Creative Grind: Zoe Marquedant and the Myth of the Writing Process

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What does it mean to be an artist? Do you, as a creative, have to claim some type of ownership within the realm of your medium in order for it to really count? Do you get paid to create? To what extent does that matter when it comes to establishing an identity? These are questions that artists grapple with, especially in an age when ~personal branding~ is sold to us as absolutely essential and visibility is all but inescapable. So, how do we deal with these quandaries in our day-to-day lives?

Creative Grind, Manqué’s Q&A column, takes those questions directly to artists.

Zoe Marquedant is a nonfiction writer from Rockville, Maryland. She received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence and her MFA from Columbia University. She’s currently writing a series of essays on good places to hide a body. 

1. What medium(s) do you work in and are there any others you’d like to explore?

As a writer, it’s a lot of pen and paper. Journals. Lined and unlined. Preferably back pocket-sized ones. I don’t really understand how people manage to hoard blank notebooks. I go through them pretty regularly. But I guess I also write down like bread recipes as well as my ~memoirs. 

I’m a big fan of Google Docs since work can be accessed from anywhere and read/edited offline. It’s ideal for writing on crowded trains when you don’t have the room to do more than move your thumbs. I also send myself a lot of emails out of context— those are always fun to demystify. Similarly, the Notes app on my phone is full of Genius ideas that I jotted down while half-awake or walking somewhere. 

I try not to get too attached to any form or material. Of course I have a favorite notebook and a brand of pen I like, but I’m too forgetful to become dependent on them. I have managed more than once to end up without something to write on or with. I had to walk into a TD Bank for a free pen one time. Another, I messaged a buddy to bring me one at a cafe when mine ran out– that’s how you know who your real friends are. Every once in a while there’s a pen, but not even a napkin to write on. Had to scribbled on my leg on the Metro North once. Those moments make you pine for the times when you had a big, blank .docx open. 

2. Does your art pay your bills? If no, what does?

Writing usually pays the bills somehow. I’m just not always writing what I want to. And it’s definitely not all art. Some days I’m writing about nature conservation, sometimes it’s waffle irons. Some of it’s fulfilling. All of it’s hard to explain at Thanksgiving.

3. At what age did you start working within each medium and what attracted you to it?

The big assignment in the 6th grade was this “essay” relaying a memory from elementary school. I wrote about our outdoor ed trip and climbing up to the zipline in flippers. Didn’t really write much again (unless you count communal fanfiction, bad poetry, or worse lyrics for a shit band I was in) until senior year when we spent a semester on personal essays in English class. 

I suppose I liked telling stories. Not relaying grand truths or anything, but just my own private funny thing that happened on the way to the forum. I wasn’t the most focused or accomplished student and those assignments changed that. They gave me something to major/master in. 

4. How did your family first respond to these interests, and has their support changed over time?

They’re so supportive it’s almost frustrating. I have absolutely no excuse. My folks are always patiently listening to me try to explain essay topics, or current obsessions, or changes in career path, or reasons to abolish the second space after a period.  

And shout-out to all the found family and friends that have done the same and fielded texts at all hours about lightning hitting bison and astronauts and sharks. “First eyes” get all the glory, but those that witness and support the germination of ideas are equally as essential. I’m always rattling the kernel of something around in my pocket, wanting to show it to someone and I’ve always been lucky to have multiple someones. Is there a long german word for a person who shows enthusiasm and patience for someone else’s ideas even though it’s been 87 blocks and we missed lunch? A sounding board? A good buddy? 

5. What was your dream career as a freshman in college? What is it now? What changed for you, if anything?:

I applied to schools with writing programs so it was somewhere in the cards. I wasn’t good at math or sports, so writing just sort of became the boat. I’m not sure if it was a dream in the strictest sense. 

I’m not sure what I dream about. I’d have to think if there’s a dream job or publication. I’m one of those people that thinks the Nobel is blood money and the Swedish Academy is morally vacant, so there isn’t a prize in mind. I want to write. And not to starve. 

6. During an average week, how much time do you devote to your work? How much time do you *wish* you devoted to it?

Sometimes I sit in the backyard for hours and end up horrifically sunburned with my skin coming off in sheets. Sometimes I just have one phrase that I mutter to myself all week. It’s never been consistent or anything I can control. 

During my Masters, I would try to schedule myself out of necessity and sometimes that bore fruit. I used to write on the train to work a lot because I hadn’t discovered podcasts yet. It’s nice to write when no one knows you’re writing. Unlike in a cafe when you’re The Writer with the Laptop and the Coffee that’s Probably Gone Cold. I think I associate writing a lot more with frame of mind and not time. I took this one class twice because of the lecturer. She seemed to do something to the air of an otherwise suffocating classroom. I would sit and take notes and outline essays and untie all my knots and I never knew how or why. Those should have been relatively miserable Monday nights. I wish I had that, whatever it was, not time.

You can make time, you can’t make that willingness to create. Music helps, although all my neighbors probably wish it didn’t because I usually listen to one song on repeat. Unbeknownst to the reader, much of what I’ve written is soundtracked as a result. 

7. What creative/professional (if they overlap) guilt do you wrestle with the most?

I feel guilty about the kids I should’ve been nicer to in high school and that time I peeled an egg without cleaning up the shell. I think there’s an impulse to put Guilt in the Writing Box along with Substance Abuse and Narcissism and accept it as an inevitability of the artform, but perhaps we should curb some of that performance?

For me, I have to have a job. For other people, there are buses to catch and errands to run and things that have to get done to keep the lights on. Then they can do their art. Or they do their art on break or early morning. Or whenever. I don’t think people should feel guilty about circumstances. I don’t want to put the blame on the self when we exist in a world where you’re either JK Rowling or So Brave For Dreaming and there’s no support for the latter. 

8. What creators do you turn to when you want to feel motivated or inspired?

Illustrators, podcasters, poets. Anyone who is also on a steep hill and needs your support as much as you need that elusive bolt of inspiration. Bandcamp bands. I follow a lot of linguists and naturalists for obvious reasons, but also because they ask the best questions of the hivemind and even thinking about thinking about the answers makes me feel like I’m putting all those books I read to use. They keep my muscles warm for when something does move. 

I like seeing the stages of things. You can Youtube concept art for a favorite animated short and watch the evolution of an idea. Something writers don’t always have evidence of development or sketches of what became the final piece. They can talk to you and say, “I’ve been thinking about fingernails for years”, but there aren’t ways to illustrate that drawing out process. Maybe they have a line in a notebook. Or a first draft written in the margins of a newspaper, but you can’t see the thinking. Can’t see the thing growing feathers.

Maybe writers should wear those heart monitors that athletes do, so we can at least pull up the chart and say, “see here? This was the anxiety attack I gave myself at 4AM over this one sentence.”

9. Do you believe in forcing yourself to create on a regular schedule or only when you feel particularly inspired? Why?

I think if you spend two hours sitting at a desk every morning, all you’re going to be good at is putting yourself at that desk. You can devote the body, but I’m not sure if you can the mind. At least not mine. 

There’s this mythology that writing is getting up at 5AM to draft books then catching the train and raising five kids. No one stops and says, hey maybe this should be a bit easier. Perhaps because the image of the suffering artist is so pervasive. It is not the hardship that made the art, it is the artist. I’d be willing to bet that van Gogh would still be van Gogh with a few more francs in his pocket. 

It’s hard to focus on the book when there are loans and bills and mounting responsibilities. As much as I want to say the act of writing it’s all about talent and heart, it’s not. It’s about money. Unless you have a publishing advance, a grant, or generational wealth, you have to get up and go to work. Yes, people need time, but they also need, like, groceries and childcare. We should be creating more opportunities for people to practice their art, not tell them to set the alarm earlier. 

10. Make a case for your favorite television show?:

I watch too much television to give suggestions. 

Letterkenny comes to mind. I used to watch the shorts on YouTube and it’s been amazing to witness the series grow from like .gif-length jokes into a full-blown show. The dialogue can be very colloquial and fast-paced, which I love. 

Honorable mentions go to Kim’s Convenience, Schitt’s Creek, Killing Eve, and The Bridge. That’s a lot of Canadians. I’m not sure what that says about me.

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