Every time I read scientists who are also writers talk about their work, I’m awed by their research depth and attention to detail, and I’m reminded of the work I need to do. Today, Becca Lawton reminds me of these same things in the most wonderful of ways. Please enjoy her words today and be sure to pick up her work as well.
I’ve just completed a stageplay adapted from the title piece in my short-story collection, Steelies and Other Endangered Species: Stories on Water (Little Curlew Press, 2014). The play, now titled The Far-Gone, was one of the projects I undertook this fall while on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Alberta. I had the good fortune to team up with director Jane Heather and playwright-in-residence Colleen Murphy at UofA. After months of studying and revising an early draft of the play with Colleen’s expert guidance, I was fortunate to hear a staged reading of it with actors from the UofA Drama Department.
After the actor reading, Colleen and I reviewed the script: which were scenes that had sounded strong? Which needed more work? In the weeks following, I revised again. The script, now in its sixth or seventh draft, is ready for another round of workshopping. I’m applying to theater companies and stage labs for the privilege of hearing how the new iteration sounds “in the air.”
The writing of the short story “Steelies” was a very private experience, and in fact was inspired by a dream I had while deep in my work as a geologist in northern California. I spent many years monitoring stream levels to see how fish—especially steelhead trout, the “steelies” in the story and play—were living with water withdrawals for agricultural and urban use. Working on The Far-Gone, on the other hand, has been a collaborative process, impossible without the help I’ve received from others. I’ve been very fortunate to work with talented, experienced theater people while finding my way in bringing the story to life.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading. As a kid, I scarfed up all the Newberry Award winners and branched out from there. Our neighborhood was full of a lot of young families—although we didn’t know it then, we were baby boomers—and I had plenty of friends to play with and act out the stories we’d read in books: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Thomasina, Lad A Dog, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Black Cauldron, The Hobbit, Mary Poppins, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn. Back then, we didn’t have access to many movies beyond what showed on the Walt Disney TV program. Although we fancied ourselves the heroes from those stories, much of what shaped our imaginative play came from books.
Writing came to me through the direction of teachers: responding to the books in school reports and projects. But the day my mother gave me a blank book as a gift in high school was the day I began developing my own voice on paper, through daily journal writing.
Usually my practice involves rising around six a.m., meditating, making tea, and writing on my work-in-progress for a minimum of two hours. I write before breakfast unless there’s a fire to put out or bloody wounds to staunch. Then, after a quick meal with my husband, musician Paul Christopulos, I write again until ten or eleven in the morning. If there’s other paid work to do, I’ll tackle that after new words have been put on paper.
4. Who are you reading now? ??
Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within. My second novel takes place in Canada, which has a strong First Nation history and presence. Much of my research for the novel has involved gaining an understanding of aboriginal people in Canada. Regan’s scholarship has helped me in unlearning the colonialist framework I’d known before and taking a more balanced look at the land’s history. In my mind, the same view must be taken of the nonhumans who filled the landscape before us, and Regan’s work helps frame the lives of animals in a non-settler context as well.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver. Strong and interesting woman narrator, engaging environmental and social themes, highly developed sense of place, a lot of heart, great story line, affecting romance. When I was having trouble finishing my first novel, Kingsolver’s characters convinced me to stick with it.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Unique voice, important social themes, strong sense of place, great heart, believable characters, poignant ending. Scout is one of literature’s all-time best narrators. Atticus Finch and Boo Radley are among our favorite heroes, with a staying power in literature no one could have foreseen.
I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. Strong sense of place, engaging cultural and social issues, gorgeous writing, moody settings, poignant narrative arc. Craven’s research process remains a mystery to me, and I don’t know how her work has been received by First Nation people, but she handles her material with sensitivity and love.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform???
I’m not a great platformist, actually. I should add to that, not yet, as I’m eager to improve. But up until now, I’ve been more engaged in the body of work I want to leave behind, and at the moment that happens to be plays and stories. I do spend time on social media, and I enjoy blogging, commenting on the blogs of others, and interacting on Twitter. I’m on Facebook as well but still feel I have a lot of learning to do about how to use it effectively.
I post a blog on my website every Monday, and I send out a newsletter that will soon be a weekly event—probably Fridays. Mostly I want to share something I’ve seen while working or traveling, post what’s helpful for me as a writer, and stay connected in a genuine way with readers and writers and other friends.
7. What is a typical day like for you? ??
It varies depending on the nature of non-writing commitments I also have at any time. This fall, with the support of the Fulbright, I wrote in the morning as usual but, rather than finishing the day with work as a scientist, I spent my afternoons researching my second novel. The research took the form of reading provincial news, meeting with other writers and scholars, traveling to settings, conducting phone interviews, or spending time in the University of Alberta libraries.
In the evenings and weekends, no matter where or when, I’m sure to be physically active, with yoga or weight training or walking, to balance all my time spent at desks and in chairs. Every day must have a component of movement, and preferably in nature, to suit me. I literally cannot sleep without having been outdoors in fresh air for at least an hour a day.
8. Describe your dream writing space? ??
A quiet cabin or home, with a spacious desk, a view of wild nature, access to trails that wind into wilderness (not full of people and their pets and electronic devices, for the sake of solitude), with a communal dinner every night. The Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers model (in Langley, Washington state) is ideal and has resulted in a ton of productivity for me.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond???
Some of the harshest criticisms have come from editors at publishing houses speaking through various literary agents I’ve worked with over the years. Editorial opinion is extremely subjective, and when it’s written to agents doesn’t necessarily have to be delivered with tact. Most of what has been said of my work that wasn’t positive or constructive I’ve managed to forget.
One example of something I remember that wasn’t harsh, though, came from an agent who successfully represented my early writing. We had good rapport in general, and I’d looked forward to a long relationship. When I submitted my first novel, Junction, Utah, this agent claimed no one wanted to read about one of the book’s subjects, the Gulf War. It was 2003, the U.S. had just invaded Iraq, and the implication was that I’d better figure out how to place the novel in the new war. Not that she would have been interested if I did that—she was clear she was not.
At the time, the agent’s assessment of subject matter did not resonate with me. If authors failed to write about past wars because current wars were being waged, no historical accounts would ever be written. Eventually and for reasons of my own, I did decide to set the novel later, and the Iraq War (or “U.S. aggression,” as it’s referred to in Iraq) became the military action referenced in my story.
The agent also said (among other things) that the manuscript was “too quiet.” It didn’t have enough conflict. I felt sure she was right, and I responded by studying how tension and conflict can be maintained in longer stories. After writing a few nonfiction books I had in progress, I came back to the novel and revised it. With my first agent’s blessings and the understanding we might work together again someday, I signed on with my current agent, Sally van Haitsma.
Sally didn’t find a buyer for Junction in New York, but she believed in the story enough to bring it out in her own e-book series. We offered the completed version to a couple of small presses but no one bit. The print version of Junction has since won a 2014 WILLA award for original softcover fiction, beating out (with some irony) at least one title published by one of the houses that had passed on it.
So the proof continues to mount: one man’s trash is another’s gourmet meal.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Stay light about it all if you can. If it’s not fun, why bother choosing the path of the artist? Life isn’t meant to be a slog. Bringing a sense of play to our experience on and off the page enhances everything. You know, that sounds like good advice—I think I’ll take it!
Rebecca Lawton is an author, instructor, and scientist whose work explores wild and human nature. Her honors have included a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair Award, a WILLA Award for original softcover fiction, the Ellen Meloy Fund Award for Desert Writers, residencies at Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers and The Island Institute, and nominations for three Pushcart Prizes (fiction, nonfiction, and poetry). You can learn more about her work at her website, follow her on Twitter, and check out her Facebook page, too.