Welcome to One on One: Insights into the Writer’s Life! Today’s interview is with Mary Beth Caschetta, owner of Caschetta Consulting and author of Lucy on the West Coast: And Other Lesbian Short Fiction, who has also won several literary awards for her short fiction and her literary essays.
Tell me a little about yourself. What type of writing do you do?
MBC: I started out writing short stories, got writers block and pursued a degree in medical sociology, became a medical writer, started to write fiction again, published a small collection of stories that got great reviews but limited distribution, worked on a
novel for 15 years while publishing more stories and some essays in anthologies, journals and magazines. Then I got disinherited and decided to write a book about that. I was lucky to get an excerpt of the book in the New York Times Modern Love column. Now, I have a book proposal out to several editors, and am hoping to sell it soon.
Do you find it difficult to switch between your “work writing” (the medical and scientific writing) and fiction? If so, what techniques do you use to shift your creativity from one to the other?
MBC: I have very intense deadlines for my medical communication clients….all the time. So I’ve learned to adapt to this by being able to switch pretty easily from one writing project to the next. If I clear away the patient brochure, peer-review-article, physician website, first, and have some time in the day, I will work on the essay I’m writing, or the section in the novel I need to revise. After managing this kind of balancing act for 12 years, it’s become an easy habit.
I think of both kinds of writings as the same act, but the creative work goes much deeper, and I have to be in a different kind of state. But I’ve learned to shift from one state to the other pretty easily. I guess I don’t have the time to be very precious about it. For me, I know I have limited time, and I have to get the writing done. The motivation is different of course, for work it’s externally driven (who wants what when…usually yesterday), and for creativity it’s internally driven (what am I compelled to say today).
How long have you been writing? When did you start?
MBC: I wrote my first novel longhand in a bunch of notebooks when I was a kid; it was about a creepy doctor who kept his daughter’s dead infant twin sister in a jar of formaldehyde in the basement. It was from the point of view of the surviving twin. I wish I still had it.
In high school, I took a brief foray into poetry, and won a couple of awards, but poetry wasn’t really my thing. When I went to college, I wanted to be a writer, and when that romance wore off, I just plain knew I had to write — whatever the cost. The school I went to had an intense creative writing program. When I graduated, I got a job in New York City publishing, but first went to a writer’s colony for a month.
When did you first know that you were a writer?
How do you define success as a writer?
MBC: This has been a difficulty for me. Of course you want your work out there for people to read. I’ve had long stretches of nothing but rejections, and I worked on a novel that came so close to being published so many times that it’s not even funny, but in the end, no cigar. So, I sometimes feel that I’m not very successful at all.
On the other hand, I have published a book I am proud of, and several stories and essays in wonderful anthologies, and I make my living as a writer all day, every day. I get to be paid for writing and making people very happy with the work I deliver, but I have also managed to arrange a life in which my creative work is a big part of my life.
I get to spend a good part of every week writing what I want to write. I think that’s a pretty damn successful! In other words, I shouldn’t waste so much time looking at what I haven’t achieved because that’s just egotistical and defeating.
Where do you do most of your writing?
MBC: I have an office in Northampton, MA, where I live part of the year in a space called the Writers Mill. There are about 15 of us who share the space in a variety of offices. Some have private, full-time desks; some share an open space and take whatever seat is available when they arrive. I have a private desk. The notecards on the wall are a diagram of my novel.
What stimulates your creativity? Conversely, what creates a major writer’s block for you?
MBC: I wish I knew the answer to these questions! Sometimes I listen to music when I write; that can help me get into the right “head space” for writing.
Who are three of your favorite authors and why?
MBC: Vladimir Nabokov, Lorrie Moore, and Kurt Vonnegut. I think they are all kind of wry smart asses, but in the best possible way.
What is your most recent book or published piece? What inspired this?
MBC: Miracle of miracles (truly), I published an essay about disinheritance in the Sunday New York Times, Modern Love Column. It was inspired by being disinherited. When something I don’t understand happens, I usually end up writing about it.
How long did it take you to write your short story collection, Lucy on the West Coast? Was it easier or harder than you expected?
MBC: I wrote a piece of the story called “Nuclear Family” in this collection when I was a sophomore in college and published the entire collection when I was 29 years old. It was harder than I thought it would be, but it was exhilarating once I finally got it going.
Did you have an agent at the time? If so, how long did it take you to find one?
MBC: I did not have an agent when I sold Lucy on the West Coast, which was originally titled Nuclear Family and Other Fictions, but I knew someone who was an editor. She read some of the stories and helped me put the pieces together. I got an agent (at the time Charlotte Sheedy) after the book was already sold.
What is the next project you have in the works?
MBC: I’m working on a book about disinheritance that is a hybrid memoir and information nonfiction book.
What do you find the hardest part about the “writing business”?
MBC: I have found that breaking into the business of getting published is terribly difficult. It’s like standing outside the brick building and beating on the door until your knuckles are bloody. I also banged my head on those bricks for awhile too. Then I took a step back to figure out how important it was to “get in.” Not important enough to get all bloody.
Once I stepped back, I saw that there were other ways in. Like, you could walk around to the back door. Or, you could wait until some of the people came out of the building, etc. I can be stubborn and persistent in my ways, which can be both good and bad.
What’s the worst advice anyone gave you about being a writer? What’s the best?
MBC: Worst piece of advice was: “Write every single day.” Best piece of advice was: “Write every single day.” It’s a terrible thing to have to imagine when you aren’t in the right place, but it’s an amazing thing to do.
Thanks, Mary Beth, for sharing your thoughts and experiences at One on One: Insights Into the Writer’s Life!