Francesca Lia Block is the author of more than 25 books of fiction and nonfiction, notably the magical-realist Weetzie Bat series. Her new book, The Thorn Necklace: Healing Through Writing and The Creative Process, weaves memoir with lessons on the craft of writing to create a unique and visceral guide to creativity. Named for the painting by Frida Kahlo, The Thorn Necklace uses Kahlo’s oeuvre as a reminder that great beauty can be created as a transformation of personal pain. Block gives readers her “12 questions” as structural pillars for anyone trying to write a story. I spoke with Block about creative writing courses (as a teacher and as a student), the importance of mentorship, and writer’s block.
In your book you talk about your mentors and the importance of having supporters of your creative life. What made you want to take on that role for other writers?
It felt natural to pay it forward. And the more I do it, the more satisfying it is. It continues to feel fulfilling. I admired my dad’s teaching, and I talk about some of the stories of his warmth as a teacher in the book. I naturally wanted to emulate that. I wanted to give that support and confidence because I saw that when people had it, they often really blossomed and produced more work and just generally felt better about it and about themselves.
The subtitle of your book is “healing through writing”—have you always seen writing as a way to heal? Have there been other writers who helped you see it that way?
[Writing] was that for me since I was a very little girl, without knowing what need it was fulfilling. I sort of gravitated toward it, and then later became conscious of it. I started reading more about it and then looking at all the writers that had suffered in their personal lives and realized there was this connection for them as well. The book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain was instrumental in helping me feel less alone with that process because I had always written to feel better.
Is there something that you have learned from teaching writing that you think you wouldn’t have learned otherwise, whether it’s about writing or life?
I’ve been able to use [what I know about life] to enhance my teaching, and I’ve learned a lot about the practical aspect of writing through teaching. Because, as I tell in an anecdote in the book, I had a student who I had a lot of tension and conflict with: She wanted a formula for learning. And I didn’t feel that there was one. I could teach her basic principles, but I didn’t feel that there was any kind of a science to it as she wanted. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I needed to come up with something a little more concrete for people who really do want to learn some kind of template. That’s when I developed the 12 questions. I was already using these things, not only to write but to teach. However, when I [was presented with] that challenge, I really distilled it down into something quite manageable, I thought, and it became very effective for me to teach with that template.
Many people know your work because of Weetzie Bat and the Dangerous Angels series that sprang from it. Why do you think Weetzie Bat resonates with so many people?
I wrote it at a very young age, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I certainly wasn’t consciously answering any questions or structuring it. I was writing it purely from that raw, stream-of-consciousness dream world. I was reading a lot of really good literature when I wrote it: Modernist poetry, myths, fairy tales, but also just really good English. I was studying English Lit at Berkeley at the time. I was also listening to a lot of punk music, so that influenced it as well.
[Writing Weetzie Bat] was more something I did for myself for pleasure, for comfort, and out of nostalgia for Los Angeles because I wasn’t there. I think people responded to the sort of innocence and passion. And I talk about that obsession [in The Thorn Necklace]. I was really obsessed with all these elements in the story; I didn’t necessarily think anyone else would be. I take that as a lesson to try to explore the things that we, as writers, feel passionate about, even if we think others won’t.
I was literally walking through the hills of Berkeley crying and telling myself the story in my head. It was very similar to when I was a little girl walking in circles around my backyard, twirling my hair on my finger, sucking on my lower lip, and telling myself stories to comfort myself. It wasn’t “I am going to write this book that people will read and I will become reviewed in the New York Times.” It was “I need to do this to feel okay in the world.” And I think that impulse is in all of my work, but maybe more so in [Weetzie Bat] than others.
It’s clear for anyone who’s read your work that Los Angeles is one of your muses. I’d love to hear a little bit more about the enduring power of Los Angeles as a muse for your work or how that’s changed over your career.
The city influenced me from the time I was very young, in terms of the dichotomies that I see there: the urbanization and the nature that runs through it. The glamour and corruption, as well as this sort of Bohemian, creative-outsider kind of vibe that’s there as well: countercultures and freethinking, the interest in healing, all that. All those things. I use the imagery of the poisonous flowers and the smog sunsets in much of my work for that same reason, because it’s the contrast of the beauty and the toxic, poisonous. I grew up where we had days where we weren’t allowed to play outside because the smog in the valley was just so horrific, and the sky was always gray. I think that mixture of the dark and the light, or the beauty and the pain, is also very much a part of that environment and a part of every environment in the world now, actually. And it’s something that creates a lot of inspiration for me.
The Thorn Necklace is so personal in many ways, and at the same time it’s a writing guide. Why did you choose to combine the two?
I had originally wanted to do something about my life, a memoir, and I had also wanted to do an instructive book. I did think of them, at first, as separate, and I kept trying to figure out a way to put them together. In the first draft, the instructive aspect was not there. The issue was that when I write about writing, there really isn’t much arc because my career has been a pretty steady trajectory. But when I write about my life, there’s a big arc because there’s been a lot of personal conflict that I’ve had to resolve, and much of that has been through writing. [It was] maybe the third draft [that] became about writing as a healing force for me personally. The joke that I had with my boyfriend was writing is easy; life is hard for me.
Early on in the book you talk about this moment when your father said to you, “You are a writer,” and how important that was to you and the importance of having not just mentors but people you care about who see you as an artist and respect you as an artist. What would your advice be to a writer who doesn’t feel like they have anyone in their life that sees them that way?
It’s a real question. In that chapter, that’s why I also talk about friends and therapists and even books. There’s an equal balance of discretion and risk in that relationship: You have to put yourself out there somewhat to find someone who you can trust, but you have to be careful with how you do that, and do it slowly and carefully and thoughtfully. I do think it’s important to take some risks in terms of reaching out. Now what I have done, actually, is I went back to school. I’m getting my MFA right now.
At first, it was very uncomfortable because I was putting myself in that vulnerable position with people who are literally half my age. But it’s been wonderful. I really feel like I have received that kind of guidance and mentorship from my teachers, and I didn’t realize how much I needed it. I do think you can find it through teachers. It doesn’t have to be an MFA program if you can’t afford that, but it can be through writing classes.
I would go back to what I said about that combination of discretion and risk, in terms of putting yourself out there carefully and being open to receive, but also [to] know that you’re vulnerable in that place. And now I know it even more because I’m in that. I’m putting myself in that position. When [my work] was being workshopped, I got uncomfortable. I was like, “This is so good for you, Francesca, because now you know, you really know how they feel!”
Has anything surprised you about being a writing student?
It surprised me how much I love it. I mean, I knew I would like it, but I love it so much and I don’t want to stop. I love the critical part as much as the creative part. I love writing the papers. The community is really nice, and I love my teachers. It’s one of those things where if you feel frustrated and go back to the drawing board to do more work, things sort of come to you, instead of just staying or stagnating.
What is your advice for writers who are feeling that kind of stagnation?
Reading is huge. I see more growth and change from my students who read critically and choose their books with care (which means something different for each person) than in any other thing I could teach. I do this exercise where I just have them do a summary of the plot in the first paragraph, one craft element in the second paragraph, and how they will specifically apply that to their own work in the third paragraph, and it’s amazing how much change I see from that.
Finding community in whatever way, whether it’s a writing class, whether it’s a group of friends that you just share your work [with] and maybe even a book group, or both. That is huge. Sitting down on a regular basis and freewriting using a prompt or just stream of consciousness. Keeping journals, just so you get in the habit of pouring out the material and not being at all critical, and then going back to look at it in a different way.
I use the analogy of baking: If you don’t have all the ingredients, how can you bake anything? You have to put ingredients down. To me, the ingredients are what comes from your subconscious and just flows out of you. And then you look, and you go, “Okay, this is what my psyche needs to be exploring. And now I’m going to put on my editor’s hat today and shape this into something.”
You have to put yourself onto the page before you can shape it into a story that you want to share.