How's the Writing Going, R.O. Kwon?
“I know that when I’m really writing, when I’m really, really lost in a sentence, I forget I have a body, I forget what time is. I forget to eat.”
R. O. KWON’s nationally best-selling first novel, The Incendiaries, is published by Riverhead, and it is being translated into seven languages. Named a best book of the year by over forty publications, The Incendiaries was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award. Kwon has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, and MacDowell. Kwon and Garth Greenwell coedited the best-selling anthology Kink, published by Simon & Schuster and a New York Times Editor’s Choice book.
SARI BOTTON is the author of the memoir in essays, And You May Find Yourself...Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo. She is the former Essays Editor for Longreads, and edited the bestselling anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NewYork and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. She teaches creative nonfiction at Bay Path University and Kingston Writers' Studio, and is the Writer in Residence at SUNY New Paltz for Spring, 2023. She publishes Oldster Magazine, Memoir Monday, and Adventures in Journalism.
*This interview was originally conducted in November of 2021.
This is a column called How’s the Writing Going? It began at Catapult (RIP!), and now I’m bringing it here, to The Lit Lab. It’s the question no writer wants to be asked—but which every writer wants to ask others. We want to know that other people are struggling the same way we are, or to learn other writers’ hacks and antidotes for blocks and other challenges.
Here I chat with R. O. Kwon about the ways she’s quieted her anxiety at this fraught time in the world so she can be productive writing her next novel.
Sari Botton: Shortly after the 2020 election, I noticed one of your tweets. I think this was after it was finally determined that Biden had won. You tweeted, “somehow writing remains difficult even now, seems rude.” It was very relatable to me, and I’m sure to many other writers, because so many of us had been freaking out through the entire Trump administration and even before then—through the election leading up to that. It put us in this anxious state that made it hard to concentrate. Then, even after Biden was elected, there was this right-wing campaign to overturn the result. What was it like for you to focus and be productive through all the recent political turmoil?
R. O. Kwon: Oh man, it was so hard. To write fiction, I feel as though I need acres of space and time and ability to focus, and that’s so, so hard to find. Let me talk about some things that have helped, because at the start of the pandemic, I was only writing one sentence a day. I had this novel deadline to deal with, and I was like, one sentence a day isn’t going to get me there. It wasn’t great, but at least I was writing one sentence a day. In those first couple of months, I could barely even read, which I know was also common for so many people.
One thing that really helped was trying to set up community around the act of writing. I now have two different accountability groups: one over email and one over text. I send in the number of words I wrote that day, and a couple of people send in the number of minutes or hours they’ve worked. Getting those emails reminds me that, in a way, I’m sort of letting my friends down if I don’t work that day, if I don’t get to my writing that day.
I realized that it’s really important to me, in general, to try to not let other people down. I’m equally good at letting myself down. I break promises to myself thirty times a day. It’s just me, you know, it’s easy to let myself down. Applying that logic to the act of writing itself has been really, really helpful.
My other accountability group is a text chain with a couple of good friends. It’s more long-form, and we text each other what we worked on but also things we’re thinking about, things we’re reading, sometimes funny cat videos. That’s really lovely too, to be so aware of what these two dear friends are up to on a daily basis with their writing, reading, and living.