If someone tells me that he or she wants to write, but disdains reading, our conversation about ‘how to be a writer’ summarily ends.
Sharon Short is the author of MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA (Penguin Plume, 2013), SANITY CHECK: A COLLECTION OF COLUMNS (Cornerstone, 2012), and two mystery series. She was a recipient of a 2012 Ohio Arts Council Literary Artist’s Fellowship, and was a 2013 Featured Author for the Ohioana Book Festival. She is currently Executive Director of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and is the Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News.
Novel: My One Square Inch of Alaska
Collection of Columns: Sanity Check
Short Story as E-book: Downriver
Mystery: Death of a Domestic Diva
How Sharon Short Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Sharon for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I’m one of those annoying writers who says, “I always wanted to be a writer!” Alas, though, it’s true. Before I could write, I made up stories with dolls and stuffed animals and twigs and milkweed vines. Then when I was about 6, I put together a little book called “The Fireman,” about, well, a fireman, who rescues a little girl’s cat. I gave it a red construction paper cover, and a price of one penny (writing 1 c in the upper right corner of the cover), and proclaimed it, on the inside front cover, to be published by “Little Golden Books.” Ah, the innocent belief of a small child. I then promptly sold it to my aunt. Ta da! Full print run of first self-published book, sold out, in one afternoon!
Years later, my first novel, a mystery called Angel’s Bidding, came out from Fawcett Books in 1993, after my aunt passed away and my uncle remarried. His second wife came across “The Fireman” in a box of greeting cards that my aunt had kept. She passed “The Fireman” back to me. (Remaindered; sigh.)
But all kidding aside, it was a touching reminder that writing has been a key part of my identity for most of my life. I also have an index card box that I kept through middle school and high school, noting poems and stories I sent out, and the date of rejection. (Never did break into “Seventeen” or “American Girl.”) Every now and then, though, I’d hit with a publication in a small journal or contest, and occasionally earn two bucks, which I’m sure I promptly spent on more postage. The biggest prize was in high school, a 15 credit hour scholarship to a local community college, which I used while a senior in high school to get a jump on college.
So, those stories reveal that I’ve been a ‘word nerd’ since my earliest years. Why? I think, frankly, it’s because I could make sense of the world through story. My parents’ lives and thus my own childhood were extremely chaotic, and making up stories about other lives, as well as reading stories, helped me, quite literally, retain my sanity. Now I lead a pretty staid, calm life (thankfully!), but I haven’t lost my love of story, and story hasn’t lost its grip on me. Even when I try to understand or learn something not related to books or writing, I can “get” it through analogy or metaphor or parable or story; direct explanations somehow lose me!
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I have degrees in English; my B.A. focused on literature, which certainly helped me learn to analyze story. My M.A. focused on technical communication, which helped me find day jobs while I worked on creative writing the rest of the time. I think I learned creative writing first by reading—a lot. I am still a voracious reader. If someone tells me that he or she wants to write, but disdains reading, our conversation about ‘how to be a writer’ summarily ends. To me, that’s like saying “I want to compose music, but never listen to it.” What?!
I also learned by simultaneously writing—a lot. Stories. Poems. Essays. Bits of novels. Whole novels.
In addition to reading novels, I read a lot of books and magazines about the craft of creative writing.
In this way, I was mainly self-taught in terms of the craft of creative writing, although I did take one creative writing class as an undergraduate, and I loitered outside the office of the visiting creative writer in graduate school, although I was from the technical side of the English program. He was nice enough to answer a few questions and offer encouragement.
Then I went to the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1990…
…where I met Sue Grafton, the now famous author of the best-selling alphabet mystery series featuring Kinsey Millhone. I still have my notebook from that workshop, the first I ever attended. (Interesting side note: one of my ‘day jobs’ now is that I’m the Executive Director of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, since 2009.) I attended every lecture and took detailed notes. I also had a one-on-one manuscript review with Sue about my first novel, a mystery. Her comments were basically: here’s what you’re doing well (character development, plot) and here’s what you need to improve (dialog and realistic portrayal of police procedural.) I was so thrilled that I was doing something—anything—right! And I knew she was correct; my dialog was wooden, and I’d been lazy about researching technical aspects of my story (ironic, given my M.A. focus.) So, I worked very hard on learning how to write dialog, and I’ve never stinted on research since then.
That review set the tone for how I approach my own writing—what’s working well? What needs to be improved? Answering those two questions honestly help me find a true, objective balance when I’m revising any project, rather than giving in to ego and thinking everything in my project is perfect, or beating myself up by thinking the whole thing stinks (which is, in its own way, is also giving in to ego.) It’s the way I now approach reviewing others’ projects, when I need to do so as an adjunct instructor or a visiting teacher at a workshop.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
Stephen King’s. That may sound odd, since I don’t write horror or dark novels, but I love his book On Writing, which is a perfect blend of how-to and memoir. I think he’d understand what I mean when I say story in many ways has and does save me.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Dear aspiring writer: Congratulations! You are embarking on a strange yet beauteous journey, one which—if you let it—will teach you things about yourself, others, and life in ways you can’t yet imagine. Writing is rather akin to running a marathon, at least as I imagine runners feel about the sport. (I myself prefer occasional hikes at an ambling pace.) You must train, by reading and writing. You must enter the race, by submitting your work to journals and agents and publishers. You will surely stumble along the way, and grow weary, and think about giving up, but in those times, accept the cups of water—in the form of kindness, support, connections—that you will be offered along the way by a whole crew of supporters who, let’s face it, don’t have to be there to cheer on runners, yet are. Listen to those cheering you on. Listen to coaches who want to help you by correcting your form, by nagging you to improve. Help your fellow runners when they stumble, too, for although it may feel like running is a solo endeavor, no marathon is ever completed alone. Stay the course, and along the way, you will learn much about grace, humor, despair, kindness, and even love, which, after all is the real point of a running (or writing) marathon. (Told you I really only think in analogy/metaphor!) All best, Sharon