Today Write On! interviews Amy Friedman, who has published two memoirs, hundreds of essays and stories, and is completing a book about her marriage to a man in prison. Her syndicated column, “Tell Me A Story,” appears in hundreds of newspapers around the world. Tonight, Amy and Laurel Ollstein (instructors at UCLA) present “From Page to Stage,” an evening of spoken word based on personal essay at Barnes Noble, 1201 Third Street Promenade, in Santa Monica. In addition to the student presentations, best-selling author Hope Edelman will be the evening’s special guest.

Amy Friedman,"Tell Me A Story"

When did you catch the writing bug?

I began writing when I was 12—my first short story about my grandmother who didn’t speak, and whose voice I wanted to hear. I think I’ve since thought of writing in many ways as giving voice both to people and thoughts we might otherwise never hear.

How does “Tell Me A Story” differ from the other types of writing that you do?

In some ways it’s entirely different—the subject matter is given to me since primarily “Tell Me A Story” stories are adaptations of old myths, legends, folk and fairytales, and I have the great good fortune of working with a brilliant illustrator, Jillian Gilliland—so there’s a collaborative process involved; also, I know every story will appear in print, which isn’t always the case. While the column is geared in some respects towards children, I do utilize the same heart, soul and passion for story and language that I use in all my work, so when I’m in the midst of a story, it’s not all that different from my other writing.

How did you go about getting syndicated?

This was one of those “pure luck” moments. I had pitched the column to a small newspaper I worked for—The Kingston Whig Standard in Kingston, Ontario. At that time (1992), the column ran daily—6 days/week, and within a month of its first appearance, 10 other newspapers in Canada picked it up. One day, Universal Press Syndicate’s salesman came to the paper to meet with the editor he usually sold material to; but this time he’d seen the column and was interested in talking to its creator. Voila! Dream come true. Within a few months, our column was appearing in 200 newspapers around the world, and Jillian and I had a 15-year contract. (Gulp). We’ve since (double gulp) signed a second 10-year contract. So now I just pray newspapers don’t die altogether.

Are there any similarities between writing short-form and long-form? What are the differences?

Big question, and both simple to answer and impossible. I’m currently finishing a memoir I’ve been working on for seven years–so one obvious difference for me is the long form takes a much longer time, and because I don’t have a deadline for the book as I have weekly for the column, I have been able to swim a little deeper–and sometimes to become more lost. But I love writing books; I love the fact that I don’t know where I’m going, that the story sometimes feels so elusive, that what I’m trying to say usually slips away and I discover I’m saying something altogether different from what I thought when I began.

Why is diversification so important for a writer?

I’m not sure I’d say it’s important for everyone; I know some people who write … say … plays, some who write poetry, some who focus solely on fiction. But for some reason I feel drawn to just about every form, and I think what’s most important is that a writer let the story tell that writer what it is supposed to be. Many of my students, for instance, come to class determined to write an essay and sometimes they find that essay turning into a memoir, sometimes into a novel. My current dream is to write a musical (this grew in part out of working with the amazing composer Laura Hall on the CDs of “Tell Me A Story;” in our latest one, which will be out in June, we collaborated on a song, and we both want to write more.)

How do you balance all the elements of your career?

Balance? I sometimes think I don’t, but I have learned this: if I don’t make very specific deadlines for myself, and draw up a rather rigid weekly schedule, I don’t get work done. I schedule my column for one day each week, my student grading for another day. I always write my own work—not the column but anything else I’m working on—in the mornings and try to avoid, most of the time, any other kinds of commitments. And my husband is a teacher and writer—so he understands when I’m hiding in my room because that’s often what he’s doing, too. It’s great having a partner who gets it.

What is your favorite part about being a writer? The greatest challenge?

My favorite part of being a writer is writing: that big wide canvas, the play of the mind, the way I’m always being surprised by what I think, see, hear. My greatest challenge: making sure I get my name out there, get work published, and, when that work is published, doing what it takes to let people know it’s out there. I’m not shy except when it comes to promoting my writing—because, well, it sometimes makes me feel like a floozy, but when I don’t do it, I envy those people who are so good at getting their work out in the world.

Advice for writers?

Write. Write a lot. When your brain starts saying, “Oh who cares, this sucks,” or any of those monkey-mind phrases the writer’s mind so often is busy mumbling, heed Annie Dillard’s wisdom and tell yourself, “My feelings are none of my business.” (That is your feelings about your work while you’re in the midst of creating it—because your feelings will be wrong whether you think you suck or you’re fabulous). Don’t quit. Yes, there are plenty of books and stories in the world. We don’t NEED more. But if you feel compelled to write, to tell a story, to communicate, to weave language and ideas, then you must listen to that inner voice. And be patient with your work. It needs nurturing. And read read read read. Buy hardcover books. See plays and films and great television (there is some), go to museums, listen to music. Be kind to yourself and to other artists. And go to artists’ colonies. Nothing feeds work better than time and being surrounded by other creators.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?

Everything. I wish I’d known how hard writing can be—that each book and each story I start feels almost like starting over. On the other hand, had I known that, I don’t know if I’d have come this far, and I’m glad I didn’t quit.


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  2. Carolyn Sherman 13 years ago

    So proud of you, Amy.
    Did you want the lyrics to ‘Ginger Cookies’ Maybe that could be your next collaboration????????????

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