What does it mean/suggest for you to think about your writing as a craft that you can grow as a writer? How do you do that?
Thinking of creative writing as a craft brings it down from lofty notions of art and anchors it in the reality of hands-on work. Like other forms of craft, writing improves with practice. There are definite and deliberate tricks of the trade worth putting to use. Each time I perform the works of the craft—the putting together of a sentence, the structuring of a story, the building of characters—I gain practical skills. Plus, I benefit from observing masters and asking them to observe me, which is also a time-honoured tradition of those who recognize the value and beauty of craft.
What memorable or formative experience around learning to write springs to mind?
A couple years ago, I was in an intensive ten-month fiction workshop. For the most part, I chose to share pieces I believed were already working, but I learned the most from sharing a story I had given up on. Since I did not know how to fix it, I was open to all suggestions, and I made a commitment to myself to try everything. Within days, I’d found a new way to tell the story. I rewrote it, cutting the length by 1000 words, and ending up satisfied with a story I’d been ready to set aside permanently. When I revise now, I try to return to that attitude of openness and humility.
What specific incident incited/inspired your last piece of work (of any form or length)?
My most recent collection of short stories is about women at mid-life and their relationship with their bodies. I used to work at college and I’d exercise every day at lunch. The staff locker room did not have change stalls. We took off our clothes in front of each other. I could not help but notice how many women did not accept themselves or focused mostly on their imperfections. Plus, there was a dynamic created by the observations, spoken and unspoken, from others. I began to obsess over the possible stories and to envision a collection.
What writers (or artists in other forms/media) have been formative in shaping how you write? How?
When I first started writing, I’d look to novelists and short story writers as examples of what I wanted to be, but I discovered that the writers whose work I admired often did not serve as a good role model for what I was trying to do. In terms of shaping how I write, I get more from books on craft. Each person who shares writing theory gives me something helpful, I put it to work, and then I need to find new sources. So, the writers who shape my work change over time. Most recently, I have learned a lot from George Saunder’s book, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain”.
What emotions do you associate with writing? Or, differently put, how does writing impact your emotional state?
My emotions shift constantly as I write. If I were to name the one most often present, it would have to be mild fear or low-grade anxiety. In the context of writing, I consider this uncomfortable feeling of great benefit. Perhaps I need something to solve, or a discomfort to be calmed, as the reason for writing a story. As for the other emotions I feel when writing, I don’t concern myself with naming them. I only concern myself with the necessity of having strong emotions about the story I am telling. If I find myself telling a story that leaves me cold, I walk away from it and write something else.
When you’re talking about different stages in the process (ie. drafting, revising, getting feedback, submitting work for publication, etc.) …what are the emotions that dominate your thought? If you were to choose a metaphor for each of the steps of the writing process, what would they be?
Writing a story is like preparing a special meal. The first stage is shopping where I look for interesting and fresh ingredients. The next stage is finding good recipes, which is like the outlines I make but often set aside. The real work happens in the kitchen, and it’s a chaotic and sometimes anxiety provoking experiment where I am always aware of time passing and pushing myself to finish, while also knowing I will not leave the kitchen until I make something good. I dislike the frenzy and I wouldn’t live without it. When the meal is on the table, I feel sadness. I am never sure if the meal I worked so hard to prepare will be enjoyed.
What stories do you have (perhaps generative, perhaps constraining) about yourself as a writer? (i.e., What you’re good at or bad at, where you are in your writing journey, etc.)? How have these stories changed or remained the same over time/across different experiences?
Our son died suddenly five years ago. The experience nearly ended me until I committed to finding the things that might sustain me and learning to trust them. Even in the darkest days, I kept showing up at my desk and writing fiction. It was amongst the few things that comforted me. So, when I began looking for reasons to stay alive, writing fiction was the first thing that came to mind. The discovery was profoundly liberating. Until then, I’d been looking for external validation of my work. I don’t anymore. While I appreciate opportunities to be published as much as any other writer, that is not why I write. I write to sustain myself.
What elements/aspects of writing give you pleasure?
I completely adore revision. It can make me giddy with pleasure. If it weren’t so obviously unproductive, I would continue revising forever. The final stages, where the change of a single word or sentence can elevate the whole story, delights me the most. I especially love it when someone else notices a place where the story can be improved and we work together to make it better. It no doubt helps that I make my living from editing other people’s work. Experience has taught me the value of revision and its magic.
How do you deal with aspects of writing that might provoke frustration, doubt, disappointment, etc.? How do you talk to yourself when things are hard?
For me, the most frustrating part of writing a story happens in the middle of the first draft. I’ll have characters and they’ll be engaged in a formidable problem, everything will be ticking along nicely, and then all of a sudden I won’t know what to write. Slowly, I am learning to embrace that moment as a natural part of the process. A formidable problem takes time and a story without a formidable problem is likely not a very good story. So, when I reach that point when it seems there is no way forward, I do research. Often, this leads to fresh insight and a solution. But if it doesn’t, I switch to another story and come back later.
Debbie Bateman is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio and a former teaching assistant in that program. Her work has appeared in Descant, Phoebe, Qwerty, and the “Shy Anthology” published by the University of Alberta Press. Two of her stories are included in “You Look Good For Your Age”, an anthology edited by Rona Altrows, and recently released by the University of Alberta Press. Debbie is currently querying publishers for her first short story collection and working on her second.