Interview with Writer Terry Loncaric
Presenting the first in a series of interviews with fascinating people I’m privileged to know.
EM: When did you know you would become a writer? Were there any precise turning points you remember?
TL: I was the geeky kid who always enjoyed writing assignments in school and would write extra-long essays about everything. I was always opinionated and loved to express myself on paper. Many experiences in life whet my appetite as a writer. When I was 10 years old, my parents gave me a Mattel printing press, and I was printing my own newspaper with neighborhood gossip. Other little girls were pushing their cute buggies, and I was editing a newspaper.
I was always in love with the rhythm of words and how they seemed to dance with life when they hit the page. Though some teachers inspired and encouraged me, I never had to be sold on words or pushed to read. I think reading is always the beginning of writing because if you can feel the magic of words you truly become hooked.
I’m a word-aholic, and it’s an addiction that has given me solace throughout my life.
EM: When did you first say to yourself, “I’m a writer!”?
TL: Writing is such a part of my soul and my “being” I never really had to say, “I’m a writer.” It just happened. I know I’m a writer because I always felt empty during the few moments in my life I didn’t write. Writing is a life force. It is an immutable part of who I am.
Writers are always seeking the truth and looking deep inside themselves. Like it or not, writing is a soul-changing experience. I guess I’ve been a writer as long as I’ve been a truth seeker. The writer part of my soul is continually curious, always trying to process and render meaning from my life experiences.
Though honesty is a big component of writing, I believe that beauty is also a function of art. If you have the gift of words, I think you can bring beauty and meaning to the human experience. You can motivate, empower and uplift others. That is not a responsibility I take lightly.
EM: To what extent were you nurtured in your writing by your family, teachers, mentors, writing groups?
TL: My high school journalism teacher, Betsy Ross, encouraged me to hone my skills and make a living as a writer. She was always kind to my stories and respected that student writers had a “voice” in their writing that shouldn’t be silenced. Occasionally, I linked up with writing groups, but I always found I worked the best independently. I am much more of an individualist than a collaborator.
Ironically, I am a social person who loves to converse with complete strangers, but when I am writing a story, I try to listen to the stillness in my brain and just pay attention to the words. However, I don’t believe writers should live in isolation. You do need life experience to write about it. So I am always torn. I have a side that is social and loves people and a solitary side that is perfectly content to work, think and create alone.
During one point in my life I was part of an artists’ salon group that was extremely cool. We had no set agenda, no power struggles. We were just a bunch of creative people meeting to offer one another support and to talk about the issues that matter to us and our art.
I found this interaction with writers and visual artists extremely stimulating, emboldening and enlightening. Artists become stale quickly if they remain cut off from the rest of the world. It is always good to step out of your comfort zone and learn from others, not just artists, but everyday people.
EM: What are the benefits of participating in salon/discussion groups?
TL: Creative people are often “driven” and have quirky personalities. We are not always understood by others. It is inspiring and comforting to be supported and nurtured by others in the same boat. Your peers can advise you and offer you fresh perspectives.
In a salon group, you have the freedom to engage in bold experimentation. Creativity is creativity. Visual artists can write poems. Writers can paint pictures. When you exercise different parts of your brain, you see the world you are writing about with all of your senses. You become more passionate about your own work. It stirs your juices to see what other artists are doing.
I enjoyed the lively discussions and philosophical debates. I believe conversation has become a lost art. We live in a computer age where language has often been reduced to instant messages, inane text messages and dumbed down computer speak. Philosophical debates have a long and respected tradition that dates all the way back to Socrates. It is essential to keep growing, pushing and questioning as an artist.
EM: How do your experiences as a teacher nurture or inspire you?
TL: Of course, it is always fulfilling to give others the building blocks to find their own creative gifts, but there is a great self-ish pay-off. Whenever you teach, you have a chance to hone your skills as a writer because you are constantly thinking about your own creative process and what drives you as an artist. When I’m helping students overcome obstacles in their writing, I can’t help but reflect on my own “process.” I’m always a better writer when I am teaching others.
There are no words to describe how it feels when you can talk an autistic student into writing his first poems or when you can help an angry kid work through his rage with his words. I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. That is the spiritual side of teaching.
Writing opens doors. It builds bridges of understanding. It shatters limitations, stereotypes and prejudices. Too many students are “spooked” by the writing process. I try to make it adventurous. I constantly remind students that words are powerful. “To write is to be alive,” I tell them. “To not write,” I remind them, “is to silence the voice of your soul!”
I love mentoring, guiding and sharing my knowledge. Teaching keeps you thinking and growing. The best teachers are students of life. So are the best writers.
EM: What advice would you give to young writers?
TL: If you want to be a writer, read the philosophers and poets. Study the comedies, tragedies and classics. Talk to a stranger. Listen to good music. Sit on a mountaintop. Enjoy the view from the middle of a forest. Let the experiences of life soak through your pores. Don’t live in isolation. Find beauty in the mundane. Live, breathe, experience! Discover your passions. Find joy and purpose in your life. Let that shine in your writing!
EM: What is your biggest frustration?
TL: When I am in the middle of a writing project and feel I have nowhere to go. When you are lost in a jungle of your own words, the Tsunami could slap you in the face, and you’d still sit dumb-struck, trying to conquer your writing block. Writing is all-consuming. Though I have developed techniques for writer’s block, I still feel frustrated when the words are not spilling on the page.
Sometimes it happens quickly for me, and the words simply flow. Other times I am railing against the tide. I don’t have patience when this happens, but I find it is helpful to take a break so I can recharge battery. I write lifestyle and entertainment features for newspapers. I try to leave a comfortable window of time on my deadlines if I feel burn-out setting in.
When I was a newspaper reporter, my biggest frustration was landing a great story and then having a source tell me I couldn’t use any of it. I always felt a sense of failure when this happened. My days as a reporter were a great education, though. I learned how to ask the right questions and pace the story with just the right amount of tension. I became a storyteller.
Working as a reporter provided me with a great foundation for writing lean, crisp narrative. If it was good enough for Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, then it’s good enough for me!
EM: What makes you happy as a writer?
TL: When I see a complete stranger reading something I wrote and their eyes are stuck to my story, that is unbelievably satisfying. I am not above enjoying fan letters, either!
EM: What part, if any did/does journaling play in your writing career?
TL: I write long, chatty emails that are like journal or blog entries. Sometimes I’m not ready to write something formally and find it relaxing to express myself without any rules or structure. I always tell students to quit worrying about perfect sentences and just enjoy the ride. Sometimes what emerges when you are not feeling pressured is quite poetic and profound.
Occasionally I journal on paper or the computer about a life issue that I think will become a future story. I find taking the time to self-reflect helps ground me emotionally and that can help me find my groove as a writer. My manner of journaling is quite scattershot, but it is a piece of the puzzle that I feel compelled to keep exploring.
EM: How do (or don’t) routines and schedules play a part in your career as a writer?
TL: As a curmudgeony Capricorn, I can’t exist without my writing rituals, but I am also willing to shake up the routine when it ceases to work.
Ironically I’m not a morning person, yet I do my best writing in the morning. This makes perfect sense to me. I believe my brain is the most awake in the morning when my mind is a blank slate, and I haven’t yet allowed the junk of the day to clutter my head.
My routine is to take my laptop to my favorite coffee joint, sit at a nice window seat with a plug-in, slowly sip my coffee, and then let the words and music wash over my brain. I like to read my story notes once or twice to see if anything stands out. Then I try out introductions. Once I wham out the first four or five paragraphs, I slip into the zone. The story takes a life of its own. This is what we writers live for!
EM: How do you keep track of what you’ve written, what’s out, what’s been accepted, etc?
TL: I try to keep track of invoices so I can get paid. Other than that, I pretty much keep track of what I’m writing in my brain and hope for the best. I send copious story lists to editors every couple of months, print those out, and then in a date book, I jot down all of my deadlines in big red letters.
I am good at managing my time and working on multiple projects. I find I work the best with a minimal amount of structure. I guess I am an independent spirit. I like to keep the process pure and simple. That just works for me.
EM: Any favorite websites or authors?
TL: I’m an information junkie so I enjoy surfing the Internet and going wherever my curiosity happens to lead me.
I love reading the articles in the Utne Reader (www.utnereader.com), the thoughtful essays and interviews in The Sun Magazine (www.thesunmagazine.org) but also enjoy visiting Anne Rice’s (www.AnneRice.com) and Roseanne Barr’s (roseanneworld.com) websites and blogs because their opinion pieces are smart, provocative and always interesting. Sam Shaber, (www.samshaber.com), a New York folk singer, has a fun, chatty, opinionated blog about music and life on the road. I also like NPR’s intelligent interviews with creative, interesting people. NPR provides great background material when I am interviewing a celebrity.
My taste in books pretty much runs the gamut.
Bryan Brown writes compelling, imaginative and quirky short stories. His characters are edgy, dark and not always pretty, but Brown makes you somehow care about these horribly flawed characters.
I love William Shakespeare‘s grasp of the English language and the way he turns human emotion into pure poetry. I enjoy Dorothy Parker‘s sophisticated wit, her lingering pathos and her razor sharp insights.
Susan Sontag‘s essays are brilliant. Love her or hate her, you have to respect the breadth of her intelligence. Buddhist author Thich Naht Hanh feeds my spirit because sometimes you just need something light and uplifting.
Brenda Ueland’s book, “If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit” provides endless inspiration. She reminds me that writing is an important, spiritual endeavor. Reading the work of prolific authors shows me the inexhaustible possibilities of the imagination.
I always look for writers who stir my mind, touch my emotions and teach me something. That changes from day to day because I change from day to day.
EM: Who and what continue to inspire you?
TL: The world of ideas is one I fearlessly explore. The ideas do not come from some magical place. Anything that fires up my senses, stimulates my curiosity or piques my imagination is fair game.
I try to pay attention to life’s rhythms, ordinary people with cool stories, peaceful pets, the dialogue of strangers (remember I was a reporter), the cycles of nature, my own life struggles and quirky travel adventures. I am a devoted people watcher. In pursuit of a good story, I am always willing to take a detour.
I read the potent work of other writers. I try to surround myself with passionate people who teach me the power of living a creative, spiritual life. I am a firm believer that inspiration is all around you if you have an open heart and an open mind.
EM: What part does zen play in your writing?
TL: I am constantly struggling to get in touch with my spiritual side, and that struggle to become a better human being leads me to interesting people, soulful friendships and rewarding teaching and learning encounters. The idea that I am learning 24-7 is a big part of what drives me as a writer and also offers me a sense of hope I can make a difference with the work I do.
I believe we learn something from all of our life experiences, even the unpleasant ones. If you think this way, you never run out of ideas or things to write. My spiritual side lends wisdom to my journey, and that, in turn, brings richness to my writing. This is much more than an intellectual process. It comes from a much deeper place.
EM: What are your thoughts about writing as a spiritual practice or undertaking?
TL: Writing is simply a great avenue for self-expression. It helps me map out my life journey. Just by looking at my stories, I can tell where I was at different stages of my life.
When I was in love, I wrote about love. When pets entered my life, I wrote animal stories. When my dad died, I found myself writing more about death and mortality. Some people would say this is morbid. I think it was a way of dealing with loss and also seeking meaning in my own life.
As I move through middle life, I feel a greater need to connect the dots in my life. Writing brings meaning to my life journey. Writing is a spiritual gift that we all possess. Writing is not just something I do to get paid. It is my existential lifeline.
EM: What do you do when you encounter writer’s block?
TL: If you write long enough, writer’s block will make its ugly presence. Sometimes your brain freezes, words are stuck in some far-away chamber, and the rhythms simply aren’t clicking. It happens to the best of writers. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee once told me he would hate to think he has already written his greatest play(s). Then he would have no reason to keep creating new work.
I try to take care of my emotional health when I am writing, keep the clutter out of my brain. When my brain is full of junk, that’s when my mind races, and I find it difficult to focus. You just have to work through it. It helps to take breaks, give yourself rewards (chocolate is always good!) and even stop to read other writers for inspiration and a massive kick in the butt.
EM: What’s it like to write for money? Does that place pressure on you? How do you handle that?
TL: Right now I have dream jobs. I’m a freelance writer and a writing coach/mentor for high school students with behavior problems and learning challenges.
I worked many years also as a feature writer and newspaper reporter. When I tried to make a living as a freelance writer, it was murder because I was living paycheck to paycheck, and some editors paid so slowly it put tremendous pressure on me.
You have to cobble together an income, one assignment at a time, and have the discipline to produce a mountain of stories all the time. Not having benefits, I had to pay for insurance, or drop my insurance when I could no longer afford it, and hope for the best.
Being part of a school system, I can help kids with my writing skills, and I still have time to write stories for freelance clients. You have to find a life that is comfortable for you. The teaching has provided me with not only a stable income and benefits but a chance to use my writing for a higher purpose.
I am helping kids tell their life stories and learning so much about myself. Teaching is the perfect profession for someone entering mid-life. You can mentor and guide the next generation while you hone your own skills.
Kids respect that I continue to work as a writer and what I’m teaching them comes from life experiences, not just textbooks. I’ve never in my life been motivated by money, anyway. All that mattered is that I did work that nourished me and fed my spirit. I’ve always tried to stay focused on that. The money is just gravy. If you don’t have a spiritual core, the rest is just junk.
EM: When did you make the transition from writing for fun to writing for a living?
TL: Ever since I graduated from college with a degree in journalism I worked either in a writing or teaching capacity. I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. I look upon writing as a vocation, a means to lead a richer life, and, oh, yeah, a paying gig!
EM: What was it like when you had a book published? Your first article? Your most important project?
TL: My first book is really a booklet, “The Healing Powers of Laughter” for Abbey Press. That was satisfying because I think it was the beginning of my quest to help people spiritually with my writing. I always try to find subjects I feel passionately about and reflect that in my writing. That is a great source of pride for me.
My first paid article outside of the college newspaper was a cover story on a log cabin two brothers built in Southern Indiana. I stumbled upon a man in a coffee joint who just happened to mention he lived in a log cabin he and his brother built with real Vermont logs. A fire lit inside my brain. My high school journalism teacher hooked me up with the magazine. It was a great learning experience. Seeing my byline in big print was quite cool!
The writer’s ego in me still enjoys waking up in the morning to see my byline instantly on the Internet. My most important story as a reporter was interviewing a woman whose husband faked his death and mysteriously reappeared 20 years later. It was like a Lifetime movie. She was an incredibly poignant interview.
I enjoyed developing an offbeat, fascinating story from a small news item that a metropolitan daily newspaper had foolishly shoved to the back pages. The stories about ordinary people with hardships or challenges are always the most interesting to me.
I also enjoyed doing the research, interviewing the women and writing a story about civilian women in Vietnam who were experiencing the effects of Agent Orange. It was a story that had not been reported before and drew attention to an important health concern for women. I put a human face on the problem, and that is one of the greatest things you can do as a journalist.
EM: What projects do you have in the hopper now? And how do you juggle many things at once?
TL: I am exploring the healing and spiritual aspects of writing and trying to develop programs I can take to high schools all over America. I am working on an anthology of creative writing by learning disabled students with mini narratives about their life challenges. I am also writing poems, humor pieces, travel narratives and entertainment profiles for newspapers and magazines.
I am constantly setting up interviews and shooting story pitches to editors. I am always researching new markets to see what exists in the publishing world. This year I am determined to land in more national magazines.
I find it easy to multi-task because that is just the life of an author. While I’m knocking out one story, often I am lining up interviews or thinking about the next story. If you deplore multi-tasking, I always say writing is not the job for you.
It always helps to complete a block of interviews and then write a block of stories. This keeps me from getting distracted when I finally sit down to face the blank screen.
So far I’ve interviewed three Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights, a female Indian chief, a world religious leader, a clown who can dance, perform acrobatics and speak multiple languages, a paralyzed gardener, a female lumberjack and many, many more people, too countless to mention. If I didn’t multi-task, I would not have access to people from so many fascinating walks of life.
Terry Loncaric has worked as a reporter, entertainment writer, editor and writing instructor. Her articles, opinions, spiritual essays, humor pieces and travel narratives have been published in many places, including the Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia City Paper, Detroit Metro Times, Footlights magazine and Conscious Choice. She wrote a booklet, “The Healing Powers of Laughter” for Abbey Press. Loncaric taught a writing course in entertainment reviews for Chicago‘s Columbia College. She currently works as a writing coach/mentor and teaching assistant of learning disabled students at Hoffman Estates High School in the Chicago suburbs. She tutors students with learning difficulties and invites other writers to swap tales from the trenches. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.