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Q & A with Fred White

Q & A with Fred White, author of The Daily Writer

Fred White is a professor of English at Santa Clara University in Northern California. He is the author of four textbooks on writing, the latest of which, The Well-Crafted Argument, co-authored with Simone Billings, will print its fourth edition in 2010. Other recent books include The Daily Writer: 366 Meditations to Cultivate a Productive and Meaningful Writing Life, LifeWriting: Drawing from Personal Experience to Create Features You Can Publish, Essential Muir: A Selection of John Muir’s Best Writings, and Approaching Emily Dickinson: Critical Currents and Crosscurrents Since 1960. . He has also published numerous shorter works—most recently a one-act children’s play, Beowulf & Grendel—an adaptation of the great Anglo-Saxon epic; a full-length play, Bones, based on the life of the poet John Berryman; plus essays, short fiction, and poetry in The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson, edited by Wendy Martin; The Chronicle of Higher Education; College Literature; Confrontation; Pleiades; Rattle; The San Jose Mercury News; and South Carolina Review. He lives in San Mateo, California, with his wife, Therese (an attorney), and their insubordinate cat, Cordelia.

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What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

I think it has to be John Steinbeck’s droll reminder to writers, which I’ve always taken seriously: “Beware of advice, even this.” Steinbeck isn’t saying ignore advice, only to be wary of it. In other words, don’t heed anyone’s advice if it means betraying your own artistic vision or your integrity as a writer. And of course, he is also saying that sound advice can indeed be very helpful. Writers need to distinguish between advice that makes sense to them and advice that does not.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?
Actually there are several:

  • Writing is a profession; approach it as you would law, engineering, teaching, or medicine: with high seriousness and devotion to being the best you can possibly be.
  • Keep a journal to record fleeting thoughts, observations, story ideas.
  • Make writing a habit. Write regularly rather than sporadically. Writing begets writing. The more you write, the keener your language and thinking skills will become.
  • Read like there’s no tomorrow. Be a glutton for books and magazines, but especially books. Treasure books; surround yourself with them—and read outside your areas of interest whenever you can. You cannot know too much about the world to be a writer—any kind of writer

What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?
Mistakes are inevitable in writing, and serious writers learn well from them. But one of the worst mistakes a writer can make—“worst” meaning difficult if not impossible to learn from—is to let one’s ego block out constructive criticism. While it takes a healthy ego to be a writer in the first place, it’s an unhealthy ego that says, “I’m good enough to ignore any criticism of my work.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
I quote Thomas Jefferson: “I cannot live without books.” (And by extension, the culture of books.)

What does a typical day look like for you?
That varies. My day job is that of college professor, so for me there are teaching days and there are writing days, although sometimes the teaching and the writing get intertwined (especially when under editorial deadline). On writing days, I begin in a leisurely manner: read newspapers and magazines over coffee and Danishes; then ease myself into the writing, gradually building up momentum. I am seldom quota driven; I just keep working steadily, taking short breaks every hour or so—to snack, read, take a long walk, play with the cat. The short breaks are important because it’s easy to get prematurely fatigued otherwise.

If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

Put a stop to—no, undo—the corporate mergers that have been sapping the identities of individual publishers.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past five years?
Working on new editions of my textbook, The Well-Crafted Argument, now in its third edition from Houghton Mifflin, has been keeping me busy these past eight years. Also, from the summer of 2004 through this past winter, I’d been engaged in the most difficult writing of my professional life, a scholarly examination of Emily Dickinson’s critical reception over the past half century. It is finally being published by Camden House in June 2008 as Approaching Emily Dickinson: Critical Currents and Crosscurrents since 1960.

Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?

Yes, be as grateful for their expertise as an editor as they are for your talent as a writer. It’s perfectly all right to reject an editor’s advice, but be certain your reason for doing so is compelling.

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?

My last two book projects: Approaching Emily Dickinson (a scholarly monograph), and The Daily Writer.

How did you come to write The Daily Writer?
I’ve been teaching writing for over thirty years and have spent many of those years writing about all facets of writing-its importance to any professional activity, to thinking, to being involved with the world. The Daily Writer, you might say, is a distillation of my thoughts and experiences about writing and the teaching of writing. The project had gone through many transmutations before reaching its present form of 366 reflections (one for every day of the year), covering 31 different topics on the craft and profession of writing.

Any final thoughts?

Writing is life. Take inspiration from Isaac Asimov’s words: “If my doctor told me I had only six months to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”

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