How did you become a writer?
I can’t remember when I didn’t write. My mother got me lessons with a retired teacher when I was six or seven years old. Iambic pentameter. I never studied writing, I didn’t even major in English. When I was in college I used to write stories and read them to friends in my boardinghouse. After college I spent my weekends writing. When I was working on a PhD in Education, I spent every stolen moment working on fiction. (I didn’t know about places like MFA programs; there were only a few anyway.) And oh I have read! In the late 1980’s I lost my job teaching second grade (boy that’s a story), and after I stopped crying about that I started writing my first novel. (I had been writing short stories for years.) GRINGA. I had no real idea how to go about it and I wrote 1400 pages for a first draft. But I learned, the hard way.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I have loved many writers. I think in the early years when I was starting to write novels, I especially loved Robert Stone, Philip Roth, Mavis Gallant, European writers like Heinrich Boll and Colette and Alberto Moravia, and “old-fashioned” novels like Marjorie Morningstar and Little Women. Madame Bovary, for sure. Honestly, what I got from others that was important was encouragement—from my husband and my friends, and later from my wonderful agent, Emma Sweeney. I have to say, too, that when I started teaching in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in 1993, it was the beginning of a long apprenticeship, because you can’t teach without digging into what you understand and what you have learned.
When and where do you write?
If you are looking for a schedule/routine, keep looking. Life seems to be a sequence of interruptions. So I write when I can and where I am when the spirit strikes me. It doesn’t matter. I wrote most of my novels during the nighttime because it was quiet and I can’t sleep anyway. I kept my papers (this was before computers) in dishbuckets in the kitchen, along one wall. I have kept journals and I have used scrap paper. I write on anything. Sometimes I see things I scribbled in the back of a book I happen to be reading. I wrote my last couple of books sitting in a chair in the living room with little stools around me topped with books, stacks of papers, and Coke cans. And on the floor, what else? Dish buckets.
What are you working on now?
Well, since I really just finished THE LAST DRAFT within the last year, and then put together SWIM: STORIES OF THE SIXTIES, I’ve been devoting myself to painting. It’s another part of my consciousness. And some traveling. In my head I am writing a novel about two young girls whose parents both die within a month of one another; they are cared for by their grandmothers. The girls have very different ways of going forward. But I confess not much of the thinking is on the page yet. I have a stack of files in the spare bedroom, too, detritus from all the years of summer workshops I taught (which is where the impetus for THE LAST DRAFT came from). I think I am in the early stage of creating one more book, occasional essays on craft. I have two boxes in the closet filled with false starts. But I’m 74, how much can I get done? We’ll see!
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Oh sure. It’s called self-doubt. That is exactly where I am with the novel I mentioned above. Here I’ve written a book about writing novels, and I wonder: Am I up to it? And I look at publishing and all the million dollar sales, and I think: What is going on? Is my time over? What will get this (last, I’m sure) novel done is just the obsession a story is, the need to get it down. The joy of discovering the story, rolling with its evolution.
What's the best writing advice you've ever received?
Ignore the noise. Don’t rush.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Ignore the noise.
Walk a lot.
Just do it. Don’t get caught up in expectations, or slogged down in doubt. Don’t think about writing; write. If it doesn’t make you happy, I don’t know why you would keep at it. Life is too short to create your own suffering. But if you are plagued by thinking about stories, then read, study, write, revise. Look out at the world and ask yourself: What is speaking to me? What do I care about? What needs to get said? What is inside me? Really, Listen to your heart. Study craft: books (there are many good ones) and workshops (a wealth of summer opportunities); and READ! Devour books. At some point, if you want to, find a writing coach or a writing group. I say all this because writing has always been a spiritual and emotional as well as intellectual undertaking. It has always been about the process. If you want to be a commercial writer, you have to ask someone else. You can learn to do that, I think, a lot easier than you can learn to write literary fiction or poetry. It’s a talent.
Oh. Last bit of advice. If writers don’t buy books, who will? Think of it as tithing. And you’ll never have to wonder what to do with your insomnia.
Sandra Scofield, a native Texan, is a long time resident of Oregon and Montana. She has written 11 books, including Beyond Deserving, a National Book Award finalist, and, most recently, Swim: Stories of the Sixties, and The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision. In her sixties she took up landscape painting, and has traveled to Italy, France, and England to look at landscape and art. She has taught at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival since 1993, and is on the faculty of the Pine Manor College Solstice MFA Program in Boston.