Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Steinberg, an author and co-host of the Lost Coast Writers Retreat. Read the interview below!
Q: How long have you been writing? Why did you start?
A: While teaching Language Arts and Social Studies in middle school in the mid eighties and early nineties, I had to give kids creative writing assignments and evaluate them. Having been a history major in college, then a lawyer as a young man, I had no experience with creative writing. History and law are built upon analysis directed toward reaching “objective” understandings and to some extent involve persuading people to accept certain conclusions. That’s quite different from storytelling in which the writer invites readers into an experience. In spite of my lack of experience writing stories, I managed to get by pretty well in the classroom, but I knew it would help to learn the craft from the inside. To remedy what I saw as a deficiency, I enrolled in the Redwood Writing Project, Humboldt State University’s summer institute for teachers involved in any type of writing curriculum. This was in 1990. I didn’t realize that I was on my way.
One of our assignments was to write a “crystal memory.” I fell in love with writing stories. Soon after, I found myself inspired to change the crystal memory into fiction. I found myself “following my nose” – allowing my imagination, expressed through point of view characters – to show me where to go. Once I welcomed in my imagination and sense of wonder, that crystal memory, “The Journey,” became “First Passage,” a piece of fiction. It was published in The New Renaissance in 2002 and now appears in my second collection: Last Night At The Vista Café, Stories.
Q: What inspires your writing? Do you have a muse?
A: I regard my muse, which I take to mean my source of inspiration, in different ways. Sometimes I think of it as my imagination, sense of wonder, and desire to communicate in a heartfelt manner. Other times it feels like the part of me that wants me to scratch any itch by giving attention to persistent impulses rising from within me. Sometimes when that happens, I wonder whether the impulse is related to something arising from my past to ask me to find it a place of greater repose. On a deeper level, I think of the muse as my soul, which I like to believe is the aspect of me that yearns to hold, express, and share all of my experience – both good and bad, real and imagined.
Here is an example. Boundaries, my first novel, was inspired by two actual experiences: first, a rather dramatic child custody case in the 1970’s when I was practicing law for a public firm representing people who could not afford private counsel; second, in the early 1980’s, a chance encounter with a woman I met in a restaurant under very unusual circumstances. The client was a very powerful woman who had great influence on the way I conducted the proceedings. The woman in the restaurant got my attention in a more personal way. In a kind of writer’s alchemy, I combined the two into a single character for a story about a lawyer and a client who have a most unusual relationship that gets them in quite a bind. I like to think that the alchemy was the result of my muse speaking to me, asking me to wonder and imagine as a way into a deeply personal, authentic story that others might appreciate. The result was a story quite different from what actually happened with either of the women. Ben Snow and Sydney Bouquet were born. I am comfortable saying that my muse is responsible for their genesis.
Q: Tell me about your writing process. Is there a lot of ‘grunt work’ involved?
A: I literally follow my nose. When the inspiration comes, I may wonder or ponder for a while, but very soon I find myself at the beginning of a story trail with no outline, synopsis, timeline, character sketch, or setting description. The impulse demands immediate attention. To prewrite would feel like scratching the itch with a feather, like being unwilling to directly engage the inspiration. Nor can I discover a story by planning it in advance. I’ve got to jump right in.
Writing never feels like grunt work, not even during revision. Revising is as much fun as writing the first draft because I am still finding the story – its depth, its emotional honesty, who its characters really are, what happens to them, and what they do with it. One draft can’t fill the canvas. Even the wordsmithing part of revision is fun – making every sentence just right. Of course, that’s not really possible, but it’s a labor of love.
Late in the first draft of a novel – but never in a short story – I might write a timeline of where the story has been so that I can keep track of it and keep the arc sensible. But I never take the timeline where I haven’t been because I know I’m not likely to get right there or, if I do, not by the route I expected.
In short, writing is discovery for me. Prewriting doesn’t feel like a part of that. When I am at the beginning of a story trail, only following my nose does.
Q: Which of your characters is most like you? In what way?
A: Several of the POV characters are rather like me. I think it’s hard for most writers to avoid that no matter how much they want to. A writer’s experience and nature have a way of sneaking in. To answer your question, I’m going to go with Ben Snow in Boundaries. Like me, Ben is introspective and sometimes brooding. Also like me, once he makes up his mind, his brooding doesn’t get in the way of passions that may take him down difficult paths that later require him to work through pain and push past self-imposed limitations. But that’s true for so many people. I suppose that Ben does it like I once did! He is also as private as I have become. And cautious. Until he meets Sydney. There are parallels there, too!
Q: What has been the biggest challenge in your writing career? What have you done to overcome it?
A: My biggest challenge is maintaining my discipline to write as regularly as I must if I am going to get a lot done. Life gets in the way! I don’t always find as much time for it every day as I would like. When I get on a roll, I do, but I have other passions that take time: my small mediation practice, my garden, family, important friendships, and reading. Then there are all the regular distractions. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to leave other things a bit undone so that I have more time to write. That’s what I’m doing to overcome it: leaving other things undone. The older I get the more important that is.
Q: What advice do you wish you could give to your younger self?
A: To pay closer attention to the person I felt inside me rather than the one I tried to be based on my attachment to pleasing the expectations of others. Said another way, the person who might have lived his whole life in the manner I choose to write: by following my nose, responding to the impulses, scratching the itches.
Q: You run a writers retreat during the summer. Tell me a little more about it.
A: I am one of several who “run” it. It’s a cooperative affair: The Lost Coast Writers Retreat. It meets for the last nine days of every June on the beautiful Mattole River on California’s remote Northcoast. There is no cell phone reception, no internet, and just one telephone for 25 people – our maximum. Many are returnees, but we invite new people. The affair actually runs itself. Everybody helps make whatever decisions need to be made, and we make them easily.
I’ve been going for fifteen years, and each time it is the best week of my year. There is very little structure beyond the basics: living together, writing, responding in small groups (as small as two, often three), making meals cooperatively, and doing whatever else grows organically each year. We introduce our “procedures” on the first day, then go about writing, responding, putting on spontaneous little workshops (always voluntary), reading aloud at Authors’ Chair, swimming in a gorgeous river, walking the country roads, sleeping in cabins or the lodge or camping in tents, playing games and singing at night (or not), making friends, renewing old ties, and feeling like a tribe of writers. All for $300 including meals and lodging. Not your regular writers retreat or workshop. It is divine and addictive.
Q: If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?‘
A: Probably the Scottish Highlands. The landscape and the passion I think it must evoke in its people (as far as I understand it) has always fascinated me and made me think I’d feel at home there.
Q: What is something you can’t live without?
A: Family, dear friends, writing, and roses.
Q: What is something you want the world to know?
A: That storytelling with wonder and imagination is the best way we can get to know each other, ourselves, our time, our culture. I believe that narrative surpasses discourse (premise, theory, analysis, conclusion, etc.) in getting to know ourselves. For me, stories get to the heart of any matter in a way that contains truths much easier to see and feel than any other form of writing save, perhaps for poetry. The stories can be true or imagined and still get it done because, like a good friend says, “It’s all true, and it’s all fiction.”
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