The 5-Question Interview: Liz Holzemer

The writer on never writing religiously, learning to stop and what surviving brain surgery has taught her about editors.

Liz Holzemer is the author of Curveball: When Life Throws You a Brain Tumor. She is also the founder of the nonprofit Meningioma Mommas [among her creative pursuits: raising $1 million for meningioma research]. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Denver Woman’s Press Club and Colorado Authors’ League. She has appeared on the Discovery Health Channel and the Today Show, among many many others, and was a “Tim Gullikson Spirit Award” recipient for community service.

MEREDITH: When you received your diagnosis, what happened to your creative voice?

Liz: My creative voice went absolutely numb like the rest of me. To be told over the phone I had a brain tumor was completely paralyzing. When I was informed of all the surgery risks, my greatest fear was the possible reality I may never write again. In fact, it took months before I found my voice again, let alone its creative side. I couldn’t focus on words nor write them as clearly and coherently as I once did. I prided myself on always being an excellent speller, but lost some of that ability. Journaling helped tremendously during my recovery. Eventually, I found my voice again, albeit a newer version of its former self.

MEREDITH: Is the narrative of your physical life—the one tied to your illness and now your wellness—a mirror of your writing life? How or how not?

Liz: I’d say my illness has certainly shaped me in terms of developing that “platform” writers are always told to have. Whether subconsciously or consciously, I do find I’m always weaving some aspect of my brain tumor journey and ongoing experiences into my writing. [when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade alert:] You’d be amazed how you can work brain tumor into all genres of writing, not to mention conversation.

MEREDITH: The brain is about words and language, and you’re a writer. So tell us about your relationship with a brain tumor—your brain tumor—and how it affects the creative process, how it affected yours.

Liz: Even though it’s been nine years since my surgeries, the residual aspects of meningioma are always with me. The major change for me is related to my daily struggle with fatigue and epilepsy. Luckily, I’ve never been one of those writers who religiously write every day at x time of day for x number of hours because I’ve had to accept that my writing is very closely tied in with my energy levels. It almost sounds manic—when I’m up, I crank; when I’ve hit rock bottom—good luck finding a spark of creativity.

There are days when I desperately want to write, but as a mother of two young children, by the end of the day the tank is empty and that is very frustrating. And when I do write, rather than being too consumed with making every word count like I did before my surgeries, now I’m not as hung up on structure and nailing it the first time. [a-ha! alert:] I’ve learned I can’t force the flow—it will come when it’s ready.

MEREDITH: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe?

Liz: Both. Mostly friend because I’ve long since proven to myself that I am still a writer. Like a great and supportive friend, my mind gives me that extra kick or shove I need on the days when I’m really struggling with the creative process or when I hit that proverbial writer’s block wall—I’ve learned to stop. There’s no sense beating my head and forcing the issue.

MEREDITH: How has becoming a voice for cancer awareness changed you as a writer?

Liz: It’s forced me to break out of my genre and comfort zone. I take greater risks. [perspective alert:] I figure if I can survive having my head carved into twice, I can approach any editor even if I get the door slammed in my face.

It’s also allowed me to use my writing to be a voice and convey the message that we are our own best advocates. This is especially true for women who put everyone and everything else in their lives at the top of their “TO DO” lists.

Liz lives in Colorado with her husband, Mark, two children and their lipoma-laden lab, Koufax. Now that Liz is in her forties, she hopes to learn how to dive and drive a stick-shift car. She finally got over never making her high school tennis team and recently picked up her wooden Wilson again. Get to know her better at her website and about Meningioma Mommas here.

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Alexis O’Neill

The writer lets us in on trimming excess, cutting to the chase, pushing through weeds and the strange dichotomy of promotion.

Alexis O’Neill, a multi-award-winning author, is hard at work writing children’s books in every genre. With four picture books published (Loud Emily [about which Publisher’s Weekly (starred review) wrote: “O’Neill crafts a charmer…Emily’s quest to find her place in the world without altering herself in the process, will encourage anyone who has ever felt different from the crowd.”], Estela’s Swap, The Recess Queen and The Worst Best Friend), she’s one genre down and many more to go. Alexis is on the road a good portion of the year doing school visits all over the country, meeting and making fans. In addition to writing for children, she pens a column for the SCBWI Bulletin called, “The Truth About School Visits” and is regional advisor for SCBWI in the Ventura/Santa Barbara region of California.

The Writer’s Journey: Is voice, to you, a constant? Has yours as a writer evolved over the years? Or have you just gotten more confident in using it?

Alexis: To me, “voice” is the [I-get-it alert:] voice of the story that needs telling—not my own personal voice. My tall tale and folk tales have a different syntax and flavor than my contemporary picture books. My magazine articles, of course, are different still. But what has evolved over the years is my ability to cut to the chase of a story. Trimming excess is probably the most difficult part of writing for children—especially in picture books. I love words, but I have to think like a poet and choose the right words (the only words) that will unlock my story. My first drafts always are terribly overwritten. The fun comes in cutting and shaping.

The Writer’s Journey: Why is telling stories so much fun? I ask because I believe it satisfies a need we all have to connect with others. How about you?

Alexis: My family is Irish and Scottish. To us Celts, with a bardic tradition ingrained in our DNA, telling stories is the same as breathing. The memory of our culture depended on shaping facts and emotions through stories colored with sensory images and sharing those stories from village to village. Today the tradition lives in print. And what could be better than having others love your stories and pass them on?

The Writer’s Journey: Do you wait for the muse, or do you see writing as a job to be done whether the muse is in or not? By the way, what is your muse?

Alexis: My muse? She never sets her own alarm, and is very undependable. So, as a full-time working writer, I have to wake up my muse every single day and tell her to get busy!

The Writer’s Journey: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?

Alexis: Wow. Who said creativity is “a natural state”? While I do think that we’re all born with creative sparks that can take many forms, I also believe that creativity is something that needs to be nurtured in order to grow and thrive. We need to try our hands at new forms and stretch out of comfortable habits. I think that the perfect antidote to “stuckness” is to take a class, try a new art form, put heads together with others to solve a puzzle, take a trip, or read a stimulating and challenging book. More than getting “stuck,” I think we get “stopped”—mostly from laziness or an unwillingness to push through the weeds of horrible drafts toward the meadow beyond. And there is always a meadow of green beyond—we just never know how long it’s going to take to get there and are tempted to give up short of the destination.

The Writer’s Journey: As a children’s book author with many books in print, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? Or do you experience them as unified?

Alexis: Here’s the problem. Promotion is a monster that often sits on the heart of creation. Right now, I have countless projects I’m working on. When story creation is in full gear, I’m in the zone and on a high. My heart races. I write lines in a rush of “Yes! That’s it!” I’m excited. Pure joy! I lose track of time. I have lots to tell my husband at the end of the day. I can’t wait to get back to the story. But then as I reread my story, the promotion monster whispers in my ear, “Will it sell? What’s the hook? Who will buy this? It’s a nice story, but is it a necessary story?” That monster is always lurking. I know he’s necessary to the success of my works, but it doesn’t make me any happier to have to share a room with him. So I have to feed the monster a bit, then hush his voice and get back to story-making for the pure joy of it.

Alexis lives in Simi Valley with her husband, David (an airplane-building, computer-savvy, good-natured  writer and-cat-loving guy) and his very huge extended family (but not all in the same house or no writing at all would ever get done!). Act like family over here.


The 5-Question Interview: Greg Hardesty

The writer gets to the point about tension, narrowing in and finding a story just about anywhere.

Greg Hardesty
is a staff reporter for the Orange County Register where he often must turn around stories quickly and make them interesting, relatable and memorable. But a personal essay he wrote earlier this year about his teenage daughter’s astronomical tally of text messages–14,528 in a single month–not only landed him [and his daughter] on Dr. Phil and Rachel Ray, it had colleagues the world over writing about him. Greg teaches journalism at California State University, Fullerton. He is also a distance runner [of very, very long distances], and I was interested, among other things, to hear how the sport [passion] nourished his creativity.

The Writer’s Journey: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth following? Is there a telling moment for you?
Greg: Oh yes—a bell goes off when, more than anything, I feel a strong sense of curiosity: How did this person do that? What does this person’s wife/husband/child think of this? A key ingredient in any good story is a sense of tension or of a person overcoming odds or an obstacle, or a person with a reasonable amount of complexity; someone with shades of gray instead of black and white.

The Writer’s Journey: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe? What’s his/her/its voice like?
Greg: Oh, it’s a friend—but one with a very demanding sense about what holds interest. My friend has ADD and if I can’t grab your attention at the beginning of the story, I am dead. My friend inside my head demands that a story be as interesting as possible. [dig this alert:] If I, the writer, am bored, the reader will have no change. My friend usually says, “Think cinematically. Think of the most compelling scene, and go from there.”

The Writer’s Journey: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck? How do you overcome “stuckness” if you encounter it?
Greg: I reinterview people when I feel I do not have enough material. I go over notes again and again. [wow alert:] I rarely get stuck. There’s always some way to get into a story. The challenge really is, what is the most interesting way? To overcome stuckness, I walk away from a story and do something else and come back to it with a fresh mind/eyes.

The Writer’s Journey: Jackson Pollock said, “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.” Using his model for creation, how do you, as a feature writer and reporter, let a story come through?
Greg: It’s sort of an instinctual process. I let the person or subjects of the story rattle around in my head for several hours while I do something else. Then they usually speak to me in the sense that a clear picture of the essence of their story emerges, and then a specific scene that makes the essence of the story clear.

The Writer’s Journey: You’re a (long) distance (trail) runner. Does running fuel your writing? Can you describe what fuels your writing, if not, or in addition to running?
Greg: Running fuels my mind and spirit and absolutely helps my writing. It forces me to live in the moment, which makes me a more attentive person when I do an interview and allows me to focus more sharply when I review notes and sit down to right. Running supercharges my mind with a flood of endorphins and all that energy allows me to bust through the color and narrow in on a subject, much like I narrow in on where my feet land on the trail.

Greg lives in southern California in a canyon where it’s hard to get a cell phone signal. He was out running at the time this went live. Get to know him here: http://www.ocregister.com/articles/text-phone-texting-2275269-bill-daughter

The 5-Question Interview: Bill Squier

The writer contemplates hooks, indistinguishable voices and indulging at the beginning.

Bill Squier is an award-winning musical theater writer who says his proudest accomplishments include writing an Off-Broadway play, a musical for Disney World and an essay that appeared in Newsweek. He’s won numerous grants and awards, including an Emmy for Unusual Phenomena. Together with Jeffrey Lodin, creative work ranges in style from traditional Broadway sound to songs that are eclectic and contemporary.

The Writer’s Journey: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Does it scare or excite you?
Bill: As a musical theater writer, I’m always on the lookout for stories that will benefit from being told through a combination of scene, song and movement. One of the way that I know I’m onto something is when ideas for songs seem to jump out of a potential project. That can be very exciting. In general, though, rather than feel scared or excited, I’d have to say that I look for a story that will fully absorb my attention–really suck me in. That’s when I know that I’m at the beginning of a writing project that will be worth pursuing.

The Writer’s Journey: Do ideas come to you in words or images, sounds or something else?
Bill: I look for hooks. In musical theater terms, a “hook” is really two things. First, it’s literally the title of a song–a repeated phrase that distills an aspect of the story that you are trying to tell: an emotion felt, a change of attitude, an advancement of the plot, etc. Second, it’s the organizing principle on which you “hang” specific moments in your story–the themes that help you to determine what to keep and what to edit out. The best hooks in any musical manage to serve as both of those things at once. For example, the opening number in “Oklahoma”: “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” tells us a lot about how the character of Curley is feeling at that particular moment (upbeat, playful), what his attitude about life is like in general (optimistic) and it sounds one of “Oklahoma’s” themes (America is on the verge of something new)–it accomplishes a lot in the first 2-1/2 minutes of the show!

The Writer’s Journey: How did you know when you found your voice? And once you found it did you trust it immediately?
Bill: Many of the projects that I work on involve collaborators. I don’t write music, so there’s always a composer. Rather than develop a distinct voice, much of the writing that I’ve done has involved figuring out how to make my voice indistinguishable from those other the writers. That’s the only way that a musical theater piece involving collaborators can work as a whole. One of the delights of working in musical theater, however, is that I also get to adopt the voices of the characters that I’m attempting to bring to life, in both their dialogue and their lyrics. That opens up all sorts of possibilities for work that feels, to me at least, authentic and unique. It can be a slow, painstaking process to accomplish all of the above. But, once I do, I know it and trust myself to continue on successfully.

The Writer’s Journey: When you write and compose does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what others would? Do you think about pleasing the crowd when you’re first beginning?
Bill: I have to say, quite selfishly, that I write to please myself in the earliest drafts. I’ve never been able to sit down with the intention of writing a “crowd pleaser.” I tend to lose interest in projects like that far too easily. Fortunately, since most of what I write is intended to be performed live, I get to spend time with the audience for my work. There are plenty of opportunities to adjust the material so that it appeals to the widest possible crowd–or not, depending on the piece. So, I feel that I can afford to indulge myself at the beginning. All that said, there are certain rules of musical theater that generally need to be honored (like not having the same character sing three power ballads in a row!) These are kind of second nature to me by now. So I don’t really think about them. They just happen.

The Writer’s Journey: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough–for example: notes in a melody, words in a verse, or the length of an entire show?
Bill: That’s when an audience can be extremely helpful. When you sit in the theater with an audience as it is experiencing your show, you literally can feel, from moment to moment, when they are engaged by your work and when they are not. Once you sense that, you really have to work pretty hard to ignore the truth. Not every audience is the same, however. So, you have to repeat the experiment a few times before you can make any decision. But, if the reaction is consistent, and it isn’t the one you want, it’s time to figure out what’s wrong and either rewrite or make cuts.

Bill says that he is perhaps proudest of all of his refusal to patronize any film where the dog dies at the end. He stands by his values in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, the personal essayist Beth Levine. Check him out here.

The 5-Question Interview: Allegra Huston

The writer confides about being afraid of being wrong, not starting at the beginning and surprising and unexpected gifts.

Screenwriter, editor and author Allegra Huston’s book Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (Simon & Schuster) begins when she is a little girl. That is when her mother dies and she is introduced to an intimidating man wreathed in cigar smoke—the legendary film director John Huston—and told he is her father. She is shuttled to the Huston estate in Ireland, then to Long Island, and to a hidden paradise in Mexico. Time is also spent at the side of her older sister, Anjelica, at the hilltop retreats of Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, and Marlon Brando. Then at twelve, Allegra is, introduced again to her father—her real one—the British aristocrat and historian John Julius Norwich. About the book, Publisher’s Weekly writes: Where many memoirists compete to see who’s had the most outrageous life, this story stands out in its quiet poignancy—and gave it a starred review. Kirkus Reviews wrote: A graceful, surprisingly tender account of a life lived at the edge of fame, and Her story is about finding her place within this glamorous family, where she was too often an afterthought to the monumentally self-absorbed adults charged with raising her.

The Writer’s Journey: You’re a writer, but where does the process of creativity really start for you?
Allegra: Lying in bed in the morning, half awake and trying to make the waking as slow as it can be – that’s when ideas come to me and I think about what I want to write.

The Writer’s Journey: The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” When you write do you encounter “rights” and “wrongs”? What happens?
Allegra: So true. I spent much of my life being afraid of being wrong. Overcoming that was the crucial step in becoming a writer. As an editor I learned that nothing beyond the technicalities of grammar and spelling is really right or wrong – but some things work and some things don’t. To become a writer, I had to learn to let go even of that. I separate my work into the “writing” stage and the “editing” stage. When “writing,” judgment is not helpful: nothing is right or wrong, it only has energy or it doesn’t, and the trick is to spark your imagination so you get something with energy on the page. You don’t need to judge; you feel it. However rough it is, I’m happy that it has energy and I figure I can fix it up later, if it has a place in whatever I’m writing (perhaps it’s the beginning of something else entirely). So I do all kinds of disposable ten-minute exercises to jog me out of trying to Write Well – things like comparing people to animals, describing places only by smell, putting music to something in my head, and so on.

The Writer’s Journey: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength?
Allegra: The blank page does scare me – though not as much as the blank 300 pages! So if I focus on just the one page, I’m better off. When I wrote Love Child I deliberately didn’t start at the beginning. I just filled notebooks with everything I could remember, in whatever order, and then sorted it out. By that time I had 300 pages, and I could think of the rewriting as “editing” so it wasn’t so scary. I like cheap notebooks; they don’t pressure you to write something “good” in them so I can think of what I’m writing as just “notes” or “rough material” – and the result is writing with much more energy and specificity.

The Writer’s Journey: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you might discover what will work?
Allegra: I try to come at it from odd angles. The disposable writing exercises help a lot here. If there’s more than one person in the scene, I tell it from a different point of view. If it’s a memory, I question the veracity of everything. If what isn’t working is structural, I’ve learned that the problem may not be right there; it’s probably 10 pages back (in a screenplay) or further in a book of prose.

The Writer’s Journey: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you?
Allegra: I’m not sure I know what inspiration is. I get excited about the possibility of telling a story, but from there on it’s really just the determination to do it, and showing up every day – whether that means sitting down to work on it, or just mulling it over as I’m driving or doing laundry or, best of all, lying half-awake in bed.

When I get something good – a phrase, an image, a moment of plot – it usually comes as a surprise, and feels like a gift. From where, or whom? Who knows? I don’t have a way of cultivating those gifts, other than showing up for the work. I feel very lucky when they come.

Originally from London, Allegra lives in New Mexico with her partner Cisco Guevara and their son, Rafa. Share here stories here.

The 5-Question Interview: Jen Singer

The writer talks about being funny (or being the target), platforms (no-not the kind you wear), and letting go of what doesn’t work.

Jen Singer is the mother of two boys who talk to her through the bathroom door (her words). She is the creator of MommaSaid.net, where moms can get laughs and validation while their kids find new places to leave crumbs. In June of 2007, Jen was diagnosed with stage-3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She had four chapters left to write in the first book (a parenting trilogy), You’re a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either). Her brother gave her his laptop, her publisher gave her an extension and she finished the book–at chemo. The book came out and (best news) Jen has been in remission more than a year. Jen’s second book Stop Second Guess Yourself – the Toddler Years (HCI) was released in April. The third, Stop Second Guessing Yourself – The Preschool Years (HCI) will come out in September. Jen created “Please Take My Kids To Work Day: A Holiday for At-Home Moms” (coming up: June 29, 2009), and “The Housewife Awards.” She pens the “Good Grief” blog for Good Housekeeping.

The Writer’s Journey: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you?
Jen: When I’m inspired to write something, it feels like I have to do it right now, like when you have a full bladder, only the outcome is usually more enjoyable. Or so I hope. Also, it makes me happy, like when I hit a great shot in tennis or when I get the TV remote to myself. When I’m inspired to write, I can’t wait to sit down to do it.

The Writer’s Journey: Does your creative mind naturally think/do/feel/create in “funny?”
Jen: Humor has long been my defense mechanism. Also, it’s how my family communicates. Our family gatherings are like a roast: Be funny or be the target. So we all think that way. I’m just the only one making money at it.

Twitter has been a great outlet for my little bursts of funny that strike me throughout the day. For instance, after several sick days with the kids, I tweeted: “It’s like a frat house on Sunday morning around here, except the “empties” are Motrin bottles and tissue boxes.” Sometimes I turn my tweets into blogs, but sometimes I just need to get them out of my system and move on. I’m like Doritos: I’ll make more.

But sometimes I think in other terms besides funny. For example, I took my first spinning class at the gym about a year after I’d finished chemotherapy for lymphoma. When the teacher played Matchbox 20’s “How Far We’ve Come,” I burst into tears. And then I wrote about it.

The Writer’s Journey: MommaSaid.net is a great success and in many—if not all–ways, an extension of you. As it grows and grows, how do you keep that creative connection alive?
Jen: You’re right MommaSaid.net is an extension of me and of my brand. It’s not hard to keep the creative connection alive when your web site is a part of you. I like to think of MommaSaid.net as my own personal channel that’s part Comedy Central, part Lifetime, part CNN and part sitcom. It all depends on what’s happening in my life when I post that affects which part(s) gets attention.

The Writer’s Journey: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you can discover what will work? (I guess I should first ask: have you ever had this problem?)
Jen: When you’re a blogger and an author with deadlines looming, you don’t have time to massage and cultivate a piece that’s not working. The online deadlines are too frequent and the book deadlines are too daunting to mess with copy that doesn’t come together. Sometimes, I’ll pull out parts of these types of writing and use them elsewhere, either in blogs, essays or books. Or, I’ll kill them altogether. You have to let go of what doesn’t work. Besides, blogging is like breastfeeding: The more you do it, the more you can produce.

The Writer’s Journey: You have three (three!) books in various stages of completion. From what I understand, waiting for the right publisher to say “I do” took many years. Tom Petty has been telling us for years that, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Along that line, how did you nurture your creativity through the ups and downs of the waiting process in order to keep on trusting your voice?

Jen: Book publishing is a tough business, especially in this lousy economy. It’s a place where Joe the Plumber gets a book deal when people who can actually write get nothing. The key is not to take it personally, but rather to build your platform and hone your craft (assuming you can’t get famous by talking to presidential candidates, of course.)
I found out about my first book deal while I was taking the kids to the dentist. It wasn’t really a deal at all: I lost money on that book. But it was a part of my platform that later boosted my saleability to publishers.

My second book deal came while I was at home, blogging. My agent got an offer and we took it. My life didn’t change. I just went upstairs and had soup for lunch and got ready to write a book. But it was a step up from my first deal, money-wise and support-wise. Sourcebooks helped promote my book, booking me on a few dozen radio programs and sending out books wherever my personal publicist and I asked. Best of all, they got the book into bookstores and online where readers could find them.

My third book deal was a complete surprise, because I wasn’t shopping it around. The idea came from Allison Janse at HCI, a MommaSaid fan who had an idea for a humorous, yet helpful guide to motherhood. It soon turned into three books – branded to MommaSaid – with a huge publicity push from the publisher and a large printing. If I had stopped running MommaSaid years ago, I’d never have gotten this book deal. And then I’d have had no reason to jump up and down shouting, “I got a book deal!” while at the ice cream shop with the kids.

Next up is a cancer memoir, followed by more parenting books. They will be easier sells because my platform is bigger now, but there’s always room for growth. The key is to keep on building my platform and honing my craft so that publishers take notice. Also, to remind myself how far I’ve come since that first book deal whenever I hit the “downs” in this whole process. If I start to overanalyze rejections or wonder how come some other author got the book deal I wanted, it’ll only serve to make me very, very cranky. And nobody likes a cranky humor writer.

Jen lives in Kinnelon, NJ, with her husband Pete and their kids, Nicholas, 11, and Christopher, 10, and a skittish fish. She also lives at Momma Said, where you can visit her anytime.