On 22 November, Abigail Rasminsky will be hosting a Write Now workshop, “Getting Started: How to Begin a Writing Project.” Tim Martinz-Lywood talked to Abby about writing in the online age, writing in New York vs. writing in Vienna, and how to get writing at all…
- Abby, much of the work you’ve published since arriving in Vienna has consisted of essays on issues that interest you. Has the new bottom-up, ‘rolling news’ culture of publishing that has developed through social media over the past decade enriched writing, or impoverished it?
Well, it has certainly created more forums for being published. You don’t even need an editor anymore! Get a blog (or a Facebook or Twitter account) and you can write whatever you want and publish it by simply clicking “Send.” In some ways this new culture of publishing—in which there are umpteen places to send your work—is wonderful. If you get rejected by one online magazine, for example, you can just send it to someone else, and usually you hear back quite quickly. Gone are the days of sending anything out by mail and waiting months for a reply. All of this is great. More people are being published, which means there are more voices out in the world. That said, something is lost when editors (and writers) aren’t paid to do their work. There’s a reason editors are employed (and writers, too!)—they are, for the most part, really, really good at what they do! They make your essay or story or novel better. So while I’d say that social media has certainly opened up many more channels for publication, the quality is not necessarily better.
- Do blogging and essay-writing help develop the writing craft in other forms, such as fiction or journalism?
Writing helps writing—in other words, the more you write, the better you get at it, no matter the form or venue. The major thing blogging can do is to get you to write regularly—and perhaps it can help you collect a few loyal readers along the way. Because there aren’t any rules to blogging (a blog entry can be mostly photos or links from around the internet), it isn’t always going to do a whole lot to improve your craft, but if the blog entries are little essays—then of course they can help! Anytime you have to think narratively, create a coherent arc, build tension, etc., you’re working your craft, and that can always translate into journalism or fiction.
- Much of your work has also focused on being forced to give up dancing professionally at 28, due to injury. How has writing about the experience of a life-changing health issue changed that experience, do you think?
When I was first injured—I herniated two discs in my lower back and had to quit my career as a professional modern dancer—writing was the only thing that provided any solace. I spent most of my days at home, lying on ice or in the bathtub (and ingesting way too many pain relievers), and writing was the only thing that helped me make sense of this scary, destabilizing experience. As the years went on and I started to write about the experience more seriously, I was able to turn something devastating and personal into something that was connected to a larger narrative of pain, illness and loss—I wasn’t the only one who’d been through a life-changing physical change! I wasn’t the only one who had dreams for her life and career and body that fell apart! This is the incredible thing about literature—our own experiences are both our own and part of an enormous web of stories that can tell us something new and enlightening about what it means to be here, trying to make sense of our lives.
- What have been your impressions of the Viennese writing scene since moving here from North America? Has the internet dumbed down the major cultural distinctions?
Sadly, these days, my writing scene is almost all online. I communicate with other writers and readers through Twitter and Facebook and over e-mail. I choose what I read based on what my friends and fellow writers back in New York are touting, and I celebrate their books online. Since coming to Vienna, I’ve mostly been steeped in new motherhood, so my intellectual and artistic lives haven’t taken root in cafés, readings or conferences (yet!), but online during the short moments when my daughter is at school or asleep. I am, I must admit, very grateful for the internet for this very reason. I can be 3,000 miles away from New York, but still feel like I have a sense of what’s going on. And perhaps when my baby is a little older, I’ll spend more time drinking coffee and writing in old Viennese cafés like the greats once did.
That said, I’ve found that I have SO MUCH TO WRITE ABOUT simply by living here—the gorgeous city, the experience of being an expat, the difficulty of learning a language and adapting to a foreign culture. And I’ve met a lot of writers whose work is very different from my own, which didn’t happen as much back home. I have a good friend here who’s a science writer, and another who’s working on a dissertation about the novella, so in some ways, being in a new circle of writers has expanded my view of what good and interesting writing can be.
- How will your workshop “Getting Started: How to Begin a Writing Project” help participants do just that? How did you come up with the theme for the workshop, and how it has worked elsewhere?
I think of getting started in two ways: first there’s the actual act of getting started—sitting down, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and producing something, no matter how bad. Many people get stuck before they even start because what they hear in their minds (characters talking, plot brewing) is so much better than what actually ends up on the page. Welcome to every writer’s life! If we can just get going—generate material, no matter how sloppy or outlandish—we will have something to work with. So we’ll do a bunch of generating exercises to get some of those ideas out of our heads and onto the page.
The other aspect of getting started is the question of how books actually begin, so to that end, we will look at stellar opening lines from literature. How do the greats do it? Why do we all know “Call me Ishmael”? How can an opening line hook us in and keep us reading? What can an opening line tell us about what’s to come?
People are mostly very happy to just sit down and generate, so the workshop is always a lot of fun. It’s the editing process that’s a whole other story…
Abigail Rasminsky has written for The New York Times; O: The Oprah Magazine; Brain, Child Magazine; The Morning News; Medium; The Forward; The Toast; and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia’s MFA Writing Program, where she taught creative writing to undergraduates. More at abigailrasminsky.com.
To find out more about joining Abby’s November workshop, Getting Started: How to Begin a Writing Project, just click here and scroll down.