Ellen Litman, author of The Last Chicken in America, shares how she began writing and the creative process behind her first fiction.
You’re reading a chapter from 1984 and suddenly a brilliant idea pops into your head. Should you write it down? So you make your way over to the computer and open up a bright Microsoft document in hopes to begin the next great American novel. You find yourself shuffling through your thoughts trying to pin point a character, a dialogue, or a storyline. You stare for a few minutes into the white abyss, the cursor blinks, and then you give up and submit yourself to the “Big Brother.” How do you get those creative juices flowing far enough to stain the keys?
If you’re suffering from this writer’s initial block, you are not alone. Many new writers have difficulty putting words to paper, though they have millions of ideas floating around in their minds. In an interview with author and co-director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Connecticut Ellen Litman, she reveals strategies she took to get herself writing, which lead to the publication of her first fictional novel.
THE REAL PASSION Litman’s family immigrated to the United States from Moscow, Russia in 1992 during a period of mass immigration. Her family had been adamant about not leaving the country but with the onset of the Perestroika in about 1985 (which lead to the fall of the Soviet Union) came new anti-Semitic nationalistic parties that convinced the family to leave.
Despite her focus in engineering, Litman’s real passion remained in writing. She wasn’t, however, always able to write. The task of writing itself is a self-discipline one has to master. Litman admits, “[Writing] is hard to do on your own. You get discouraged.” In order to get herself to write, Litman chose to take a writing class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. “A class pushes you to finish,” she says. “And I began finishing pieces.” As time went on however, she found herself waking up at 5:30 in the morning just to write, since the demands of her unpredictable schedule left no other free time. “You don’t get phone calls at 5 in the morning,” she jokes. Litman reveals that it took her a long time to realize that it was possible to write. She notes that it can be difficult to find places to study and hone one’s talent.
Her first fiction is entitled The Last Chicken in America. Initially, Litman tried writing various stories. She wrote about the neighborhood where her family settled in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh and stories about Russian immigrants. As a Russian immigrant herself, she was able to draw from real life experiences in her creation of characters and scenarios. She admits “elements of the story” are autobiographical. Mostly, Litman wanted to convey the feeling of the early years of being an immigrant in America.
Should getting published be the main goal behind writing? Litman would say no. She says that although publishing your work is a natural next step and a natural desire, the real motive behind completing your work is equivalent to pursuing an obsession. She explains, “It’s art. You get an idea in your head and you want to make it. You become fascinated and you have to write it. You don’t think, ‘Hmmm, this should be published.’ There’s a need to tell it [the story] and to write it. You become obsessed with it. Just like a painter who has to paint.”
STARTING FROM SCRATCH Litman free-writes. She read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and practiced free-writing exercises from the book in the beginning of her writing process. She uses it even today when she wants to revise a scene or when she’s stuck and ideas just aren’t coming out right. She admits that she loves notebooks and even though she writes on the computer, many times she’ll turn to a notebook because, as she says, “There’s something about the “physicality of [putting] hand to paper that liberates your mind.”
Once she had a draft of the collection and was speaking to agents, she realized that some stories had repeating character or scenario patterns. Consequently, she went through several revisions. Initially in The Last Chicken in America, only about 2 or 3 stories involved the main protagonist. Later she decided to use the main protagonist to link all the stories in the book. It took four to five years to finish this novel mostly because, as Litman modestly admits, this was a period when she was learning how to write creatively.
Luckily for Litman, she never experienced writer’s block. A “permanent lack of time” was the biggest issue during her writing process since other responsibilities would always come up.
INSPIRATION Authors with distinct styles and interests from her own influenced Litman because of their ability to demonstrate what she calls “the possibilities of the language.” She mentions that Denis Johnson’s writing opened her eyes to the freedom and originality that could be achieved in stories. Among other authors that have inspired her are Barry Hannah and George Saunders, whom she says is simultaneously heartbreaking and funny in his writing. She chose to get her M.F.A. at Syracuse University in order to study under his instruction and was lucky enough to do so. She speaks highly of him as a person but emphasizes that he was an excellent professor.
Her advice to young writers struggling to just sit down and write: “Get into a routine. Give it [writing] priority. Set a place where you won’t get interrupted. Tell yourself, ‘I am a writer,’ and build a routine even if it’s just for 15 or 30 minutes [daily]. Make it part of your life. It’s about making the decision and setting aside the time.” For Litman, time is when the baby is asleep or when the babysitter is around to take care of the baby.
She reiterates that taking classes, too, is important because it forces one to finish pieces. Then, you work until you have a draft. Then you go through several revisions and then you have a finished product… almost.
The one thing that a writer needs to come to terms with is that a piece of work is never ‘finished.’ It can be ready to view, or even ready to publish, but it may never be complete. A writer’s work never ends, just as a thinking person never stops thinking. You will always feel the need to revise and add on. Your first goal as a writer though, is to sit down and write. That is where you begin.
Interview by Lynnette Repollet