Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Evgenia Citkowitz on Staying Attuned to Language

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Evgenia Citkowitz, author of Ether (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), tells how she works and where she has found inspiration. 

What is your writing process like?
I’m more instinctive than analytical and need to feel my way around a subject, so my process is slow and not terribly efficient. I start with an amorphous feeling then I’ll keep refining, building, mostly destroying until I have found the story’s shape and core. On good days I’ll take a craftsman-like satisfaction that I have made something that stands; on others it seems like it's obsessive-compulsive to be chipping away at something that only exists in my head. I do a lot of rewriting as I go. I find it difficult to move forward until the sentences are somewhat working.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
I wait until the story is so worked that I think I can’t go any further and give it to my husband, my first responder, and some writer friends—it’s always interesting to see how different responses can be and where there’s consensus. I’ll extract what I can from their comments, then I’m galvanized to go back in to make more revisions.

What book made you want to become a writer?
I never had a eureka moment with any one book, my development as a writer has lagged way behind my reading, but the first works of literature that excited me were by George Orwell: Animal Farm, Nineteen-Eighty Four, Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Down and Out in Paris and London. The same year I had my Orwell passion, we read Graham Greene’s “The Third Man” at school, and that also made a big impression – the dramatic power and the acuity of the writing was thrilling and I remember thinking, Wow. I was twelve at the time.

If you practice any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
I studied the piano as a child and more seriously in my teens, and I still play, although not as diligently. Learning music is like knowing a language: Once you reach a certain level, your ear is attuned and that stays with you. When I’m writing, I’m conscious of the musical aspects of a sentence, it’s rhythmic and tonal possibilities. The process of shaping a sentence is the same as a musician coloring a phrase. In longer form writing is contrapuntal: You try to sustain and give clarity to different voices as you would in a three part invention or fugue, with the art lying in the balance of them.

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
My piano teacher, Natasha Spender, has been a lifelong mentor to me. She still is, at the grand age of ninety-one. She was exacting and taught on a level far above my ability—she would often stop and correct me after every note. But it was an education: She taught me to listen, and her support and generosity gave me confidence and a sense I might have something worthwhile to offer that has resonated throughout my life.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Yes, with some minor punctuation changes, but it was short, I mean one single-spaced page short.  “Careful Mummy” was an attempt to tell a story in dialogue and interior dialogue, a bedtime conversation between a mother and child that’s both candid and revisionist.