Q & A with Steven Heighton

Q: How is (or is) your writing process different for poetry than fiction? 

A: I write the first drafts of poems by hand, and rarely at my desk--I might be at the kitchen table, or sitting outside, or on a train, or in a bar or cafe.  The second draft does happen at the desk, where I key the rough draft into my laptop.  Then I'll print out that version and work on the thing by hand again, anywhere but at my desk, happily hacking away with my red uni-ball pen, crossing stuff out, scribbling illegible marginalia.  I go back and forth that way, between screen and page, until I can't take the poem any farther.  As for fiction, I used to write it by hand as well, though usually now I write my first drafts on the laptop, at my desk.  But after that point, my process is the same--I print out the story or novel and revise by hand in the margins, then go back to the screen, then the page, the screen, etc.   

But these are just dull logistical details.  To me, the more interesting difference between compositional modes is the ratio of pain and pleasure involved.  For me, working on a poem is always, on some level, a pleasure, and I think one of the main reasons is that there's no risk and hence no anxiety involved.  Why?  Because a twenty-line poem is a small thing, physically, and I know that if it doesn't work I can just walk away from it.  Also, the "career" stakes couldn't be lower.  Few people read poetry, so my livelihood can't and doesn't ride on it.  Fiction is different.  People do read it, and publishers sometimes pay decently for it, and you actually can make a modest living from it, if you have sufficiently low material aspirations.  So there's always a touch of anxiety there.  It's not just play.  Plus, it's simply hard to walk away from a botched piece of fiction without agonizing over all the time and effort you've spent.  To give up on a thirty page story, after months of work--as I've had to do at least twice now--is painful.  To walk away from a three hundred page novel you're struggling with after eighteen months or three years--that's just about unfaceable.  

More about Steven...

Steven Heighton’s most recent books are the Trillium Award finalist The Dead Are More Visible (stories) and Workbook, a collection of memos and fragmentary essays.  His 2005 novel, Afterlands, appeared in six countries; was a New York Times Book Review editors’ choice; was a best of year choice in ten publications in Canada, the USA, and the UK; and has been optioned for film.  His short fiction and poetry have received four gold National Magazine Awards and have appeared in London Review of Books, Tin House, Best English Stories, Best Canadian Stories, Poetry, Zoetrope, Agni, Best American Poetry, London Magazine, Brick, TLR, New England Review and, mysteriously, Best American Mystery Stories.  Heighton has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award, and he is a fiction reviewer for the New York Times Book Review. 

Photo credit: Angie Leamen Mohr.