The Writing Process and Gregory Frost

My first meeting with Gregory Frost was when he sat down before my Baba Yaga panel. It was Wiscon, 2007, and we talked a little about Baba Yaga. Then he introduced himself as Gregory Frost, and I said, “My God! You’re that guy who wrote Fitcher’s Brides! That book scared me to death!” or words to that effect. And then after my panel he invited me on over to the Armless Maiden panel he was on, and that was cool. And later, much later, we hung out at a party his friend and mine Denny Lynch threw for him, due to his Mindbridge Roots. Greg is a teacher, a writer, a scholar, and a truly thoughtful individual, as this interview reveals. Please enjoy!

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Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book. Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?

Greg: I think I have a specific process, but it is certainly a shape-shifting one. I usually approach a story or novel with a fountain pen and notebook first. Sometimes I’ll draft an entire story that way, start to finish. Other times longhand seems to be more a process of experimenting, trying out a series of different approaches—sometimes it’s me writing a half dozen different opening paragraphs or writing what turns out to be biographical information about a character. Often that whole “zero” draft is written longhand. There is something, for me, about the tactility of writing (or scribbling) the words out by hand; and also a sense of freedom in it, in that I’ve been doing it long enough that writing with a pen is almost play. I’ve moved into a mindset where it’s allowed to be play, it doesn’t count. So it gets to be a mess. Or wrong. A way to the story perhaps. But it’s quite freeing.

Sometimes, though, I’ll switch to the laptop at the point of catching the story. It’s all very much instinctual. As I tell writing classes, you have to figure out what works for you and do that. If that stops working, try something else. Be flexible, and uncritical in the earliest stages. Go with what works, and be willing to make mistakes. One of my favorite quotes about creativity is Charlie Parker saying, “If you don’t make a mistake, you aren’t trying hard enough.”

Tamago: Do you use a different drafting process for short stories versus novels?

Greg: There are similarities…I mean, in both cases I’m pulling scenes, images, dialogues out of my head and trying them out; but I believe that a person can write short stories without ever requiring an outline. It’s a small enough thing that you can wrap your arms around the whole of it while you’re writing it, even accounting for changes you encounter as you go. To me short stories are more like poems than they are like novels. And I’m not even talking about 300 word flash fictions where you really are paring it down to the size of a poem. Stories are aiming for a single, final effect, however you care to define that.

A novel is, for me, simply too enormous to attack without some sort of narrative structure sketched out, however vaguely. I need a target to aim at, and I usually produce the first outline within 50 pages of setting out. (I was delighted some years back to find out it’s how Scottish novelist Val McDermid describes her process, too.)

For me the outline is more a means of verifying that the idea has the heft to be a novel. Once I have it, I will then reference the outline as needed, until it’s clear that I’ve parted company with it; and then I’ll recast it. Sort of like fly fishing. It’s fair to say that in any book project I’ll have written anywhere between one and five outlines before I’m done, mostly because notations of “and then this will happen” as imagined in advance transform when I actually sit down and write that sequence; often a multiplicity of heretofore unimagined options present themselves. In effect, by putting the words down I’ve brought things into focus in a way I couldn’t have before they were set down. (Samuel R. Delany has a wonderful essay on this topic in his collection, About Writing.)

There’s a quote from John Irving where he says that when he’s beginning a book, he can only work for a couple of hours because he only knows a couple of hours worth of the story. By the end of it, however, he can work for long stretches: choices have been made, options jettisoned, and he’s charging at an ending that’s become palpable. By comparison, I can think of short stories, even novelettes, that I’ve drafted in a single sitting. Might be a very long day, but when I totter away from the desk, there’s the whole shape of a story there. (Mind you, that does not by any means suggest that it’s close to done. Just that a complete narrative with a beginning, middle, and end have swirled into existence.) No one should make the mistake of thinking that just because they got to the end of the draft, their story is finished.

Tamago: Can you describe the use of notebooks (writing by hand) in your writing process?

Greg: Way back in high school I took a summer class in touch-typing. (This was before computers or even dedicated word processors abounded.) I learned to type about 90 words per minute accurately…which it seems is faster than I can think. If you are one of those who believe writing fiction is some sort of “automatic writing”—you’re merely a conduit and all that jazz—well, perhaps that presents no impediment for you. Major problem for me.
I was just spewing crap as fast as my fingers could go without any chance to focus on the words, without hearing them, feeling them. I needed to stop doing that, to slow down, to turn things over in my head, to listen to the cadence, to be able to write it wrong, cross it out, write it again, cross it out, write it again, etc., each time perhaps getting closer to what I actually wanted the sentence or paragraph to say.

Eventually, I arrived at the University of Iowa, and met Joe Haldeman, who was enrolled in the MFA program. We both, at about the same time, developed an adoration for a pen called a Kohinoor Inkograph, which was a fountain-pen version of a Rapidograph technical pen. I bought one and began writing all my first drafts longhand. It slowed me down exactly as I needed; and over time this evolved into what Anne Lamott refers to in Bird by Bird as the “Shitty First Drafts” process. My friend of long standing, Judith Berman, coined the term “zero drafts” in talking about her own methodology, because they don’t even qualify as first drafts (as I described above). It’s a “circling the story” approach.

My affection for fountain pens continues (so does Joe’s), and by extension for notebooks. So right now I write with a Namiki Falcon (I HEART flexible nibs) in Levenger Circa notebooks, which allow me to build a separate notebook for each project. I’m not even going to get into inks or this answer will run for two more paragraphs.

Tamago: How do you find that teaching writers affects or doesn’t affect your own process?

Greg: It affects my process a couple of ways. First, I learn from teaching. Unpacking stories that we’re reading, or stories that the students have written and are critiquing makes me analyze, sift, and consider how stories are constructed. Different authors construct stories differently from one another and differently from how I might. It is interesting and useful to contemplate how T.C. Boyle or Alice Munro or George Saunders has elected to present a good story. Later, when writing, I am the little bit more aware of alternatives. Michael Swanwick once critiqued a story of mine by pointing to a section and saying “What would Nabokov do there?” Well, now you have to go find out, because Michael Swanwick has asked. It’s certainly not what I would have done.

The second thing is, if I’m teaching, say, the spring workshop at Swarthmore College, my writing process is nearly curtailed for the duration. I have no time to write when I’m leading a workshop. I do not know how anyone with a full teaching load manages. My hat is off to them.

Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?

Greg: Drafting, once I have the bit in my teeth, is probably the most fun. I mean, the story doesn’t exist yet, so I’m free to attempt a myriad of approaches and effects. Revising is more contemplative, frustrating, but also revealing. In revising, I get to discover what my lizard brain has embedded in the rough draft for me to discover, to use. There are always surprises, Easter Eggs.

Tamago: How do you know when something you’re writing isn’t working?

Greg: I’ll write for five, ten minutes, get up, walk away, come back. Stare. Get up. Essentially, I cannot sit still long enough to pen a paragraph. Some part of me is announcing that I’ve taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque, and the sooner I accept it, and figure out where and how, the better.

Tamago: Do you work with a writing group, or do you predominately work alone?

Greg: Alone. I do occasionally team up with a writing partner in a coffee shop. We guilt each other into writing because the other person is doing it. But in a way that’s “alone with occasional conversation.” I can’t imagine a writing group—that sounds too much like herding cats.

Tamago: What is the longest time it’s taken you to complete a project? The shortest time?

Greg: If we’re talking novels, the first Shadowbridge book took me about seven years from the initial sketching out of a very nebulous idea; and Tain likewise took me about that long from the initial idea of retelling the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology to the final concept. Both of those books also suffered numerous false starts before I found the shape they needed. So, a very long time for each of those; curiously two other books (Fitcher’s Brides, and Lyrec, respectively) got written in the middle of—interrupting—each.

Fitcher’s Brides took me five months to draft and five months to revise twice. That’s the single fastest novel I’ve done.

The fastest short fiction I’ve ever written was a story for Gardner Dozois, “The Hole in Edgar’s Hillside,” which I wrote in a weekend, nearly on a dare from Michael Swanwick (he’s such a terrible influence). The longest may be “Madonna of the Maquiladora,” which hung fire for a good decade between the original rough idea and the finished story.

Tamago: After the initial break-in moment (your first book, agent, or assignment), what are the moments/accomplishments that you feel define you as a writer?

Greg: That’s sort of like asking me what I’m proud of, and I think I’m proud of all of it. Though when my short story collection, Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories, came out from Golden Gryphon, and reviewers who didn’t know me at all would, in the course of their reviews, express dismay that these stories hadn’t been on award ballots, I thought, “Yeah, all right, I am not crazy. These are damned good stories.”

However, there are two moments that made me particularly proud of my work. One was when I read my story, “The Bus,” at a pub in Philadelphia. The central character is a man living on a steam vent in the city in winter. And after the reading, a man from the audience came up and asked me how much time I’d spent on the street and in homeless shelters. He had lived through both. I hadn’t done either. I’d read a piece by a journalist who had, and had imagined the rest.

The other was after I’d given a reading of “Madonna of the Maquiladora,” which is set mostly in and around Juarez, Mexico; and again someone in the audience who had traveled through Juarez asked me how much time I had spent there. Answer: None.

Those sorts of reactions from readers and listeners are the real reward.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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