How did you become a writer?
I would have to say that the path to my eventual career as a writer was paved with many, many books and stemmed from my love of reading. Countless worlds discovered on the page, many long afternoons sprawled on my bed, or the couch, or the floor, turning pages. And I always wrote things down. I had a diary and a notebook of terrible poetry. I wrote longhand letters to pen pals and grandparents, and made my sisters sit through scribbled lesson plans in a pretend classroom. In college, I progressed from poetry to short stories, then novels, and now I’m starting to write stories again, along with the novels. And I’m reading some poetry these days. I’d still say I’m more of a reader than a writer, if you really break it down into time spent.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
After a brief stint in junior college and several years working, I decided to go back to school in order to start a more lucrative career. I thought I’d be a paralegal, because I liked books with courtroom drama—the verbal sparring, the vocabulary—and so I started taking classes at a local technological college. Of course, the class I really liked was the entry level English course and one night after class, the professor called me aside to talk about a paper I’d written about a D.H. Lawrence story I didn’t like. Her encouragement set the cogs into motion and soon I decided to study literature instead of law. I think about that teacher often. Authors who’ve had a cataclysmic effect are Kent Haruf, Per Petterson, and Marilynne Robinson, but recently, I’ve discovered Ron Rash, who may become a favorite over time. Favorite book in recent years, which I like to mention when I can: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley. This is a novel that opened doors for me, as a writer.
When and where do you write?
Because we have good-sized family and a not-particularly-large house, my current work station is in a corner of our bedroom. I have a roomy desk, a bookshelf, and good light from a large window. I seldom work anyplace else, unless it’s the kitchen table for a change of pace. I write before the kids get home from school, and when I’m really in the throes of something, in the evening after they’ve settled into their rooms. I used to say “after they go to bed,” but sometimes they stay up later than I do now. And all writers know that writing happens 24-hours-a-day, whether you’re at the computer or not.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on a long non-fiction piece lately, a personal history article about motherhood in all of its forms and particularly, about my sister’s experience with surrogacy. Any day now I’m going to get back to a novel I’ve been stewing over for a couple of years. It’s a love story, I think, but also a story about what it means to be complete. It’s set in the American Southwest and it may have some ghosts in it. The main character is a teenager who sees things differently than everyone around her.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I often feel blocked from writing, but it isn’t caused by a lack of inspiration. I feel blocked by the hectic pace of my current life, blocked by time and the lack of it, blocked by a wall of other interests and obligations. I’ve always had many more ideas than time to work them out. I think it’s partly because I work at a slower pace. I need lots of mental time to ruminate before I start the actual writing. I consider that a form of writing, this “thinking about writing,” so maybe I write more than I think I do!
What’s your advice to new writers?
My advice to new writers would be to return, again and again, to your initial motivation for writing. If you came to it via reading, then keep reading what you love. Write mostly for yourself. Block out the noise of the outside world, at least during the first draft. No one can tell your story, in your way, except you. So do it. Then put on your protective gear and head outside. Develop a tough skin. Not everyone likes every book, and they won’t like yours. Don’t let the outside world into your writing place. Keep that for yourself.
Mary Vensel White’s debut novel, The Qualities of Wood, was published by HarperCollins in 2014. Her short fiction has appeared in The Wisconsin Review and Foothills Literary Journal. She is a contributing editor at LitChat.com and blogs about writing and reading at maryvenselwhite.com. Vensel White lives in southern California with her husband and four children.