"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Advice To Writers Interviews Kenneth Atchity


WRITERLY WISDOM OF THE AGES / Collected by Jon Winokur

How did you become a writer?
I don’t remember ever not being a writer, though I’m sure it was my mother’s fault. She’d sit me down at the kitchen table and insist that I write because she knew I had the storytelling genes of her Cajun family in me.

What are your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)?
Aside from Mom, I was inspired and egged on by teachers in elementary, high school, and college—many through their example. My Yale mentor Tom Bergin published around 60 books BEFORE he retired, then another 20 or so after retirement, illustrating my favorite quote from Benjamin Franklin: “I see nothing wrong with retirement as long as it does not interfere with a man’s work.” Novelist John Gardner was my first and toughest editor, who weaned me from academic writing and taught me to write to be helpful or entertaining—or both. My favorite writers include Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Robert Ludlum (when he was alive), Carson McCullers (“I can’t stand the word ‘prose’; it’s too prosaic.”), and some of the writers I’ve managed or published including Martin Ott, Misti Mosteller, Jerry Amernic, Milton Lyles and John Scott Shepherd.

When and where do you write?
I write anywhere (right now I’m writing on a flight between Dublin and Newark), including at my desk every day I’m home, on the airplane, train, bus, car (while someone else is driving)—the more exotic location, the better. I also write any time of the day, though much prefer the early morning before the phone, email, and texts begin. You’ll never experience writer’s block if you follow my simple rule: Never sit down to write without knowing what you’re going to write when you sit down.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new nonfiction book about “how to get your story to the screen”; a second “romance of mythic identity,” this one set in Naples; and the Louisiana volume of my memoirs—as well as an article about “yoga and the myth of the world tree.”

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
See above. Norman Mailer said, “Writer’s block is a failure of the ego.” And Ray Bradbury: “Start doing more. It’ll get rid of all those moods you’re having!” When you think you’re blocked, you’re not. You just need to take a long walk and let your story figure itself out again so you can sit back down and write it. Good writing should be “automatic writing.”

What’s your advice to new writers?
Don’t confuse writing with rewriting. If you try to do both at the same time, you’ll sabotage yourself. Rewriting is what you start doing when you’ve completed your first draft. Good luck to you all.
Former professor Ken Atchity is a writer (of novels and nonfiction), producer of films for television and theater, literary manager, and publisher (Story Merchant Books). 

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