Posts Tagged How I built my career

How I made my writing career – novelist, writing coach and educator Connie Biewald

How do you get a career working with words? We each have our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their lives, have been recognised with awards and grants and have become a guiding light for other writers. Today: Connie Biewald, who teaches literacy and creative writing to both children and adults, and is about to publish her fourth novel, Truth Like Oil.  

Roz How did you start writing?

Connie As soon as I could hold a pencil. My first novel was about two friends, entitled Josie and Susan. My mother typed it up and made carbon copies. (That shows how old I am.)

I always read and I always wrote. When I read this Eudora Welty quote, it resonated.  “Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.”

I look back at journals from elementary school and I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer.  There were other ideas like being a pathologist—I thought cutting up dead bodies would be interesting. But teaching and writing were the through lines.

Roz Was anybody influential in this?

Connie My schooling felt boring and restrictive. But in fourth grade, I had my first experience of a teacher reading aloud to us. We put our heads on our desks and for a beautiful half-hour I was happy in school. I wasn’t even in school. I was in the NY subway with Mario and his cricket, (George Selden’s Cricket in Times Square) on the Saskatchewan prairie with the owls, Wol and Weeps (Farley Mowat’s Owls in the Family). And time passed more than pleasantly. I was not used to that happening in school.

My mother read to me before bed. I remember one night listening to Louisa May Alcott’s Old Fashioned Girl, watching the clock hit the 8:30. My mother was not one to extend bedtime by a minute, yet the big hand kept moving. There were more pages to the chapter. The combination of anxiety and wonder…the power of literature to make even my mother forget the clock.

Roz Were any of your family in the creative arts or are you the trailblazer?

Connie My parents encouraged creativity—all that typing my mother did! One of my brothers is a musician. Our mother loved genealogy and sewing. Our dad was an industrial arts teacher. They built all our furniture.

Roz Did you do other jobs before you concentrated on literary arts?

Connie Literary arts were always my passion on the side. I was realistic about needing money. I worked in a bakery in high school which provided material for my book Roses Take Practice. I also worked with children through high school and college which became the foundation of my career in education. I didn’t want to do a job in literary arts, thinking that it would take my writing energy away. And I think I was right. I have been able to write what I want.

Roz How did you start to prioritise writing?

Connie The first writing I did with real intention of publishing was after college when I took a day care program director’s job so I could use the morning for writing. That book later became Digging to Indochina. When my children were young I wrote every Saturday morning.

That was enough for a while. As my kids got older I was able to go away to residencies. Grace Paley, my most significant mentor, said, “If you want to be a writer, keep your expenses low and don’t live with anyone who doesn’t support your writing.” I’m grateful to my parents for providing childcare while I went to workshops and residencies and to my husband who has never questioned my need to write.

Roz If you went back to age 16 and saw where you are now, what would your thoughts be?

Connie At 16, I was a mess. I had an idea that if I was going to be a writer I needed to have as many life experiences as possible and some of those experiences were risky. And some were psychological issues as much as intention. I’m lucky I made it through.

Roz What would you tell your younger self?

Connie I’d tell myself, “You will still have these female friends when you are 63. The approval you are craving from these boys doesn’t matter. You’re so much more beautiful in every way than you realize right now.”

Roz That’s exactly the kind of advice we can’t believe at that age.

Moving on, you have four novels – Bread and Salt, Roses Take Practice, Digging to Indochina and – about to be published – Truth Like Oil. Do they share any common themes or concerns? What makes a Connie Biewald novel?

Connie Connie Biewald seems obsessed with 17-year-olds. There’s something very powerful to me about that age. My novels all seem to have this theme—life is tough, but ultimately worth it. And power fascinates me.

Roz Did any of that come from your life experiences?

Connie Yes! The first three books seemed to come from within—Digging to Indochina and Roses Take Practice are autobiographically inspired fiction from my own experiences. Bread and Salt is a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life, coming of age between World War I and II in Germany.

Truth Like Oil is different. When I finished Bread and Salt I thought I’d written everything I had to say. I was being pushed to write nonfiction about my work and parenting, but that wasn’t fun for me.  I write to escape my daily life; not that it’s a bad life, but people crave escape and writing is mine. I had an effective writing habit established , but nothing to say.  

At a reading, an audience member asked what I was working on next. I said I had no idea. My mother, who was also in the audience said, “You do have another grandmother, you know.” This was true, but I was not close to her. At that point she was in a nursing home and pretty bitter, also very racist. I wasn’t interested in writing about her, though she did become the inspiration for Hazel in my novel. Then a new character, Nadine, a Haitian-American nursing assistant, began whispering in my ear.

I travelled to Haiti because of her. I wanted to understand her background. I ended up returning to Haiti for the next decade, working on literacy projects with teachers and kids at Matènwa Community Learning Center on Lagonav—all because of Nadine.  It’s amazing that a fictional character had such a powerful impact on my life. 

Roz Three of your books are self-published with iUniverse…

Connie I had folders full of positive rejections that all said ‘We don’t know how to market/categorize this book. Is it commercial or literary, young adult or adult?’ My dad kept suggesting self-publishing but I resisted.

Roz You were reluctant to self-publish?

Connie For me there was something shameful about self publishing. But whenever I ran into former students or their families, they’d ask about my books. I was tired of having no publishing news.

I picked the book least important to me, Digging to Indochina, and put it out. It was a big success. And fun! I did lots of readings, and won some awards. IUniverse republished it as one of its star award books. Then I published the others. I wish I’d had the benefit of a developmental editor like I had at Vine Leaves Press. They would all have been better books. Yet I am still proud of them.

Roz Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press – how did you find your way to them?

Connie On the website, Vine Leaves says it seeks work that blurs the line between commercial and experimental. I sent the novel and forgot. When I received an acceptance, I was thrilled. My school had just switched to online teaching because of the pandemic and it was a shock to all of us and the technology was tough for me. At that point there was so much fear. The publishing offer was a giant consolation prize. The Vine Leaves developmental editor told me to cut 60 pages and helped me do it. I knew I was in good hands.

Roz All writers have to build a relationship with their readers. What are your thoughts on this?

Connie Marketing is a stretch for me as it is for many writers. I’ve depended on word of mouth. I need to step it up and am not sure how. I signed up for a three-session class at Grub Street.

Roz What other kinds of publishing do you do? Short stories, personal essays… Do you do that too?

Connie Sometimes. I do have short writings on my website. But novels are my thing. Once I know a character well enough to write a short story about them, I’m attached enough to write a novel.

Roz Me too. My soul works in longform.

You also have another defining role – for several decades you’ve taught reading and writing in schools, including a programme for homeschoolers. And you’re a librarian and growth education specialist. Education seems to be a personal crusade for you.

Connie Thank you for noticing that! I really enjoy being with kids. I appreciate their energy, their sense of humour, their ways of looking at the world. I’m constantly learning from them. So many of our issues with power start with how we were treated as children.

As a progressive educator, I think deeply about teaching and how we teachers use our power. I use the way the environment is set up and the schedule and the kid culture of the classroom as much as possible, instead of being an adult who tells kids what to do. I always strive to understand each kid and their interests, strengths and challenges.

I struggle with the fact that I am a better teacher than writer. There’s a passage in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life about how no cares if you write. They’d rather you do things to benefit them! And I think about Grace Paley’s poem  which I love, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” about people preferring a pie to a poem. But I need writing to make me a happy teacher and a happy baker so that’s something.

Roz Being a teacher requires considerable energy. As does writing. How do you juggle these demands?

Connie Grace Paley talked about how balance is impossible. At any time in life, one demand supersedes another. That’s okay. During certain times in my teaching year, I can’t write at all. During the summer, I don’t teach so I have lots of time to write. When I was parenting young children it felt much more difficult than it feels now.

Roz You’re building a body of creative work and helping others to flourish. Are you living the dream?

Connie You know, I really am. I never thought of it that way until you asked. I love having grown children who more than earn their carbon footprints and the time that frees up to do my own thing.

Roz What do you like to read? Are there any writers who changed you, either as an artist or as a person?

Connie I read constantly, deeply and widely.  On the “reader” section of my website, I list many of the books that affected me most.  I’ve also crafted my own writing education, taking workshops from writers I admired. Grace Paley, Michael Cunningham,  Allan Gurganus, Marie Howe, Elizabeth Strout,  to name a few. I love Alice Munro’s work and my husband and I have read most of it out loud.

Recently I LOVED the book Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. I’ve read it twice and listened to the audio version, which is amazing. I also love Danielle Evans’ work, most recently The Office of Historical Corrections.

Roz What’s next?

Connie I have two projects that I haven’t been able to do much with during this pandemic. One is a novel for adults that takes place in 1870 in a New England mill town. The other is a middle grade novel.  I’m excited about diving into one or the other this summer.

Roz Give me some stirring final words!

Connie Hmmm.

You can find Connie on Facebook and her website. Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here

If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’d like to know more about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How I built my career – writer, typesetter and editor Amie McCracken @amiemccracken

How do you get a career working with words? We all have our own routes. In a new occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve turned their wordy bookwormy passions into their profession. Today: Amie McCracken

Roz How did you get here?

Amie In a roundabout way to be honest. Though I have always been obsessed with story and books and reading, I went to college thinking I would become a journalist. I double-majored in creative writing and photojournalism. When college ended, I tried my best to find a job in magazines or a publishing house. Nothing panned out; instead I worked as a veterinary technician for my dad as well as a smattering of other odd jobs until my husband and I moved to Germany.

It was then that I started getting into the freelance editing world. It really is my passion, but it took me a while to figure that out and to find my groove.

Roz What was the first step and how did it lead to paid work?

Amie I have worked my butt off, a lot of it for free.

There really is no clear-cut way to freelancing. It takes a lot of networking (how I met you, Roz!) and putting yourself out there. I worked for a few small presses to begin with, had a few mishaps in working for the wrong people—a vanity press at one point, eek!—but gradually I have built my reputation and now writers come to me.

Roz Same here. I did a lot of things I wasn’t a good fit for, but while doing them I met the right people. It takes years, taking whatever comes along, and also jumping on opportunities.

Sometimes you have to be really cheeky. I became an editor with Cornerstones literary consultancy because I found one of their flyers, advertising their services. I wrote to them and said ‘I want to work for you!’ Fortunately, the cheeky pitch is much less embarrassing on the internet than it is in real life…

Amie I have done everything from editing calendars and textbooks to mentoring authors through the writing process to proofreading magazines. Last year I finally had to create a schedule because I was booking projects a few months in advance. And now I’m full up four months out.

I think I knew I finally made it when I felt comfortable saying no to projects that didn’t interest me. That is a place of power as a small business for sure.

Roz Tell me about the creative writing element of your degree. What foundations did it give you that you still use today? What did you learn about yourself as a writer?

Amie As an author, I still call myself a hobbyist. It has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t have the self-confidence to say I’m a writer or author. It’s purely because editing is my career, but writing is my creative outlet. I do not want to turn that side of my life into a business. Though I am very happy to help other authors do so!

Roz Was your degree useful for your editing work?

Amie The act of writing, and having studied it in college, has of course taught me a lot of skills as an editor. I think the simple act of immersing oneself in story, via writing, editing or critiquing others’ work, and reading, is one of the best methods of improving your own storytelling. In the same way that language is best learned by immersion, taking in the language through as many forms as possible, writing skills improve the more time you spend with stories.

There are skills I have built upon that continually add to who I am as a writer and editor. I believe that the voice of a story develops as you write it (and then is improved upon rewriting), and the same goes for your voice as a writer. It is like a fine whiskey, improving with age and as you learn to savour.

Roz You’ve published in a variety of niches. Sometimes you’re in science fiction territory with Devolution and Emotionless. Sometimes you’re overlapping with contemporary real life (Blink and your latest release, Leaning Into the Abyss).

Amie My novels Blink and Leaning Into the Abyss cross into the magical realism genre, and I would say that is actually my bent. Both Emotionless and Devolution dig deeper into the sci-fi worlds, but are very light sci-fi as I don’t explain complex technology or math like other true science fiction does. So for the most part I am a magical realism author.

Roz Tell me more about your affinity with magical realism. What magical realism novels first made you feel at home there?

Amie Alice Hoffman is my idol. If I could write as many varied characters and as prolifically as she does, I would be proud. Her writing is something to dive into and get lost in. Every sentence is crafted beautifully, and the magic is utterly subtle but permeates every moment.

Robin McKinley writes farther on the fantasy side, but the gentle build of her plots and the beauty of the magic involved always entrances me.

The same goes for Erin Morgenstern. Her stories are much more fantastical than I will ever write, but the depth and emotional pull of her characters always has me in pieces.

Roz What makes an Amie book? Do you have any recurring themes, character types you’re most interested in?

Amie My books tend to ask a major question. Emotionless questions what would happen if we could remove hormones from our bodies (I am type 1 diabetic and insulin is a hormone, so I wondered what would happen if I could remove the problem instead of fixing it).

Roz Ah, much SF comes from our own personal experience of science!

Amie My novel Devolution asks what would happen if humans stopped evolving and we had to rely on genetically modified babies to kick-start evolution again. Leaning Into the Abyss asks what life would look like with a major shift via a catastrophic event (the death of a groom just before his wedding). So my writing is heavy on theme and is brought to life by the characters.

Roz You also have a non-fiction book, Giving Birth To Motherhood.

Amie Yes, Giving Birth to Motherhood exists because I am a mother and went through a traumatic birth. It helps other mothers write their birth story while looking at it from a psychological perspective for the motivations behind actions and reactions. It is intended to teach mothers to heal themselves and find catharsis through intentional journaling.

Roz And you have a bootcamp for writers… Six-Month Novel.

Amie I started Six-Month Novel with a business partner (Charlie at Urban Writers’ Retreat) because we both felt there was a hole in the offerings. Charlie runs writing retreats, both for a day and residential, and I work directly with authors, but we wanted something longer term that allowed writers (and us!) to focus on completing an entire novel. We didn’t want it to be the same as normal writing courses; we had heard of too many people completing MFAs and then getting stuck. So we don’t teach how to write, we simply help you find the habits that work for you and then keep you accountable so that you can complete that novel you’ve been wanting to write for ages. It’s a programme that is intended for seasoned writers who feel stagnated or afraid to jump into their next project.

Roz How do you find time for your own creative writing? Do you have a routine or timetable?

Amie I’m a very self-motivated person. I was homeschooled, which for me bred ambition and taught me to get shit done. So when I have a project ready and waiting, I jump on it every moment I have. I do tend to work better with larger chunks of time, and my husband is amazing at giving me entire weekend days or even writing retreats that last a week or so.

Roz That’s a great idea. And a great husband…

Amie I make sure and schedule things like that into my calendar. I’ve gotten very good at time-blocking since my son came along—when he is at kindergarten during the day, I focus on work; when he is home, I focus on him; and when he’s asleep, I focus on writing. I don’t really know how I’ve managed to get so much done. I’ve only published books since having my son five years ago. I often wonder what I did with all that free time before I had him! And really wish I hadn’t wasted it… Though I was building my business and travelled a ton and learned a new language and wrote a few first drafts and ok, I guess I wasn’t that lazy.

Roz I recognise what you’ve identified here. If I’ve spent days or weeks thinking or researching, I feel like I didn’t get anything done. But that time is necessary. Especially in the early stages of a book. It’s discovering the territory.

Amie One of the best things I’ve done for my writing in recent years was to learn a second language (German) and try to write in that language. It has opened up a whole other set of books to me, but has also pushed me to realize what language does on a fundamental, sentence-by-sentence level. I’m much more picky with my words now that I understand the impact language has on meaning and intention.

Roz Do give examples! I have a smattering of school French and German. While learning them, I was intrigued by the things they have words for that we don’t. Both languages have separate words for the two connotations of ‘know’. They feel that distinction is important, whereas we don’t. And genders – if you’re of a poetic bent, linguistic gender must add another dimension to your work.

Amie Most definitely! One oft quoted source is German fairy tales. In German, a girl is called das Mädchen. Das is the neutral gender, so technically a girl is it and in the case of ownership, you would use the equivalent of his with that noun. For example with Cinderella, “Es war einmal ein hübsches Mädchen, das war sehr traurig, den seine Mutter war vor Kurzem gestorben.” Literally: “Once upon a time there was a girl, it was very sad, because his mother was recently deceased.” This example, and other gendered nouns for humans, has led to some frustration in recent days when equality comes into the conversation. But it has me wanting to see if I can play with my English and really pinpoint the intention behind a sentence using the vocabulary while also keeping the implication instead of stating things baldly—showing not telling.

Roz Speaking of endless quests of learning, the arts are something we never truly master. There’s always more to work on. Even if we’re also teachers. Where do you do your learning?

Amie Books! I read widely, including non-fiction books about writing, but I love dissecting classics as well as contemporary novels.

Roz Me too. I learn far more from novels than from craft books.

Amie I read for pleasure, but also to understand story on every level possible.

Roz Sometimes people ask me if reading analytically spoils the pleasure. I find it doesn’t. It’s part of the pleasure, the appreciation. I can analyse at the same time as enjoying. That means I’m a very slow reader. I can be trapped by a paragraph, perhaps because of its imagery or because of the way it delivers an emotion that’s been carefully set up earlier.

Amie I inhale the written word.

Roz I love the intimacy of it. Print into eye, into brain, into heart. A remarkable process.

Find Amie’s books here and her editing services here. Get her newsletter here and tweet her at @amiemccracken

PS If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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