An Interview with Amy Shearn about Art of the Long Haul

Amy Shearn
Amy!! Aside from being a teacher of humor writing and a fantastic cake-baker, you are an author who has published two novels. Where did you get this interest in the art of the long haul and what are you trying to do with this Art of the Long Haul Instagram project?

 

Amy!! What AM I trying to do with this project? Well, I think it all started with Dorothy Richardson. She’s a modernist writer, now largely forgotten, who wrote a 12-volume stream-of-consciousness novel about an ordinary woman’s inner life, called Pilgrimage. Writing it took most of Richardson’s life. I’ve always found this so fascinating, that she could take this leap of faith, devote so much time and energy to trying to recreate what a novel could be, to critical acclaim but, unsurprisingly, few sales. And she was a working woman who had to financially support herself the whole time, too, so it wasn’t like writing was an obvious thing for her to do. So, about two years ago I wrote this feature for Real Simple that used my never-ending reading of Richardson as a hook (because her book is so long and so dense that I STILL haven’t finished it, but reading it has become this ongoing long term project for me), and then presented three other interesting long-haulers: a young woman who through-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail alone, an artist who was attempting to draw every building in New York City, and a septuagenarian nun who had worked on a quilt for 47 years. The editor of that piece said to me: “This could be a book, you know.” I realized that I really had always been interested in crazy, ambitious, possibly-endless projects — I love Diana Nyad, Ernest Shackleton, people who walk across continents, that kind of thing. What a way to live, you know? I am very low-energy and non-extreme myself, and would probably die on the first day of any expedition, so part of my attraction is sheer mystification. Ok, and then, as I was starting to think about how it might be fun to write about more Long Haulers, I was trying to write a novel that I am realizing might never see the light of day, and also mired in the daily work of rearing small children. I started to think that by exploring some grand Long Hauls, I might be able to rustle up some patience, remind myself to enjoy the process, even when the process seems never-ending. And I hope it will end up being something that is inspiring and nourishing to anyone who has a big dream and needs a reminder not to lose the faith.

 
It occurs to me that this is part of it too. (Just another thing I’ve written about Long Haulers and how I feel like their projects inform me as a writer).

 

Dorothy Richardson photographed by Man Ray

So the project began as a way for you to encourage yourself in your own work and then slowly it became a work of its own? Tell me more about the book. What types of long hauls will you be focusing on and what do you hope readers will get from this?

At first I thought it would be about everything. Every kind of long haul imaginable. I quickly realized how insane that was— how it could devolve into the Long Haul’s evil twin, the Eternal Procrastination— like that book Casaubon is forever writing/not writing in Middlemarch. Oh that guy drives me crazy! Anyway. For now I am just going with my gut, and taking the advice I always give writers when I’m acquiring pitches as an editor: you write best when writing what fascinates you, so always go with that! I am most interested in writers, artists, and walkers— these all seem like related forms of pilgrimages to me, with all the spiritual undertones that includes— and I want to focus on women. The more I researched the more I realized that women’s long hauls seem, unsurprisingly, different in tenor and character from men’s long hauls. So often family and caregiving and the stuff of human life is woven into a woman’s creative (or escapist) long haul, where so many of the men I read about seem to be out to prove a point or win a record. That’s oversimplifying of course. But also, I just feel like it’s so much more rare to find a woman making land art, or going on an expedition, so this both helps me to narrow my scope, and provokes thought— why?

 

Do you have any hypothesis at this point about why?

I do have some theories about why fewer women take on these huge long haul projects. Part of it is the same old “Why are there no great women artists?“/”A Room of One’s Own” dynamic — when all your time and energy is considered public domain, meant to be devoted to family (whether women have their own children or not, they are so often expected to be family caregivers), and when you aren’t, institutionally, given the space/encouragement/resources/freedom to dream big, then of course fewer women are going to have the confidence or ability or chutzpah or whatever it is that makes you say, “This painting is important and I will now spend 12 years on it and I don’t care who that inconveniences.” Taking on a huge-scale project, whether it’s an epic novel or an exploration, always involves an element of risk and a very likely chance of failure. Maybe — this is of course a generalization and also just a hunch — but maybe women who are creating a life for themselves as an artist or an athlete or whatever it is, feel the need to justify the work, to prove themselves, to reap recognizable rewards — which leads to a different kind of ambition, one with potentially more immediate and tangible rewards. If that makes any sense.

 
I know you work at JSTOR, which I am imagining must be very fun. What are your thoughts about research and have they changed since you started working there? Do you feel like the book project has been informed by this environment?

Working at JSTOR has totally fed this project. I feel like everyone’s default is to assume that working can only take away from writing — I sometimes assume this too. But it’s true that my particular workplace happens to particularly helpful for a writer. I spend much of my day in this vast digital database of academic, scholarly, historical, literary texts, and while editing I often find myself coming across odd bits of history that spark thought. I do a lot of bookmarking interesting research, stockpiling this wealth of articles that I will fold into this larger project…sometime. The JSTOR Daily writers are often covering quirky chapters of the past, and it’s been really fascinating to see how things connect, to think more about how our history has shaped us, I mean down to what we eat, how our kids play, why we travel the ways we do, those kinds of things. The pieces I edit often uncover the hidden forces at play behind parts of our lives we see as inevitable. Like I came across some interesting research about the economic factors that led to the adoption of the QWERTY keyboard for typewriters, and ended up writing a piece about it, because I thought it was so pleasantly brain-tingling. I like that kind of thinking, and looking at the world in that inquisitive way. It’s a good way to train my brain, I think, for thinking about Long Hauls and their place in our lives.

 
Do you expect that your long haul book will be a long haul?

Oh, I do absolutely think this Long Haul project will be a long haul. And of course I’m struggling to embrace that, how this will take a long time to create, how I’m writing the book in order to teach me to embrace the process of writing the book, if that makes sense. I want to do a lot of research and make sure I’m doing all these Long Haulers justice, and it’s simply going to take a long time. Even if I wasn’t juggling kids and a full-time job it would take a long time. And as it is, it’s getting juggled. But that of course is exactly the entire point — that we hack on anyway, that we embrace the uncertainty and the ongoingness, that we weave it into our life. That the time it takes to create the thing is one of the resources that gets folded into the thing, along with the words or paint or miles or space — the time spent is one of the creative tools, will give the piece some of its texture.