LISE HAINES is the author of three novels, Girl in the Arena, published in the US and the UK (Bloomsbury) and in Turkey (Alfa-Artemis Yayınevi); Small Acts of Sex and Electricity (Unbridled Books), a Book Sense Pick in 2006 and one of ten “Best Book Picks for 2006” by the NPR station in San Diego ; and In My Sister’s Country, (Penguin/Putnam), a finalist for the 2003 Paterson Fiction Prize. Her short stories and essays have appeared in a number of literary journals and she was a finalist for the PEN Nelson Algren Award.
Haines is Writer in Residence at Emerson College. She has been Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, and her other teaching credits include UCLA, UCSB, and Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. She grew up in Chicago, lived in Southern California for many years, and now resides in the Boston area. She holds a B.A. from Syracuse University and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.
I was once on the other side of a door to a room in which the Beatles were about to be interviewed by a family friend, just before a concert. We were in the backstage hallways of the International Amphitheater–the smells of the adjacent Chicago stockyards wafting our way. A dashing Canadian-born reporter married to a fashion model, my family friend was doing his damn best to get me into that room. When all efforts failed, he had to leave me standing in the hall and went off to joke around with the boys inside.
Life lesson number 1: Learn to barge through doors.
As most writers will tell you, a writing career is about pushing your way through when no one wants to give you permission. This goes to taking risks in your own work, ignoring those who would tell you to get a serious career, and seeing that your books get into print.
I grew up in a reporters’ household. My father was a political editor at a Hearst paper. My mother was a forerunner of the creative nonfiction movement and had a rabble-rousing column in the Chicago Daily News. My sister, three years older than I, was the reader. I used to fake reading, so that no one would see that I was struggling. Even today, I continue to hear each word aloud in my head as I read—which in many ways is a good thing—though it annoys those who wonder if I’ve read their books yet. But writing came easily. As a young girl, I spent my days making up poems and songs, and telling stories at night to whomever would listen.
I wrote my first novel when I was nine or ten on the pale green paper the Daily News provided to my mother, on a standard typewriter with a messy ink ribbon and an eraser that had a brush to whisk away the stream of mistakes. In high school, I was lucky to have an English teacher with a long face and thinning hair clasped into a loose bun at the back who got that I lived to write. She invited me over to her apartment for tea one Sunday, and we talked about the work, the work, the work.
After that, I had years when I thought I wanted to be a poet and eventually found my way into the writing program at Syracuse. Shortly after graduation, a well-known author informed me that as a woman, I would earn half as much as a male poet. I had ambitions that I would actually make money at my work, and naively returned to fiction.
And when I did, I simply hunkered down and wrote—in a self-determined, self-taught way. I wrote long hours and consistently, through a variety of family responsibilities, jobs, relationships, rejections, climate changes, apartments, and my daughter’s birth.
In my basement there are boxes and boxes of unpublished manuscripts, some of which were simply ways to negotiate the world of fiction, and some I hope to revive one day. I thought I might strike it early and well as a writer. But with time and persistence comes a particular voice and for this I am grateful. People have been kind and generous in the process of watching me barge through–a few people ridiculously competitive, dopey, or even cruel. But writers write because they have to write. It’s not a choice. We write for our lives—and if we’re fortunate, for all of our lives—and I kept at it.
A few years ago, I returned to school to get my MFA—one of those pragmatic decisions around teaching–which allowed me to work with authors including Rick Moody and Amy Hempel. When I became a single parent midway through the program, clearly everything shifted. I was aware that I was writing for two lives, not one. I had had a spell as a stay-at-mom, and my daughter had grown up watching me hammer away at the computer, around the world of her activities, from early till late. But now, friends would send me articles on J.K. Rowling—the patron saint of single-mom writers. And I could certainly throw Toni Morrison and Lorrie Moore into this sainthood, and a number of other authors who fight the good fight. I was given a placard with Rosie the Riveter and the words, We can do it.
And so, in the last eight years, while teaching full time, during a reign of little sleep and no small amount of fret—I finished my degree and have seen three novels into print. The next one will, no doubt, require as many sleep-reduced nights as the others—and if I can push the metaphor too hard–prompt me to to crack open that cd by the mighty Jim Morrison and listen to, Break On Through To The Other Side.
I welcome emails from young writers.
Lise Haines, October 2009
BOOKS THAT INCLUDE: Interviews, Essays and/or Writing Exercises:
Fiction Illuminations, by Sherry Ellis, Red Hen Press
What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers (2nd Edition), Bernays and Painter
Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Todays’ Best Writers and Teachers, editor Sherry Ellis