Liz Harmer is a Canadian writer, editor, and professor at Chapman University. I had the pleasure of taking her Speculative Fiction writing class at Chapman and was able to sit down with her this last week and talk about her career as a writer, editor, and professor.
She always knew she wanted to write and was known as the writer among her peers starting in elementary school. When I asked how writing novels compared to short stories, essays, or poems, Harmer gave some insight as to how the processes compare.
I think I always want to write essays and stories and novels because I need room to come to a point… [with] novels you need to stretch an idea out, pace is really important. You have to hold the reader’s attention for such a long period of time … You have to be able to give the reader time to breathe sometimes, and you have to sometimes be really intense and be wordier. Whereas with a short story, you can accomplish so much in an intense way and you can do one sort of style for a longer period of time and not worry about losing the reader. There’s more pressure in the novel on figuring out how to extend the thought long enough, and have enough thoughts to sustain the length of the time for somebody reading. It’s a huge challenge. With stories, you can kind of experiment with things, it’s easier to make them cohere.
Harmer explained that “Part of the fun of writing is not knowing how to do the thing you’re trying to do and learning how to do it as you go.” I also inquired about the balance between teaching writing to college students and writing her own works. Harmer responded with,
I wanted to teach Creative Writing rather than English Lit, because whenever I teach Creative Writing, whatever I’m teaching makes me work on that kind of work in my own writing, so it doesn’t feel so much as like having to balance time, it’s more complimentary.
The readings and prompts she assigns to her students for class help her in what she’s working on, because she is continuously learning about her writing, learning from others, and thinking through ideas.
I was also interested in the most rewarding and challenging aspects of the writing career path. Harmer said that the most challenging aspects for her are “how economically precarious it is” and how there is “so much uncertainty”. She explained that projects may be time-consuming and there may be uncertainty as to whether it’s going to work out or if people are going to like it, and you have to be “comfortable with other people not understanding your work and continuing on even if they don’t.” The reward, on the other hand, seems to be well worth the risk, as Harmer states,
It’s a beautiful life, because you’re making a habit of trying to see what’s interesting and beautiful in the world. And it adds so much to your life, it almost doubles every experience because you’re never just looking at something, you’re always thinking about what it might be or what you can make it be, or just trying to capture something about it’s beauty as it passes. That’s the life of any artist, and I think that is such a profound thing to get to do that. That’s why I do it. That habit nourishes me, it makes me interested in other people, and how things work, and what things mean in a way that makes me a student of life.
As the conversation went on, we spoke of several of her works that are—or are on their way to be—published. I asked which she was most proud of, and she described an essay she wrote last year that won a contest. It was based on some of the work included in a memoir she’s working on and was formatted in the frame of the Dewey Decimal System. Harmer said, “I still look at that and I’m proud of every line. I stand by that piece in a way that still feels resonant now. It forced me to experiment and maybe write paragraphs that I wouldn’t normally write.” In our discussion of different styles of writing, I asked about the differences between writing and editing. Harmer explained the differences between the two in her work as well as the feelings they hold for her.
I like the difference between writing and publishing. I really enjoy the feeling when I’ve finished a draft of something that I’m proud of. Sometimes when I’ve done that it’s hard to go back and fix something because I’ll become so attached. Often the most success I’ve had in editing has been because there’s a pressure to bring the word count down. There’s little tricks that I like for the polishing side of things that I enjoy. There’s a certain kind of satisfaction in [shaping writing], which doesn’t feel as charged and exciting as writing, but it feels nice like you’re going to accomplish something.
The last question I asked was, Do you have any advice for college students who want to become writers? Her answer was simply this: The “only thing you need to do is not quit writing.” She explained that it can be discouraging when there is already scrutiny for writers in college, with workshopping and tons of other writers around you. However, she said, “you have a lot of time, there’s no rush, just keep writing.” Finally, she urged me to trust my instincts and just keep learning.
After speaking with Liz Harmer, I walked away with a new perspective on my writing career and future writing endeavors. I am curious to see how her insights to the career will play out as I form my own writing path, and I am glad to have had the chance to speak with her.