How did you become a writer?
My first ambition was to be a ballerina (elementary school). Then I wanted to be Robert Coles—go around and interview poor people and tell the stories of their lives (high school). Then I wanted to be a gynecologist, then a clinical psychologist (early college). I worked very hard at writing term papers, but by college had only written one very sweet poem in iambic tetrameter, and one embarrassing play. I had a crisis in college (partly a result of moving from a shack on the beach in Hawaii to a gothic dorm at Princeton and all that that entailed). Keeping a journal saved me. I was rejected the first time I applied to be in a poetry class, but then was taken in when Charles Wright came to teach during my junior year at Princeton. I started to find my voice. In my twenties I wrote short stories and solo dramatic monologues (performed in bad coffeehouses in San Francisco), in my thirties I got a master’s degree in Journalism and worked at newspapers, and since then I’ve written all kinds of stuff—travel essays, social commentary, personal narratives, political news, books on writing, children’s picture books. I am still on the long and twisting path of “becoming” a writer.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)
It starts at home. My parents found us unusual books, read to us, and gave us imaginative space. My father went so far as to send us the Sunday comics and a cassette of his voice reading them when he was in Korea with the Army. Storytelling was honored. I went to Punahou School in Honolulu (Barack Obama’s alma mater) and had unusual writing teachers. They cared about my thinking, they showed me how to craft sentences, they encouraged me, they held me to high standards. My history teacher gave me the only D+ of my life and the only A+. My professors at Princeton, especially Carol Rosen, Lawrence Lipking, and Uli Knoepflmacher, respected my ideas and indulged me when I wanted to ask impertinent questions and explore odd corners of English Literature. And my professors at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism helped me find my place in the world of nonfiction. Influential books: Ring-a-ling (a book of Eastern European songs set to watercolors), Green Eggs and Ham, Eloise, Babar, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, The Pearl, The Sun Also Rises, The Plague, The Poems of Robert Frost, Hamlet, King Lear, Mrs. Dalloway, Lolita, The Ten Thousand Things. Favorite writers: Leo Lionni, Dr. Seuss, Earnest Hemingway, Adrienne Rich, William Carlos Williams, W. S. Merwin, Susan Orlean, Adam Gopnik, Junot Diaz, Anthony Doerr, Jon Lee Anderson, Janet Malcolm. (To name the ones I get the most inspiration from.)
When and where do you write?
For early mornings and weekends, I sit in a huge studio on the ground floor of my house that looks out into the garden. It has an L-shaped desk made by my husband from recovered Douglas Fir, my grandmother’s Steinway baby grand, most of my books, an “ego wall” (a bookshelf holding everything I’ve every published or edited), a bed for naps, a reading chair, and beautiful art. Weekday afternoons and evenings, I also have a small sunny office at the San Francisco Writers Grotto, a community of 90 writers who share a space with 32 offices and some big public rooms. I have just the right balance of solitude, beauty, stimulation, and company. Early mornings are for reading and imaginative musing—sometimes on paper. Late morning till early evening is for work, and the computer: my books, articles, Web site, and email.
I’ve written an essay about “total risk, freedom, discipline,” the linchpins of my somewhat unusual process: http://www.sinandsyntax.com/sin-and-syntax-salon/total-risk-freedom-discipline/
What are you working on now?
I am writing a series of lessons for the New York Times’ Opinionator site on the craft of sentences, as well as preparing a new edition of Sin and Syntax for publication in late 2013. I’ll also write some pieces to complement the publication of my book Vex, Hex, Smash, and Smooch in fall 2012. But I’m also researching for a piece of narrative journalism set in Hawaii and dealing with some hot political, social, and cultural issues. Thinking about an essay for a literary magazine.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
What’s your advice to new writers?
I’ve written an essay with advice on how to break in: http://www.sinandsyntax.com/sin-and-syntax-salon/breaking-in/. If you want to write you have to read and read, but more importantly you need to write and write and write and write. Try different genres, stretch in new ways. Find sympathetic editors and stick with them. Nothing is more discouraging than a small-minded, short-sighted, petty editor, and the world is filled with them. Seek magnanimity and generosity—and pay it back in kind.
Constance Hale is a San Francisco-based nonfiction writer. She is the author of three books on writing and literary style: Wired Style, Sin and Syntax, and Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. Her articles and essays have appeared in newspapers like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Examiner, as well as magazines as varied as The Atlantic, Smithsonian, Wired, Health, Honolulu, and Afar. Full bio: http://www.sinandsyntax.com/bio/