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How to nurture the whole writer

The workshop description for our upcoming workshop, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Writing says: “This workshop is for the “whole writer.” We wondered what that meant exactly, and asked some of the faculty to answer a few questions.  Here’s what Donna Jo Napoli, Jerry Spinelli and Eileen Spinelli had to say about it.

What does that phrase “the whole writer” mean to you personally?
Donna Jo: It means how I live from day to day. It involves not just my writing, but, since I write for children, my responsibilities toward my reader. It involves facing what I need to write about and finding a way to deal with it that can make sense to my reader.

Eileen and Jerry Spinelli
Eileen and Jerry Spinelli
Jerry: From punctuation to narrative voice, the craft and art of writing involves many skills. What good is a story whose beginning is boffo if the ending falls flat? Unconvincing dialog can drain away the capital accrued by compelling imagery. A writer needs to be adept at using all the skills in the toolbox.

Eileen: To me the phrase “the whole writer” means that I can steep myself in poetry…or do a picture book…or plot a novel…even write a verse for a grandchild’s birthday…I allow myself to be open to whatever is tugging at my heart. I am happy to experiment with a genre. I still haven’t gotten the knack of writing a mystery…but it’s been interesting to try. More and more I come to my writing with a lighter touch. By lighter I mean without a lot of angst. I try to relax into the work.


Can you give an example of some ways you nurture your writing self – process, practice, routine?
Donna Jo: When I finish a page, I get a Hershey’s kiss. When I finish a chapter, I get a beer. When I finish a whole first draft, my husband and I share a bottle of prosecco.

Jerry: I love it when the muse pays me a visit. But that happens maybe once a decade. So it’s a job and I treat it as such. I mount the stairs to my office and begin writing each morning at ten. And often a funny thing happens. The fingers on the keys, the letters marching across the screen have a way of creating an energy, like jump-starting a car or flint-stoning a fire. Momentum carries me along. I find myself in places unseen from the vantage of inactivity, and, in the best moments, I find myself sneaking up on the muse.

Eileen: I try to write most days. I read. A lot. I talk to writing friends. If I’m stuck and spinning my wheels…I do something else for a while: weed the garden…browse in a thrift shop…take a nap…reorganize the kitchen…play Scrabble…



Can you share a few thoughts on how new writers can build a successful writing practice?
Donna Jo: Take yourself seriously. Make promises to yourself and keep them — just as you would if you made a promise to a colleague. Work hard.

Jerry: Do you have time to read a few hundred pages? But in the end, really, ninety percent of it is this: WRITE. WRITE. WRITE.

Eileen: Know yourself. Do you have best energy in the morning? Or evening? Do your thoughts flow better writing longhand…or on the computer? Talk with other writers. How do they make time for the writing work? Are you willing to give up an hour of TV most days? If there are too many distractions at home…can you get to a library or cafe for an hour?


How important (or not) is the concern about getting published, to the writing process? Does it inspire? Interfere?
Donna Jo: The concern about getting published should be zero on the first drafts. On first drafts, just go wherever you need to go. Let it happen. Then, when you see what you have, you can ask yourself what you need to do to make this understandable not just to yourself, but to strangers as well. If it’s not understandable to strangers, it won’t get published. But if you’re writing only for yourself, you never have to ask that question.

I hate the word “inspire” — I think there is no inspiration in writing, there is only hard work, faith, good spirit, flexibility — all the things you need to succeed at anything else.

Jerry: Let’s stipulate at the start that self-publishing is off the table. So yes, you can take dead-aim at publication. You can study the market and try to tailor your work to fit. I tried that a long time ago and it didn’t go very well. For me–and I think for many others–the ticket was to identify what I wanted to write about and what I seemed to be good at and just go ahead and do it: write write write. The rest, I guess, is faith, faith that if your stuff is good enough sooner or later somebody will want to publish it. Generally speaking, I still think this is true.

Eileen: For me (though not for everyone) being overly concerned about the market or getting published tends to interfere. I try to put that out of my mind until I have completed whatever it is I’m writing.


Can you elaborate on “the whole writer” as it relates to the workshop? What types of things can students expect – presentations, assignments, direction, critiquing?
Donna Jo Napoli
Donna Jo Napoli
Donna Jo: Some people compartmentalize their lives — they are writers at certain times, gas station attendants or moms or little league coaches at other times. Others are writers no matter what else they are doing at the moment. But all of us have to figure out how to simply be a writer. How to allow a story to evolve, do research, write, rewrite, benefit from others’ comments, negotiate contracts, face marketing, react to reviews, handle interviews, do school visits, and still have a family or friends or whatever else we want to have in our lives.

We have provided a loose schedule below, but our goal is to field ANY questions people pose us.

Jerry: The workshops usually target a specific aspect of writing: picture books, science non-fiction, plot, etc. Since we old friends, each with our own style and horse to ride, found ourselves assigned as faculty of four, we thought it made sense to veer from the usual focused approach to something more wide-ranging, something that we could all address. This led us to consider not just the dialog-writer or the poetry-writer or the opening pargraph-writer but THE WRITER–period. The whole writer.

Just as each reader brings a unique experience to the book-reader interplay, so we take as a given that each writer comes to Honesdale with his or her own questions and concerns about the craft of writing. Those concerns will be the tiller by which we steer our course. Which is not to say the days will be nothing but a discussion free-for-all. Yes, there will be sessions on various aspects of writing–fiction, non-fiction, making a living–and yes, the writers will be asked to write–but the structure will be flexible, ready to bend to workshoppers’ wishes. Our goal is that by noon on Wednesday no one will sit down to lunch with a question unanswered.


Barry Furrow
Barry Furrow

Preliminary schedule for the workshop:
Note: All participants will be asked to share a selection of writing in the Tuesday afternoon session. That piece can be written beforehand and, perhaps, revised during the workshop, or it can be written at the workshop. The piece should be something that can be read aloud within 3 to 4 minutes with a maximum of 5 minutes.

Sunday, July 6th
Dinner, Introductions. General discussion of what people are looking for in the workshop

Monday, July 7th
Morning: Eileen will start us off talking about poetry.
Donna Jo will start us off talking about dialogue, followed by a writing exercise.
Afternoon: Dialogue presentations (from the a.m.) and discussion
Jerry will start us off talking about fiction.
Evening: Discussion of a writer’s life, from budgeting time to learning the craft to practicing the craft.

Tuesday, July 8th
Morning: Donna Jo will start us off talking about senses, followed by a writing exercise and one version of a writers’ circle.
Afternoon: We will have a writers’ group (perhaps using the guidelines of the morning writers’ circle, perhaps using other guidelines we all decide upon) and workshop whatever people have brought to share.
Evening: Barry will present on many business issues and then lead us in discussion.

Wednesday, July 9th
All of us will encourage discussion about the issue of research in nonfiction, poetry, fiction – ie., in writing of any type.

Posted on: June 6, 2014

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