AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Priscilla Long
With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer and blogger Katie Flanagan present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
Priscilla Long’s new science column, Science Frictions, appears each Wednesday on The American Scholar website (www.theamericanscholar.org). Her most recent book is The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life Her poems, stories, and creative nonfictions appear widely in journals such asThe American Scholar, The Southern Review, Raven Chronicles, Web Conjunctions, The Alaska Quarterly, Fourth Genre,, Tampa Review, and Passages North. Her awards include a National Magazine Award. She teaches writing and is author of Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. She serves as Senior Editor for www.historylink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history. For more information please visit www.PriscillaLong.com.
1. You have written a variety of things, including a history of the coal industry, short stories, and a guide to the writing craft. Are there writing rules that cross all genres, and are there rules that are specific to the modes of writing?
I also write poetry and I write science. Many—so many!—strategies and techniques (I wouldn’t call them rules) cross genres. The use of metaphorical language. The use of language as sound, as a musical instrument. Voice. Dramatic story structure. All of these cross from poetry to novel to creative nonfiction to memoir. And there are mixed-genre forms. Of course genres also have shapes native to them: poems have lines, novels have scenes, newspaper stories and romance novels and screen plays have strict forms.
As I was starting out as a writer, working in several genres was a disadvantage. I did not do so out of any sort of conscious career move but because in the 1960s and 1970s I couldn’t bear the idea of giving up writing poetry during the years I was both working as a press operator in a print shop and—in my spare time and on vacation—doing research on the history of coal mining. And then I couldn’t stop myself from starting to write memoir. I just wanted desperately to be a “great” writer, and of course, had no idea what I was doing. The word career was not in my vocabulary.
And in that career sense, one genre could detract from another. I once had a lovely history fellowship at Harvard’s Bunting Institute. There, one of my fellow scholars earnestly advised me to remove my published poems from my CV.
But, ultimately, crossing genres has paid off. It has paid off in terms of skills acquired and it has paid off in that gradually the world becomes happier and happier to let you the writer write whatever it is you want to write.
Example: I could put a ghazal (a formal type of poem) in my creative nonfiction titled “Genome Tome” because I was at the time writing a series of ghazals and because I had been composing poetry for thirty years and knew something about how to work on a poem. The cross-genre work (including a lot of science) “Genome Tome” appeared in The American Scholar and later received a National Magazine Award.
Science leaks into poetry and memoir; poetry leaks into fiction; stories leak into history and into science. Both technique and subject matter have permeable boundaries.
2. As a teacher of writing, what are some of the most common mistakes you see beginning writers make?
I see two kinds of errors.
I see writers pitching memoirs and novels when they don’t know how to write a sentence. They have no regular system for learning craft and don’t realize that you must have a regular system for learning craft. They have attended ten seminars on how to get an agent and none on how to write a simile, how to write a compound sentence and what that sentence might be good for, how to open, how to make an object hold a backstory, how to dress a character to index that character’s changing world view, how to use color in prose, and on and on. And I must note that many critique groups have little to say about most of these matters. The critique group is important, but it’s no substitute for the writer’s own program for learning craft.
Then I see the opposite sort of writer who writes for years without ever sending anything out. Or sends something out once or twice and it gets rejected and this writer goes into a major funk. Nothing gets published this way.
A piece never sent out, never exposed to a stranger’s cold eye, is never finished. Those last touches before shipping it out the door are not optional. How many pieces do you have finished and circulating? I am currently making 200 submissions a year (of perhaps fifteen pieces). My motto is Quantity, quantity, quantity. Finish, send out; finish, send out; finish, send out. My list of publications is currently taller than I am (and I am not a short person), and yet I still get blizzards of rejections.
The process of creating work stands in dynamic relationship with the process of getting the work into the world, and one of our tasks as writers is to get those two sides into balance.
3. You are also editor of www.historylink.org, an online encyclopedia of Washington state history. Can you speak a little about writing, editing and maintaining a blog?
HistoryLink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history, is not a blog, but it currently offers more than 6,000 essays, all edited by me over the past twelve years. (The essays are commissioned and written by our professional staff and by freelance professional journalists and historians.) We are now building a terrific editorial staff that goes beyond yours truly. We add about one essay per day, fully researched and sourced. Like I said, not a blog.
I hear a lot about the importance of having your work edited before sending it out to be reviewed by one of the gatekeepers, whether editor or agent. And I agree. But I further say that it’s important for a writer to gain, through slow but steady craft study, the kind of skill that good editors have. Nothing can help a writer more. The virtuoso writers are positively erudite when it comes to the comma, the em-dash, the fragment.
Now, about blogs. My blog-column, Science Frictions, appears weekly on The American Scholar website (www.theamericanscholar.org). But hey, it’s not a true blog. As we speak No. 6 has just been posted and I am working today on No. 25. Each one is vetted and edited by the Scholar staff. So, though it appears weekly online, it’s more like a column than a blog.
About true blogs, written, edited, and posted by the writer. I see the good in them and I also question them. (I don’t yet write a true blog but haven’t written off the idea either.)
On the good side, blogging seems a nice way to begin writing a book, day by day, week by week, meanwhile gathering an audience for the book as well as feedback, sources, suggestions, and fans. I am reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, a fine book first blogged. (Of course after blogging you rethink, rewrite, rethink some more, rewrite some more, before bringing out the actual book.) There are other famous books that started as blogs. Also there are excellent blogs that track particular subjects. One example is Michael Hood’s blog, Blatherwatch, on right-wing radio.
Now, what I question about blogging is the idea of devoting so much writing time to writing for the immediate audience, as if such an instant airing is conducive to the creator’s best work. And if not, then how much time is the writer to devote to it? What is the purpose? We all need an online presence, granted, but that can be a well-kept website, a Facebook page, Twitter, etcetera, and need not be a blog.
Blog instead of journal? Blog out a poem? Are we attempting to be acceptable to an audience before putting down a single word? What of that sense of interiority, the turning inward, the writer’s relationship with the work itself that artworks require of the artist? What of the finding of creativity studies that artists who keep the problem open longest create the best works? What if our thoughts are controversial? Should we just suppress them because to the blogger “writing” means writing to our followers and fans? Don’t some things need to be worked out over a longer period of time? Blogging requires putting out first thoughts on the subject or in any case second or third thoughts, since the one cardinal rule is that you can’t let the thing lapse into desuetude. So, questions.
4. One way your writing has been recognized has been the honor of being a Jack Straw writer. Can you talk a little bit about finding a writing fellowship or program? What does it take to become a Jack Straw writer?
For me becoming a Jack Straw writer was quite simple. I applied every year for ten years until I was finally one of those chosen!
I believe in applying for two grants or fellowships per year, year after year after year. I got this idea from my brilliant twin sister, Pamela O. Long, who has received virtually every grant from the Guggenheim to the Getty. (Pamela is a historian of science and technology.) She says apply for two, because often you have to apply over and over to get it. And don’t apply for more than two, because it takes up a lot of time. And get advice on your app (sometimes the organization offering grants will provide feedback after rejection; other times someone who may know something will offer feedback in exchange for coffee or something).
Applying for grants, residencies, and fellowships forces the writer to focus a particular project or articulate an artist’s statement. It’s not really a waste of time even if you don’t get it this time.
5. The main focus of Jack Straw writers is to help writers include oral storytelling into their process. Can you talk about some of the things you learned from this?
Oral presentation whether at an open mic or on the radio is a key skill for any writer. Enter Jack Straw, which provides a super-fun and illuminating context for developing a work and then the skill to present it orally. We had a class in performing, a recorded interview, practice using a mic, and opportunities to perform in the community. I must say I’ve never had more fun. The other writers were terrific and the whole experience, which goes on for a year, was fantastic.
6. What drove you to write The Writer’s Portable Mentor? In what way is your book is different from other writing books on the market?
I wrote, tested, and developed The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life over about fifteen years as instruction sheets for the adult writers I coach and teach. Certainly, there are some damn good how-to-write books out there, but this one offers quite a bit more craft technique. Many of its creative approaches and career strategies are drawn from my years-long study of the practices and choices of high-level creators from Georgia O’Keeffe to Picasso. Any beginner would profit greatly from The Writer’s Portable Mentor, but it is also meant for the advanced writer, the one working on his third novel, on her fortieth essay. I myself continue to do the exercises (along with my classes) because they are meant to be carried out in conjunction with work in progress (not as a digression) and because they are a working writer’s exercises.
7. You got an MFA at the University of Washington. There is a lot of talk these days about the different MFA programs and what value they offer writers. What was your experience?
I was deliriously happy to be accepted into the MFA program at the University of Washington in 1987, just after completing my history of coal mining and finding an agent to purvey it. I attended from 1988 to 1990. Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry came out in 1989, and I received the MFA in 1990. My first year I worked as a TA and taught one freshman composition course per quarter. (This was grueling, many hours per week, but boy did I learn stuff.) My second year, my then-husband gave me the gift of a year just to read and write in the program. That year was utopia. I read Yeats for six months. For my critical thesis I read 500 short stories. I worked with Hazard Adams and Heather McHugh and David Bosworth and Colleen McElroy. I and my fellow MFA writers spent hours and days yakking about literature. I was in heaven.
This doesn’t mean I think every writer should apply to the typically expensive MFA programs. Before my MFA, I spent considerable time in community-based writing classes (like the ones I now teach). These are invaluable, and can be as good as or better than a class in an MFA program. I find myself to some extent at odds with the main (but not sole) technique of MFA programs, which is the workshop. (As one who participated in a lot of workshops, I must say that the form of a sentence was never once mentioned in any workshop I ever attended. That should give you pause.)
Ultimately we are all autodidacts. We teach ourselves, and we take any class that will help us produce, give us a social context for our writing, and help us to get to the next level of skill. I myself still try to take a class now and then, to shake up my knowledge base, learn more, and produce some work.
If you want to go on the academic job market though, you need that MFA. But if you don’t, it comes down to an individual decision. It will not by itself get you a job. It is not really an answer to anything. But it may be just what you need at this time in your development. Or not.
8. What is the definition of a successful writer to you?
A successful writer is one who writes every day, even if only for fifteen minutes. Do this for a year, for two years, for ten years. Of course on some days you will get more time. But five hours one day cannot buy you a single minute on the next day. On that next day, you still put in your fifteen minutes. Now you are doing what the world-class creators do. Creativity studies and cognitive neuroscience has determined one very simple thing: Geniuses practice more.
9. What is the best advice you can give struggling writers on how to polish their craft?
My first bit of advice, and I’m not kidding, actually, is to get yourself a copy of The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life. And my second bit of advice is to begin working your happy way through that book.
10. Do you have any classes or events coming up soon where writers can connect with you?
I post my classes on my website (PriscillaLong.com). It is an unfortunate fact that they fill fast and are difficult to get in to. My weeklong seminar on The Art of the Sentence, The Art of the Paragraph, held in July 2012 at the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference, is seldom completely full and I heartily recommend it. In the upcoming weeks I will be at the Whidbey Island Writers Association’s Whidbey Island Lockdown Retreat and at the Skagit Valley Writers League (November 12 in Mount Vernon) teaching the art of the sentence. I will be at the fabulous Chuckanut Writer’s Conference in Bellingham in June 2012.
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Katie Flanagan is a fiction major at Northwestern University. She is currently an editor with Booktrope and a reader for Pink Fish Press. In the past, she has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Her favorite genre is women’s fiction, but she reads any fiction put in front of her. Check out her blog about the writing life at katieflanagan.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @K_Flanagan.