The Insecure Writer's Support Group Book Club discussion

Chapter After Chapter: Discover the Dedication & Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams
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April/May Chapter After Chapter > Heather Sellers' Interview

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Chrys Fey (ChrysFey) | 226 comments Here are the chosen 12 questions YOU asked Heather Sellers. Plus, her answers. When she got the interview she said, "These are such good questions! What a great group you have." Yay! Well done, everyone! :)

NOTE: Discussions for Chapter After Chapter will begin on Wednesday (17th) and will extend to the end of the month.


1. What was the most meaningful thing for you that you learned from writing Chapter After Chapter?

In writing the book, I wanted to have a meaningful anecdote in each chapter. As I collected stories about teaching writing, I realized how much I learn from my students every day. Their wisdom, their humor, their boldness and bravery—a constant inspiration.

When I look back at the book, I’m also humbled. It is so easy to tell other people to make sacrifices and spend more time writing and less time with other endeavors.

Now that I’m older, I am much more aware of how it’s really very difficult to make choices about where to put one’s energy. I’m less likely now to make it sound fun or easy. In fact, often it just isn’t possible in a life to spend a lot of time writing—there are just too many other responsibilities or life stresses (as one of you alludes to, in a later question here). When I’m writing well, other parts of my life are truly suffering and I think I’m more honest and clear about the realities of life now, less cheerleadery. That’s something I have learned. It was much easier to devote my life to my art when I was younger than it is now.

2. Do you believe in the concept of a writing muse? And what do you say to writers who say their muse is on vacation or not cooperating?

Have you read Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful Big Magic or seen her TED talk on creativity? She opens her book by defining creativity as the relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration and I love how she talks about the muse in other cultures—genius being this actual real genie that lives in the walls of your house. A kind of house elf. The house elf of creativity exists to play with you, to help you, but not do your work for you! She talks about how the Greeks and Romans thought very differently about creativity than many of us do today—that relationship with the muse or your genius is a co-created one. There’s a force, perhaps, a conduit for creativity—what some writers might call “the muse”—and that energy must be tended, fed, nourished. Actively. You can just sit around waiting or complain when the house elf is away.

How to nourish inspiration? Well, mostly by showing up and working, whether the house elf is present or not present. Many writers talk about how rare it is to feel that wonderful, wonderful flow, “being in the zone,” or whatever you want to call the muse. Most of our work is done without feeling that muse-presence. Say ninety percent. The nature of the muse is to not cooperate with humans, to be on vacation. That’s why it’s a muse!!!

Our work is to cooperate with her, and to not be on vacation ourselves—we’re the writer. She comes when she decides to come.

Best to be working when she arrives, right? Good to use the time to improve skills etc. in between her rare visits.

3. In Page After Page, you mentioned a devastating car accident and being stalked. Have you ever pulled these from your "compost" to write about them? (Will you?)

Thank you for these questions—they are so thoughtful and caring. Thank you for reading my work in this way.

I wrote about being stalked in an essay that was published recently in The Sun magazine. Some of the events around the car accident show up in my memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know. I think about both of these parts of my life often.

In writing about trauma, my aim is to connect the reader to parts of herself or himself that might be just out of reach, or in shadow. I don’t want to write about trauma any other way. I don’t want to recount the difficulties of my life by way of saying look at me!

But it’s really challenging, in memoir, to make that contract with the reader, and have it be about her, and not one’s own ego.

4. Did you have a book or books that you went to for writing help? Did any of these inspire you to write Chapter After Chapter?

Shelves of these books! Rafts of these books. So many that my husband said one day: have you considering not buying more of these kinds of books, and writing one instead? It was actually his idea.

Of course I was inspired by Bird by Bird, and also the wonderful Barbara Euland. I also love self-help books, with short chapters and take-aways. Life lessons. I gobble these books—Louise Hay, SARK, David Whyte.

In terms of writing craft, my earliest influence was Janet Burroway, my teacher and her textbook, Writing Fiction. Julia Cameron was another influence—I wanted to write a kind of Artist’s Way that was not so time consuming to practice!

5. Is revising and editing something you enjoy? If not, how do you stay motivated? If it is something you enjoy, what is it about revising and editing that you like?

I write a lot about revision (I call it “re-seeing”) in my textbook, The Practice of Creative Writing. I have a whole chapter with various techniques writers can try. I don’t separate out writing and re-writing… they come from the same mind-focus, the same heart-center, the same intention, don’t they? I think the writer has to be deeply in the piece, concentrating and not forcing anything, able to read it as the reader will read it. It’s a habit of mind that takes some practice, but really works. I do a lot of a phone work with my private students, one-on-one, and we spend a lot of time practicing this special focusing technique which isn’t revision or writing, but a particularly focused kind of being and seeing.

It’s not easy but it’s simple—do you know what I mean?

So I call writing working. Do I enjoy working? I really do. It’s not always easy to get to the desk—there’s always one thousand other things to do. But when I’m at work on a new essay or chapter, I am always shocked I made such a big drama about getting to the desk.

Editing I do mostly with my writing partners or editors. With my partners, we trade pieces in the later stages of finishing and help each other sound out tinny sentences, clear up murky passages, sharpen openings and endings, and so forth. I enjoy the communal aspect of the editing process—writing can be so lonely. Editing is a whole different mindset from writing/reseeing. Do you think so, too or do you see it differently?

6. How do you keep from becoming overwhelmed sometimes by the sheer size of the project of writing a full-length novel?

I work by a timer. I write in 45 minute segments, with 15 minute breaks. I’m religious. I keep my book project in a big three ring binder, and I guess all the negative emotions—overwhelm, fear, dauntedness, confusion, laziness—are always there, in the room, but I work to corral them, like unruly kindergartners, and keep them out of my hair for 45 minutes at a time.

I’m good at assignments (thirty years of teaching!) and can usually break the day’s work into manageable chunks. I know what I can do in 45 minutes and what I can’t do, and I can usually—not always—assign myself work, so that I am moving forward and not freaking out too much.

I can say this—in the service of being totally honest. It’s really hard for me to work on a large project unless I have larger chunks of time (say four hours a day for many many days in a row). I wish it were otherwise.

7. My writing sometimes spills onto the page in pure, elegant genius, but I go back later and find it has turned to sludge. Have you had that experience, and how do you suggest I overcome it?

Lynda Barry: resist the urge to judge what you have just done as good or bad.

I teach and practice a process-based approach. We’re less interested in genius/sludge discernments, and much more tightly focused on practicing a very specific technique, following an ultra specific aim, and observing as much as we can about the process itself.

Many writers aren’t very good judges of their own work, I find. And, in revising on a computer, I see a lot of my students writing way too fast and erasing way too fast. Writing by hand, being clear about your intention for the writing session—rather than just spilling onto the page—there are a number of ways to set up precious writing hours for positive outcomes, and avoid the push me pull you of genius sludge.

Slow down. Work by hand. Prepare. Know your intention before you begin….plan it to be good.

8. How are your directives to "read 100 more books" or to "read X number of books in your genre and Y number of books on the craft before starting to write any different from the millions of other excuses would-be writers use to put off the actual job of writing?

I see an excuse as something that is fear based, something that carries you away from the focus of writing mind, and obscures and delays your work. For me that would be: socializing, Facebook, laundry, re-organizing the linen closet. For you it might be different.

Learning is a crucial part of being a writer, isn’t it? It has been for me. A curious mind and an agile skill set—it’s vital to nourish our craft. I work with a lot of writers who simply haven’t been reading enough in order to make breakthroughs on their own. So, a teacher can help a lot. If you are working on your own, the writers who’ve come before you are your teachers. If you read a shelf of books like the one you are wanting to write, I think you will internalize many principles of structure and style, and come away, also, with a good sense of what you don’t like, what you don’t want to do. For me, reading is always, always, always time well spent. I’m careful about what I read. And I’m taking notes. As I’m working, I’m often consulting books. They are my true guides.

I work with a group of poets, and our classes are devoted to close reading poetry, and then they go off and write poems, prompted by what we learn from the masters. I suppose I see reading and writing as partners for life.

9. In chapter 16: Wise Guides, you recommend choosing six books to guide the writing process of a novel. What do you think of adding movies/shows or music as wise guides?

Brilliant. And I’m so curious which ones you are thinking of. I love the work of Robert McKee and he is so helpful on this front. Highly recommend.

10. You mention going to conferences in Chapter 11: Once Upon a Whine, do you think there is a "right" time in an author's writing life to attend a conference? At the beginning, middle, or end of a project? What kind of conferences would you recommend - small, middle-sized, big?

I think a conference can be good at any stage and the size you choose might be more dependent on funds and accessibility. Poets and Writers is a good place to search for writing conferences. I’m teaching at The Sun’s conferences in North Carolina and Esalen this year, if that is by chance of interest. It’s a very low key, very supportive environment. There are so many to choose from.

Thank you so much for reading my work!

message 2: by Chrys, Book Club Moderator (last edited May 15, 2017 08:37AM) (new) - added it

Chrys Fey (ChrysFey) | 226 comments NOTE: The "topic" has a limited character space. I couldn't fit these two questions. So here they are! :)

11. I've wanted to be a writer since early childhood, and I carried writing notebooks around with me and often worked on stories in lieu of running around at recess. My peers quickly noticed and took it upon themselves to point out how strange I was at every opportunity. Though it was a struggle, I didn't let this judgment crush my dreams of being a writer. What advice would you give to young people who dream of being writers but encounter discouragement or disdain from peers or family members?

Usually, writers are held up as special. In my experience, the “writer” in the classroom is respected, revered. There are so many ways now to find positive community—online, at the library, at bookstores, etc.

An artist uses negative energy as motivation. An artist finds her community in other artists.

I’m having a hard time imagining anyone discouraging a writer or an artist though. I’m sorry.

12. Thanks, Heather, for the opportunity to ask you specific questions. I'm only several chapters into "Chapter by Chapter," so my apologies if this is something you cover later in the book. Do you have any tips on how to mentally get in a writing mindset when you're stressed out from life (like a full-time job that wakes you at night, etc.)?

Very hard to do. I’m so sorry you have this stress. Page After Page has a little on this, if that is helpful. And my textbook has chapters on this too, if that is helpful.

message 3: by E.Michael (new)

E.Michael Helms Good questions (thanks to all who submitted, especially those chosen), and sound answers/advice. Enjoyed it! :-)

message 4: by Liesbet (new) - added it

Liesbet | 5 comments Great interview! Thank you, Heather, Chrys and all the questioners!

Tyrean | 5 comments Wonderful interview! Thank you, Heather and Chrys!

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