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Member Spotlight: Pat Valdata

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? Writing has been important to me since I was a little girl watching my mother read to me from a Golden Book. I marveled at how she understood those black squiggles on the page. When I learned how to read, I devoured books and spent many happy hours in our public library. I loved how books transported me to other worlds, other places, other cultures. I wanted to be able to do that myself, so I’ve been writing ever since I learned to put sentences together into paragraphs. Writing is fundamental to much communication, so its importance is fairly obvious. But today’s connectivity means that writers can reach more readers, and readers can connect with writers, in ways that weren’t possible before. It’s also easier for writers to connect with other writers, and it’s a joy to find people who share goals and dreams, and who can support one another through tough times.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? I don’t entirely believe in writer’s block. When I have trouble with a piece of writing, it’s usually because that piece isn’t ready or me to put it in words. I need to process it more, in my mind, and usually without consciously thinking about it, until it’s ready. It’s kind of like a stew that tastes better after it sits in the fridge overnight. The cook isn’t doing anything to that stew except letting it sit, and all by itself, the flavors meld, so that what results is much better than the “first draft” of the stew. When I have trouble with a novel, for example, I’ll set it aside and write some poetry. If that doesn’t work, I’ll write an email. As long as I write something, I can still feel productive. I can go back to the original project refreshed and, I hope, make more progress on that. It’s really important not to try to rush things onto paper (or a screen) until they’re ready. However, I’ve found it harder to write anything this year. Anxiety over Covid-19 makes it hard for me to be relaxed enough to be creative. I think many writers and artists feel that way. We need to give ourselves time to process that anxiety, and to focus on the people we love. The writing will come when it comes.

What is your favorite time to write? I’m not a morning person, so I’ve never been able to get up and write. I usually come to my desk around 9:30-10:00. If I can write for a couple of hours, take a lunch break, and then write for another couple of hours, I consider it a good day. Of course, I’m retired from day jobs now, so I have the luxury of writing on my own schedule. When I worked in corporate communications, I could do creative writing only one or two evenings a week. The writing and editing I did from 9-5 seemed to suck all the creative energy out of me. When I switched to teaching, I couldn’t get any of my own writing done while I taught four writing classes a semester. If not for writing residencies, I don’t think I would have produced any new writing at all. The first draft of my third novel, Eve’s Daughters, was entirely written over several residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The same goes for the first draft of my poetry book, Where No Man Can Touch, published in 2015. At a residency, I work at a much more intense and focused pace. It’s much easier not to be distracted there. I can produce in two weeks what would take months at home!

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? Peter Murphy, one of my favorite writing teachers, conducts annual workshops, and his two pieces of advice are to surprise yourself and to lower your standards. Surprising oneself leads to discovery, and it’s so much more fun than simply “writing what you know.” Peter encourages his students to let the writing go where it wants to go instead of trying to force it into where we think it should go. But that requires us to lower our standards and accept a first draft that may be terrible. I think too many writers, especially when they’re starting out, try to make every sentence perfect. But perfecting a sentence requires different cognitive skills than creative writing does, and so the writing grinds to a halt before it can even get started. It’s much better to accept that a first draft will be–and should be–flawed, and to just keep going. Editing is a completely different process and should be done after the first draft is finished. It’s hard for a perfectionist like me to do that, but it works.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? I am so grateful for the technology that has let us stay connected during these months and months of separation. I miss the fun of readings, workshops, and conferences, both as a presenter and as an attendee. So having all these events available on Zoom has been wonderful. While nothing beats in-person events, being able to attend and present online, to see faces and hear voices, has been a delight. It’s also given me the chance to attend events that I wouldn’t have gone to because of distance or timing. I’m grateful to all the organizers, hosts, and technical support people who have made it happen, and to all the writers who have coped with glitches to share their work with us.

Pat Valdata’s Eve’s Daughters is out now with Moonshine Cove Publishing.