I would like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Author Mark Hummel to Layered Pages today. Mark is here is talk about his writing. Why he writes, how it has impacted his life and writing advice. His fiction, poetry, and essays have regularly appeared in a variety of literary journals for more than twenty years including such publications as The Bloomsbury Review, Dogwood, Fugue, Talking River Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, and Zone 3. A longtime former college professor and writing program director, he has also served as a teacher in an independent high school, directed a writers’ conference, worked as a librarian, and taught on the faculty of several writers’ conferences. He is the founding editor of the nonfiction magazine bioStories. A native of Wyoming, Hummel lives in Montana’s beautiful Flathead Valley.
Why I write …
Why do I write? I don’t have a choice. For me, writing is the one way I process the world, the only way that makes sense to me. No other way of thinking—and at its root, even in storytelling, writing is an organized kind of thinking for me—really makes since for the manner in which my mind works. The pace fits. The rhythm suits me. I need the time for ideas to take root and find their way to the surface. I need space to cultivate them. I need a long season if I am to bring those ideas to harvest.
In conversation I will likely fumble or trip. I will fail to clarify a point or not succeed in expressing an opinion with sufficient elegance to solidify the facts that will support it. When speaking, I can’t, really I can’t, tell a story with sufficient detail or enough economy to hold your attention. But in writing I can find the means to make sense of the world and, on my best days, help a reader see something within it from a divergent point of view or in a new way or to come close to experiencing something that reader will not otherwise experience. And I need the convergence of idea and a specific—a fact, an experience, a firsthand account, an emotional reaction—in order to elucidate the idea. So, in that way, stories make sense to me, make a world of ideas and human experiences come alive for me. It’s not as if I don’t live in the moment, or rather the moments of life, but I am one of those oddballs who then needs to write about such moments if I am ever truly to make sense of them, for I wish to know how they may have arrived and where they may lead.
How writing has impacted my life …
I’ve been actively writing since childhood. Literally ever since I had enough intellectual ability to string words together and enough manual dexterity to hold a writing instrument, I’ve been writing stories. As a child I had tremendous numbers of small plastic animals. I’d clip out order forms from the backs of magazines and comic books and send away for them. I’d do so with such regularity that I had a practical Noah’s ark of monkeys and rabbits, rhinos and zebras, lions and alligators. A few favorites were permitted to live in an apartment, a Manhattan penthouse as I imagined it, for which I had drawn the floorplan on plain white paper and lined the top drawer of my dresser. This was a space not for clothes but for imagination. With these select animal apartment dwellers I populated stories employing the very worst sort of anthropomorphism, beyond anthropomorphism really, for they lived lives that looked entirely human, as if they were figures in a Disney animation. I share this childhood eccentricity because I can’t separate such stories from the desire to tell them or from the way they helped me inhabit worlds that felt entirely real, and thus, I can’t really separate them from the core impulses that form why I write.
So how has writing impacted my life? I can’t really say, for writing is inextricably a part of that life and essentially always has been. In one fashion or another, whether teaching writing or working as a writing coach (as I continue to do) in intimate coordination with other writers, whether hosting writers for public sessions to read or discuss their craft or writing my own books, stories, and articles, writing has provided me the means for a life—as employment, utility, dream, and desire. So, in short, I’ve known nothing else. Or sure, I’ve worked my share of odd jobs throughout the years to help make bills each month, but these have always worked around a writing life and a writing schedule. As such, I cannot define my life without writing and thus cannot separate out specific impacts writing has had upon it. What I can say is that, no matter the relationship of the moment with writing—and there are endless looping repeated cycles of love affairs and suicide watches regarding a relationship with writing—no matter how you might measure degrees of success or failure, essentially the writing—the work—has never fundamentally changed.
First, let me admit that you will find nothing sexy here, no sage tidbits never before uttered and nothing life-altering, for writing, while it can be joyful and it can be maddening, is work. And you should treat it as such. Yes, if you do it well enough and with enough discipline and sufficient application of both proper energies and filters, it can become art, but art starts with work. So if you wish to be a writer, you write. It’s stale advice, so tired as to sound silly. But then again you’d be amazed at the number of people who either wish to be writers or assert to be writers and write very little. No, instead you write every day. You develop patterns, rituals, and rhythms that work for you, find your own quirky and quixotic tools, the ones that help you produce good work faster, create spaces or conditions that support your needs. And then you write. You write in good weather and bad, in broken moments and in whole ones, in moods supportive and moods with which you engage in battle. You write.
Second, and you will properly hear this from all writers, you read. Everything. With time I am convinced that if you read enough you’ll begin to differentiate what is good from what is not entirely without the consultation of critics or others, and at the very least, you will find what you love. But you must learn two things when you read; 1) read what you didn’t know you loved and learn to respect it, and 2) learn to read not just as a reader but as a writer; you must move beyond understanding what a text accomplishes and pay attention to how it succeeds.
Demand something of yourself. Not just in productivity but in quality. To do so, learn that you must produce work that fails in order to produce work that succeeds. Re-see and re-work and revise until the work is good, however long that takes and no matter how strange and experimental your approaches to get there. Attempt originality. Don’t knowingly write what others are writing or what they have written (you will do so unknowingly often enough as it is). Write what only you can write, whatever that may be and do so honestly and with respect for the work, for the ideas, and for the people who may one day read it. Learn to love sentences and words and be stern with both. In the end, try and write each day as if you will not have another day to write. Do that and the rest will follow…