VAH: John, when did you know you were a writer and when did you realize you were?
JBB: I’ve never just been a writer, so I’m not sure I ever came to that realization — I’ve been a graphic designer for almost as long, and for many years at my Sierra Club job, that was my greatest calling, perhaps because there were so many other who fancied themselves writers, but few who were designers.
When I was married for the first time, I put on my marriage certificate that I was a playwright, which I was at the time, but mostly I said that because it was better than saying I was unemployed.
Now that I’ve written and published a novel, I am more comfortable saying I’m a writer, but there’s still a part of me that thinks I’m an imposter.
VAH: I think that’s a process we all go through, that sense of really, truly being a writer and a small sense that questions the validity of claiming that! Which brings me to ask, what is your best advice for emerging writers?
JBB: I’m not the first to say this, but I can vouch for its veracity. Keep doing it. Keep practicing. There’s this concept popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that you need to put in 10,000 hours to get good at anything that’s difficult, and I have put in the hours. I remember twenty years ago, when I wrote a couple cover stories for the East Bay Express, one on garbage and recycling, another on collectives, how much my early drafts were tangled up like spaghetti because I was trying to weave together so many strands. I pulled out my hair turning those bloated early drafts into a story that was smooth and clear enough to publish. I have an easier time with those kind of structural challenges, and I think I just got better with practice. I only wish I had been more disciplined when I was younger. I wasn’t a bad writer, but I was not as focused as I needed to be, and I didn’t write as much as I do now because it was more like torture. I was lazy.
It’s not that I don’t still struggle. Taming the wild plots of Bones in the Wash was arguably the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it’s more fun now. I have more confidence because I’ve done it. I hope I keep getting better.
VAH: Getting better with practice. What are your thoughts on studying writing?
JBB: I looked into the MFA program at USF and was intrigued, but there are a lot of ways to learn these days. I was part of a novel writing critique group for more than ten years — they read at least two drafts of Bones in the Wash and my first novel, Wasted. I would have had to get five MFAs to equal that level of attention to my work.
VAH: What are you thoughts on writing conferences. Do you have a favorite?
JBB: I’ve only been to one, the San Francisco Writers’ Conference earlier this year, and I quite enjoyed it, especially the craft sessions. There was so much on the publishing and promotion process and I know that’s important, and I need to do more of it, but that part got old fast. It’s not that everyone says the same thing, but it seems that way.
VAH: What about writing full time?
JBB: I have been a writer for decades, but usually more than a writer. Mostly that was because my jobs demanded it. I needed to do design as well, or editing, or training, or leading teams, or managing projects. Mostly, that was a good thing because, even though writing is probably my strongest skill, it’s a solitary venture and that solitude can get old. When I first started writing novels, more than fifteen years ago, while I had a full-time job, I used to joke that if someone said here’s a pot of money, go and write your novel full time, I couldn’t have done it. Wouldn’t have wanted to do it. Now, maybe, but I would prefer to have more variety in my life.
The other thing I learned, by being part of a complicated organization, with thousands of volunteers and hundreds of staff, was that strategic thinking was more valued than writing. It wasn’t enough to write, I had to figure out what needed to be written, and for what audience. For a number of years, I managed other writers and editors, some of whom were pretty good with words, and one thing that happened all too often is that one of them would take a draft that had been handed to us and copy edit it when what needed to be done was to go back to the author and say, what is it you’re trying to do here? If something is ill-conceived in the first place, copy editing is not going to help.
VAH: That seems a good lesson – if the story isn’t well put together, no amount of editing will improve upon the story.
Thanks John! Coming up towards the end for the month – more from John Byrne Barry. Join Three by Five again, on days that end in 3.