A few weeks ago, three of my favorite bloggers agreed to form a writing panel for today’s post.
I asked them to respond to five quotes about a writer’s identity, and in their responses, they produced some smashing quotes of their own.
First, a quick introduction…
Paul is a retired English professor who has published several short stories and written and produced plays on the university stage. He is currently working on a young adult novel.
Rachel has a degree in English literature and worked as a technical editor and writer before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She is currently working on a contemporary young adult romance about a boy who unwittingly develops a crush on his step-cousin.
Kristen has a degree in liberal arts and works in marketing and data analysis. She has just released her debut novel, a psychological thriller called When We Go Missing, about an institutionalized woman who is convinced her “good” husband is a murderer.
You can read more about all three of these writers at the end of this post. Don’t forget to check out their blogs as well; they are all loaded with insight!
Now to the hard-hitters.
1) Willa Cather tells us that, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
Could you paint us a picture of yourself as a child? Did you already know that you wanted to be a writer? What elements of your childhood have stuck with you as a writer?
I was the good little boy, the third of four children. Our father died when I was five. Our mother toiled as a seamstress to keep us sheltered, clothed, and fed. I was slim and quick to smile. I had my friends, but I loved solitude. I loved to sit in the backyard swing, situated between two ancient black locust trees and simply watch the rural landscape that unfolded before me in gardens, pastures, and distant blue hills that faded into the haze.
I loved to watch, to listen, and when the opportunity arrived, to talk. When our aunts and uncles visited, we children were sent outside. I would sneak back into the house, into the kitchen and sit unnoticed in the corner and listen to the women as they sat around the kitchen table, smoking, drinking coffee, talking, laughing. The uncles had clumped into the den where they stared at some flickering crap on television or slept in the large arm chairs.
The women were animated, cheerful, full of life, full of sound. Eventually I would be discovered and called to the table. Flipping ashes into the large glass ash tray, they would exhort me to tell them something. I would relate a story…anything. I made up stories. They threw their heads back and laughed and blew smoke upwards to the ceiling. Mama told me to go outside and stay there. Aunt Edna would hold me back for one last hug. “This one’s my favorite,” she said. Then I would leave, quite happy, already thinking of my next story.
I’ve always been a dreamer. I loved to make-believe and create stories for my friends and I to act out. Getting lost in books and my imagination was my favorite thing to do as a child. I was always an obsessive reader.
I used to get in trouble at family reunions because I would rather read than interact with other guests. I suppose it was rather rude, but I loved my books!
I always knew that I would write. I never planned on making a career out of my writing. I just knew that if I was alive, I’d be writing.
Like many writers, I can’t remember a time before books. I blame my mother for that. She was a teacher and showered me with language from the time I was very small. I started trying to write my own fiction when I was 10 or 11, and my sister and I even began a round robin novel around that time. I was awful at writing back then, but most young authors go through a stage of experimenting with words, so I try not to be too hard on my past self.
2) Flannery O’Connor said, “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
As a writer, how was your experience with the education system? Did you ever feel pressured to adopt a certain style or cater to certain themes (or not write at all)?
The first real praise I received for my writing came from my high school senior English teacher. She wrote on top of my final essay that it was the best essay she had read all year. Beyond that she had no idea what to do. In the 1966 educational system, there was little or no outlet for the creative mind. I’m not so sure things have changed that much.
After a career in education, I am convinced that the classroom does not “foster” (an education term) creativity. The classroom fosters standardization.
It prepares the student to enter, what Robert Frost called, “a homogenized society.” Ubiquitous placement tests serve as numerical benchmarks utilized to score a student’s potential for success or to put it more bluntly, the student’s worth. Once accepted into the fold, the coddled student, in many universities described as customer, moves happily into a non-threatening curriculum which will purportedly prepare them for a tax-paying position in society. In addition, this same student/customer clutches a “smart” phone that, among its many worthy functions, orientates the student, figuratively and literally, away from the cultivation of that cherished writerly value: sustained thought.
In our current conformist society, the pressure students feel most is not to adopt a style of writing but to do what the professor says—and nothing more—and hence, pass their first-year composition course. The professor who wishes to teach the students has little time to develop notions of writing style and does what she can to direct her students towards effective communication, i.e., develop a theme with a modicum of bibliographical back-up. I believe the real effort now in colleges and universities is to get students to think critically. Professors want students to develop a logical argument and present their case in a clear and concise prose. Now, I cannot argue with this approach. And while the essays tend to be formulaic, I have noticed first hand when a student shows up in a class and writes with a distinctive style, the professor(s) are elated. Why? Because it is rare!
I have mixed feelings about the education system and how it changed my writing. On one hand, my voice was more free before I entered into my degree. As a Lit. major, you must stifle your creative voice while writing scholarly essays. You must be persuasive without being emotional. Everything is solidified with facts. I’ve always joked that the university choked my creative voice.
The flip-side is that writers should learn the basic rules of grammar. If you want to become a writer you must practice the craft diligently and that is why making it your sole-focus for two years is beneficial. You are forced to practice. How serious you decide to take the rules of grammar is up to you. You can choose to become a prescriptive grammarian and be a stickler for rules, or be a descriptive grammarian and allow for some variation. Either way, when you decide which side of the grammar camp you fall into you at least have the basic understanding. I’ve embraced my inner descriptive and it’s helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
I am a result of a liberal arts education, which means that I am duty bound to defend the role of universities even for creative writing. I only took one official creative writing course as an undergraduate student, but the class certainly didn’t feel restrictive. It did, however, teach me to turn a critical eye towards my own manuscripts.
The true value in education is, I think, the way that it teaches us to investigate ourselves and our world. It often forces us to step outside of ourselves and our experiences, and that is an absolutely essential ability for a writer to have.
3) John Green tells us that “writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while telling it.”
Do you fit in with the shy writer stereotype? If so, how do you think being shy has affected your work? Has it created any obstacles, served as a secret weapon?
I can’t disagree with Green’s statement, even though I have never thought of myself as a introvert. I enjoy and have always enjoyed an active social life, albeit I prefer the small circle of friends as opposed to the large parties and bar scene. Writing is a solitary effort. How could it be anything else? I think, though, when it comes to being “shy” it is a matter of audience. I will admit to being shy on occasion. When I’m with friends who have no connection to my writing life but who know I write, I tend to avoid any discussion about writing.
On the other hand, my writing—what I’m currently working on, how it’s going, my issues with the narrative—are all topics of active discussion with my wife and with fellow blogger/writers. In that respect, I consider myself very fortunate.
One final word on the “aloneness” of writing.
Writers are always alone in some respect. Always. We can and often do retreat into that quiet room of the mind and close the door to the outside and enter unhindered to that other side, that other world—the imagination.
I think that a solitary nature is necessary if one wishes to be a writer. To be alone with one’s thoughts is to lose oneself in a space that is full of desire and consequence, wondrous action and cruel impediment. Writing is the ultimate expression of that world.
I’m not shy by nature, and I’m not a shy writer. I’ve written some raw personal essays that have been published on the internet. I try to ignore the feelings of vulnerability.
If I’m uncomfortable sharing a piece that I’ve written, it’s normally some of my better writing.
Editor’s note: you can read one of those raw personal essays here!
Though many writers are introverts, they often must wear a veil of extraversion in order to be successful. Sometimes we have to push through our desire to avoid eye contact and promote ourselves, appear at conferences and book fairs, and generally interact with readers.
Having said that, I’ll admit that I have to overcome my own social anxieties to interact with readers and other members of the books industry.
It is a small bravery but a vital one.
4) Virginia Woolf believed that “every secret of a writer’s mind, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”
Have you found this to be true? Have you ever been surprised by what your writing revealed about you (or worried that it revealed too much)?
Yes, I believe this insight to be true. The trick of course is how well can you hide those facets of your personality so that no one ever suspects it’s you! Events from my family life in the fifties and sixties serve as the basis for several of my short stories. What occurred as I wrote these stories is that I started to recognize thematic patterns. Whether I was writing from memory or imagination or both. I couldn’t say, but the narratives, taken together, resonated at some deeper level for me only. Each story became a mirror that revealed not just what I wanted to see, but things that I had not expected to see.
Indeed, the more one writes the more one realizes that what is being created is a house of mirrors.
What is being reflected is a world within a world, an imagined reality that reveals at unexpected turns, moments of intense personal truth. I think the measure of a writer’s sincerity and yes, bravery, is how far one is willing to go into that misty realm to seek that resolution that drives one to write in the first place.
Editor’s note: I’m going to plug an A+ post that Paul shared on his blog about this topic.
I’m surprised by how much I learn about myself when I’m writing. Writing can surface suppressed experiences and emotions as well as clarify scenarios in my life. I’m constantly searching my past for reference if I’m stuck in a scene or need inspiration. Writing is exhausting and liberating.
I enjoy confessional writing, especially confessional poetry, but there are books that I will never write because the stories in them belong to other people as much as they belong to me. But that is wandering away from your question.
In general, what authors write says a lot about who they are as people. The themes an author chooses, the types of characters, their backgrounds, the cadence of speech, everything. The best writers try to say something true about the world, but those truths are seen through a single perspective.
Writing is a blurred mirror. Sometimes we work harder to see how we are reflected, but often we avert our gaze from the shadowy image.
5) Various authors have said something to the effect of “I don’t like writing. I like having written.”
Do you enjoy the writing process? If so, what’s your favorite part (planning, pen-to-paper, editing)? If not, why do you keep writing anyways?
I do enjoy the writing process, but I need to qualify that assertion. Enjoyment is probably one of the best concepts to describe the writing process, even when it isn’t going so well. Writing brings satisfaction. It allows the writer to “see” those thoughts in an arranged fashion that brings the best order and hence understanding of some action or some issue one wishes to communicate. Of course it’s easy to say all of this, but the reality of writing is often difficult and problematic. Getting the words down on paper is all well and good, but then getting the “best order” of those words, sentences, and paragraphs is another thing altogether.
I never “plan” a short story. I have the idea in mind, sometimes the complete story, and go at it. A novel demands planning. I use Scapple. At first I was skeptical of “downloading” anything that supported the writing of a novel. A fellow blogger mentioned how easy it was to use and how useful and so on and so on. So, I bought it. I was stunned. I loved it. I outlined my novel and had all these little side notes on character and setting. Once done, I found the writing to go quite smoothly. Still it’s hard to say if “planning” is my favorite part of writing, but it ranks high on the list. It’s like planning the trip to another country. How enjoyable that is! You work out the details, note the various stops, the restaurants, the museums, the quaint shops, bookstores! You marvel at the settings, the lakes, the hiking paths, the bike trails. You work hard at setting up your adventure. Isn’t working up an outline for a novel a lot like this? You see the potential for a character. You set up the scenes, even write a small dialogue that comes to you at 3:00 a.m. With a complete outline by your side, you start your work with a firm intention and proceed with confidence. But then, as in travel, it’s being there that’s best. So, I go with the actual writing as my most enjoyable task!
I just finished the first draft of my YA novel called Not By Blood, and I hate it. Ok wait, I love the story, but loathe the writing. (Did I mention I’m great with self-promotion?) Let me explain, I’m still passionate about the story and the characters, but I realize I need a lot more practice with the actual writing portion.
I enjoy writing when the moment is organic. For example: I’m struck with a genius line or a moving metaphor and magically I have an hour to draft my thoughts. Those rare occasions are inspiring. For the most part, I must force myself to write when my child takes his nap. I wage war with my desire to be published, and the instant gratification of watching television.
While I loathe the discipline that writing requires, I can tell you that
nothing makes my heart beat faster than seeing my writing being *shared*, *liked*, *hearted*, or even *shocked-face* emoji-ed.
My two favorite parts of writing are the re-writing and seeing my writing in its final form.
I like writing. The process of it. The feel. The click-clack of the keyboard.
Editing is always harder for me because my first impulse is to hate anything and everything that I have ever written. I push through my response to editing though because if I don’t write, I regret it. Always. For people who have stories to tell, getting them onto paper is important even if no one ever reads the finished product.
How would you answer these questions? Do you have a favorite quote from a famous writer?
In high school, I wrote poetry—to my girlfriend of course! I became interested in writing literary short stories at the end of my senior year and throughout college. In my junior year of college, I handwrote a novel on lined paper. I showed it to a professor and received some excellent negative reinforcement. Once I started my career as an Instructor of English in Mississippi, I started writing dramas. The Theater Director at the university produced several of my plays on the university stage. It was exciting, but I came to realize that playwriting wasn’t the genre for me.
In 1978, I attended a writer’s conference at Bennington College, Vermont. There I listened to John Gardner read an excerpt from the novel he was working on at the time. In a converted carriage house, I listened to Bernard Malamud read a short story. His wife sat above us in the loft, and during the discussion, whenever he needed information she provided it. I attended another session where historian David McCullough delivered a marvelous talk on the Panama Canal. He had just published his book on the same. Frederick Busch was one of my writing instructors.
The conference was a turning point in my writing life. I started writing fiction. I was in mid-career as a teacher. My literary hero was the poet, Wallace Stevens, who was a lifetime wage-earner for Hartford Life Insurance—he would eventually become Vice President, and in the meantime, would write some of the greatest poetry of the twentieth century. So, I stayed with teaching, and I wrote. While working on my PhD in Pennsylvania, I wrote short stories and read them at coffee house readings. One of those stories I eventually published in The Sun Magazine in June, 2013. Now I’m retired and writing full time here in Alabama.
I earned a degree in English Literature from Western Washington University. I worked at an aeronautical company as a technical editor and writer before I became a stay-at-home mother. I’ve also done some freelance writing for a lifestyle website.
I’m currently working on my first novel. It’s a contemporary YA romance. Here is a quick synopsis:
Brian Colt is seventeen years old and alone. After losing his family in an automobile accident he is forced to leave Alaska and is sent to live with his uncle in Washington State. What’s super awkward is that Brian has never met this side of his family. He knows that there was a fallout in the family, but no one ever talks about it. What’s even more awkward is when Brian meets his cousin Rebecca Colt (step-cousin, thank God) who he is reluctantly attracted to. Brian plans to go back to Alaska and take over his family’s logging operation as soon as he turns eighteen, but first he must survive senior year and live with an unforeseen, violent opponent.
Rebecca Colt has big dreams to become a marine biologist. She knows that the odds are stacked against her and nobody believes she will amount to anything. Her nickname at school is “Hot Garbage” because her family is trash. The trailer she lives in is less sanitary than some of the dumpsters in town. Her step father tells her exactly what he thinks of her with his fists, and her mother is lost in her pill addiction. Rebecca’s one-saving-grace is her best friend.. That is until her cousin… (eh hem) …step cousin comes to town…
I am not a terribly focused writer in that I enjoy writing in many different genres. This past December I published my debut novel, When We Go Missing. The book is a fast-paced, psychological thriller, and writing it allowed me to really engage with the ways that people, especially women, do go missing in America and the way that society deals with those disappearances. It was a fascinating and horrifying realm to discover.
My current works in progress are a bit different. One of them is a type of modern mythology and the other is a coming of age story. I have to admit that fantasy is my great passion. It’s the genre that I was raised on and the one that I always return to. Great fantasy books make every day a little better. In particular, I adore works by Diana Wynne Jones, Melanie Rawn, Peter S. Beagle, Jan Siegel, and a dozen others. Oddly, my first novel, When We Go Missing, doesn’t deal with fantasy at all – it is a psychological thriller – but the feel of fantasy, the arc of its stories, the texture of its language, bleeds into my writing.