A Surreal Life:
Interview with Stephen W. Simpson

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

“This is a huge honor. It’s also kind of surreal—I started posting my stuff on TC with my tail between my legs, feeling a bit unworthy.” This is how Steve Simpson prefaces his answers to the questions I posed to him in an email interview last month.

A few years ago when Steve a.k.a. Macfisto started posting at the Toasted Cheese forums, he was an unpublished writer working on his first novel—with all the typical insecurities that entails. He soon endeared himself to us with his consistently helpful posts at the forums and by writing a great article about finishing said novel. Eventually, we invited him to join the editorial board. For the past few years, Steve has judged the fall Three Cheers and a Tiger writing contest along with Boots and Ana.

These days it’s hard to imagine Steve feeling “unworthy.” In addition to his day job as a clinical psychologist, he writes two regular advice columns and recently had his first non-fiction book published. Two more are in the works. As if that’s not enough, he and his wife Shelley are also the parents of four toddlers.

Steve’s come a long way since his first tentative posts at Toasted Cheese and we at TC are immensely proud of his accomplishments. So when he said he was looking for a way to give back to the community, we couldn’t think of a better way than for him to share his journey and success with TC’s readers.

Toasted Cheese: I know you’re one of those Mac people. But come on, admit it, PC is funnier.

Stephen W. Simpson: The PC guy is funnier, but I bet it’s not so funny when you have to live with one of those skittish Windows boxes. At our last conference, Rick’s Dell wouldn’t play a DVD he needed to show. I handed him my Power Book and said, “When are you gonna learn?”

TC's Amazon Store TC: What’s not funny about tech snafus during presentations? That’s comedy gold!

Kidding aside, your first (published) book, co-authored with Ryan Howes and Richard Rupp, is What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Sex: A Guide for Christian Men. Tell us about the process of co-writing a book. Who came up with the idea? Did you actually write together or did you each write different parts of the book? I think our readers would also like to know how you found your publisher and how long the whole process—from idea to print—took.

SWS: All three of us came up with the idea, because sexuality is a focus in our clinical work. I already had an agent shopping around another book, and he agreed to represent us for this. Then he went MIA for over three months. He didn’t return calls or emails and then his answering machine was disconnected. I thought we’d been duped. Then, lo and behold, he pops up again and gets us a contract two months later.

We each wrote different chapters, then all three of us worked on making sure everything hung together. At first, I thought working with two other authors would make the process easier. We got the first draft together pretty fast, but after that a lot of, um, “discussion” took place about what we wanted the book to be. We even argued over the cover and title options the publisher gave us. In the end, however, I think the book is better for it. None of us could have written it alone.

The whole process, from the idea to having the book in our hands, took about two years.

TC: What Wives Wish… came out in April of this year. You and your wife Shelley became parents to quadruplets in May 2005. So that means the writing of the book coincided with the first two years of your children’s lives. Tell us how you managed to write a book while parenting four kids under two and maintaining a private practice (and you were teaching Clinical Psychology for a while there, too, I believe).

SWS: By sleeping only four hours a night and mainlining caffeine. We proposed the book before Shelley was pregnant. Though I was ecstatic when we got the contract, it really couldn’t have come at a worse time. I usually started work after our night nanny came on duty around 11 p.m. I read a warning on a can of Red Bull that said you shouldn’t drink more than four a day, but I discovered that it’s no problem if you don’t mind the heart palpitations. At work, sometimes I’d shut the door to my office and pass out on the couch.

Steve_Family.jpgShelley and Steve with the kids earlier this year. By the way, Shelley’s also a psychologist—the kids aren’t going to have a chance with teenage angst!

TC: I guess that experience must have taught you a lot about time management. You currently write two columns—”Ask the Man Shrink” and “God on the Ground”—for Divine Caroline. Tell us about the columns and explain how you find the time.

SWS: “Ask the Man Shrink” is what Dear Abby would write if she were a man and a wise-ass. Divine Caroline is a women’s web site, so the idea is to offer the male perspective along with advice from a psychologist. “God on the Ground” is about finding God in places that you wouldn’t expect. It’s my favorite of the two, but the harder to write. It forces me to pay attention to my spiritual life, because, if I don’t, the next column will suck.

I don’t “find” time to write—I make time. I block off at least two hours every Thursday afternoon. It helps that they’re paying me.

TC: So that’s the secret. Speaking of payment, you’ve already got contracts for two more books. Your second book is about dating for Christian men. Tell us about it.

SWS: A few years ago, there was an “anti-dating” movement in evangelical Christianity that said a couple should remain friends until they’re certain they want to get married. My book is a bit of a reaction to that. It’s also a bit of a con in that the book’s not totally about dating—it’s about identity and self-esteem. A lot of men (and women) believe that love will fix everything. The first part of the book talks about getting a life before you try to get a love life. The last part of the book helps Christian guys—and I can’t think of a better way to say this—have more “game.”

TC: You recently got your third book contract after an editor read an article you’d written about the first year with your quadruplets and asked for a book proposal (very cool!). This one is going to be a memoir. What can you tell us about it? Have you started writing it?

SWS: The working title (which I’m sure the publisher will change) is Quadruplets and Accomplices: Tales of a Cynic Assaulted by Joy. It describes the spiritual journey of someone (me) who starts off passionate about his faith, becomes cynical and disillusioned, and then discovers God again. Unlike a lot of Christian memoirs, this book talks about how difficult it is to be a Christian because it means having a relationship with a God who’s mysterious and sometimes aggravating. Shelley’s pregnancy and the first year with the quads was the pinnacle of my confusion and frustration with God, but then he used the experience to help me rediscover joy. A lot of people who were once excited about their faith become cynical after having hurtful experiences with religion. This book is for them.

I just finished the first draft. It’s due to the publisher the day after Labor Day, so I’ll be rewriting the rest of the summer.

TC: Which of your writing projects (whether complete, published, or in-progress) is your favorite and why?

SWS: So far, this memoir. I’ve had more fun writing it than anything else. I also think it’s a paradigm-changing work of genius, but that’s only because I just finished the first draft. I’ll probably hate it next week. Other than that, my Three Cheers and a Tiger story has a special place in my heart. I remember writing it—it was one of those times when the adrenaline keeps pumping, filling your brain with ideas. It was also my first fiction publication, something I’d been chasing for years. When I got the email saying that I’d won the contest, I grabbed Shelley and started dancing around the house.

TC: The memoir sounds like it shares a lot of themes with your first novel, Playing in the Thorns, which you wrote an Absolute Blank article about finishing in November 2003. Playing in the Thorns was very much a classic first novel, in that it was based on your own teenage experiences. How important was it for you to write that story? What’s happening with that project now? And do you have any new fiction in the works?

SWS: It was very important for me to write that novel, but for different reasons than I thought at the time. It was a bit therapeutic, of course, but it also taught me a ton about writing and publishing. Since I received well over a hundred rejection letters, I learned to keep my expectations low after sending off a query letter. Just ask my co-authors—whenever a publisher would look at our proposal, I’d tell them, “Don’t get your hopes up. It’s probably not going to happen.”

I’m afraid that first novel is quite dead. It has its moments, but it kinda sucks overall. If I ever want to tell that story, I’ll have to start over from scratch.

As far as fiction goes, I don’t have much going on. Over the last few years I’ve had to accept the fact that I’m a better nonfiction writer. That’s my focus right now. But I have notes for a short story I hope to start after I’m finished with the memoir. I love the writing I’m doing now, but publishing a novel is still the big dream. However, I’m not going to try to come up with an idea for one anymore. If I write another novel, it will be because an idea whacks me on the head that’s too good to ignore.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon” you said that both marathon running and novel writing require “set[ting] a schedule and stick[ing] to it.” You must be good at setting schedules: you ran five marathons and finished a novel while working full-time, and finished What Wives Wish… while parenting four toddlers. Tell us about your writing habits. And have you run any marathons since the quadruplets arrived?

SWS: I’ve heard a lot of people say that you need to write every day, but I can’t do that. I need a reason to sit down at the computer, even if it’s just a fleeting inspiration for a short story or an article. Once I set my mind to a project, however. I set aside specific times to work. When I’m doing a first draft, I need chunks of at least two hours. Of course, getting a contract helps. When I’m getting paid something—even if it’s peanuts—it’s easier to give up time that I could be using to see clients. I used to write at night, but that’s a lot harder nowadays. I’m too wiped out at the end of the day to do much more than veg in front of the TV.

Marathons? Bah! Running 26 miles is cake compared to parenting four toddlers. Only recently did I start running regularly again. And it hurts more now! So no more marathons for the foreseeable future, though I’d like to do a half sometime in the next year.

TC: In your Divine Caroline bio, you say your favorite mistake was “parking my car in the wrong place at a U2 concert and then running into Bono and the Edge when I went to move it.” So we have to know: did they say anything to you? (Or you to them?) I know U2 is your favorite group, but what other music do you like? Do you listen to music while you write? What would your “Writing Mix” playlist have on it?

SWS: They signed autographs but didn’t say anything. I was too dumbfounded to talk, so I can’t blame them. As they were walking away, however, I lost control and shouted, “God bless you!” The Edge shook my hand, though. Haven’t washed it since.

Right now, I’m listening to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible over and over. It’s the best record I’ve heard in years. In general, I’m an out of control music fan. I have 7,000 songs on my iPod. When I’m writing, I listen to either baroque music or hard rock like AC/DC. If I’m working on a long section and I know exactly where it’s going, the hard stuff helps me pound it out faster. If I’m finding my way, I don’t want anything too distracting.

TC: Baroque or AC/DC. That is a truly awesome juxtaposition.

In your TC bio, you say you were inspired to write by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Have any other writers inspired you since then? What current writers do you enjoy?

SWS: My favorite writers actually discourage me. For example, I love Robert Penn Warren and Orson Scott Card, but they leave me thinking, “I couldn’t write like that if there someone held a gun to my head.” Lately, because of the stuff I’m writing, I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Lamott. There’s also a guy named Rob Bell who writes about faith from a perspective similar to mine, except that he has about a hundred times more depth and wisdom. Every sitting with either Lamott or Bell includes moments of delight alternating with pangs of envy.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon,” you mention Stephen King’s On Writing. What other resources (books or otherwise) have helped you with your writing?

SWS: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a good resource. Stunk and White’s Elements of Style is good to have on your shelf. Other than that, it’s all Toasted Cheese, baby.

TC: I can’t argue with any of those.

When you wrote your first (vampire!) story in seventh grade your teacher said, “Keep this up and you’ll write a novel someday.” You’ve said that her words “haunted” you, so you wrote a novel. How important was your teacher’s encouragement in terms of your writing? Has anyone else acted as a writing mentor for you?

SWS: If Mrs. Travis hadn’t said that to me, I don’t think I’d be answering your questions right now. It was the first time anyone ever said anything good about my writing. My handwriting was (um, is) atrocious, and that doesn’t go over well in grade school.

I’ve had several writing mentors—Miss Keen, my high school journalism teacher, had a huge impact. Some other friends and professors have been important. But Theryn Fleming [I did not pay him to say this. –TF] and the folks at Toasted Cheese have done more than all of them combined. I’m not even saying this to butter you up or plug TC—you guys changed the way I think about writing.

TC: Aw, thanks. It means a lot to hear that. Now, since I’m a little verklempt, let me turn it back to you.

You have an interesting and varied background: you started college with an interest in journalism, but ended up with an M.A. in Theology and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Somehow you’ve managed to combine all three. There’s lots of advice out there for people writing “on the side,” that is, writing while working at an unrelated day job. What advice can you give people who are trying to combine writing with another career?

SWS: Four things: Structure, patience, passion and being open to feedback.

You need to make writing a structure in your life, even if it’s just a couple hours every week. Anne Lamott says that if you write just one paragraph a week, you’ll have a book in two years. You just have to be consistent. I’ve met so many people who say they want to write a book—and have the talent for it—but it never happens because they don’t make the time. If you have a career, family, school, etc., time to write a book isn’t going to suddenly materialize. You have to be intentional about it.

You also need patience. Expect rejection notices, especially at first. You also have to be willing to write for free. When you do get paid, it won’t be very much. Along these lines, you have to be passionate about writing. It almost needs to feel like you don’t have a choice. A lot of the publishing game is about perseverance.

Finally, you have to listen to what other people say about your writing. It’s great to hear compliments and praise, but constructive criticism is what makes you a better writer. Stephen King says that if ten people read your work and they all have different feedback, you can ignore all of them. But if five of them are complaining about the same thing, you need to fix it.

TC: Great advice. Well, that about wraps things up. Well, except for one final question…

(Steve and his co-author Ryan Howes host a weekly podcast at their website Fun Christian Sex. The week I tuned in, they were bemoaning the lack of hymns about sex. So, of course I had to ask…)

TC: Will you write us a hymn about sex? There don’t seem to be any.

SWS: Actually, Ryan is working on one. At our seminars, he plays a blues song about the traditional Christian view of sex. It’s titled, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

TC: Thanks, Steve.

Final Poll Results

The First Novel Marathon

Absolute Blank

By Stephen W. Simpson (Macfisto)

The novel is the marathon of writing. Most fiction writers can knock out a short story, just like most people can finish a 5-k race with little training. But even many of the best 5-k runners stay away from marathons because they’re too daunting. They require a level of commitment, sacrifice, and pain that most runners can’t fathom. I suspect the same is true of the novel for writers.

I’ve run five marathons but I’ve only written one novel. I wish I could tell you that I discovered the secret of writing a novel my first time out. I can’t. I’m in the middle of the fourth draft and don’t even have an agent. However, I learned a few things that might help if you aspire to this lofty goal. You only need a little talent, a good idea, and some courage to get started. But if you want to finish something that someone other than your friends and Aunt Sadie will read, enjoy, and purchase, you need three things:

Background Image: Rawbert|K|Photo/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Endurance. Probably one in ten people say they want to write a novel “someday.” Of those, maybe half write a chapter or an outline. Almost no one finishes it.

In my first marathon, I made the classic blunder experienced runners warn against: going out too fast. I got too excited and dashed out with fantasies of a record-breaking time. Ten miles in my quadriceps tightened up. Fifteen miles in my hamstring said, “I’m getting off here.” By mile twenty, I didn’t know my name, where I was, or what possessed me to do such an excruciating, stupid thing. Reaching the finish line seemed impossible.

Something similar happens to most aspiring novelists. They might dash out of the gate with a flourish, maybe a gripping first sentence or intriguing characters in exciting circumstances. Then the work starts. Plot and character development take longer than expected. Building up to those pivotal moments starts to feel more like work than titillating creative passion. Then they “hit the wall.” This usually comes in the form of dropping the story, with sincere plans to return to it “someday.” When you start a novel, understand that it’s going to take a long time. For your first novel, give yourself at least a year.

But that year should be structured. Marathon training requires several runs a week as part of a consistent program. If you only run whenever the mood hits you, can forget about crossing the finishing line before dark. The same thing applies to writing the novel. Set a schedule and stick to it, whether it means you write a page a day, three on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So your muse is hiding under the covers during your scheduled time to write? You’re too worried about cleaning out the gutters? Write anyway. The novel requires you to no longer be a slave to your creative impulse. It has to be the other way around or you won’t finish.

The thing that got me through was a commitment to write something every night but Friday and Saturday. On those nights, I kept writing as long as I felt the words flowing. If they didn’t, I wrote until I got to a logical stopping place even if I was turning out nothing but verbose crap. Once I finished, I rewarded myself. I wrote e-mail, visited TC (highly recommended), or played video games. Thursday nights I’d have a beer. But I didn’t treat myself to any of these unless I wrote something first.

Don’t even think about reaching the end until you’re almost there. In the meantime, enjoy reaching smaller goals, such as the end of a chapter. Otherwise, you’ll hit the wall before you get started.

Humility. You are not as good a writer as you think you are. Neither am I. It’s actually good that we don’t know this, because we might never start. It takes at least a little arrogance to write something you hope thousands of people will pay twenty bucks a pop to read. Nothing wrong with that. But be prepared to think a lot less of yourself soon after you type the words “the end.”

A friend of mine decided to run a marathon without doing any training runs above eight miles. Everyone told him this was a bad idea and that he needed to work up to twenty. He was a great athlete and figured he didn’t need the advice of “recreational runners.” He finished the marathon—in six hours after limping through the last seven miles. He injured his foot and didn’t run another step for six months.

Listen to what other people tell you. Brush up on your craft by reading books on technique and ask for feedback. In On Writing Stephen King says you write the first draft “with the door closed” and the second draft “with the door open.” Seek out those who will be honest with you. It’s wonderful to hear how much someone loves your work, but it doesn’t help you. A true friend in this process tells you when they get bored or confused and points out your mistakes. Listen to what they have to say and be ready to make changes.

You don’t have to change every little thing someone doesn’t like. However, this is where Voltaire’s maxim “The masses are asses” doesn’t apply. The more people who don’t like something, the more reason you have to change it. Yes, I know that you love that section where the protagonist has an epiphany in the middle of cornfield because it showcases your dancing prose. Change it anyway. Some of what you regard as your most brilliant work will have to go. And it hurts, which brings me to the final lesson.

Self-Amputation. No, don’t start cutting yourself when you get negative feedback. Take your medication and hang in there. But get ready to start hacking away at your story.

I did something else stupid while training for my first marathon: I ran too much. I thought I needed to do every training run I read about, including stuff that was out of my league and unnecessary for finishing the race. I was doing over 65 miles a week when I really only needed 50 to reach my goal. My left knee paid for it on marathon day.

I write too much, too. My main character is breaking lamps and throwing four-letter words all over the page, but I feel obligated to tell you that’s he’s angry. I’ll take three paragraphs to describe his seething inner turmoil. Heaven forbid you don’t know exactly what I mean, even if it bores you to tears and ruins the flow of the story. The best advice I got from a friend about my novel is “show don’t tell.” And I love to “tell” my readers every detail, scared to death they might miss something.

On my latest draft, I’m cutting like crazy, using a machete rather than a scalpel. I began doing this as an experiment, deleting everything that was not essential to the story. I took out everything possible as long the reader would still understand what was happening. It was mortifying. I highlighted paragraphs written with agonizing care and slapped the delete key. It felt like loping off an appendage. I was ripping out the soul of my novel. Shuddering, I went back and read all that I’d maimed.

It was better. It was more like the stuff that I like to read than the stuff I like to write. It was a realization born of pain and humility, but it was undeniable. If I’m ever going to get this novel into the hands of paying readers, I have to chop every superfluous word. It might not be worth it to you. That’s fine and you’re in the company of many great writers and Anne Rice. But it’s worth it to me if it means more people will read my story.

That’s what I’ve learned so far. But I’m not finished. If this is a marathon, I figure I’m at mile eighteen. That’s where the pain usually sets in. That’s where I start to think this was dumb idea to begin with and I feel like dropping out. At this point, it’s not about training, ability, or even courage. The courage got me started. Now, it’s about determination. When the rewrites hit double digits, when the rejection letters come, when your best friend says, “Will you shut up about your stupid novel and get back to reality,” you have to persevere.

When my wife waits for me at the marathon finish line, I can’t leave her waiting around for hours, only to go to the results board and read “DNF” (“did not finish”) by my name. It’s a good idea to enlist supporters before starting your novel marathon. Have somebody waiting at the ten-mile mark to read your first few chapters. After that, ask them to drive down to the finish line and wait for your first draft. Imagine the crowds of cheering readers waiting for you to finish what you started. There are people who want and need to read your story. Don’t let them down.

Final Poll Results