How Freedom Inspired Elizabeth to Start Her First Novel

In early 2014, Elizabeth was accepted into a 3-month residency program at The Helen Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. The residency’s “do whatever you need” philosophy allows artists, writers and composers the freedom to explore their own creative processes and builds confidence by removing pressures associated with deadlines and results.

Exploring creative process and connecting with other artists and writers, Elizabeth expected to focus on a book manuscript that she began during her MFA. Instead she started writing her first novel.

Elizabeth Tannen

Who are you and what do you do in life?

My name is Elizabeth and I’m a writer. And native New Yorker, and teacher of creative writing, and journalist, and lover of big mixed-breed dogs, and maker of a damn good sour cream coffee cake…I have an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of New Mexico. Before doing that I worked at NPR in Washington as a producer and booker for several years. I live in Minneapolis now and teach with the Minneapolis Prison Writing Workshop and at The Loft Literary Center. Since 2010 I’ve been writing a blog called Dating in the Odyssey Years. It’s no longer about dating, but I can’t come up with a good title to replace it. Suggestions welcome!

Elizabeth Tannen

What are you working on during your residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation?

I came here—a three month residency program for writers, visual artists and composers in Taos—expecting to work on the book manuscript that I began during my MFA: a memoir, called “Close,” about my father’s first wife and the mother of my older brothers, who grew up in the same house as me but I never knew. I got farther along with it than I expected, though, so when I arrived I was still waiting to hear feedback on the manuscript from my agent. So at first I spent my time finishing up and sending out some odds and ends, short stories and essays I’d begun but never completed in the last few years. And then I realized that I couldn’t miss the chance to immerse myself in a book-length project during my stay, so decided to dive into a novel. It’s actually the book I thought I was going to write in graduate school, so I’d already done some research for it. I find the book process really liberating: the first few drafts you get to just make a big mess and play around. It’s like throwing a whole lot of stuff on a big surface. Not a lot will stick, but some.

Elizabeth Tannen

What is the novel about?

I’m returning to a story that’s intrigued me for years, but was never sure how to tell. I’m still not sure, but am plunging in anyhow—which is what I learned from writing the first one: you don’t know what it’s about until you write it. So, being only partway through the first draft, this is a hard question! It’s inspired, though, by Wallace Stegner’s book Angle of Repose, in which a man going through a personal crisis—divorce, disability—decides to absorb himself in the story of his grandparents. The book parallels their story with his. In my story, a young woman does the same thing: after two divorces before the age of thirty-five, she decides to move in with her grandmother (in my story, unlike Stegner’s, the grandmother is still living, and in New York instead of the West) and research the grandmother’s romantic relationships. I’m barely 100 pages into the manuscript, so even that small synopsis is subject to change.

How is your residency transforming your work or writing process?

You have unlimited time here: no obligations, nothing is expected. And that can be overwhelming. But it’s also a great opportunity to discover what works for you in terms of time management. My patterns have never been very consistent, which has always made me feel insecure. But here I’m realizing how authentic that is: some days I do work best in the morning, others at night. Sometimes forcing myself to be disciplined and write in concentrated chunks with breaks is effective, other times that makes me panic and I get more done when I just tell myself I’ll just dedicate the day to reading. I wish I didn’t have such an erratic work pattern, but the fact that I’ve been able to produce a lot of work work that way has been comforting.

Being here has really pushed me to take risks and work outside my comfort zone. For example, I’ve been writing poems, for the first time since middle school. I think that stems from a combination of factors: the environment, the community; there’s a way in which merely being given this opportunity is so validating, it kind of gives you permission to be more adventuresome with your work, not to worry as much about proving yourself. You’re not as afraid of failure.

Eliabeth's Workspace

How has this experience transformed you personally?

Oh, so much already! Like a lot of people, and probably especially a lot of neurotic writers, I have a really hard time being present, being mindful, all the things that are so important not only to live well but also to be an artist. I’ve always known that, but for some reason being in Taos—maybe it’s just all the open space, all the natural beauty—has made me hyper conscious of that, and want to work on changing it. So I’ve been trying to meditate for the first time ever, getting back into yoga, reading Thich Nhat Hanh.

Taos, New Mexico

My experience here has been so inspiring and productive and enriching that it also makes me want to do things like this as much as I can. For me, there is nothing so stimulating as being immersed in a new place and getting to know new people. (And it helps when the place is really beautiful and the people really interesting…) Residencies can be very competitive to get, but I now feel committed to applying as often as I can. I know my life won’t always be as flexible as it is now, so I want to take advantage.

Elizabeth Tannen

When I met with you in Taos, you mentioned that you might downgrade from your iPhone to a non-smart phone, has this trip influenced that impulse or were you already thinking about it?

Before coming here I kind of joked about it, but it always felt like a radical idea. Now that I’ve decided to make the switch it seems like such a no-brainer. The iPhone is totally antithetical to the pursuit of being mindful. I’m sure that people more disciplined and less self-doubting than me can manage it, but I have a really hard time not letting it distract me in ways that tend to be far more negative than positive. I know I’ll miss the convenience of looking up directions and checking the weather and listening to podcasts on long walks, but at this point it feels really clear to me that the benefits will outweigh those things.

Elizabeth Tannen

How has the community at the residency affected your experience?

Hugely. There is a really talented, smart and lovely mix here of visual artists and writers. Apparently the Foundation is aggressive about checking personal references during the application process, and it shows: I am awed by the talent, and by how generous and lovely my fellow residents are. My neighbor is a British artist: painter, sculptor, filmmaker, writer. She’s really helped me with the mindfulness stuff, and dragged me to the art supplies store to nurture my collage habit. Another resident is an incredibly talented writer from New York, with whom I’m sharing work and learning a ton. A painter from San Francisco whose work just wows me has already become a great friend. If I did nothing but here but get to know these people, my time would have been well spent!

What really matters to you in work and/or in life? 

I guess few things matter more to me than being around stimulating, thoughtful people with whom I can drink mint tea and red wine. Being able to go for long walks by myself. Hiking. Paul Simon, Shastakovich, Sam Cooke, etc. A lot of reading time. Natural light. Having control over my hours, and a comfortable, aesthetically pleasing space in which to spread out and work. Essentially, all the things I have here! If only one could live on residency…

Elizabeth Tannen

3 Tips for Building Confidence in the Creative Process

Persistence. (Duh.) It helps me to remember that successful artists are those who are dogged, and that talent is secondary. Obviously talent matters, but once you get to a certain level you need to stop worrying and know that you have enough—what will determine your fate is simply how hard you keep at it, how thick you keep your skin, how well you cope with endless rejection…it’s one of those things we all know rationally, but forget emotionally. Frequent reminders help.

Give yourself good workspace. And then leave it. I can’t stress enough how essential it is for me to have a good, comfortable, safe physical space in which to work. And, equally, to immerse myself in different kinds of places. So many of the artists I know talk about the value of travel: when you leave your normal environment it’s like putting on different lenses—you look at things with new eyes, you notice more, observe differently. It’s a great tool. And as the new Amtrak residency evidences, many artists also find inspiration en route: I often write in airports and on planes, even in my head, while walking. There’s something about being in a liminal space that stirs the mind.

Embrace your subject matter. My adviser in grad school, a wonderful writer and extremely dedicated teacher named Greg Martin, spoke frequently of the fact that writers, and all artists, don’t really choose our subjects—our subjects choose us. Obviously it’s good to push against your edges, to challenge yourself and take risks, but it’s also necessary to recognize and embrace the themes that pull you, and mine them for all you can.

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