Interview with Stephanie Vanderslice: The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life
Stephanie Vanderslice was born in Queens, NY and grew up in the suburbs of Albany. In addition to her most recent book, The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life: An Instructional Memoir for the Rest of Us, named a top writing book for 2018 in The Writer magazine, she has also published Can Creative Writing Really Be Taught?* 10th Anniversary edition (co-edited with Rebecca Manery) with Bloomsbury. Other books include Rethinking Creative Writing* and Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates* (with Kelly Ritter).
Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Arkansas Writer’s MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas, she also writes novels and has published creative nonfiction, fiction, and creative criticism in such venues as Ploughshares Online, Easy Street, Burningwood Literary Review and many others. Her column, The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life appeared regularly in the Huffington Post from 2012-2017.
Welcome, Stephanie. Please tell us a little bit about your book.
The Geek’s Guide is an “instructional memoir” about leading a writing life, if that’s the life you are seeking. That is, using examples from my own life in writing, I talk about how it’s possible for people to write or pursue any creative activity really, that provides them fulfillment.
What inspired you to write this book?
When I first started writing essays about living a writing life for the Huffington Post, I began getting emails from people around the country who said that the essays really inspired them or provided them with some guidance on how to pursue aspects of that life on their own—everything from fitting in writing around a job and a family to what kind of education to pursue. This motivated me to expand that guidance into a whole book using my own experiences. I’m not Stephen King or J.K. Rowling but I’ve managed to sustain a satisfying writing career and if I can do it, so can others.
What do you hope people take away from reading your book?
I hope that people discover that they don’t need permission from anyone to write or pursue something creative—they just need to persist at it and realize that the joy is in the doing. We’re big on gatekeeping in our society—on telling people what they can and cannot do, especially in the arts. Sure, not everyone will win the Pulitzer—compared to everyone writing today, that’s a pretty short list— or even support themselves through writing, but that doesn’t mean we should discourage someone from doing something they love. The only person who should be deciding whether you’re going to be a writer—that is, someone who spends some of their time writing—is you. That said, there are some tips and tricks to finding fulfillment in that writing life, and this book provides some of those as well, well-kept secrets I’ve learned along the way.
What’s your next writing project? Or what can we expect to see from you next?
I’m currently completely revising my second novel from the ground up—when I talk about persisting I know whereof I speak—and working on a couple of creative nonfiction projects as well, experimenting with flash or micromemoir and other forms. I’m also working on a few essays about teaching creative writing—I always have a hand in that as well.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I wrote from a young age, although my handwriting was tortured during a time when that was really important in education, so that was a barrier in school, at least, finding that fluency when the physical act itself could be hard. By the time I got to high school, though, I was over it. I wrote all the time—I wrote short stories and a really, really, really awful novel, and I was also a reporter for the local paper, so I actually got paid for it. I wrote and took creative writing courses in college but even then I considered other careers. Finally, I just couldn’t quit the writing and decided to pursue an MFA and then a Ph.D. and my path was set. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I still struggle with imposter syndrome though; I think everyone does and that’s something that waxes and wanes. Some days you feel more like a writer than others and that’s just life.
Please share a little bit about your process for developing/organizing this/any book. (did you outline, hand write or type, do you use a software program, mindmap, etc.)
My process is pretty nuts and bolts—I’m not so much of an outliner as a lister—I make lists of scenes and topics and then pick whatever appeals the most to me when I sit down to write that day, even if I might be going out of order. Lists help me face the blank page. For better or for worse, ever since doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, where you write a novel in a month by breaking it down into a set word count each day) I don’t handwrite much anymore, because it’s impossible to keep track of your word count that way. Truthfully, I have always loved typing ever since I took it in high school, touch typing is very physical and sensory for me. I know there have been many studies about the benefits of handwriting but it’s typing on a computer keyboard that puts me in the zone. I handwrite lots of notes beforehand and I handwrite my plotting and scene/topic lists, and of course, I handwrite my edits on printed copy. So I guess I do a little of both. I also usually go for a walk or do something physical right after I’ve finished a writing session, which usually gives me ideas on where I want to go next in what I’m working on, ideas I can’t really get any other way.
What’s a bit of writing advice you wish you’d had before publishing your first book, that you now share with others?
Listen to your editors—developmental editors, the people who help you develop your ideas and write with more clarity, and copy-editors, who make sure you don’t embarrass yourself in front of your readers by accidentally writing it’s when you meant its and who attend to the specific details of language. You may not concede their point in every case, but I’d say, eight or nine times out of ten, they know what they’re talking about. Most of the editors I’ve worked with are very good at what they do and take your work to the next level. Appreciate them. Don’t fight them.
What do you enjoy most about the writing process?
Honestly, revision. Drafting is difficult for me. Sometimes I experience “flow” in the process of drafting; but more often, I’m pushing a boulder uphill. But revision—shaping what I’ve already drafted and making it do what I want by playing with structure and language—that’s fun for me. Revision is where I get to tinker with what’s already there.
Can you share any particular website or resource you find helpful when you’re writing?
The SelfControl app really helps me when I’m struggling to stay focused and off the internet—it lets you block specific websites and social media for a predetermined amount of time. Submittable.com has revolutionized putting your work out there; it’s so much easier than twenty years ago when you had to send everything in manila envelopes. And newspaper archives, like the New York Times TimesMachine are a godsend for really drilling down into what was going on at a specific point in time, —whether that was a hundred years ago or ten. I could—and sometimes do—get lost in them.
Thanks for being here today, Stephanie and sharing a bit about writing, and some of what it entails.
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