Scott Driscoll is an instructor at the University of Washington Professional and Continuing Education programs where he has taught creative writing for 20 years. He has also taught fiction and creative nonfiction in the Writers in the Schools and Path With Art programs and online through the Seattle-based Writer’s Workshop, as well as at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House literary center. Scott was awarded the “UW Educational Outreach Excellence in Teaching Award” for 2006.
Driscoll has been awarded eight Society of Professional Journalists awards, most recently for social issues reporting. His narrative essay about his daughter’s coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998. While enrolled in the UW MFA program, he won the Milliman Award for Fiction.
Driscoll continues to write feature stories for Alaska and Horizon Airlines Magazines while starting work on his next novel, which will be set in Latvia at the time of the Song Festival.
“Writing for me is about applying form to the mysteries we suffer.”
Learn more at www.scott-driscoll.com
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Better You Go Home. When did you start writing and what got you into literary fiction?
What got me into literary fiction. In high school I rarely felt anything like a personal connection to the authors thrown in my path by well meaning teachers (not even, especially not even elitist, whiny Catcher In the Rye). Then one day I read, at a subversive teacher’s suggestion, Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park and The American Dream and it hit me like a punch to the gut. I had never realized that words could have such blunt force. This was a revelation. A few years later, college on hold while I traveled in Europe (I bought a bike in Amsterdam and rode to Munich for the Oktoberfest, got sidetracked by early snow in Augsburg just north of Munich, and couldn’t sleep outdoors anymore and so looked for a job), I planted myself for one hour each day during my lunch breaks from my American Express Bank job in the local American base library. There I read for the first time Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnamable. Reading Molloy, I had such a strong reaction (angered that words so detached from conventional story telling, springing so deeply from the inner psyche of a character, could get under my skin as much as they did) I threw the book down, earned a reproof from the librarian—I was her only customer—then picked it up and kept reading. It was through words in novels such as these that I discovered a world the existence of which I had only a vague suspicion, like some forbidden alternate world adults spent your education hiding from you. Being naturally curious, I had to explore that world. I can’t say I turned serious about writing, though, until my daughter was born. Providence had thrown an opportunity my way: confined indoors holding my child, or sitting near while she napped, I learned to have my typewriter ready and I went to it at every chance. Determined to write stories that could be read, I read literary journals, any that were mailed to me free of charge (surprising how many lit mags were happy to get rid of back stock) and I learned about story structure by deconstructing stories that had succeeded.
Did you have a mentor who encouraged you?
I actually did not have much in the way of mentoring, but I had books, a few key teachers along the way, and a strong desire to figure this thing out. I want to answer this question in order to deter others from seeking the path of going it on your own. Mentors can provide an invaluable service. I would urge anyone who wants to be serious about writing to start by reading books such as James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, and What If, the 3rd edition, and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and after you’ve read those, read Robert McKee’s Story. Learn what you can about characters and structure and point of view. When you think you’ve mastered point of view, read Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction and start thinking about narrative distance. Now you are ready to take a writing class. Take several. Start a critique group with peers who know what they are talking about. None of this is a guarantee of publishing success, but I can guarantee that your writing will improve and you will learn to write like a writer who pulls from a deep well and then pours words into containers that allow readers to slake their thirst. Even if publication is not your goal, this will allow you to dig down into the material that you need to express and that is a milestone of success and should keep you going until you hit your next milestone.
Did you have any struggles or difficulties when you started writing?
When I started this book I took a deliberate approach. I planned. I sketched the story spine and spent countless hours sketching my characters’ situations. I had once devoted four years to writing chapters for a novel without giving much thought to story structure. After throwing away four years’ worth of work, I vowed to never make that mistake again. I wrote one last short story, got it published in an anthology in company with some pretty big name authors, then turned to writing magazine articles and the occasional personal narrative essay. For a time, no more fiction.
When you first start, enthusiasm matters. Write as many words as you can as often as you can. Take notes when you travel. Think of yourself as a flaneur when you are away from home. Walk into the crowded sensory world that is at your disposal, look left and look right and observe and record. Later, come back to this material and strengthen nouns and verbs and get rid of unnecessary modifiers. Be suspicious of figurative language. It is your enemy. First learn to observe. But when you are ready to get serious, write into the form you have learned.
How do you keep your narrative exciting?
There are tricks. Keep your main character relentlessly in pursuit of a Goal. Every chapter, every scene in every chapter, should increase risk for your character and push your character incrementally closer to a point of no return. Second, find a way to keep tension on every page. There is a misconception that tension derives only from plot, from causing the reader to keep wondering what in the world will happen next. That is only one form of tension. Tension also should be situational. Boost the sense of urgency. Shorten the time line. Make trouble imminent. Do more to destabilize the ground situation. Make it as uncomfortable as possible for your character to stand pat. Tension also derives from contrast. Place cynical cruelty beside innocent virtue. Place age beside youth. One of the masterpieces of 20th century literature, Lolita, is full of this kind of tension. Humbert Humbert cynically seduces the nymphet, to borrow the narrator’s own expression. There is a long tradition of this in English literature, starting with Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. Joyce Carol Oates’s story, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” in Harper’s November 2013 places a young pretty blond seemingly naïve poet beside an aging corpulent smug even cynical Robert Frost. A contemporary, Frost could dismiss. This honesty and sincerity coming from such youthful loveliness creates a disturbance Frost cannot ignore. Tension also derives from the presence of oppositional characters. Place characters together whose values are so diametrically opposed that even when they attempt to cooperate it doesn’t end well. I found this particularly useful in Better You Go Home, Chapter Twelve, when my narrator is taken by his translator, Milada, to see the town historian. The historian is a former security apparatchik, and Milada’s father was unjustly imprisoned and tortured in the same prison where this guy worked. When the historian dismisses her father and his ilk as running dogs of the decadent bourgeoisie, you can imagine how Milada erupts. I had no idea this was going to happen when I set out to write this chapter. But when it happened, the story changed. The oppositional nature of my characters became a defining force.
During the process of writing, your chapters will go flat for you. When this happens, close the file. Open it again late at night. It will seem especially dull now. Go to sleep agitated. Wake up determined to quit writing. You are a failure. You are dull. You are not worth the cost of ink in your printer. Now you are in the right frame of mind. Open the flat spot. Rough it up. Add lots of sensory detail. Lots. Linger. Dwell. Slow down. Later, maybe the next day, open this file. Find the excitement in all this new detail. Throw away the boring crap that led up to it. Now write forward from this rough patch. Surprise yourself. It’s okay. You don’t need to quit after all. After all, the best writing happens in the rewrite, when you are convinced you are worthless.
Many writers experience a vague anxiety before they sit down to right. Can you relate to this?
A blank screen or blank sheet of paper reminds me of my first failed attempt to write a story. Blankness is intimidating, at least for me. So, I write sketches and early drafts on paper on a clipboard, but I only use scratch paper, that is, already used paper. That way I trick myself into believing that it doesn’t matter. It was throw-away anyway. Once you have a block of writing, the terror goes away. Now you have something tangible to work with. Same with the screen. Pull up text that you already have in a file. Have that on your screen when you start. Also, I reread and edit and tinker with material from the day before, then I surge forward. Maybe I push the story ahead by 800 words or so. Then I go back, look for missing details, improve a few sentences, strengthen a few verbs, just enough so that it doesn’t sound too awful, then I go forward again. This leap-frog process allows me to overcome my fear of the blank page and to have a trail of sentences behind me that isn’t too embarrassing to look at when I reopen the file the nest day.
How do you celebrate the completion of a book?
I told my wife that when I had a contract for my novel in hand I would shave my mustache. She and my son reminded me of that promise. But this happened after I had “finished” my manuscript. I had written furiously on heavy rewrites right up to the point when I hit send (Coffeetown Press wanted an electronic version of the manuscript). When I hit send, it was early September. I suddenly felt empty, despairing. If I didn’t have this book to devote myself to, what else mattered? Sure, there were magazine assignments to keep me busy and UW classes to start preparing for, but it’s not the same. For months and months I had glued myself to the chair in front of my PC and screen and obsessively dwelled in the world of my novel. Now what? I felt as if I’d been exiled. No, I did not feel like celebrating. I felt like hiding. When the phone call came (some time in the second week of October) saying Coffeetown Press wanted to offer me a contract to publish my novel, then I felt like celebrating. I waited until Thanksgiving then took a really good bottle of wine (and a cigar, but, shhh, don’t breathe a word of this to my son) to Orcas Island with my wife and son and my adult daughter who was visiting form LA where she is in grad school, and there at one of the most lovely spots on earth (if you like a damp, chilly atmosphere) we officially toasted my book, and there for the first time I allowed myself to think, hey, for five minutes I could admit to being happy (like survivors of Eastern bloc horrors, I am suspicious of “happy”).
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
The writer’s life is something that required a long apprenticeship. In my twenties I worked odd jobs and managed apartment buildings so that I could free up evenings to write. I had the writing fever, and I had books for mentors, but I also knew that I was woefully ignorant about form and structure. I vividly recall looking out the window toward Puget Sound (for two years I managed a building in Seattle’s Pike Place market that afforded a millionaire’s views, so I’d watch long tankers glide in toward the industrial docks and watch ferries lumber out to the islands and watch violent windstorms kick up waves and lash the waterfront) after a session of typing (when everyone else was asleep, and fortunately my immediate neighbors were hard of hearing), and I even realized that it was just that, a session of typing, and I wondered, how does one bridge the gap from sitting here to the fulfillment of desire if I have no notion of the path to the goal? But I kept at it. When I had my daughter then I got serious. I had a few stories published in literary magazines and I discovered my first writer’s critique group, and then, and only then, did I begin to feel like I had the rudiments of a writer’s life, but even that paled to going through the MFA program at the UW and winning an award, and seeing a few more stories published. By then I was divorced and the writer’s life was squeezed around lots of other stress. I started writing for magazines because I needed to make some money and I started teaching occasionally and I was into that routine before it occurred to me, hey, wait a minute, is this what you imagined when you were staring out at the windy Puget Sound? (It wasn’t. I had imagined acclaim, speaking engagements, travel, shaking hands with fawning admirers.) Now that my novel is out, I have had a couple young writers independently (they don’t know each other) say to me: hey, what you have, X number of years from now, that’s what I want. This took me aback. I hadn’t realized that I could say I have a writer’s life. What I didn’t tell them was that even now I could not continue this writer’s life without the very generous support of my wife. (Or my family would be living much like I did when I was in my 20s, minus the Millionaire’s view).
Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about your work?
Where is your book available?
Bookstores/Libraries: Baker & Taylor, Ingram, Partners West, Midwest Library Service, Follett Library Resources; eBooks: Overdrive, Kobo and other major retailers; for more information or to order direct, contact email@example.com
What advice would you give to aspiring writers whose spouses or partners don’t support their dreams of becoming an author?
This support has been absolutely critical to me so I’d say negotiate. Often the one who is writing is not the one earning the most money for the household, and that often also means they have more childcare duties and less respect for their time. In order to make time for the writing, I feel it is critical to schedule blocks of time, as if it were a job, and to make sure that the spouse understands that this time is inviolable, no different than time at the office. Whether you produce quantities of pages or not is irrelevant. Sitting at your desk, or wherever you go with your laptop, musing, tinkering, sketching, observing, daydreaming, this is all part of the process. But take time to learn form. Once you learn to write into form, you will have something eventually to show for your time. Also, remind your spouse that devoting this time to writing creates a flow of empathy that benefits all.
George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
I would amend what Orwell said. It should read: “Thinking about writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” The writing is life itself. Anyone who’s written books will tell you they feel more intensely alive when writing than when not. Living in the world of the imagination can be powerfully addictive. Yes, it’s horrible when it doesn’t go well, and yes rejection is painful, but ah, the writing, the passion it arouses, the feelings it conjures, the insights it reveals. Aside from the love of loved ones, what could be better?