Features

Writers on writing

"Writers on writing" Continued...

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

Q: When you write a story like Jewel that is based on real characters, how do you go about synthesizing the reality with the creativity and the fiction? Jettison the facts. Facts drag you down when you write fiction. On the other hand, I wrote about 50 pages of Jewel and thought I needed to know some things: "What was your favorite radio program when young, what was the first new car that you and grandpa ever owned, what is the best dress that you had when you were a teenager." My grandma starts talking about these things and she started telling me about this one time my grandpa took her out on the canoe on this family picnic and he took her into the bulrushes and my grandpa made love to my grandma in the bulrushes. I was sitting in grandma's kitchen listening to this and I was like, "Grandma, I do not want to know that." But, it ends up in the novel. It is true. They were a husband and a wife. They love each other.

Q: Did you always want to be a writer? I did grow up looking at author photos and thinking of the romance and glamour of being a writer. I read my brains out and I enjoyed reading but I had a love of being in the outdoors. My freshman year I went to Northern Arizona University in the school of forestry. Then I went to Cal State Long Beach as a marine biology major because I liked to go to the beach. Then I got a D in a physics course. I had to get a C or better in order to continue in a marine biology major. I quit college and became an RC Cola salesman in Southern California.

Q: Then you decided to get a degree? The only night I had free was Tuesday night and the only course at a little community college that was offered was creative writing. I took this class and I used to wear my RC Cooler uniform to class. The professor was a poet who rode a Harley. This was 1977. He had long flowing hair and John Denver glasses. He parked his Harley right in front of the classroom door. I would walk in, in my RC uniform, and he would just shake his head.

Q: Did he like your writing? I went back to college and then I decided to go to graduate school. He was a professor at Cal State Long Beach and would not even write me a letter of recommendation even though he was my creative writing teacher. I had to scrounge up a couple of letters.

Q: While you were in college, you also became a believer. Yes, I did, when I was at Northern Arizona University. The light bulb of the Holy Spirit went off over my head and after that I was born again. . . . I was a believer before I ever took a creative writing class and my idea of what writing was: an evangelical tool. I could not figure out what is the point of fiction. Fiction is a lie. What am I doing here? I am trying to tell a lie? I had better be in service to the greater good then if I am going to lie. This was a very immature idea of what I was supposed to be doing as a writer. I struggled with this for a long time and I wrote to John White, an old InterVarsity Press author I had met. He wrote back-it is a really important letter in my life-and said, "you must write with the integrity of Christ," which means you do not pander, you simply see clearly and with compassion the world around you. That is your job.

Q: What advice do you tend to give inquirers about writing? A lot of people think that a writer is some wise shaman and they are ready to have wisdom bestowed upon them. No. I tell them I am struggling with the same problems they are. There is nothing new. There is simply the question of how does that guy hold his coffee cup? Why is she thinking about that dress? What does that car look like in the driveway? These are the things that will build through detail to the actual story.

Q: Do people learn how to write in school? We generally write about themes and symbols. That is not where creative writing comes from. Creative writing comes from the child who wants to have a story. Tell me something I do not know. What is happening? Why am I compelled to read this? That is where a story comes from. It is no secret. It's just sitting alone at a desk and seeing the thing happen and writing it the best way that you can.

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