This Wednesday, award-winning alum and author Catherine Lacey led a Columbia School of the Arts Fall 2020 Creative Writing Lecture. It was the first event in this semester’s virtual series of three.

At the conclusion of last week’s incredible Nonfiction Dialogues event with author Maggie Nelson, I found myself right back on the School of the Arts’ website looking for their next creative writing event. I found and filled out the registration form for Catherine Lacey’s lecture within a matter of minutes.

The Columbia University School of the Arts’ Creative Writing Lecture series has been a Writing Department staple for the past 12 years. According to host and professor Ben Marcus, the lectures themselves are flexible with regards to theme and structure. He explained, “It’s not a reading series, but we still bring in writers we love and admire.” Lecturers are invited to talk about what might be interesting or useful to their fellow writers, he said. Think of it like a half-hour masterclass followed by a Q&A.

Catherine Lacey earned her MFA from Columbia in 2010, and in the decade since, she’s published four books: three novels and one collection of short stories. Lacey has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and is a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow.

I logged into Zoom a few minutes before the lecture was scheduled to begin and was able to witness host Ben Marcus and author Catherine Lacey’s banter about dogs as ideal readers, the unexpected pros of hiding self-view, and how everything seems to come back to therapy. As the two continued chatting and as we waited for stragglers, Marcus smiled, laughed, and noted, “Everyone gets to be in the green room with you, Catherine!” The participant count platformed at about 90 people, and Lacey began her talk.

Lacey started her lecture by noting the difficulty of giving writing advice. She wondered, when so much of writing is uncertain and unspecific, how one can be expected to give a craft talk with certain and specific conclusions. Still, she assured viewers that she would be giving it her best shot. I took away three major points from Lacey’s lecture:

First, according to Lacey, there are two writers inside every writer: the brain writer and the guts writer. The brain writer plans and goes to college and perfects grammar. The guts writer loves, hates, and remembers what bread tasted like in 1988. These writers need to build a working relationship with one another; on their own, they both can and cannot be trusted.

Second, the psychological should drive syntax. The psychological determines what details must be included in syntax in order to establish the state of a narrator and their voice. She told viewers, “Prose is the cousin of poetry; poetry is the cousin of singing.” Lacey then read a passage about a father watching his toddler while at a funeral. The words of the passage on their own, Lacey noted, are simply blunt, but the syntax is fragmented, untouching, self-protective. Each sentence is quick and forces a reader, when spoken aloud, to draw quick, shallow breaths. The lines are never long enough to bring readers to the vulnerable moment where a pause for breath becomes a necessity. This is what she means when she says one must infuse their syntax with the psychological. Syntax, according to Lacey, is the way that language displays humanity.

Third, on a related note, Lacey advised that fiction should not be a prelude to a Netflix adaption. (Although she included the disclaimer that she can’t blame those who choose to write for the screen, as she herself currently makes less in royalties than our president pays in taxes.) Lacey noted that, when we read, sentences become our thoughts. This doesn’t happen when we watch Netflix. Instead, the shows think for us; they allow us to “binge.” Some bad books do this as well. They introduce plasticity into descriptions and dialogue. They flatten characters into types. Although seriousness and entertainment are not mutually exclusive, these “written-for-adaptation” books are focused on the surface representation of narrative, not interiority. The best books are the most difficult to translate to the screen.

When asked about how novel ideas unfold for her, Lacey explained that enough short stories will amass that she will be able to look at them and think that maybe they could work together and become the first draft of a novel. She’ll add enough extra plot, content, and “stuff” to “balloon” the novel and then cut down the word count. (She cut her last novel from 170,000 to just 60,000 words!) She’ll spend two months working on a “bad” first draft and put it away. Then she’ll pull it back out for two months of editing and cutting, and put it back away. She’s close to finishing her fifth book and explained, “Right now, I don’t know what’s going on. It’s just chaos!”

When asked about how she knows she’s close to the end of a project, Lacey talked about self-delusion. She has to continually tell herself “I’m almost done!” in order to keep going and said about creative writers, “I don’t think anyone… is a normal person. I think we’re all really weird.” Regardless of how close she is to the end of a project, Lacey maintains the same writing schedule: “I always wake up and work until lunch every day.”

When asked about the difference between narrative nonfiction and fiction, Lacey explained that she thinks there is and should be a difference between the two. In today’s times, she believes she’s become more conservative on this note. Still, if you’re stuck while writing an essay, write it like it’s fiction (but keep the facts there)! Even when writing nonfiction, allow yourself to have a personality.

A student asked about the effect the pandemic has had on Lacey’s work, to which she responded that she doesn’t ever attempt to write about the contemporary moment. She thinks it’s challenging to write about this century and respects people who do so. In her words, “Smartphones fuck up plots.”

Another participant asked how Lacey commits herself to a novel idea, and she told us that her ideas don’t start out novel-sized. She’ll think of a sentence and follow the sentence.

A viewer wanted to know whether Lacey asked for feedback throughout her writing process, and she said that no, she doesn’t ask for feedback. Instead, she thinks it’s important to “become the person that can smell their own shit.” As she’s become more confident in her abilities, she’s been able to let things sit, distance herself from her writing, and look at her work from a reader’s perspective. Reading aloud can also be helpful! She noted that she often writes as much as she can and then deletes as much as she can. “That has become my editor!” Deleting can feel scary, but she reassured the audience that more words always come.

There will be two more virtual Creative Writing Lecture Series events taking place this semester. Check out Columbia School of the Arts’ online events calendar to stay up-to-date with the latest information!

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