Celeste Ng is the author of the novel Everything I Never Told You (June 2014, Penguin Press). She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. Celeste attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.
Currently she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and son, where she teaches fiction writing at Grub Street and is at work on a second novel and a collection of short stories.
Everything I Never Told You is not like stories that I usually read. It’s a story about families–and what really matters. Celeste shared some writing advice with us–I hope you’ll learn a thing or two from her.
How often do you experience writer’s block and what do you do to get out of it?
I think all writers have periods where they have trouble getting the words out–for me, that can happen at any time, especially in between working on projects! But instead of thinking of it as a block, I try to view it as a sign that I need to think more about what I’m writing about. Two things that almost always help: (1) going for a walk, which has a magic power I can’t explain–there’s something about spending time outside, letting my mind wander, that usually gets the gears turning again, and (2) reading something new, especially stories or novels in a different genre than I’m writing. Somehow, feeding a new piece of information, and different words, into my brain helps jump-start the writing again.
Are you a perfectionist when it comes to your work?
Yes–aren’t most writers? There’s a great quote attributed to Oscar Wilde: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” It’s so easy to obsess like that about your work–and every bit of punctuation and every word you choose certainly makes a difference. At a certain point, though, you have accept that while what you have on paper may not be exactly what you had in your mind, it’s close enough. You have to let the work go eventually, if only so that you can start working on something new.
Do you like making outlines when you write, or do you prefer to start from scratch and work your way from there?
Strange as it sounds, I like to outline after I write. If I outline first, the story feels too plotted out and too constricted–there’s no room for discovery or for the story to surprise me. I often outline after I’ve finished a draft, though–I just make a list of all the scenes or moments in the story on paper. That lets me see the shape of the whole story, and it lets me check if I’m showing things twice–maybe the mom and dad have the same conversation multiple times, for example–or if the order of scenes makes sense. It’s a good tool for helping you see what to do when you revise in the next draft.
If you could do both at the same speed, which would you prefer: Writing on paper or typing your words? Why?
I love typing because the words look different in print than they do when handwritten. Seeing them in type, rather than in writing, gives me a little psychological distance from them: because they’re not in my handwriting, they feel less like part of me, and I have an easier time editing them. (Plus, it’s actually easier to edit on the computer–you click a button and it’s done! No scratching-out necessary.) But I do also love putting words on paper–the feeling of the pen scratching against the notebook is very tactile, and sometimes makes me feel more emotionally connected to what I’m writing. So to answer your question, I’d keep both paper and a keyboard nearby, and choose each morning depending on how I was feeling that day.
What is the best writing advice that you could share with us?
Read as much as you can–not just books you think you’ll like, but in genres or styles that you ordinarily wouldn’t try. Think of it as trying a new food–you don’t have to finish it, but you do have to take a bite. And write as much as you can, and try writing in different genres and styles and forms. Again, you don’t have to finish every piece you start, but it’s good to try. Exploring lots of different kinds of writing–in both what you read and what you write–can open you up to new ideas and new styles, and keep you fresh and keep your ideas interesting.
With Celeste’s answers, we can have a glimpse of how writers work. Every word ever written came from the hard work of writers. Every book deserves a chance to be read.
Think of it as trying a new food–you don’t have to finish it, but you do have to take a bite.
I love it that the best writing advice that Celeste shared with us was about reading books and how similar it is to trying new food. You don’t have to finish it, but you do have to take a bite.
I had that experience while reading Celeste’s book. At first it seemed too long, but I chose to continue and I’m glad that I did–her book taught me a lot.
How about you? Do you have a similar experience? The comment box is always there to hear your thoughts!