by Pam Kingsbury
Dale Short's novel The Shining Shining Path has taken on a life of its own and The Writer’s Tool Kit has become a useful handbook for writer at all stages in their lives. After twenty five years of the writing life, Short still loves his work.
You've said you knew you wanted to be a writer at the age of fourteen. Would you care to elaborate?
The answer to your question is probably best summed up in a commentary piece that ran in The Hartford Courant a few months ago when I presented at the National Writers' Workshop in Hartford, CT. I think the original topic they suggested was whether promoting my books is enjoyable, or an ordeal, for me; this capsule background piece is what I came up with.
By the time I reached adolescence, I realized that all the world was a stage. And I knew my part well: to sit down in the audience, shut up, and try to be as invisible as possible.
I was a short, scrawny, sickly kid with vision problems and a stutter just troublesome enough to be embarrassing. The sports arena was clearly not an option. Nor was theatre. I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, and lacked the coordination to either dance or play an instrument. The only activity that made me truly happy was being alone and reading a good book.
But there were worse afflictions, I reasoned, than being a perpetual spectator. So I was resigned to my fate.
What I hadn't counted on was a lady named Pearl Huffman.
Mrs. Huffman was the sole English teacher at West Jefferson High School (only about 200 students, total), in the coal-mining country of western Jefferson County. By the time I hit seventh grade she was only a few years from retirement, having taught multiple generations of families from the surrounding hillsides. But her love for language was undiminished, and she worked us hard.
Despite having the gentlest of hearts, Mrs. Huffman was a tall, stern figure, with a commanding tenor voice that at times seemed capable of etching glass. We simultaneously loved her and were a little afraid of her. Her opinions, on matters both scholastic and non-, carried much weight among students and other teachers alike.
So I was totally taken aback, one day in ninth grade, to realize that a student paper she was reading aloud to the class, anonymously, was my own. That week we had memorized William Cullen Bryant's poem "Thanatopsis," and she had assigned us to write an essay on the poet's view of nature. To be honest, I had secretly thought my paper was pretty good. But with Mrs. Huffman reading it, it sounded magnificent.
When she came to the last line, she wiped away a tear, and said, "I just want to add that I believe the person who wrote this should consider becoming a professional writer."
It was done. I started that same evening, writing short stories and mailing them off to my favorite magazines at the time, mostly fantasy and science fiction. The magazines duly sent the stories right back, but that was beside the point.
In the months to come, I discovered that whenever I read my writing aloud, or spoke from a podium about matters that excited me-language, books, stories-my accursed stutter would mysteriously disappear for the duration.
In the years since, on various book promotion tours, I've done hundreds of seminars, readings, and radio and TV interviews, and I've loved every minute of it. For a few years, I even wangled my own local public radio show, playing traditional bluegrass music and blues. In my fantasy life, I'm a substitute host on National Public Radio.
Curiously, though, I still consider myself a basically shy person. I've become inured to the obligatory cocktail receptions and dinner parties that accompany such events. But upon entering a room full of strangers I almost always feel a cold jolt of fear in my chest. And sometimes, when making polite conversation, the ghost of my stutter even returns.
Give me a microphone and a podium, though, and I'm good to go.
I know that many writers feel uncomfortable with the publicity aspect of what they do, and I can understand why. On the other hand, writing is one of the most isolating occupations I know of. We work in solitude and silence, and our readers usually ingest our product in the same circumstances. There are occasional days at the keyboard when the only thing that gets me through is the future promise of someday, maybe, watching the faces of an audience as I read the piece to them, in person.
And for that, I blame Mrs. Pearl Huffman.
The course you took with Jesse Hill Ford has (and the stories surrounding it) have become "legendary" in Alabama literary circles. Would you like to discuss the experience?
The course I took with Jesse Hill Ford is, quite simply, one of the best things that ever happened to me. I say "is" rather than "was" because hardly a day goes by that I don't use, in my writing or in my life, something that he taught us.
When "The Group" showed up that first night, nearly all strangers to one another, and knowing we had passed the "audition" by having our manuscripts chosen personally by Jesse, I think it's safe to say that we all (a) were very nervous (through no fault of Jesse's; he was very gracious) that we somehow wouldn't "measure up," and at the same time (b) had the sense that we were about to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, which was certainly the case, judging from the quantity of successful books, alone, that would come from that class.
...... Possibly the single most lasting piece of advice Jesse gave me is the following: "Long after your love of the English language, and your self-respect as a craftsman, have been exhausted, you will be amazed by what you can achieve as a writer on pure damned spite." May sound cynical, but it's seen me through some rough times and I can testify it works.
You've been a "working writer" for many years. What are your various jobs? How did you establish yourself? What advice do you have for novice writers hoping to do the same?
Over the years I've worked as an advertising photographer, advertising copywriter, newspaper reporter and editor, magazine writer and editor, disc jockey, layout designer, magazine writer and editor, disc jockey, layout designer, corporate communications consultant, classroom teacher, and probably some other things I've mercifully forgotten.
To the degree that I'm "established," I'd say it's strictly by perseverance and stubbornness. I often say that 25 years ago I expected to be rich and famous, but now I'll settle for solvent and respectable. I say this less jokingly as the years go on.
The hoorah is nice, when you write something people like or something that wins an award, but increasingly you realize that popularity is fickle; it's the quality of the work that counts. And I've written at least a few things I think will last.
The advice I have for young writers is to persevere, and to find ways to earn a living that are compatible with writing "your" stuff, above and beyond any assignments that are written for money.
The Shining Shining Path seems to have taken on a life of its' own ....
A couple of years ago, a friend was talking to me about the novel and out of the blue she said, "You still miss those guys a lot, don't you?" Meaning the characters .... Turner and the monks. It seemed a strange statement, them not being "real" people, but before I knew it I was crying. I realized that I miss them every day. I grieve for them, because I don't get to spend time with them any more .... at least, not with the intimacy of seeing their lives unfold in surprising ways, each morning at the keyboard.
I wrote the ending in a way that will allows for a sequel, and I feel sure that someday I'' write one, though it's probably several years off ....
I never get tired of reading from it, for an audience. The book has turned me into a ham.
You've written a handbook for writers.
Teaching is something I fell into totally by accident, and with zero formal training. As a result, my hat is off to "real" teachers who do this difficult thing consistently, as a career, rather than just hit-and-run as I do.
That said, I think the satisfactions of writing and teaching have a lot in common .... making yourself understood, watching an idea go from your mind into somebody else's. And then for the student to take that idea a step further, a direction I hadn't envisioned, so that I end up learning from THEM. That never stops being a rush, for me.
.... Every time I hear that somebody who's been in one of my workshops has been published, it's a thrill, whatever small part I might have played in it.
Do you have any
writing projects in the pipeline?
Visit Dale Short's The Writer's Tool Kit at http://www.writerstoolkit.com
© 2002, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved