How did you become a writer?
First, I became a reader, and other than writing every day, reading is the most crucial part of being a writer: always be a reader. I learned to read by following my grandmother's finger from word to word as she read my favorite books to me when I was a child. The magic of the moment when I realized that the word she said corresponded with the word printed on the page is still vivid. The combination of words and pictures sunk deep, and some time later, I realized I wanted to provide the same fun and wonder to others, so I began writing.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Anybody as old as I am has thousands of influences, but I can list a few. In poetry, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Robinson Jeffers, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (really the first to electrify me with a poem), William Stafford, Naomi Shihab Nye, Diane diPrima, Jim Harrison, Ted Kooser, Dorianne Laux, damn near every one of the Metaphysical Poets, Gary Snyder, and Lew Welch (by far the poet I most admire, mainly for his fierce work and for his ferocious devotion to his craft).
In fiction, influences include Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Lee Child, Robert Parker, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Herman Melville, Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac, J.K. Rowling, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and this list includes only those whose works I re-read for the sheer joy of the story and the sentences.
In non-fiction, influences include Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, Aldo Leopold, Loren Eiseley, John Muir, and, of course, the greatest of all, Henry David Thoreau.
When and where do you write?
I write early in the morning--before I do anything else--for an hour starting sometime between 5:00 and 9:00, depending on the day of the week and my work schedule. I wind up my Lux Minute Minder to 60, and I put an hour to work for the work. From where I sit, I have a view of carved green mountains, palms, pines, and papaya trees through windows on three sides, and I use the view to trip over a topic. Once I start, I hear neither wind chimes, barking dogs, or rumbling engines, and though songs from a few birds can break my concentration on occasion, the ticking of my Lux Minute Minder brings me back to the work.
What are you working on now?
Concerning composition, I wish could be specific. I write frantically from the moment the Minute Minder starts ticking. Usually, I get a poem; sometimes, I get a piece of a story; occasionally, I get a bit of non-fiction. Often, whatever I get requires returning to that piece on subsequent days to complete a draft. About half the time, I write but get nothing useful; that gets tossed. The drafts of the week are reviewed on Saturday, often revised and assembled into something interesting.
Concerning poems, I work on submissions every Saturday. Last year, I published my four hundredth poem, the result of persistence, close reading of magazines, and careful attention to choosing venues for my work.
Concerning poetry manuscripts, I have two manuscripts of poetry circulating, A Million-Dollar Bill and Even Further West (focused especially on experiences in the islands).
Have you ever suffered from writer's block?
Tough question: I've had long patches in my life when I wasn't writing, but I wasn't interested in writing then either. I've also had long patches where I wrote nothing worth keeping. I'm in one now. I don't really think of those as writer's block. On the other hand, I've tried to write about some topics and events with no success; the words flowed fitfully or fine, but yuck, I couldn't focus on the subject at hand. I can't say I've ever sat down for a regular writing session and not written, but I am fairly lucky in that I tend not to expect much, and I'm willing to toss trash when I write some, so I usually get more useful material than I anticipated. I don't fear failure (much), so I'm willing to try nearly anything in writing. Of course, the best part is that I get to dispose of my failures without showing them to readers. My friend James nicknamed me Reckless, and in composition, I try to live up that name.
What's your advice to new writers?
Read. Read. Read. Fear no influences. Read so much that your influences flow together and merge with each other and your words so thoroughly that your voice emerges strong and clear, tinted and tempered with the literary conversation of all of the great writers you've read. Then, read more. If you can manage humility, do. If not, good luck.
Eric Paul Shaffer is author of five books of poetry, including Lāhaina Noon; Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen; and Portable Planet. More than 400 of his poems have appeared in more than 250 local and national reviews as well as reviews in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Scotland, and Wales. Shaffer received the 2002 Elliot Cades Award for Literature, a 2006 Ka Palapala Po'okela Book Award for Lāhaina Noon, and the 2009 James M. Vaughan Award for Poetry. His first novel Burn & Learn, or Memoirs of the Cenozoic Era was published in 2009. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Honolulu Community College. Shaffer will join the poetry faculty at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference in Wyoming from June 25-27, 2015.