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Q&A with the inspirational Patricia Henley

Award-winning author and writing instructor Patricia Henley knows the courage–and power–of finding your own path. And finding the stories it contains. Learn how she became a writer, how she makes it through writer’s block, and her more ambitious project.

Q: How did your literary journey begin?

At the age of five, I started reading and ever afterward I wanted to be a writer. I wrote stories and poems in grade school and high school. In college, I wrote autobiographical stories that helped me make sense of my family of origin. As an adult—or quasi-adult, I was only nineteen—I started writing poetry. But stories were my first love and, when I moved out west in 1976, I wanted to write short stories set here. I was inspired by Alice Munro.

Q: How do you deal with writer’s block and/or the urge to do anything else but sit down and write?

As the poet William Stafford once said, “Lower your standards.” 

Stop comparing what you’ve written to what others have written. Just do it. Your first drafts will only be first drafts, anyway. Revision is where the real work and the fun begin. 

Q: What’s the biggest literary project you’ve ever taken on and what did you learn from it?

In 1988 I went to Guatemala. I’d always been interested in the fates of indigenous people all over the world. I did not see myself as a novelist. I only wanted to delve into the life there, and the war, and possibly write a few short stories. But I had some pivotal experiences that made me commit to my novel Hummingbird House

It was a challenge. It was set in a country not my own. I made five trips to that region. I did intensive research. From the moment the idea took hold of me until I held the book in my hand, ten years passed.

What did I learn? My passion for the topic fueled my project. I won’t write a novel that doesn’t have that passion behind it.

Q: What is your philosophy towards teaching literature or writing?

Find the spark and fan it!

Q: Could you give an overview of what a typical class with you might look like?

In Long Story Short we will read short lyric essays, some of them only a few sentences long, some, a few pages. We will read for craft, always asking, “What is this writer doing that I can do with my own raw material?” 

Each writer will excavate her own raw material, elements of her life story. There will be in-workshop writing prompts and also outside assignments. Writers will be encouraged to share what they have written. 

I’ll give feedback about how to improve each piece. 

A typical class with me might contain both the apprehension of digging deep and the joy of creating something new from all the richness of a complex life.

Q: What do you love most about teaching?

I love it when participants try new things. 

I love it when each writer in workshop feels a sense of accomplishment. 

I love it when students report feeling more whole—more who they really are—after taking this workshop.

Q: What advice would you give someone who is hesitant about taking a literature or writing course (with you or anyone!)?

It’s hard to be a newbie. I get that. But it is also exceedingly brave. 

Don’t compare yourself to others. Stay on the path and keep going. There will always be people in front of you and there will always be people behind you, in terms of skill or understanding. 

You’re on a path that’s only big enough for one person—you. 

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