Imperfect Endings: Zoe Fitzgerald Carter

May 11, 2011

Imperfect Endings: A Daughter's Tale of Life and Death"Just because you are driven to write and passionate about your craft, doesn’t mean you don’t want to be a critical and commercial success."



What is your writing story (in a nutshell)?

I started out as a journalist, writing for newspapers in Cambridge, MA, right out of college. I then moved to New York City in my mid-twenties to go to Columbia Journalism School and began writing for various national magazines. Imperfect Endings is my first published book. I also have an unpublished mystery and am currently working on a novel. I still write for magazines and newspapers.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

I like to say that I come from a long line of failed writers, although that is not entirely fair. My maternal grandfather was a journalist and novelis,t and my grandmother was an aspiring playwright. My mother was also a writer, although she never published. She did, however, spend hours every day holed up in her study writing. She really modeled for me what it meant to live a “writer’s life.” She used to help me write my school papers when I was growing up and was hugely supportive of my creative writing. Another gift from both parents was their decision to never own a television. Reading was always my escape and entertainment.

Where do most of your creative ideas come from?

This may sound strange, but my best creative ideas almost always happen when I am in the shower or out on my bike. I think these are the places where I can stop “thinking” and just let my mind drift. I’ll be daydreaming and suddenly have a really great idea for a new project or have some huge insight into something I am writing. In fact, sometimes the ideas come so fast and furious when I am out on my bike that I have to either pull over and write them down or – if I don’t have a pen and paper – memorize them so I don’t forget. Then as soon as I get home, I write them down.

As to where these ideas come from, I think they emerge from the psychic soup that exits on the right side of my brain somewhere. This is the place where experience, memory and emotion all intersect and where the raw materials of creativity are manufactured.

With regard to your new memoir, Imperfect Endings, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about? When did you realize that you wanted or needed to write about your mother's wish to die?

To be honest, I kind of backed blindly into my ah-ha moment. I initially had an idea for an autobiographical novel that involved three sisters, as I was interested in exploring my experience growing up as the youngest of three girls with two very intense older sisters who fought over my soul from the moment I was born. I thought it would be interesting to have my three “characters” face a crisis in their adult lives that would stir up all the old childhood animosities and alliances.

My mother had recently taken her own life after struggling with Parkinson’s for many years and there had been a great deal of strife between the three of us, so I made this event my “crisis.” I wrote about 50 pages of the novel and my agent at the time suggested I make it a memoir and write about what really happened. After some initial hesitation, I switched to nonfiction and almost immediately, the voice, tone and structure of the book fell into place.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

For me, part of being a creative person involves spending a lot of time alone. It allows me to enter into that dreamy, freeform state of mind that fuels my writing. This way of working does not really jibe with the current model of productivity in our culture, which is very results-oriented. And there are times, especially when I doubt that whatever I am working on will ever see the light of the day, that I start to wish I had an actual job where it was someone else’s responsibility to tell me what to do all day.

I have also struggled over the years with the competing demands of being a mother and a writer. Especially when my kids were small, it was sometimes hard to justify taking time away from them in order to write. But I had the memory of my mother doing this to bolster me, and my intuitive sense that it would be better for all of us in the end if I made time for my creative life.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

There have been times when my chronic under-earning has been a source of tension in my marriage. The truth is, most artists don’t make much money unless they are in that elite group who -- through exceptional talent, perseverance, or luck -- hit the financial jackpot. But having finally published a book and done pretty well with it, the tension has eased and my husband is more proud of my book than anyone else!

Overall he has been incredibly supportive of my life as a writer, both financially and emotionally. As for the other people in my life, most or them are under-earning creative people as well and we all “get” each other perfectly, even when we work in different mediums.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role the discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

I still find myself setting new goals in terms of how I work. Three hours of writing every day, for example. Or, three pages a day. Or doing my writing first thing in the morning. But then I always end up abandoning these protocols.  Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the evenings when my daughter is doing her homework and my husband is catching up on emails. And I’ve come to realize that I am actually more of an intermittent marathoner than an everyday kind of steady as she goes person and I have come to accept this process, as chaotic as it can sometimes feel. I always feel incredibly envious and inadequate when I read about writer’s intensely disciplined lives. That is not me.

How has writing Imperfect Endings and dealing with the issues described in the memoir changed you and your ideas about life and death?

I think the actual experience of talking about and planning my mother’s death with her – and being there when she took her own life -- changed my ideas about life and death. For example, I no longer fear dying the way I once did. I have been through it with my both my parents in such an intimate way and there is a kind of beauty and logic to death. While we all want as much time as we can get, especially if we are healthy and enjoying our lives, the actual physical process of dying does not frighten me.
But I do think that writing the book allowed me to understand the events I describe in a new and deeper way. I really struggled with what it meant to be a “good daughter.” How should you respond when your parent says they want to kill themselves? Talk them out of it -- or help them do it? Writing the book allowed me to wrestle with that question and see where I landed and I hope that readers will want to take that journey with me.

I often think about the difference between writers who seem to attack it from a business perspective (i.e., James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, etc.), versus those who seem to be simply driven from a deep need to write regardless of business concerns (i.e., J.D. Salinger, Pat Conroy, etc.). How would you describe the differences between these types of writers? Where do you fit in?

I think all writers, including Salinger and Conroy care how their books are received. In fact, I think Salinger was so crushed by the negative reviews of Catcher in the Rye, it’s one of the reasons he became a hermit and stopped publishing! I think we need to be careful not to romanticize the “pure” writers who don’t care about publishing, money and success. Just because you are driven to write and passionate about your craft, doesn’t mean you don’t want to be a critical and commercial success.

That said, I agree that there are very successful commercial writers like Clark and Patterson who write to a certain formula because it sells and these writers tend to be less literary. But these writers succeed because there are a lot of readers out there who like what they write – readers who might not read otherwise – and so power to them.

I see myself as someone who writes because it is the only thing I have found to do, besides play music, that really makes me happy but yes – absolutely -- I want to be successful at it!

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Enjoy all the good moments along the way. They are the best life has to offer. Don’t postpone happiness as you wait for a big payoff--the raise, the house, the car, the proposal, the perfect weight, the perfect dress--because even if it happens, it will turn out to be just be another good moment along the way. Embrace all of life’s small pleasures and be open to the humor and beauty in the daily parade.
If I had to express my philosophy on how to get the most out of one’s life, this would be it.

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