The Creativity Interviews: Author, Nichole Bernier

As part of my ongoing quest to explore what it means to live a creative life, I periodically invite kickass creatives to come play with us on Zebra Sounds. First, I ask them five questions about creativity, and then they get to ask you something…

… and that’s when the real fun (and wild generosity) begins.

This week’s episode:

The power of pragmatism and fit, Zen grandmas… plus, another GREAT giveaway!

NicholeBernierMed-resNichole Bernier has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, Men’s Journal, Child and Yankee. She was a contributing editor to Conde Nast Traveler magazine for fourteen years, and she is founder of the literary blog, Beyond the Margins. She’s also the author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, a novel I’ve been really excited to read, inspired by a family friend’s healing following the September 11th attacks. Here’s the little summary that excited me first: Before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear. But there comes a day when journals outlive us. And with them, our secrets.

I got to hear Nichole read in San Francisco last month, and I can tell I’m going to Love. This. Book. But as wonderful as her reading was, what struck me most was Nichole’s very genuine, easygoing presence and her straightforward willingness to talk about her day-to-day practice of writing, which, incidentally, she accomplishes while being the mother of five children.

Since I know I struggle to make time for my art, with fewer children (and I’m guessing less general chaos), I was really excited when Nichole agreed to do the Creativity Questions with me. I knew she’d have great insights for us. And… I LOVE the juicy question she has for you at the end…


j: Life is demanding. What are your tricks for getting into a creative space?

Nichole: The first thing for me — and please don’t take this the wrong way — is that I need to put a little auditory distance between me and my children. I love them dearly, and I can think with them on my lap and I can think watching them play soccer. But I can’t think creatively with all five asking me questions at the same time.

The next thing I suppose is, though this might seem counterintuitive, to have an idea of what I want to do, creatively. Even if I’m taking a walk or exercising or going on a long car ride, I have to put my mind into a creative-alert-seeking mode. Ideas won’t come while I’m thinking about the grocery list. But if I’ve stirred up some ideas in advance and jotted down notes, I’m in a much better place to start writing a scene or an essay the next time I get to sit down alone. It’s not terribly spontaneous, but it’s what works for me.

j: What’s the weirdest thing that inspires you?

Nichole: The shower.

j: How do you deal with critics?

Nichole: I suppose the same way I deal with critics about anything: consider the source, consider their point of view and preferences and baggage, and decide whether or not it rings true to me. Pragmatic thinking can take out some of the sting. Which is not to say it doesn’t still hurt sometimes.

j: What energizes you, solitude or engagement?

Nichole: I remember the first time I came across a version of this question. It was during one of those personality tests given in high school, one of the simplistic kinds designed to place you on an introversion-extroversion scale, and I was frustrating my guidance counselor because I couldn’t answer it. Such a temptation to say neither or both, so many conditions I wanted to impose!

I’m happy to be at a place in my life where I don’t have to be able to answer definitively, that I can say sometimes one and sometimes the other or change my ratio from day to day, without infuriating a guidance counselor.

That said, it’s probably more often solitude.

j: An old drawer full of older magazines and an irresistible urge to create. What will you make?

Nichole: Funny you’d ask that. I remember so clearly being a magazine intern the summer after my sophomore year of college, commuting into New York, seeing a picture in Newsweek Magazine and saying, That’s what I want my life to look like in 10 years. I think it was an ad for a laptop, because it showed a woman sitting in a window seat writing on a laptop balanced on her legs, and beside her she had a bike and a big dog. I don’t know whether I saved the clipping, but I’ve always remembered it.

So: I’d probably make a collage of things I find most visually appealing or representative of the new things I’d like in my life in 10 or 20 years. The perfectly comfortable writing shed behind the house. The fit, Zen grandmother doing yoga. The alpaca farm I really think I’ll own someday if I play my cards right. And of course a great laptop, bike and dog. And maybe some grandchildren, if they don’t mess up my writing shed.


Now it’s your turn: Nichole’s question for you…

What is the unfinished work of *your* life?

Answer in the comments section (or just say hello) before August 23rd, and we’ll pick one of your answers at random to win a copy of Nichole’s novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. (I already have my copy. Maybe whoever wins can read it with me – a little September book club!)

I’m looking forward to seeing your answers. I’m going to answer too; this is just the sort of provocative, soulful question I love.


**************** UPDATE ****************

Congratulations to Terri Kent Enborg who, via a magic trick involving sticky notes and blind folds, won Nichole’s novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D!

**************** UPDATE ****************


  1. Whoa_Mary on August 16, 2012 at 8:56 am

    My book. I have been seriously thinking of starting again after seeing Nichole read in St Paul last month. It is difficult to do right now as I am so behind in everything after being injured. I just returned to work, but am still in physical therapy. Am hoping work on book will start again in September and I will no longer be “unfinished.”

    • j on August 16, 2012 at 11:36 am

      At least you have a very good excuse for being behind on everything. One thing that so strikes me when I listen to Nichole talk about life in her super busy household… we make time for what we absolutely must make time for. She said she watches ZERO television and knows almost nothing about pop culture. On the other hand, she (kinda fiercely) follows her curiosity, which of course, feeds her creativity and – quite possibility – will result in her next book.

      I’m excited that you’re feeling the pull to write again.

  2. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on August 16, 2012 at 11:22 am

    I would so love to win a copy of Nichole’s book! It’s been on my to-read list since before it came out. Love her presence, love her answers, and really love that book cover, too! As to unfinished work… my answer isn’t very unique among a group of writers. It’s a novel. I think of it as The Novel in my head, because it’s big and ambitious and literary, and I have no idea how many more years it will take me to finish it. Someday. =)

    • j on August 16, 2012 at 11:45 am

      If you win, I’ll read it with you!

      As soon as Nichole asked her question, I thought of Beautiful Lives (my novel), the final draft of which I finished on the same day Japan got rocked to its core last year. While I’m immensely proud of it, I crumbled under the weight of agents and query letters and synopses and guidelines and elevator pitches and fearsome slush piles. I’ve only now begun to explore the publishing world again… my way, this time – writing, interviewing, doodling my way through the maze of options.

      I’m excited at even the thought of you tackling your big, ambitious, literary novel. I think you’re at the very beginning of where your drive and talent will take you. xo

  3. Nichole Bernier on August 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks, you three, for the kind words. But in truth pressing through the novel was less about diligence than raw animal stubbornness. I had this thing that was all mine, the part of me unrelated to being mommy or wife, and needed to guard and finish it, even it it meant letting go of all my nonessential interests and activities. The hidden blessing of having time-consuming claims on your time (job, family, eldercare, anything) is that it forces you to triage what you really want to do with what’s left of your time. It’s not sexy but it was a kind of survival.

  4. Pam on August 16, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    Great interview.

    The unfinished work of my life? The list, she is long. Getting back to writing; covering all possible (& some impossible) surfaces with doodles, drawings, painting and collage; creating a real wardrobe… –let’s just say becoming an art-of-living ninja. (Oh, and learning a few other languages!) (Also ballroom dancing!) (Making a pretty garden!)

    • j on August 16, 2012 at 2:05 pm

      Holy shit, I love this answer! Mine’s like that too. Where do I begin? Must be because we oh-so-young, right? Can I become an art-of-living ninja with you?

    • Pam on August 16, 2012 at 5:10 pm

      Yes! How can the world have too many art-of-living ninjas?

    • j on August 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm

      Exactly! *strikes ninja pose*

  5. miguel on August 16, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    I have been wanting to create some sort of musical masterwork for quite some time. I have had many ideas floating in my head but have not been able to narrow down and focus on a strong concept that will define the path I will follow. Although I’ve written much music over my lifetime, I’ve never been able to plan and follow through on a large, coherent work; a musical equivalent of a novel. I am very aware of the clock ticking….

    • j on August 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      What form would your musical equivalent of a novel take? I’m thinking of operas and concept albums and symphonies… all of which would be hugely exciting, and none are probably even what you’re thinking of. Miguel, we must talk! (I’ll help you dream!)

  6. Becky on August 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    Well… I had to comment because:
    1) I don’t have this book, yet.
    2) I happen to adore Nichole. She has 13 kids you know. I heard a rumor that she can bake cupcakes, do math homework, AND drive a carpool all at the same time.

    So… my answer to the very literal question of “what is your unfinished work” is full of fru fru and woo woo.
    I usually attempt to complete the things I feel drawn to, I have written the first page of about 6 novels and if I ever write the other 359 pages, they’ll all be huge, bigger than Elvis. But… I’m not drawn to do that. I’m not drawn to get my PhD. To be clear, not being drawn to something is far different than not having ambition or want of more, better.
    So… fru fru woo woo — I’d say I’m my own unfinished work. Each day I want to know what happened today and how can that add to me… and, to be honest, I hope to never finish me. I mean, that would be kinda sad to think that you’re complete — all of the unfinished bits are me becoming.

    • j on August 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm

      I wonder if it’s even possible to finish ourselves. I hope not too.

    • Nichole Bernier on August 16, 2012 at 6:46 pm

      Cheers to the becoming! Love it, Becky.
      PS I also bench press a minivan while making crepes. And it’s 23 kids, not 13.

  7. Becky on August 16, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Ha! I stand corrected… and my Nichole love continues to grow. 🙂

  8. Nneerraakk on August 16, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    Unfinished? My children. Ages 20-27 I don’t think they’ll ever be finished but the unfinshed articles are pretty good 🙂

    • j on August 17, 2012 at 10:27 am

      Yeah, I think we humans will have to satisfy ourselves with our pretty good unfinished states.

  9. Tammy on August 17, 2012 at 1:16 am

    Typing up my late mother’s recipes and sharing them with family.

    • j on August 17, 2012 at 10:28 am

      What a sweet gesture!

  10. aussieheather on August 17, 2012 at 5:44 am

    My unfinished work are all of my books. I’ve written five, but since then have had a surprise baby and an injured husband home, who I am caring for in his recovery. It might be an excuse, but my life is really hectic. I am getting back to the books, but need to wait a little longer, yet. 😉

    • j on August 17, 2012 at 10:29 am

      Doesn’t sound like an excuse to me! (Or if it is, it’s way better than all my excuses.) Hugs to you in your crazy times!

  11. Michael on August 18, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Me. I can’t wait to see how I turn out!
    Thank you both. Great discussion.

    • j on August 18, 2012 at 6:25 pm

      Me either! You’re already spectacular. I might not be able to even remotely handle the finished you!

  12. rhapsodypoetess on August 18, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    I feel like I would be repeating everyone else, but I suppose I have 2 unfinished works—one of them figurative, the other literal.

    One is the poetry book I would like to have published one day. (As you probably know, I have some pretty awesome inspirations to thank for that.) It’s always an unfinished task because I have not properly put my poems together in a manuscript.

    And to be figurative, I think my most important unfinished work is my *life*. Of course, I am sure that everyone can relate to this; there are always parts of our life that never seem to be finished (unless you’re retired or something similar). I am just starting my life, it seems–new job, new city to live in, new family (just got married in December). So my life has turned a new chapter, and there are so many things to write about before the book comes to a close 🙂

    • j on August 22, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Oops, I didn’t mean to skip you! Sorry!

      I’m learning, as I get older and older and older, that life is so full of new chapters, something is always ending as something else begins. That’s good – but so is pulling all your poems together and making a book out of them. 🙂

  13. sophylou on August 19, 2012 at 1:00 am

    A poetry chapbook. My history dissertation, which I finished 10+ years ago but can’t bring myself to revise in its current form because… oh, so many reasons. Hoped-for work: I have always wanted to write a book comparing history writing with poetry writing. More probable hoped-for: a book on girls’ intellectual history. With poetry in there, somewhere, possibly… So much writing I’d like to do, so little energy as I recover from surgery, etc. But some day…

    • j on August 19, 2012 at 5:28 pm

      I would love to read a book comparing history writing and poetry writing, and maybe even more, a book on girl’s intellectual history (and yes, include poetry). There. You have one rabid fan already! Write away!

      Oh, okay. You can recover first. I’ll try to be patient. *drums fingers excitedly* 🙂

  14. j on August 21, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this question since Nichole asked it, and I think, like Pam, I have a lot of unfinished business – places I haven’t seen, people I haven’t yet met, one or two conversations that still feel… unfinished. But mostly, I think there’s still a lot of stuff I need to make.

    I’ve only just begun to embrace my own wild creativity. Fearless loving creation is a new place I’ve only begun to explore. There are pages to fill, new mediums to learn, big-hearted collaborations I can’t even imagine right now.

    Oh, and lots more trails to hike.

  15. Terri on August 22, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    I can only echo what everyone else has said. Everything about my life is unfinished, I suppose — on both material and more “spiritual” levels. What is the unfinished work of my life? Living.

    • j on August 22, 2012 at 12:43 pm

      Well said, my friend. I was trying to put it in terms of what I’d like not to have unfinished when I die… a thorough exploration of my wild creative self. Yes, I’d like to have done that already.

  16. Faith Squared (@Faith_Squared) on August 22, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    I love this question! I’m trying to think of anything that IS finished, and all I’m coming up with is that I’m finished with the expectation than I’ll ever be finished with anything. So many things in progress, so many ideas and seeds of ideas. Despite the constant nagging feeling of wanting to be somewhere I’m not – wanting MORE – I am finding deeper and deeper levels of gratitude for the on-going, never-ending process of becoming. There’s freedom in that, and possibility – and I’ve connected with it in a new way as a result of asking “what is the unfinished work of my life?”

    Thank you!

    • j on August 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm

      Me too! I mean, you just described me – eternally restless AND becoming more comfortable with the idea of incomplete (imperfect). But like you, I loved this question. It made me think about the (tremendously scary) prospect that I might be gone, and someone – my boys? – might read my journals and think, “she never did do this… or this… or this.” I want them to say, “Holy shit, she did a lot of stuff!”

  17. Clare Flourish on August 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Self-acceptance is my work at the moment, it feels like a life-long thing, acceptance increases perception.

    • j on August 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm

      Yeah, I have my own version of that. I’m always hoping for the day I open my journal (which is all about working through my shit), and say, “Nope. I got nothing. All those lessons I keep having to learn over and over again? Done.” 🙂

  18. Becky on August 23, 2012 at 7:00 am

    I think I’m too competitive even for book giveaways — all I keep thinking is I’m 0-3 and need to improve my record!

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