On Writing the Great American Novel

Ellen Litman of the Creative Writing Program says, 'Forget about writing the great American novel.'

<p>Ellen Litman. Provided by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences  </p>
Ellen Litman, assistant professor of English and associate director of the Creative Writing Program. Photo provided by CLAS

Ellen Litman is an assistant professor of English and associate director of the Creative Writing Program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She is the author of The Last Chicken in America, 12 linked, wryly humorous stories about an unforgettable cast of Russian-Jewish immigrants trying to assimilate in a new world.

A lot of people have an aspiration to write the “great American novel.” What advice could you give them? Where do they start?

I think it’s best not to worry about the “Great American novel” at all. Only time will tell which books will be considered great and timeless by future generations. All we can do is tell the stories we want to tell and do it in the best way we can.

As for the ways to start, it is incredibly important to have a consistent schedule. Some people believe that true writers only work in moments of inspiration. Not so. Writing, like any craft, requires practice. There are days when I don’t think I am capable of writing a single decent sentence, and yet, after an hour or so of false starts, that proverbial inspiration does strike.

Another piece of advice is to consider taking a class. Writing can be lonely work. It’s easy to get discouraged and give up, especially in the early stages. A writing class means you have to finish what you’ve started, no matter how bad you think your draft is. (In fact, it’s often not as bad as you think. We sometimes tend to be our own harshest critics.)

Can you comment a little on the process you use to develop an idea? Are you able to conceptualize the entire story or does it just, as some writers say, “flow out”?

For me, it’s different with every story. It usually starts with a first sentence or an image. Sometimes I know right away where the story will go and how it will end, and other times I have no idea. Some stories come quickly; others can take years.

When you began, did you receive a lot of rejections? How did you overcome that sinking feeling you get when one arrives? Why did you keep writing?

Yes, the rejections – and a lot of them – are part of the game. They are inevitable, as is the sinking feeling that accompanies them. There’s really no cure for that. That said, it helps to understand that the whole business of writing is terribly subjective. One person might hate your story; the next one might love it.

It also helps to approach the submission process in a business-like fashion. Research publications, develop a plan, send out your work. Know that it will take a while to hear back. Try not to think about the work you sent out (impossible, I know). Focus on writing the next thing. On a day a rejection arrives, allow yourself to feel lousy. Then get mad, and use it as fuel to write new, better stuff. In between the submission rounds, it’s good to revisit the work, reevaluate it. You might see ways to make it stronger.

Do you have a writing schedule you adhere to every day?

I used to write first thing in the morning. Now that I have a small baby, I write whenever I have childcare or when my little girl is sleeping. Babies, apparently, are great at teaching one to be efficient.

How do you know if what you write has value? Do you get your writing critiqued before you send it to an official editor?

This is a great question. There’s always been much discussion of whether writing can be taught. In my opinion, one of the best things about a writing workshop is that it helps you develop the sense of your own work: Is it ready for prime time or does it need further revision? Which comments to take and which to ignore?

I hope I’ve gotten better at this over time. But I am also incredibly fortunate to have a group of people whose opinion I trust and whose honesty I rely on. We’ve known one another for years, and though we currently live all over the country, we remain one another’s readers.

How much do you rely on real experiences for fodder for your stories, and do you feel exposed by sharing this with your readers?

My writing is often inspired by real experiences. As for feeling exposed, I believe that is the risk every good writer must take, regardless of the subject matter. It is the only way to create work that is urgent and emotionally honest, the kind of work the reader might connect with.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel set in Moscow in the ’80s, before and during the perestroika years.