Rachel Lyon is a woman of much grace and many talents. Not only is her fiction swift and piercing, she plays the violin, is a radiant dinner guest, and generally all around wonderful person. I had the pleasure of getting to know Rachel while we were both at Indiana University’s MFA program. She’s now back in her home city, New York, working and writing, and she took a minute to share with us a little snippet of her life. You can find more of Rachel on Twitter: @manateesintrees and Instagram: @appleeyed and a list of her published works that can be enjoyed anywhere the internet goes.
What do you write? How do you write it?
I write stories, mostly, of all lengths—short-shorts, long shorts—and I’ve just finished a second draft of my first novel. I usually get up sometime around six so I can write in the morning before work. I find my mind is freshest then. As the day goes on, my mental noise tends to accumulate, and that can drown out what I most deeply want to say. In the morning my thoughts are quieter, and my language tends to be clearer.
It also helps that one of my two cats is a restless little animal who won’t leave me alone until I get up. As soon as he feels that it should be morning he’ll come and harass me until I get out of bed. I like to think of him as my writer’s conscience… but probably he’s just bored.
Can you tell us a little bit about your job and how you got there?
I’m the copywriter and content strategist at Velocidi, a digital marketing agency. I learned about the opportunity through a fellow alumna of my college, and it just happened to work out when I was on the market for some interesting, language-related work. I was lucky they were willing to take a chance on someone with not a lot of real marketing experience, and lucky, too, that they turned out to be a great group of fun, creative people. The work that they do, and our processes as a team, have taught me a lot.
How does this job challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?
Copywriting has changed my work in a bunch of ways. When I write for clients, part of my job is to craft a voice that feels natural for them—even if it’s doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me. That’s great practice for writing dialogue, and for writing in character. It’s also great for learning to grow from criticism. When what matters isn’t just the quality of my work, but the quality of big-picture projects that my whole agency is working on, I can’t work in a vacuum. I can’t be too timid, or too self-contained. So I’ve learned to be more flexible, and more open. And working under strict deadlines, I’ve gotten some great practice writing more quickly and efficiently, and knowing when to trust my instincts.
The other part of my title at Velocidi is Content Strategist. At the moment, while I’m deep in the process of finishing my first real novel, I’m also taking classes and doing research around the principles of content strategy for my job—and some of the ideas and practices I’ve learned about have really helped me structure the book. Although it’s the longest project I’ve ever endeavored, thinking about it in tandem with content strategy has helped me better conceptualize it, and (I hope) better structure it into one satisfying, cohesive manuscript. I’m not nearly as overwhelmed by the project as I was a year ago.
There is another benefit to simply having a full-time job that I think working writers tend to underestimate, and that I think, in a simple way, is actually pretty profound. The 9-5 (or, actually, the 9:30-6:30) provides me with this predetermined, built-in routine. Having to get out of the house every day by nin e is like having a daily deadline, and I really like that. When I know I’ll only have a couple of hours to, say, write a draft of this scene, or edit that scene, or just sit down and record whatever words want to show up that day, I don’t procrastinate.
Elizabeth Gilbert gave a popular TED Talk where she said (and I’m probably paraphrasing badly, but) so much of writing is just making yourself available. For inspiration to strike. For a visit from the muse. I’ve found that, for me, that’s true. When I have a strict boundary around my time, instead of getting distracted by all the infinite other things there are out there to read, look at, listen to, make, do, and experience, I make myself available. So in that way, this position has made me a more disciplined writer, too.
Can you tell me a little bit about your violin playing and how that creative outlet is related (if it is) to your writing? Does it access a different part of the brain?
There are two ways that my violin playing may be related to my writing. On one hand, I’ve always felt a musical relationship to language—to pacing and rhythm and shape and rhyme. I get phrases stuck in my head just like songs or tunes (I still remember some of my favorite phrases from other people’s stories and poems in grad school), and I tend to structure my sentences with musicality in mind. On the other hand, I just like to write about musicians and music, as well as other kinds of artists. I come from a family of artists, and most of my friends are artists in one way or another, so those tend to be the characters that develop most naturally for me. Art is a great metaphor for so many things, and the art a character makes can be a kind of shortcut into his or her mental space.
But in terms of brain space I think the violin lives in a completely different place for me—although I learned to play at almost the same time that I learned how to write the alphabet, so there are, I imagine, very deep grooves in that gray matter. It’s interesting: in Indiana I was fortunate to get to play with a bunch of terrific musicians, and I had an active musical life, but since coming back to New York I haven’t had much opportunity or time to practice. Recently, though, I picked it up again after a long hiatus, and it’s been so satisfying. Playing the violin is very athletic, and sawing away at it again felt like how I imagine runners must feel when they do a lap or two outside after a long winter: a surge of energy, happy muscles, intense satisfaction. Probably I was half imagining this, but I could almost feel the rush of activity in my parietal lobe or whatever, the neurons lighting up in the dark.