1991: Why write?
In 1991, Sandra Scofield was a 47-year-old former teacher living in Ashland who two years prior had published her first novel, “Gringa.”
Interviewed for an article in that year’s Our Valley, Scofield said, “I discovered after all those years of other ambitions that what I really like is to be by myself.”
Now, 28 years later, Scofield is still writing, though not locally — she moved to Montana and, according to her website (www.sandrajscofield.com), she divides her time between Missoula and Portland. She’s written seven novels, a memoir, a book of essays about family, a book of short stories and two books about the craft of writing.
In an interview with the Mail Tribune, the National Book Award finalist discussed her process, the life of a writer and a work-in-progress set in the place she once called home.
MT: Describe your writing process.
SC: I have written all my life, but I didn’t think about publishing until I was an adult. My first publication was a story in Redbook. I wrote a couple of short novels just to try out the form, and I learned a lot by feeling free of pressure, and buoyed by my sense of exploration. I wrote “Gringa” because I’d always wanted to write about my time in Mexico, and I suddenly had time — my teaching contract with Ashland Public Schools wasn’t renewed — and it poured out of me, over 1,000 pages. From there I shaped and pruned. I never wrote like that again. Once you publish, self-consciousness affects process. But each of my novels did begin with a story I felt passionate about, something I wanted to tell. I worked on different books in different ways, never in a formal outline manner, but with broad plans, frequent summaries, a lot of talking to myself and jumping around.
MT: Has that process evolved over the years?
SC: I expected to write novels forever, but in 2005 we moved from Ashland to Missoula after my husband retired from teaching at Crater High School. Montana was home for him, and he was the one who had held a steady job his whole life, so though I had expected to live in Ashland the rest of my life, I agreed to the move. We had been in Jacksonville and then Ashland since 1978. It threw me for a long time. I really couldn’t write. That’s when I increased my teaching — I’ve taught at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for 25 years, and for the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College (Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts) since 2006. Teaching sort of saved me, really, and I have written four books since that move, including a book about my family, “Mysteries of Love and Grief,” a book of short stories, “Swim: Stories of the Sixties,” and two craft books for fiction writers.
MT: Current projects?
SC: I’m finally working on a novel right now, “Little Ships,” and it is set in small-town Southern Oregon. The other endeavor that has shaped these years since the move is painting: I’ve been painting landscapes in oils for the last 10 years, and I travel every year to Europe to see exhibitions and study.
MT: OK, here’s the million-dollar question ... why do some books sell spectacularly while most disappear into obscurity, never to be heard from again?
SC: I don’t really want to go there. There are dozens of books, most of them leaning on screenwriting techniques, about writing for a commercial audience. Some novels are all about action and suspense and shocks. Some novels are about deep engagement and feeling. None are both. I send people to Donald Maass writing books. I teach some very strong skill sets in my Iowa workshops every summer. But publishing is a lot like the movies: everyone wants a blockbuster even though the best products are the indies.
MT: There’s not much money in writing, you have to do it alone and the positive reinforcement that many of us who hold regular 9-to-5 jobs take for granted barely exists. So, why write?
SC: I wouldn’t suggest novel writing as a career for anyone. You have to want it enough to figure it out. In some ways, it’s a calling. That said, I think writers write novels because it’s how they see the world and how they look for meaning. They have stories to tell. I encourage anyone who wants to write with that kind of attitude to go for it. Join a class or a group. Apply to a low-residency program like Solstice. Work with a paid mentor one on one. Look at my “The Scene Book” and “The Last Draft.” You can share with friends, you can self-publish, you can try to find an agent. Just don’t think you’ll make a living. The world is full of MFA grads, and there aren’t teaching openings for them. It’s the way of the world in any of the arts. My daughter, Jessica Scofield, is a jeweler. She makes a modest living selling online, but the real success for her is that she’s happy making jewelry. That’s how writing has to be if you don’t want to suffer.
Joe Zavala can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4469.