Posted by: Liz Massey | October 30, 2009

In the Studio With … Sarah Quigley


Novelist Sarah Quigley

Photo courtesy of Sarah Quigley.

Today we interview novelist Sarah Quigley, a writer who is balancing motherhood, with the pressures of producing a good sophomore work. Her story is particularly encouraging because she was able to succeed in getting published without a formal background in creative writing or English literature; she simply did work that she loved, and in an incredible stroke of luck, she received the opportunity to create a novel for a publishing house.

Quigley has great insights about the creative process and the necessity of time-outs during a long project. Enjoy!

Tell us about your creative pursuits, paid and unpaid.

I’ve been writing since I was six. A group of older children came to my first grade class to read books that they’d written and illustrated themselves. It occurred to me that I could write my own book, too, so I did. My first book was about best friends named Rocker and Mary, female versions of Goofus and Gallant (remember them from Highlights magazine?).

My aunt gave me a journal when I was nine, and I wrote regularly in that until I was in college. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I tried my hand at different kinds of writing: short stories, poetry, and opinion pieces for the school newspaper.

I began blogging in graduate school as a way to procrastinate on writing my master’s thesis. A few years later, it attracted the attention of an editor at Penguin. She thought my writing style would work well in a young adult novel and invited me to pitch her an idea for a book. I knew I would never get an opportunity like this again, so I immediately got to work putting together an outline. The editor liked it, I signed a contract, and three and a half years later, my debut novel, TMI, was published.

I’m currently working on my second book. Everyone asks if it’s a sequel to TMI, but it’s a totally new project. It’s a coming-of-age story that takes place at a summer resort.

Do you have any formal training in your creative discipline(s)? Do you feel training is important in creative development? Why/why not?

No, I don’t have any formal training in creative writing, but my academic pursuits were focused heavily on language. I have a bachelor’s degree in Russian and a master’s in English as a second language, and I believe my studies and professional experience have helped me develop as a writer.

I’m sure I would have benefited from taking some writing courses or joining a critique group (and I’m still open to doing these things). Instead, I spent many years alone in my room with a pen in my hand or sitting at a computer, getting all the words out. This was excellent training. True, I wasn’t getting any feedback, but that also gave me the freedom to experiment and find my voice. I didn’t worry about whether or not my writing was good enough for anyone else.

What habits do you cultivate to facilitate your creative “flow”?

Until I was under contract to write TMI, I simply wrote when the mood struck. Fortunately, that happened almost daily for many years. Then, when I had a deadline to deliver a completed manuscript, I had to get a bit more disciplined. I couldn’t treat writing as a full-time job, as some authors do, because I already had a full-time job teaching ESL to college students. I set aside an hour or two each day and forced myself to focus.

In between writing TMI and my new novel, I had a baby and became a stay-at-home mother. I thought I’d be able to write during nap time, but it turned out that I needed a nap as badly as my daughter did most days. It was often difficult to find even an hour of uninterrupted time each day, and I tended to glaze over when I finally sat down at the computer. I was overwhelmed and stressed out and feeling guilty about all the writing I wasn’t doing, so I gave myself permission to take a few months off.

This past summer, I returned to my new project with renewed vigor and a fresh plan of attack. My goal is to write a thousand words a day, six days a week. This forces me to be efficient with my time and also accommodates interruptions. It was a struggle to make myself reach my daily word count at first. Now I’ve got a great momentum going, and I recently rewarded myself with a new outfit for completing 20,000 words in less than a month. I expect to have a first draft finished before Thanksgiving.

What advice would you give to a “blocked” artist in your discipline to free up their creative energies?

Be patient with yourself. A year ago, I would have said that writers need to continue to write all the time, no matter what. However, I did myself a huge favor when I took a break. I finally recognized that, as a new mother, my focus had shifted and that it was normal and okay. I talked to other authors who were parents, and they assured me that I would find my creativity and ideas and mental energy again. And finally, I did.

Which artistic project that you are working on excites you the most right now?

There’s only one, and it’s my new novel. It’s quite a departure from TMI, and I’m really enjoying it.

How do you select your creative projects? What elements of a potential project tend to intrigue you the most?

So far, I’ve loosely based my novels around my own experiences. Of course, there are healthy doses of the imaginary; if I wrote biographically, the stories wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

I find plotting incredibly challenging, but I love creating characters and giving them quirks and mannerisms and secrets.

Any other advice to artists to help them create more effortlessly?

I’m not sure that “effortless” and “art” belong in the same sentence! That being said, I think that persistence, consistency, and silencing one’s inner critic are all crucial to the production process. On days when writing isn’t going well, I tell myself that it’s okay to write badly. After all, a badly written novel can be fixed, but an unwritten novel can’t.

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