Creator Spotlight - Lyle Enright
Interviewing another member of the Soaring Twenties Social Club
Today’s Creator Spotlight features Lyle Enright, a member of the Soaring Twenties Social Club.
Lyle Enright is a freelance writer and independent scholar from the Cleveland area. He holds a PhD in English from Loyola University Chicago, where he taught about religious aesthetics in literature for 5 years. He mostly writes weird essays about theology and pop culture, and, in his fiction, he likes to explore transcendence, wonder and desire in dark, speculative settings. Lyle lives with his wife, 2.89 children, and 3 chinchillas. You can read more of him at lenright.substack.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ynysdyn.
When you were a teenager, what did you want to become when you grew up?
Funny enough, I wanted to be a pastor. I'm a preacher's kid, and following my dad into the pulpit just made sense to me then. My faith is still a central part of my life, but I'm (thankfully) not dogmatic in the ways I was 15 years ago. Rather, I don't see myself as able to make the judgments that dogma requires of those who'd join any kind of clericy. I'm still "orthodox" in my belief and temperament but much more at home in an academic, speculative space, or talking about religious themes through the messiness of history and art rather than church.
Do you prefer writing by keyboard, do you prefer pen and paper, or do you have another favorite method?
I jot down a lot of ideas using pen and paper. I regularly buy packs of little notebooks that can fit in my back pocket, and carry a pen with me everywhere. I also use an Onyx Book tablet, for when I'm jotting by hand. When it comes to drafting though, nothing beats the speed and fluidness of a keyboard. I've tried dictation before, but my brain and my mouth never connected over anything useful. Though I've been practicing improvised narration a lot more, thanks to Dungeons & Dragons, so maybe I'll give the dictation thing a shot again.
What's the story of how you came to publish your first novel?
The novel is still in the works (and nearly done!), but I can tell you about the first short story I ever sold. I got really serious about writing fiction between 2012 and 2013, before going to grad school (and thus taking an unfortunate break from fiction). I was reading a lot of $0.99 horror novels and collections on Amazon, thinking "I can do better than this!" I couldn't, of course. All my college creative training was in prose style, not really in narrative form or structure. I had talent and instincts, but didn't understand either very well. So between that, and an ambition unquenched by either experience or ego (both would savage me later), I wrote several truly awful horror stories and sent them off to a few small publications. I built the beginnings of a thick skin as rejections rolled in, but I impressed one editor enough to make it into an anthology. I'd sent him a ghost story called "Elliott", closely based on real experiences I'd had with a cousin who terrorized me growing up. I earned royalties based on how many copies the book sold. I made $0.10, but it was my first real experience with professional publishing.
What's one thing about being an author that most people don't understand?
There's a lot about being an author that I didn't understand when I chose that path. Things I don't think you understand until you've been trying for a while. First, it is a choice; people talk about how they have a "compulsion" to write, or that they can't help themselves. I'm happy for those people, but I don't think I'm one of them, nor do I think that should count you out. I'm a person who believes that, even when I'm not doing it, writing is one of the most valuable things I could be doing. That it is worth it to rearrange my day, my environment, my choices and impulses and desires to make room for writing, or reading. I didn't "discover" my identity as an author so much as I decided that I would achieve the form even if it meant breaking myself and putting myself back together again a few times.
Doing that requires a lot of honesty and soul-searching, something else I didn't understand when I was starting out. Anne Lamott has lots to say about how writing is about "telling the truth" to the best of your ability. I had to figure out the hard way that "telling the truth" really meant paying more attention to my daily life, getting more curious about the things going on around me and even about my own emotions, my own habits of reasoning, good and bad. Therapy, in short. I had to admit that I rarely asked the questions that genuine honesty--and therefore great story--really entails. When I started doing that, things really started hitting the page differently.
One of those questions ended up being about my ego. I think people often confuse ego and ambition, but I'm discovering that they actually work at cross-purposes. Ambition always strives to do better, to outclass itself, to be the best that it can be, and it absorbs every lesson and makes it a post-it of every praise along the way. Ego comes out of the gate feeling entitled, that it shouldn't have to feel all this strain, that it already deserves all the praise it's not getting and more. Ego wants the results without the work. Ambition wants results, too, but will put in the work--wants to put in the work--to get them. And the best possible result is being "so good they can't ignore you", as Cal Newport says. I don't think it's possible to want that without a certain amount of ego; but ego can also keep you from ever achieving that once you do want it.
So yeah, there's... uh... three things I think most people don't understand about being an author, haha. At least, things I certainly didn't understand at first.
Do you do any writing exercises or other work to further develop your writing skills?
When I'm not actively working on a big project, I'll sometimes come up with a short story idea around a particular theme or skill that I want to practice. I try to keep those to short experiments, but it's always easy for something to become bigger than I intended. I spend a lot of time with storyclock notebooks, coming up with premises and then seeing how it would feel to plot them out, get the beats down. I'll roll dice to randomly generate character traits and then try to plot out an arc that would make sense for that random character. Tabletop roleplaying games are also great practice, because the little heuristics I use to keep the story going or to tie plot beats together when I'm improvising at the table really help me when it's just me and the blank page. The NODES system is one of my favorite tools, whether I have to narrate with my pants down or whether I'm writing the next scene in my novel.
What do you do for your day job? does it inform your writing in any way?
I work for a non-profit called unRival, where I'm a writer, researcher, and analyst. We connect artists, academics and activists who work in spaces of nonviolent peacebuilding. I study how societies and systems become resilient to violence, and why violence raises its head as a solution to social problems in the first place. This work has really beaten up my old academic habits; just because the ideas are complex doesn't mean the writing needs to be complicated. And even when the writing is complex, it can still be clear. That's an important lesson to learn, no matter where you're at in your journey. But I think un-learning complicated writing after spending so much time with complex ideas is a fruitful path, too. It gives me more ideas for novel and meaningful plots, and has taught me that "clear" doesn't necessarily mean "simple".
How long have you been playing Dungeons and Dragons? any favorite classes or races to play?
I started getting into it at the end of high school, and played 3d edition with friends all through college. From there I got into other games like Call of Cthulhu, 7th Sea, and Powered By The Apocalypse. I just love tabletop games in general, because I love how a set of rules influences and constrains the directions that stories can go when everyone is bringing something cool to the table. When I play, I'm often a rogue-ish character, though my favorite character I recently played was a bearfolk cleric. Honestly, I prefer being in the Dungeon Master role, where I can receive everyone's ideas and turn their concepts into a truly spectacular shared narrative with high stakes and emotional moments that even the players don't expect. And my favorite kinds of players are those willing to take risks and make bad choices for the sake of the story, or willing to make "devil's bargains" with me, getting a chance to do something cool in the moment but ultimately making their situation worse in terms of the story. I've seen some of my players hit some truly transformational personal moments, and nothing is more satisfying that shepherding that kind of creativity.
How did you discover STSC and what led you to join it?
I discovered STSC through Luke Burgis, who is obliquely connected to my work. He and I run in some overlapping intellectual circles, and I read his first interview with Thomas. After that, I looked more into Thomas and what he was doing with the STSC. It resonated with me so much in the moment: the same dissatisfaction with social media, with turning creativity into a "hustle", feeling like I could no longer tell the difference between my craft and the "content" everyone's trying to create all the time. I felt like the STSC was a place I could go to break myself of those associations and kind of "start over", focusing on personal style and curiosity without the demands of content culture. I was, as the cult likes to say, "in the right place."
Anne Lamott is well known for coining the phrases "shitty first draft" and "short assignments". Would you say these are good approaches to writing?
I think it really depends on what you consider to be your "first draft". I actually tend to draft very clean, and have published some of my first drafts before -- but that's because I usually have a very protracted planning process. And since I'm already working from bullet points and disparate thoughts, it feels strange to call those a "draft" before they're even arranged into a coherent piece of writing. Though I suppose they are, still, and are relatively "shitty". I suppose, if I were to argue that I don't produce shitty first drafts, it's because I've moved the goalposts in my favor. But that can also be a trap, leading you towards perfectionism. I still think that just getting started no matter how bad something is or feels in the moment is incredibly important; you need to trust yourself that you can go back, see what the thing needs, and make it better. You have to be satisfied with your own mediocrity at some point in the process, whether it's for the sake of getting words on the page or getting it in a readable state so you can get feedback.
"Short assignments" can also be useful. Again, Cal Newport fleshes some of this out for me with his approach to two-week long "little bets". Two weeks feels like a good, even conservative timeframe for writing a short story or an essay, getting feedback on it, improving, and then reflecting on the process. For a novel, this is a bit trickier, but you can still do "short assignments" within a longer project like that by naming one skill you want to practice or one question to you want to answer while you're working. Especially if you have an alpha-reader who can give you feedback, these can be great ways to set gates or milestones that help you move through an otherwise grueling process.
Pretend you wake up one morning and learn that the Internet has been destroyed. What's the first thing that you do?
Y'know, I've been practicing being without the internet lately, so I actually have concrete answers to these questions! Apparently, those answers are, in order, reading Rainer Maria-Rilke, reading Beowulf, and playing my guitar.
Thanks to Lyle for agreeing to this interview!
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