So much of a writer’s life is spent in solitude, a condition we crave. Solitude is our oxygen, our life’s breath, the lifeline upon which our work (and rare sense of sanity) depends. So, what happens when you bring a group of writers who crave solitude together? Yesterday this meant friendship, community, thoughts on writing and life—and large doses of irreverence and laughter.
Okay, so we’re not a random group of writers. Anne Hillerman, Jann Arrington-Walcott, Lesley Poling-Kempes, Lucy Moore, and me—along with our literary agent Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli and literary conference organizer extraordinaire Jean Schaumburg, are dear friends with deep roots and frequent gatherings of the self-named Literary Ladies of Santa Fe. We meet throughout the year to celebrate birthdays, friendship, conferences, and any other event which gives us an excuse to get together. Yesterday, we gathered together for “A Conversation Among Friends: The Writing Life” at the Rising Moon Gallery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Our hosts, Jaye Buros and Peggy Thompson, have created a treasure in the high desert, a space filled with textures, art, blown glass, books, color, music, and lovers of literature. This space is a feast for any writer’s or artist’s senses and spirit.
Abiquiu, New Mexico was home to artist Georgia O’Keeffe, whose spirit lives on in an extraordinary community of writers, artists, readers, and lovers of all creative. As we prepared for the introductions, Lesley reviewed our bios with each of us for our introductions. “Whatever you don’t know, just make it up,” I said.
“Yes, we could say that you spent a year living in Malaysia…” she said, “with a sheik!” This is now forever a line in my official biography.
We dove into a couple of hours of talking, laughing, and wrestling with the beauty, challenges, and reality of the writing life. Because of our combined experiences and the different chapters in which we find ourselves in our writing lives, our conversation highlighted the the variety of paths—and how those paths weave together to create a reflection of a whole. Here is some of the essence of our conversation.
Anne Hillerman: Much to Anne’s surprise, she decided to carry forward her dad’s literary legacy in fiction. “I loved my career as a non-fiction writer and really didn’t think I’d move into fiction. Then, after Dad died and people asked if he had any last novel or work and I told them that he did not, I just saw the sadness in their eyes. I decided to continue the story, but to bring Bernie Manuelito, who had always been a side-kick bringing the guys coffee, into the foreground and give her the attention and voice she deserved. As far as making time to write, no matter what the circumstances, life is full of juicy distractions for writers…kids, jobs, partners, friends, concerts, beaches to explore, mountains to hike, books to read, research to pursue and more. If you want to write you have to make it a priority in your life. Otherwise it just doesn’t get done. I try to walk a lot in the mornings. When I walk, those tangled knots in the plot or things I’m wondering about the story seem to fall into place.”
Lesley Poling-Kempes: “I would just say DO IT with writing. Find support group, set a schedule that is doable, follow your dream/passion with intention, and understand the process is personal YET everyone, even experienced writers, have moments of doubt. Do it your own way. And find support. I enjoy writing both fiction and non-fiction. The research for fiction is fascinating and I enjoy the structure of a non-fiction book. I love the imaginative journey of writing fiction, when really there are really no limits and you create the story. I crave time alone. Even within my hermitage, I am a hermit. Along with that, belonging to a writing community is truly remarkable, affirming. My writing life involves both. I spend most days alone, writing for hours. I also hold a writing workshop here at the Rising Moon Gallery. Each of these parts of my writing life enriches the other.”
Lucy Moore: “It’s all about the story — whether the story is from your life experience, or made up out of your head. If it’s a compelling story, one with drama, personalities, maybe lessons, and touches my heart in some way, I want to write it. I find plenty of these stories in my work as a mediator, where people are at their best and/or worst in conflict. I make time to write when it bubbles up in me, often after mulling and musing for awhile as I go about my life. There comes a point, and the pressure cooker pops its lid, and I am writing! maybe for hours at a time, often late into the night. If it’s not fun, I don’t write. I don’t have a schedule. I don’t sit and wonder what I’m going to write. The only question is can I get it down fast enough before it evaporates!? What I usually write are vignettes from my life or work, stories I have heard from someone else about an incredible happening of some kind, turning point, etc. I chose memoir over fiction because I wanted the story to be mine. I wanted to own it and grapple with it, and I wanted the reader to see me doing that. I also wanted to offer an example of opening up your heart and soul and spilling it on the page, hopefully not too messily, to encourage others to do the same, or to think about themselves and their own life-adventures.I don’t like to revise. I love what comes out, straight from the heart. I value that first burst as something authentic, and sometimes I feel that revising takes the “life” out of it…..or maybe I”m just lazy!”
Jann Arrington-Wolcott: “I didn’t start writing until after 40-years-old. I was busy writing for magazines and raising five kids! I’m glad I didn’t start writing any younger. I needed to live and with the years and experiences, I had so much more to write about. For my latest book, I discovered how fun research can be. I knew I needed someone wildly inappropriate as a love interest for the main character. I was in San Francisco at the time, reading the paper, and found myself reading these advertisements for escorts. That’s my love interest! I called the company and explained that I was a writer, a wife, a mother, and grandmother, I was doing research for a book and wanted to make an appointment with an escort. ‘I just want to talk and do research for a character,’ I told him. ‘Lady,’ the man on the other end of the phone said, ‘I don’t care what you do, but you’re paying by the hour!’ The characters of my books tell me what they’re doing and what is going to happen next. I have a somewhat obsessive personality, which works well for a writer! If I could offer advice to my younger self, I would say: “Stop being such a people pleaser. Believe in yourself. Guard and follow your enthusiasm.”
Dawn Wink: “I decided to be a writer when I had three kids, ages three and under. It seemed like a good idea at the time! My writing fits into the nooks and crannies of a busy family and professional life. Most of my writing happens between 4:00-6:00 am. After that, my day belongs to family and work. I’ve learned to trust my body’s natural biorhythms when it comes to writing. I am an early morning person. I light candles and oil lanterns and write during that time. I used to feel guilty about not writing late into the night when the kids slept, I felt I was losing precious time. I now know that it’s far more productive for me to just go to bed, let my mind and body rest, so that I’m ready to awake early in the morning and return to the work of writing. The initial writing process for me is initially highly intuitive. I cluster ideas, for essays, chapters, books. I trust whatever path the clustering takes me during that stage, no matter how wild it seems at the time. I love clustering, because writing is always somewhat of an adventure at this stage, I’m never quite sure what might unfold. Clustering has resulted in some amazing surprises that I never would have stumbled upon otherwise. Really? That’s what’s going to happen? Who knew? Eventually within the clustering, a linear organization of what’s meant to be written takes shape. I write whatever comes for the first draft. Only after that initial intuitive process, do I start to revise, which then feels like a sculpting of the work, a paring away of the excess to highlight the essence of story.”
“Because each of you is a strong individual, you all had different things to say and you were generous in sharing personal insights/bugaboos/difficulties – it was truly an open-hearted forum. The writers and artists in the audience responded to your answers as they did because they could tell you were being totally upfront and honest. There was never a false moment or a sense that you were performing. You were intent on sharing your own experiences – from the trials and tribulations of trying to write in the midst of child-rearing, home-tending and feeding of family mouths and souls, going to work at jobs to provide sustenance for your families, all the way to being over all of that and still trying to find the right rhythm of writing and all the rest of what makes up your lives.
I like that each of you had a different approach to that so that the audience got the message: there is no one RIGHT WAY to approach the difficult task of writing; you simply must do it according to what works best for you.”
We all agree whole-heartedly—there is no one RIGHT WAY in the writing life. Life IS full of juicy distractions for writers. Create your own path.
Whatever the path, just write.