Heather Goodman on Finding and Keeping Creative Success
What sparked my writing is not so different from what keeps me at it. Ultimately, I just liked to write, and then at some point, I needed to write. Now, most days, I love and need to write, and yet sometimes, doing the actual writing is like skating on marshmallows.
My path to creative success has been winding, as is often the case. I took a creative writing class as an elective during a master’s program, and that lead me to write a handful of poems, a few of which earned me a spot at Bread Loaf in 2003. A month later, I met my future husband, fell head over heels, and moved to Minnesota, where I fell head over heels for the Loft too, and began taking classes with the greats like Dale Gregory Anderson and Robert Voedisch. In 2006, I was awarded a Loft Mentorship in fiction and had the great privilege of being mentored by Pete Hautman and many other inspiring writers, including the outstanding mentees. Pete told me to write a novel. That's what I'm doing. To help stay on track, I:
Write through the window. For me, hitting a word count or completing a scene doesn’t always work. What does is writing to the very end of my writing window. I might finish a scene with eight minutes left until I have to wrap up, but I consistently find that if I can push through and work those last few minutes, they tend to be more productive than most.
Journal for character. I mostly write fiction; as such, I don’t keep a traditional journal, but my characters do. Especially when I am stuck, I try to write about them, what they want, fear, dream, and despise. Sometimes I write from their perspective, sometimes from an omniscient observer. Though I’m thinking about them constantly, the physical act of clicking keys or moving mechanical pencil (never pen) over paper helps me know them far more intimately.
List. When I’m stuck for what should happen next or how to describe a person, I go to my long list of interesting things I’ve heard, seen, smelled, stepped in. There is no rhyme or reason to this list: it’s stories I’ve heard on NPR, funny things my family members say, weird sightings in the woods, the way a person laughs. Even if what I add is ultimately removed from the story, the list helps me get to the next sentence or scene.
Eat Cheez-Its. I love them. I once took a workshop with Andrea Barrett. She said she used cigarettes to help bribe herself to stay in the chair. As she tried to break her smoking habit, she allowed herself one cigarette every page, then one every two, every five. When she quit, she let herself have candy—M&Ms or Hershey Kisses. She said she got fat, so she had to switch to a bowl of carrots. She wrapped up the story by saying, “Eventually, writing became the carrot.” Be good to yourself when you’re in the chair. It helps keep you there.
Send email. Write everything down. (Otherwise I forget.) My phone is often with me, so I email myself a plot twist, character trait, line of dialogue. This means I get to live with my characters all day, which for me, is one of the best parts of writing. The emails give me a place to start next time I sit down. And the built-in microphone feature is great when driving.
Have a Laura. Hopefully you have a writing group. If not, be brave and find one. It is scary, and it is worth it. Ideally you have your person. Laura is mine. She cheers and challenges me, gently and valiantly. She, just as much as me, wants my work to be as strong as possible, and I want the same for her. We help each other do this by asking hard questions, suggesting big changes, and inspiring each other to push on. Then, when there’s success, both of us get to celebrate each other’s accomplishment. Who doesn’t like champagne?
Consider. Finally, there will always be reasons why you can't write. What are the reasons you must?
Heather E. Goodman teaches online classes for the Loft and offers manuscript consultation services at www.heatheregoodman.com. She is a former Loft Mentor Series Award winner, and her fiction has been published in Shenandoah, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Hunger Mountain, The Crab Orchard Review, Minnesota Monthly, and the Chicago Tribune, where her story “His Dog” won the Nelson Algren Award. She lives in a log cabin along a creek in Pennsylvania with her husband Paul and pooch Zane.