Post by Jessica Humphrey
Originally from Wisconsin, Mona Simpson is a novelist and short story writer, as well as an English and creative writing professor at UCLA. As an undergraduate, she studied poetry at UC Berkeley then pursued an MFA in writing at Columbia University and served as an editor for the literary magazine The Paris Review. Her acclaimed 1987 debut novel, Anywhere But Here, follows a dissatisfied mother and reluctant daughter on their ambitious trip to California. Her most recent novel, Casebook, depicts a young boy’s tumultuous journey into the depths of the adult world as he seeks to understand his parents.
How would you describe your writing to someone who has never read it?
Hmmm. That’s a good question. It would be a useful skill for any writer on a book tour who goes onto a radio show. The first question the DJ asks is, “So you’ve written a book. What’s it about?” In a way, that’s kind of a nonfiction question. It works really well if you’ve happened to write about your year covering ISIS recruits, or the current state of forensic mental health facilities, if the excavation of the story is really the most interesting and important thing, but with novels, the story isn’t always what matters. I could be describing either a great novel, a mediocre novel or a bad novel. Job’s story in the old testament is pretty much the same as The Perils of Pauline. Many 19th century novels could be described as “an orphan grows up” or “a young woman without a dowry is wooed by a cad and then gets married.”
I ask because I see that writers often feel pressure to develop a unique writing style, so that they can stand out when pitching themselves. For example, a professor once told me that I should have a mini bio of myself and a logline of my most recent story memorized just in case I run into some publisher in the elevator.
I’ve heard people say this, but if you could compress the story into one line, you wouldn’t have needed to write the novel. Also, that’s sort of other people’s job. I’d make a poor publicist, clearly. In terms of a writing style, I think we each do have a personal style, but I don’t know if we develop it so much as get out of its way.
Since you’re a novelist and a short story writer, in your opinion, what is special about the short story form?
It’s transporting and very unforgiving. A short story really has to take your breath away. As a reader, you live with a novel because you’re together much longer. The novel is more congenial if you tend to believe in incremental change, whereas a short story really requires revelation.
In terms of writing a short story?
Well, I’ve never certainly sat down and written out a first draft of a novel in one sitting, but you can do that with a short story, and that’s thrilling.
That reminds me of a quote from T.C. Boyle where he says, “The joy of the novel is that you know what you’re going to do tomorrow.”
Exactly. [Short story writing] is a much more high-wire act. A virtuosic performance.
What do you find to be the most difficult part of the overall writing process?
Really the most difficult part of writing is the most difficult part of life—that is to remain hopeful despite innumerable obstacles, including the seeming cruelty of fate, the randomness of luck, the disappointments of beloved people. To write a book, a great amount of faith is required to sustain one through days of completely hidden work, invisible to the world and even perhaps to one’s own friends. All that keeps it together is a fragile vision only occasionally glimpsed.
Because a lot of Westwind’s readers are college-aged, do you have any advice for aspiring writers that you think they haven’t heard before?
You know, you’re coming to me, as it happens, the day after Philip Roth died, so I’ve been thinking a lot about Philip Roth and his life as a beautiful example of work. If this is what you want to do, then put it at the center of your life and just do it every day, for years and years. However, you choose to get better, if you choose to go to graduate school or if you choose not to, none of those choices really matter nearly as much as just doing it every day. There’s no such thing as a writer who’s not an autodidact. You teach yourself what you need to know ultimately, you read the books you need to read to write the books you want to write. I hope you’ll also find a way to be happy. There are different kinds of writers; some people will find success in the world and some people have fewer readers, less success, but if what you mean to do is die with a shelf of books that you’ve given your life to, then you’ll want to find a way to live among people who will understand that impulse and mission.
That’s a beautiful answer.
Aww, thank you.
If I’m correct, you have been teaching short fiction at UCLA since 2001. Because I know you’ve taught elsewhere, how has that experience been for you? Is there anything specific about UCLA students that you’ve learned?
One thing I like about teaching writing is that fiction is not a competitive sport. The best story Jessica can write is not the same story as the best story Abraham or Jodi can write. I mean I went to UC Berkeley, so I was a UC student, I’m familiar with UC students, I love teaching UC students, and that’s not to say that there aren’t talented students at other places too, but I think what distinguishes UCLA students, to me, is that we’re a very diverse group. You’re going to meet people who have very different backgrounds. There’s always been—in my classes when I was a student and in my classes as I teach—there’s always somebody who’s living at home, helping out their parents with their produce store and then commuting into UCLA, and there’s always a rich girl who drives her own convertible, and everything in between. You have a great variety of life.
You mention often in class that you hope we form bonds with the other writers. What else do you hope students get from your workshops?
I would recommend staying in touch with the teachers you love. But if there’s one thing they could take away from my class, well, I’ll say three things. You have to find the books you love to read and read them every day, you need to write every day, and you will want to keep yourself in a state to write every day—you can’t let yourself become depressed, overly critical or self-destructive. You need to have some fun with it. Make some friends, start a magazine, organize a student reading series, fall in love with a poet, make this your world.