Countdown to Muse 2019: Impossible Writing by Rebecca Makkai

The Muse and the Marketplace 2019 kicks off on April 5th at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston. This year’s theme is writing in a time of upheaval — whether such upheaval is personal, political, artistic, or all of the above. In anticipation of the conference, we’ve asked Muse 2019 presenting authors to describe a time when it was impossible for them to write, but they wrote anyway. How did they do it? What did they write? Our first response in the series is by Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers.

I was at Yaddo in February, 2015, working in a third floor (haunted) study. There were several feet of snow, and icicles barring in the windows, and everything was going great. Then, two weeks into what was supposed to be a three-week stay, I got the news that my beloved father-in-law had suddenly passed away. I needed to get home to Chicago, to be with our kids so my husband could fly home, but I was completely snowed in. And there was nothing to do but write.

Since The Great Believers is about the AIDS epidemic, it made sense to channel my own grief and shock into the narrative, but of course it wasn't easy. I did a lot of staring at the icicles, and I was finally able to put words on the page by forcing myself to write a sudden death (more sudden than most) into the story. (For anyone who's read the book, it was the scene in Charlie's office.)

I’ve tried to explain this since then to students who are blocked, and the closest I can come is: Whatever’s got you stuck must be important. Don’t try to push it to the side. Fold it into your book.

You can catch Rebecca’s craft discussion, "Yeah You’re Working, Building a Mystery"  on Sunday, April 7th at 10am,  “Researching Into the Void” on Sunday, April 7th at 11:30am, and the “Marketplace Keynote: Writing While Working” at the Muse. For all the latest Muse news, follow #Muse19.

Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Great Believers, The Hundred-Year House, and The Borrower, as well as the short story collection Music for Wartime. Her short fiction won a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008-2011). The recipient of a 2014 NEA fellowship, Makkai is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University, and she is the Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago.

About the Author

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