(Editor’s Note: Fredrick Marion conducted this interview with Joni B. Cole, a 2018 EBWW faculty member and the author of Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier, Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive and Another Bad-Dog Book: Essays on Life, Love, and Neurotic Human Behavior. It appears in his e-newsletter. Reposted by permission.)
Q: You’ve literally taught thousands of writers. What drives you crazy about beginners and what makes you love them?
A: What drives me crazy about beginners is the same thing that drives me crazy about myself as a writer — how susceptible we all are (newbies and seasoned authors) to self doubt, mostly fed by those pesky naysayers between our ears. Who cares about my “little” story? What gives me the right to call myself a writer? How can I expose my creative soul to the general public when the first (and last) time I showed a story to my Nana her only comment was, “In my day, we weren’t allowed to start a sentence with a preposition.”
Beginners, get a grip. And here I am also yelling at myself. Don’t give away your power and passion to those blowhards. If you want to write, that is a great thing. If you doubt your abilities, then acquire the craft necessary to make your work meaningful to readers, but don’t doubt the value of your voice, your experience, your imagination. Perhaps I’m overstating (only I’m not) when I assert that the future of civilization depends on folks with the courage to share their stories. As Wallace Stegner said, “Writing is a social act. An act of communication both intellectual and emotional. It is also an act of affirmation — a way of joining the human race and a human culture.” So there’s that, as well as this: If you don’t tell your story, who will?
As far as what makes me love beginners — what’s not to love? I am inspired by anyone wanting to embark on this journey called creative expression. And because working with newbies often requires a focus on basic narrative techniques, the experience also reminds me of the fun in fundamentals.
Q: What’s your philosophy on writing/leading a creative life?
A: I do try and abide by certain tenets, both practical and philosophical. Here are three, in no particular order
• There is no such thing as a shi**y first draft. Many people think of their early efforts in these terms, but there is only a first draft, a fifth draft, a penultimate draft — with each iteration doing the job of moving your work forward. I try really hard to refrain from calling my drafts ugly names because it only makes it more difficult to write more, write better, and be happier. I address this in Good Naked, “As working writers, our entire job description is to create drafts. This is where we spend all our time. So if we do not find meaning and merit in the now of the creative process, if we are always wishing for a draft more advanced than the one we are working on in the moment, then our writing lives will always be devoid of joy, until all of the work is done.”
• Writing is a discovery process. With this belief I am relieved of the burden of knowing what I want to say — and how to say it — when I first sit down to write. I just start by putting words on the page: first thoughts; the description of a memory, or image or object that asserts itself in my brain; a rant; word associations; questions; overheard conversations that catch my ear. I trust the creative process, that order will emerge from chaos. And when I eventually do figure out the purpose of a scene, or the meaning of an essay (the what about what it’s about), I revise the work about 49,000 times (give or take) until it feels finished.
• Feedback is crucial to the creative process. Unless you are writing in a secret diary or journal, it serves to encourage responses to your developing manuscript. Too many writers fear they will be railroaded by feedback providers, but we are, after all, the boss of our own stories. So we can let go of that misguided worry. And while exposing our drafts to readers may invite the occasional hurtful comment, we don’t have to internalize that toxicity. The truth is, most feedback enlivens the creative process and helps us write forward productively.
Q: How do you get yourself to write when every part of you is trying to resist it?
A: I manufacture deadlines. I reread some favorite passages from books that inspire me. I reread passages that I particularly like from my own published work. I set teeny tiny goals (Six sentences! Just write six sentences and then I can binge watch anything I want.) I sip Vermouth regardless of the hour. I go running. I go to a cafe. I think of the writers in my workshops. I give up, but trust I will return to my desk at some point because I always have. In the end, not writing is harder than writing.
— Fredrick Marion
A former columnist and staff writer at the Palm Beach Post and Rocky Mount Telegram, Fredrick Marion now writes on napkins, blogs and sidewalks. He earned an English degree from Wright State University, and he’s hard at work on his first children’s novel with representation by The Bent Agency. He also writes a free weekly email newsletter full of writing tips. Subscribe here.