Maggy Smith interview writing storytelling

Storytelling by Compulsion: Interview with Maggy Smith

Maggy Smith was born to a small dynasty of Polish craftsmen, illustrators, inventors, and designers. Her childhood home in the Wisconsin wilderness featured not only hills and cornfields, but mosaic bathroom counters and 12-foot metal flowers in the garden. She pulled her first all-nighter helping her uncle and her grandmother glue clocks to a fiberglass cow. Clearly she was doomed at an early age.

She published her first novel at the age of 18 and graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in Art and English in 2015.  Today, her work still carries the same sense of quirkiness and resourcefulness that her family taught her, but also weaves in a love of narrative and story that’s all her own.

Tell me about the writing you have done, academic and creative.  How would you compare writing Hillsdale essays to composing for a job or crafting a story?

I may not be as much a writer as I am a compulsive storyteller. I’ve written lots of short stories and longer works, and I published a novel called The White Statue under the pseudonym Quinn Pendrey. At Hillsdale, I majored in English, and so I wrote a good number of academic papers analyzing topics like Brave New World’s religious systems and Virgil’s struggle to lead Dante through The Divine Comedy.

Honestly, I found the two types of writing quite different: demanding the same skills but in different capacities. For example, both creative writing and academic writing require a lot of imagination, but in academia you have to bind your imagination to the subject matter, and look more for connections within the source material than for jumping-off points. In researching a story, in contrast, you’re Icarus and whatever you’re researching is a cliff: Find a good spot or an interesting idea and off you fly … for better or worse.

What is your writing process?  How do you get from a blank page to a finished piece?  What do you do to overcome writer’s block?

I keep a journal that I call my Development Journal, which is where most of my stories start. If I have an idea or a concept I think might be interesting or worthwhile, I’ll start stream-of-conscious writing my way through it, exploring the different characters, themes, and pacing. These entries largely consist of “ACK”, “GAH”, “But what if . . . OH OH OH” and the like. It’s probably not super useful to the outside reader, but eventually it helps me get a more complete idea of what’s happening, and it helps me think of angles I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d just jumped right into writing.

Once I understand the characters’ motivations and I have a basic outline, I’ll put the notebook aside and grab the keyboard and a sketchpad. As I write, if I’m having trouble describing a scene or getting myself into the moment, I’ll start drawing what I’m having trouble with: the arrangement of people around a dinner table, the room they’re standing in, the look of the new characters my protagonists just met, whatever. Drawing forces me to think about how all the parts of the scene work together, and what interactions or elements I might be missing that could help the story move along. This method also helps me better understand the mood I’m trying to convey. Then, if I continue writing and realize that mechanically the story isn’t working or that I need to alter part of my outline, I’ll go back to the Development Journal and verbally bang my head against the problem until it resolves itself.

It’s a complex system, but I find that it helps a lot with writer’s block. Stories don’t have to stay stuck in their word docs; sometimes they just need to get air. Trying the tale out in different media—whether that be in drawing, writing stream-of-consciousness, talking an idea out with a friend—helps me explore ideas and aspects that might not have occurred to me before. When I don’t have any ideas at all, again, I try a different medium. Sometimes, that’s asking a friend to give me a story prompt, which makes me think of ideas and plots I wouldn’t have considered myself. Sometimes that’s illustrating someone else’s characters or stories. Sometimes that’s trying my hand at something like verbal storytelling or poetry. Ideas beget ideas: As soon as you get things rolling again, it can be hard to stem the tide—and you have all these new experiences and ideas to bring to bear that you wouldn’t have gotten had you not worked through the writer’s block that way.

What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started working to improve your writing?

Read. Read like there is no tomorrow. If I had one weakness in my own writing, it’s that I don’t read enough—I tend to be too selective, and only pick up a book if it’s recommended in sextuplicate, since I feel that if I pick it up I have to finish it. I’m still getting over this one. Go ahead and take risks in your reading: It’s okay not to finish a bad book, and you might just find a good author nobody else has ever heard of.

Alongside that advice, be an active reader. If you want to write fiction, don’t just read fiction; read history, read memoirs, read poetry, read news articles, read blogs. Every medium has something to teach you, whether that be in its mechanics or in its content.

What authors do you read for their writing style, or publications for their writing quality?

I’m a sucker for clever wordplay and whimsical worlds. As such, Terry Pratchett holds a special place in my heart. His next door neighbors are G.K. Chesterton, P.G. Wodehouse, and Peter Beagle. I also read a lot of poetry, especially from the Victorian era: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Tennyson, and Edgar Allan Poe are my favorites in that category.

What have you written that makes you proud — and what still makes you cringe?

Those are difficult questions because the answers are often the same. I’ll look back at my old writing and think, “Hey, that’s a pretty good plot twist” or “nice turn of phrase”—and then in the very next paragraph I’m averting my eyes from the page and wondering how on earth I thought that piece of dialogue was anything close to what I wanted to say. At the same time, I’ll pick up a story that I abandoned with many dark oaths and loathings a few years ago, and think “OK, this world is awful—but that random bystander character, he’s got some great dialogue …”

I guess that’s part of being a writer: You’re never going to write the perfect piece, but at the same time you’re not going to write a complete piece of trash either. Just as every good piece has its cringe-worthy elements, so every bad piece has its bits and scraps that you can salvage, brush off, and try placing in a different setting.

That’s what editing is for.

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