How did you become a writer?
I had a wonderful English teacher when I was sixteen, and she used to give us the weekly homework assignment of going out somewhere and observing people and writing one- or two-page vignettes about them. Not short stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, but little slices of life. I immediately heard that as an invitation to eavesdrop on strangers, and that’s what I did. Anywhere I went, I was listening in on people’s conversations and writing them down in a notebook. No one paid any attention to me, so I got away with it. I would then pad all that overheard dialogue with physical descriptions and mannerisms. It was a very enjoyable activity, and my teacher was encouraging, so I kept at it and eventually started writing stories about characters I’d invented as opposed to observed.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I was given The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain on my sixteenth birthday (I still have that copy, inscribed by my grandparents), and I read the whole thing and was blown away because I had no idea that short stories could be so much fun to read and be so funny. With the help of some great teachers in college, I discovered writers like Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, S.E. Hinton, James Baldwin, Truman Capote and Willa Cather. Raymond Carver was a big influence. J.D. Salinger, of course. Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Edmund White. I was lucky enough to be a student of Jerome Stern’s when I was an undergraduate at Florida State. He would always have you come into his office after a workshop, and you’d sit down with him and your story and walk through it sentence by sentence. It might sound daunting, but it was extremely helpful. I loved hearing what I was trying to do and how it wasn’t working.
When and where do you write?
I write at home. Sometime I write outside of home but not in public. Not in a coffee shop or any place like that. For one thing, I can’t stop eavesdropping. For another, I find writing to be a very private activity, and the idea of being observed while doing it seems awful and counterproductive to me. There used to be a little Italian bakery in my neighborhood with a back seating area that was usually empty and quiet, since most of their business was take-out, and I’d go there sometimes and work. But that place closed. Unless I’m revising, I usually only write in the first part of the day—early morning. If I’m revising, I get more mileage out of the different parts of the day.
What are you working on now?
A novel. (Can I leave it at that?)
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
No. I don’t believe in it. I think things get in the way of writing, and sometimes one of those things is me, my confidence, the level in my creative fuel tank. But I don’t believe in being creatively blocked. If I believed in it, I’d probably find a way to suffer from it.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
William Styron once said to a group of us that if you truly want to write, you have to set up your life so that you can write. Meaning, do what you have to do to create a life that facilitates writing—even if that’s only for an hour a day.
Paul Monette, in failing health and not long before he died, told me to keep writing because the good stuff would come to the surface. That was such a simple and wonderful idea to plant in my head as I wrote story after story and novel after novel, one unpublished manuscript after another.
I also like this quote from John Irving: “If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” So many writers, I think, are afraid of finding the courage to write, because then it means they’d actually have to do it. And that means having to risk “failing” at it. Impatience and bitterness and distraction are far more attractive to a lot of aspiring writers than actually writing.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Write because you enjoy the act of writing, not because you want to get published. Of course you want to get published, and you should pursue that, but it shouldn’t be why you write.
Patrick Ryan is the author of The Dream Life of Astronautsand the linked short story collection Send Me, as well as several novels for young adults. His work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Tin House, One Story, Crazyhorse, Tales of Two Cities,and elsewhere. He grew up in Florida and lives in New York City.