Just for fun, I asked Isabel to play professor and come up with an assignment that she would give an aspiring writer. As an example, I told her that once, while working on a book about the photographer Ruth Bernhard with Lori (Isabel’s daughter-in-law), we were happy to receive a list of photography assignments that Ruth would give her students. One, for example, was to photograph a white shirt against a white wall.
Here is what Isabel told me about her teaching days:
I don’t teach anymore, but I did teach a couple of creative writing courses. Usually in a writing class not everybody has the same knowledge of the language, and they don’t have the same level of creativity or discipline. So the homework that is turned in is very uneven, and because the class is maybe only an hour you don’t have much time. I wanted the students to write under pressure because my training is as a journalist. I was a journalist in a huge newsroom full of people, manual typewriters and NOISE, phones ringing and people walking by and so much pressure, tight deadlines, and you really had to tune everyone out. Actually, having a deadline really helps. And although I start all of my books on January 8, I also give myself deadlines throughout the writing of the book. That helps me also.
I would give my students a variety of assignments. For example, we would pick a sentence from any book—just open a random book and not read the story, just that sentence—and then create a story around that one line in five pages, let’s say, or during the class even, so there is more pressure. People are always scared of writer’s block because they can’t come up with an idea. Well, how do you get an idea? By forcing yourself to think of something that is unusual. That would be one thing, one idea. Or I would say: write a violent scene. When I did that, almost always the men in the class would write about a fight or something that happened in a bar, maybe. Women almost invariably spoke about being assaulted, even if it had not happened to them. That was the most violent thing they could think of.
Once I got an extraordinary piece that was written by a woman who had been a Catholic nun for 12 years. Her piece was about how they would gather for the evening meal in this big dining room. The meal was eaten in silence, although one person was assigned to read from the Scriptures. In the piece she writes about one young nun who forgets to bring the book to the meal. When it is her turn to read, the nun falls to her knees and says, “Please forgive me, I have forgotten to bring the book.” The Mother Superior says, “It is not for us to forgive, only for God. But we cannot eat without hearing the words of the Lord, so there will be no dinner tonight, no one can eat.” The nun sinks into despair and falls to the floor prostrate, her arms open, and cries. And so the tension, the violence of that scene was so incredible, and at the same time there was no hitting, no screaming, just mental stress—very harsh.
I have also asked students for love scenes or to write about someone looking at a love scene. There is a twist there that creates a tone for the story.
When people ask me to write their stories or to coach them, which of course I cannot, I always tell them what has worked for me, as well as something that I once heard from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. What I say is that writing is like training for sports. If you want to play the game you train and train and train, and while no one sees the training, a muscle is being built. The same is true of writing. You write and write and write, and everything you see you write it down. And sometimes writing TO someone is very helpful; I write to my mother every day. You are all the time thinking and training and you write thousands of pages before there is one page that deserves to be shown.
Here is what I heard from Gilbert when she was asked the same question: “Do not expect your writing to support you or give you fame, you write because you love the process. The result is not the point, what is important is that you really love the process.” I know that is true for me—for every word you don’t write it weighs on you.
Ps. Here is a link to a talk that Isabel did with Elizabeth Gilbert last year at the 92t Y in NYC. It’s fun to see them together, they have a nice back and forth.