Sarah Domet is the author of 90 Days to Your Novel (Writer’s Digest Books). Her fiction and nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Talking Writing, New Delta Review, Cincinnati Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Potomac Review, Harpur Palate, and Many Mountains Moving. She holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and fiction from the University of Cincinnati, and teaches in the Department of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University.
Visit her web site: http://sarahdomet.com
Read more by and about Sarah:
How Sarah Domet Became a Writer
This is the first installment in the new How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer will answer the same 5 questions that Sarah answers here. Many thanks to Sarah Domet for being my first victim!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
As a kid, I was extremely shy—so shy, in fact, that in first grade or so, my teacher sent me to the school’s speech therapist to see if she could tap into the underlying “problem.” I vividly recall sitting next to this stranger on the plaid couch in her office (her “office” was actually in a trailer in the school’s parking lot). She smelled like cigarettes.
“Why won’t you talk in class?” she asked me in that soft adult-speaking-to-child voice. I looked at her, shrugged my shoulders. Quite simply, I enjoyed observing the details in the world around me. I was shy not because I didn’t have anything to say—but because I sometimes had too much to say.
Writing, back then, was my outlet—my way of interpreting and understanding my own experiences. (Of course, I didn’t tell her that. My shrug seemed to suffice for the moment.) And though in class I could barely find my voice to stammer the “Pledge of Allegiance” when it was my turn to lead, in my fiction I could be anyone and do anything. Writing empowered me.
Flannery O’Connor once said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” This idea really resonates with me—but not because I want to write about my childhood. Rather, there seems to be a distinct parallel between my reasons for wanting to become a writer and the curiosity that prompts a child (or, at least, prompted me as a child) to ask questions about the world: Where do I fit in? Why do good people sometimes do bad things? What is the nature of love? Why the heck are we here? These were the questions I explored as a kid through my first attempts at writing—and ones I still, to some extent, address in my fiction.
In the end, I suppose I want to write because I’m curious about the world. I want to explore subjects I find interesting. I want to imagine what it’s like to be someone else—what’s the psychology involved? What makes people tick?
Or, maybe I have an extra self-indulgence gene (somewhere next to my hypersensitivity gene) in my DNA. Growing up, my parents always taught me to do what I love—and so I do. (A real rule follower, I am.)
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I’ve always been a bit impractical. And, luckily, impracticality can go a long way toward helping a young writer sustain the notion that her love of literature can pay the bills. A bit of self-delusion goes a long way. I somehow convinced myself that my writing was strong enough to warrant all those gratuitous years of graduate school while my more practical friends were building careers and families.
I originally applied to graduate school based almost entirely on my love of reading. I was an idealist of the highest order in regards to what I thought literature could “do” for the world. More than anything, I loved reading and analyzing what I’d read. I loved picking apart texts, or trying to figure out why the author made the particular choices he or she did. I loved the wisdom some of my favorite novels or stories or poems imparted—like a riddle the reader had to figure out, line by line. [Editor’s note: Check out the images for some of Sarah’s favorite reads.]
I went about becoming a writer by becoming a reader first. Really, I don’t think the two activities—writing and reading—can be separated. When I first entered graduate school, I did so without a clue that I’d end up studying creative writing. (At that point, writing was still my dirty little secret—what I did in the privacy of my tiny apartment.)
Little by little, I learned from the writers I studied; I began to mimic what I liked best in the work of authors I admired the most. Some of it was awful—but apprentices first learn through the art of imitation. Then I enrolled in my first fiction writing workshop. There I was, suddenly out in the open talking about my own writing, my choices, my craft. I understood the first step toward becoming a writer was admitting it. I found it difficult to take those first teetering steps toward calling myself a writer. But it was liberating when I finally did.
Graduate school also provided me my first experience teaching writing—though I had no clue that I even wanted to teach. (Luckily it was a requirement, not a choice.) The law of kinetics, the one that says something like “a body in motion stays in motion,” applies here: Teaching writing lead to more thinking about writing, which lead to conversations with others about writing, which lead to more writing, and so on.
Grad school helped me with the forward momentum necessary for my work. However, it’s easy to be a writer in graduate school when you’re living in a cloistered environment of writers, where all the cool kids are doing it. It’s more difficult to be a writer in the real world. There, you’re more accountable to yourself. You have to find your own forward momentum and self-discipline.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Although I absolutely do not believe one must go to graduate school to be a writer, I do believe that such an experience helps one find an instant community of writers that’s really quite invaluable. What an asset—a true indulgence—to constantly talk about the craft of writing, writers, novels, poetry, etc.
I was lucky to have the mentorship of some amazing professors, one in particular, who took my writing seriously, and, in turn, caused me to take my own writing seriously. You don’t know how much it meant to be asked questions about my fiction, to have entire conversations about my writing and my ideas. Those early words of encouragement were huge for me.
I also give my “writer friends” serious credit for teaching me how to balance my writing life and my life-life. I’m continually impressed by friends who juggle jobs, children, pets, social lives, gardening, intramural kick-ball leagues, and a hundred other things with writing. They’ve taught me that it’s not easy to be responsible for kids or do laundry or grade student work all day—then get back to the writing desk. It takes a lot of self-discipline and will power. I don’t think this aspect of “the writing life” is discussed often enough. How do you sustain creativity while shopping for toothpaste or folding laundry?
Meeting emerging and established writers over the years has also given me some perspective. It’s easy to cast writers as a “type” and then try to live up to this typecasting. The writers I’ve met weren’t these chaotic, moody, destructive beings. They didn’t all wear horn-rimmed glasses and jackets with elbow patches (though some did). Mostly they were normal folks with rather mundane, predictable, consistent writing routines. In the end that’s a writer’s main responsibility: to write.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
I’ve long been fascinated with the life and history of Victoria Woodhull who, though not a creative writer, penned many speeches, articles, essays, and treatises in her day. She was a flamboyant feminist, an advocate of free love, the first female stockbroker, and the co-founder (with her sister) of the influential and controversial newspaper Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly (best known today for printing the first English version of The Communist Manifesto).
Victoria Woodhull was in no uncertain terms, and even by modern understanding of the phrase, a true bad ass. She is perhaps most famously known for trying to run for president in 1872, with Frederick Douglas as her running mate, on the Equal Rights Party ticket. I’m always amazed at how Woodhull, a widely known woman in her day, has somehow fallen out of the historical imagination of most Americans. This woman rubbed elbows with many important people of her time: She testified before Congress; she was romantically involved with Cornelius Vanderbilt; and she helped to uncover a sex scandal involving Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, causing a life-long rivalry between the two women. This woman brought controversy wherever she went—yet she was banished to the backburner of history.
I’ve been working on a Victoria Woodhull side project for some time—one that I hope to return to in the coming year. It’s difficult to do justice to a woman so interesting, so complex, and so ahead of her time. If the project of a fiction writer is to create dynamic, compelling characters, that work has already been done by this historical figure. Without a doubt, she receives my vote for 19th Century Woman I’d Most Like to Meet. (I bet she’d dish on Harriet Beecher Stowe, too.)
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. Giving up is the worst mistake you can make.