Tag Archives: Advice

Stephanie Powell Watts Offers Insight On Her Writing Process During Visit To Widener University

Author Stephanie Powell Watts visited Widener Nov. 14 and 15 as a part of the English and Creative Writing department’s Distinguished Writers Series.

Watts published her debut novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us, with Ecco in April 2017. Described as “an arresting and powerful novel about an extended African American family and their colliding visions of the American Dream,” No One Is Coming to Save Us has been named one of the most anticipated books of 2017 by Entertainment Weekly, W Magazine, Nylon, Elle, Redbook, and The Chicago Review of Books.

In 2011, Watts published a collection of shorts stories called We Are Only Taking What DSC02952We Need. While the reflective quality of the short story is something Watts is comfortable with, the final story in this collection is what inspired her to begin No One Is Coming to Save Us.

On campus, Watts spent time speaking in creative writing and English classes about her books, her writing process, and answering student’s questions. She also individually met with several students in the Long-Form Fiction course for tutorials.

“It’s always encouraging to hear from visiting writers about their process, struggles and breakthroughs,” Jennifer Rohrbach, a senior creative writing and English double major, says. “She gave me great advice about how to round out my characters and ways to develop my overall story.”

Watts concluded her visit with a public reading from No One Is Coming to Save Us, which she began by giving a brief overview of how she’s gotten to where she is as a writer. The visit offered students a great deal of writing advice, one of the anecdotes Watts shared, sparking inspiration in Haley Poluchuck, a senior creative writing and English double major.

Poluchuck says, “One thing that stood out to me was a story about Watts and her siblings when they were young, rushing to clean the house before their father came home. Her argument was that you could get a lot done in ten minutes if you really want to, so we have no excuses not to write. Lately, I’ve been inspired to dedicate at least ten minutes to projects I would have otherwise put off.”

During her visit, Watts was also able to sit down with me for a brief interview, a portion of which appears below:

No One Is Coming to Save Us is your debut novel and We Are Only Taking What We Need is a collection of short stories. What challenges did you face in the transition from the short story form to the novel form?
I think they’re very different genres. It’s not like you just lengthen a short story, it’s not that kind of process, so I found it very challenging. No words are lost in a short story. A novel takes you on tangents. You’re allowed more space, literally and psychologically, to develop characters in different ways. It was a real learning curve for me. I found myself resorting to chapters that resembled or felt like short stories. I tried to open them up, so there is at least something you can hook onto for the rest of the story and also to deepen the psyches of the characters.

Do you find that you write your stories chronologically with a plan of attack?
I’ve tried planning, but I don’t find it very helpful. I find that I resist the plan, but I do sometimes have images. If you do have images or sources of signposts in your story, I would encourage you to write them down, because it helps you figure out some trajectory. You may realize you don’t need it, but first worry about getting the story down. With a short story in my collection, I knew there was going to be a scene in a vineyard, I knew there would be bees buzzing all around. Your senses are overloaded because the grapes are kind of rotting and the bees are really intense, flying around your head. I just wrote it down, wrote everything I could think of, so at some point I knew this scene was going to happen.

In an interview with Karen I. Johnson, you say, “Either you will be a writer and try to present the world in all its flawed complexity or you will stop writing anything more substantive than holiday cards or snazzy e-mails.” What do you feel this means in terms of your own writing and literature in general? What is the importance of this writing or the boundaries it can create?
Especially for women writers, writers of color, people that come from a marginalized community, or immigrants there might be an expectation that your writing is going to be directly about social justice issues and that that is the intention of your writing. I think that’s remarkable and important and that writing should exist, but I think writing, above all, is a social justice. It’s you saying this world and these people have a right to a voice, have a right to exist. Doing that is a movement towards social justice. Just by asserting the legitimacy of the existence of the people that you are representing, you are having a social justice moment. You can’t try to chase a trend. You have to write what it is that you write.

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Moore, please!

Dinty W. Moore recently visited Widener’s campus as part of the Distinguished Writers Series. Throughout the week he met with students who have been reading his creative nonfiction books and essays in class and a shared a few selections from his new book, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, at a public reading on Wednesday. As a published author who has taught creative writing at multiple universities and has been writing for over 30 years, Moore had a lot of insightful advice for aspiring writers, which he generously shared:

1. What’s important about writers is what they say

Every writer has their own voice, “which is going to be different from any other voice,” said Moore. “That is something that can’t be taught. That we have to discover.” He also emphasized the importance of trial and error and repetition for a writer. “Your first draft is you wandering around the page trying to figure out what’s going on.” For him, the first few drafts are the hardest parts of the writing process. He writes the first draft of a book or essay solely to help him figure out what he is trying to say. Only during later drafts, when he understands what needs to be said, does he writes with the reader in mind.

2. You need curiosity to be a writer

To truly discover your own voice and figure out what it needs to say, you have to ask questions. “The trick,” he explained, “is not knowing what you want to say, but to be curious. Have questions. Discovery is starting with a question and working the answer out on the page.” Curiosity about a subject is a quality that all good writers have. One debate in the literary world is if creative writing is something that can be taught. Moore believes so. “There’s a lot about writing—including creative writing—that can and should be taught,” he said. “Students take math so they understand a little bit more about how mathematics works, and students take science classes to understand how science informs the world,” he said. “I think if you take a writing class, and you don’t end up being a writer, it still opens the mind and lets people see how a certain part of the world works and thinks…You can’t teach creativity, but you can encourage it.”

3. There’s no such thing as writer’s block

“Writer’s block is when you listen to the voices in your head that say you can’t do it,” Moore said. The solution? “Talk back to the voices. Say, ‘I hear you, but I’m going to ignore you and write this now.’”

That’s easier said than done. But in his book, Crafting the Personal Essay, Moore dedicates an entire chapter to the idea of writer’s block and how to push through it. You’ve got to “Expect the Negative Voices” and “Expect a Lousy First Draft” (literally the section headings of this chapter), and realize that “the true definition of writer’s block is when the writer gives up.” You’ve got to keep trying. Which brings us to our next writing tip:

4. Persistence

Moore has a busy life teaching, writing, traveling, and just living in general. In order to make time for his writing, he implements the “ass-in-chair” method; he gets up early in the morning, sits down, and makes himself write for two hours a day. It’s not easy, especially for college students, to make writing a part of our daily schedule. For some who juggle classes, work, and a social life, writing can get pushed to the background. Moore suggests that aspiring writers set goals for themselves. “Maybe watch 6 hours of football on the weekend instead of 10,” he joked. But he is right; schedule some time to sit down and focus on your writing. Make it a priority.

Another piece of advice Moore offered is to make a lot of mistakes. “Write a lot of failed poems or failed stories,” he said. “You learn the most from trial and error. It’s like trying to learn how to play tennis. You get out there and swat at the ball and make a total fool of yourself. If you do that for two or three days, you won’t become a wonderful tennis player, but you’ll start to get a little bit of control. Eventually you’ll hit something that goes straight over the net. If you practice long enough you may not become Serena Williams, but you’ll be able to play tennis, and as wonderful and mysterious as the art of literature is, writing is kind of the same.”

If you’re craving Moore, be sure to check out Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals, Moore’s newest book of and on essay writing, available now.

Written by Jennifer Rohrbach

College Orientation for Humanities Majors

And so it’s the middle of June. The mortarboard caps have been thrown in the air, sensational senior week beach trips have been carried out…now it’s time for college orientation season to begin! We all remember that awkward day of bonding games, peppy tour guides, and motivational speeches, but how much does that day really prepare you for what’s ahead, especially as a Humanities major? What advice or tips would you give to incoming Humanities students as their college experience truly begins with orientation day? Comment and let us know…and then go tell that to any recent graduates in your life about how to deal with what’s coming next!