Author and Teacher of Creative Writing E. Christopher Clark: “That’s My Mantra: Just Get to Work”

E. Christopher Clark writes fiction about fractured families, lust gone wrong, and memories as time machines. In October 2017, he published his first novel, derived from a one-act play written twenty years ago in college. In our interview, he talks about the process of writing and the things that helped him to go through with it. Also, he discusses the benefits of studying creative writing at the university. As a teacher and holder of two degrees in the field, he knows a thing or two about it.

Please tell us something about you and what you are working on.

My name’s E. Christopher Clark and I published my first novel, Missing Mr. Wingfield, in October 2017 to celebrate turning 40. In 2018, I’m aiming to top that by releasing not one but two new books: Bad Poetry Night, a collection of poems that came out in April to celebrate National Poetry Month; and The Seven Wives of Silver, a collection of pulpy 19th-century stories set on Cape Cod that’ll be out this fall.

E. Christopher Clark
E. Christopher Clark

What made you start writing in the first place?

In 2nd or 3rd grade, we were given the assignment to write the story of a picture we’d pasted to a piece of construction paper. That challenge — of turning visual inspiration into text-based storytelling — thrilled me, and working from photographs and drawings is still something I do today.

Where do the ideas for your stories come from?

A lot of my stories are connected to the same family of characters, the Silvers, that I’ve been writing about for 20 years. Sometimes those connections are more tangential than others. But my guiding principle is and has always been to write with the aim of understanding people I’ve encountered in my life and judged too quickly in some way.

How do you manage to find the time for writing, in addition to your bread-and-butter job?

It’s hard. I used to carve out a couple of hours per morning or evening. But I have kids now, too. And I made a promise to myself to put family first, so sometimes the writing time disappears in order to help my kids with their homework or their own creative endeavors. But when I do decide to put my butt in the seat to write, I am fiercely protective of that time. I think Stephen King said in On Writing that he doesn’t write every day of every week of his life, but that when he is writing he writes every day. That’s what I strive towards.

What, do you think, is most important for an author: talent, craft, or diligence?

Diligence. We’re all born with some degree of talent, which we nurture by reading a lot and writing a lot. Craft is something you pick up along the way, again by reading and writing a lot. But there’s no getting around the fact that diligence is the most important factor. You have to want it. You have to want it bad, and work at it (in at least some small way) all of the time.

You’re holding two academic degrees in writing. Would you advise aspiring authors to enroll in creative writing programs?

Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I work in the office for an MFA in the Creative Writing department, so I’m a bit biased. I think MFA programs, particularly low-residency programs (which, in my mind, force the writer to learn right away how to fit writing into their “real” life) are extraordinarily valuable for the writer who hasn’t quite found the diligence and drive that they’re going to need. Degree programs, through a combination of peer pressure and excellent mentorship from published authors on the faculty, eventually get most writers going at the full head of steam they’re going to need to survive the maelstroms of the writing life.

That said, I think there are some folks out there who are probably already ready to start sending their work out even without formal schooling (or maybe with only a Bachelor’s). But they’re seeking approval from someone before they begin, not realizing that no amount of approval will ever substitute for the hard-won self-confidence that every writer eventually needs. So they go off to grad school when maybe they’re not in the financial position to do so, or when they already have the kind of connections they need to get started on a publishing career even without two years in a program.

Cover of E. Christopher Clark’s novel Missing Mr. Wingfield

In October 2017, you’ve published your first novel. Can you tell us a little bit about the book, and how you came up with the idea to write it?

I’m terrible at summing it up, but Foreword Reviews said it “interweaves strong portraits of a mother and daughter for an eye-opening look at the universality of regret,” and I think that’s a pretty good summary. My novel, Missing Mr. Wingfield, is about Veronica Silver and her daughter Tracy. It’s about how Veronica’s lifelong dishonesty with herself ends up impacting her daughter, especially once Veronica finally decides to change her life for the better.

The novel began with a one-act play I wrote during my junior year of college, way back in 1997-1998. That play was a sex farce, a comedy of opening and closing doors and odd hook-ups between the characters, but there was something deeper there. It just took me a couple of decades worth of digging to find it.

Eventually, around 2012, a couple of friends needed a script to stage for an arts benefit they were putting on and I condensed the best bits of my twenty years worth of writing into a new one-act play. It received great reviews from those who saw it and I realized I might have finally found the right shape for this never-ending opus of mine.

You have been working on the novel for twenty years, but only recently finished, using Ulysses. Could you please explain how Ulysses helped you?

Ulysses’ mental model of “sheets” and “groups” was extraordinarily helpful. One of the things I preach to my students when talking about sequencing book-length work is the importance of “play.” It’s so easy in Ulysses to drag one chapter/sheet into a new position and see how that affects the storytelling; if the change doesn’t work, it’s easy enough to drag the sheet back where it was. And if there’s a piece that no longer fits into the book at all, I can drag it into a scraps “group” for use later on.

Ulysses’ mental model of “sheets” and “groups” was extraordinarily helpful.

This ability to play led me to one of the most important discoveries that I made in my twenty-year-long process: that what I had as a relatively late-in-the-book chapter needed to be the first chapter. By moving the section called “The Bastard Son of a Bastard” up to the front of the book, I give the reader a hint that they should read the whole book through the lens of the character Tracy, even the chapters where she doesn’t directly appear. Making that change — trying it out — was ridiculously easy for me in Ulysses.

Of course, moving that chapter to a different place meant that I needed new work to fill the gap I’d left. Ulysses made that easy, too. I created a new group and played around with ideas there until I found the right one to move into my precious master document.

What, do you think, is the most difficult thing about writing a book?

Realizing that you can’t do it alone. I chose fiction writing over playwriting in the years after college because all of my theater friends moved away and I thought, “I don’t need actors to write novels. I don’t need anybody!” But the truth is that writing a book — at least writing a good book — is not a solitary venture. You need plenty of beta readers to help you spot problems in the early drafts; you need sensitivity readers if you, like me, are writing about someone outside your realm of personal experience (the gay women in my book would not be anywhere near as believable if I hadn’t had gay women correct the mistakes I, a straight, white man, made); and then you need copyeditors, cover designers, and plenty more folks than you can possibly imagine.

“Writing a book — at least writing a good book — is not a solitary venture.”

Do you struggle with procrastination, the menace of the independently working creative professional? If so, how do you beat it?

Yes, I most certainly do. I beat it in two ways: identifying a project that I can easily complete/win/beat. And then I look at the difficult projects, the ones I keep avoiding, and do a serious self-evaluation (on paper, computer, or even just by walking and talking to myself) about why I’m avoiding something. For instance, I avoided doing this interview for a while because I was afraid of making a fool of myself with dumb answers. I finally got around to it because I remembered that I get up in front of a group of students 2-3 times a week and don’t worry about making an ass of myself then. And why don’t I worry about that? Because I remember that, even if I act the fool one moment, I tend to recover quickly, and evaluations confirm that students appreciate my candor and my willingness to put myself out there. So, in this case, I just applied that thinking to this project. I got to work on the answers for this interview and freed myself from the pressure of trying to be brilliant with every answer, knowing that at least once in the course of all my answers I might say that one thing another writer needs to hear.

Which other tools and apps do you use?

I use Bear as a kind of personal Wikipedia to keep track of connections between the characters, places, and timeframes in my shared universe; its ability to create links between documents is invaluable there. I used a combination of Canva, Prisma, Pixelmator, and InDesign to design covers and other art for the novel. I use IngramSpark and Amazon’s KDP program to distribute the novel myself. And I am a fierce advocate for Squarespace as an online publishing platform. I have a tendency to fiddle with my tools and apps too much, so l look for tools that help me get stuff done and then get me back to the real work: writing and reading.

What else is important to keep you productive? As an example, do you work in a certain environment or follow a timely routine?

Balance and the mantra, “I am a human being, not a robot.” In my office work, I tend to get kudos for how quickly I accomplish tasks. That sort of praise tends to make me think I can take on way more projects than I realistically can, which leads me to feeling overwhelmed by everything on my plate, which leads me to total creativity/productivity paralysis. If I read a little every day, get a little exercise, and remember to hug my wife and kids every chance I get, it makes it that much easier to churn out work when I do finally sit down at the computer.

Could you please describe the way you’re using Ulysses, your typical workflow?

I keep groups for all of my major projects and folders of groups to archive older projects in. I try to keep that library pane as clean as I can. And when in doubt about which group a sheet should end up in, I just start in the inbox. The presence of the inbox keeps me from ever having an excuse to not just get started.

So, I start a new sheet in the inbox, start typing, and then do the organizing later. In short: I do whatever it takes to just get working. That’s my mantra: just get to work.

“I do whatever it takes to just get working. That’s my mantra: just get to work.”

What do you like best about Ulysses? Do you have a favorite feature?

The export feature is one that I haven’t mentioned yet, but the ease of use there is the main reason I chose Ulysses over similar products. I love that I can type here in Markdown, the simplest of markup languages, one that I don’t have to think about at all, and that from there I can export to any number of beautiful looking document types. Just this morning, I exported the syllabi for my upcoming classes into both PDF (for downloading) and HTML (for viewing directly on our course’s site) and it took me all of a minute.

Find out more about E. Christopher Clark’s work on his website Clarkwoods Books. You can also follow him on Twitter and Instagram – or on YouTube where he shares one video every day for a whole year, celebrating having turned 40.

Rebekka Honeit

Blog-curating writing maniac and public relations person. Loves coffee, chocolate cookies and literature. Finds peace in tweaking press copy.