Alison Acheson taught writing for children in the Creative Writing Program at UBC for 6 years and now, through http://www.writerswebworkshop.com, she offers workshops in novel- and life-writing as well as children’s. You can subscribe to the WWW monthly newsletter through the site.
Alison: Welcome to WritersWebWorkshop, Wendy! To begin, how has being a teacher and librarian contributed to your writing?
Wendy: As a teacher I become involved with my students’ thoughts and voices not only through their presence in my classes and my library, but also through their writing. I learn about their home lives, their passions, their hopes, their torments through writing exercises, and when they learn I won’t broadcast their confidences through the staff room or other classes, they relax into honesty. Though the characters in my books are not based on any one student, I get a general sense of what my audience is experiencing and what conflicts they have to resolve, and those transfer to my writing.
I also read the books they care about, and that gives suggests to me not only of what they’re interested in reading about, but what kinds of writing appeal to them. A final consideration— both my students and I hate books that “talk down” to students. It’s a very fine balance to let the reader do the work to put the story together without making it too convoluted for an adolescent reader to understand. My work keeps me in touch with their thinking as they read, and the kids’ reactions help me find that balance.
Alison: How has winning the Governor General’s Award changed your writing life?
Wendy: Winning has transformed my attitude to writing. I was thrilled to be published last April, but my teaching work swallows me up while I’m doing it. Since publishing Fishtailing, I write journals and letters and snippets of ideas, but I haven’t focused on completing a major project. My dream was to one day publish a novel, and in my more stressful moments, I told myself, “Okay, that’s done.” The GG has given me a boost of confidence (and money), as well as a sense of responsibility to my writing. All the interviews and the accolades have made me realise that successful writers aren’t a remote species; writers can emerge from anywhere. I knew this intellectually before, but now I know it emotionally. When readers ask me questions about characters in the books as if they’re real people, I feel a visceral connection, as though our imaginations have somehow clicked. If my first book can do that, I think, I have a responsibility to do it again. It also takes me back to the joy of writing, and reminds me that there are other life options besides being so absorbed in my career. I’m using the money to take a leave from my job next fall and commit myself to a project I’ve started but not developed very far.
Alison: What thoughts would you share with a young person who says they want to write? and to a 40-something who says the same?
Wendy: To a young person: Be as open as you can to “story” as a way of looking at the world. Many of my students tell me they haven’t done anything worth writing about, because they are too young and inexperienced. I remind them of a writer who said, “Nothing worth writing about happens after the age of 15.” The intensity of your lives, the fact that everything you’re experiencing is happening to you for the first time, makes it worth writing. And if you remember that there’s a story in every moment, you won’t be stumped with the idea that you have nothing to say. Secondly, I would advise you to read, read, read, not just the classics or the latest hot titles, but as widely as possible. Don’t apologise for reading Teen Vogue or Bone graphic novels, as long as you reach out for variety. I went through an Archie comics phase, a Harlequin romance phase, a Biblical historical novel phase, a Russian classics phase, a verse novel phase…and all of those reading experiences have contributed to the voices in my head. Finally, a stylistic piece of advice is to be specific. Meaningful generalities are few and far between—if you want to have something worth using later, go for the details, and go for the jugular.
To a 40-something: No matter what your age, you need to keep open to the possibilities of story in our lives. As you get older, you need to find a way of preserving those possibilities. One way is to keep a journal, and set aside a sacrosanct time to write in it. I’ve come across some of my journals in packing to move, and suddenly I’m pulled back into intense experiences that faded into the background as time washed over them. Especially when we settle into a life routine, filled with details of making a living, taking the kids to daycare or soccer practice, visiting the in-laws for Easter dinner, experiences begin to blur. Even if you never use the notes, the immediacy of your experience will remain. As adults, too, we often push our own dreams to the side. Be firm and sometimes shoulder the fact that your family may not understand why you have to disappear into a place to be alone. As adults, too, we need reinforcement and informed feedback. Working with a group of writers, or even a writing partner, can keep you focused and help set those deadlines as well.
For both young and old, the best advice is to keep writing. As long as you write, you are a writer, and writing, as much as basketball or piano, needs practice. You may be developing, but you’re still a writer. You only fail as a writer if you stop.
Alison: Thank you, Wendy. “You only fail if you stop”—good words! We look forward to seeing your new work in the world, too…