If anyone knows what it takes to be a successful writer, it’s Dori Ostermiller. She has worked for over 25 years as an editor and has taught writing and literature at the University of Massachusetts, Westfield State College, Springfield College, Holyoke Community College and Bay Path College. She has also taught and mentored hundreds of authors at Writers in Progress, an organization she founded in 1992.
Valley of Writers spoke to Dori about her work with writers and some of the things she has observed about the writers that actually finish their manuscripts and get them out into the world.
What are some of the biggest blind spots that writers have that only come to light when they attend craft workshops?
This really depends on the writer. A lot of people come to our workshops doubting if they even have a story worth telling. Beginning writers tend to doubt the validity of their own material, and this can lead to problems in craft such as the passive voice, or a lack of immediacy in the writing, or difficulty capturing concrete detail. As writers start to get behind their own material, the craft issues general start to work themselves out, with some guidance of course.
Some writers don’t believe in spending time meeting other writers. There’s a belief that you only write when you’re sitting down and you get disillusioned when you spend time talking to other writers, especially those who are more successful than you, so just sit down and write. Is there any truth to this?
It’s very subjective, but in my experience, writing is a very isolating occupation, and having the support and company of other writers can be deeply validating and encouraging. I got my own novel finished this way. In our Writers in Progress workshops, we really work hard to create a supportive, inspiring atmosphere, so there’s not a lot of competitive posturing that you might find, for instance, at MFA programs. It’s about writers applauding, supporting and celebrating each other, because writing is hard enough without competition.
In 2010, you wrote a blog post for Write Angles about finding time to write. How do you personally ensure that you find time to put words down? What are the biggest roadblocks for you in trying to do this?
There are so many roadblocks! Just living life is a roadblock to creative work. The bills, the emails, the dishes, the imperative to make money… You really have to carve out the time to write and then protect it somehow. Some people can do this on their own, but I find it’s much easier with the support and company of other writers. I started these groups with that in mind: it’s so much easier and more fun to show up and do the work if you have the structure and support of a group of other writers who are also showing up. During my own workshops is when I get most of my own writing done!
What are some of your favorite success stories from the writers who have gone through Writers in Progress?
We have recently had two huge success stories. Steve Bernstein, a writer who started coming to our workshops about six years ago with virtually no experience, no idea about narrative craft, wrote and worked a series of stories in the workshops and the manuscript group and over a few years fashioned it into a book- Stories From the Stoop — that got picked up recently by a major New York Publisher. And JoAnne Jones, who came to my manuscript series to work through a written account of a traumatic assault she suffered, ended up writing a beautiful memoir, called Headstrong, and it is coming out this fall. There are also stories about lifelong friendships that started in the workshops, and people who have come to terms with something, through writing, that they thought they could never heal from… It’s powerful work.
A lot of manuscripts are abandoned before they are completed. What traits do you see consistently in the writers that actually go on to finish their manuscripts and get published?
Perseverance is the number one trait. Stubbornness over talent, for sure. Confidence certainly helps, as self-doubt can derail even the most talented writers. The ability to take criticism and learn from it without getting defensive. A dose of obsessive compulsive disorder. Haha. Seriously though, you have to be driven to do this, because writing a book is one of the most time-consuming, difficult things, and if you’re not a little bit obsessed with what you are writing, it’s hard to stick in there for the long haul.