Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Writing Life

Jess Lourey, Jan Dunlap and I made an appearance at the Normandale Community College in Bloomington (Minnesota) today. We sat at a table and rambled on about why we write mysteries, how we came up with our sleuths, the methods we use in plotting, and whether or not our characters resemble people we know. Attendance was a bit sparse -- community college students are more about books needed to pass courses than reading for recreation. Still, some good questions were asked, and each of us signed a few books. What I liked about the event was how we played off each other. One would say something that triggered a good thought in another. It was much better that there were three of us than if any of us had appeared alone. That doesn’t always happen, but it’s great when it does. I’d like to do something with the two of them again sometime.

One of the subjects was how writers today have to be two people. One is an introvert, able (sometimes driven) to work alone, with only a looming deadline for encouragement. The other is a gregarious and amusing extrovert, given to clever remarks and interesting conversation while on a book tour. Publishers today tend to focus on the big sellers and even mid-list authors are forced to arrange their own book tours, traveling on their own dime, getting no reimbursement except for a tax deduction. So it’s not just the appearance at a book signing the author has to do, it’s the scheduling, the cold calling of bookstore managers, the cheerful voice and cooperative manner put on when making arrangements. And when it’s all over, there is the lonesome room and the intimidating blank computer screen waiting.

But you know something? I wouldn’t trade my job for any other. I enjoy the book signings, meeting fellow authors and fans at conventions, even (sometimes) the challenge of setting up a signing. And when the muse is riding me, there’s nothing more fascinating than working out a complex plotline, watching the characters come to life on the computer screen, making it all come together in a grand climax.

Of all the activities involved in writing, I think I probably like research best. In fact, I have caught myself using research as a way to avoid writing. There is always one more thing to check out, one more fact to pursue, and the Internet seems too often a bottomless resource. I love talking to people face-to-face, I love getting into e-mail correspondence with experts in some field or other, I even love taking stitching classes. I guess somewhere in my ancestry is Rudyard Kipling’s elephant’s child, full of ’satiable curiosity. Of the several traits that make someone into a writer, I think curiosity is one of the elementals. How does that work? Why do people do that? What is it like to (fly, fire fires, do factory work, cope with an abusive boss or spouse, fill in the blank). We’re worse than the National Enquirer and National Geographic combined. If there are such things as ghosts, and they get to choose the places they haunt, I will be found at my old school, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, attending classes and reading obscure volumes in the stacks of the Union Memorial Library. Though the way books are going out of style, I may have to inhabit a computer -- do you think that might be possible?

8 comments:

Linda O. Johnston said...

Sounds as if your presentation was a good one, Monica, and you're right. I'm a writer, and there are at least two of me! When I was young, I was so terrified of public speaking that I didn't participate much in classes, although I got good grades thanks to tests. Then there was moot court in law school. Ugh! I joined Toastmasters after that, but it never occurred to me that, as a writer, I'd have to speak in front of groups. Much to my surprise, I've become comfortable with it.

Camille Minichino said...

SO well said, Monica!

As a teacher for going on too many decades, I love the Meet and Greet part. And just before reading your post I had one of those aha moments about my latest plot. Have to say, sometimes it's a little nerve-wracking before the aha hits!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

When an introvert does an extroverted activity, it's a drain on our batteries, isn't it? I know people think I'm an extrovert, but the qualification is being invigorated by social interaction. I love meeting people and talking about my work, but I also need my solitude. You are so right about these conflicting jobs being part of the life of an author!

Monica Ferris said...

I sometimes think I can do the public speaking part only because there is the solitary writing part waiting for me. That "recharging the batteries" phrase seems to exactly describe it, Joanna. I used to be terrified of public speaking but now I actually enjoy it.

Betty Hechtman said...

I have never been comfortable talking in front of a group. I think it comes from the fear of my mind going blank.

Having been on a number of panels and done a few talks, I am becoming less uncomfortable. When they're over, I've always felt that recharged feeling or maybe it's just relief that I didn't fall on my face.

signlady217 said...

Even as a baby I was not an extrovert (according to my mom) and I'm still not very comfortable speaking in front of groups. How I became a teacher or sign language interpreter I will never know! Both of those jobs are definitely in front of groups! It has gotten a bit easier over the years, but I still don't really like it. I absolutely am a "loner" although just hanging out with my girlfriends is a much enjoyed activity. They're the ones who keep me functioning on some kind of human level, instead of just biting everybody's heads off like I usually want to do! Coudn't get by without my "peeps"!

Camille Minichino said...

My husband thinks I write so I can go out and talk. I think he's right. I have many more nerve-wracking moments at my computer than I do getting in front of any number of people.

The events recharge me -- if I want to keep doing this, I tell myself, I have to be alone for a while and write!

Jess Lourey said...

Monica, it was wonderful to see you and I agree that we played off of each other well in the panel. I look forward to the day when I enjoy public speaking!