Patricia Engel on the Importance of Notebooks to Her Writing Process
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Patricia Engel is the guest. Her new book, Infinite Country, is out now from Avid Reader Press.
From the episode:
Brad Listi: You talked about prewriting. From a process standpoint, when you’re setting out to write a novel—you might have an idea for a character. You might say to yourself, I really want to tell the story of a family. You know, you have some kind of broad, abstract ambition for the work. And then is this a component of your process? Like you sit down with a notebook or on your computer and you just start putting down ideas, possibilities, scenes, images that come to you? Or do you allow yourself to just go completely wild and write like a nonsense draft that you then draw from once you’ve kind of gotten that out of your system? Do you see what I’m saying? What does prewriting mean?
Patricia Engel: It’s closer to what you first described in the notebooks. I love my notebooks. I have stacks and stacks of them. And really, the notebooks are the first language of the story. They’re sketches. It’s very disorganized. Sketches, notes, sentences, sketches of characters, of moments of scenes, maybe a phrase or turn of phrase or an image, a metaphor—all sorts of things that start to communicate to one another in my mind and let the story build out from there. In the past, when I sit down at the computer just to write a draft on impulse or inspiration, for my mind, usually I end up writing into the wall and it’ll die after 50 pages. That’s happened enough times where I realized that’s not working for me.
I do know that when I start to hit that wall or I’m approaching it—because those walls always come up—when I feel like I’m starting to get resistance from the book, then I turn to my notebooks, and my notebooks will communicate to me what it was I was trying to do, remind me of where I was going, of where my intentions began. And from there, I can start to map the next leg of the road, until I hit the next wall. So I do spend a lot of time, before I even sit down to write a sentence of the book, pouring it all into my notebooks as much as I possibly can.
And then as I’m writing, I’m filling up more notebooks that are kind of like a companion to the drafting, where I’m making notes for myself or things to check back on later. And then I do it again as I’m revising; I make notes in my notebooks as I’m revising for things to look over or revise or edit. So they are both research and notes and planning, but they also become a writing diary, an editing diary, a logbook—all sorts of things.
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Patricia Engel is the author of The Veins of the Ocean, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize; It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, winner of the International Latino Book Award; and Vida, a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway and Young Lions Fiction Awards, New York Times Notable Book, and winner of Colombia’s national book award, the Premio Biblioteca de Narrativa Colombiana. She is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her stories appear in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. Born to Colombian parents, Patricia teaches creative writing at the University of Miami.