You may not know this, but most Writers’ Program instructors once struggled in day jobs just like you. Take Daniel M. Jaffe, who broke from a successful law career to become a bonafide fiction writer and instructor.
We sat down with Dan (via cyberspace) to chat about his escape from the 9-to-5, his approach to writing now, and how he feels about the end of his column for the literary site BiblioBuffet (http://www.bibliobuffet.com).
Writers’ Program: For the past two and a half years you’ve interviewed writers for your column “Talking Across the Table” for BiblioBuffet. Now it’s our turn to talk across the table with you. Let’s start backwards. In your final BiblioBuffet column, running this month, you close with this: “So . . . why create literature? In order to discover ourselves through our work, perhaps even so as to create ourselves, to take ownership of the world around us in an attempt to understand, and to encourage readers to join us in refashioning the world, and healing.”
Well said! Are these driving forces in your conscious mind as you approach your own writing projects? How do you impart that sentiment to your students?
Daniel M. Jaffe: Yes, these forces are what motivate me. But I don’t mean to suggest that I meditate on them every day, not each time I sit at the computer. Periodically, when work gets rejected for publication and I feel discouraged, or when I try to decide among competing writing projects, I remind myself why I write in the first place. I keep returning to the sentiment in those lines you quoted.
With students, the question of “why write?” comes up a lot; I explain my reasons and ask the students theirs—motivations vary from writer to writer. But this question also takes another form in workshops: “Is my writing of any interest to anyone? Should I even bother?” The best way I know to address this is to treat all student work with respect. If something’s important for a student to write, then it’s a worthwhile, meaningful artistic expression. And if something’s meaningful to the writer, chances are it will also be meaningful to certain readers.
WP: You became a teacher/writer after a successful law career. How did you make that transition?
DJ: Lawyering and I weren’t the best personality fit. I’m not comfortable with conflict, so it was emotionally draining to be an effective lawyer. I tried various positions, even working my way to being General Counsel and Senior Vice President of Massachusetts Financial Services Company in Boston. My boss was great, my colleagues were great, the company was highly ethical and satisfied with my work; but still, I was unhappy going to work every day.
What I really wanted to do was write and teach. So, I made a bargain with myself: if I could complete a draft of a novel while lawyering, and if, after completing it, I still wanted to write other novels and stories, then I’d quit lawyering. It took me two years of nights and weekends, but I did complete a draft novel (one that’s now in a stack of unpublished novels beneath my bed), and did still want to continue writing. So, I gave six weeks’ notice and left.
WP: By now, you’ve published a novel as well as short stories and personal essays. Do you prefer one form over another? A question I asked instructor/novelist Caroline Leavitt: are fiction writers naturally inclined to be either novelists or story writers?
DJ: I absolutely unquestionably have a definite preference: whichever form I happen to be working in at the moment! I’m not kidding—every time I work in one form, I think to myself, “This is the perfect vehicle for me. I must put all my future time into it.” Then I finish the project and at some point I inevitably get an idea better suited to a different form, which I then fall in love with as being absolutely unquestionably the most perfect form for me…I’m quite fickle!
WP: What’s your writing discipline like? Do you write every day? Does the writing process get easier as you begin each new project?
DJ: I try to write a few hours every weekday. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. I used to get angry at myself if I missed a day; but now, after 20 years at this writing thing, I’m a little more relaxed. The business aspects of writing (working with publishers, marketing, etc.), teaching responsibilities, family emergencies, fire and flood evacuations (!), and so forth sometimes must take precedence. Or I might be working on a literary translation project that takes all my time for a few weeks or even longer. So, do I write every single day? No. Do I try to? Yes.
On the one hand, writing has become easier over time because I’ve experimented with so many different styles and techniques that I now have a large toolbox to sort through when trying to repair problem areas that crop up in my work. On the other hand, I’m a much harsher critic of my own work than I was in the past, and that makes it more difficult for me to be satisfied that I’ve indeed written a piece well.
WP: What do you draw on most for your ideas? Do you use music or other external stimuli to help the writing process?
DJ: Ah, you’re asking a question that I’m going to spend four days addressing with students during next February’s Writers Studio! I definitely don’t write with music. I need either silence or the white noise of a busy public place. I draw most on my own experiences, what I’ve felt or observed, and that includes attempts to understand people around me, imagining myself in their shoes. I sometimes turn to philosophy or theology as a source of themes.
WP: You also compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction. How did the project grow over time and what did you learn during that process?
DJ: That project was one of those rare, touched-by-an-angel experiences. I’d heard that Invisible Cities Press was compiling a collection of fabulist (mystical, spiritual, magical) stories, so I submitted one that I’d written. Six months later, an editor at the press, Joel Bernstein, emailed to say that they enjoyed my story so much, they’d like me to compile and edit a Jewish-themed anthology! The project just dropped into my lap.
What I learned was how varied writing can be stylistically, and yet how similar human concerns are, whether we’re writing in Spanish or Finnish or Russian, whether we grew up in Paris, Memphis, Tashkent, Jerusalem, or Buenos Aires. The project reinforced my belief that writing gains its universality through specific detail: for example—how easy for me, an American man, to identify with the romantic angst of a Moroccan teenage girl, when such a character is created in vivid, intimate detail by an author as skillful as Ruth Knafo Setton.
Daniel M. Jaffe will teach Inspiring Our Muse: Nurturing the Writer Within at the Writers Studio, February 5-8, 2009.
Corey Campbell is the Program Representative in Creative Writing (Online) and Events.