The 5-Question Interview: Beth Levine

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The following ran in The Writer’s [Inner] Journey, Meredith Resnick’s writing blog.

Beth Levine is a veteran freelance writer. Her writing (personal essays, narrative, how-to…the list goes on) has appeared in many (MANY) national magazines including Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, Self, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, and just about any other one you can think of. Beth is also a writing coach who says: “People often think I am not as funny as I think I am. And I don’t really care.”

The Writer’s Journey: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe?

Beth: Well, I guess it’s a friend because it doesn’t torture me about whether I am any good or not. I know my limitations and I also know when I’m good. I believe that as a writer, you don’t pick your genre, your genre picks you. I realized very early on that my fiction efforts were embarrassingly bad. I couldn’t find a true note if you shoved it up my ass. And sitting down to write fiction was, for me, a chore and a misery. It occurred to me that that was so because I was going at it for the wrong reason. I wasn’t writing fiction because I had to,because it gave me joy, but because I wanted everyone to know how smart and talented I was. Before I would put one finger on a computer key, I was already envisioning the book party, the fabulous reviews, the phone calls from old boyfriends begging to come back to brilliant, brilliant me.

My genre, the personal essay, found me. I discovered that what I could do (and do well) was get inside my own head and explore, and through my relationships with other people, I found the bridge to get inside their heads. I found that by writing personal essays, I could give myself moments to keep forever. Because when I am writing, the people I write about are there with me. I remember the quality of my father’s voice, my son as an infant, people from my childhood. They are there and they tell me just the way it happened and I see it as if it were happening anew. These are treasures that life doesn’t often offer.

Once I stumbled onto this gift, I stopped finding every excuse not to write, I stopped daydreaming about my National Book Award speech. I found myself racing to get at my computer every morning, unable to contain my impatience at the time it took to boot up. I know when I am onto something good, framed in such a way that I just have to reach out and grab it. And the rush I get after I know I’ve nailed it, I guess I have my mind to thank for that too. It’s what keeps me at it.

The Writer’s Journey: If you were an advertising agency and asked to pitch your method of creativity, what would your tagline be?

Beth: She delivers on time, without much maintenance. In fact, the less you speak to her, the better.

The Writer’s Journey: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck? How do you overcome “stuckness” if encountered?

Beth: In truth, I find it incomprehensible when people can’t write. I think, “Stop carrying on and just write the damn thing. It doesn’t have to be good. Just get something down on paper and noodle around with it.” I suppose writers everywhere are ready to punch me for that one. Once, when my husband, also a writer, was moaning about being blocked, I actually said, “A writer writes. So go write or shut up already.” Let’s just say our marriage did survive that one…barely.

When I want to mull something over, let’s say, I take a walk with my dog. I actually talk out loud to him. Something about being alone with my own thoughts, just wandering around, makes the perfect sentence,the perfection description pop into my head.

The Writer’s Journey: The Talmud says that “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ Do you have a personal interpretation for what this means to you as a writer?

Beth: Every writer has had the experience of being at a party and being asked, “And what do you do?” “I’m a writer,” I’ll say. To which the other person responds, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write but never found the time.” Like, time, that’s all there is to it. Got that and by gum, you could knock off the nextMoby Dick like that. There’s this subtext to it of: “My life is so full of important things, I couldn’t possibly do anything as self-indulgent as write. Maybe when my life is as empty as yours must be, I’ll write.” To which I’ve always wanted to respond, “Then you’re not a writer, are you?” Because one, a real writer would never think that writing just another to-do item. And two, real writers find the time because they don’t have any choice. They can’t not write. If they don’t find a way to express themselves, their heads will literally explode. It would be like telling my beagle not to bay at the wind or an athlete not to go for a morning run.

I think these party people want to have written, but don’t want to actually write. They romanticize the experience but they don’t have the inspiration or passion or need. They may have passion but it’s just not for writing. [Love-this alert:]It’s that driving force in writers that opens the day and night up so there is always time to write, even if it’s a short little scribble in a napkin. I ascribe that spark from a higher power.

When I am in the zone, or what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow, I feel lit up from within, almost high. I think the most perfect representation of this experience is in Stephen Sondheim’s song from Sunday in the Park with George called “Finishing the Hat.” It’s about just falling into your work, and not being able to extricate yourself because how can you eat or talk to your loved one or take a bath or pay the rent or be polite when there’s this hat you have to paint? Can’t they all see that there’s this hat? And that you have to paint it just right? And that nothing else on God’s green earth matters as much as that hat right now? That inspiration, that drive, that obsession, when we feel it in any endeavor, I think is as close to experiencing the Divine as we can get. [Embrace-this alert:] The only thing we need to do is show up and allow ourselves to feel the Angel’s breath.

The Writer’s Journey: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write? Any deals?

Beth: If I knock this off, I can:
1. Get something to eat
2. Take a nap
3. Check my email and message boards and Facebook and play Solitaire online
4. Close blinds and watch Real Housewives.