10-Minute Writer's Workshop: Stacy Schiff

Nov 6, 2015

As David McCullough says, "history in the hands of Stacy Schiff is invariably full of life, light, shadow, surprise, clarity of insight... Few writers combine as she does superb scholarship and an exceptional gift for language with amazing reach and agility of mind. "

Schiff, a Pulitizer Prize-winning author and historian, joined us at The Music Hall in Portsmouth for our program Writers on a New England Stage, to talk about her newest book, The Witches: Salem, 1692.

Shortly before taking the stage, Virginia spoke with Stacy Schiff in the green room about her writing process.  It's a behind-the-scenes look at how a renowned author writes, and we call it "The 10-Minute Writers' Workshop."

Listen to the workshop:

 

Credit Sara Plourde

Harder to write - the first sentence or the last?
Definitely the first sentence. The first sentence goes through many drafts. The last sentence writes itself.

On a certain squirrelly habit:
Avoid your email, which is probably the single greatest sin in my workday. I can't write a sentence without checking my email six times. I don't think that's a particularly effective habit... I write a little note to myself saying "check your email at 10:10," and at 9:03 I'm checking my email.

On editing:
I edit as I go, because I don't know where I'm going to go until I have something solid. I feel like the ground has to be solid before I can take the next step... The problem with having been an editor, it's like having been a surgeon - you can't operate on yourself.

Worst distraction?
Email, email, email. Or food. Email or food. Sugar or email.

Most common mistake new writers make?
Writing something that you think someone else wants to read, as opposed to what you actually want to write... trying to please the outside critic, as opposed to writing what is honest to you.

Best training for being a biographer?
Reading, reading, and reading. I can't think of any other way to become a writer than just by imbibing vast amounts of print.

On the role of the biographer:
It's like high-class gossip, basically. I think it helps to have a certain amount of compassion or interest in other people. I'm inherently not interested in myself, which I think is probably... a good tool for the biographer. Other people seem much more interesting than I do.

Best piece of writing advice received?
Write so that the reader will want to turn the page. Or, the old stage adage, keep your hero in trouble.

Writing tools & habits?
Mechanical pencil, with an eraser on it - highly crucial! - on a yellow legal pad. It's an organic process, a musical thing, in a funny way... you're composing to the rhythm and you're trying to be concise as possible, which is one reason I write by hand. I'm a very fast typist, and I find that if I write on the computer, I'm much wordier than I needed to be.

Fantasy job other than writer?
I want to be a Rockette.