A Q&A with Gotham Fiction Writing teacher N. West Moss.
When did you start writing?
My mother gave me a filing cabinet for my 7th birthday. That should tell you what a bookworm and writer I’ve been since the beginning. My dad said that he read to me even before I was born. I don’t know about that, but he read to me every night when I was a kid, and at some point, I had to start begging him to keep going. My older siblings were over it, but not me. Dad and I kept reading together every night for years. By the time I was 9, he and I read David Copperfield out loud to one another, with a giant dictionary open on the bed. My father had a great voice and could do accents, and it was an utter delight. I was always being given diaries and blank books, which I filled up. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Gloger, let me sit in the back of the classroom and work on a play instead of doing long division.
All of that being said, I never tried to publish my work until after I turned 40 or so. So I wrote just for my own pleasure for most of my life, and then I decided to get my MFA and to begin to write for the outside world.
Did anyone encourage you?
Yes, my entire family holds art in high esteem, so my parents read everything I ever wrote. My father is dead now, but my mother carries on the tradition, reading early drafts of just about everything I write. She continues to encourage me, even when there’s a character that resembles her. Her father was a writer, so she understands that fiction writers often pull bits and pieces from their own lives for their fiction. Also, I got started writing for publication late in life. My dad wrote his first book at 65, and it won a Caldecott Honor and a lot of other great stuff. So he inspired me to live a great and adventurous life no matter how old you are.
How did you become a 'real' writer?
I love being in school. I got my BA at Sarah Lawrence, then went on years later to get an MA and then an MFA, and now I am in school at Columbia in their Narrative Medicine program. I plan to be in school forever.
I teach at the university level. I love it, by the way. Getting to sit in a room with 18-20 year olds and discuss great books is an absolute blast. These students are filled with incredible insights and it’s almost as though no one has ever asked them what they think before. It just comes pouring out with such passion. If I won the lottery, I’d still teach. That’s how much I love it.
When my husband and I realized we weren’t able to have kids, it was pretty bleak and I was mourning hard for a long time. One day my husband took my hand and said, “What if we feel incredibly shitty AND try to be happy at the same time?” (He probably didn’t actually swear). A few days later I said to him that I wanted to see if I could be a “real” writer, meaning, I guess, a published writer. A few days after that I was invited into an MFA program as a student where I was teaching undergrad at the time, so it was essentially free. I graduated with my MFA when I was 49. At 53 my first book came out. Now, at 54, I have an agent and everything. So that was my trajectory.
Your story collection, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, was published last year. How long did it take to complete? Did you plan to write a collection of somewhat linked stories or did that happen naturally?
I wrote most of that short story collection while I was getting my MFA. No I did not plan to write a linked collection at first, but Bryant Park kept showing up in the background of my stories. My father was dying at that time, and he had a little place right across from Bryant Park so we spent a lot of time there just sitting and listening to music and drinking our coffee. So it kept showing up in my stories. My dad died in August of 2013, which was the same month I completed my MFA. When I started to assemble my stories in a group to see if I had a collection, I realized that Bryant Park showed up in at least 5 of the stories. Then I decided to see if I could make a collection. I made a concerted effort not to make it too linked, too gimmick-y so I just let the characters show up where it felt natural, and I didn’t try to force it.
Is writing easy or hard for you?
I read this question and then I went out for my morning walk and I thought of 100 different answers to this question. I’ll give you a few.
This is the wrong question to ask. Getting up in the morning, flossing our teeth, being in relationships. It’s all hard, right? So it isn’t whether or not writing is hard or easy, because everything is hard. The question is, how important is writing to me? How much pleasure does it give me? The answer is, it’s the thing I most want to do. I clean the house so that I can write. I work so that I can pay the mortgage so that I can have a roof over my head so that I can write. I floss my teeth so that I don’t have to spend loads of time at the dentist. It’s all about the writing for me. I imagine if you asked a marathon runner if running was hard, she’d say YES, but I do it anyway because I’m compelled to. That’s how I feel about writing.
The hardest thing about writing is getting a story, a character, a sentence, or a word to have the desired effect on the reader. I delight in the hard work of getting it right. It’s still hard, but hard isn’t synonymous with bad. I’ve done over 50 or 60 drafts of some stories or essays because I have the feeling that, with enough work, I can make a piece of writing sing. That’s what I’m shooting for – writing that sings. I don’t care how much work it is.
I find it hard to clear the decks for my writing. I love to have days with no commitments other than writing, but that’s hard to engineer. I have friends and family I want to spend time with. I want to get exercise and I have to cook meals, and those dishes don’t wash themselves, sadly. Ideally I would have uninterrupted swaths of time to write, and with summer here, I guard my time pretty ferociously. I try to plan all chores for one day, and all socializing for one afternoon. I say “no” to speaking engagements as much as I can. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is a distraction from the writing. The writing part, though, is the reward for all of that hard work. It’s all I ever want to do. It is where I am headed with every weed that I pull, with every dish that I wash. Every washed dish is one less thing in the way of me getting to write.
If you are reading this because writing is hard for you, I think you have two options. Either (option a) give up writing, or Option B, get better at your craft. The only time writing was ever too hard for me to do was when I didn’t know how to pull off what I wanted to pull off. I went back for my MFA and now that I have spent a ton of time working on the craft of writing, I feel differently about it. If you can do Option A and give up writing, do it. Move on to other things that torture you less. Life shouldn’t be a struggle like that. And if you find that you can’t break up with writing, then you’re a writer, but do what you can not to make writing a miserable experience. It should not feel like jail. It should not feel like you are losing. It should not feel like punishment. Make your goals small and achievable so you can win at it a lot, and dedicate yourself to your craft. Stop thinking about other people and publication. Just write. I heard a proverb once that I think of often. It goes something like this. “A bird does not sing because it has a reason – it sings because it has a song.” I do not write to prove anything about myself. I don’t write for money or fame or to show that I’m smart or erudite. I do not write because I have a reason. I write because I have a story.
Writing is hard.
It’s also easy, or at least inescapable if you’re a writer. It’s just what I do.
You write both Fiction and Nonfiction. How do you decide what you want to work on? Do you prefer one over the other?
I love them both. Now that my semester of full-time teaching is over, I have 4 projects I’m working on, 3 of which are fiction, and one of which is an essay collection centered around medical stuff. I’ve also completed a medical memoir that an agent has and is trying to sell (fingers and toes crossed, please). I see a blurry line between fiction and nonfiction in that both can be wildly expressive, and both pull from the tenets of good fiction writing. They both need character and arc and strong language, for example. And fiction pulls a lot from real life, just as nonfiction draws from the imagination. There are a lot of different reasons to choose one form over another, but I go with my gut these days. If something feels like an essay, meaning I want to convey loads of facts (as I do in a lengthy essay I’m writing right now on yellow fever in New Orleans in the 1800s, of all things), then I follow where it leads me. If a character has been rattling around in my head and I want to see what his day looks like, well, that is clearly fiction writing and become a short story or maybe a novel. I have a LOT rambling around in my brain right now and I am happily indulging my own writing now that I have time.
Why do you teach?
The two passions of my life are writing and teaching. I love having the excuse to sit with students of all kinds and talk about great writing with them, whether it’s their own writing or published work. I also like the way we teachers have a chance to create a little mini culture in our classroom where the values I like get to prevail. So my classes tend to be a place where we laugh a lot, and also where we value a solid work ethic. I usually end up loving a lot of my students, even if we never meet again, and when I’m teaching writing, I always ALWAYS see my writing in a new way because of my students.
What advice do you always give your students?
I tell them that they have to accept who they are, that the way they see the world and what they obsess about and love and hate, all of that is what makes up their unique point of view and their voice as a writer. I call it radical self-acceptance. Writing requires that you make a thousand choices every time you sit down to write, and if you can’t tell what you value, then it makes writing very hard. So be your own weird self and put that on paper. I also tell them to judge themselves not on whether they publish or win awards, but by their dedication to their writing. Publication and awards are nice and everything, but for me, the deep-down-in-my-bones pleasure comes from the writing itself.