Go Forth (Vol. 21)

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As we chug along here over at Go Forth, I figured we should get around to addressing a question many writers have, which is: How does one balance a day job with their own writing? To give us some insight into that, I interviewed McSweeney’s contributor and United Nations (that’s right, the UN) writer Summer Brennan.

—Nicolle Elizabeth

NICOLLE ELIZABETH: Hi Summer. What moved you to start writing?

SUMMER BRENNAN: Hi! So, I started writing creatively when I was about eleven or twelve. I wanted to write fiction. I was a big time reader, devouring these huge books by Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. All of Tolkien. Epic stuff. And I guess these new stories and characters would just volunteer themselves. A lot of it was historical. I had something set during the Civil War, and another thing about Queen Nefertiti of ancient Egypt. Some fantasy. I took it all very, very seriously. When I was twelve, I wrote a forty-page “novella” about the Little Rock Nine—you know, the group of black teenagers chosen to integrate a previously all-white Arkansas high school in 1957? If I remember correctly it was told from the perspective of Minnijean Brown. I turned it in to my seventh grade English teacher at the end of the semester, and she gave me a B+ because she said it was too long and that “The flowery language interferes with the flow of the story.” I should stress again, I was twelve.

NE: Similar! My first novel when I was nine was set in 1800s industrial America. It was twenty-three pages long. Speaking of making a living, like many of our readers, you write and edit both creatively and for a living. Do you find it difficult to separate different modes and does your work come from different places within yourself? Do the two ever meld?

SB: I feel really lucky and grateful that I’m able to write and edit for a living. There are different modes, certainly, but I don’t really find it hard to switch between them. I guess the biggest difference is between the content you generate yourself because you just can’t not write about it, and then when you need to find the most interesting or important angle of a topic that is selected for you. I think that doing “non-creative” writing is a huge help for when I do write creatively, because it has made me realize that writing is largely about work. Sometimes you don’t feel like it, but that’s too bad! Do it anyway. The work I do at the United Nations is kind of a cross between technical writing and reporting.  It’s about synthesizing a lot of complex information very quickly, and writing about it in real time in the middle of a meeting about the Arms Trade Treaty, or chemical weapons use in Syria. What my team and I publish at the end of each day usually amounts to something like ten-thousand words. So it’s incredible to realize that you’re capable of that kind of volume. It’s been a real eye-opener and a killer of excuses for the rest of my work. Like, I know I’m capable of producing five-thousand words of clean copy a day. It doesn’t mean it will all be brilliant and evocative, but it’s somewhere to start. Being forced to put complicated ideas into understandable prose under intense pressure has helped my creative writing immensely.

The thing that is not different in my writing across the board, be it political stuff, journalism or creative essays—and now, my first book!—is the cadence. The simple practice of turning ideas into sentences that are easy to navigate. The sentence is the path through the jungle of the idea—does that make sense? There can be all kinds of wildness around you, but you still need a clear path through, so that you’re not held up. I think journalism tends to be the middle ground for me, writing-wise. A poetic turn of phrase can help to tell the story more accurately, and can make it come alive for the reader. It’s often these moments of detail—the abandoned toys strewn on the lawn, the shaving cream behind his ear—that wind up being the most memorable. And both editing and writing “non-creatively” drives home the point that you are building something with words, a freestanding intellectual object of sorts. The only problem of course is finding the time to write, which is why I’m fortunate to have an on-and-off work life. When I’m really busy with professional projects, I get so saturated that I can pretty much only think in Internet memes once the workday is over.

NE: Do you ever get any flak professionally for writing creatively?

SB: Not really, but I’m not important enough for it to be too much of an issue. Writing—and, to an increasing degree, editing—is what I do professionally, so people aren’t surprised. If I were a diplomat or a foreign minister or something, then it might be a problem for me to be writing about pop culture stuff. But fortunately or unfortunately, I see no danger of that happening. Plus, many of the people I work with are also creative writers to one degree or another. Because most of us don’t work the whole year but only come in for a few months at a time as needed, we are also frequently journalists, academics and even artists. One of my colleagues also writes for the New Yorker. Another woman, a full-timer, is a published author of saucy international-themed women’s fiction (I’m not crazy about that term, but at least it’s better than “chick lit”). Yet another colleague just published a book about the forced relocation of Ukrainians after World War II. We all use our real names. I mean, by far the most popular thing I’ve ever published thus far is also my most personal, an essay about the death of my first love. So I guess the hope is that the finished result is good enough to make up for the over-share.

 On a technical note, when I’m on contract I have to run my external work by my supervisors before it’s published – but that’s the UN, and I’m working as part of their press service. Like, if you’re a lawyer, maybe don’t publish essays about how much you hate lawyers. If I stopped writing about oysters and politics and agriculture and mix tapes, and switched to bashing diplomacy or advocating for nuclear war, I can imagine there would indeed be some flak.

NE: Some writers prefer to have jobs in which they don’t write or edit because they find it drains from their creativity. How do you balance the two?

SB: Oh, I’m definitely the opposite. The more writing I have to do for work, the better I am in the creative field. And I not only have better ideas, but I also finish things, and that’s what counts. I just finished an intensive UN contract in November. I had this nonfiction book project I’d been kicking around for the past year and a half. I had the research, and I’d been living in this story. But I needed to actually write it. And since I was coming out of this crazy UN time, I knew I was technically capable of writing five-thousand words of clean copy every day. So that’s what I did, every day for a month, until I had a completed first draft and a proposal. I’d been working with an editor at an independent press with a more bare-bones version, but I needed something better and more substantial. I couldn’t have done that if it were not for the eighteen months of foundational work, but nevertheless. I finished it, got an agent I feel great about, and now we’re doing submissions. It’s very exciting.

NE: What drives you to write and edit (both technically and creatively) as a professional?

SB: It’s funny, I sometimes feel like I love editing almost as much as I love writing. You get to play Indiana Jones for someone else. Because, to borrow my metaphor from earlier, it can feel a little like hacking through the jungle, clearing a path for the writer’s ideas and imagery to make it through as they intended. But it’s hard to see our own low-hanging vines, you know? I need an editor as much as the next person. We all do. As for where my writing comes from, I guess it feels like the best way to understand and respond to the amazing and terrible and confusing and awe-inspiring world around us. In writing and in life, I think you can’t be afraid to give everything away. All of it. Twice as much of yourself as you thought you had in the vault. Because you’re creating a door in yourself for the light to shine through, you know? You’re not really a container, you’re a passage. The harder I work, the more ideas I have. You’ve probably heard that saying, “die empty.” I know it’s a book as well. I haven’t read it, but I love that idea – the notion of using everything of ourselves, of letting nothing go to waste.  Except that I don’t think we’ll ever really be empty. I don’t think we have a finite number of ideas, a finite amount of love or inspiration in us, so I guess the best thing we can do is to try to go through life with the doors flung open as widely as possible, with the divine whatever streaming through, so that when we reach the end of our stories, we can say—yes, there could always be more, but I’ve had these doors flung open for a long time now, and that will have to do. Whatever it is that you think you want to do, start now. It’s later than you think.