma and wrote to ask me, what next? I answered him first with one word: Write.
Later, in a second note, I expounded a bit: “My advice to simply write is all I really know to say. A writer writes. And the biggest challenge we all face is finding a way to live while we’re writing. Almost no literary writers make a living from writing. A few do, but it’s rare. This is why many of us end up in academia—teaching is a good gig, for those who like it. Biggest challenge there is to remain more writer than teacher. I’ve seen talented writers get drawn so deeply into academic careers that their writing shrinks and shrinks and finally disappears altogether.
On the other hand, there’s a certain financial security in teaching that can provide a sense of freedom to write, and with summers off and more vacation time than many professions, it works well for some. Quite a few famous and successful American writers do it this way. Other good jobs include working in the book biz, maybe as book seller or editor. Those jobs take a lot from you—but then, so does working at Burger King.
The two main things are to trust your writing, keep doing it, keep getting better, keep sending out, keep collecting rejections until they turn into acceptances, and know that this thing you love and absolutely must do probably won’t support you.”
I would add one other one-word bit of advice to an aspiring writer (which I didn’t need to put in the note to Zach, since he’d heard me say it so many times in workshop): Persevere.
In the long haul, perseverance counts way more than talent. “Talent is long patience,” Flaubert said, “and originality an effort of will and intense observation.” “The writer is the one who stays in the room,” Ron Carlson says.
So: Write. Persevere.
Read. Read. Read. Read.