How did you become a writer?
My first published piece (when I was 8) described how I wanted to go to the Louvre and see the paintings. The next year when we were asked to write a color poem I wrote three. In junior high I loved making illustrated reports about countries, the human body, plants, etc. I still have my human body notebook and am surprised by how substantial it is. I wrote for high school and college newspapers and literary magazines; in my twenties I worked in a variety of capacities for small California publishers. I also wrote some freelance articles. I wrote too slowly to be a journalist but writing profiles of writers, artists and craftspeople taught me how to march through a paragraph and allowed me to follow my curiosity about how people I admired made their lives.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
My father loved stories, jokes and composing light verse for special occasions; my mom carefully edited my early writings; my mother’s father and I exchanged weekly letters when I was young. Both my parents read aloud to us. I vaguely remember making up sequels to The Wizard of Oz with a friend, and then being surprised a few years later to discover there were sequels when my mom started reading them to my sister. My writing was intimately connected with people I loved and trusted. (I still believe that editing can be an act of love as well as refinement.) I was also blessed with an extraordinarily English teacher my senior year in high school and several excellent literature and journalism professors in college.
There are too many books to list here but I have been especially inspired by what I call lyrical nonfiction which includes much nature writing as well as the letters and journals of artists like Paula Modersohn Becker, thinkers like Thomas Merton, essays by Ursula le Guin. I have also been tremendously influenced by the clarity, simplicity, and urgency of visual artists from ancient anonymous cave painters to Giotto and Fra Angelico to Japanese calligraphers.
When and where do you write?
I write in notebooks, I write on the computer. I think of myself as someone who writes best in the morning but it is not always true any more. I am almost always looking at a tree outside the window when I write. In my old house it was a palm, now it is my neighbor’s redwood.
What are you working on now?
I have several pots on the stove. I am exploring how to turn my exhibit Befriending the Imagination which features children’s art and writing into a book. I am slowly working on short pieces about time and the rhythms of beauty, as a companion to my book Notes on the Need for Beauty. Many of my paintings feel like poems, and I am listening deeply to discover the words that go with the art.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I suffered from feeling like I don’t write enough until I recognized that what matters most is that I write when I have something to say. Sometimes I need to descend into a state almost like boredom to be quiet enough to hear what wants to be said. I am also a visual artist. When I’m making art, I often feel like I’m not writing enough (and vice versa.) When I was trying to resolve the introduction to my last book, I noticed that I was not only weeding my back yard but my neighbor’s back yard as well.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Read, walk, learn the difference between waiting and procrastination, listen for the questions under your questions, pay attention to your dreams. Learning a foreign language is a great way to discover the English language. Sometimes it is better to work in a field adjacent to your writing. Sometimes to do something completely different.
J. Ruth Gendler is the author of three books which include her art work: the bestselling The Book of Qualities, the award-winning, Notes on the Need for Beauty, and the anthology, Changing Light. The Book of Qualities has been in continuous print since 1984, quoted in sermons and speeches, used as a writing exercise with students from rural 2nd graders to Yale English majors and translated into several languages. In 2007, Lineage Dance Company premiered Beneath the Skin, based on Qualities, at the Pasadena Arts Festival and invited Gendler onstage to draw with the dancers. Gendler’s art work, including paintings, drawings, and monotypes, have been exhibited nationally and featured on the covers of several books in the United States and Asia.