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VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Author Sophfronia Scott
[Heads up! This transcript has been edited for clarity and ease of reading. For a verbatim transcript, click the CC icon to turn on captions.]
Welcome to this week's video broadcast!
This week, I have the incredible honor of sharing my interview with novelist and essayist, Sophfronia Scott.
Sophfronia Scott began her writing career as a journalist for Time and People magazines. When her first novel, All I Need to Get By, was published by St. Martin's Press in 2004 she was nominated for best new author at the African American Literary Awards and hailed by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as “potentially one of the best writers of her generation.”
Her latest novel is Unforgivable Love, a vivid reimagining of the French classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses (or for movie buffs, dangerous liaisons). She’s also the author of an essay collection, Love’s Long Line, from Ohio State University Press’s Mad Creek Books and a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, co-written with her son Tain, from Paraclete Press. (Grab Sophfronia’s beautiful books here.)
Her essays, short stories, and articles have appeared in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her essay “Why I Didn’t Go to the Firehouse” is listed among the Notables in Best American Essays 2017. Currently she is working on her next novel as well as a nonfiction book about her virtual mentorship with the monk Thomas Merton.
Sophfronia and I met back when I was the blog editor for Ruminate Magazine, and I had the great privilege of working with her on some incredible essays.
Sophfronia is a paragon of consistency and devotion to her craft as a writer. It was so cool to talk to her about the importance of taking our work seriously, because, as you'll see in this interview, there's a lot at stake when you're called to creative work.
In this interview, we talk about:
what to do when essay or story ideas come to you in the shower
how to breathe new life into a classic tale
steps you can take to honor your writing life
the importance of non-writing writing and what she calls "creativity play dates"
how being a "project-oriented" writer can ease overwhelm so you can show up and do the work
And so much more! Plus, Sophfronia offers a kick-in-the-butt pep talk for writers at the very end, so you'll want to watch or read all the way through.
It was truly an honor to talk to Sophfronia and I'm thrilled to share this interview with you. Let's dive in! Here's my conversation with Sophfronia Scott.
Hello Sophfronia! I am so happy to have you here today virtually. It's such a pleasure to reconnect with you again and hear all of the wonderful things you have to say about writing practice and your amazing work. For the folks tuning in, we were just talking about writing practice, habits, and the myth of the suffering writer. I'm just going to pitch it over to Sophfronia:
I'm just going to tell you this week I've been away teaching at Drew Theological Seminary, so it's an intensive. It's been 10:00 to 4:00 every day and I haven't had time to write. Today, I'm back at home and it was interesting. It's one thing to say, "Oh, you get ideas in the shower," but I could feel this essay that I've been working on coming up out of me while I was in the shower. I could hear that I was organizing paragraphs, that there were thoughts and I thought, "I have to get out of the shower and write this down!"
To me it's like, okay, even if you're not writing, that writing's going to come, and you have to pay attention to it. I was thinking, "I'm not going to remember this if I don't get out." And I found paper, I happen to have a journal by my bed, and I started writing down this essay.
The other thing that happened this morning is that I realized––this weird thing came over me––that I have to take this essay of mine that was recently published, and I thought: "I need to take this to the post office right now and submit it for the Best American Essays."
Now, that due date for that is not until February, so I really didn't have to send that today. But, I think something within me was saying, "Okay, you haven't been writing. Do some things today to honor your writing." I ended up doing some writing, and I ended up sending this piece off.
I think that's the way it works. Even if you're not writing, there are things that you have to do. It comes up naturally for me because I know when I haven't been writing and something just starts knocking on me, and I do it.
Absolutely. I love all of that because I 100% agree. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about that concept in Big Magic, if you've read that, and in her TED Talk. She says ideas are like little invisible spirits flying around, and then they'll come. They want to find the open channel. They want to find the right, exact perfect person who's going to bring them to life and bring them into the world. They seem to love knocking on our door when we're in the shower and we're like, "Hold on, let me dry off!"
Whoever's listening to this, how many times have you felt that and ignored it?
So many times, so many times. And then the next two or three days you're like, "Oh, that was a brilliant idea, let me go write it down," and you're like, "It's gone," because it's gone off to it's next channel. It's gone off to somebody like, "This person has the time and is ready, so I'm going to go visit them."
You've got to capture those right in the moment. There's that lovely balance of showing up consistently, be there for them to visit you, but also be open and ready for them to visit you at times when you're not at your desk or you're not ready. That's awesome.
Can you talk a little bit more about that concept of “non-writing writing?” I know you wrote a lovely essay for the Ruminate blog on that topic, but do you want to talk about that concept a little bit?
Absolutely, Renee. I feel that writers get frustrated because they're sitting at their desk and nothing's coming and nothing's coming. They think that they only think about the writing when they're sitting there. Really, what makes the writing easier is all of the thinking that you do when you're not writing.
For me that's working in my yard or taking a shower or driving in the car. Those moments when your brain is just relaxed and receptive to working on ideas. Thinking about a speech that you have to write, working through some of my Ruminate blog essays.
If you're thinking about it in other aspects of your life, you'll find it so much easier that you will have something to say when you do sit down in front of the computer or at your notebook. I just find that writing has to truly be a part of you, that it's going on at all times. It really feels like a forcing thing, that if you only think you can write at X time because if that hour goes by and you haven't written then you'll only frustrate yourself even more because you think, "Oh, time’s up and I didn't write anything."
Absolutely. I 100% agree.
We were talking earlier about this suffering artist myth and how we really don't have to be unhealthy to create good art.
What would you say is the number one non-writing habit that supports your creative practice?
I call them creativity play dates.
Oh, I love that.
Yes. When we're writing, things are coming out of us. Things are coming out of us, ideas, thoughts, stories. In order for those things to come out, you have to put something in.
What are you consuming? Not just reading, although reading is hugely important, but I like going to museums. I like watching films, especially a film that I'm working through, that’s inspiring me somehow, and I don't know what that inspiration is. So I’ll watch that film and over and over again as I'm picking through it.
My brain is seeking to make connections, and it's enlivened somehow by all of these other things. Whenever I find something that is just thrilling somehow and different, going to a concert or listening to a different kind of music or watching a dance recital, I’ll dive into it.
It seems like when we take that time to be kind to ourselves and tap on those pleasure centers of the brain, all of that juicy goodness that we need in creative work comes to the surface.
I love that you make that a part of your practice.
Let's dive in to your novel Unforgivable Love. It was one of my favorite novels to read last year. I sat by the pool and just devoured it in one weekend. It was so good. It's a lovely retelling of, Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Dangerous Liaisons, right?
Can you talk a little bit about the art of retelling a classic tale and what kind of resistance might come up? One of the biggest things I hear from students is, "I'm afraid it's all been done before, it's all been said before!" It's interesting to approach a classic tale and retell it in an amazing new setting. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
The thing that's limiting is if you think about it solely as a retelling. Dangerous Liaisons is one of those films––the Glenn Close, John Malkovich version––that has been in my head for years since it first came out. I've read the original French novel and I've seen every version. Something about it has been working within me all this time. I'm not quite sure what it was. It wasn't until my friend Jenny said to me, "There needs to be a version of that story with black people," and I was like, "Oh my gosh!"
It wasn't just that idea, but the more that I started diving into the story and my feelings about the story, it occurred to me that there were things that I had to say about that story. I also saw it as a channel for things that I felt about sexuality, about the way men and women treat each other, about parents and the way they teach their children about sexuality. Suddenly, I realized that I had a ton to say and that this was a vessel that was going to help me do it. I didn't think of it as a retelling in that respect. It's like, "Okay, here's how I see this story." It just came alive.
There was one particular moment as I'm working my way through, because I like to talk about what I'm working on. I'm not one of those writers to say, "Oh, I'm not going to tell you," but I find breakthroughs when I'm talking to someone and in the very early stages. I was in my friend Jane’s kitchen telling her as I was putting together the initial thoughts about this book and talking to her about the Valmont character, and how I feel that there's something about this character that made him vulnerable to love. She said to me just casually while making tea, "I read your first book, Sophfronia, and it just seems to me that you are all about redemption. You don't throw people away."
I was like, "I'm trying to redeem Valmont!" and so that was another connection.
I think people get tied up in a retelling because they're thinking about, "How might I want to make sure I have this happen? I want to make sure that happens." And they tie themselves to the original too much without an original thought coming to it. That's why it worked for me. I love that story, I love the people in that book because they are totally new and they grew in a way, even as the story I was writing developed. I freed myself in a way by letting myself say what I wanted to say about this story.
To me, you really hit it out of the park because I felt like those characters, while it still followed that narrative path of Dangerous Liaisons, they were new characters to me. I fell in love with them for themselves, for who they were within the setting of the story. I think everything you said makes total sense for my experience as a reader. It didn't feel like I was reading Dangerous Liaisons, it felt like I was in this story I was in, Unforgivable Love, and it had that extra resonance because it shared a narrative with a classic tale, which was really cool. That was so lovely. Thank you for sharing all of that.
With the story being set back in, and it's 1930’s Harlem, correct, if that's the time period?
40s, yes. For me, I can get really tied up into research, especially if I'm writing outside of my own time period or outside of anything of my lived experience. I can get really down deep into research and almost use it as a way to procrastinate from composing or actually doing the work and writing. Do you struggle with that at all? How did you handle the balance between, "Okay, I've done my research, I have enough of the knowledge I need to push the story forward"? How did you handle that?
I have the advantage of asking a very similar question to Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World, and he had been at a Barnes and Noble. I went to see him and I specifically asked about his research and how much of that research ended up in that book. He said that he had done a ton of research like you, like piles and piles of books to the point of procrastination. He said that only about 25%, (I think he said), of that research ended up in the book. He finally came to the realization that he had done this research into what slave quarters look like and he said, "At the end of the day, I realized I was not writing a story about how the latch on the door in the slave quarters worked; I'm writing a story about these people."
You learn enough to make sure you don't have like a Ford Bentley existing in 1910, but you only need enough to help you tell your story. That's how I approached it, that I had some general research that told me specifically questions that I needed to have answered. I'm writing about wealthy people in Harlem, I needed to understand where money in Harlem came from.
Then I started with the story and stopping to do research only when I needed a particular point. Okay, here I am. Val is about to go to Ebbets Field. All right, now I need to go see what Ebbets Field looked like, I need to get the street names and only enough detail to help me get this scene together. I'm not going to go into any in depth thing about how it was built and where it was and why it got torn down. Only just the things I need. I might even write with blanks in there for a bit so when I go do that research, I only need enough to fill in those blanks and then keep going. That's how. I'm not like deep dive into huge research.
Honestly, maybe that comes also from my being [a journalist]. I was initially trained as a reporter researcher at Time Magazine. That was a weekly so it happened very quickly. I was really good at it. Every week. That was what we were trained to do. You had to research your story enough to get that story written every single week.
Get it out.
Enough to do the story and get out and on to the next thing.
Oh, that's lovely. That's such a wonderful skill! If anybody feels like they're a big “procrasti-researcher” like me, they should do some journalism for a bit––get some deadlines in there and be like, "Okay, I've done the research, here's the story, it's shipping. We got to get it out!" I love it.
Tell the story first.
Yes. I love it.
You can just say, "She's wearing a dress," but then go back and, "Okay, it's a Dior and it looks like this and she got it from this."
Just get that first draft out. Oh, that's such good advice.
In my own research, I dove into the different routines of writers and the different lives of writers. The common thread was consistency. Even more so than talent, even more so than education, is consistency.
I don't believe writers need to write everyday. There are certain writers that are like, "Writers must write everyday to be a writer!" And I fundamentally don't believe that. I believe there are binge writers. There are writers who write everyday. There are writers who write two days a week and writers who write one week out of the month.
The common thread is being able to bring yourself back and be consistent. Consistency being that real key to getting the work done.
You have clearly shown that you have consistency because you've written three books and you have numerous articles out there. How have you developed consistency as a writer––that grit muscle where you're able to bring yourself back to the page time and again?
I'm project oriented. To me, it's about: what is the work that has to be done today? For example, I mentioned the shower. I'm working on an essay for a magazine. At some point, I have to start thinking about that essay. Those ideas obviously bubbled up today. I'm writing it and at some point I'm going to sit down some day next week and say, "Okay, today I have to write this essay, I have to finish it and that's what I'm going to do," and I will work on it that day and the next day and after that until that essay is done.
Okay, next thing's up. I have been wanting to finish that book proposal. I’ll have a list of goals. “I wanted to finish this book proposal by the end of June. How am I in that process? Let's sit down and map out this week. I'm going to do some serious work on this book proposal." That's what I do.
I'm very much about focusing on, What is the work? This is what I'm doing, this is my job. Again, that's probably from journalism, that I have assignments and I keep working until I get the thing off my desk.
Yes, approach it like a pro––a professional. Like you said, it's your job. A surgeon isn't going to say, "Oh man, I feel like procrastinating today," or, "I don’t feel ready."
They’re going to say, "I have a surgery today. I have to go in for surgery." We need to approach it like that as writers too, and I love that you do that. That really says a lot.
Like, "Okay, I'm working on this chapter today and I don't even know if I'm going to finish this chapter today but this chapter has to happen."
I'm going to sit until it's done.
I love it. Keeping the promises you make to yourself is key.
It's not just about one thing. It's not, "Okay, I'm writing a book and now this book done." Okay, what are you going to do next? How is the next book going to happen? It's a process.
I love it. I am right now in the middle of your book of essays, Love's Long Line, and it's just so beautiful. Thank you for writing it. The first two essays there brought me to tears.
In this collection of essays, you're plunging the depths of very difficult, emotional, traumatic topics. You still live in Sandy Hook, Connecticut?
You write a lot about the tragedy that happened in [Sandy Hook] in 2012, and it was very closely connected to your family.
Can you talk about that journey of knowing when you're “ready” or if you'll ever be ready to write on a topic like that? A lot of people hold back because it's too painful, which is totally fine, and maybe certain things are never written about. What was that emotional and, like we were just talking about, as a writer, showing up, being consistent and having it, what was that process like for you?
Well, I could not, goodness, Renee. I couldn't write about it when I was in the thick of it.
I'm not kidding, I had former colleagues calling my home and wanting me to write something even as the phones are still ringing. I just told them I have no words. I have no words. I'm in this with my son, with my friends, I have no words.
Now the weird thing was just about 10 days after that, I was in an MFA program. I had to go to residency. I was just beginning to work on my creative nonfiction part of my own MFA. Honestly, I did try to write something then and it didn't work. It was big, it was incoherent. I'm grateful I did it because it gave me the immediacy of the details that I probably would have forgotten at some point but I knew I couldn't write about it.
It wasn't until three years, it was almost three years later before I wrote the first thing. It came about totally by accident and it was actually something I wrote for you, Renee. It was the forgiveness essay, “For Roxane Gay: Notes From a Forgiving Heart.”
I wrote that out of the urgency that I felt after the Charleston shootings and that question of forgiveness. I felt nobody was writing in favor of forgiveness. Like we discussed earlier, that was an essay, I woke up hearing one of my teachers in my ears saying, "Now don't get too preachy, Scott!" knowing I needed to talk about this.
I wrote that essay, and it was like a breakthrough moment for me because I realized maybe I was trying to write something huge about Sandy Hook. I realized that maybe I just need to write small, small pieces, that I could write about forgiveness. I can write about why I didn't go to the firehouse. I can write about what I learned from my son's grief. I realized that when I looked at it as these smaller pieces, that I could bring something to bear.
Now I really feel that you take each moment as it comes. I realize I'm not one to write about big traumatic things in the moment. Yet when my friend Katy died last year, I felt that loss so tremendously in that moment that I knew I didn't want to lose any of her anymore. Not even the immediate grief that was so huge. I wrote something, again it was for Ruminate, where I talked about the sharpness of the grief. "This is where I am, this is what this grief is," and I wanted to grasp it and describe it as best I can because I didn't want to lose it. I did not want to lose an ounce of that pain.
Now at some point, and I'm still working on this, at some point I will write a bigger, more reflective essay about our friendship and what her loss means to me but in that moment, I could write immediately because I knew there was a very specific reason for doing so.
After I wrote that, Renee, I think about that a lot. How as writers we talk about these things. "How do you do this?" and, "Can you do that?" when really you have to take it as it comes and see, "What can I do? Can I write about this? Can I not?" and go with what is.
I can only say you have to be awake and aware enough to answer these questions when they come up. That is the best thing. How do you practice that? I don't know.
I love that. Awake and aware enough when they come and they visit you and these questions come up. I think that's truly the key. Thank you so much for sharing that.
Rob Bell calls it the “light after the dark after the light.” That when you're reading writers like you who are able to approach a topic like that, it doesn't feel… I guess what I'm trying to say is when I'm reading it and you're somebody kind of alike to Annie Dillard and Brian Doyle, who when I read them, I feel hope even though the topics may be very dark. And it hurts to be on earth sometimes because of what we have to deal with. Yet, your words are still like a balm even though you're dealing with really dark things there. It's a salve to read your work, so I'm very grateful for you that you put out there and you did the work and you answered the call. Answering those questions as they came.
What's one piece of advice you would give to aspiring writers? Folks who maybe want to write a novel, want to write a collection of essays. What's your one piece that you would want to leave with them?
That you have to somehow find a way to stand up for your work and for what it is that you want to do. I just had an experience this week where I heard a student say that they wanted to improve their writing but then put themselves in a situation where that wasn't going to happen all because they say, "Well, so and so said this."
"Well, does it matter what so and so said? You said you want to improve your writing, so how are you going to do that if you’re not writing?" Right?
It's like what you were saying. What are you saying and what are you doing? Do your habits reflect the person, the artist, that you say you want to be? No one can make those choices for you other than yourself.
You can go to all of these classes and you can hear what people tell you but only you know. One of the things that I'm obsessed with right now is the Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga A Star is Born because I think a lot about the artistry that they talk about in that film. I keep thinking about how he says talent––that that guy at the bar playing is talented, everyone in here is talented, but what do you have to say? If you have something to say and you realize that it can change your life as well as others, then why aren't you doing what you need to do to be in service of that?
Sometimes I can be harsh about this but I don't play. We don't have a lot of time here.
Amen, sister! Oh my gosh.
I'm like, stop, stop. I'm tired of the angst, I'm tired of the fretfulness. We have work to do and it's bright and it's shining and it's bold and it's beautiful. We can change the world. I just finished Mary Pipher's wonderful book Writing to Change the World. We can do this.
I wrote an essay that said, "I don't have time for this," meaning I don't have time for the things that are going to keep me from doing what I'm meant to do, so if I can somehow embolden other writers to feel that way even just a little bit, then okay, then we're going to do some awesome stuff. Let's go.
That is so funny that you bring that up because we are on the same page with that. That really clicked for me, the, "We don't have time, we've got work to do." It was the beginning of May. As you know, Rachel Held Evens passed away, and she had put so much incredible work out and had done so much to help people heal who had been hurt by the church and yet reconcile that disconnection. Thank God she answered the call when she did because now there's no more time. I'm grateful that she did.
I mentioned Brian Doyle again because he's one of my absolute favorite writers… same thing. He answered the call and he put his heart and soul into showing up, being a writer, and that was his vocation. Now there's no more time left. He did the work and had his fruitful, amazing life. Personally, when I was in a very dark place, his work was the central work I was reading that pulled me out of the dark place. I'm eternally grateful to him for showing up and doing the work because it saved my life.
Regardless of where you're at with level or skill or talent, you don't know how your work is going to land for somebody eventually and if it might be what they need to pull themselves out, or to make them have a paradigm shift that may change their lives in a positive way, or change someone else's life in a positive way. We're on the same page, girl. I want to end with that: we've got work to do. We don't have time to mess around.
Sophfronia! It has been so wonderful talking to you today. Thank you so much for joining. Where can people find you? Where can people learn about what's next for you? Where can people connect?
I keep my events page up to date on my web site. My web site is just my name, sophfronia.com.
Also, you can sign up for a newsletter but I also do, I have a YouTube channel. Every week I do Your Morning Walk with Sophfronia where I'm out walking and it's just three to four minutes, and we're talking about writing, just like this.
I love it. Yes!
Thank you so much, Sophfronia. This has been just such a pleasure, such a treat. It's been so lovely to connect with you.
Thanks so much for reading this interview! If you want to learn more about Sophfronia, head over to her website at sophfronia.com to read her blog, hop on her newsletter, or buy her beautiful books.
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