Write Start: Jennifer Clement on Developing Voice

Jennifer Clement/Photo © Barbara Sibley
Jennifer Clement/Photo © Barbara Sibley

Editor’s Note: Jennifer Clement is the author of multiple books, including Widow Basquiat. She was awarded the NEA Fellowship for Literature and the Sara Curry Humanitarian Award for Prayers for the Stolen. Formerly president of PEN Mexico, she currently lives in Mexico City. For Signature's Write Start series, in which authors share advice about how to start writing, Jennifer shares her writing routine and her methods for the creation of character and voice. [The book giveaway is closed. You'll hear from us if you won!]

"It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes." —Gustave Flaubert

I like to write early in the morning, before sunrise. The quiet and the certainty that I will not be interrupted make me feel free. I set up the coffee the night before and, if it is a cold day, I go back to bed and write there on my laptop or in a notebook. I only work for two to three hours. Gabriel Garcia Márquez once told me that he only wrote three hours a day. If I am working on a novel, I try to produce eight hundred words. Much of this will be cut later when I edit, but the word count helps give me velocity and stops me from daydreaming. Daydreaming, however, is an important part of my writing process.

When my children were little, I used to get up at four AM. I wrote for two hours before I had to wake them up and get them ready for the long drive to school in the south of Mexico City.

If I became engrossed in my novel and lost track of time, I’d wake up my son and daughter at the very last minute. Breakfast would be held in the car’s backseat and would consist of a cup of vanilla ice cream. On these mornings, we’d keep our eyes open for new chapels. In most parts of Mexico City, the streets have niches with virgins, crosses, or small glass-enclosed chapels on the corners of buildings. One winter we noticed a homeless woman had broken into a shrine and slept there for a few days in the quiet of plastic flowers, roses, and unlit candles.

When I write a novel, I keep notes, which are more like small philosophical paragraphs, poetic fragments, or even metaphors or adjectives I don’t want to forget. These lists are often paths that take me into a new poem, a chapter in a novel, or help me define a character.

I use different voices all the time. I keep notebooks that are filled with fragments of conversations that I overhear. In writing Widow Basquiat, for example, the voice of Suzanne is in italics and not quotation marks, as it is akin to a jazz riff of my lists, her memories, and my memories supporting the main melody, which is a poetic, restrained, third-person narrative. In my novel A True Story Based on Lies, the inner voice of the servant also appears in italics but, unlike Suzanne’s street-smart voice in Widow Basquiat, her voice is highly poetic and filled with the mingling of psalms and ancient Mexican lore. In my novel The Poison That Fascinates, the voices of real female assassins from history speak in a kind of chorus at the end of every chapter, and I had to reproduce many voices for this. Sometimes I only have to hear a few words for me to find the voice I am looking for, and so the notebooks I keep are a great source of inspiration.

My writing is very often based on research. However, even my research is approached from an artistic sensibility, as I am always in search of poetry and how the divine and profane stand side by side or coexist.

I never check my e-mail or the news sites until I finish. I also write what I wish to read (my children and my sister are my most trusted critics). And I become everything – the lovers and the yellow leaves and even the punctuation marks.

Check out more in Signature's Write Start series.