Welcome to week thirty of the #WritersQuick5 series - where we learn about writing from fellow writers.
This week brings you insights and answers from fellow Chicago Writers Association (CWA) member Mary Wagner. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Mary at several CWA events, most recently at this year’s Printer’s Row Lit Fest.
Mary has had such a long and incredible journey with writing, I wanted to let her describe her path to authorship in her own words…
“OMG, what a long, strange trip it's been! I started out writing as a stringer for the second-largest daily newspaper in Wisconsin while I was still in college, and then stepped up to the staff of the largest one after I graduated. Then I married, and became a full-time mom to four kids...but essentially became self-syndicated, writing about PBS programming for a bunch of magazines around the country. THEN I went to law school at the age of forty, and thought my writing days were behind me except for legal briefs. I was WRONG! Friends who realized how much I missed creative writing talked me into blogging, which led to starting my "Running with Stilettos" blog at the end of 2006. The blogging led to self-publishing several essay collections that won a bunch of awards (Running with Stilettos, Heck on Heels, Fabulous in Flats and When the Shoe Fits). And now I've turned my attention to writing a series of books for young readers about a rescue kitten who finds a home in a small-town circus museum. I self-published and illustrated "Finnigan the Circus Cat" in June, 2016, and I expect to publish the next one in November, 2017. Early on when I started blogging, I joined both the Chicago Writers Association and the Illinois Woman's Press Association, and both of those groups have been incredibly kind and rewarding for me. As has the Florida Writers Association--Fabulous in Flats was their Royal Palm Literary Awards BOTY back in 2011, and the unpublished manuscript for Finnigan took first place in its category in their 2016 contest.”
Thank you Mary for this great example of how writing is a part of each leg of our life journey and how varied and fruitful it can be! Mary has a lot more to share with us too…
Let’s see what Mary has to say…
Question #1 - Where do you write and why do you write there?
Over the years that has shifted so often! I have literally been known to scribble essay notes on the back of used manila envelopes in the car when inspiration struck. A couple of years ago I moved from my large empty nest in the country to much smaller digs in the city where I work, and so I'm still mourning the loss of my writing corner in the family room which looked out through large windows over fourteen acres of woods and fields. But I'm now very close to Lake Michigan, and find a lot of inspiration there. I can sit at the shore with a pen and notebook, and the sound of the wind and the waves both crowds everything ordinary out of my mind and sparks new ideas for stories and dialogue.
Question #2 - What is unique about writing for your particular genre?
I should probably be the last person to ask because I usually jump first and think about what I got myself into later. When I was writing for newspapers, the challenge was to be short and concise about complicated situations, and lead with the most important stuff. Then when I wrote for magazines, I had to stretch myself to allow some creative flow and a more sophisticated vocabulary and sneak in actual opinions or personal observations at times. Blogging essays has been the easiest, because it's nearly a stream-of-consciousness process. But writing for kids, wow! I feel like I'm on a tightrope sometimes, aiming for a storyline that a child can follow, but with some twists and turns and grammar and ironic humor that adults would enjoy if they're reading along. Every once in a while my natural inclination is to use a four-syllable word when a two-syllable one would do...and most of the time I leave it in. It does a young body good to look something up in a dictionary once in a while!
Question #3 - What are some of your grammar or punctuation pet peeves?
I think the misuse of "comprise" and "compose" makes me absolutely crazy. And I feel like I'm in a losing battle, when I see the number of established websites and organizations that screw it up on a regular basis. Oh, and I am a staunch believer in the Oxford Comma.
Question #4 - At what point in your writing process do you start to bring other people in to review your work?
Mostly, I don't. Newspaper writing of course has to go through a copy editor, it's the nature of the beast. But the blogging I've done has come straight from the heart, which is why it has been so liberating for me as a writer. I even kept the first Finnigan book very close to the vest. I would run occasional plot twists past my daughter if she happened to be staying with me at the time, but when it came to the writing, I got to the very end before I shared it with just two people. One was a friend who works with young kids, and the other was someone who works with a circus museum. Both had very kind things to say, which really lifted my confidence that I had a created a story to believe in.
Question #5 - What advice would you give to a new writer about the writing process?
Two things, really. One is to sit down once in awhile with a pen and a pad of paper and let the words just flow. I have found in my own experience that what comes out in that linear fashion, when the words racing in my mind have to slow down to the pace where I can put them on paper, can be subtly, or even dramatically, different from what I would type at the speed of light at a keyboard. And the other is to get out and participate in some "live lit." Or even, if your confidence isn't where you can get up and read in front of a group, at least get out there and listen to it. There's so much energy, and synergy, to be gotten from that environment it's truly amazing. Being a writer can be a very lonely, solitary existence, and we can get lost in the existential wormholes of our latest project or our second thoughts about what we're trying to do. Live lit is a great antidote and source of joy and inspiration to counter that! Here are links to a couple of essays I wrote about it, one is about reading an an "open mic" at a place called The Beauty Bar, and the other was at Great Lakes Tattoo for the series "That's All She Wrote."
Thank you Mary for these incredible answers! I love the advice to go out and experience Live lit. Hearing words out loud is such a rich and different experience from reading or writing. I wholeheartedly concur!
To learn more about Mary, please check out her website and her books on Amazon. You can also find her across social media. Follow her on Twitter!
If you would like to be featured as a writer in the #WritersQuick5 series, please just reach out and let me know. I’d love to promote your work as well!
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