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Practical Writing Tips From Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver‘s The Poinsonwood Bible is a masterpiece.

I have read it a few times – once in high school, once as an adult, a handful of skims to “study” its form – and always walk away astounded by how Kingsolver can craft such a rich, light story through multiple characters and time periods and places. She is a modern master who I am admittedly under-read in.

She has a new book out – Unsheltered – seems to cover very contemporary subjects and has tossed her in the PR circuit, to talk about writing and reading and the intermix within her literary life. I am all about these stories. I’m also all about hearing a writer write about their writing practice, which Kingsolver recently did for Publishers Weekly. It is invaluable information, much of which I have learned in my MFA life and can tell you that she offers a ten minute read that is worth many, many a dollar.

One that I want to point out is a to “study something other than writing.” This sounds counterintuitive but hear her (and me) out.

In school, in life, wherever you can get it, acquiring authority over interesting material will boost the confidence side of your writing equation. I feel incredibly lucky to be one of the few novelists on the planet who followed the (somewhat accidental) plan of getting undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology before starting my literary career. If I had it all to do over again, on purpose, I would follow the same course, not just because I love science but also because of the career edge it offers. I have at my disposal a well of information on, say, evolutionary theory, genetics, the mechanics of climate change and such as that, which I can work to translate into literature for readers who didn’t take those classes but are honestly eager to learn. If I had three wishes, I might spend one on giving more scientists the facility and will to write novels. We could also use more novelist-anthropologists, civil engineers, farmers, you name it. Craft is a lifelong study for writers: debut novels I read for fresh vision; classics I reread carefully for technique; the plots of movies I deconstruct while my patient husband drives us home from the theater. Craft is always on the table. But content can make the meal.

I love this: the novelist as working other. The ultimate side-hustle! This truly is what the writing life is and, accordingly, writing and work overlaps in such a way.

I also find that knowing something else is vital to your writing. Whenever I get stuck, whenever I am trying to find a solution in my work, I do research. I figure out a way to become an expert. This inevitably leads me to an answer: knowing more gives you more. You can’t write without material. Knowing more, studying something, is the fuel that pushes the pen.

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