Filling the Well: on growing as a writer

About eight months ago I finished the author note and copy edits for Written in Stone which will be out in June of this year. I had worked on that book off and on for 15 years. In many ways it’s the book that made me a writer. So it was a real career milestone to put the final touches on it for publication. Once it was gone and I faced the prospect of starting something new I felt like I needed to grow as a writer and push my work to a higher level and explore things I hadn’t tried yet. The authors I admire the most are the ones that are always trying something new. Ursula LeGuin, for example, decided that if anyone was going to tell the story of Lavinia from The Aeneid, it was probably going to be her, and since she was already in her eighties she might as well begin at once. She began by re-reading The Aeneid. In Latin. Her award winning novel Lavinia resulted. Wow! This is the woman I want to be when I’m in my 80s!

So how do I get there? I’ve spent a lot of afternoons and evenings in bookstores listening to authors over the years and here are a few things I’ve learned about, not just enjoying longevity in a fickle profession, but continuing to grow and thrive as a writer and a person.

1. Everybody says read, and everybody is right about that. But I’ve come to see that it’s not volume of text swallowed that matters. Real growth comes from reading thoughtfully. For example, this year’s Newbery winner got quite a lot of buzz online before the announcement in January. I was curious, particularly since The One and Only Ivan’s biggest fans seemed to be teachers. So I read it slowly and reflected on why it was working so well for many people. I am going to confess here that it was not my favorite book of the year. But I could see from a slow and careful examination of Applegate’s craft that she’d created a genuinely appealing voice in the gorilla Ivan. It was spare and wry and consistent. Three things that are very hard to do. Also the layout of each page was roomy and inviting, and Casteleo’s illustrations were lovely in their simplicity. I could have read this quickly, decided it’s not my thing, and dismissed it, but I’m glad I took a closer look. It’s still not my favorite, but I’ve learned something about creating an appealing voice, and I’m certainly going to give page layout some thought in future projects.
If you are looking for good commentary on reading I highly recommend the Heavy Medal Blog over at the School Library Journal which is moderated by the very thoughtful and articulate duo Nina Lindsey and Jonathan Hunt. I seldom comment but I’m always learning from the discussions there.


2. I have always found the company of my fellow writers both a comfort and an inspiration. I recently got together for lunch with five women who have inspired me for decades. We talked about ordinary things–the care of aging parents, our dreams for a perfect garden. We talked about decidedly writerly things–the difficulty in finding reliable research about the Danish resistance in WWII, how corporate fundraising is it’s own kind of storytelling. We toasted Deborah Hopkinson’s recent Sibert Honor and commiserated over the bumpy spot someone else was going through. It was great to know I’m not alone in the vicissitudes of the business, and even greater to hear from writers I really respect that they never regretted pushing their work to a higher level.

So if you’ve got a writer or two in your town or an upcoming SCBWI schmooze or an author event at a local bookstore, reach out! Make some connections for yourself. It’s a long lonely road without companions and a grand adventure with friends.

3. I think its also important to do things outside of strictly literary pursuits. One of the great pleasures of working on my book Second Fiddle was playing the violin again after many years away from my instrument and discovering how many people in the book world are also musicians. Don’t neglect other hobbies. Paint. Hike. Dance. Travel. Meet people. Engage your own family as deeply as you can. Your writing will be richer for it.

I will be responding to comments sporadically on this post because I’m out of town with my family is doing stuff that may some day work its way into books. My son is competing in the World Championships of Irish Dance in Boston on Saturday. I’m sure I’ll never write about competitive contemporary Irish dance but I’d love to write about an immigrant Irish kid who loves to dance. I’ll be taking mental notes all week and meeting musicians and talking to dancers from all over the world. I might not write that book for a decade but I’m storing up ideas now.

4. Much of what I’ve learned about the craft of writing has come from listening to authors in bookstores. If you are fortunate enough to live near a bookstore with a visiting author program, take advantage of it. You’ll meet fellow book lovers, make a connection with local book sellers and get excellent mentoring all for the price of a signed book. The woman at the microphone below is the amazing Ursula LeGuin from whom I’ve learned volumes. Her Steering the Craft is one of the most practical and useful writing books I’ve ever worked with. I never  quite understood the subtle distinction between close third person narration and first person narration until I listened to her discuss it in a Q & A at Powells.

There are many great writing conferences around the country. SCBWI hosts many. The ABLA Big Sur Conference has an outstanding reputation. In Portland the Willamette Writers hold a very good conference every August. I’d love to have people recommend a favorite conference or writing class in the comments. Don’t overlook your local community college. Some of the best teaching is done at community colleges. Sometimes when you are ready to take your work to the next level the investment in a regular class with good instructor feedback is what it takes to get you there.

5. And I’ve found one of the best ways to really master an aspect of the craft of writing is to teach a class on that topic. Teaching forces you to think through problems in a way you tend to resist when you are just having a conversation with yourself in your own writing space. When I was really stuck on differentiating the three characters in Second Fiddle who are all the same age, same gender, and play classical music, I decided to teach a class on deeper character development and came up with a workshop I call Character and the Seven Deadly Sins. I don’t think I could have finished that book without developing the workshop. Whether or not you actually teach the workshop, thinking through a story problem in terms of teaching it to others is often helpful. Local SCBWI conferences are always in need of new presenters with fresh material, so don’t be shy about applying to be a presenter . If the exercise helped you finish a book, odds are it will help other people too.

And speaking of teaching, we’ve come to the shameless self-promotion portion of this blog post.

I’ll be teaching a course for beginning writers of MG and YA fiction called Vampire Free Fiction: writing real world novels for young readers. It is an online class sponsored by The Loft Literary Center and it’s running from June 17th to August 11th. I chose this time slot specifically so that it will be easier for a full time teacher or librarian to take the class over summer break and there is a scholarship available to one lucky teacher who applies, so if you are looking for a way to get started on the novel of your dreams or finally finish a project you’ve been nibbling at for years, I hope you’ll give this class or another like it a try. More information about that at the Loft Literary Center

How about you? What do you do to fill the well of your creative life? Do you have a favorite class, workshop or conference to recommend? How about a good book about the craft of writing? Shout outs in the comments please!

5 responses to “Filling the Well: on growing as a writer

  1. You are so right. I go back time and again to certain novels to see how the author accomplishes something at which I am failing.

  2. Good luck to your son’s for his competition!

  3. Rosanne Parry

    Cheryl Klein has a good one, Second Sight. I also like the intensely practical The first Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

  4. “Steering the Craft” is one of my bibles!

  5. Yes, reading thoughtfully. Great tip! I’ve been writing professionally now for about five years. I find it almost impossible to read for mere pleasure. Although I enjoy the act of reading and escaping to another place, time, or life, I also thrive on learning from other writers; thus, I’m constantly studying as I read.