CofC Logo
Ask the Cougar

Location, Location, Location.

Bret Lott, professor of English

According to professor and novelist Bret Lott, the difference between a bestseller and a bomb depends on where you're sitting – literally.

A student recently showed up to Lott's fiction writing workshop with a darn good short story. Lott responded with a series of questions that made him sound more like a private investigator than an English professor. "Where did you write the story? What time of day did you write it? What had you eaten? Were you listening to particular music? What were you wearing?"

Lott was trying to help the student and his classmates solve the ancient artistic mystery of creative inspiration. Where does it come from? Why does it go away? And most important, how can I get it back? For a writer, some days you're drowning in brilliant ideas, while others are as dry as the Sahara. Through Lott's unconventional interrogation technique, the student was able to pinpoint the exact physical setting where he found his Muse.

"I told him that writing well is sort of this muscle memory thing and you can't control your creativity except through trying to replicate the unconscious system by which a really good story came out," explains Lott. In other words, if it worked once, do it again!

For Lott, a prolific author of 12 books, including novels, short story collections, nonfiction and a memoir, his Muse shows up every morning at 6:00 a.m. while he downs a steaming mug of coffee. He discovered she has a geographic preference as well.

Lott taught creative writing at the College of Charleston for 18 years before being hired as editor of the Southern Review, a top college literary journal published at Louisiana State University. Fortunately for us, his career there didn't last long.

"I didn't like being an editor," admits Lott. "An editor is someone who sits in an office and reads people's work without having an opportunity to help them. You're arriving at a verdict: yes, no, yes, no. After doing that for three years, I realized that I'd much rather help people become better writers than to sit and say, 'No, this is not good.'"

Plus, Lott desperately missed Charleston, the city where he had raised his children and produced some of his best work, including Jewel, an Oprah's Book Club selection. After all, if your Muse lives in Charleston, you can hardly expect her to commute to Baton Rouge.