It never occurred to me that I could be a writer.
Books were magic, after all.
Cila Warncke is an award-winning essayist and is currently writing her first non-fiction book. She worked as a journalist in London and Spain for 10 years, covering music, politics, travel, media, and culture. Her essays, criticism and reviews have been published in journals including Beatdom, Word Play, The Kelvingrove Review, Denali, and The Nervous Breakdown. A graduate of the University of Glasgow creative writing programme, she was shortlisted for the Harper-Wood Studentship and was published in the literary magazine From Glasgow To Saturn.
Visit her website: http://cilawarncke.com
Read more by and about Cila:
Essay: Word Play
Essays “Soul Work” and “Fighting Fear”: The Nervous Breakdown
Blog – Irresponsibility: http://irresponsibility.wordpress.com
How Cila Warncke 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 Cila for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I grew up in a former holiday cottage on the Oregon coast, with no TV, a handful of septuagenarian neighbours, and my kid brother for company. Home-schooled until age 12, books were my main source of information about the world. I don’t remember wanting to write stories, so much as wanting to live them. I wanted to be a cowboy (Wyatt Earp: U.S. Marshall), be a detective (Nancy Drew), or a veterinarian (All Creatures Great and Small), but the one character that bled into real life was a nosy little girl with a notebook – Harriet. I read Harriet the Spy when I was nine and promptly bought myself a notebook, its cover embossed with a western saddle. It was the first of dozens of spiral notebooks, cloth-bound journals and legal pads I filled over the next few years.
Shy to the point of paralysis, I substituted scribbling for social interaction and was secretly thrilled at writing’s power to discomfit. I fell afoul of teachers for writing during class, irritated my basketball coach for writing on the bench, angered my parents for writing instead of doing chores, and generally unnerved my classmates. Years later, I recognised myself in George Orwell’s self-portrait in Why I Write: “I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays…. I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued.”
There was a positive element to my impulse as well. Being immersed in words made me happy. Books were magical, and what kid doesn’t want to touch magic?
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
It never occurred to me that I could be a writer. Books were magic, after all. Most of my friends’ parents were doctors and being a doctor meant money, respect, and a nice house, so that was what I wanted to do. I started college as a chemistry major but drifted into English basically out of laziness. If I had more self-discipline I would probably be an unhappy MD. I started by writing columns and music reviews for the student paper, which alerted me to the possibility that writing could get me close to things that fascinated me. After graduating I moved to London to work for Q magazine. I did every kind of writing – editorial, features, news, blogs, essays, publicity, criticism, analysis, copywriting, reviews, travel guides, FAQs, but in my mind only books and poetry were “real” writing. I went freelance and moved from London to Ibiza. By some trick of the mind I convinced myself that even though I was making a living exclusively from writing I still wasn’t a writer. Intellectual dissatisfaction and a desire for validation finally drove me to a Master’s programme in creative writing at the University of Glasgow.
It was a catastrophic decision. I realise now the problem wasn’t lack of credentials but lack of confidence. The literature elements of the course were brilliant but I dreaded and hated workshops. I left vowing to never betray myself like that again. As soon as I got Glasgow out of my lungs several loose threads of ideas came together and I started my current book, working titled Satisfaction – How to Get What you Really, Really Want. It is the true stories of ten ordinary people who, without fanfare, have created extraordinary lives. After muddling around with fiction this is different, urgent; I’m writing because it’s something that needs to be said. Before, I was just pushing words around on paper.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
My first influence was my sister, who read to me constantly when I was very young and planted in my head the idea that books are delightful treasures. At university a number of professors whose names I’ve forgotten urged me to quit chemistry and study English, for which I am grateful. It was Paul Hendrickson, though, who put my feet firmly on the path towards becoming a writer. Generous, humane, kind, and curious, he taught non-fiction writing with an abundance of love and enthusiasm. Our class met on the top floor of the Kelly Writer’s House at Penn, an adorable little Anne of Green Gables-esque cottage in the midst of the high-rise, super-functional campus, and we could bring music – that was the first place I heard Kind of Blue. Professor Hendrickson taught us that essays and long-form journalism are important, meaningful and showed us how to make them beautiful. The other professor who I greatly admire is Michael Schmidt, head of Glasgow’s creative writing department. He’s the perfect mentor: ferociously erudite, urbane, acid-tongued, and an unapologetic defender writing standards.
I am also indebted to my writer-publisher friend Helen Donlon, for being the first person to suggest I can, and should, write books. And to all the friends who have fed, sheltered, and encouraged me during my years of itinerant freelancing.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
George Orwell. He endured a brutal education, vile jobs, un-picturesque poverty, war, illness and more poverty and never lost his nerve. I love his essays: they gleam with honesty and moral courage. Shooting an Elephant, Why I Write, Bookshop Memories, and Politics and the English Language are particularly fine examples. Orwell fought for what he believed in and held himself to the highest standards of thought and clarity – both as a writer and as a human being. For me, he exemplifies a writer to whom the craft is precious, but who is never precious about his craft. I am also profoundly influenced by Henry David Thoreau. Like Orwell, his writing is driven by ideas, not aesthetics, and it is all the more beautiful for not being decorative.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Try a few things: study, travel, get a job or a few. If any of it satisfies you be grateful. Write professionally only if you must. Throw away your preconceptions about writing and the ‘writer’s life’. There are as many writers’ lives as there are writers, and there is no point in wearing someone else’s shoes. Be gently skeptical of criticism, but never defensive. As F Scott Fitzgerald said, in the end you have to rely on your own judgement, so trust yourself and do what you love.