Symbolism can add depth to our writing, turning characters into real people, and developing nuance in scenes. In today’s podcast interview, Caroline Donahue explains how to use Tarot cards to delve into symbolism and give your unconscious mind some fuel for creativity.
In the introduction, I talk about the ghostwriting + plagiarism scandal sweeping the romance community #copypastecris, referring to Courtney Milan’s original article and what to do about it, plus Kris Rusch’s in-depth analysis. I explain the difference between ghostwriting and co-writing, as well as why ghostwriting is a normal practice in publishing [Reedsy examples], but plagiarism is most definitely not acceptable.
Today’s show is sponsored by my Productivity for Authors mini-course with lessons on saying no and setting boundaries, finding time to write, making the most of your writing time, co-writing, working with author assistants, dictation, tools I use personally, and thoughts on health and mindset. Find all my courses at: www.TheCreativePenn.com/learn
- Common misconceptions about tarot
- Ways of using the tarot to think about character motivation and inner landscape
- The three types of archetypal journeys a book, its author and its characters go through
- Doing tarot readings with authors to discover what may not be working in a book
- Why you don’t need to know what the cards mean before working with them
- Why your subconscious matters when working with tarot
- On interviewing authors and noticing what they have in common
- On the changes a new city and continent have had on Caroline’s writing
You can find Caroline Donahue at CarolineDonahue.com and on Twitter @carodonahue
Transcript of Interview with Caroline Donahue
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I’m here with Caroline Donahue. Hi, Caroline.
Caroline: Hi. It’s so nice to be here.
Joanna: Oh, it’s great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Caroline is an American author and writing coach living in Berlin, Germany. She’s also the host of ‘The Secret Library’ podcast which is fantastic and I’ve been on it, so go listen to that.
Caroline: You’ve been on it twice.
Joanna: It’s amazing. Today we are talking about her latest book ‘Story Arcana: Using Tarot for Writing’ which is super cool and something I have definitely done over my creative lifetime.
Caroline, start by telling us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.
Caroline: I think it’s one of those things where it’s difficult to say when it started because it was kind of always there. I have these memories of being a little kid and taking stacks of paper and folding them in half and stapling them and making books, like, at a compulsive pitch.
Then the problem was is that I may have been an early compulsive bookbinder as much as anything else, at which what my mother pointed out, ‘You might actually want to write in them before you make another one.’
But I was the kid who was hiding under the piano in the corner of the classroom and reading and I pulled my first all-nighter I think when I was in third grade, third or fourth grade, reading ‘Bridge to Terabithia.’
It started very early the obsession with books and my mother used to say that I ate books, which I think is fairly accurate. I’d rather give up food than books probably.
And so with this intensity about books, there was always an interest in writing. And I was fortunate in that my family was not the kind of family that said, ‘Oh, that’s a terrible idea. You’ll starve to death and die,’ or the things that people say, and I got to go to some creative writing camps. There were some writing classes early on in school and I was really supported in that enjoyment.
Now, the funny thing is, I didn’t end up getting a degree in creative writing at school. I studied art history and then I ended up studying psychology which has actually been a better degree for writing in some ways because just getting into the way people work and the way that they think has continued to engage me.
I find that actually being into books is the best possible way to handle this because every book can be different. You can write fiction and nonfiction. Writing has been a way for me to stay engaged with many different interests, and yet appear to have a cohesive career.
Joanna: I love that.
Caroline: That’s why it’s really worked in the long term.
Joanna: I totally get that and I think that works really well. I feel the same way. We can do our research however we like. I have a second degree in psychology and also art history come into a lot of my books as well so obviously you and I have a lot in common. We always talk about this.
Joanna: Let’s get into the tarot. I blame Hollywood, I blame the media for making it sort of only gypsy fortunetellers or satanic rituals use tarot cards.
Tell us a bit more about what tarot is and some of the misconceptions that might be out there.
Caroline: One of my favorite sort of debunking statements about the whole kind of, ‘Is it a satanic tool?’ is a friend of mine, Susannah Conway always says, ‘Well, they’re just bits of cardboard with pictures on them.’ That’s what they are.
There are a lot of tools out there that are used for communication and exploration and I think people thought the telephone was kind of a satanic tool early on because it allowed people to communicate over long distances in ways they wouldn’t normally be able to do.
So I think the tool itself is actually quite neutral and I think that it depends on how you use it. Some people use it and claim to use it to be able to predict the future and that’s not how I’m working with it and I don’t think I’ve actually ever studied with anyone who claims to be able to predict the future.
It’s more that, from my background where I studied, expressive arts therapy and psychology is the relationship that the unconscious mind has to imagery, and the mind abhors a vacuum. So if you present a brain with a picture that looks like there’s something going on in the picture and then you try to say to yourself, ‘Okay, well what’s going on here?’
Your mind will start to fill in the gaps. It just happens naturally. We are storytelling, meaning-making beings. It’s how we’ve made sense out of our lives as long as people have existed.
The tarot is a system that’s been around for hundreds of years. It was originally started as…there are mixed kind of thoughts on it, but the greater consensus is that it was started as a card game and that some fortunetellers kind of co-opted the card game and then started to use it for fortunetelling.
It wasn’t even intended as a fortunetelling tool from the beginning but because it’s had this long association, a lot of people get nervous and freaked out about that, and there are some relatively scary pictures on it.
People get scared of the devil card or they get scared of the tower, they get scared of death. They’re not light topics but life isn’t light either if we look at it below the surface. It’s not like life is puppies and kittens and flowers everywhere and we never have to deal with anything dark.
In many ways I feel like the tarot is a more honest representation of our experience as people because it does include dark imagery, and good books include dark stuff. They’re not just sort of, ‘La, la, la, everything is beautiful. The end.’ We might want to write one of those sometimes because it’d be kind of a relief but I don’t.
Joanna: Neither do I.
Caroline: No, you definitely do not. And most of the people that I know who read books don’t want to read those either.
Joanna: I agree with you. I think there’s something on that deeper level. You just reminded me there of ‘James Bond: Live and Let Die’ I think ‘The Hangman’ and the voodoo stuff coming out from the grave and it’s been associated with stuff like that, but actually, as you say, I love that, just pictures on pieces of cardboard. That’s fantastic. I love it.
Caroline: Bless you Susannah for that one, but it’s true. They’re neutral. They’re an inanimate object. There’s no power inside of them that’s going to change or control your life. It’s a way for you to trick your unconscious to giving you information that’s not readily available.
Joanna: No, it’s almost like a writing prompt when we’re talking about writers.
Joanna: So the symbolism of tarots.
Pick a card, any card, and talk about how the symbolism of a card might help us access that unconscious mind.
Caroline: The one that I’ve focused on, because there are 72 cards in the deck and I have only focused on the first 22 in this book because I feel like they’re a set.
The major arcana is traditionally looked at as a set, and for those who don’t know much about the tarot there’s the major arcana and there’s the minor arcana, and the majors in all decks they have big pictures on them and they have big names and they are big types like ‘The Hermit’ or ‘The Fool’ or ‘The Magician.’
Anyone who’s Googled tarot sees that yellow picture from the Rider-Waite with the guy with his arms outstretched and the symbols around him. That’s sort of a standard image. So that’s the major arcana and they represent major turns in the road, big changes, and the minors are more everyday incidents.
And then within that, there are the court cards, which are people. And so I’m planning to write about those later in terms of plot and the court cards I think are more about character development so I’m going to play with those later.
I don’t know if anyone has this issue. I have this issue sometimes when I’m writing a character, it feels a bit forced or it feels like I’m kind of the characters mouthing what I want them to say or they feel a bit like a puppet and there has to be some kind of unconscious motivation going on.
Maybe that the character isn’t even aware of because we do things all the time not realizing why we’re really doing them and you want your characters to feel more like real people.
So sometimes asking a question like, ‘Well, what are they hiding here? What are they maybe hiding from themselves?’ And then pulling a card and seeing what comes out, then you can start to turn it into a puzzle.
Say you have a character who’s a really, really friendly, helpful, kindhearted character and then you pull a card and the card underneath it’s hiding from them it’s something like ‘The Hierophant’ hiding underneath, and ‘The Hierophant’ is about institutions of thought. It’s also about the sort of institutionalized religion, organized thinking society and that sort of thing.
You might have a character who appears to be extremely helpful but if you look at their underneath agenda, they’re really trying to push a system. They might be trying to convert somebody. They might be trying to put them in a box or have them make sense.
It’s a way to make the dynamic just a little more sophisticated, and often it doesn’t take that much to make a scene just a little bit more interesting or dialogue just a little bit more realistic.
Because if you have a scene that’s like, ‘Hi, John, I’ve just been to the store. They were out of milk.’ And he says, ‘Well damn, I’m really sad that they were out of milk.’ That’s not going to be that interesting, but if what’s really happening is it’s a man and woman and he thinks she hasn’t really been to the store. He thinks she’s been sneaking out to see her lover.
If you find that underneath. If you pull ‘The Lovers’ and see maybe somebody thinks there’s something else going on then the thing about the milk can be pretty dynamic.
Joanna: I love that and it’s really interesting. I told you this earlier, but at several points in my life’s journey, I’ve pulled ‘The Moon’ and ‘The Hermit’ and amazingly ‘The Moon’ especially has come up for me again and again.
I haven’t done my own spread that often in my life but at major points where I just don’t know what I’m doing with my life, I pulled ‘The Moon’.
In case anyone is interested, what do you think that says about me?
Caroline: I think ‘The Moon’ is about intuition.
The moon comes out at night and it’s illumination that happens at night and it’s also on many decks. I think you said you had a Rider-Waite, but if you look at a Rider-Waite moon, you’ll see this crazy lobster crawling out of the water. There’s a lot of weird stuff going on in ‘The Moon.’
There’s a wolf howling and there’s usually this lobster coming out. I think that ‘The Moon’ to me represents looking at the unconscious and seeing what comes up from the depths if you really pay attention to that. So if you’re working with ‘The Moon’ it’s not all going to be out in the open.
It’s not like ‘The Sun,’ another card, where everything will be really obvious, upfront, everything’s good. It’s easy. But ‘The Moon’ is you have to wait until it gets dark out, you have to wait until some light comes out and then the stuff is going to start coming out of the depths and then you’ll be able to see what’s really going on.
To me it’s about patience, it’s not being afraid to find inspiration in the darker portion of your exploration and it’s also about trusting your intuition and trusting yourself and not expecting it to be all out in the front with a blaring sign like, ‘Here it is.’ It takes a bit more patience to work with ‘The Moon.’
Joanna: I love that and I think it’s been quite comforting for me to have ‘The Moon’ and also ‘The Hermit’ which just represents the writer’s life.
Caroline: Totally. It’s like, ‘Don’t hang out with people. Just go write. Go write. Just go do it, basically.’
Let’s talk about archetypes because again, we both studied psychology. I’ve written about Carl Jung. I know you’re also really interested in Jungian psychology.
How are the archetypes represented between Jungian psychology and the tarot?
Caroline: I think that there are several layers going on. It’s easy to talk about with the major arcane, which again is the focus of the book for this stage, because it not only talks about types that you see like ‘The Empress’ is a mother figure, a very maternal figure. You see that in every society.
‘The Emperor’ is a paternal figure that’s a male energy that’s really in charge and can handle everything, and then those are the sorts of archetypal images that you see in every society one way or another.
But the other layer of it is that from the beginning of the major arcana with ‘The Fool’ all the way to ‘The World’ at the end there is a journey that is happening, and the archetype of a journey is something that’s present in most societies.
You see it in ‘The Odyssey’. You see it in cave paintings, you see people going out to hunt trying to solve something and then coming back, and all of these stages of what can happen in the journey are present in the major arcana.
You have the little guy at the beginning of ‘The Fool’ who’s got a backpack on, he sets out. You get to ‘The Magician’ he’s got a sense of, okay, I’m feeling a sense of mastery and he goes through all of these stages leading to the cards that scare people and that everybody wants to throw back in the deck whenever they pull them like ‘The Tower’ which is everything falls apart, and ‘The Devil’ which everybody thinks just means the worst possible thing happening. I don’t, but we can talk about that if you want.
And then also, ‘Death’ which is sort of an ending things that have to be. And that can be a literal death or it can be a metaphorical death where a relationship dies, something in a storyline dies, something happens.
‘Death’ is pretty much primal an archetype as you can get. And then it comes out the other side with things like ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Moon’ and ‘The Star’ which is a bit of hope and moving forward into a sort of reckoning with ‘Judgement’ and then you get to ‘The World’ which is sort of like, ‘Okay, now we’ve come full circle, literally like a globe. We’ve come full circle.’ And then you start over.
One thing that I focus on in the book that I think is important is that there are three levels that go through this major arcana journey which is an archetypal journey.
You have your characters in the book will go through their own journey, figure things out, learn things, maybe not learn some other things and they will reach a point at the end.
The book itself will go through its own evolution. Points where the book is working, when the book is not working, when you want to throw the book in the garbage, feeling like this was a stupid idea, ‘I shouldn’t have written this book,’ and then, ‘Oh, wait, I’ve figured it out.’
You get through the ‘The Tower’ part where the book is terrible and then you have some hope and then you get to the end and you get to ‘The World’ and there’s your book.
But it’s also for the writer because anybody who writes knows that part of the reason that what you want to write is that we want to be transformed by the process as well.
If it was we were exactly the same as we were at the beginning every time we write a book I mean that would get pretty boring for me. So those three layers are happening and you can follow those archetypes through the journey of the major arcana in the tarot.
Joanna: Wow. It’s so interesting, and this is the truth about writing, isn’t it? You can go all these different layers and levels and like you say, it can be our journey as writers, it can be the journey of the characters. It’s just fascinating.
There’s so much in your book. It really is jam-packed amazing stuff, but I’m interested because of course you also do readings for other people. You do readings for other writers.
Caroline: I do.
Joanna: If people want to do their own reading with your book, how would they do that or how do you do it for other people?
Caroline: The way I started was basically that, like you, I was getting the same cards all the time for myself.
I would go through phases, and it does change, I would use a different deck. I would change. Nope, you’re still getting whatever it was. You’re still getting ‘The Hangman’ right now. You’re in limbo, too bad for you.
And so I said, ‘Well, there’s cards I’m just never drawing so I want to learn.’ So I decided I was going to do a 100 readings one summer and I just told anybody I’m doing it by donation. I really just want to build more of a relationship with these other cards that I never pull.
And then I ended up doing one of those readings for someone who was working on a book and they said, ‘I don’t really need a reading for me. I feel okay about me.’ But I’m really stuck on this book.
So we looked at what was not working with the book, where was the stuck point with the book and then you start to ask questions and pull a card and then look at the card and like we discussed earlier your subconscious will start to fill in answers.
You can ask questions and it’s best if they are who, what, when, where, why kind of questions. ‘Why’ is really good. ‘How’ is pretty good. ‘What’s missing’ is good. You don’t want to say, ‘Is this book good? Yes or no?’ That’s really not going to work very well with the tarot. They have to be a little bit more like prompts where you would want to do some journaling after you do it.
But I do put a couple of spreads that are examples of ones I’ve created especially for writers in the book. One is which is like working with dialogue. So if somebody is having a conversation you can pull a card for each character and then you can pull another card underneath each character to say what are you really trying to talk about here.
No one ever talks about what they actually talking about in a book or they shouldn’t because otherwise, you get things like, ‘Oh, George, we must run forth before the explosion happens because it will kill us all and this is not expository dialogue at all.’ You don’t want that.
There has to be something going on underneath. Picking something for your surface level and then picking for something underneath is really helpful.
Another thing that’s helpful is if you get into this situation. I don’t know if anyone else has this happened. It happens to me all the time where my character is in location A, I need to get them to location B and they don’t seem to want to go to location B. It just feels unnatural or it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get them there but it feels really far.’
I used to live in Maine for a while at one point and one thing that they like to say is like, ‘Oh, you can’t get there from here, because the roads are constructed in such a way that it’s very difficult to get to a place that looks very close by.’
So I had a spread in my head that I called the ‘You can’t get there from here.’ You pick a card for where the character is now, you pick a card for where they’re trying to go and then you pick another one for in between and then start saying, ‘Oh, the people in there are…’
You don’t have to know what the tarot means. I would hate people listening to feel like they have to go buy a bunch of tarot books and study it and learn it. It’s not like learning a foreign language where you can’t interact with it if you don’t know what the words actually mean.
Because they’re pictures, you can look at the picture and it’s more important that you decide what that picture looks like to you. So if you see something like the five of ones and there’s a bunch of people trying to poke each other with long sticks and you say, ‘Oh look it’s like they’re in a fight it’s not going well.’
Maybe if she got in a fight with somebody then she’d want to leave and then she could go to this other location.
It’s more important that your unconscious kicks in when you’re looking at the cards so that your associations and your understanding of your story is what allows it to mean more and to give you some aha moments.
Joanna: I love that. I love the idea of the two levels of the dialogue and then what’s actually going on underneath. That’s a really good tip. I love that. I’m going to try that. It’s fantastic.
Caroline: Yes, it’s fun.
Joanna: Let’s talk about the decks because you’re in art history and I love visual images. I’ve looked at a lot of this stuff and the interesting thing is there’s not one tarot deck that everybody uses. So there might be one card called ‘The Moon’ and such but if you buy a Native American deck versus the Rider-Waite as we’ve mentioned is the kind of maybe the best known.
We’ve also got the Thoth deck in our house which my husband likes and I know you’ve got other ones.
Tell us about the deck or decks you prefer and also does it matter? And why the image is so different?
Caroline: First of all, I will say it does not matter what deck you get as long as you like it. If you respond to the imagery and the imagery feels really exciting or rewarding or it connects to the kind of thing you’re trying to work on then I think it’s completely fine.
There’s no one deck to rule them all. I don’t think that exists, especially now when there are new decks coming out all the time.
The Rider-Waite-Smith is sort of become one syntax. So there are a lot of decks that will take the illustration that Pamela Smith originally did and I think that was the first deck to have illustrations not just for the major arcana but for the minor arcana.
In many decks, before that, it used to just look like playing cards where you’d have symbols that were the number of symbols for that. There would be five ones in a picture and that was it. There would be no scene. So she’s the one who came up with all of the scenes and the scenes have fairly consistent things that happen.
You’ll see a lot of decks that have different styles of art and it’s fun if you’re a big nerd like me where you’re like, ‘Oh, oh that’s so clever how they placed that a little differently than this.’
But there’s always going to be a lobster with ‘The Moon’ in the Rider-Waite-Smith convention. The Toth is a completely different sort of syntax. It’s like that one is a different language. So if you’re really into that, that is its own kind of system if that makes sense to you.
So for somebody who’s looking to build a relationship with the tarot, it’s kind of interesting to pay attention to which one that is. You don’t have to get an actual Rider-Waite-Smith deck if you don’t respond to the imagery. Some people love it. Some people are just like, ‘Well, I’m not into it.’
But there are so many out there that there’s a deck for you somewhere. There are so many. And a really good place to start is there is a site called, I never know how to pronounce it, aeclectic.net and you can look up tarot decks and name for most decks that have been published with the exception of some independents that are on Kickstarter and so on and not yet indexed, but they will have pictures of most of the deck.
I think that one thing to guard against when you’re buying a deck is that sometimes you’ll see a picture of a deck and there’s a picture on the cover of the box and then you may see one or two others and think you’re really into it and those three are the ones that you love and then the rest of the deck leaves you flat.
It’s like when the single on the album is amazing and then the rest of the album you’re not into it. That can happen with tarot.
So the more you can see as many cards in the deck as possible before purchasing or even better if you can go to a shop and see them then that will help. Often if you buy things off Etsy or an independent site or Little Red Tarot in Europe is a great source.
Those places will have pictures of lots of the cards so you can make sure that this is really something you’re responding to.
I had a giant card catalog file filled with decks before we left the U.S. in the fall. I had to cut it down. Hilariously, it was culling to down to, like, 50 decks. It was not culling down to two. So there was somewhere I was like, ‘This is cool.’ I gave them to friends who are interested, but I still have probably 40 or 50 decks.
Joanna: What did you write the book on for example or did you just kind of use them all?
Caroline: I tended to use groups because I didn’t want to be writing from just one deck because I felt like I would be really leaning on that card’s imagery and I wanted someone reading the book to be able to use the deck that they loved and not be kind of wedded to it.
I played with using imagery from cards in the book but then I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to have a particular deck that people feel they have to respond to.’ And I have different decks.
If you go on Pinterest, it is a great place to find tarot spreads. If you search for a question that you have and say tarot spread then they will appear. There’s one that’s called a deck interview which is kind of fun.
So when you get a deck you can interview your deck which is really fun, because if you go down the rabbit hole like I did if you’re into you will end up just get a cabinet. Just get a cabinet and you’re going to have all your decks in there and it’s going to be fine.
But there are different decks that have very different imagery. I have one that’s called the Bohemian Gothic that’s hilarious and it’s like old-fashioned, crazy, Dracula kind of stuff. I’m not going to use that to write a romance scene necessarily.
Or if you’re writing a romance novel you may not want that deck. But if you’re writing an adventure suspense plot you’re not going to use the cat tarot of which there are many.
I think that you can have different decks that work for different situations and one of the things in this deck interview spread is you can say what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses…you pull cards for this and then it says what should we work on together.
You could look at maybe this deck is really into dialogue or maybe this deck is really into character development or it’s really into crime novels and maybe you have another deck that’s really, really into romance novels. And maybe you have another one that’s really into literary fiction.
It’s tough to say. But I like the idea that they all have their own personalities and they’re really into different kinds of subjects just like we are. And that the art will activate different parts of your brain that will work well for that. That’s all that really matters is that you like it.
Joanna: When I was reading your stuff I was like, ‘Oh, you know, I should look at some other decks.’ and I fell, like, into the rabbit hole as you said.
Caroline: Oh, boy.
Joanna: Oh yeah, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m backing away now because it’s…’
Caroline: Yeah, you gotta back away.
Joanna: It’s so cool but it’s also very intimidating. So I’m back to my Rider-Waite, but it is definitely beautiful as well.
I think this is really important like to stress that this writing prompts can so often be written. Writing prompts are written, whereas this is almost a writing prompt from something visual and I’m a visual writer.
I’m often looking at visual stuff to prompt my writing. So if people listening are in that phase then that really works.
Caroline: Definitely. I think it’s helpful to have different kinds of prompts. You can even just say I feel like writing something, pull a card and see…like, okay well, look at this picture and say, ‘Okay, what would a circumstance be surrounding this scene?’ And just start writing that and see what happens.
Joanna: I want to ask about your podcast, ‘The Secret Library’ podcast, which is amazing and you interview some seriously famous writers, a lot of literary fiction, a lot of kind of prize winners and really interesting guests.
I definitely urge people to check out ‘The Secret Library’ podcast.
Because you have interviewed so many super successful authors, are there any commonalities that you see in those writers that you’ve kind of learned over the years.
Caroline: I think so. I’ve thought about this a lot but one of the things I’ve noticed is that just in speaking to them there isn’t this point where you’re a prize winner or you’ve won an award for your book or something and then writing suddenly becomes this really easy process where there are no doubts or fears or concerns or you never get stuck.
What I’ve learned from talking to them is that they’re not superhuman. It’s kind of like when you get to the age when your parents were when you were a certain age and frustrated with them and you thought you’re an adult, you’re supposed to understand everything and then you get to this age you’re like, ‘Oh, no, they had no idea what was going on.’
It feels a little bit like that, which is not to say these writers don’t know what’s going on, it’s just that I think that for many years I thought when I was trying to write books that when I got really stuck and didn’t know what to do that that was an indication of my lack of skill or that it was an indication that I didn’t know what I was doing.
In talking to so many authors who hit that point and yet worked through it and continue that that point of feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing right now is not an indication of failure, it’s just part of the process.
And I think author after author after author that I talk to has had that experience and even the ones who are really big and have hit it really big have often written like four or five books that they tried to sell and nothing was happening, there was nothing keeping them going.
I think of Donal Ryan who is a fiction writer and he just tried and tried and tried and tried and tried and he said, ‘The only reason I kept going was because my wife just said, ‘You know what? It’s good and you should keep going.”
And as soon as he published he was shortlisted for a prize but it took years and he could’ve given up at any moment if there hadn’t been somebody saying, ‘No, this is worth it, what you’re doing.’
I think that seems to be a consistent theme is that there was some force that convinced them that how terrible it can feel at certain points was not an indication that they shouldn’t be writing or that writing wasn’t for them.
Joanna: That’s interesting you picked that one because you’re also writing a novel right now, aren’t you?
Caroline: I am.
Joanna: Do you think that’s the thing that you personally are taking in or what else are you taking in into your writing process from what you’ve learned?
Caroline: It’s probably the one that’s with me today because today I have a library that I go to. I’m a member of a library here in Berlin which I love and it is like my zone and I was running a little bit late this morning.
It’s a very popular library. You have to be a member but I got there and there were no desks and it completely threw me off my game and I wrote nothing this morning. So I think having heard this from all these writers I’m like, ‘Oh, good. This is not an indicator that the book is not going to get finished. It’s just a hiccup in the routine and I have to just go back tomorrow and it will be fine.’
But the one that is the most consistent and not even today and not even when I was really hardcore working on the book. I was always present with that and always with clients, but I think the other thing too is that there are points when you have to let go of control of the book in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable.
I can think of several people, one in particular, the most dramatic by far, was Patricia Park who was working on a book called, ‘Re Jane’ and it was a Korean retelling of ‘Jane Eyre’. She was working in her uncle’s shop in New York in one of the boroughs and she hit this point where it’s like, ‘Oh, this book is not working. I can’t believe it.’
She got a Fullbright to go to South America and kind of spend a lot of time researching the Korean community in South America which is quite large in Argentina. And she got into there and she was really in it and she was starting to develop something and then she realized that the character she was developing was actually a B character in her original book that she had decided was not working.
Not everybody is probably going to get a Fullbright and go to South America and research and realize it’s still the same book, but she thought she had a whole new book and it was still the same book.
I think the other one that really stands out is that I have had every single person who has mentioned the length of time it has taken them to write a book has been irritated at how long it took and none of them have said, ‘God, I really wish it had taken a little bit longer. If this book could’ve taken me another six months, that would’ve been great, but no it just happened so fast.’
Nobody ever says that. It’s always like there’s something about it that was inefficient or difficult but also that they gained insight that they needed to have through the process of it being inefficient and difficult and that they were grateful for the insight but they just wish it hadn’t taken quite so long.
Joanna: That is super interesting. So I also want to ask you about Berlin because you mentioned the library there and you’ve been there a few months now, I guess. Six months?
Caroline: We’ve been here for four.
Joanna: What has Berlin done for you in terms of your life? And what has it changed up about your life? And how does changing place help you change your state as well?
Caroline: Oh, definitely. We had been thinking about this for a few years. We lived in Los Angeles for many years. I was there for 12. My husband was there for 20, and we were at a point where it was time to break up with Los Angeles.
And part of that is how expensive that city has gotten. I want to be writing, I don’t want to be sitting in the car which is what you have to do a lot there. There were just a lot of things that we just felt like it wasn’t suiting what we wanted.
So we got rid of 80% of our stuff. We moved here. We went from an 1800 square foot, 3-bedroom place with 2 bathrooms to a 440 square foot apartment with one bathroom in which we have three cats and a dog. It’s a very, very interesting dynamic.
This is a temporary flat. We will be in something larger before long, but I think we just wanted to cut away all of the distractions and all of the things that were keeping us from doing creative work.
My husband is an artist. He is an illustrator, animator, designer and then I’m writing and I just felt it just takes forever to get anywhere in LA. There was just a lot and it with just all of those things were taking away from the writing.
And also a majority of the book I’m writing right now is set in Berlin. So it turns out it’s quite difficult to write a book that’s set in Berlin when you’re in Los Angeles because they’re not very similar.
I think some of it is being in the location of the place that I’m writing about is a huge support and I think that just the European sensibility was one that we have always been interested in and supported.
We just couldn’t do the 10 days off a year anymore in America. You have to make a $150,000 to $200,000 to even consider having significant savings that like just to pay for your life and all of those things were like that’s just not sustainable, and it’s not sustainable doing creative work unless you want to work 80 hours a week when you put your creative work and your day job together.
We just wanted to pull the plug on all of that, which has been wonderful, and to be somewhere where the prevailing value system is not that people should be ground into dust by their work lives.
I’m feeling extremely liberated by that. I’m feeling very grateful to be here. I’m very grateful not to have to have a car anymore.
Joanna: It’s a big thing, isn’t it?
Caroline: Oh, it’s amazing.
Joanna: You can just walk places.
Caroline: We have bikes, you know. We bike or take the…
Joanna: The tube?
Caroline: The public transit which is here and functional.
But the other thing about that that’s really good for a writer is I sit on the train on the way to the library, every day that I go to the library and I see a new character. I see someone, I get to watch them and see what they’re doing, what are they’re wearing, how are they fidgeting. That can go straight in the book.
If I’m sitting in a car on a freeway in LA, I don’t get that interaction. I don’t get to hear their voice if they’re talking to their kid or if they’re talking to their friend. All of those details go right in a city like Berlin or London is the same.
There are many cities that have good public transit and everybody is out on it. New York is the same. We were not built for New York. You really have to want that one.
Being here and being able to be a part of that. And the other thing too is as an American things are different here. They look different. The sidewalks look different, and I love that. So I enjoy gobbling all of that detail up.
Joanna: I lived New Zealand and Australia. I was away 11 years and I’m a European. I feel like that and I missed so many things about Europe. So I’m really excited about your book when it eventually makes it out there, your Berlin book.
And also you’ve got another podcast coming, haven’t you? If people are interested.
Caroline: I do. I have a really good friend who is also an American and she took the leap from Boulder, Colorado. She and her family felt like they need a change, she and her husband and her son, and there’s been a tech boom in Dublin and she’s worked in that field for ages.
So they went to Dublin and they’ve been there for two years now. we decided based on so many conversations that we would have with people that are like, ‘Oh, that’s amazing that you’ve moved. I couldn’t ever do that. That’s really amazing what you’ve done.’
We’ve both been project managers so we’re like, ‘Well, it’s just a series of practical steps that you can follow. If you know what they are, it’s really not that bad. So we wanted to do a series of episodes of just short kind of actionable, this is how we’ve done these things. And that the ‘GTFO’ podcast that will be coming…
Joanna: What does that stand for?
Caroline: It stands for ‘Get the feck out.’ We’re going with the Irish ‘feck’ rather than the other.
Caroline: So that we don’t get kicked off of iTunes.
Joanna: That is a good idea and this is a clean show and that word is clean.
Caroline: Yes, I know.
Joanna: That’s fantastic. Where can people find you and everything you do online?
Caroline: They can find me at carolinedonahue.com and then they can find the show at secretlibrarypodcast.com and there are links to everything. I’m on Instagram and Twitter and everything but all of those are on both of those sites.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Caroline. That was great.
Caroline: Thank you so much. It was such a treat talking to you, as always.