Kristen Arnett Gets Her Best Ideas at the Bar
This is Rough Draft, in which our favorite writers get to the bottom of their own craft. From preferred writing drinks to whether or not you really need to carry a notebook, we find out all the ways they beat writer’s block and do the work. Before curling up with With Teeth by Kristen Arnett, discover all the elements that helped her get it done.
JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: Describe your ideal writing atmosphere. What gets you in the mood?
KRISTEN ARNETT: I love a lot of natural light. I consider myself very much a place writer, specifically writing a lot about Florida, so having a view outside while I’m working feels crucial. I love being able to look up and see the skyline and all the greenery. I especially love when I can work outside. Right now, the place where I live in Miami has a balcony, so it’s been such a dream to sit out there and work while enjoying the Florida heat. Soon, it’s going to be storm season and I’ll have to move everything inside, but I like that, too. The weather in Florida feels like a big part of my work. Florida has a very physical presence, almost tactile, like hands touching flesh. I want that in my writing, always. I feel very blessed to live here.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you eat or drink while you write? If so, what do you like to have?
ARNETT: I definitely will just snack on whatever’s handy! Like a bowl of Cheez-its sounds ideal. Even thinking about them right now made me want to have a handful. Usually, though, I write in the morning and early afternoon, so it’s pretty much a lot of black coffee. So much black coffee! I basically am jittering off my chair by the time my writing is done for the day.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you ever smoke or drink while you write? How do you think they impact your writing?
ARNETT: I am definitely a person who drinks while I write, though not every day (or else I’d be shotgunning beers at 11 am). Usually, I’ll time it out so that I can work for a while and then close out the writing day by having a few drinks. Usually a shitty beer, those are my favorites. I think it impacts my writing in a very good way. I can usually lean into a scene with abandon, just kind of writing in a torrent that feels very natural, like I’m sitting down and relaying a story at a party to a friend over some drinks. Quite a lot of the biggest scenes in With Teeth happened this way, especially the scene with the biting in the car!
UKIOMOGBE: Do you keep a notebook and/or journal?
ARNETT: I don’t! I think the closest that I have to something like that is the Notes app on my phone. Occasionally I’ll be sitting somewhere and doing something, and a thought will come to me, or even an idea, and I’ll jot that down so I can remember it for later. What I really do a lot of is emailing myself ideas, especially if I’m out drinking. Like, I’ll be at a bar with friends and get a story idea, or a character will come to me, and I don’t want to disrupt the good time we’re having, so I’ll just open up email on my phone and very quickly send the thought to myself so that later when I’m on the computer I can see it and remember it. A lot of the time this leads to me getting very excited that I have an email and then realizing it’s from myself, which is very funny and also sad, LOL.
UKIOMOGBE: What’s your favorite quote?
ARNETT: I really like a small bit from House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. It’s a little quote in Latin that happens midway through the book. “NON SUM QUALIS ERAM.” It roughly translates to “I am not what I used to be” or “I am not what I was.” I think about that quote a lot. I think it applies very aptly to the human condition. Just changing, changing, changing all the time.
UKIOMOGBE: Whose writing do you always return to?
ARNETT: There are a few writers that I love to revisit, like old friends. One is Stephen King. I think I’ve reread The Shining about a hundred times at this point! I also very much love Dorothy Allison. I like to reread Bastard Out of Carolina, such a place-heavy book, just drenched with place. Alexander Chee is a constant favorite of mine. Edinburgh is such beautiful queer work. I’ve also really loved engaging with Bryan Washington’s work, especially his short fiction. Lot is one of the best collections in the past decade, in my opinion.
UKIOMOGBE: What books did you read as a kid/teen? Have your thoughts about the writers changed?
ARNETT: I grew up in a very conservative evangelical household, which meant that my parents tried to limit what I read. There were plenty of things I wasn’t allowed access to because it wasn’t in keeping with the Christian ideals that my parents tried to espouse. That said, I was a voracious reader, and what I began doing was hiding any of the books I read so that they wouldn’t take them from me. I’d bring books home that I borrowed from school–from teachers or from the media center–and hide them under my dresser so I could read them when I was alone. One book I loved was Matilda, which I felt captured so much about how I felt about myself and my family. I still love that book, truly, and honestly think about it all the time. It’s a classic and really stands the test of time. It reminds me a lot of that “crush” feeling I used to get about books when I was younger. Butterfly feelings of excitement!
UKIOMOGBE: Do you read while you’re in the process of writing? Which writers inform your current work the most?
ARNETT: Absolutely. Generally, I’m reading all kinds of stuff, like advance copies for blurb consideration, books I’ve already read, some fiction, essays, all kinds of stupid stuff online, you name it. Something that I think really amplifies my work is reading poetry. I get a lot out of image-heavy poetics when I’m working on novel writing. It’s nice to sit inside lines like that and see how much language can do. I love poetry by Tommy Pico, Ada Limón, Morgan Parker, Danez Smith, Franny Choi, Jericho Brown, so many great poets! All so adept at everything on the line level. It is a pleasure to sit with that beautiful work while I am struggling to create my own.
UKIOMOGBE: How many drafts of one piece do you typically write?
ARNETT: Almost always I sit inside one draft and just fuck around with it inside the document. I never have more than one document of anything. That goes for essays, short fiction, and even novel work. I have one draft and just continue to carve at it. But I definitely spend a long time working at it. It’s not just one and done. It’s more like I’ll get that initial draft out and then spend time going through it looking for different things. For instance, one pass might be looking at characterization. Another pass might be cleaning up on the sentence level. Another pass might be moving pieces around, especially in essay work. But any changes that happen are permanent. It’s all contained in one place, so changes are forever!
UKIOMOGBE: What would the title of your memoir be?
ARNETT: Technically, It’s A Ravioli: A Writer’s Life in Bad Jokes.
UKIOMOGBE: Who’s your favorite screenwriter? Can a movie ever be as good as the book?
ARNETT: I’m not sure I have a favorite screenwriter, but I am a big fan of film adaptations when it comes to books. Usually I try and think of it as something else entirely. We all know that engaging with something written on the page isn’t going to immediately transform to the same thing on the screen. But I think there can be a lot of pleasure in both!
UKIOMOGBE: Do you consider writing to be a spiritual practice?
ARNETT: Usually I consider my writing time to be a wrestling match. It’s a lot of back and forth, me tugging at things, wrangling, trying to stay focused, and also get the words on the page. I would say it is a very worthwhile struggle for me. I have genuinely come to love having time to work and honestly feel regret and discomfort when I don’t allow myself that space and time.
UKIOMOGBE: Which writers would you choose to have dinner with, living or dead?
ARNETT: I’d love to have dinner with Samantha Irby, who I think is one of the funniest people on the planet!
UKIOMOGBE: What advice do you have for people who want to be better writers?
ARNETT: I know that every writer is different and that means that all of our practices have to be different, too. That’s what makes writing so enjoyable! For myself, it’s important to work every day, even if it’s only for a small amount of time, even if it’s something that I wind up throwing out. It’s like building a muscle. But I also understand that doesn’t work for other people! For me, it’s good training.
UKIOMOGBE: What are some unconventional techniques you stand by?
ARNETT: I love to title first. That is something I do immediately before I even dip a toe into a project. I also don’t ever have an outline for anything I’m working on. I feel like if I’m not surprised by what I’m working on, I get bored.
UKIOMOGBE: Can great writing save the world?
ARNETT: I think great writing holds a mirror up to society. And that’s very important work.