Nov 7, 2008

Q&A with narrative writer and humorist Beth Lisick

Beth Lisick wears about a billion hats. She's a poet, essayist, short fiction and narrative nonfiction writer. She also a humorist and spoken word artist, who does freelance voice work and even some acting. This New York Times bestselling author also moonlights as a giant banana that hands out fruit on the street. No kidding. This woman is worth getting to know.

After reading her latest book about her adventures in the self-help business, Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, 10 Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone, I interviewed Lisick and, I have to say, the result of the Q&A session is one of the funniest we've done at Etude.

So take a read below and get to know Ms. Lisick and what she has to say about being a storyteller. You won't be disappointed.

Q: You majored in American Studies at UC Santa Cruz and once aspired to be a pastry chef — how did you learn how to tell stories and write?

A: My last couple years in college, while I was working as a baker, I started writing things down in notebooks. Mostly overheard conversations or childhood memories, nothing even remotely resembling a poem or story. That part seemed too daunting, the act of writing something “real.” It wasn’t until after I was out of college and stumbled upon an open mic that I really got serious about trying to write things. I liked the immediacy of that scene, the fact that you could write something and test out whether it was working or not. Still, what I was writing was only intended for people to hear, not to read on a page. When the publisher from Manic D Press asked to see my manuscript of spoken word poems and stories, I didn’t want to give her what I’d written. I was embarrassed. What was I doing? Once she talked me down, helped me out, and put out that collection (Monkey Girl), I began writing with a reader, not just a listener, in mind.

As far as telling stories goes, I have always been a superfan of listening to other people’s stories. The ham gene is definitely in me, the one that makes me like to get up on stage and tell stories, but I also have a good dose of the observer. I had two best friends growing up and we would always try to tell each other good stories, even if it was just about going to Costco with our parents or trying to reenact something that happened at a school dance. I love thinking about how you sequence events to maximize hilarity or drama. You know, do you reveal what your dad said about the enormous can of frank and beans before or after you’ve described the stockboy’s hairdo? That kind of stuff.

Q: Besides being a writer, you are also a spoken word artist and a humorist. Being funny on paper isn’t easy — the humor often doesn’t translate. How have you developed this skill and how do you know when it’s working?

A: I like to write conversationally and I’m always thinking about whether what I’m writing is going to translate to a spoken performance or not. So I’ll read stuff out loud to myself to see how it sounds. A lot of it is trial and error. Sometimes I write something for a book and I just know that I will never read that section out loud at an event. Conversely, I write things to read out loud that I would never publish. You can do a lot in performance, using your voice and body language, to make up for mediocre writing. Hurray for that! The trick is learning how to distinguish between what you publish and what you read to a crowded bar. Sometimes a piece of writing can be both, but I am still learning.

Q: For your latest book, Helping Me Help Myself, you dedicated yourself (in 2006) to a year-long experiment in self-improvement, devoting each month of that year to an area you wanted to work on (e.g. fitness, organization, spirituality, personal finances, etc.) What were the easiest and most difficult months of the experiment to write about?

A: The absolute easiest was the home organization chapter. I wanted so much to improve that area of my life that I was pretty dedicated to following the advice of the expert. Just about every other chapter felt difficult. Even the Richard Simmons cruise where all I had to do to be entertaining was describe what was happening and throw in some of Richard’s direct quotes. He’s so intriguing. I really struggled with that book because there is so much to make fun of in the self-help world, but I didn’t want to go with the easy laughs all the time. It was a constant battle, juggling the sarcasm and irony and honesty. Also, the chapters on sex and fashion completely evaporated because I could not bring myself to do them. I’m pretty complacent with both of those areas of my life — not that I’m a sex machine with a killer wardrobe — but it just seem disingenuous to dedicate entire chapters to things that I ultimately wasn’t that unhappy with.

Q: Of all the self-help advice you consumed two years ago, what has stuck with you most?

A: Probably the idea from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that you need to determine what your life purpose is. I always thought that kind of thing was unbearably cheesy, that it messed with my laidback m.o., but it started to make a lot of sense. Once I defined my main creative purpose as storytelling — and I did this just by thinking about what makes me really happy and excited — I felt more focused and inspired. I could better see that my life isn’t the random and chaotic mess I sometimes perceive it to be. Not that I have become a streamlined machine. I’m just a little more confident about what I do. And it’s still hard to write this stuff without cringing.

In the chapter on personal finance, we learn that making a living as a writer isn’t easy — even for a New York Times bestselling author. What advice do you have for other writers when it comes to money?

Don’t expect too much and then you’ll be happy when it comes! I love talking about money because it’s such an uncomfortable subject. People often email me about that chapter, surprised that I could be so strapped for cash when my books are seen as being pretty successful. I think I make about as much money a year as a public school teacher, which I’m proud of, though I do a lot of other things besides write to earn it (and while I’m at it, if anyone in charge of anything is reading this, schoolteachers should be paid more.) I emcee events, run a storytelling series, teach writing to high schoolers, dress up in a banana costume, judge writing contests. I got a hundred and fifty bucks last week to have dinner with some marketing people for Levi’s and talk about What Women Want. Plus I got some free jeans. And then there’s the fact that I live in the Bay Area, which is an expensive place to be, and my husband is a self-employed musician and recording engineer, so neither of us have a job with health benefits. We pay a ton for private insurance. When I say that I will pretty much do anything for a hundred bucks, I mean it. I don’t think my money issues are very different from regular middle class people, but if you get your picture in a magazine, people sometimes think you also must have a hot tub and a cleaning person and no credit card debt. Very few writers get rich doing it, so you have to make sure you love to write. But you can make a living. Don’t listen to people who tell you that you can’t.

For the complete interview, visit Etude's new fall edition.

1 comment:

Zack Barnett said...

What a refreshing and candid spin on the writing life. So cool I might have to check out her work.

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