“I have never been one to write for myself.”
—Vera Marie Badertscher
Vera Marie Badertscher has written for some of the most prestigious travel magazines around including National Geographic Traveler and Arizona Highways. In addition, she recently co-authored the book Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist with Charnell Havens after ten years of research. The co-authors’Tahoma Blog is devoted to the research and process of writing a biography. Vera Marie also writes about books and movies that influence travel at the award-winning A Traveler’s Library.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned? How about as far as your own personal process in creating?
VERA: When I started writing it was because I had things I wanted to say. I quickly learned that if I was going to get paid for writing, I needed to write what editors (and by extension their readers) want. What we call “rejection” or “acceptance” are loaded words that we use to describe the game that writers and editors engage in. If an editor says “no” you can think of if as missing the bullseye with the dart. You take the opportunity to figure out why it missed, practice your aim, and throw again. Or you can choose to take it as a personal attack and go out in the back yard and eat worms. Personally, I’d rather throw the dart again. The worst kind of turn down gives you no clues. A simple “no” is no help. However a reply that says, “we just ran a piece on that subject,” tells you that you are in tune with the publication and you’re eventually going to hit the target. A reply that says, we really are not looking for any “x” at the moment, gives you an opportunity to say, “could you tell me what you need?”
Meredith: 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?
VERA: Wow! I wish I had an easy answer for that. I always try to follow the “kill all your darlings” philosophy. If there is something I have written that I am in love with, I automatically question it. Is it part of the direct path leading through the article. Does it say something new? Is it clear only to me, or will it shed light on the subject for any reader. Experience has taught me that I don’t really know the best parts of my writing until I return to it a year or more later. THEN I can see what is actually good and true as Hemmingway might have said.
That is why it was valuable to write the biography of Quincy Tahoma (Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist) with a partner. Another pair of eyes could point out things that did not work for a reader. Not that we always agreed on what worked, but most of the time, as soon as she questioned a passage I would recognize that it was a problem child and needed a time out.
Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write and blog? Any deals?
VERA: Yeah, I always say, “This time I’m going to be concise.” And I never am.
And if I am having trouble getting started, my deal is “You will write for five minutes.” Of course by then, I’m hooked and just keep going.
Meredith: Dennis Palumbo has a quote at the very end of Writing from the Inside Out, from Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” There is this collective sense that experts are better, but perhaps, in a roundabout way, what it suggests is that more power comes to the beginner, because the beginner sees hope and has no expectations. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?
VERA: I think I have the opposite reaction. A writers job is to make sense of things. Having too many possibilities can stop you cold. Experienced writers can write more quickly because they’ve tried a lot of those interesting side roads and know which ones work and which ones don’t. If you are writing as a business, it is good to have a grasp on reality. I’m no fan of false hopes.
Another way I could read this is something my father frequently said about becoming an expert. ‘ A PhD is someone who has learned more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.’ In that sense, if you substitute interests or curiosities for possibilities, I would agree it is better to be a beginner.
Meredith: How do you balance writing for you and writing for an audience. How do you find the sweet spot?
VERA: I have never been one to write for myself. Maybe it is because my background and education is in theater, a collaborative art which does not exist without an audience. My whole motivation for joining Charnell Havens to write the biography of Quincy Tahoma, the Navajo artist, was to share his life and his art with as many people as possible. Therefore, I was constantly questioning whether the stories I was telling and the background information would be interesting and helpful to the reader. It is true that I wanted to tell them EVERYTHING, and had to restrain myself, but I wasn’t writing just so I could hear myself. I was writing because I took on the task. I love the Dorothy Parker quote “I hate writing. I love having written. I actually don’t hate writing, but every once in a while I hate having to write.” That’s me.
One more thing Vera told me: “Few people in my writing life know about my work in politics, where I knew personally every Governor of Arizona in the past 30 years, and chatted with three presidents and numerous Senators and Members of Congress.” Learn more about her and her work by clicking on her website right HERE.