How did you become a writer?
In some ways, I think I’ve always been a writer. I wrote my first story when I was six years old when my mother wouldn’t give me money for the ice cream man…and sold it to the neighbors for 25 cents, which in those days would buy a very nice banana Popsicle. I could see right then that writing was going to be a very lucrative path for me—I’d always have all the frozen desserts I wanted! Later on, I became that kid, the one in the corner writing down snippets of dialogue and then forcing my friends to act in the plays I was writing. I majored in English lit and journalism in college (figuring out by then that I’d need to make a living that included money for more than Popsicles), and worked as a newspaper reporter and magazine columnist. But I never got over the desire to write fiction, so I started writing a novel on the side. It took me 17 years, but after that, I was on my way.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Wow, there are so many! I read everything—especially when I’m on deadline supposed to be writing my own stuff. I have a network of writer friends, and we all share our agonies and stories and characters and give each other advice during what we call our “plot walks.” I love Anne Lamott and her down-to-earth advice about writing in Bird by Bird. And John Truby (The Anatomy of Story) has taught me how to put all the elements of a novel together in much less than 17 years! I’m in love with Alice Mattison’s book, The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control and Live to Tell the Tale, which is an entire Creative Writing course in one book!
When and where do you write?
Oh, boy. This question! I am practically a nomad when it comes to my writing life… walking around with my Macbook Air under my arm, looking for a friendly spot where the words might be located. I have a desk and an office at home, but I mostly hate being in there, so I’m often at the dining room table, curled up on the couch, in bed, on the back porch, in the Adirondack chairs outside, or at Starbucks, on Metro North (that’s my favorite office—something about the movement of the train and the fact that I can’t get up makes it my most productive space). I write on and off throughout the day to get my page count, but my very favorite time is the middle of the night. Unfortunately for my regular life, that’s when the scenes play in my head almost like a movie, and I have to get out of bed and hurry to write them down. Sometimes I’ll sit down to make a few notes and then am stunned to see the sun coming up!
What are you working on now?
I’m halfway through a novel that is under contract. It’s about a woman who finds her regular life turned upside down when she unexpectedly (even reluctantly) inherits a house that comes with a whole cast of characters who need her to solve their lives.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I don’t think so, not for any ongoing length of time, at least. I’ve certainly had times when I didn’t know what was going to happen next in my book, and I spent a few weeks staring off into space and moaning and groaning while I waited for the next thing to occur to me…but I’m lucky in that it seems that whenever I’ve been about to finish a book, the next book is right there, taking shape out of the ether, all ready to pull me in.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
To write every single day! I think it was Annie Dillard who said that if you don’t work on your book each day, if you let it go for a while, it turns feral, and you practically need a whip and a chair to get it into shape again. I love that analogy. Also, if you write each day, the book stays front and center in your head, and your subconscious mind keeps working on it even when you’re doing something else. Best of all, you don’t then have to go back to the beginning and read it all again before you can write your new pages; re-reading is deadly for your fledgling book! After all, everything, even War and Peace, would start to sound trite and boring the 3,476th time you had to read it. Best to re-read as little as possible, just keep moving forward, writing little notes to yourself, and know that you can (and will) fix what needs to be fixed when you have the draft finished.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Keep going. Don’t be shocked at how long it takes to get your work to the point it’s ready to go out into the world. Work on it steadily, don’t give up, and know that every writer out there is writing bad first drafts (and slightly less bad second, third, and tenth drafts, etc.) We all want to be writing final drafts first, but that’s not the way it works. It came as such a relief to me to realize that it wasn’t just ME who couldn’t get the words right the first time. Writing gets better through time and through reading and watching how others do it. Read everything, the bad and the good and the amazing. And work to discover your own authentic voice. It’s there, lurking, waiting for you to hear it and pay attention.
Maddie Dawson is the bestselling author of five novels, the latest of which is called The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness, which will be published this month by Lake Union. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut, with her husband. She formerly wrote under the name Sandi Kahn Shelton and is the author of three non-fiction humor books about parenting as well as a novel. She also teaches writing workshops.