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Member Spotlight: Sheila Ascher & Dennis Straus (Ascher/Straus)

authors Sheila Ascher and Dennis Straus and an image of their book Headless World

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? I write because it’s a daily necessity, most times a daily pleasure, always a pleasure and a necessity for Sheila. A day doesn’t feel like a day and I don’t know myself without writing. It’s a calling, not a career. Writing was so imperative for Sheila that she kept two tape recorders with her at all times. I’ve been writing since childhood and Sheila and I helped each other evolve. Writing is important for the world because by its nature, its intimacy, it’s resistant to all dominant, commercial popular art. It comes from and goes to a different zone of consciousness.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? There’s no time for writer’s block when there’s so much to pay attention to. Sheila and I always made sure to have pen and paper with us whatever we were doing. In her later years Sheila learned to be comfortable using a tape recorder, which helped capture ambient or intrusive sound. We trained ourselves to be able to memorize lengthy conversations overheard in cafes and restaurants. Learning what the real, unfiltered rhythms of speech are is important and the music and poetry of what’s fragmented and interrupted is also important. Every narrative contains multitudes of interruptions that shouldn’t be ignored. Such in-the-world note-taking is writing, not just writing for a goal. The surface of the world is an endless lesson in the discipline of accurate description and finding fresh, true language for experience. A mysterious synergy will develop between the novel you have in mind and random experience that comes your way.

What is your favorite time to write? Sheila needed very little sleep so any time was the best time for writing for her. She had the strength and discipline to record her dreams and I also forced myself to sit up and write my infrequent dreams down immediately, before their true narrative logic evaporated. We’d both discovered the value of dream narrative, nothing like the Surrealists’ symbolism and exaggeration. Dream narrative is a network of associative links and trying to get it down is revelatory. Like Sheila I go to sleep very late (3-4-even 5 a.m. is normal). Unlike Sheila I can’t get up in the morning. I have no mornings. Whenever I’d wake up I’d make breakfast for us both. Sheila loved all the kinds of pancakes I could make and if that’s what she asked for breakfast could last a few wonderful hours together. After that I’d go to my study and write until I couldn’t, no matter the hour.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? Read only writing that you consider unattainable, not what’s praised and successful. Learn from what’s great, difficult and mysterious, not what’s easily imitated and what you think will give you success. For the same reason, read difficult poetry to learn concision, ellipsis, silence and music and to learn to strive toward something uncomfortable. Write every day, ignoring moods. Editing is writing. First writing only creates material to edit. Learn from yesterday’s mistakes. Failure is valuable if your failure drives you to improve. Always have pen and paper with you and train yourself to tell the truth about experience. Describe what you see like a painter. Struggle to find fresh language even for what you think is obvious and universally accepted, like the names of colors. Have many gods, not one: always ten-twenty books on my desk. Sheila and I were lucky: we edited each other’s work so honestly and ruthlessly that we didn’t have to accept tone deaf editing from others.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? There’s a literary canon waiting to be created of American literature that bridges the 20th and 21st centuries, writing that divines the hidden essence of the late 20th century as it evolved into the 21st century speeding toward the next reality. We believe that Headless World even more than our The Other Planet is tuned to the scientific/technological roots of the 20th/21st century mutation of the definition of what it means to be human and, even more radical, makes that relentless mutation integral to the reading experience on the level of the rhythm of its sentences. Except for the divinations of literary fiction, particularly as it shades toward speculative/science fiction, future reality always remains hidden in the present, hiding its true face. From the penetrating point of view of the outsider we can’t help seeing through the false face of the culture. And we believe that that uncommon ability’s always had great value.

Ascher/Straus’s final novel Headless World is out now with McPherson & Company.