The Artist In the Office Interview: Felicia Sullivan
So many times we create a fantastical ideal around what it would be like to write a book–how you need SPACE and TIME and the PERFECT setting to write our great masterpieces. In fact, most writers, especially nowadays, create that space and time among the same everyday lives we ourselves lead: the busy, frantic, working kind. Felicia Sullivan has accomplished what so many of us dream of doing–she just published her first (of many to come) books. Her riveting and beautiful memoir The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here, was released in February by Algonquin Books. I sat down with Felicia (in the e-mail sense) and asked her about the very REAL process of writing her book:
Can you tell our reading audience just what your life looked like when you began writing The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here? Were you working full-time and doing anything else in your life at the time?
For years I was an evangelist of the maxim: If there is a spare moment in the day, fill it with a project worth doing – a project that inspires, challenges and makes you feel that the world is a great place, worthy of your work. When I embarked on this journey four years ago–committing my memories, my painful childhood lived with my mother–I was the curator of a reading series, a publisher and editor of a literary journal, a writer of short stories, a project manager for a multi-media company, a baker of a mean blueberry crumble, and host to a succession of parties whose sole goal was to bring smart, creative women together.
Suffice it to say, I had a lot on my proverbial plate. I was stockpiling activities. I owned and updated multiple day planners. Making time in frenetic schedule for my most significant project yet was paramount, so I took a step back, examined my life and did some retooling.
How did you find time to write?
I was the queen of on-the-clock writing. I had it down to a science. Luckily I don’t mind waking at the crack of dawn and heading into the quiet office. The hum of the air conditioner, a hot cup of coffee and those few precious hours of solitude resembled something like church – I was able to write for two hours in unmitigated peace. On the weekends, I mapped out my projects for the week, kept a very detailed to-do list and tried to compartmentalize as many tasks as I could, and complete tasks in off-hours. In essence, don’t marry yourself to the 9-to-5 work schedule. Adjust, plan ahead, try to find the pockets of time that work best for you, and if you’re in a position – delegate.
Writing on the clock, how did you manage job work vs. creative work? Are there any pitfalls to writing while on the job? Any perks?
I’m not going to lie and say that working on the clock will work for everyone, but if you’re committed to your project and you’re able to effectively organize your day to allow for those precious moments of artistic creation – do it. If you took the same energy to lose those five pounds or forgo the pricey designer latte, then making time for your work is a cinch.
The workplace offers a slew of terrific office supplies including the crucial laser printer, and most importantly, it guarantees consistent income and health benefits. You can’t beat that with a bat!
Pitfalls – the nosy colleagues which can be struck down by closing your door or mouthing “I’m on an important call” (equip yourself with a headset and mime importance), the constant barrage of emails (realize that not everything demands your immediate attention) and the work!
At your reading in New York, you admitted, with your former boss in the audience, that you wrote a good deal of your book at work. What was his reaction?
He took it all in stride! But it was critical that I still excelled at work. That is the key – once your performance starts slipping, people start noticing the extracurricular projects and the reams of paper that mysteriously disappeared. Be smart. Do your job, do it well, but use the workplace to your advantage. While I was writing my memoir on the job, I received two promotions and many accolades from senior management.
I know you work in an office now. Sometimes the office life can be uninspiring. Are there things you have or do that make your office life more personally engaging or inspired or even comfortable?
I’ve banned fluorescent lights from my office in favor of mood-setting lamps. I collect odd stuffed animals. I play Radiohead. Naturally, the president of my company is my office neighbor and we routinely commend one another on our choice playlist.
The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here is a deeply personal work, that no doubt wasn’t an easy book to write—emotionally or artistically. Were there moments you just didn’t feel like working on this book and if so, what were some of the things that got you in the mode to be able to get it done?
Absolutely. However, I had to consistently think of the big picture: Why was I writing this book? What did I want to achieve? Why did I want people to read it? What would be the result of releasing my heart – a great piece of me into the world? Realizing that telling my story would give me a profound sense of closure by having a conversation with my mother, one I might never have, telling her about the woman I’ve become as the result of her parenting, and also letting people know that they are not alone. That it is not abnormal to have a painful relationship with a parent and then decide to make the difficult decision to let them go. That they can rise triumphant from their adversity (no matter how significant).
Once I repeated all of these mantras to myself could I keep going.
Before writing this book, did you have any ideas of what writing a book would be like, and if so, what were they? How have they changed since you have finished this book?
No, not really. I knew it would be hard work and it was. But perhaps I underestimated the degree of difficulty.
What advice would you give people who want to write a book, but are not sure where to begin?
Find your subject and bury your head in it. Don’t listen to the industry; don’t write what the world tells you to write. Write what you love and don’t compromise your integrity.