Lisa Wingate on writing

Wingatepubshot2015julybLMRAuthor Lisa Wingate, currently based in Arkansas, has published 25 books in 14 years — a staggering number. Her series include the Texas Hill Country books, the Moses Lake books, the Daily Texas books, the Blue Sky Hill books, the Tending Roses books and the Carolina Heirloom novels and novellas. It’s from the last group that Wingate’s most recent novel comes: The Sea Keeper’s Daughters is part history and part mystery. It follows the stories of three characters: present day restaurant owner Whitney; her grandmother Ruby, who lived in the Excelsior hotel on the Outer Banks; and Ruby’s twin sister Alice, a member of the Depression-era Federal Writer’s Project, stationed in Western North Carolina.

For readers living in or near Asheville, Wingate presents The Sea Keeper’s Daughters at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Sept. 22. For everyone else, here is some writing wisdom that Wingate shared during a recent interview (read the full story at mountainx.com):

SeaKeepersDaughters_021815I pretty much write linear, from first to last. There are parts that are harder to write, parts where I really have to stop and think, “If this does happen here, what will it create in the future of the book?”

There are days when I quit for the day thinking I know what will happen the next day, in the story. [Then] I may see something, hear something, overhear some conversation in a restaurant and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s the perfect thing. That’s what needs to happen next.” [The writing] may end up the next day being completely different than I thought it would be. Ideas come from everywhere.

So much of it comes from just living life with those characters in the story. That’s what makes it an adventure — really not knowing. What makes it magical, too, is when life intercepts with it. You think, “This real life experience or this person’s story will be perfect for this character.”

I’m very regimented. I set a word count every day and I write seven double-spaced, Times Roman 12 pages per day, and I pretty much don’t shirk on that unless I’m traveling or whatever. There are days when I think, “This is junk. This is going to have to be completely rewritten.” And there are days when it just flows right out. Sometimes I go back to the stuff I thought was junk and it’s not so bad. Sometimes it’s even good. Sometimes those things end up on the cutting room floor. But I know that when I stick to that schedule, I’ll have the rough draft of a novel done in three months, and then the real writing begins.

The rough draft is the hard part because you’re discovering the story — you’re telling the story to yourself. You’ve never heard that story before that point. The first edit is when you begin telling the story to other people, so you look for the threads that didn’t get wrapped up or didn’t go anywhere. Then you do a little more fine-tuning to make it a story that makes sense to the rest of the world.

‘If the work is good enough, eventually somebody will notice’

Ron Rash, photo by Ulf Andersen

Ron Rash, photo by Ulf Andersen

This is my second post this year of quotes from Ron Rash. He’s one of my all-time favorite writers, and that he lives in the Southeast (and claims Western North Carolina as his region) makes me love his work that much more.

Find my story for Mountain Xpress about Rash’s sublime new novel, Above the Waterfall, here. And below, his words of wisdom to writers:

On his schedule:
I write everyday. Sometimes I’ll take Sundays off, but usually at least six days a week I’m at it.

On going to school for writing:
I have a straight master’s in literature. That’s what was best for me. I needed to be reading really good writers.

Ultimately, whether you go through an MFA program or straight MA, it’s what you do afterwords [that matters]. The only way you’re really going to get good is just not giving up, putting the hours in to learn your craft and going though the process where slowly but surely you improve. The other thing is that you continue to read. I don’t know a single good writer who’s not a voracious reader. That’s how you learn and that’s how you challenge yourself. You read the best.

I just read a book by a Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, called I Refuse. It’s one of those very quiet, beautiful books. He’s one of my favorite living writers.

AboveWaterfall hc cRash didn’t publish his first collection of short stories until 1994, when he was in his 40s; his first book of poetry followed two years later, and his first novel came out in 2002.
I’d written two novels and destroyed them because they weren’t good. Story after story, I’d write them and they’d be dead on the page. But I didn’t give up. Sometimes I wondered why I didn’t. But as I got into my 30s I started getting published in some small journals and then some slightly bigger journals.

But I really believe it’s the best thing that could have happened to me as far as my writing, because I was able to concentrate solely on the writing. There were no distraction because no one was interested. I just went slowly and surely about my craft. What interest in my craft has come has been very slowly building. Someone recently said, ‘You’ve really broken through.’ I said, ‘It only took 17 books.’ I’m not an overnight sensation.

Some writers hit their stride quicker than others. Some writers can write their great books in their 20s or 30s. I just wasn’t one of those. You’re not making McDonald’s hamburgers. You’re doing something, if you’re any good, that’s unique. I certainly don’t believe you’ve got to have it done in your 30s — that’s absurd. I do feel like what happens is a lot of people, when they hit their 30s, just give up. And maybe they shouldn’t.

The work itself is what matters. That’s where the focus needs to be, not on self-promotion. You hope — an I do believe this — that if the work is good enough, eventually somebody will notice.

It might take 15 or 20 years to really get it. I know that sounds daunting, but if it’s really important to you, you’re willing to do that. I kind of made a choice in my late 20s. It was a serious choice. I’d been dabbling in it, and I said, “Do I want to live my life wondering if I could have really committed to it, or do I want to risk spending hours and years” — which I did — “and maybe finding out at the end I didn’t have the talent.” I would rather have failed and at least known. There were years when I was in my 30s when I couldn’t get a book published. I had manuscripts and story collections and nobody was interested. But I kept writing.

Top tips for being a rockstar

This essay was originally posted at Booker Like a Hooker.

Stage setup

Stage setup

I probably can’t (or at least shouldn’t) advise anyone on being a rockstar. I realize this might come as a surprise since I just published the novel How to Talk to Rockstars, thus asserting my own expertise on the subject. That, and the book is based in part on my own experience as an arts and entertainment writer and editor. This August will mark 12 years officially interviewing touring musicians in a full-time-employment-with-official business-cards capacity.

If you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule (that’s the number of hours of “deliberate practice” it takes to become an expert in any field), then I’ve got more than twice that under my belt — even after you subtract lunch breaks and watching back episodes of “Castle” at my desk. (For the record, I do not watch back episodes of “Castle” at my desk. Who would do that? Not this girl.)

But a 2014 Princeton study supposedly debunked Gladwell’s theory. I’m no expert on rockstars with or without Princeton (or Gladwell) — not on being one, not on talking to one. How to talk to rockstars (the idea, not my novel … well, maybe my novel, too) is actually an enduring mystery in my life. And I’m OK with that.

Birdhouse

Birdhouse

In fact, one of the things that keeps me excited about my day job, more than a decade in, is that the creative process in its many genres remains mysterious, elusive, wondrous and inspiring. It’s the wilderness in this world of instant accessibility, constant contact and utter disconnect. Art is the one place where we’re way off the map and, at the same time, completely connected to our source. It’s the antithesis of social media without being antisocial. It’s where we’re most vulnerable, most human, most true.

So maybe that’s what I would say to any would-be rockstars out there. Be more human. Be more of a conduit to that wilderness. Be more authentic; be a beacon to those of us seeking authenticity.

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba performing at LEAF

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba performing at LEAF

I would also say I know that’s terrifying. Creativity is a scary prospect. Writing a book sure is. To be alone with the blank page is to stare into the abyss. That’s actually thing I’ve said dozens of times for dramatic effect. And I’m probably not the first person to have said it — it sounds suspiciously like something I probably heard from one of my MFA professors and managed to co-opt by virtue of a foggy memory. But lately looking into the abyss is less dramatic and more … something. Not quite comforting but, like, what’s so terrible about an abyss? It’s not necessarily a black hole or dark matter or one of those “Star Trek” anomalies. It’s just the unknown. And life experience, 20,000-plus hours in, has taught me that most unknowns, once addressed, are completely navigable.

Music, however, refuses to be completely navigable. It remains — at its best, at its richest — unexpected, emotional, surprising and overwhelming. It’s a shot to the heart, a jolt to the psyche. It’s a time machine back to who we once were, a post card from past selves and a missive to future versions of ourself. It has the power to render us, in the moment, undone. It contains the ability to recast us, for the length of a song, cooler than we really are.

Sculpture park at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Sculpture park at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

I would say to future rockstars, go there. Go farther. Dare into the abyss, into the wilderness, into the world beyond the world. Lead the mission; strike out on a hero’s journey; lean out over the precipice and don’t fear the fall.

The world needs rockstars. Not big egos. That’s not what I’m talking about. But seekers, seers, those who walk on stage, larger than life, and remind us of our own inner starpower. And, for that matter, I’d say that anyone who accepts this mission — to be more true, more human, more creative and more of a light into the dark heart of our collective artistic source — is already a rockstar. No tour bus, logo t-shirts or fan base required.

Living with heart (or why I don’t chase happiness)

Living with heart (or why I don’t chase happiness)

According to the tag on my Yogi Tea bag, “You will always live happy if you live with heart.” And it’s a nice (if vague) idea, but I have to disagree. Here’s the thing: while I prefer terms like “soulful” and “an examined life,” I suspect that they share DNA with living with heart. And none of those experiences is particularly happy. Horizon broadening, mind-expanding, life-changing and growth-inducing, yes. All of which can lead to a better quality of being, a greater capacity for love, understanding, and even heartfulness. But growth is hard and challenging and often real soulful living makes the heart ache more than smile.

That’s not a bad thing. Personally — and I realize this is not going to be a popular opinion — I think happiness (along with fun) is overrated. It’s a wonderful side effect, but should never be the goal. And yet there’s this kind of first world idea that we all deserve unlimited quantities of happiness (and fun) and anything that is not happy-making is to be avoided. That might be oversimplifying the situation, but I feel like our collective march toward 24/7 entertainment, gadgetry, consumerism, single-use, throw-away, increased stimulus, newer, faster, louder, shinier and more is a kind of kid-in-candy store approach to being.

Being a kid in a candy story is fun! And then you have a sugar crash and everything gets really ugly.

I’m not against social networking. I don’t crochet my own pants out of recycled earbud chords. But of all the apps I’ve installed on my phone, my favorite is the Insight Timer I use for the mini-meditation sessions I squeeze in between the obstacle course activities of my daily to-do lists. The app does nothing but count down from 10 or 15 minutes and sound a soft chime when time is up. That, and it tells me how many other people around the world were meditating with me, using the same timer. That’s pretty cool, to think that for 10 silent minutes I’m in community with 500 or so complete strangers who share my goal of stilling my chattering brain and carving out a little space among the clutter.

Meditating hasn’t made me happier (though I’m pretty sure that’s a major selling point of the current mindfulness trend). It has given me some tools to calm down, take account of my current situation and ditch a few to-do list items that maybe don’t really need to be done. It’s given me a little perspective and, more importantly, a kind of shelter in the storm of changes, excitement, discouragement and other swells.

Publishing a book hasn’t made me happier, either. That’s been a dream of mine for nearly 20 years and to finally realize it has been pretty incredible. It’s been a roller coaster ride — thrilling, rewarding, and a great sense of accomplishment. But it’s also come with an intense amount of work that I never could have predicted, and its own kind of hard knocks. Anyone who’s ever attempted to learn anything knows that success/defeat ratio. Very few people get good at anything without sucking first, and it takes a special kind of courage to persevere.

Perseverance is its own reward. Again, it’s not necessarily a happy thing. Summiting a peak is a triumph — often at the cost of scraped knuckles and utter exhaustion. Most marathoners, upon crossing the finish line, look more like they want to vomit, die or punch someone than do a happy dance. But no one ever ran a race to get happy. We run to get healthy, to prove it to ourselves that we can accomplish a goal, to compete, maybe to win, but mostly just to finish.

I understand why my tea tag doesn’t say, “You’ll probably finish more stuff if you live with heart.” Or, “You’ll learn more in life if you put yourself out there, risk defeat and care more about the process that what kind of selfie you can post on Facebook.” The bubbly quick-fix of “Happy” makes better marketing sense than the dogged determination of “Hang in there.”

But hanging in brings better results. Hanging in gets us all closer to the finish line, and — more importantly — it keeps us on the journey. Plus, sometimes (many times!) happiness happens along the way, like a good tail wind, like a cheering section, like a double rainbow out of a storm-dark sky.