Article by Jerry Waxler
We introduced Donna Brennan a week ago on the GLVWG Conference Blog. Donna will be conducting two seminars, Writing for Magazines, and Putting Off Procrastination, at the GLVWG Write Stuff Conference™ March 23, 2019. Memoir Writing Coach, Jerry Waxler, asked a few questions about Donna’s writing journey.
I see you were a technical writer. Wow. You earned a living as a writer. That is awesome. Or is it? I’ve heard two schools of thought. One is that if you want to be a writer, get a menial job like driving a bus, so you’ll go home at the end of the day desperate to write. Versus the other school that writing for a living, while not totally satisfying, provides you with thousands of hours of experience working with language. I know from my own experience that technical writer requires a fascination with language. Could say a few words about lessons you, your love for language, your pleasure in communication, etc. as a technical writer? Which one do you believe? Can you pass a message to your younger self, or a person trying to become a writer, about how this method of earning a living contributes to or detracts from the goal of creative writing?
Donna: I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was a kid. I always had a fascination with the world around me and with how things work. Plus, I love learning something new and sharing it with others. That’s why technical writing had such a great appeal for me. I would take something that many people would think of as too complex, confusing, or even boring, and put it into words that someone at a sixth grade or high school level could understand. I also wrote technical manuals for more educated users (programmers, repair technicians, etc.) and enjoyed that as well.
I think, for me, a technical writing job was just what I needed at that point in my career. It helped me to write on a regular basis, and I had plenty of experience editing my own work and the work of my peers. I had to say things concisely and precisely. Plus, the regular paycheck was nice. Yes, a boring job would give you more time to dream up stories to write when you got home, but I think enjoying your life and what you do helps you write more engaging and energizing stories.
But honestly, I think the best path for becoming a published author is to do whatever works for you. Regardless what kind of job you have, keep the writing dream alive, and work toward that dream.
One big difference between writing for a living and writing for yourself is that as a creative writer, you are your own boss. Describe what kind of emotional skills you need in order to motivate and direct yourself to sit and write, when it is you who are both the boss and the worker.
Donna: Being the mom of four kids, working for years when my first two were young and then being a stay-at-home mom after my twins were born, it wasn’t easy to find time to write. I was working as a technical writer and taking courses for computer programming when I met and married my husband. I received my Computer Science degree one month before my daughter (my second child) was born. I would sometimes find time to write short stories and share them with some of my writing-minded friends at work, but it wasn’t easy to do this while raising a family. I did take several creative writing courses along with the computer programming and math courses, and that helped–I had to make the time for my creative writing. But I wasn’t submitting very much back then. I kept telling myself there would be plenty of time to do that when the kids were older. Finally, when my twins entered kindergarten, I had the time to start working on my writing with more consistency.
So, I guess the short answer to your questions is that it’s easier to find time to write when you go into an office each day and writing is a major part of your job. But when you have a million jobs (chief bottle washer, kid-chauffeur, family cook) and are trying to get your kids involved in all sorts of activities (MOPS, soccer, scouts, baseball, tennis, Sunday School, piano lessons) it’s too easy to let your own needs and dreams fall to the wayside. I have to work at ways to make sure I write on a regular basis, and one of the best tools I found for that is a set of to-do lists kept next to my laptop. These are the things I have to get done today; these are the things I’d like to get done today; and these are the things I should have done yesterday. (Sigh.)
I’ve learned not to beat myself up for not being as diligent as I would like. It’s just like cheating on a diet by eating that piece of cake or candy bar. Admit you messed up and pick up where you left off. Don’t start over tomorrow, start over now.
Many people who earned a living as a writer want to repurpose their years of experience say as journalists, marketing writers, academic researchers, technical writers, grant readers. One obstacle they run into is that the “writing voice” that was appropriate in their career is not appropriate to their goals as a creative writer. How was it for you when you tried to switch from technical tor creative writing voice?
Donna: I guess I never even think about “switching voices.” Just like most people don’t think about switching voices when they talk to their peers at work, their kids at home, or their friends at a party or bar. They just interact with their “audience.”
When I wrote technical documents (user guides, maintenance manuals, coding guides) I kept my target audience in mind and wrote to them. Most of the non-fiction I write now is in the form of advice to other moms or encouragement to other people (mostly women). I just write as if I were speaking to that other person, my reader. I consider my audience. And that’s the same way I write my novels or short stories–I think of my reader. I imagine their reaction to what I write and strive to phrase my words or show the scene in such a way as to have the effect I want on my reader.
What has been your experience teaching others how to find their creative writing voice? Is it hard for you to teach? Any tips?
Donna: I love to teach. (My kids would say I love to talk!) I enjoy sharing what I know–what I spent time learning and understanding–with anyone who seems interested in listening. I love to show people ways to make their writing more effective, to strengthen their voice, to figure out what it is they want to say and then to say it. I always take care not to crush someone’s writing voice just because it’s not similar (or even close) to my own. There are all kinds of people in the world, and my writing won’t appeal to them all, but this other voice may speak to those people. I see my job as nourishing this other voice to be the best it can be, but still be its own.
I guess my biggest tip is to write–just write. Don’t edit what you write before the words hit the page. And don’t worry about what other people will think or say. Get the words on the paper and then once they are all written down, read them out loud and see how they make you feel. Is that the emotion you were trying to evoke? Is that the point you were trying to make? If not, put it aside (don’t delete it–there may be gems in there you will wish you had saved), and think about what you wanted to say. Then you can start with a fresh page or edit a copy of what you’ve already written.
Once you have the basic elements there–the points you wanted to make, the emotions you wanted to evoke, the direction you want to take your writing, then you can begin to edit it.
What is the coolest book length project you are either working on or wish you could complete? Describe where you are with the book and if you have an elevator pitch about it.
Donna: Right now I’m working on editing two different novels and I’m putting together a short story collection–most of those stories have already been written. I usually include humor in my stories and novels, but my next novel will take that to another level. I wrote a “short” story called Many Kinds of Crazy (over 12,000 words long) and the folks I’ve shown it to, in addition to laughing out loud, wanted to know what happened next. They didn’t want the story to end. So I’ve decided to add another 70 thousand words or so and make it into a novel. That’s my project for February.
Elevator pitch? I haven’t gotten that far. It’s all told in the first person and my protagonist (in the short story) is categorizing every type of crazy that there is so she can put it into an app which she hopes will allow her to control all the kinds of crazy that affect her. She seems like a bit of a nut-job at first, but as you get to know her you realize she’s just lonely and very insecure. Each section of the book will be a separate story and have her deal with and overcome some new hurdle. All the little stories will come together to create one larger story. Sort of like all the little stories in our lives coming together to make us who we are and to form the saga of our existence.
How long have you been working on it?
Donna: I wrote the first eight pages over a year ago, and then this past summer I spent about a week (or less) writing the next 24 pages. I spent the first three days trying to get back into my character’s head, but once I did the words just flowed. I hope to have it finished by the end of February.
What is that like having a book burning in your brain like that? Describe that weird mix of desire and frustration that accompanies the writing of a book.
Donna: It used to be frustrating having all these ideas rumbling around in my head yet not having enough time to write them down. But I’ve learned to work with what I can do. I have several potential books filed away in the crevices of my mind, and I’ll often fall asleep visualizing various scenes in different stories, listening to the dialogue and feeling the emotion. So when I finally write the stories I already know what will happen and I can get the words and scenes down quickly.
But the Many Kinds of Crazy story is so different–or the main character is so different–that I can’t just pop into the storyline on short notice. I need lots of time to get into her head and see the world as she sees it. She’s much more insecure than me (and tons funnier!) and her line of thinking takes more sudden twists and turns than a roller coaster on steroids.
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Bio: Jerry Waxler writes, speaks, coaches and teaches about how to maximize human potential through reading and writing life stories. His book Memoir Revolution champions the social trend to turn life into Story and his workbook, How to Become a Heroic Writer, provides self-help tools to find the courage and time to write your own story. His memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World recounts his almost-failed attempt to grow into adulthood during the sixties. He teaches writing classes at Northampton Community College, and speaks about memoirs at libraries, senior communities, churches and wherever people want to learn about turning life into literature. He has a Master of Science degree in counseling psychology and practices psychotherapy in Quakertown, PA.