Meet a Grubbie: Benjamin Rachlin

GrubStreet runs on coffee, printer ink, and community. This series features just some of the Grubbies who make our community strong. In this edition, meet Grub instructor Benjamin Rachlin. Benjamin's work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the New York Times Magazine, WIRED, TIME, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. His first book, Ghost of the Innocent Man, is forthcoming from Little, Brown & Company in August 2017. Catch Benjamin in action during his The Art of Discovery: Learning and Writing True Stories class, starting June 6th. 

 

How do you beat a bout of writer's block?

By remembering there’s no such thing. Or there is, but I don’t think it deserves its own diagnosis. Baseball players go through hitting slumps. Basketball players go through shooting slumps. We’re all better on some days than others, and sometimes those days turn into weeks. It’s important not to endow the thing with special powers. Simply continue to work without discouragement. While you’re doing that, read—ideally something lyrical and atmospheric. You don’t beat writer’s block, exactly, you outlast it. Continue to struggle willingly until you are struggling no longer.

Occasionally after a stretch like this I will locate the cause, and learn to remedy it. I’ll discover the problem wasn’t within me, after all, but was some challenge in the work, external and identifiable. How else would I have learned?

A friend of mine, a talented surfer, told me once that he doesn’t think he improves at surfing on days with perfect conditions. He loves those days—a glassy sea, a light offshore breeze, just the right moment in the tide. A session like that is the most fun. But it is also the easiest. Conditions are just right. There are no obstacles. He becomes a better surfer only on those messy, difficult days, when conditions are frustrating. An insight worth remembering, I think.

What’s your teaching philosophy?

I think it’s crucial to really respond to the people in the room. I arrive to every course with ideas about what I think is important, how I intend to lead, which authors I mean to discuss. But then I listen very carefully, read student work very closely, and I’m willing to throw out any idea that isn’t a match for what happens in the room. It’s important to be prepared, and I always am. But teaching and learning also occur unexpectedly, organically, and symbiotically. Students will encounter questions or obstacles in discussion or in their work that they didn’t anticipate. A good teacher ought to recognize those moments, and reorganize around them. I’m constantly adjusting in this way, to provide the most meaningful experience I can. Ideally, students will have no clue which portions of class I’ve planned weeks in advance and which portions I’ve improvised just now, based on a thoughtful question of theirs I didn’t foresee.

What are you working on right now?

I’m finishing my first book. It’s coming out on August 15, from Little, Brown & Co. It tells the true story of a man named Willie Grimes, who in 1988 was wrongly convicted in North Carolina and spent the next 24 years in prison—as well as the inside story of the agency that exonerated him, the only of its kind in its country, an independent Commission empowered by state law to run its own investigations and free wrongly convicted people. At the intersection of those two threads stands a woman named Christine Mumma, a remarkable attorney who stumbled onto Grimes’s case by sheer chance, became an unlikely driving force behind the Commission, and finally proved him innocent.

An excerpt from the book ran in TIME magazine this spring. Meanwhile I’m working on stories for other magazines about completely different subjects. Another should be out this summer in the New York Times Magazine.

What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give to writers?

To read more. And to exercise. I mean those sincerely. The aspiring writer today does not face a dearth of advice, I don’t think. Given the Internet, and the sheer number of relevant books and newsletters and overconfident strangers, that’s just not a circumstance she’ll encounter. More likely she will receive a deluge of advice, on both the craft and the industry. A thoughtful person in this position does not wonder, “How do I find advice?” but rather, “How do I distinguish between good advice and bad?” And the answer is, first, a good teacher, someone who knows the subject, might share his or her experience, and has your interests at heart. (One reason GrubStreet is so valuable.) Second, simply read as much as you can. This is the best—only—way to develop literary judgment, a sense of what works and what doesn’t, what’s been done already, what your own preferences are, what in particular you might emulate or avoid or accomplish. A good teacher can speed this process up considerably. Still, no one but you can make the thousands of intimate choices that good writing requires. Reading widely and purposefully will provide you the firmest basis to make those choices.

And, in the meantime, exercise. Writing is sedentary. Exercise is good for you. Doctors agree on this.

Most interesting hobby?

I swam competitively growing up, and in college. When I taught at a high school, I also coached. I’m still in the water nearly every day. I’ve done open-water races off the coasts of Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Hawai’i.

Do you have a favorite local, independent bookstore? Where and why?

We’re lucky. One of the many pleasures of living in or near Boston is the availability of so many great independent bookstores. No need to choose. I’m grateful for them all. Although I do love those Little Free Libraries along the sidewalks in Cambridge. Take a book, leave a book. Do those count?

 

Want to find out more about all the other amazing Instructors at Grub? Check them all out here and, while you're at it, make sure you check out all the classes we're offering here

About the Author

GrubWrites is a space for the writing and reading community to share ideas and seek advice, a place where writers at the very beginning of their careers publish alongside established authors. Book lovers, we bring you reviews, recommendations, and conversations with exciting new authors to keep you up to speed on all things lit. Writers, this is your one stop shop for expert craft talk, opinions on how we learn and teach writing, and essential advice about the publishing industry.

Plus, we want to hear from you! Our ongoing call for submissions is open to literary community members of all types and persuasions. We want to hear from students, teachers, authors, readers, editors, agents, publicists, and any devotee of the written word. If you have something to say about writing, reading, the publishing industry, or anything related to the literary world, this is the place to voice it. We’re particularly committed to advocating for a diverse range of voices in the literary marketplace and raising the visibility of writers from under-represented communities.

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