Tuesday, January 8, 2013

10 Questions with Writer's Writer Marcia Riefer Johnston (@MarciaRJohnston)

Cover art by Brian Hull. Cover design by Vinnie Kinsella.

Holiday mayhem has subsided. A new year has begun. (Though HOW it came to be 2013 is beyond me.) And it's time to get back to work. Back to business. The business of writing. What better way to begin the new year than with an Author Spotlight illuminating a book on writing?

I therefore give you Word Up! by literary luminary and writer's writer Marcia Riefer Johnston.

Photo by Wendy Hood.

When Marcia was 12, American Girl magazine printed her eight-paragraph story, “The Key,” and paid her $15. She has been writing ever since.

She studied under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff in the Syracuse University creative-writing program. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University. She has done writing of all kinds for organizations of all kinds, from the Fortune 500 to the just plain fortunate.

Marcia has written for the scholarly journal Shakespeare Quarterly, the professional journal Technical Communication, and the weekly newspaper Syracuse New Times. She used to write letters by the boxful. She has contributed posts to her daughter’s Peace Corps blog, texts to her son’s Droid, and answers to her husband’s crossword puzzles. Her words have landed on billboards, blackboards, birthday cakes, boxes of eggs, and the back of her book. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


To share her love of writing, she has collected some one-of-a-kind essays into a book:
Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them).


1.    How did you get into writing?

When I was maybe nine years old, my best friend, Shannon Wood, gave me a blank book. I had always loved reading books. Suddenly, I was inspired to write one. I sat down to do just that, only to discover that I had nothing to say. But I clung to the notion of myself as a writer. When you believe long enough that you can do something that you can’t do, lo and behold, you discover that you can.

2.    What do you like best (or least) about writing?

What I like best: The pleasure of getting it right—finding the perfect word, crafting the ring and rhythm of a sentence, discovering the structure that a given piece needs, nailing an ending. And then I love hearing from readers when they experience those pleasures for themselves. For example, fellow tech writer and self-professed grammar geek, Jennifer DeAngelo, writes, “I find myself forcing others to listen while I read ‘this great part’ out loud every few minutes. My dogs will soon be English experts!” That’s what drives me to write—getting to have, and then share, those moments of earned joy.

What I like least: The time required to get it right. Even the best writers have no shortcut to good writing.

3.    What is your writing process? IE do you outline? Do you stick to a daily word or page count, write 7 days a week, etc?

The writing I do for myself fits around my technical-writing contracts. When I’m on a big job, I might not do any of my own writing for months. I have no word-count or page-count goals. Inevitably, something comes along that sparks the urge to write on an age-old topic (all topics on language usage are age-old) in a way that strikes me as unique and fun. Once that flame gets going, I’m a moth who can’t stay away.

Someone asked me recently how many revisions a typical essay goes through. She reported that her husband revises a typical piece five times. Five! I didn’t know what to say. The concept of countable passes brought me up short. I don’t revise in discrete iterations. Writing is editing and vice versa. Each essay evolves continuously, one change after another, over and over. One essay might take the better part of a day; another might take weeks.

When I’m working on an essay, I wake up each day with ideas for additions or deletions. I keep pads of paper everywhere—next to the bed, in the bathrooms, in the car, in the office, in the kitchen. In between bouts of writing, ideas come unbidden. A lot gets worked out for me while I sleep. I don’t mean that in a mystical way. Good writing requires many kinds (and many repetitions) of thinking, critiquing, weighing. It’s a rush unlike any other when your brain is processing processing processing, and the thing you didn’t even know you needed SURFACES. Aha! Quick, get me to a keyboard.

4.    Who are some other writers you read and admire, regardless of whether they are commercially “successful?”

Hemingway was my first inspiration in terms of craft. My book, Word Up! includes my two favorite quotations from him, both classics. Here’s one:

If a writer … knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows … The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.[1]

Here’s the other:

The greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel … was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. The real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion … would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always.[2]

A writer could do a lot of fine work following nothing but those two principles.

I also admire Ray Carver and Toby Wolff. I had the privilege of studying with both of them in the creative writing Masters program at Syracuse University. What an opportunity! Ray and Toby made us, their lucky students, feel that our words mattered. Their affirmation meant as much as any lessons I learned from them. If anyone reading this hasn’t yet discovered Ray Carver’s short stories “A Small, Good Thing” and “Cathedral,” stop right now and go find them. And if you haven’t yet read Toby Wolff’s memoirs This Boy’s Life and Old School, do you ever have a treat waiting for you.

I also love Barbara Kingsolver, especially her essays. Her Small Wonder and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle take my breath away—in terms of both what she says and how she says it.

And Mary Karr … beware. Reading her is enough to put you off considering yourself skilled or entertaining. Her Liar’s Club tops my list of books to recommend.

5.    Should the question mark in the above question be inside or outside the quotes?

It was a setup! Okay, I’ll bite. That question mark goes outside. If you were quoting a question, you’d put the quotation mark inside.

I wish that American usage (like British usage) treated commas and periods with similar logic. When you have a word in quotation marks, like “this,” who on earth decided that the comma belonged inside? If I put a word in italics, like this, how am I supposed to get the comma inside the italics? I mean! Ooooh, Ryan. Do. Not. Get. Me. Started.

6.    What’s your stance on the Oxford Comma?

[Dear reader, Follow this answer to its end before drawing any conclusions.]You are going for, blood aren’t, you Ryan? I, say why bother with that extra, comma in fact why, do writers care so much, about commas anyhow since, they just take, up space and readers, can figure out what we, mean right? Those sticklers who insist, that the Oxford, Comma creates clarity, while taking, up hardly any, space well they are, just a bunch, of curmudgeons! Writers should put, commas wherever they like or not just let their words flow as nature intended straight from the brain and let the natural rhythms emerge organically who needs commas when you get right down to it writers who need to lean on crutches like commas can’t hardly call themselves writers now can they and no in case you’re wondering no I am not serious I figure if you’ve read this far you surely have your own opinion on this question and have heard it discussed enough times to have yawned at any straight answer I might have given.

In case you’re still wondering, and if you haven’t come to terms with this question for yourself, and if you don’t have a style guide forced on you at work making the decision for you, then let me give you a straight answer after all and say yes, I cast my vote adamantly in favor of the Oxford comma (aka serial comma, aka Harvard comma, aka the comma before the last item in a series). I just used one in the previous sentence before the final if clause in the series. Did you notice? Probably not. That’s the beauty of these handy little curved marks of punctuation: they make reading easier. Why leave them out when they’re so darn useful?

I know, I know, newspaper columns, etc. Save that snippet of space if your style guide says you must.

I couldn’t put it better than Bryan Garner, whose big, fat Garner’s Modern American Usage, by the way, every writer needs. On page 676, he puts it like this: “Omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.”

Hear, hear! Or is it Here, here? Now there’s a question for you, Ryan. Two can play at this Q&A game.

It's Hear, hear! As in, "Hear him! Hear him!" It's what proper English dudes say when they agree with what has been said and want to vocalize said agreement.

I knew this. Then I got scared and looked it up. But it is "Hear, hear!" Thank you for educating us, Marcia. See that, everyone? Free learnin' goin' on right here.

7.    What is Word Up! about and how did it come to fruition?

Ah, back to a serious question. Actually, I love all of these questions. Bring them all on!

I’ve had a passion for the English language since I was deprived of it during my year as an exchange student in Austria in high school. I also credit my English teachers for teaching me writing skills that too few people get these days. Lots of people are hungry for better writing skills. And these skills are teachable. I realized that I had something of value to offer and could have a ball doing it.

For a longer answer to your question, see “Tribute to a teacher who put ‘Word Power’ in his students’ hands”: http://howtowriteeverything.com/blog/about-this-blog

8.    What’s your current writing project?

As I type this, I’m still putting the final touches on Word Up! I’ve put my heart, mind, soul, stray socks, you know, everything I’ve got into this book—I’m not thinking about any other projects, not even what to have for dinner. Luckily, I’m married to an excellent cook who is almost as excited about this book as I am.

In my dreams, everyone who owns Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (and, if they’re lucky, Art Plotnik’s spunky Spunk & Bite) along with Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves will add a copy of Word Up! to the same shelf.

In fact, I see this book sitting in the bathrooms of those homes. I see guests (even those who aren't writers) picking it up and, an hour later, emerging with a smile.

9.    What books are you currently reading?

One book sitting (mostly neglected) on my nightstand is The Man Who Loved China by the prolific Simon Winchester. His writing gives me chills, and his subject matter always opens new worlds. I can’t wait to get back to it.

Another book I’m reading is Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. I look forward to discussing it with my husband; he’s been recommending it for years. I used to consider reading a purely private treat, but I’ve come to relish book conversations. You learn a lot about people from their responses to a book you’ve read in common, especially when their responses differ from your own.

In fact, every reader responds uniquely to every piece of writing. No two people ever read the same book—or the same anything. When the writer in you comes to this realization, you gulp.

10.    Who or what inspires you to write?

Inspiration comes from anywhere language can be found: a hospital-hallway sign, a snippet of song, a Tweet, a book, a bakery cake, a billboard, the back of my brain.

Finally, is there anything you’d care to add?

Yes! I’d like to give you, dear reader, a sense of why I bothered to write yet another book on writing. The world already has too many writing books. If you piled up all the books on writing, you’d have a precarious, weird-looking stack reaching … way up there. But the world can’t have too many writing books of the kind I like to read, the kind I set out to write. This book doesn’t say the same old things in the same old ways. This book follows its own advice. Practices what it preaches. Shows what it tells. This book uses powerful writing to talk about powerful writing.

Powerful writing entertains, heals, motivates, sells, enlightens. It marks the biggest and smallest occasions of human existence. Powerful writing changes things—for a person, a classroom, a country, a planet.

People tell me that this book will appeal to advanced writers, and I hope that's true. I also believe that "advanced" can apply to high schoolers and college students. It's easy to underestimate what teenagers are capable of. This book could be used in the classroom—I’d love for teachers and students to discover it—but it’s not a textbook. It’s not exactly a style guide either, although it does get into grammar and style. I think of Word Up! as an inspiration guide. One reviewer (content strategist Rahel Bailie) says, “You rarely get this kind of knowledge in such an engaging way. Read the book like a collection of short stories.”

That’s the kind of experience I wish for you in reading Word Up!

Where can people find you online and buy your book?

Selected chapters are available, free, under the “Excerpts” tab on my website: “How To Write Everything” (http://howtowriteeverything.com)

The book, Word Up!, releases on April 27, 2013, National Tell a Story Day. Please come back to my website for details as that date approaches. If you made it all the way to the end of this interview, I wrote this book for you—and I can’t wait for you to get your hands on it. Mark your calendar … and any others you can get away with.

In the meantime, will you, dear reader who has hung in all the way to the last word, help me get the word out about Word Up? If you're on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, please follow the Word Up! pages. (You know, click that cute little "Follow" button. Or "Add to circles." Or "Like.") These pages are all listed in one convenient place, here:


Sign up, and then—most helpful of all—let your followers know about Word Up! too. Everybody needs a good word.

Thank you. —Marcia

Thank YOU, Marcia. In my opinion, the world can never have enough books on how to write well. Or even correctly. Or even semi-correctly. Language is a fluid medium and is ever-changing, constantly evolving. That's part of what makes it so much fun. But every pyramid has a solid foundation.

Let's talk again in April, Marcia, once Word Up! is officially available. And once again, thank you!

If you haven't yet done so, visit Marcia online at HowToWriteEverything.com and follow her on Twitter:
@MarciaRJohnston (author)




[1] Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (New York: Scribner, 1932),153–154; First Scribner e-book edition 2002, http://books.google.com/books?id=Wn69QsdwDlQC&printsec=frontcover&dq=death+in+the+afternoon.
[2] Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, 11–12.

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