Who Are You?

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

This one’s for those of you who find yourself falling down internet rabbit holes when you should be doing something else.

Set a timer. ⏱ How long is up to you—adapt it to the time you have available. For example, if you have a half-hour of free time, set your timer for 15 minutes.

Pick any real person, dead or alive, and find out everything you can about them. Type their name into your favorite search engine… and go! Click from link to link, but with purpose. In the course of your research, if you find someone (or something) more interesting than your original subject, don’t hesitate to make a detour. You’re looking for a story idea—an intriguing character, an unsolved mystery, a fantastic setting.

Time’s up! Stop researching, set your timer for the remainder of your time, and write, using your research as inspiration.

This exercise can be done any time, anywhere, as long as you have your phone with you, and is a great way to make productive use of time you might otherwise spend aimlessly surfing.

What Sets You Apart: On Valuing Your Own Experience

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When you can’t find someone to follow,
you have to find a way to lead by example.

—Roxane Gay

A few years ago, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TEDtalk called The Danger of a Single Story. In it, she recounts how all the books she read as a child growing up in Nigeria were either British or American. Because of this, when she started writing, she imitated the stories in those books—her characters were white, blue-eyed, played in the snow, ate apples, talked about the weather, and drank a lot of ginger beer—rather than writing stories that reflected her own experience. Her perception of who and what books could be about only changed when she discovered African writers and realized books could be about people who looked like her and shared her experiences.

The danger of a single story is it distorts your perception of what stories can or should be about. If your experiences don’t match up to the narratives you see around you, you may question their validity or even fail to recognize their value at all.

Background Photo: Niccolò Caranti (CC-by-nc)

Background Photo: Niccolò Caranti (CC-by-nc)

When you spend your days online, it’s easy to get the impression that you’re perpetually lagging several steps behind everyone else. Something happens and hours later think-pieces on the subject flood your social media timelines as writers rush to get their two cents in before the news cycle moves on to something else.

“How much thinking could anyone have done in the past hour?” you grumble, as you simultaneously try to process whatever grim news has taken center stage that day and attempt to keep focused on whatever it is you’re really supposed to be doing (cough work cough). You wonder how people manage to churn out coherent words in minutes on events you haven’t even begun to comprehend. (Obviously, they are better at this writing thing than you are. I mean, clearly, that’s the only explanation. –xo, your insomniac brain.) Perhaps a week, a month, a year or longer passes with the topic rolling around in the back of your mind before something clicks and you know what you want to write about it. You open a new document—and then you second-guess yourself.

Hasn’t too much time passed?

What if everything has already been said?

What authority do I have to speak on this subject anyway?

Who’s going to want to read what I have to say?

Why bother?

We’re all familiar with the saying “there are two sides to every story” but two is not even scratching the surface. In reality, there are infinite versions. The versions of the people actually involved in the event. The versions of those who witnessed or observed it. The countless versions of those who heard about it later, passed along via the grapevine or filtered through the media. And layered over those are the versions that percolate over time and are refined through experience. The story you tell in the moment, stuffed with details, is not the same one you tell twenty years later when you can see the big picture.

So you’re a few steps behind the few hundred (or thousand) people you follow on social media. So what? These are the early adopters, the overachievers, the workaholics, the people who only need four hours sleep a night. I mean, that’s why you’re following them, right? Because they’re in some way exceptional. But there are approximately seven billion other people in the world who you aren’t following and who aren’t dashing off essays in the time it takes you to reply to a few emails. Social media gives you a skewed perspective. You start to feel like those few people you follow are “everyone” when they’re really not. They’re not even representative of everyone.

When you actually pause and pay attention to what’s being said, you realize how much of it is a variation on the same theme—a single story told multiple times. This isn’t surprising. We’re often drawn to follow groups of interconnected people. As a writer, for example, you probably follow writers, editors, and other bookish types, many of whom come from similar backgrounds and have had similar experiences. The result is that you end up in a kind of bubble where people are saying the same kinds of things, reinforcing and validating each other, consciously or unconsciously. If your perspective is different, your first instinct might be to hide or downplay that difference to fit in. Don’t. That difference is your strength; it’s what makes your story worth telling.

Why bother writing about something when myriad words have already been written? Because your story has not yet been told.

It’s never too late. Everything has not been said. You may write about anything that matters to you. You just have to find a way in. The key? To figure out what sets your story apart from the ones already out there, and to focus on those points of difference. Even the most clichéd of stories can be given new life when told from a point of view that subverts stereotypes.

Recently I read an essay about the lack of female road narratives in literature. The premise was that the road trip is essentially a quest narrative, and men have an abundance of these to choose from. (True.) Women, on the other hand, have The One Where You End Up Murdered by a Serial Killer. This narrative is so pervasive in our culture that it functions as a single story, drowning out the few exceptions. I’m well aware of that particular single story, being something of a police procedural / crime drama / mystery / thriller junkie, but I hadn’t made an explicit connection between that narrative and my own experience until I started reading this essay.

Years ago, I went on a cross-continent road trip by myself and lived to tell about it. In fact, the trip was completely uneventful. I filled a notebook that summer, one I can honestly say I haven’t looked at since. Since nothing (dramatic) happened, I never saw the value in writing about the experience. I also didn’t give the trip a whole lot of forethought and I didn’t see what I’d done as anything special. I’d gone on plenty of road trips with other people; going by myself wasn’t a big stretch.

But, as I read about how rare alternatives to the prevailing narrative are, I realized maybe it’s precisely because nothing traumatic happened that my experience is worth writing about. Maybe there’s someone out there who needs to hear that story.

Click.

I made a couple obvious mistakes in devaluing my own experience.

I assumed because it hadn’t seemed like a big deal to me at the time, it wasn’t a big deal in general. Wrong. Your life is only ordinary to you. To someone else, it may be extraordinary. We live in a society obsessed with safety and increasingly-ridiculous fears. To step outside a comfort zone is to do something out of the ordinary.

I assumed because nothing negative happened, my story wasn’t significant. Also wrong. Sure, tragedy is a shortcut to drama, but that doesn’t mean every story has to have a sensational event to propel it forward. A “nothing happens” story is more of a challenge to write than one with a built-in plot, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling. And for this particular narrative, “nothing happened” is actually a powerful message.

Because of those assumptions, I never took the time to think about why my perspective was different from the norm—or even to notice that it was. Why did I not hesitate to go on this trip when every cultural message says no, don’t do it, you’ll die? Why wasn’t I afraid? Why didn’t I succumb to the single story despite being a fan of ripped-from-the-headlines crime dramas? These are the types of questions I should have been asking but wasn’t because I viewed my story as unimportant.

Some differences are visible or immediately apparent. Others are buried more deeply within us and take longer to recognize. But regardless, it’s the stories that start from a different perspective than we’re used to that we need more of. These stories can be challenging to write because there is no defined path to follow, but that’s precisely why they are necessary. When you write your own story, you’re giving someone else a map.


Write Through This: Strategies for Writing About Real-Life Conflict and Tragedy

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

The first time I ran across the Garrison Keillor aphorism “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer; everything is material” it immediately resonated with me because it so succinctly summarized how I feel about being a writer.

The upside of being a writer is that it’s impossible to ever be bored. You can write about washing dishes, or standing in line, or watching paint dry. It’s all material.

Another perk is that the best material is often found in the downs of life’s ups and downs. Being a writer means you can actually take perverse pleasure in all the hellish experiences of your life—the vacation disasters, the bad breakups, the medical crises—because as bad as they are to get through at the time, you know they’re going to make a good story later. But while some things quickly go from nightmare to comedic gold—like the trip where the airline lost my luggage and I ended up at a hostel that was straight out of Dickens—other subjects can be trickier to handle.

Your job with the boss and co-workers you can’t stand (think: The Office) might be a rich source of material, but everyone knows that writing about work might get you fired. Writing about family and friends is another touchy subject—as much as you might like to relate the wacky hijinks that ensued at this year’s family reunion, even lighthearted teasing has the potential to hurt feelings. So while writing about your dysfunctional family might seem like a great idea in theory, contemplating the potential repercussions can be enough to cause an epic case of writer’s block.

For other events, it’s not the consequences of what you might write that cause the block, but your own reluctance to revisit a painful event. The loss of a loved one, the battle with a life-threatening illness, the lifelong dream that didn’t pan out—all of these events beg to be written about, but at the same time can be so distressing to revisit that you perpetually avoid doing so.

And while we writers know that risky or heartbreaking material can be the most worthwhile to write about—and the most interesting to read about—if we can only get over our blocks, compounding the dilemma is not knowing how to approach these momentous events. Because the things that touch each of us most deeply are often the same things that impact others, many of these topics (e.g. birth, love, death) have been written about ad nauseum. As such, it can be all too easy to slip into clichés, and it’s not an insignificant concern that you’ll end up sounding cheesy when you’re aiming for profound.

While a straightforward personal essay or memoir might seem like the logical way to approach real-life material, if that’s not working for you, why not switch things up and try something different? Here are some suggestions for approaching difficult topics:

Background Image: Leo Reynolds/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Use a pseudonym. Writing under a fictitious name might be for you if your primary concern is the potential consequences of having your writing connected with your everyday self. This approach is popular with academic bloggers who want to connect with other teachers/professors, but don’t necessarily want their students (or employers) reading their blogs. If you’re serious about keeping your identity under wraps, in addition to changing your name, you’ll also want to leave out (or change) other identifying details: names of other people, cities, schools, places of work, etc. The downfall of this approach is that it can be unsatisfying for readers: the more you leave out, the more difficult it becomes for readers to understand what you’re talking about and connect with your experience.

Keep a journal. A private journal is a good option if fears of repercussions are preventing you from being as honest and open as you’d like to be. Do what you need to so that you can write without censoring yourself: buy yourself an old-school diary with a lock, write “Private! Keep Out!” on your notebook, or password-protect your Word document. Don’t worry that you’re wasting time by “simply” keeping a journal. Natalie Goldberg advises beginning writers to fill notebooks for two years before trying to publish, and while you may be beyond this stage, there’s nothing preventing you from “just” journaling about this particular topic, while still working on other projects for publication. Later, your journal may form the basis of a personal essay or memoir. Or, it may become a project in itself—many writers have published excerpts from their notebooks or written books on the writing process based on their journals. What you write now can always be used later.

Wait. While some people have the gift to write about a traumatic event while it’s happening, not everyone is so self-possessed. When you’re feeling sick or overwhelmed, the last thing you may want to do is sit down and craft a narrative arc. If you’re afraid you’ll forget important details if you don’t write them down right away, a dayplanner is a low-stress way to keep track of events—you can annotate existing reminders and tuck in accumulated ephemera to create a reference you can look back to when you are up to writing about it. Another reason to wait is that sometimes time is needed for context and perspective. Most childhood memoirs aren’t written until the writers have some life experience behind them (Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy, for example, was published when she was 36). A memoir written too soon—without the experience to sympathize with the viewpoints of others in your story—may come off as narcissistic and shallow. Simply being observant and waiting for the pieces of your story to click into place in the short term can result in a story with more depth and nuance in the long run.

Try another medium. Sometimes you know what you want to say—but the words aren’t coming together. Working visually rather than verbally engages a different part of your brain and may make it easier to tell the story you want to tell. You don’t need to be an artist. You can draw, paint, take photographs, collage pictures from magazines… whatever works for you. Comic strips are a natural medium for writers since they bridge writing and drawing, and are amenable to simple drawing styles (see xkcd, for example). Working visually is also an alternative to consider if privacy is one of your concerns. Karen Walrond initially kept a journal-style blog to document her daughter’s adoption and first years of life, but was uncomfortable with the idea of writing about her daughter as she got older. Instead of giving up blogging entirely, she started a photoblog. By posting photos, she was able to continue documenting her life and family in a way that was comfortable for her. As time passed, written commentary crept back into her posts, and the latest incarnation of her blog incorporates both text and photos (which demonstrates that comfort levels can change over time—so listen to yourself and be willing to adapt).

Write in installments. Beginning to write about a life-changing experience can be daunting, but there’s no reason you have to do it all at once. Another alternative is to write your story as a serial—in the vein of comic strips and soap operas—adding a little bit to the story with each installment. Despite Wired declaring blogs so 2004, they are well-suited to this kind of writing. If you blog you’ll probably also end up with an audience, particularly if you commit to a schedule (weekdays, three days a week). This may sound scary at first, but the feedback an audience provides can be a great incentive to keep writing through the hard parts—a big bonus if you’ve had a tendency to give up rather than pushing through when the writing got tough. If a blog seems like too much of a blank canvas, you might try Twitter (you’re limited to 140 characters per post) or join the 100 Words challenge (write exactly 100 words each day)—or set up your own parameters.

Alternate topics. There’s also no rule that you have to stick with the difficult topic exclusively until you finish with it. Give yourself a breather: write about it, then write about something else. These things might be closely related or more loosely tied. Maud Newton‘s blog is primarily about books and writing, but she has been researching her family history and occasionally posts photos and family stories. Anderson Cooper’s memoir Dispatches from the Edge intersperses his own personal tragedies (the deaths of his father and brother) with the tragedies he has witnessed as a reporter. Interspersing personal drama with more prosaic material can also prevent a memoir from becoming too syrupy—and perhaps attract a wider audience. For example, you might alternate revisiting your grandmother’s favorite recipes with your memories of helping her cook, creating something that would appeal equally to people who like to cook and those who are interested in your grandma’s life story.

Beginning at the beginning. Instead of jumping right into the dramatic event, go back—way back—and write up to it. When Madeleine L’Engle’s husband, Hugh, was dying, she wrote Two-Part Invention. The book starts with their different childhoods, then how they met, and progresses through the various stages of their marriage, until she gets to Hugh’s illness. Saving the drama to the end not only eases the writer into it, but has the benefit of creating added poignancy for the reader. If you’re writing about a death, in particular, taking time to build up to the loss gives your readers a chance to get to know your beloved family member so that when you do get to the sad part, they will share your grief—in other words, instead of thinking, “I’m sad for you,” they’ll actually be sad. This recent newspaper story isn’t a first-person account, but uses this technique very well.

Write a song or poem. With poetry and lyrics, you can focus on impressions rather than details—a good option if what’s important is capturing the emotion of the event rather than preserving a step-by-step account. It’s also a good way of dealing with an event that might come off as overly sappy or cliched if you document it exactly as it happened. This approach also allows for readers/listeners to have their own different interpretations of the event depicted. For example, the Spirit of the West song “Goodbye Grace” is actually about band member Geoffrey Kelly’s son who was born prematurely—the “Grace” of the song is a hospital, not a person. However, unless you’ve heard him tell the story, you might have a completely different interpretation of the song, the chorus of which goes: “Goodbye Grace / There are no words I’d rather say / Than goodbye Grace / Never want to see your face again.”

Take an informative approach. Taking a more neutral (journalistic/academic) position may help you to be able to write about a challenging topic. Instead of focusing just on your own personal experience, take the pressure off by seeking out the accounts of others who shared a mutual experience (as with a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane) or who have had similar experiences (as with an illness or loss of a family member). Poet Anna Evans recently had a series of medical issues that she thinks were precipitated by the kind of birth control pills she was taking. Evans is working on a memoir about her experiences, but is also soliciting the experiences of others who have had similar problems.

Fictionalize. Although true stories are the trend du jour, fiction can be just as (if not more) compelling. Inserting a narrator between you and your story can make your story easier to write; it enables you to distance yourself from your own pain and see the story from different points of view. Fictionalizing also allows you to fill in details that are unknown or that you can’t remember without resorting to the dreaded fake memoir, and can lessen many of the concerns that writing non-fiction raises (offending people, potential backlash, etc.). For example, after summering at a law firm, Jeremy Blachman wrote Anonymous Lawyer from the perspective of a hiring partner, rather than a memoir from the perspective of a law student. (Ironically, however, before Anonymous Lawyer was a book, it was a blog that many people believed was non-fiction.)

These alternate approaches can work simply as exercises to get the words flowing—or you may find that what results turns out better than the project you originally envisioned. Ultimately, the approach you take will depend on your purpose for writing and who you’re writing for, as well as what your concerns are with writing about the topic in question.

Final Poll Results

A Surreal Life:
Interview with Stephen W. Simpson

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

“This is a huge honor. It’s also kind of surreal—I started posting my stuff on TC with my tail between my legs, feeling a bit unworthy.” This is how Steve Simpson prefaces his answers to the questions I posed to him in an email interview last month.

A few years ago when Steve a.k.a. Macfisto started posting at the Toasted Cheese forums, he was an unpublished writer working on his first novel—with all the typical insecurities that entails. He soon endeared himself to us with his consistently helpful posts at the forums and by writing a great article about finishing said novel. Eventually, we invited him to join the editorial board. For the past few years, Steve has judged the fall Three Cheers and a Tiger writing contest along with Boots and Ana.

These days it’s hard to imagine Steve feeling “unworthy.” In addition to his day job as a clinical psychologist, he writes two regular advice columns and recently had his first non-fiction book published. Two more are in the works. As if that’s not enough, he and his wife Shelley are also the parents of four toddlers.

Steve’s come a long way since his first tentative posts at Toasted Cheese and we at TC are immensely proud of his accomplishments. So when he said he was looking for a way to give back to the community, we couldn’t think of a better way than for him to share his journey and success with TC’s readers.

Toasted Cheese: I know you’re one of those Mac people. But come on, admit it, PC is funnier.

Stephen W. Simpson: The PC guy is funnier, but I bet it’s not so funny when you have to live with one of those skittish Windows boxes. At our last conference, Rick’s Dell wouldn’t play a DVD he needed to show. I handed him my Power Book and said, “When are you gonna learn?”

TC's Amazon Store TC: What’s not funny about tech snafus during presentations? That’s comedy gold!

Kidding aside, your first (published) book, co-authored with Ryan Howes and Richard Rupp, is What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Sex: A Guide for Christian Men. Tell us about the process of co-writing a book. Who came up with the idea? Did you actually write together or did you each write different parts of the book? I think our readers would also like to know how you found your publisher and how long the whole process—from idea to print—took.

SWS: All three of us came up with the idea, because sexuality is a focus in our clinical work. I already had an agent shopping around another book, and he agreed to represent us for this. Then he went MIA for over three months. He didn’t return calls or emails and then his answering machine was disconnected. I thought we’d been duped. Then, lo and behold, he pops up again and gets us a contract two months later.

We each wrote different chapters, then all three of us worked on making sure everything hung together. At first, I thought working with two other authors would make the process easier. We got the first draft together pretty fast, but after that a lot of, um, “discussion” took place about what we wanted the book to be. We even argued over the cover and title options the publisher gave us. In the end, however, I think the book is better for it. None of us could have written it alone.

The whole process, from the idea to having the book in our hands, took about two years.

TC: What Wives Wish… came out in April of this year. You and your wife Shelley became parents to quadruplets in May 2005. So that means the writing of the book coincided with the first two years of your children’s lives. Tell us how you managed to write a book while parenting four kids under two and maintaining a private practice (and you were teaching Clinical Psychology for a while there, too, I believe).

SWS: By sleeping only four hours a night and mainlining caffeine. We proposed the book before Shelley was pregnant. Though I was ecstatic when we got the contract, it really couldn’t have come at a worse time. I usually started work after our night nanny came on duty around 11 p.m. I read a warning on a can of Red Bull that said you shouldn’t drink more than four a day, but I discovered that it’s no problem if you don’t mind the heart palpitations. At work, sometimes I’d shut the door to my office and pass out on the couch.

Steve_Family.jpgShelley and Steve with the kids earlier this year. By the way, Shelley’s also a psychologist—the kids aren’t going to have a chance with teenage angst!

TC: I guess that experience must have taught you a lot about time management. You currently write two columns—”Ask the Man Shrink” and “God on the Ground”—for Divine Caroline. Tell us about the columns and explain how you find the time.

SWS: “Ask the Man Shrink” is what Dear Abby would write if she were a man and a wise-ass. Divine Caroline is a women’s web site, so the idea is to offer the male perspective along with advice from a psychologist. “God on the Ground” is about finding God in places that you wouldn’t expect. It’s my favorite of the two, but the harder to write. It forces me to pay attention to my spiritual life, because, if I don’t, the next column will suck.

I don’t “find” time to write—I make time. I block off at least two hours every Thursday afternoon. It helps that they’re paying me.

TC: So that’s the secret. Speaking of payment, you’ve already got contracts for two more books. Your second book is about dating for Christian men. Tell us about it.

SWS: A few years ago, there was an “anti-dating” movement in evangelical Christianity that said a couple should remain friends until they’re certain they want to get married. My book is a bit of a reaction to that. It’s also a bit of a con in that the book’s not totally about dating—it’s about identity and self-esteem. A lot of men (and women) believe that love will fix everything. The first part of the book talks about getting a life before you try to get a love life. The last part of the book helps Christian guys—and I can’t think of a better way to say this—have more “game.”

TC: You recently got your third book contract after an editor read an article you’d written about the first year with your quadruplets and asked for a book proposal (very cool!). This one is going to be a memoir. What can you tell us about it? Have you started writing it?

SWS: The working title (which I’m sure the publisher will change) is Quadruplets and Accomplices: Tales of a Cynic Assaulted by Joy. It describes the spiritual journey of someone (me) who starts off passionate about his faith, becomes cynical and disillusioned, and then discovers God again. Unlike a lot of Christian memoirs, this book talks about how difficult it is to be a Christian because it means having a relationship with a God who’s mysterious and sometimes aggravating. Shelley’s pregnancy and the first year with the quads was the pinnacle of my confusion and frustration with God, but then he used the experience to help me rediscover joy. A lot of people who were once excited about their faith become cynical after having hurtful experiences with religion. This book is for them.

I just finished the first draft. It’s due to the publisher the day after Labor Day, so I’ll be rewriting the rest of the summer.

TC: Which of your writing projects (whether complete, published, or in-progress) is your favorite and why?

SWS: So far, this memoir. I’ve had more fun writing it than anything else. I also think it’s a paradigm-changing work of genius, but that’s only because I just finished the first draft. I’ll probably hate it next week. Other than that, my Three Cheers and a Tiger story has a special place in my heart. I remember writing it—it was one of those times when the adrenaline keeps pumping, filling your brain with ideas. It was also my first fiction publication, something I’d been chasing for years. When I got the email saying that I’d won the contest, I grabbed Shelley and started dancing around the house.

TC: The memoir sounds like it shares a lot of themes with your first novel, Playing in the Thorns, which you wrote an Absolute Blank article about finishing in November 2003. Playing in the Thorns was very much a classic first novel, in that it was based on your own teenage experiences. How important was it for you to write that story? What’s happening with that project now? And do you have any new fiction in the works?

SWS: It was very important for me to write that novel, but for different reasons than I thought at the time. It was a bit therapeutic, of course, but it also taught me a ton about writing and publishing. Since I received well over a hundred rejection letters, I learned to keep my expectations low after sending off a query letter. Just ask my co-authors—whenever a publisher would look at our proposal, I’d tell them, “Don’t get your hopes up. It’s probably not going to happen.”

I’m afraid that first novel is quite dead. It has its moments, but it kinda sucks overall. If I ever want to tell that story, I’ll have to start over from scratch.

As far as fiction goes, I don’t have much going on. Over the last few years I’ve had to accept the fact that I’m a better nonfiction writer. That’s my focus right now. But I have notes for a short story I hope to start after I’m finished with the memoir. I love the writing I’m doing now, but publishing a novel is still the big dream. However, I’m not going to try to come up with an idea for one anymore. If I write another novel, it will be because an idea whacks me on the head that’s too good to ignore.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon” you said that both marathon running and novel writing require “set[ting] a schedule and stick[ing] to it.” You must be good at setting schedules: you ran five marathons and finished a novel while working full-time, and finished What Wives Wish… while parenting four toddlers. Tell us about your writing habits. And have you run any marathons since the quadruplets arrived?

SWS: I’ve heard a lot of people say that you need to write every day, but I can’t do that. I need a reason to sit down at the computer, even if it’s just a fleeting inspiration for a short story or an article. Once I set my mind to a project, however. I set aside specific times to work. When I’m doing a first draft, I need chunks of at least two hours. Of course, getting a contract helps. When I’m getting paid something—even if it’s peanuts—it’s easier to give up time that I could be using to see clients. I used to write at night, but that’s a lot harder nowadays. I’m too wiped out at the end of the day to do much more than veg in front of the TV.

Marathons? Bah! Running 26 miles is cake compared to parenting four toddlers. Only recently did I start running regularly again. And it hurts more now! So no more marathons for the foreseeable future, though I’d like to do a half sometime in the next year.

TC: In your Divine Caroline bio, you say your favorite mistake was “parking my car in the wrong place at a U2 concert and then running into Bono and the Edge when I went to move it.” So we have to know: did they say anything to you? (Or you to them?) I know U2 is your favorite group, but what other music do you like? Do you listen to music while you write? What would your “Writing Mix” playlist have on it?

SWS: They signed autographs but didn’t say anything. I was too dumbfounded to talk, so I can’t blame them. As they were walking away, however, I lost control and shouted, “God bless you!” The Edge shook my hand, though. Haven’t washed it since.

Right now, I’m listening to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible over and over. It’s the best record I’ve heard in years. In general, I’m an out of control music fan. I have 7,000 songs on my iPod. When I’m writing, I listen to either baroque music or hard rock like AC/DC. If I’m working on a long section and I know exactly where it’s going, the hard stuff helps me pound it out faster. If I’m finding my way, I don’t want anything too distracting.

TC: Baroque or AC/DC. That is a truly awesome juxtaposition.

In your TC bio, you say you were inspired to write by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Have any other writers inspired you since then? What current writers do you enjoy?

SWS: My favorite writers actually discourage me. For example, I love Robert Penn Warren and Orson Scott Card, but they leave me thinking, “I couldn’t write like that if there someone held a gun to my head.” Lately, because of the stuff I’m writing, I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Lamott. There’s also a guy named Rob Bell who writes about faith from a perspective similar to mine, except that he has about a hundred times more depth and wisdom. Every sitting with either Lamott or Bell includes moments of delight alternating with pangs of envy.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon,” you mention Stephen King’s On Writing. What other resources (books or otherwise) have helped you with your writing?

SWS: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a good resource. Stunk and White’s Elements of Style is good to have on your shelf. Other than that, it’s all Toasted Cheese, baby.

TC: I can’t argue with any of those.

When you wrote your first (vampire!) story in seventh grade your teacher said, “Keep this up and you’ll write a novel someday.” You’ve said that her words “haunted” you, so you wrote a novel. How important was your teacher’s encouragement in terms of your writing? Has anyone else acted as a writing mentor for you?

SWS: If Mrs. Travis hadn’t said that to me, I don’t think I’d be answering your questions right now. It was the first time anyone ever said anything good about my writing. My handwriting was (um, is) atrocious, and that doesn’t go over well in grade school.

I’ve had several writing mentors—Miss Keen, my high school journalism teacher, had a huge impact. Some other friends and professors have been important. But Theryn Fleming [I did not pay him to say this. –TF] and the folks at Toasted Cheese have done more than all of them combined. I’m not even saying this to butter you up or plug TC—you guys changed the way I think about writing.

TC: Aw, thanks. It means a lot to hear that. Now, since I’m a little verklempt, let me turn it back to you.

You have an interesting and varied background: you started college with an interest in journalism, but ended up with an M.A. in Theology and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Somehow you’ve managed to combine all three. There’s lots of advice out there for people writing “on the side,” that is, writing while working at an unrelated day job. What advice can you give people who are trying to combine writing with another career?

SWS: Four things: Structure, patience, passion and being open to feedback.

You need to make writing a structure in your life, even if it’s just a couple hours every week. Anne Lamott says that if you write just one paragraph a week, you’ll have a book in two years. You just have to be consistent. I’ve met so many people who say they want to write a book—and have the talent for it—but it never happens because they don’t make the time. If you have a career, family, school, etc., time to write a book isn’t going to suddenly materialize. You have to be intentional about it.

You also need patience. Expect rejection notices, especially at first. You also have to be willing to write for free. When you do get paid, it won’t be very much. Along these lines, you have to be passionate about writing. It almost needs to feel like you don’t have a choice. A lot of the publishing game is about perseverance.

Finally, you have to listen to what other people say about your writing. It’s great to hear compliments and praise, but constructive criticism is what makes you a better writer. Stephen King says that if ten people read your work and they all have different feedback, you can ignore all of them. But if five of them are complaining about the same thing, you need to fix it.

TC: Great advice. Well, that about wraps things up. Well, except for one final question…

(Steve and his co-author Ryan Howes host a weekly podcast at their website Fun Christian Sex. The week I tuned in, they were bemoaning the lack of hymns about sex. So, of course I had to ask…)

TC: Will you write us a hymn about sex? There don’t seem to be any.

SWS: Actually, Ryan is working on one. At our seminars, he plays a blues song about the traditional Christian view of sex. It’s titled, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

TC: Thanks, Steve.

Final Poll Results