Corey Ginsberg, our magazine advisor, is a graduate of Florida International University’s MFA program. She currently works as a freelance writer and a writing tutor, and lives in Miami with her Dachshund, Joey. Her favorite writer is Kurt Vonnegut.
Corey was interviewed by the gang for the readers of Sliver of Stone.
SOS: How much time do you spend writing/editing?
CG: Most normal humans would probably find my writing process horrifying. Sitting still is hard for me. I tend to write for several minutes at a time, stand up, reheat my coffee, write a few more lines, walk the dog, clean the stove, chop some garlic, then jot out a few more. So it’s hard to say how much time I actually spend writing. This also leads me to wonder what actually constitutes “writing”; for example, can I count the time spent running on the treadmill, thinking about my fear of beards, or the nights I wander my neighborhood, scribbling notes on my forearm with a Sharpee, or all those lost hours in the checkout line at Target, wondering how long it would take to decapitate and scalp someone, then treat their extracted blonde ponytail with Herbal Essence?
I edit as I write, so this line also blurs for me. I write a line, then another, then read them together and change the first. Then, I write a third, go back and read them together, and make changes. It’s tedious, but it’s the only way I can work.
I also tend to work in waves; for weeks or months, I will spend every shred of my free time obsessing over an essay or scene, and then other weeks are relatively dry in terms of page output. Last spring, I wrote the first draft of a novel in two months. I like setting really demanding deadlines for myself, as I know this will propel me to get things done. I think if I were to ballpark an average, though, I’d say I spend more time writing and thinking about writing than anything else, save for sleeping.
SOS: How do you know when you’re on the right track with a piece?
CG: I think this is a really important question for every writer to ask him or herself. I used to spend a lot of time thinking about how to know if a piece isn’t on the right track. As writers, maybe we’re taught at some point to notice this. It’s sort of like how most people spend a lot of time wondering why they’re sick when they’re sick, but very little thinking about why they’re healthy when they’re healthy. It seems much more valuable to my process, though, to identify when a piece is going in the right direction and ride that wave for as long as possible.
When I am saying what I want to say, in the way in which I want to say it, the feeling I get is like being in vibrational alignment with myself and with the Universe. It’s a pure rush, sort of like seeing the image a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle is supposed to form dangling in front of me for the taking, rather than a jumble of colorful pieces strewn on the carpet. This feeling is completely intoxicating. It’s the reason I write. It is the best feeling I know.
SOS: Are you ever surprised by the pieces that get accepted? (For example, a piece you thought was merely good gets accepted before what you consider among your best?)
CG: Yes, definitely. This seems to be especially the case with poems. I know from working in publishing how subjective the acceptance process can be, so I understand it’s often luck when I get something accepted, and it’s a matter of having the right piece at the right place at the right time, perhaps more than the independent merits of the poem.
The essays, poems and stories I care most about—the ones I feel are my most honest—those rejections sting the most. It’s sort of how I imagine people who care about football feel when Team loses. They think, “Damn, I was really rooting for them, but they just didn’t cut it today.” You still root for them next game, even if the starting lineup changes slightly. What I consider to be my strongest essay has been rejected over fifteen times so far. Sometimes I worry it may never find a home. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop sending it out, though. Or stop tweaking it.
SOS: You write in multiple genres. When you have an idea for writing, are there rules of thumb that guide you in choosing a particular genre?
CG: The genre is my backbone as I write. When I get an idea, I almost always start out writing it in the genre, form, tense and point of view the final piece will use. This feels natural to me. These decisions go hand-in-hand with idea generation.
If I want to write something true, and it’s more than a flash moment, this takes the shape of an essay. Fiction is my escape from truth, which is why I often write stories about yetis or sociopaths or frogs falling from the sky. Poems usually spring from a single image or moment that I feel warrants a closer examination.
I never set out to write nonfiction and have it end up being fiction. This feels like a copout to me; having to fictionalize truth means that an essay has failed, in my opinion, to get at what it needs to find. Sometimes, though, if there is a moment in my life I want to write about, though I don’t feel I have the steam to maintain it for pages, it will collapse, fairly early on, into a poem. The veil of the speaker, which is often me in my poems, grants me a sort of necessary escape from having to own up to “truth” in those situations.
SOS: You strike me as a particularly prolific writer. I understand that you’re currently working on a piece about writer’s block. How have you learned to overcome moments of writer’s block in your life?
CG: I used to get horrible writer’s block. And it frustrated the hell out of me when people said it didn’t exist. It’s like telling someone with a migraine the headache is not real because others aren’t experiencing it. I stopped writing fiction for many years in part because of this blockage.
When I began my MFA degree, I took a class in Reiki, a Japanese healing technique in which the hands are used to free up energy blockages on the self, as well as on others. I noticed an immediate difference, not only in my physical well-being, but in my creative output. The following year I took a class in Transcendental Meditation, and a second Reiki course. In addition to alleviating about ninety percent of my headaches, I believe that the regular practice of these techniques has helped creative blockages, too. Going off the premise that matter is energy at a fundamental level, what difference is there between a headache, which is a blockage in the head, or writer’s block, which is a blockage of creative energy?
For the past three years I have spent about forty-five minutes a day meditating and performing Reiki. I have not struggled with writer’s block since then.
SOS: You served as the nonfiction editor for the first three issues of Sliver of Stone. How do you choose among the pieces that are submitted to a magazine? (What do you look for? What turns you off, etc.)
CG: Regardless of the genre in which I’m reading, good writing is good writing. This is my main concern as an editor—spotting the best writing. If the piece doesn’t win me over in the first page, I stop reading. This was probably the hardest thing for me to learn, as I know how carefully all words in a piece are selected. But there are often dozens and dozens of quite strong submissions at a journal, and to be competitive for the final round of consideration, it is essential for a piece to fireball from the start and keep the momentum going.
When a writer creates a story, essay or poem, they are offering a lens, a focus. They are saying to the reader, “Hey, this is remarkable, and I think you should study it with this level of magnification.” I am especially drawn to pieces with that sharp focus, pieces that elevate an object, event or action that is normally overlooked as being “ordinary,” and cause me to look at it with a new type of focus. In terms of nonfiction, specifically, I want to go somewhere with the writer. I want to be led there, but at the same time, find my way around the place on my own. I want to be offered a map, and then be given the leeway to decide what I think of being there, how it makes me feel, etc. Less is usually more in nonfiction; what’s left off the page is often more telling than what’s included.
I was once told by a professor you have to have a big, “tragic” life to write nonfiction. I wholeheartedly disagree. It’s not about what’s happened so much as the way in which the event is rendered on the page. Small stories told in a big way are my favorite to read. Also, I believe good nonfiction (all good writing, for that matter), has to work on at least two levels. I call this the Rule of Two. This means that a piece that is “about” your pet dog being put down really isn’t about the dog—it’s about your fear of your own mortality. Ideally, it works on both levels.
In terms of what turns me off as an editor and reader, my personal taste is that I tend to not enjoy reading stories about religion, pieces containing recipes, magical realism, or birds. That said, I’ve been known to find exceptions.