Donna Jo Napoli, Jerry Spinelli and Eileen Spinelli presented our workshop Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Writing for the “whole writer.” We wondered what that phrase meant, and asked the faculty. Here’s what they had to say.
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.
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.
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.