Author Interview: Susan Wittig Albert (Part 2)

This is part two of my interview with award winning author Susan Wittig Albert about her book An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days.

Read Part One HERE.

AS: Susan, in what ways has journaling affected your growth as a writer?

SWA: I think here, too, about craft. Over the years, my journals have become not just a place to keep track of and record my daily life, but a place to learn how to do that more fully, more fluently, more lyrically, more interestingly. Journaling makes me more attentive to the smallest things (the color of a redbud blossom, the taste of a fresh peach) and more focused on what is actually happening–skills that a writer needs to develop. Even in my novels, I don’t write out of imagination: that is, I don’t make things up. I write out of lived life, and my journals over the years have become a great resource of captured events, people, ideas.

I should also mention discipline: if you want to grow as a writer, it’s important to write every single day. If you sit down for fifteen or twenty minutes (at the same time every day, if that’s possible), the words and thoughts will begin to come, and you will have something to say.

AS: Do you normally keep a separate reading journal or is it integrated with your daily journal?

SWA: I do it both ways. In 2008, I kept it separate, because there was so much other material to cover in the journal. I included short pieces about the reading where it was an important part of my thinking and feeling, and put a reading list at the end of every month, and as a resource list at the end of the book. This year (2011), I’m integrating it into my journal, because the reading I’m doing feels so important that I can’t keep it separate. I’ve even thought of keeping a separate reading journal for publication–not this year or next (too many other writing assignments) but perhaps the year after.

AS: Near the end of your 2008 journal, you wrote that you intended to reduce traveling for book promotion in favor of blog interviews and promotion. How is that working, and do you feel that decision — especially in regards to reducing the use of natural resources — to have been a good one?

SWA: It was harder to do than I expected. Over the years, I’ve made myself available as a speaker, and people naturally expect me to continue to do that. I’ve had to say no far more than I anticipated and refusals haven’t always been comfortable for me. (That’s been an interesting lesson.) I’ll be doing some book travel in April, when the China Bayles book is published, but I’ve restricted that to Texas, and tried to make the most effective use of the miles (scheduling appearances together, for instance). The auto mileage has shrunk radically, as Bill pointed out to me when he was doing taxes this year, and I haven’t been on an airplane since 2007. I have been putting more effort into online book promotion through the social media–but that’s fun, doesn’t always feel like work.

AS: As a reader, I was touched by and identified with your personal struggle to continue to stay abreast and aware of world events while, at the same time, wishing you could just ignore it and live your life. You wrote: “We have to look at everything, the beautiful, the ugly. We have to see it. We have to bear witness.” Would you say that bearing witness has changed you as a writer, and if so, in what way?

SWA: Our journals are a place where we bear witness to the things we care about. Often, these are very personal, having to do with our relationships, our families, our careers, our lifestyles. That’s why it’s right and very natural to be shy about sharing these concerns with others.

But over the years, as our planet’s situation has become more precarious, a great deal of my journal writing has involved bearing witness, in one way or another, to what is happening in the natural world, in our communities, and in our corporate-dominated democracy. I read about these issues, I try to educate myself as fully as possible as science and politics evolve, and I talk with others, in person and online. These issues emerge in my fiction, too, as readers of my mystery series know. For me, it’s no longer enough to write to entertain.

So I would say that bearing witness, for me, has evolved from personal to communal and planetary. Whether that act has changed me, or whether I have changed and this is the consequence, I don’t have a clue. But these are the things I care about now, and these are the things I think are worth writing–and reading–about.

AS: What advice would you give to those who are just starting to keep journals?

SWA: Write. Write. Write. Write every day, as long as you can, in different places, at different times, in different media (pen/notebook, computer, whatever). Write about everything, not just feelings: write about friends, events, books, films, recreation and hobbies, your garden, travel, health issues. Start a blog, so you can get a sense of the difference between writing for yourself and writing for readers. But most of all, be persistent. Keep reminding yourself that this is a lifetime practice. Some day, when you look back on what you’ve written, you’ll realize that you have born witness to your life. You’ll be grateful.

AS: Thank you, Susan, for sharing your experience and wisdom with us.


READ THE REVIEW of Susan Wittig Albert’s book, An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days.

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