A Conversation on the Craft of Writing: Susan Minot and Cynthia Zarin

by Marialaura Grandolfo

Writer in Residence Susan Minot

Writer in Residence Susan Minot

On June 20, 2016, the Institute for Creative Writing and Literary Translation hosted a conversation on the craft of writing, featuring John Cabot’s 2016 Writer in Residence Susan Minot and poet and journalist Cynthia Zarin.

Minot is an award winning novelist, poet, screenwriter, and short story writer. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she graduated from Concord Academy, studied writing and painting at Brown University, and graduated with an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University. Her first work, Monkeys, was widely published and awarded the Prix Femina Étranger in France. She also wrote Lust and Other Stories, Evening, and Poems 4 A.M. She is the author of the screenplay for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1996 film Stealing Beauty, and co-wrote the screenplay for Michael Cunningham’s film Evening, based on her eponymous novel.

Poet Cynthia Zarin

Poet Cynthia Zarin

Zarin is the author of five books of poetry, five books for children, and a collection of essays. Her awards and honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Peter B. Lavan Award, an Ingram Merrill Award, and The Los Angeles Times Book Award. She writes for the New Yorker and teaches at Yale University, where she is the director of the Senior Concentration in Creative Writing. She is currently an Artist-in-Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Resident Writer for the New York-based dance company, BalletCollective.

Inspiration. The authors opened the event by sharing their views on inspiration. Does writing stem from a kind of “compulsion?” If so, is this compulsion the same for all forms of literature, or does it change, for example, from prose to poetry? Finally, to what extent can writing be planned?

Zarin noted that poetry answers one’s need to stop time, or to hold on to a particular moment. Minot argued that her fiction starts from her “going after an image.” Both writers agreed that, unlike others, they tend not to have a clear idea of how a piece of fiction or poem is going to develop before writing it. Rather, they write precisely “to know what they think,” and regard the first stages of writing as an exploration, rather than as the mere act of putting thoughts into words. Zarin stated she does not really believe in inspiration or in the lack thereof; because she considers writing as work, she only believes in distraction, which can be avoided. Both agreed that a writer, rather than passively waiting for ideas to come, should be constantly observant – striving, in the words of Henry James, “to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

The Importance of Form. Minot, who is the author of the collection of poems Poems 4 A.M., is a writer of both prose fiction and poetry. Thus, Zarin asked Minot what brings her to choose one form over the other. Minot replied that a poem is usually shorter and therefore requires a shorter attention span on the reader’s part. She added that she tends to choose poetry when she is guided by a more emotional input. “Thinking stops the poem,” she added.

Love Theme. The writers then discussed the theme of love. This subject frequently comes up in Minot’s fiction, mainly because, she explained, love perplexes her, and writing about it allows her to extract some truth from its complexity. Zarin pointed out that most poetry is indeed about love. The poet, she stated, is constantly looking for connection, attempting to make “relationships” work – may they be with the page or with another person.

Labels. When a member of the audience asked Minot and Zarin whether they define themselves as writers or, more generally, as artists, the authors agreed that labels are of secondary importance. Minot, however, prefers to call herself an artist, a term she perceives as less limiting. She explained she never really thought of herself as a writer growing up, partly fearing she would have “ruined” her favorite activity by turning it into a career. Zarin, who instead thinks of herself as a writer, also pointed out that the label “poet” tends to be disregarded, mainly because poets – unlike the luckiest writers of prose – rarely manage to make a living out of their art.

Feedback. Both authors agreed that receiving responses from readers is always astonishing, and makes them realize the extent to which writing means sharing intimate feelings with others. Negative criticism, they argued, is rarely surprising, because they tend to be critical of their work themselves. A complete lack of feedback, they agreed, would be the worst scenario.