I received some questions from a student, Julie, in California. I answered her questions via email, but in case my answers are useful to anyone else, here they are:
- What is your favorite thing about your job?
Every writer has a different answer to this question. But my favorite thing is probably the ability to think hard about one thing for a very long time, very deeply…and then, when I’ve explored it as much as I can, to move on to something else. The world is so interesting, isn’t it? There are so many different things to discover. Being a writer is a great way to dive deep into things that fascinate me.
- What education did you receive to become an author ?
I’m not sure if I recommend doing what I did. I never had any formal training in writing. I never took a writing class. I never studied with anyone important. I never actually took a single English class in college, which is a little crazy (and a huge lost opportunity, I now see). I never worked in publishing or anything. I just liked storytelling, and at every job I ever had (in business, in health care, in marketing), I wound up telling the story of that organization. I wound up being the company’s writer. Then, when I was pregnant with my second child, I got laid off from a job in health care. It wasn’t a great time to go looking for a job, but I did need money. I thought, “maybe I’ll see if I can get some freelance jobs writing.” One thing led to another. Now that child is 12 years old, and I’m able to write full time. Would I RECOMMEND that as a path? Nah, mostly because I wish I’d started much, much earlier. But it goes to show you that there are many paths to being a writer.
- Do you have any suggestions that would help me carry out my project?
Just start it. And then keep writing, even when you don’t feel like it, even when you’re not inspired to write. Even if you work on it only for a few minutes a day. Even if sometimes you think, “this is dumb, and it’s not working, and nobody will ever like it.” Even if you have no idea where your story is going. Just keep returning to it. Know that we ALL feel that way about our work. You’ll work out the kinks as you go, as long as you just keep returning to it.
- What role does passion play in your job?
Passion starts a project — it’s the inspiration — but I don’t know anybody who is able to sustain passion every day. Plenty of days are kind of a slog. You lay down one word at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time. Then you look at what you’ve written, and you see ways of making it better. So you do — again, a word at a time, a line at a time. Sometimes it feels very slow going. Sometimes you sigh heavily. If you feel that way, know that it doesn’t make you less of a writer, it makes you a writer.
- Which of the 4 C’s- collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking – do you use the most in your job and how?
First of all, I love that you know about the 4Cs. ALL of these things come in to play at some point during the process. I’m probably supposed to say “creativity” or “communication.” But the truth is, I think creativity is overrated, and communication is sort of obvious. I’d say that critical thinking is is the least-appreciated part of this job. As a writer, you have to be able sort through your own ideas, examine them critically. You have ask the right questions, consider a problem from many angles. You have to say, “hm, this isn’t working, is there another way to try this?” or, “how do I connect THIS to THAT so the plot can move forward?” You have see opportunities to do things differently than what’s in front of you — to combine multiple characters into one, or to say, “what if I wrote this all in the second person instead of first?” Writing a book is like solving a puzzle, actually, with all of these different pieces that have to work together. If you can think critically about your own work, your own ideas, your own words, your own perspective, you’ll be a better writer.
- What was your favorite subject in school?
Always depended on the teacher! If the teacher was excited by the subject, I generally liked the class. If the teacher didn’t seem genuinely excited by what they were teaching, then I was almost certainly bored and barely trying. In 12th grade, I had a teacher that was so excited about books it was almost palpable. He wholeheartedly loved the books we were reading, and his passion for them was infectious. He and I got back in touch years and years after I graduated. One of the best things about writing The Thing About Jellyfish was getting to sign a copy to him and tell him how much I appreciated his excitement, all these years later.
- Have you experienced failure in your job, and how did you overcome that failure?
All the time. Big picture, there are books I failed to finish, books I failed to sell. But even the ones that are officially successful are filled with elements, characters, passages I tried to include but that didn’t quite work. The passages that work really well in a book were invariably worked and reworked — all of the previous drafts of a book could be considered failures if you want to look at it like that. But why look at it like that? All those failures form the path to the the thing that DID ultimately work. You need to have a lot of humility as a writer, a lot of willingness to say, “well, okay, THAT didn’t work. What if I try it this way, instead?”
(FYI, my agent, whom you sent this email through, initially rejected me as a client. But she gave very smart advice, and so I went back to the work and changed a bunch of stuff, and then I brought it to her and asked her to look at it again — was that a failure? Or a success? It was both!).
- How has your job changed over time?
Well, there are always lots of different aspects to the job depending on where you are with a book. Sometimes it’s wild brainstorming. Sometimes it’s forcing yourself to put words down, even though the words feel like pulling teeth, sometimes it’s slashing red lines through entire paragraphs, sometimes it’s scribbling notes on scrap paper while wrapped in a towel, because you just had the BEST idea in the shower. Sometimes it’s not writing at all — it’s doing interviews or standing in front of groups of people doing presentations about what you’ve written. But overall, I’d say as soon as I had a book in the world, everything felt much more public. Savor that feeling of writing something in secret, something that no one else knows or cares about, because I’ve never fully gotten back that feeling of writing something just for myself. I mis it.
- What is something I can do now to start preparing for a job as an author ?
Read. Read things that have nothing to do with what you want to write. Read poetry. Read nonfiction. Read about cellular biology, about sloths, about trees, about philosophy, about Mars, about cool people who lived and died, sometimes in obscurity. Read long-form articles. Read short stories. Read Homer. Read plays. Fill your head with ideas, with different styles of writing, with things that have inspired other people. Read people who wrote about things that made them angry. Read people who became absolutely obsessed with some really random topic. The broader and more widely you read, the more connections your brain will form between distinct ideas and styles, and the more original your ideas will be. Read, read, read. And also? Practice writing every day. Even just a few minutes a day. But for now, read more than you write.
- What are some specific ways that you use math, science, reading and writing in your daily work?
I read every day, and I try to write every day. That’s probably obvious. So I want to talk about math and science. These aren’t isolated subjects, separate from the world: they are ways of thinking about the world. They are approaches to investigating what’s around you. When you study these subjects, you are exploring the universe, in all its gorgeous complexity. You are learning to recognize patterns, to break problems down, to put the pieces back together, to draw connections between things. All of these things are used in writing, and in anything that’s worthwhile. Your ability to apply those skills won’t just make your writing better, they will make your whole world, your entire life, more interesting.
(Along these lines: there’s a really wonderful essay by a guy named Scott Russell Sanders, called “Beauty” — about how math and science and art are all ways of getting to beauty. Beauty, he suggests, feels the same no matter what form it takes.
- How do you get yourself to start working?
Truthfully, it’s a battle. There is always something more pressing, there is always something distracting. But knowing that — knowing that starting is the hard part — makes it a little easier to talk to myself with tough love, to say, “yeah, yeah, yeah, your resistance to starting is boring, Ali. We go through this every darned day, it’s always the same thing, JUST START ALREADY.” Also, I use the Freedom app that blocks the internet. All those online distractions are really, really bad for my brain, and for creativity, and for productivity.
I hope this answers your questions. Remember: THERE IS NO ONE WAY TO BE A WRITER. You have to find the way that works for you, that works with your brain, your lifestyle, your interests, your skills, your habits. The main thing is this: KEEP GOING.
I will, too.