By now, you’d think Debra Spark might be a household name. Author, journalist and professor, Spark has penned four novels, two books about writing and countless essays on everything from humor to home design. She’s won awards and fellowships, and served as a judge for numerous writing competitions. Her latest book, “And Then Something Happened: Essays on Fiction Writing,” derives from a series of lectures that she gave at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. In these essays, she combines memoir, problem solving and lessons on the writer’s craft. Vivid, warm and entertaining, the book includes references to a wide range of modern literature.

Cover courtesy of Engine Books

Spark teaches at Colby College, where she has been dispensing her brand of literary wisdom for 25 years. In a recent conversation, she spoke of storytelling and stomachaches, imagination and radio. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Let’s start with the challenges of storytelling. Is it possible to be skilled at some kinds of storytelling, but not others?

A: One of the things I discuss in the book is my own difficulty telling stories. In terms of being a raconteur around adults, I’m okay. I’m good at telling an anecdote at a cocktail party. But there are other kinds of storytelling that completely elude me — and especially telling stories to children. I was sort of shocked to find out how bad I was at telling stories to our son when he was little. I thought I would be great! But that impulse — that make-believe impulse — I was very, very bad at.

For me, storytelling and writing are pretty different. I feel like I know how to write, and I consider myself a fiction writer. But I think I’m much more of a writer than an oral storyteller.

Q: Do you learn from your own writing?


A: I don’t know — I don’t think so. One thing that I’ve heard a lot of writers say, and I absolutely feel this way myself, is that one of the frustrations of being a writer is, you write a book, and you work out whatever problems there are in the book. But that doesn’t help you write the next book, since the next book will have its own set of problems. In other disciplines, it seems like you would move forward. But a writer can write a fabulous book, and follow it with one that really stinks!

Q: But wouldn’t you say that your writing today is better, or more confident, than it was 10 years ago?

A: At the same time my publisher brought out this new book, they were going to re-issue my first novel, from 1994, “Coconuts for the Saint.” I thought my first novel was good — it got very nice reviews, it won a big prize. So I went back and reread it — it gave me such a stomachache! I thought it was really flawed, really messed up. Rereading it was a horrible experience.

Q: And you weren’t feeling more sympathetic toward your younger self?

A: No! Then I reread the first story I’d ever published in Esquire. The first story that I thought was good, the first novel that I thought was good — and now, they completely make me cringe.

Q: How distressing!


A: I feel more sympathetic to my younger self as a person. I remember what a fragile little thing she was, but I was disappointed in my writing.

Q: That’s so interesting, especially for someone who teaches, and who knows what goes into making one’s writing better over time.

A: When I went to graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it was thumbs up, or thumbs down. You came in with your story, and people said, “Good,” “Bad,” and that was it. People didn’t try to help. Now I think people are like, “It’s a workshop. Let’s work on it, let’s figure out how to make it better!” People are always competitive and have big egos, but I think you’re encouraged to put your ego aside. I just think it’s a kinder, gentler world now, in terms of how people teach fiction.

Q: In the book, you talk about what’s interesting in a story — or not.

A: There’s this conceit that you can make anything interesting — you just have to make formal changes, which I actually do not believe. Aside from teaching fiction writing at Colby, I also teach documentary radio. In radio stories, you cannot be boring. If you’re not compelling every single second, people are not going to wait a sentence or two for you to get interesting. Radio people try to articulate for themselves what is interesting about a story, as a way to convince their producers that it’s worthy of producing. So I wanted to think about it in terms of fiction writing: Can you figure out if a story is interesting before you write it? It’s hard, but I think it’s worth figuring out.

Q: For me, one of the great revelations of your book goes back to the old adage, “Write what you know.” But you mention Joan Wickersham, who argues that the emphasis of that quote should be on you, the writer, not what you know.


A: If you look at visual artists at a retrospective, you can see what maybe you can’t see as easily with literary artists. Which is, that you tend to inflate your masters. You’re trying to be the writer you love, or the painter you love, so you’re somewhat imitative. Then you move on, other influences come into play. Ideally, at some point, you figure out who you are — and it’s not the person you most admired, or your teachers; it’s yourself. Wickersham’s quote was geared toward that — toward figuring out who you are. I love that. There are analogues in lots of different careers. You’re learning and copying, but at some point, it’s your originality and what you bring to it that’s independent of your influences.

Q: What is the hardest thing to teach or convey about writing?

A: For me, it’s when students have ideas about stories that they’ve gotten from videos, from movies, from fantasy novels. They’re really cliched, really crappy, and they’re focused on world-building, but they really like it, they believe in it and they want to do it. It’s very hard for me to try to explain why it’s a cliche, because it’s not a cliche to them. For me personally, I find it hard to explain why a certain kind of fantasy is cliched when, say, speculative fiction can be fantastic.

Q: If they’re hellbent on writing it, would you steer them to writing it differently somehow?

A: Yes, in subtle ways. It’s so important — but this year especially, when they’re all struggling. Who knows what they’re going through? They may have lost a family member, the family may not be working. It’s especially important to me not to upset a student. I’ve always worried about my students — it’s such a fragile time of life. But I’m also supposed to be teaching, so if they hand in something terrible, that I think is full of cliches, I’m obliged to help them understand that in as gentle a way as possible. Sometimes, by just orienting them to write a different scene.

Q: Are there aspects of writing that cannot be taught — that are just not teachable?

A: I don’t think you can teach someone how to have an imagination. I can teach rules about grammar, craft, theme, what a plot is, how dialogue should be written. The formal aspects of writing can be taught, but imagination cannot. That’s my job — to help students access their imagination.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her book of linked essays, “Someday This Will Fit” (Bauhan Publishing), was a finalist for the 14th Annual National Indies Excellence Awards.

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