Pamela Carter Joern
I started to write when I was 30. Although I’ve been at this much of my adult
life, some people have been writing since they were 10. So, the good news is
that you can become a writer at any stage of life.
I started by writing poetry because it was short. I thought anybody ought to be
able to write a few lines on a page. Big mistake. The fewer the words, the more
they matter. It’s too bad I had never read e.e. cummings’ advice: If, at the end
of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find
you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.
I abandoned poetry, or it abandoned me. I wrote plays and have seen six of
them produced. After a while, I tried to write a novel and wrote a bad one, but I
wrote it all the way through to the end. Then, I put it in a drawer and decided to
get serious about learning how to write fiction. I went to Hamline University and
got an MFA in creative writing. I started writing short stories because they
were short. I thought they would be easier than a novel. Big mistake. There’s
nothing easy about a short story. I forgot what I learned from failing at poetry;
the fewer the words, the more they matter. Still, I stuck with writing stories. Now
I have two books of stories published: The Plain Sense of Things and In Reach.
After writing many stories and learning a lot while doing it, I wrote an
application for a State Arts Board grant saying that I wanted to write a novel. I
got the grant, so then I had to sit down and actually do it. And guess what? It
wasn’t easy. I had to manage a complex plot and multiple points-of-view and fill
up all those pages. That effort turned into my first published book, The Floor of
So, here’s what I know about writing. It’s difficult. You get better at it with
practice, you gain confidence of a sort, but every time you sit to a new project,
it’s hard all over again. By now, I’ve figured out that the challenge is part of
what I like about it. It’s supposed to be hard; otherwise, everybody would be a
writer, and even though many people talk about writing, not that many actually
Then, there’s managing the writing life—another whole topic! You know the
list: little money, lots of rejection, constant demands on your time because it
doesn’t look like you’re doing anything, you don’t believe yourself that you’re
doing anything. Someone once said to me, “Prisoners have written books in less
time that it takes you, and they’ve gotten them published.” She wasn’t trying to
be unkind (people rarely are!), but she had seen Chuck Colson on television.
This same topic came up again when Martha Stewart emerged from behind
So, finally, why write? In “A Poet’s Advice,” e. e. cummings also said, Does
this sound dismal? It isn’t. It’s the most wonderful life on earth. So, here are
the rewards e. e. cummings listed with a few of mine added in:
• You get to know yourself. The whole point of writing is to use words
like nobody else does. To be only yourself. Writing is an antidote to the
prevailing thrust of the world which is to turn you out like everyone
• You learn how to pay attention to detail, find meaning in the
commonplace, and develop a metaphorical hold on the world. This can’t
over-estimated. If everybody did this, wouldn’t the world be a more
peaceful and reasonable place?
• It’s a way of honoring and affirming life. The act of writing (no
the outcome) says, I care, I care, I care.
• It’s fun. The process of writing is filled with discovery of thought
feeling. You make leaps of connection between seemingly disparate
experiences. You delight in the shape and sounds of words on a page.
work is as risky and exhilarating as a leap from a building, eyes
shut tight, a
flimsy blanket knotted at your throat like a Superman cape.
Revision is your
personal Antiques Roadshow, sorting through detritus
removing layers of accumulated grime to reveal
treasure. Now, what could
be more fun that that?
Along the way, amidst years of devotion, I’ve had a few external rewards. I’ve
tried to ride them with a combination of gratitude and realistic expectation. And
when they end or fade in importance, as they invariably do, I brew a cup of
English Breakfast tea, add milk and sugar, climb the stairs to my orange-walled
study, sit at my desk in this room of my own and start all over again. And with
a little thrill of recognition, like greeting an old friend who has not diminished
with age, I find that the work is still challenging.