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QWERTY's Interview with Tess Callahan

Author Tess Callahan challenged herself to write three hundred pages in three months. She successfully completed a draft of a sequel to her novel April and Oliver, and plans to send it to her agent this spring. Qwerty conducted an email interview to ask her about her creative process and what she calls "The love affair between creativity and constraint." Click here to see her TEDx Talk on the subject.

When you gave yourself the constraint of writing a 300 page draft in three months, did you ever feel discouraged, and if so, what did you do to overcome it?

Discouragement is not something I allow in the door until the second draft, when it can be a useful tool. The first draft is a time to let the thing spill out like an unformed blob of clay. It’s hard to feel discouraged about something that’s only meant to be a blob. The second draft is when the shaping begins. At that point I reread what I’ve written, see the chasm between what I’m hoping for and what’s actually there, and start sculpting. If in the first draft the clay itself is not forthcoming, I let the thing combust and germinate in my head, mostly through walks in the woods, until I see it unfold cinematically on the screen of my mind and race home to write it down.

How did you avoid the temptation of procrastination?

If you understand your life as a lit fuse the length of which is unknown, you will not procrastinate. Even if a crystal ball showed you had another fifty years, you can’t wait till year 3 or 26 or 47 to start honing your craft. Every note Yo-Yo Ma played from childhood built upon the next, leading up to his latest performance. Any great artist, athlete or musician has countless mistakes to make, portals to pass through, before they start getting things right. Mistakes are your friends. The sooner you start embracing them, the longer and deeper the arc of your learning.

What would you suggest to those who attempt these constraints, but find themselves getting stuck?

My painting teacher always encouraged us to work on multiple canvases at once. If you get stuck on one, quickly move to the next. Allowing your conscious brain to switch gears can free your subconscious to work out conundrums beneath your awareness. When working on a novel, the canvases might simply be different chapters. No one says you have to work linearly. I also urge my students to write in multiple genres—fiction, poetry, nonfiction and playwriting—a kind of cross training at the gym. What you learn from one will help you in another, and by staying nimble and adroit across forms, you can avoid getting stuck.

One of your self-imposed limitations was to seek out incongruity. If a writer were to apply this constraint to a character, how would he/she do so without the character seeming inconsistent to their readers? There seems to be a fine line, so what would you say is the differentiation?

When a writer deeply and intimately inhabits the consciousness of a character, incongruities arise organically. I’m not talking about contradictions tacked on in

a gimmicky way for the sake of novelty. The detail of Holden Caulfield’s grey hair would feel contrived if it weren’t a manifestation of the paradox of cynicism and innocence within him. If a character strikes the reader as inconsistent, it is a sign that his oddities come more from authorial shenanigans than the character’s intrinsic nature.

In your Ted Talk you mentioned a few brainstorming exercises that you prepare for your students that have these constraints. How do you come up with the exercises?

Often my constraints are designed to counter particular excesses. If I notice my students using adverbs as a crutch, I’ll ban them to foster stronger verbs. Consider, “He ran quickly” vs. “He bolted.” Sometimes I’ll customize the constraint. For example, I’ll ask students to identify their strong suits—description, dialogue, whatever—and prohibit them from using it for a time. If you think of the elements of fiction as a mobile, giving too much weight to any one of them throws the whole thing off balance. We all tend to lean on our strengths to the detriment of our weaknesses. The best constraints are the ones that force you to write with your dominant hand tied behind your back.

Is there any constraint that you think is too extreme or unfeasible? Or do you accept these limitations with the mind set that anything can be achieved?

Constraints that appear extreme or unfeasible are often the most fertile, assuming they come from a place of true artistic curiosity. For example, the idea for George Saunders’ compelling novel LINCOLN IN THE BARDO came from an anecdote he heard years before about Lincoln visiting his young son’s crypt in the middle of the night. Fascinated and repelled by the story, Saunders thought it too challenging to write about, yet didn’t want to be one of those people who secretly desire to try something, but never does. The dare was born.

Tess Callahan has published several short works in magazines including AGNI (Pushcart Prize nomination), Narrative Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine, as well as THE BEST LITTLE BOOK CLUB IN TOWN ANTHOLOGY. She coordinates the Creative Writing Program at Newark Academy, New Jersey and created, as well as her personal website,

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