me, with Dad and my big bro @ Lake Louise 1968
Jennifer A. — from Maple Ridge — asked me a few questions as part of a project she’s working on. And agreed to my request to post them here. (November 2012)
#1: Why did you want to become a writer and how would you define your style of writing?
When you’re a writer, I don’t think you have a choice.
At some point when I was seven, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I loved to read, and it seemed to me that the only thing that could be more fun than reading would be to write. I discovered that I LIKE to sit and work with pen, paper, and words—or now, computer. It’s what I most enjoy.
Defining my style. This is a tough question. I don’t think about my “style.” I write what I want, and then each story needs to be what it wants to be. The characters’ voices, the setting—the content, what it is—determines the form or style.
#2: What inspires you to come up with ideas?
Ideas are all around us. It’s only a matter of noticing them. Paying attention is a large part of this work. It’s not so much about inspiration as it is about need: all stories require so many ideas…so I look for them and if I don’t find them, then I create them. Asking questions always helps them bubble up to the surface.
#3: What advice would you give to beginner story writers?
Read. Everything. Read more. Keep a journal—both reading and writing journals. (I had a student in her late 20s, whose grade 10 English teacher wisely advised her to keep a full reading log. By the time I met her, that log was a treasure!) Don’t think about publishing and selling until you really need to. It disturbs me that we so push young people to “publish” now. The writing process itself, the thinking, the self-reflection, is all so much more significant. Consider that most artists DO NOT share their work until they’ve put in their 10,000 hours of practice. Do we really want to see the young dancer working her plies? No. So why does the world need to see early writing efforts? We—as a society—have an odd and frequently misplaced fascination with youth. Develop your knowledge. Write from roots and background. That’s that THING that some teachers talk about: “write what you know.” You can start with that, but then write about what you want to know…and “what scares you” will birth some good stories, too.
#4: What process do you go through whilst brainstorming?
Coffee. Walking. I don’t outline, but I begin to write…which means I often toss dozens of pages, even hundreds. If I’m stuck, I go through questions that have proven useful in the past. Or find new ones. I ask my characters what will happen next…they often know, or have an idea. I draw mind-maps of what is between my characters. I do research. And I write through all of that, because so often nothing comes of any of that preliminary stuff unless I’m actively writing.
Note: reconsider using words like “whilst.” Use it only if you’re telling a story via a narrator who would choose to use it…in which case, it would be a character-driven choice. (Yes, sometimes characters yell at you to do certain things.)
But maybe you used that word because you’re writing to a writer and you thought you should! Don’t write things because you think you should. It makes for weak writing, and doesn’t help you to know who you are, and right now, as a teen, that is the most important work you can do.
Then again, maybe you really like that word…it does have a sort of magical, story-telling tone…in which case you can dismiss all of the above! and go for it… ????
#5: What is the most challenging about writing a story?
To bridge the gap between what the story is in my head and what it is on the paper.
#6: Sometimes, in the beginning, you may have a jumble of different ideas— what do you do to piece them together into one complete story?
I re-read Robert Frost’s poem about the Road Not Taken…and remind myself that, mostly, writing is about making choices, one thing over another. One storyline over another, one character, this word is stronger than that word…and so on. I look at all the ideas in my head, and I listen to my body too—which might sound strange…but some ideas just FEEL more right than others. And then, as long as I’m working WITH the ideas (not fighting and arguing with them in my mind), they begin to knit themselves together.
#7: Are you mostly satisfied with your results? In fact, how do you determine if your end product was successful or not?
Back to that analogy of dance. How much of a dancer’s art do we—the public—see? Very little. Minutes on stage. Yet hours of work and sweat go into each performance. YEARS of hours. So there are many pieces of writing of mine, and complete novels in fact, that will never show up. But every word I write builds toward the “few minutes on stage.” Think about ALL the art forms. This is true for every one of them. Why would writing be different? There is writing and practice writing. Practice writing IS successful in that it accomplishes its purpose: practice.
I know the other pieces are successful when it feels as if that gap between what’s in my head and what is on the page is as small as it can possibly be.
When I was growing up, my best friend lived in Richmond. Richmond was full of very deep and wide ditches at that time. The water was dark and muddy, and covered in murky plants. My friend could jump over those ditches, but I was terrified to do that. I was convinced I’d slip in. Some of her neighbours’ houses had cute little bridges over their part of the ditch, and I loved to cross those.
When I feel as if I can easily fly over the gap, or have somehow created a good bridge, then that is “successful.”
The other time my work feels like a success is when a reader of the intended age enjoys it. I don’t care so much about whether adults enjoy it, but when a young person does, yeah!
Thanks for the questions, Jennifer!
A Grade Six student asked me the questions below (May 2009).
1. Why did you begin writing?
I began writing because I loved to read and I wanted to be on the other end of the experience. There seemed to me to be something almost magical about creating story. There still is something magical in it.
2. What motivated you?
I like to sit and think and write. I struggle to process how I feel about things and what I think about things if I can’t write about it. Writing helps me to work through ideas I have about life and family and friends and the world around me.
3. How do you create a character in your mind? How do you develop them?
Usually, characters start with some sort of an emotional pull. There’s something that’s bothering them, something they’re trying to work through. I knew that Abi in Mud Girl was intensely unhappy at home, living with a father who suffered from depression. I knew that she was pulling away. I knew that Og Kidd in The Half-pipe Kidd couldn’t understand why he had an urge to write poems–he was ashamed of that urge and wanted to get rid of it. Then I begin to write the story, and the characters develop as I ask questions about them. Questions such as: what is it that they do want? Why? What’s going to happen if they don’t reach the point they want?
4. How do you deal with writer’s block?
I don’t often have writer’s block, though there was a time when I did. When I was in my late teens, I knew I wanted to write, but sometimes I just couldn’t. At one point I realized there were times when I felt I didn’t have anything to say, so I would try to relax about it. I would ride the bus, letting ideas, bits of conversation, somebody’s body language, start an idea. Or I’d go for walks around the Stanley Park seawall and think. Something else I used to do was try to take part in an art form that didn’t involve language. This has always been good for blocks–as if the wordlessness pushes words out of me. I’d go see a dance performance or listen to some instrumental jazz or go look at visual art. I’d also go through periods of reading books about writing. Sometimes I’d read the same book over and over until it began to bore me. That too, would push me into finding some story to write. But now, I’m very busy. I work full-time from September to April, teaching writing, and I have three busy sons. So my writing time is precious and I usually have more than one project happening. If I’m blocked on one, I move on to the next…then back to the first. And so on. Much of writing is making yourself sit in your seat and write. Even when you’re blocked. It’s important to learn not only about writing, but about HOW you write. That way you know when to push–or write–through a block. And when to get away and take a walk.
5. How much real life experiences go into your fictional writing?
This is a good question! Often, I’m not even aware of just how much. Sometimes none…it seems. Then something will pop up, some memory will surface, and I realize the image or thought or name–or some fragment–came from that. Other times, it might be a substantial chunk of storyline. If it’s a character, I’ll take another look, and realize that I’m working with my idea of what a person is, and not who they actually are. Of all fictional elements, my settings are most likely to relate to my real life experiences.
6. How long have you written for?
I wanted to write in grade two. Through my teens I kept a journal every day. When I was eighteen, I took a night school writing course, and began to write fiction and poetry.
7. Which novel or story is your favourite?
Do you mean of my own or of other writers? For my own, it’s usually the one (or two or three) I’m working on. I do have a picturebook manuscript that has taken me years to write, and I suspect it will always be the exception to this, with a softer spot in my heart. I have sent it out many times, trying to find a publishing home. Editors have loved it and marketing people and publishers have felt differently about it. It’s something like giving birth to a child who no one wants to play with, and makes me sad. Someday it will find a home, though, I believe!
As for others’ books, there are many. I love work by Cynthia Rylant, and Cynthia Voight. Martha Brooks and Hilary McKay, are favourites. As a kid, I loved Heidi and Anne of Green Gables. As a mother of sons, I’ve so enjoyed reading Treasure Island, which has been an amazing book for over 150 years.
8. Will you write more books in the future?
I’m always working on something. I hope I never have to stop writing. I get rather grumpy if I can’t write.
9. What advice do you have for young, aspiring writers?
Write. Write some more. Write all the way to the end. Start another project.