The A to (Almost) Z of How Flow Helped Sue Grafton Find Fame

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I interviewed bestselling mystery novelist Sue Grafton some years back by phone for the research that led to my book, Writing in Flow. Grafton was a generous, genuine, and insightful interviewee.

She very recently (December 28, 2017) died at age 77, so it seems a good time to share that enlightening interview. Much of this conversation has never before been printed.

Q&A with Sue Grafton from 1998:

Q: Do you ever enter a flow state when writing? That lovely state of full absorption in which time seems to stop?

It’s what I crave, what I live for. I don’t know that I have worked out methods of controlling that.  I do what I can to minimize distractions. Life is there to be lived, and the phone does ring, workers knock at the door asking questions, and sometimes you have to live with that. Any interruption takes you out of flow and puts you right back into reality that you’re hoping to set aside. 

Q.  How long does your flow last and can you get right back in after interruptions?

What I’ve been trying, and this seems effective, is before I start work, I show up at my desk at 9  o’clock every morning, and I think part of the issue of flow is presenting yourself for the task. I think your internal process needs to be geared to the fact that you will show up for work at a certain time every day. From the point of view of your subconscious there is a preparedness.  I try a form of self-hypnosis which I got out of a book from the library. I think it is a way of suggesting to yourself that the job is going to be done, so you suggest to yourself that there will be a period of concentrated and focused work. 

Q.  Do you think you go into a self-hypnotic focused trance BEFORE you start writing, in ORDER to get the writing started?

I feel it is a journey into the subconscious, so I think that the moment I begin work I am very in touch with my reality and as the work proceeds and as I move into it, I achieve sometimes that state that is called flow. But I go in and out. I am never one who would be engaged in flow for hours at a stretch. I wish I were. At the end of a book, I present myself for work more often. I’m always moving in and out. Possibly because when I started writing, I had young children, and in some ways that is the gift, that if you are accustomed to numerous interruptions, you accept that as part of your working method. And you don’t allow it to throw you into any kind of upset. 

Q.  Have you found other ways to make it easier to enter flow?

There are a number of ways in which you can induce at least a minimal hypnotic state, which is what flow is. It’s odd when I do a form of self-hypnosis, at first I think well, this just feels like any other workday, but inevitably I get tons more done, I feel connected to the work, and for me the issue is just persistence. It’s not like every day I do eight hours or even six hours of concentrated work. My goal from day to day is two pages. Over a period of time that’s a book a year, just about. 

Q.  Your alphabetic format [A Is for Alibi] provides a structure, and your annual contracts have meant you’re always on a deadline. Have you learned how to deal with that structure and make it comfortable for you?

There is a curious relationship between me and the alphabet. On one hand, I love the structure. I love the form and the content it gives to my days. If I reach Z is for Zero I’ll have to find some new way to invent that. I swear I’ll never do connected titles again, as long as we both shall live. And I do wake up sometimes and say, What was I thinking! Was I insane? Did I have a breakdown? Was I nuts? But what a wonderful way to stay connected to the work. And since Kinsey Milhone and I are virtually the same person, except I’m sure she cusses more than I do, that’s not a hardship. Kinsey and I are so close in our sensibilities that it’s not hard.     

I don’t have a formal deadline anymore. I used to do a book a year, and I would turn in the manuscript Sept.1 or thereabouts, and at a certain point, what’s been happening of course, is that the promotional work has taken a larger and larger bite out of my schedule. So suddenly, I could do the book a year, if it was just about the writing, but to stop and do phone interviews, to do the tour, print interviews, I was getting more tense and more stressed, and for me that’s the opposite of flow. You start getting hasty, you skip things.

So at that point I told my publisher it was killing me. I know how I am, I will hit my mark, I will hit my deadline, and one day I’ll wake up and think, screw this, I won’t ever write another word of it. If you want to keep me going, you better make it possible.  It seems to take me 10 months no matter when I start. I just keep them informed as to where I am.

Q.  Do you have an ideal reader?

I am my best reader. But with mystery fiction, of course, there is another level of complication. The mystery is the one form where the reader and the writer are pitted against each other. I am the magician. I have to work as a writer, and then I have to step outside myself and say, Now if I were the reader, as the reader, what do I know, what do I perceive, what pieces of the puzzle can I put together? Even so, I cannot control every reader, so I know how to outsmart a lot of people, but I can’t outsmart everybody. And the truth is the reader’s perception is not linear. There is almost an intuitive level of function that makes incredible leaps. I can look at a page, I can layout A, B, C, and D. The reader will go to P instantly. 

When I think too much about reviewers, reader reception, all those issues, I get scared, and once I get scared, I don’t work. So what I say to myself is “Lower your sights.” Quit looking at the end product. Quit looking at leaping four months till your editor is reading the book. Quit thinking about reviews, or whether you will get another insulting letter about your plotting. My only responsibility is to write the next sentence well. And so I pull my focus down to as small and tiny as I can get it.

Q: How much do you revise?

I revise as I go. For me, if a chapter isn’t right, a section of dialogue doesn’t play, how can I move on?  Because each piece flows from the piece before. You have to make sure it moves in the right direction with grace. 

Q.  How and when did you learn this?

I have gradually come to that understanding about the next sentence. I think early in the alphabet it was not as difficult. For A is for Alibi, what did I have to lose? I had no reputation, I was free as a bird. And so sometimes I think about these poor people who complain that they don’t have a deal or a contract. I think, Are you lucky?! You can do anything you want. You don’t have a series of readers going, This didn’t seem as good as her last one.

Plus I’m trying not to repeat myself. I think it’s boring. However, it adds another layer of intellectual shenanigans. The longer I am at this, the more important it is for me to get to flow, to get to that state wherein the rest of the world does not exist. And I am only here doing exactly what’s in front of me.

Q.  Are you loose in your life, letting go of what you can’t control?

I’m a control freak. That is always the battle I find. For instance, I’m looking at my desk. I love tidy, I love order. I love routine, I love regulation. Because all of that contributes to flow. If I look around my desk and I see unanswered letters, pencils out of place, the mail piled up, I go insane. Because to me it’s little voices going, Do me, help me. I have a few items on my desk, some totem items, a couple of photographs that I love, and books close at hand. But if it gets too far out of control, I have to stop and take care of it or I can’t work.

Currently we have construction on the premises. It’s madness. This is wonderful practice for me. So I just look at all of this as a way of practicing. I can’t control it, so I have to set it aside. It’s like, Oh, well. Do it anyway. If you can’t control your immediate environment, then you have to lift yourself out of it or sink beneath it and go on with the work.   

Q.  Do you think of yourself as resilient?  Perhaps that would come up more in the earlier years…

No, I think it continues because I am a larger target now. I get negative letters and I think they’re very amusing. Sometimes they get to me, they trigger my anger. People get angry over typos. They won’t really believe I will get the letter. So they feel perfectly comfortable spewing and venting.  Then I’ll sit down and spew back at them. Sometimes I say to them, shame on you. Or sometimes I’m snotty. I try to handle it differently. 

Q.  Would you keep doing the writing if the money stopped?

I would keep doing it. It better not be about the money. Hollywood is about the money. And believe me, that’s not enough if you’re unhappy doing what you’re doing. If you’re happy doing what you’re doing, then it doesn’t make any difference. It satisfies you and gives meaning to your life. 

(c) 2018 by Susan K. Perry, author of Writing in Flow (out of print but readily available online) and Kylie’s Heel

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