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Guinevere Turner

Tamara MC interviews Guinevere Turner

Turner is a screenwriter (American PsychoThe Notorious Bettie Page), film director, actress, and now author of a debut memoir, When the World Didn’t End. Turner spent the first eleven years of her life (1968-1979) in n urban hippie commune with approximately a hundred adults and sixty children. Like other cults, there was an “Us versus Them” mentality, medical care was restricted, children were homeschooled, and girls were chosen to be brides by thirteen or fourteen. The group was apocalyptic and believed the world would end—members would be taken to Venus via UFO.

Like Turner, I grew up in a community with similar cultic thinking, but mine was Sufi. I sat down with Turner over Zoom and asked her craft questions.

Tamara MC: What’s the definition of a writer to you? 

Guinevere Turner: I always ask people who want to be a writer, “Have you ever written anything?” All you have to do to be a writer is write a bunch of stuff down. Ta da, you’re a writer. What do you need to do to be a good writer? Who knows. One of the many things you must do to be a successful writer, whatever success means, is never to stop. You have to know there will be times when you feel like you have nothing to say, that people are ahead of you, that people don’t understand you, or that you’re uninspired. Or blah, blah, blah. But it doesn’t matter. To be a real writer, who lives the writer’s life, is to know you’ll never quit. And that’s hard. It’s hard for me. 

TM: What does the “writer life” include or look like besides writing?

GT: I have an excuse to do anything in the name of experience. By anything, I mean engaging with other people’s work, visual and in all forms of writing, television shows, and movies. It’s all inspiration. I laugh because Proust famously locked himself in a room for 15 years to write Remembrance of Things Past and wasn’t engaging with other people’s work. He was aggressively not. And he wrote a good series of books. So, to each his own, but it’s crucial, and I wish someone had told me this when I was younger. It took me until my 40s to realize this.

TM: What’s your advice for creating a writing life? 

One, you can’t wait for inspiration. You have to design your life around writing. So you’re always writing, not saying, “Oh, maybe I’ll write today. I should put on my beret and smoke in a café.” Inspiration, as a concept, is sabotaging because we think there’s this elusive thing we can’t control. Give up on the idea of inspiration. Just always be writing. 

Two, this is the one I really wish someone had told me. Half of your job is to find your practice. My friend Don does a thing with a timer, which sounds crazy, but he writes for one hour daily. I have other friends who can only write with music on or can only write in a loud cafe full of people, which is unthinkable to me. I’m way too much of a distracted monkey. 

Figure out who you are. What does the writer need? When is she most creative? What disrupts her writing? Then build a life around the writer. Treat her like she is the moneymaker of the house. What snacks does she like? Will she feel rewarded by a hot shower? But she’s only allowed one if she writes x number of words or gets to a certain goalpost. 

Half of the writer’s life is finding your practice. Then the rest is that when you’re not writing, you’re setting up your life so that you can have everything you need when it’s time. There are no excuses, like, where’s my chair? Where’s my coffee? Where’s my pen? Treat the writer like another person. I didn’t know that. I realized I’m the best and most clear-headed in the morning before speaking with anyone and before any practical thing distracts or frustrates me. I wish someone had told me that when I was 20. I spent a good 20 adult years being all over the place, often being late on deadlines or spending half of my writing energy stressed out because my circumstances weren’t right. If you’re committed, you’re committed.

You must figure out who you are as a writer. Part of that is letting go of romanticized ideas of how writers you love wrote. I was very interested in other people’s processes, and it was fun to try them on. But you need to realize you’re unique with your unique processes.

TM: You said in your memoir that you dreamed of becoming a journalist. You were also good at spelling. Can you speak about those two things? 

GT: Spelling came naturally to me, so I focused on it. It’s a compulsive thing to be good at and to get right. But it was also easy for me. My 11-year-old self wanted to write books, like those I loved at the time, A Wrinkle in TimeLittle Women, or The Chronicles of Narnia. Then I realized that if you become president, you make little money. And it’s a tough job. I also started to realize I wanted to be on TV. That’s how I landed on journalism because you can be a writer and be forward-facing. As a teenager, journalism sounded like writing with the most integrity and the least self-indulgence. You’re doing something for and about other people. 

TM: In the opening of your memoir, you wrote about the power of writing.

GT: Writing to me is like breathing. It’s a survival tool. To paraphrase Joan Didion, We write to discover what we think. Writing brings clarity. So it’s a friend, a blanket, a compulsion. It’s therapeutic, but I’m hesitant to say that because there was a lot of trauma in writing this book. People said, “This must have been cathartic.” I don’t know. It may be, so I’ve kept an open mind. But in writing this memoir, I re-traumatized myself but with purpose. 

Writing is the one thing I’m good at, aside from crocheting. Writing isn’t even my profession. Or my art. Writing is an extension of me. But because it’s so automatic, it’s organic. It was a happy accident I was introduced to writing early on because I took to it like a fish to water. 

Tamara MC is a cult, child marriage, and human trafficking survivor/activist and cheerleads worldwide for girls and women to live free from gender-based violence. Her Ph.D. is in Applied Linguistics, and she researches how language is used to manipulate vulnerable populations. Tamara attended Columbia University for an MFA and has been published in New York Magazine, Salon, The Independent, Food 52, Parents, and Thrillist. 

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