Writing tips from Kristen Roupenian

A master class with the author of "Cat Person"

In April 2019, Kristen Roupenian gave a special master class for our Amsterdam students (photos here). Kristen is the author of the world’s first viral short story “Cat Person“, which, with close to 5 million views, is one of the most popular pieces of online fiction in the history of The New Yorker. We discussed “Cat Person” as well as some other stories from her new collection You Know You Want This. You can now listen to the complete audio recording of the class online.

Some of the topics we covered: the advantages of close third-person narrators, how you can use elements of horror and the supernatural to get at real world feelings, why workshops are incredibly valuable when you’re learning how to write (it’s not only the reason you’d expect), why not knowing where your story is going can actually be a good thing, and why you should not take having your story rejected by a publisher to heart.

Below a few of our favourite takeaways from the class.

On inspiration & getting started

  • Try starting with something that bothers you – “I won’t be able to stop thinking about something that happened or someone that’s upset me. I think of it as a kind of itchiness, I gotta dig at it and that will start the story. And often by the end it’s hard to even remember that was the story’s origin.”
  • Return to old favourites – “It can be useful when you’re trying to write, to go back to the things you liked before you knew there was such a thing as technique…For me that’s a lot of genre fiction, a lot of kid’s fantasy, but also Steve King, Ray Bradbury, the stories that I lived in.”
  • Leave room to surprise yourself – “If you’re not starting from a place of genuinely wanting to know a) what’s going to happen in the story and b) what it means, there’s a relationship between you and the reader that is essentially didactic. The better thing is to start in a place where you’re equals . . . If you start feeling like you know everything—“I’m going to write a story that will mean x, y, z”—then it’s a little boring because you’re not discovering anything along the way and it feels like there’s a gap between you and the reader who is coming genuinely not knowing.”

To avoid getting stuck

  • Develop a ritual – “When I was trying to get out of writer’s block . . . Every morning . . . I’d have a book next to me and I would have my computer, and I’d say you can read for this hour or you can write. And if you want to write, it can be for two minutes or the full hour, there’s no pressure.”
  • Write for yourself – “[I decided] I’m going to write something that I want to read, not the kind of thing I want to have written, not a beautiful story that will explain to everyone what a genius I am, which I think was sometimes my earlier motivation.”
  • Take the pressure off the outcome – “It’s about tricking myself, essentially into feeling safe in terms of writing whatever.”
  • Become a productive procrastinator – Part of the reason I have a short story collection is because I was supposed to be working on a novel.
  • Trust your instincts – “I think, if [the story] is dead, and you’re frustrated, put it aside. You can come back to it if it feels lively again, if it feels exciting again…but if it’s making you suffer that’s probably good information. I used to try to bully myself through my own suffering, but now I realize that it’s the best key to what’s going on.”
  • Know when to stop – “Another place I can get trapped is to think I should write an uncriticisable story . . . A story is never finished. You just decide it’s good enough right now.”

On character, point of view and technique

  • Try writing from a different point of view – “When I’m writing stories, often there’s something really uncomfortable, really electric that I’m trying to get at, and I need some distance from those feelings, so often I will try to get some distance by writing from a slightly different space, and sometimes, in the early stages, writing from a man’s point of view was that for me.”
  • Don’t sit in judgement of your character – “Whenever I write a character, I’m first looking for things we have in common . . .The first thing is an attempt to connect.”
  • Read like a writer – “I don’t know what writing is supposed to be…but I do know when I am the most immersed in a book and in a story how I feel, and I can then go back and try to pick out the things that the writer did to make me feel that way. Then if I think about my story, it’s just an experience I’m offering to someone else…and these are the techniques I can find to make it work.”

On not giving up

  • Hang in there through that stage of “conscious incompetence” – “When you know enough about writing to know that what you’re writing sucks, that’s a terrible place to be in, but it’s necessary. I’ve been there, everyone has been there.”
  • Above all, be kind & patient with yourself – “I can’t believe how mean I was to nascent Kristen, who was just trying to write a story and who didn’t know how because she hadn’t done it before. And how weirdly sure I was that I should be good at what I was doing instantly. Why did I think that? But I did. And I felt shame when I wasn’t…The longer you can keep yourself doing it [writing], the more likely you are to succeed so whatever you can do to make it easier on yourself that’s the right thing to do.”

A special thank you to the John Adams Institute and Roupenian’s Dutch publisher Nieuw Amsterdam for helping to make her visit possible. You Know You Want This is widely available. And you can purchase the Dutch translation Je weet dat je dit wil from many stores and online retailers in the Netherlands.

8 June 2019

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