Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Filling your writing well -- Q&A with Ann Elia Stewart

Ann Elia Stewart has been a writing workshop facilitator for a decade now in Central Pennsylvania. I am fortunate to have been in most of her workshops. It has made me a better reader and writer, and I recently had a short story of mine published with other writers (who’ve been in Ann’s workshops) in a collection Ann edited, A Community of Writers (available now on Amazon). Ann always has much wisdom to share in regards to writing and writers, so I interviewed her for this blog. Enjoy! Her book, twice a child, will be available in June 2012, from, on Amazon where you can download it on a Kindle!

Q: Your background is in Journalism, how did you get into fiction writing and teaching it?

A: Fiction has always been my “first love,” beginning with Nancy Drew mysteries and short stories in my mom’s Good Housekeeping! I used to grab the magazine before she got it and go straight to the short story that usually took up a spread. When I got into college, I took every English Lit class I could and discovered an innate enjoyment of analyzing the stories not only for their content and meaning but also for technique. 
        Fast forward to a career in journalism and advertising, where I was able to hone my writing skills and make a living at it. But something was always missing for me. When I decided to become a stay-at-home mother in the early 90s, I used the baby’s naptime to self-study. The first novel I had broken into pieces was Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned. It was a complex story and vivid. I wanted to know how she had achieved the “reality” of it. I then got my hands on every writing book I could, studied them, analyzed them, and when I had discovered Rabbit Hill Writing Studio in Lititz, PA, in the mid-90s, I had already had a few pieces under my belt.  Of course, Rabbit Hill was the start of it all – me even thinking I could write fiction, let alone teach it!
        The literary magazine that I had founded in 2001, PHASE, followed after I had earned a fellowship from the PA Council on the Arts – validation! The workshops came about first as a way to look for more writers for the magazine (as well as readers), but as time went on, I found it to be a great way to stay rooted in fiction and meet others of like mind. And it all just kind of rolled along from there.

Q: I recently had a young cousin of mine ask me where she should start with writing.   What would be on your list to answer this person?

A: Well, I’m glad to see that a young person is interested in writing.  My first piece of advice always is: read everything. Reading helps you pick up technique, cadences and rhythms of language, character insight. After that, write about whatever moves you, either placing yourself in the story (first person), or developing a character with whom you can identify to help move the story forward. Find ten minutes a day to write, every day.

Q: What are your favorite how-to books for writers?

A: There are so many out there, but the best one, by far, is “On Writing,” by Stephen King. After that, “Creativity Rules,” by John Vorhaus, a step-by-step approach that breaks down parts of a story, and “The  First Five Pages,” by Noah Lukeman, an agent and editor who writes with a great deal of knowledge as to what pitfalls to avoid when you’re ready to submit a manuscript … or you think you’re ready.

Q: What are some of the major stumbling blocks you’ve seen with your students and their writing during the last decade or more?

A: Point of view has always been a sticky wicket! Because a writer’s mind must juggle so much, it’s easy to slip into another character’s point of view within the same scene or paragraph. That’s always one of the first mistakes I catch. Another is keeping their prose economical – saying what you want to convey in as few words as possible. Again, it’s easy to go on and on and on, but very difficult to condense a thought or scene to its essence. I have witnessed, to my pure delight, huge growth in the writers who continue to attend my workshops. So many have gone on to publish and write novels. It’s astounding what a little encouragement can do.

Q: Ever get Writers’ Block?  What are your fears that sometimes keep you from writing?

A: Writer’s block, someone once said, is simply not having enough information. I have had it, of course, but I realized that all the anxiety and silly rituals we writers sometimes put ourselves through boil down to one thing: We need to fill the well again, whether it’s in the form of more information or getting to know a character better or stepping back to see where the story is taking us so that we can move forward.
        For a long time, I was worried that some of my characters may resemble people in my life – for that’s where fiction emanates, real life – and that I may offend them. When you write fiction, you must be brave to get the story down, even if your story or characters may be composites of what’s happening around you. The other fear is that I would spend all this time, energy and emotion in creating a story or novel and no one would read it.  I got over that one – a writer has to write and if I can attract readers to my work, that’s the icing on the cake!