Jacob M. Appel, the winner of 2012’s Annual Competition, is a jack-of-all-trades. He’s a doctor and a teacher with master’s degrees in more areas than we can count. Even with all of that going on, he still finds time to write. A lot. And that’s what interests us the most. We decided to dig a little deeper into the mind of Mr. Appel to find out more about his writing life.
Why do you write?
I’d like to say that I write to influence other people—to make them see the world differently. This is true, but I’ll confess it’s not the entire story. I suppose I also write to overcome my fear of mortality, of leaving the world without an impact. And I want to convince all of those teachers who didn’t think I’d amount to much that they were wrong.
Who and what has inspired you as a writer?
I’ve had a number of phenomenal teachers over the years. In playwriting, these have included Rob Handel, Richard Schotter and the brilliant Tina Howe, who remains one of my favorite people in the world and an inspiration to so many aspiring playwrights. I also had several writing teachers in high school—which is more than half a lifetime ago—whose wisdom still helps me, including the late Neil Maloney and the very much living Julie Leerburger. I also find inspiration in the sound of singer Molly Hager’s voice, which I listen to on the Internet when I have writer’s block, and somehow fills my head with renewed creative energy. Finally, I speak to theater director and frequent collaborator Rosalie Purvis nearly every day; as a playwright, having a professional partner like her makes all of the difference.
What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
Teaching. Part of the pleasure of “being a writer,” whatever that means, is having students with whom to share one’s ideas. I love teaching at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, as it provides me with a great deal of inspiration and a reminder of why what I’m doing matters.
Where do you get ideas for your writing?
Most of my ideas come from listening. It’s much easier to have other people tell you stories—and often they don’t even realize that they’re stories—and then to write them down, rather than having to come up with ideas of your own. Of course, you have to transform those ideas into something entertaining and compelling, but that’s the easier part of the process.
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?
A good work ethic. I’ve never had a hard time choosing a day at the computer over a day at the beach. Of course, it helps that I don’t particularly like the beach, so it’s not really a sacrifice so much as an inclination.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
I am terrible at the business aspects of writing professionally. I often lose track of where I’ve submitted work. Once, I was contacted my a journal about a story they intended to publish, and I wrote then an apologetic letter stating that I had committed a terrible error and had accidentally sold the story to two different publications. Only later, in a sheepish correspondence with the editor, did I realize that I’d actually sold the story twice to the same journal. Needless to say, I frequently don’t get paid for my stories and don’t realize it until years later.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s actually medical advice: “Don’t die on one doctor’s opinion.” In medicine, that means to obtain a second opinion before you give up hope. In writing, that means that one shouldn’t take to heart criticism from one source, unless it’s corroborated by others.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer?
One of my former students sold a book. I will not embarrass that student by sharing the details, but it’s a great thrill to have taught someone who goes on to literary success.
What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work?
Not to get sued for libel (or at least not to lose the case). I’d also like to have a play on Broadway in time for my grandmother to watch it. Alas, she is already well over ninety, so she may have to live past one hundred twenty to make this possible.
For more on Mr. Appel and other category winners, pick up your copy of the 2012 November/December issue of Writer's Digest or download a copy right here.