This summer, Seattle author Paulette Perhach published her first book, a how-to-write guide titled Welcome to the Writer's Life. The book is a great practical guide to the craft and business of writing for aspiring authors, and it also serves as a wonderful cross-section of the Seattle writing community. I talked with Perhach about her event at tomorrow's Lit Crawl, what the reception for her book has been like, and what it's like to publish a debut book that's a writing guide. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Before we get into the book, this interview is going to run the day before Lit Crawl, so I wanted to ask what you had planned for your Lit Crawl reading.
I'm going to be gathering writers from my book, Welcome to the Writer's Life. In the book, I interviewed various writers about being writers. So for the reading we've got me, Anca Szilágyi, Laura Da', Ross McMeekin, and Geraldine DeRuiter, which is such a great lineup. It will be really cool to see how everyone will interpret the theme, which is "Welcome to the Writer's Life."
And that segues us neatly to your book! I really enjoyed it — it's got good advice for writers and it's well-written, and it's thoughtful. What is it like putting out a how-to-write book as your first book?
Well, there's different kinds of writing books. There's the "I'm Stephen King and I've obviously mastered this, so here's everything I know" kind of book.
That's not this book.
This book is about how I used to be totally lazy until I realized I was never going to get what I really wanted, which was to be a writer. It's how I changed myself from someone who wanted to be a writer to someone who was working to be a writer and then looked around and realized, I am a writer. It's about making that transition. There's a lot about work habits and about how to really shift your life to go after it if you want to.
It's for people who maybe aren't lucky enough to live in a city like Seattle or who don't have the chance to sit across the table from three or four other writers and just hear them talk about their lives.
It helps people see behind that curtain of the author photos, which makes everyone look official, and see that everyone feels like a fraud. Everyone's scared. Everyone is trying to figure out how to make it work. You just have to dive in and join the party.
I find that writers love to bullshit about writing — they love to make it sound like the worst thing in the world. Did you have to do a certain amount of digging to get through that bullshit with some writers? Was it difficult at all to get them to talk about the actual mechanics of it?
Every writer has no idea how they make art. And yet you can say, "okay, well, when you're feeling self-doubt, what you do?" I got some great nuggets of wisdom from everyone I interviewed. It was really a joy to talk with writers about writing. After every interview, I kind of felt giddy.
It must help that you're in a writer's workshop with all those great writers.
Yeah, we meet every other week. You come, you read your work out loud, and everyone critiques it.
I think my biggest secret is what I call stakeouts. They're fake stakes — an answer to the question "what would happen if I didn't write today?" I have to have an answer to that question: with the workshop, if I don't write regularly, I'm not going to be able to bring something in to this workshop of people that I really respect.
I have kind of an addiction to reading how-to-write books. You mentioned it already, but On Writing by Stephen King is one of my favorites — even though I'm not crazy about the books that he's written over the last, uh, you know, two decades or so. What about you? Do you still read writing guides?
Yeah, I love them. I used to think I had to be self-taught, and there was some pride in that. And then I realized: "Oh yeah, there's instructions, dummy! Just read the instructions." I really love Priscilla Long's The Writer’s Portable Mentor. That was one of my favorites from the get-go. Some of the first books I picked up when I realized I wanted to try to be a writer were Bird By Bird and The Artist's Way.
As someone who was a totally lazy and terrible student who always wanted to buck the system, I thought it was a fun game to try to not be educated. And the day I graduated college I was like, "oh, I'm supposed to be educated now. I did it — I bucked the system, but now I don't know anything."
So I'm going to be a student for the rest of my life trying to make up for what a terrible student I was in high school and college. I'm into learning as much as I can about how it's done, but then at some point you have to put the how-to-write book down and actually write. They can be a form of procrastination.
Did you have a specific reader in mind as you were writing the book?
I guess I was writing to myself at age 28, when I had come back from Peace Corps and knew I wanted to be a creative writer. I had no money, I had a day job and a side gig on the weekends, I had student loans. I would try to write for like an hour in the evening. I wanted to gain some traction, but I had no idea what I was doing. I started submitting immediately, which is so dumb. I wrote my first story and I emailed all my friends to say, like "I've become a writer." I don't want to know how terrible that story probably was.
So the book is for the person who wants to try to start writing but doesn't really have a plan, or know how to prioritize what it takes to be a writer.
How has it been, now that the book is out in the world? Are you finding it difficult to shift gears back into writing about something other than writing?
I decided for myself that I want to be a writer who helps writers. But I still need to make sure that I don't lose that artist part, where it's just for the joy of it. I use my writer's workshop only for my art writing. That's my sacred space.
Bringing it back to Lit Crawl, is there anything that you're looking forward to at Lit Crawl this year?
There's so many things. I usually just let the night wash over me, because it gets to a point where the opportunity cost just weighs on you. I like to think that going to things like this is like walking through the forest. You're not going to see every tree, but the trees that you're going to see are beautiful.