Today, I want to introduce you all to my writing friend, Julie Helms. She was kind enough to answer some questions and allow me to post the interview here.
Me: What piqued your initial interest in writing? and How long have you been writing?
Julie: I started writing only after I turned 40. In high school, a teacher wrote on my progress report that got sent home: “Julie can’t write, and she’ll never be able to.” I can’t stress the amount of damage that comment did to me. I actively resisted all writing after that through high school and college.
In college, I took a required English course taught by the VP of the university. She called me into her office one day. She wanted to know why on earth I was majoring in biology instead of something to do with writing. She said I was a promising writer. I just simply didn’t believe her…didn’t she get the memo?…the one that said I can’t write and will never be able to?
Two years later, a second professor called me out publicly during class in a lecture hall. He had given the class a writing assignment that he felt was so difficult that he made it pass/fail only (it was to write a Greek comedy play). So he was passing the assignments back and he announced my name and walked up to my desk (as a desperately shy person, I wanted to dig a hole, curl up, and die.) He told the class my play was so well written there was no way he could just give me ‘pass.’ He gave me an A+. Of all his classes, he said, I was the only one to get this.
You would think that after that I would embrace my inner muse and apply myself to the craft of this great calling. But that careless comment from my high school teacher just screamed inside my head. I sure showed my college prof…I threw my Greek play in the trash and I never attended another class in that course.
I wrote nothing for the next 20 years.
About ten years ago, I discovered Helium.com. It was an online writing site that anyone could post to. It didn’t matter if you could write or not, it was open to everyone. Some little niggling in the back of my mind encouraged me to just give it a shot. It sounded fun. I posted under a pen name so I wouldn’t embarrass myself if my writing really sucked. I was pleasantly surprised when I began to win some contests they held, and even more shocked when outside companies began purchasing my articles. Helium went out of business about five years later. In that time I had written 126 articles, stories, and poems. About 20 of them were purchased for publication elsewhere.
Before they went under, Helium hired me as a freelance writer and editor for a different branch of their company that specifically offered professional writing services to other companies. It wasn’t anything sexy, but it included writing for real estate companies, email coupon sites, and Sears and Kmart catalog descriptions. It was during this time period that I discovered I had an aptitude for editing and really enjoyed it. This branch of Helium (Content Source) was purchased by RR Donnelly, who I continue to work for to this day as a freelance editor. My biggest customer is Amazon’s CreateSpace, their self-publishing arm.
To this point, I’ve sold only nonfiction, informational-type writing, which I don’t find particularly stimulating. I want to write stories!
Me: What types of things do you like to write?
Julie: My focus now is on short stories and a novel-in-progress.
Me: Do you study writing?
Julie: I took my first writing course this fall from Gotham University online. It was Fiction I. I’m now taking a course from the same university called Novel II.
Me: What do you consider important resources every writer should have?
Julie: As basic as it sounds: access to a dictionary and thesaurus! I also love my most recent acquisition of The Emotion Thesaurus.
Me: Do you like to read?
Julie: Yes, I do now. I was very late to discover the joy of reading. Though I could read from the time I was supposed to in grade school, it was laborious and nothing close to fun. I was in 9th grade when I read my first book for enjoyment. It was like a light came on in my brain. I then became a voracious reader. Currently I read two to three novels per week.
Me: Do you believe it is important to read in order to be a good writer? Why or why not?
Julie: Based on my history, I think the connection between reading and writing is obvious. When my high school teacher said I couldn’t write, I probably really couldn’t…because for one thing I really hadn’t started reading yet, at least not easily. In my fiction class this past fall, my teacher commented on my first submitted work that I had done three particular things very well. I had to look up all three terms she used–I had no idea what they meant, so it’s pretty obvious I didn’t do any of it intentionally. I told her this and she asked me if I liked 19th century writers. I said I do. She said I was modeling my writing techniques after them. So I think the read/write connection is a strong one.
Me: What is your favorite genre to read? Why?
Julie: Depends. The vast majority of the reading I consume is commercial fiction. I watch literally zero TV, so reading takes the place of that. And most of the time I want to just read for entertainment. It could be romance, crime drama, or psychological thrillers.
Occasionally, I will pull out something more along the lines of literary fiction. That is when I’m in the mood to really enjoy the writing itself, the sound of the sentences–and I often do read it out loud. This would be my 19th century writers…maybe Jane Austen, Edgar Allen Poe, or Nathanial Hawthorne. I can read the first paragraph of Pride and Prejudice ten times and get the same thrill each time–the writing is to be slowly savored and appreciated. As politically incorrect as it is to say this, I dislike much of what is touted as classics in 20th century literature. I find them pretentious, self-absorbed, and frankly boring. Just shoot me before making me read any more Faulkner, Hemingway, or JD Salinger.
Me: Who is your favorite author? Why?
Julie: Commercial fiction: Diana Gabaldon. I love her Outlander series. What a beautiful mix of romance and adventure with a little sci-fi thrown in. I think she is a wonderful writer, though verbose at times.
Literary fiction: Nathanial Hawthorne. The man can set a scene like no one else. You can feel the creepiness and ennui of The House of Seven Gables creep into your bones while you read. you can feel the shame and hypocrisy close in on you in The Scarlet Letter and The Minister’s Black Veil. Actually Poe does this very well, too. The Fall of the House of Usher…best story ever!
Me: What was your favorite book as a child? What did you like about it?
Julie: Reading was such a chore for me, so ‘favorite’ would be overstating it, but I do remember liking The Borrowers when it was assigned in 6th grade. I was fascinated by stories of fantasy lands.
Me: When and where do you write?
Julie: Usually in my recliner in the sitting area of my bedroom. I am nothing if not a creature of comfort, plus it is the only place in my house that I can escape all other humans for a time. I do everything on computer, no writing in notebooks.
Me: Do you have an established writing routine?
Julie: No, but I need to. Unfortunately, life keeps getting in the way. I write in fits and spurts, but I would like to be disciplined and intentional about it.
Me: Do you like to listen to music when you write? If so, what type of music?
Julie: I absolutely cannot listen to music when I write. I also can’t have much activity going on around me–no TV, conversation, etc. Participating in our Scribes Oasis writing group is really the only time I write with people in my vicinity, since I am a big one for talking through problems out loud, and that’s embarrassing to do with witnesses!
Me: Are you part of any writers’ groups?
Julie: Scribes Oasis and an online writing class I take through Gotham University that functions as a writing group in some ways (eg. interaction with others, critiquing).
Me: Do you think it’s important to be part of a writers’ group? If so, why?
Julie: I think it is very helpful. I’ve used my group to brainstorm ideas when I was stuck and to get feedback on what I’ve written. I think the feedback is especially important so you can see what’s working and what isn’t.
Me: Have you ever written anything that was published?
Julie: When I wrote for Helium.com I sold dozens of articles, mostly short nonfiction, for publication usually online. Topics varied from info about insects or farm animals, to military history, to biblical concepts. I have contributed to a coffee table book about cats, as a ghost writer. And I’ve had a poem and autobiographical account stolen and printed online without permission–does that count as publication? 🙂
Me: Do you have a blog that is related to your writing? If so, what is your blog address?
Julie: Not at this time.
Me: Do you think it is important for a writer to establish an online presence? Are you on any social media?
Julie: It probably is, but this would be an area that I know little about and need to learn more. I use some social media but not yet related to my writing.
Well, Julie, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you and learning about your writing journey. I certainly wish you the best as you continue to write, and hope to read your novel after publication.