A conversation with Scott Nadelson
1. What books and/or authors have had the most influence on your writing?
There are a ton of them, far too many to name. I read in order to be influenced, to pick up as many influences as possible. That said, if there’s one influence that has remained consistently strong since early in my writing life, it’s the work of the great Russian story writer Isaac Babel. The intense compression, the autobiographical impulse, the combination of humor and horror, the precision of language — he’s the ultimate model for just about everything I’ve done and want to do, in both fiction and nonfiction. Whenever I find myself floundering, I go back to his stories and try to let his voice help me get back on track, and almost without fail it does — after reading him, my writing gets simpler, more straightforward, less construction than expression. Writing this, I want to go read him right now.
2. How do you decide when a piece you’ve written is “finished” enough to publish?
Usually it comes down to fatigue. If I’ve worked on something long enough that I no longer know what to do with it, and I’m just endlessly tinkering with the sentences but not really changing much, then I’ve got to get it out of my hands. Sometimes that means giving it to a friend to read, sometimes sending it out to see what an editor might think of it.
There have been times when I’ve had a story published and afterward decide to make a major revision. That used to trouble me. I’d think I shouldn’t have sent it out, it wasn’t ready, and I’d get down on myself for having been impatient. But now I’ve come to think that it’s an exciting thing when a story comes back to life after I thought it was dead for me. I try to let things sit long enough that I won’t regret having them in print, but now I also try remember that stories can always be retold, and that just because they’ve been published doesn’t mean I can’t revisit them and discover new things in them.
3. What would you consider to be a productive day of work, and do you have a writing routine?
Before having a child, I used to think I needed at least two hours of writing time, and if I didn’t write at least two new pages during that time, the day was a failure. Since becoming a parent (I’ve got an almost three-year-old daughter), I’m happy if I simply sit down and work at all in a day — as little as fifteen minutes can feel satisfying, a solid sentence or two. Being productive has become more a state of mind than a physical accomplishment. If I can be present to the work, really have my head in it, even briefly, then I consider it a success. And I’m pretty stubborn about carving out a little space every day. As soon as I drop my daughter off at daycare, I run home and sit in front of the computer for as much time as I can get away with before having to attend to other obligations.
4. What part of your writing process do you most enjoy?
I really love the second and third draft stage of a story. That’s when I really hit a groove. The first draft is torture, because I have no idea what I’m doing; I go through dozens of false starts before finding the right angle in, and then I flail my way as quickly as I can to an end point. On the second and third draft I really take my time, immersing myself in the characters, trying to understand their fears and desires, discovering the story’s proper shape. It’s the messiest stage of the process, because I keep everything in and try to explore every possible avenue before paring down to the essential in subsequent drafts. What I enjoy about this stage is the balance of control and improvisation — because certain aspects of the story have found their footing, I can experiment freely, and that usually leads to surprises which end up crucial to the finished piece.
5. You teach creative writing at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University. How has teaching shaped your writing?
Teaching keeps me honest as a writer and a reader. When I’m in front of eighteen enthusiastic young writers discovering a passion for their craft, I can’t fake anything; I can’t give their stories a lazy read, because they’ve got too much at stake in them. And now, having done this for more than fifteen years, I can read just about any story and see it not just for what it is, but for what it can be — by helping students I’ve come to understand almost instinctively the possibilities that even the sketchiest draft offers a writer, and that has been incredibly helpful in assessing my own early drafts.
Teaching has also allowed me to test out ideas, to experiment, to read things I wouldn’t otherwise read, to write things I wouldn’t otherwise write. For example, I’ve often struggled with creating drama in my stories, getting my characters out of their internal struggles into exterior conflict; so in order to explore how other writers overcome this challenge, I made myself teach a class on the roles of minor characters as catalysts for drama. By trying to articulate to my students how other writers use minor characters, I clarified it for myself and came away with a new set of tools for my own work.
6. You have published three short shory collections and, most recently, a memoir,The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress. What prompted you to go from writing fiction to creative nonfiction?
I didn’t set out to write a memoir. I was doing what I usually do, which is to start a story with some nugget of autobiography — in this case I was writing about the aftermath of a break-up — and then improvise. But as I got further into the story, I decided to give the character my name and stick closely to my actual experience, which created a vulnerability that excited me. It also allowed me to adopt an introspective and self-deprecating voice that had an addictive energy, and I just found myself having a lot of fun at my own expense. After a while, I began to realize that I was writing about myself for a reason — the story I wanted, or maybe needed, to tell was one about identity, how elusive it can be, how we construct it day by day. The book became an exploration of my struggle with identity, a journey through the various selves I’ve created or abandoned.
7. Do you have a favorite chapter or section of the memoir? If so, what is it and why?
If I have a favorite, it’s probably the chapter called “Three Muses.” It’s about my brushes with three famous writers when I was working as a fundraiser for a big literary organization in Portland in my late twenties. First was Stephen Jay Gould, the great evolutionary biologist and science writer, then the playwright Edward Albee, then the novelist Edna O’Brien, whose new memoir is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. It’s a piece about literary longing, about finding models to help navigate this strange life of putting words on paper. It’s also probably the funniest chapter in the book, because Edna O’Brien is such a character — one of the most neurotic and alluring people I’ve ever met.
8. What else are you working on, and where can readers go to find more of your work?
I’ve recently been putting what I hope are the final touches on a book I’ve been working on for the past few years, a comic, episodic novel about a middle-aged bachelor suddenly thrust into family life. It’s the chronicle of a nebbish, a nobody, a sort of Quixote of the New Jersey suburbs. I’m also floundering through some false starts, trying to find my way into new stories.
All my books are published by the wonderful Hawthorne Books and are available through any of your favorite indie booksellers. There’s also some stuff on the web. The title piece of the memoir was first published by Post Road. A story from my most recent collection, Aftermath, is available at Camera Obscura. And the kind folks at Ploughshares recently published a new long essay in their Ploughshares Solos series.
9. Finally, what advice would you give yourself when you first started writing?
It’s advice I still regularly have to give myself: take the writing seriously, care about it deeply, but don’t take yourself too seriously as a writer. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own ego when you spend so much time in dark room staring at a computer screen, but there’s nothing more detrimental to the work than thinking about how other people will judge it, what it will mean for your career, etc. It’s important to remember how few people care about what you’re doing, and that no one cares about it as much as you do. The best thing you can do is to write as if no one is ever going to read what you’ve written and to still try to make it something beautiful and moving and complex, something you can be proud of even though no one else will ever recognize or acknowledge its value.