Ingrid Rojas Conteras speaks to Naima Coster, Alexandra Kleeman, R. O. Kwon, Laura van den Berg, and Bryan Washington about the language they use to describe writing novels.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree
Something New Under the Sun—
Halsey Street What’s Mine and Yours
The Third Hotel—
I used my metaphor to teach myself to remain present. One of the struggles I faced early on (and which still comes and goes) has to do with a mounting anxiety about doing well and ruining the work or doing badly and ruining the work—worries that are located somewhere in the future or somewhere in the past. Sometimes I think of holding my breath while diving as a reminder to stay present, to maintain the focus and presence of mind necessary to write. Other days, my metaphor reminds me that I will go deep into what is terrifying, the part of the ocean where there is no light, to find what I seek.
Bryan Washington, whose debut novel Memorial published in 2020 and might be the most gorgeous and sparse prose you ever read, doesn’t necessarily think about writing in metaphors. He shared that he thinks about it as akin to having a conversation with himself and trying to think through a series of related questions.
“I’m not necessarily interested in answering the question(s). And I rarely ever do,” he said. “But uncovering new tangents, throughlines, and connections that further my understanding of the possibilities surrounding the questions themselves (‘What is home?’ ‘What forms can family take?’ ‘What does it mean to be okay, and how can we convince ourselves that we are enough?’) are what bring me value. I’ve learned (gradually, somewhat begrudgingly) to be alright with not having certainty or codified conclusions, but searching for possibilities inside of that uncertainty is what brings me joy in the writing.” This is a framing language I use to teach novels too. Asking through storytelling, instead of telling, makes the whole endeavor of writing more possible.
In writing a novel, there will be an image, a metaphor, or a framing door through which it will be easier to enter the text. Whatever working language or metaphor a writer comes up with must serve the writing itself, and it often seems to grow from the writer’s experience of the work. I find this language so beautiful to hear and learn about because we may write alone, but we share the process.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras is the author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Doubleday, 2018) a silver medal winner in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and a New York Times editor's choice. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Cut, The Believer, and elsewhere. A new work of nonfiction, a family memoir about her grandfather, a curandero from Colombia who it was said had the power to move clouds, is coming from Doubleday in 2022.