Why did you decide to interview yourself for this piece?
I figure it’s my best and maybe only chance to be interviewed and get that little butterfly you get in your stomach when you realize you’ve reached a status such that someone other than your therapist wants to ask you questions about yourself. I’m quite honored. In fact, I’m blushing.
What made you decide to be a writer?
I didn’t decide. I’m still thinking about it. Mostly I’m a talker trying to capture on paper the chatter in my head.
Honestly, I went to college as a math major. Then at the end of the first year, I decided to drop out because I couldn’t finish the freshman English essay assignment I’d been given. I mean, how ridiculous to expect a math person to write a paper. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have a clue that I could just pack up and go home. I thought my English teacher had to sign my withdrawal form before I could leave. When I took the form to her, she wouldn’t sign it. She forced me to sit in her office and tell her a story. Then she told me to write it down. That was the one-page paper. It wasn’t great, but it was done. Afterwards, on the way to turn in my exit papers, I got distracted and sort of never left.
What have you found most difficult about writing a regular column?
The deadline is a good thing and a dreadful thing. Due dates encourage but also torment writers. The other hard thing was adjusting to the culture of a newspaper. No, I say, you cannot chop off the last paragraph of a piece I write, so it will fit the space. Yes, they say, we can and we did.
How did your assignment to write the column come about?
I used to write bi-weekly on the Op-Ed page. The people in power liked it but thought I was better suited for the Living section, because the Op-Ed page is more issue-based. I assured them I have issues. But they kicked me off that page and back to the Living section, among the recipes, weddings and obits.
What was your fear about agreeing to a weekly column?
That I’d run out of things to say. My college-aged son fell laughing in the floor when I said that. Snorted too. Trying to keep a straight face, he said if I ever run out of things to say, he guesses I’d just sit there catatonic. More snorts.
You write about family, but you don’t use their names… why not?
Mostly because of fear of lawsuits. As I understand it, if I use their names, they could sue me someday, but if I make generic references to them, they don’t have a leg to stand on.
How many children do you have?
It depends. And I don’t count them precisely, except to file taxes. Usually I approximate, based on how many it feels like I have. Some days it feels like I have six or eight—when I’m buying groceries (again) and figuring out transportation plans. Other days it feels like I don’t have any, like when I need help cleaning out the garage.
How would you describe your writing style?
I don’t know that I have a style per se. I’ve been told I have a distinct voice. (Actually, I have several voices in my head—something my son has asked me to not mention.)
If the question pertains to the mechanics of writing: I use ellipses more than most… and thrive on sentence fragments. (Good thoughts don’t necessarily come packaged in proper sentences.) I’m also fond of parenthesis. (Really I am.)
Do you know when you’ve written something especially well? And conversely do you know when you’ve turned in something that isn’t your best?
I know how I feel about most columns, but can never predict how any one of them will be received by others. I revel in the “loved it” notes I get from Bruce, my editor, after I turn a piece in. But it took me a while to realize those are more dependent on how busy Bruce is or his mood than on the quality of a column.
What have you been most proud of as a writer?
Maybe that I produced a writer. My son also loves words. He writes for his college newspaper as does one of his roommates. There are “word challenges” they assign to each other where they have to work a certain word into a piece. When he successfully got “artificial sweetener” smoothly worked into a column about voting, it made me teary. I was so proud.
Another highlight came when I wrote a piece for Super Bowl Sunday, which ran in the Sports section of the paper. This, after a lifetime superlative of “Least Likely to Be Able to Pick a Football Out of a Lineup of Sports Equipment.”
Could you see yourself doing this as a full-time endeavor?
It kind of already is a full-time endeavor. It’s less about writing than it is about seeing—a way of watching that I can’t turn off. It’s always on. But if you’re asking if I see myself taking on a bigger project, the answer is no.
I’ll admit, though, that I spend time thinking of book titles in case I ever did accidentally write one. That keeps me highly entertained and is a lot less work than actually producing the book itself. (Today’s book title is: Trolls with buzz cuts: A collection of all the toys, pets, and siblings my young son cut or shaved the hair off of.)
Who has influenced your writing?
The influences have been more types of people than specific people. One type has been the encouragers. People who are supportive and provide “yes you can” messages because they really believe in another person. Those who provide, instead of empty praise, genuine support.
Through the Great Smokies Writing Program, I’ve met some very accomplished and talented writers—the faculty and the students. I’ve been surprised by how even they, despite having proven gifts for writing, are still a little nervous and uncertain. The encouragement writers get from others is so important.
The other type of person who has influenced me is the corrector. Those who will tell you the truth, although it might not be what you want to hear. Something you can do differently to be better. Critical feedback and redirection. These people are rare, and I treasure them when I find them.
Do you get a lot of reader feedback about your work?
Certainly a highlight of writing is the reader feedback I get. That someone takes time to send a note delights me. Every time I’m genuinely surprised and blind-sided with joy. Like a version of Sally Fields at the Academy Awards. “Really? You really read it?”
Of the notes I get, 99 percent are positive. Some are far funnier than the column I wrote that inspired the feedback. Some are touching. Twice I think I’ve heard from people I inadvertently offended. Only one time have I gotten a really nasty note—a person who wrote accusing me of being a liberal and stating, after a full-page rant, that he was waiting for me to die. I thanked him for taking the time to write.
Are there themes you find in your writing?
Yes. I return over and over again to caring for others with their imperfections. Real is better. Love the person, love the warts. Don’t ignore warts, accept them. I also believe in finding the silver lining of almost any situation. Sometimes you have to dig for it. Scratch and claw. But it’s there. A smile to be had and genuine joy waiting to be found. That sounds so sappy as I say it. But I really believe it.
Any topics off limits?
A few. In-laws, employers, and the number of husbands my sisters have had.
Do you have hobbies other than writing?
I maintain (and will forevermore) that I’d give Martha Stewart a run for her money in a showdown of domestic skills (without her staff of hundreds of course). Just Martha and me. To the mat. I’ve also been practicing narration of my cooking. Like Rachel Ray, Nancy Nan has a ring to it. So I’m ready, should the call ever come.
What’s ahead for you?
This past summer I took a Great Smokies Writing Program class, just for the heck of it. Loved it. I typically write alone (not counting the voices) and am fine with writing as a solo venture. However, I enjoyed immensely the camaraderie of fellow writers in the class I took. I’ll be watching for more opportunities to interact with that special community.
I just have to ask: do the nutty things you tell really happen? Surely you exaggerate or embellish them?
Surely I do not. In fact, if anything, I sometimes dilute a story, leaving out some detail that would make a preposterous tale even more so. As Jack Nicholson once said, “You can’t handle the truth.”
The crazy things I write about are the same things that happen to all of us. The art is in recognizing fun when it slaps you in the face.