Elaine Howley

2012HeadshotThird installment in my series of interviews with first place category winners in the 82nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. I’m so glad I decided to do this because there is such variety among these writers, and all of them are really interesting and articulate (imagine that). Enjoy!

Tell me about your winning story. Where did you get the idea? Is it part of a longer piece? What is your favorite thing about it? (And is there a link to it somewhere, or is it only available in the competition collection when it comes out in November?)  

My winning story was a magazine feature profile of sportscaster and former NFL sideline reporter Andrea Kremer. The idea actually came as an assignment for SWIMMER magazine, for which I was freelancing at the time. (I have since been hired as their Associate Editor, which has been a wonderful rescue from an awful and stressful day job that I had for three years while trying to build up my freelance business.) For the Kremer profile (Tiny Titan), the magazine actually flew me to Orlando to attend a swim meet where she was swimming. I spent two days hanging out with Andrea — interviewing her, swimming with her, and just generally getting to know her, which I think really helped to inform the story. I always feel like I get so much more from people when I get to interview them in person. It’s hard to do it, but when it works out, I then have a lot of really rich material to draw from when I sit down to write.

I’ve put a link to the story as it was published in SWIMMER on my blog, Tales of the Beer Baby. The piece I submitted to the WD contest was a slightly edited version. Their strict 2,000 word limit for the category meant I had to lose about 200 words on the piece. It also gave me an opportunity to revise a few things that actually made the piece stronger. That final version will be what’s published in the compilation, but you can check out the original piece as it looked in the magazine online here.

When did you decide you wanted to write, or that you were serious enough or good enough to call yourself a writer? What do you love about your genre/type of writing? How did you know what to write?

I feel like I’ve always been a writer. I can remember being about 7 or 8 and trying to write down every word I could think of that began with a certain letter of the alphabet. I won first place two years running in a short story contest sponsored by the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English when I was in 5th and 6th grade, which was some early positive feedback about my skills. When I was in 8th grade, my English teacher always paired me with another student who was not as facile with the language so I could help bring him up a little, and I got a lot of practice with editing and workshopping his work. On the last day of 8th grade, she made me promise that I’d send her a copy of my first book, since she knew I would become a writer someday. Funny how certain teachers just know stuff like that.

I majored in German and Studio Art as an undergrad, which was really interesting but didn’t prepare me well for the job market, so after a stint teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer, I came home and was amounting to little more than a receptionist. That didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to go back to grad school. But for what? I thought seriously about doing a physical therapy course, but I discovered Emerson College’s MA in Publishing and Writing and it just made a lot of sense to me to get back to my love of words and see where it would take me. Not long after I got into grad school (which I completed at night while working full time) I landed a new job writing and editing for a niche publishing and consulting firm. I learned so much on the job there about how to crank out good newsletter articles and book projects on demand. I also learned how to interview people and how to be fearless in following up, all good skills to have as a freelance writer.

I think once I’d graduated from Emerson, I began to think of myself as a writer, but it was only after I had my first magazine article published (in SWIMMER) that I started introducing myself to other people as a writer. That was a big mental leap for me, a shift in my very identity.

I have really dug into the magazine feature writing area in the last 4 years, and have been surprised at how much I love it. The format just works for me– getting to dive into a topic for 1,800 to 2,000 words, learn as much as I can, distill it down, and then wrap it all up with a nice bow is just great fun and exciting work. Particularly profiles. I find other people fascinating, and I like to listen to their stories and try to figure out what makes them tick. I also know that everyone has something unique and truly interesting about them and it’s my job to find out what that one central, vital thing is and then express it to readers. It’s a challenge and a bit like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. And when they all click into place, it’s a really great feeling.

I can’t say that I ever really knew what to write, I just sort of drifted into it, led there by my passion for swimming and my interest in learning more about the various aspects of the sport and other swimmers. Way leads on to way, and here I am now a working journalist and editor. I write a lot about swimming, but I’ve written about other sports, too, and some other topics here and there. It’s a really interesting journey. I never would have guessed that I’d be doing this today when I first entered the Emerson program in 2003. But, I love what I do; being creative every day, especially about subjects I’m interested in and passionate about, is just such a treat.

What are your goals or current projects? Where are you on your path to being a published writer? (Are you working on a book? Focusing on short stories? I see the list of clips on your website.)

There’s so much I’d like to do with my writing, but I find that time is a real problem, as I am constantly working. My long distance swimming requires a lot of training time, too, but that’s when I think up new ideas and do a lot of that mental pre-writing that’s so important. I’ve been published extensively in various magazines, newsletters, and websites. I’ve written several business management manuals and completed several book-length market intelligence reports, but I haven’t gotten a ‘real’ book published yet, which is a major goal for me. I’ve been shopping around a few swimming-related non-fiction concepts. I’m hopeful I can find an agent to help me with that. In the meanwhile, my tactic is to just keep pitching and collecting clips and bylines and continue to develop relationships with other editors in the magazine world. I feel like it will happen, I just need to keep working really hard at it!

Who we are and what we believe often comes through in our writing since it influences our world view. Does your faith (whatever it might be, or even a lack of faith) play any part in what you write?

I’m not a religious person, but I would call myself a spiritual person, and I am in touch with that part of my life when I am in the midst of a very long swim. That’s when I get to commune with nature and think deeply about things. It’s a zen-like meditation practice when I get into that zone. A friend once described it as a shamanic experience. Whatever you call it, it’s wonderful when it happens and it’s a big draw to the sport. Part of the beauty of long distance swimming is that mental space to think or not, as the water moves me. That does greatly influence what and how I write. I can’t tell you how many articles and stories I drafted in my head during my 18-hour Lake Memphremagog swim. I couldn’t remember them all when I got back to my computer a couple days later, but I know their fingerprints are there and echoes of them seep out when I write. It’s all in there, and having the peace and space during a swim to just be is an important part of the creative process for me.

My blog and book are about prayer, but focused more on creativity and about new ways of looking at things. Do you have any interesting or unusual approaches to writing and/or your writing process? Or anything to say about the connection between your swimming or other activities you do and writing? Or any advice for someone who has the desire to pursue this passion? Or would you like to share the best writing advice anyone gave you? (Or any other semi-related topic?)

I guess I sort of already covered this in the preceding answer. More on the swimming and writing connection: It’s not only that I often write about swimming, but also that being active helps with all forms of intellectual thought. Getting the blood moving and being physical is very important to sparking creativity and being a productive writer. I find that I’m more articulate on days I swim and I’m less productive on the days I skip the workout.

The best piece of writing advice I ever got was to stop asking adjectives to do all the heavy lifting. Rely on your verbs; they’re strong, they can take the weight. Once I realized that I was overusing adjectives, my writing style settled into something approximating a voice and that’s when I started gaining a lot of traction with my writing.

The other best writing advice is to just do it. Stop over thinking it and just get it out on paper. You can always go back and revise. Don’t overthink the first draft.

Quick — don’t stop and think about it — can you name five books you’ve read fairly recently that you loved and would recommend that others read?

Oh boy. My book reading has really suffered lately because of my work schedule and all the swimming. I read a lot of magazines and web articles for work, research, and just for fun, but books, not so much lately even though I was that kid who always had her nose in a book growing up. These days, I’m so tired at night, I get about 2 pages in before zonking out. So instead, I’m going to list some of the most influential books I’ve ever read and why they make my list.

1) A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond– My mom brought this book home from the library when I was 10. It’s about an American family that moves to Wales after the mother’s death. The son finds a magic harp key and his experiences with the key change him and his family. It’s a beautifully constructed young adult historical fiction book that really spoke to me then and still does now. I played the harp as a kid and could really relate to the protagonist’s struggles. This book sparked a life-long love affair with Wales and with words.

2) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov– This is just a wild ride across time and space, that alternates between Soviet Moscow and biblical Jerusalem. I first found Bulgakov while I was living in Ukraine and this book helped me make sense of the sometimes bizarre culture I was living in. The imagery is so vividly painted, many of the scenes have stuck with me for years and underscore the “show don’t tell” advice we’ve all gotten ad nauseum.

3) Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal– I read this book in grad school during a fabulously interesting Czech literature course I took, and wow, it just blew me away. It’s about a hermit who saves books from being burned. He’s amassed an absurd number of books and though he’s a recluse, he lives a very vibrant inner life. This book sparked my imagination and solidified my love of Czech literature. I’m also a big fan of another of Hrabal’s books, I Served the King of England. Fabulously imaginative stuff in both books.

4) The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas– Speaking of imagination and beauty, I read this book during an East meets West literature course as an undergrad at Georgetown and I was taken with the sweeping beauty of the imagery and the way characters dealt with difficult topics. I re-read the book a few years ago, and was struck by some of the parallels with my own life, with the characters traversing many places I’ve lived: Massachusetts, Vienna, and Ukraine. This is a breathtakingly beautiful and haunting book.

5) A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole– I read this book the summer before entering college and loved it for the entertainment value, but also for the deeper message that we should question. Not taking authority at face value is a good thing to be reminded of as one prepares to enter college. And I just loved the author’s rolling style of writing; grabbed right from the start and never let go.

Where can people find you online?

blog.talesofthebeerbaby.com and www.athleta.net
Twitter: @emkhowley

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