Sunday, October 02, 2011

One Writer’s Process: Catherine Ryan Hyde

If Catherine Ryan Hyde wasn’t “pathologically stubborn,” she doubts that she’d have succeeded as a writer.

“I doubt I would have made it,” Hyde admits. “I couldn’t get an agent for several years. They just weren’t interested. So I wrote short stories and marketed them myself. I got 122 rejections before I placed one. I eventually placed over 50. And racked up over 1,500 rejections.”

Now the author of hundreds of short stories and more than a dozen novels, including Pay It Forward, which has been translated into two dozen languages and made into a movie, and Jumpstart the World, which was chosen for the American Library Association's Rainbow List and as a finalist for two Lambda Literary Awards, Hyde grew up depressed and unhappy. She had a tough home life and dreaded going to school.

“It was a nightmare,” she recalls. “I was as likely to skip a class as to attend it.... And I actually went through a time of hating to read, because when I got to school I hated the books I was given in school so much. I forgot reading was something I used to love.”

Fortunately, Hyde rediscovered her love of reading in a handful of favorite books, such as Flowers for Algernon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Cat's Cradle, and Bless the Beasts and Children. “I’ve always liked books with characters who are off to the left,” she says.

What makes a good writer, Hyde believes, is “heart,” as well as “a real knowledge–or even thirst for knowledge–about human nature. The human condition.”

But she’s quick to acknowledge that being a writer is one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

“The hurdles to publishing are enormous,” she warns. “What most people don't realize is that they continue for me. They don't magically disappear after the big novel and movie adaptation. From the beginning, I have handled them the same way, by asking myself the following question: ‘Do you believe in yourself?’ If the answer is no, I shouldn't have dug myself in so deep to begin with. If it's yes, the hurdles are irrelevant. Fortunately, so far the answer has been yes.”

She lives in California and was kind enough to take time from her current work-in-progress to share thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer readers:

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Hyde: Long answer--and it may not be quite what you expect--I don’t get into the water every day. Many days I don’t write. In fact, the majority of days I don’t write. On the days when I do write, I make up for lost time.

This flies in the face of what most everybody will tell you about writing, and I’m not suggesting you listen to me and not to them. But over the years I’ve learned that some days I just don’t have anything worth getting down. And, thankfully, I’ve learned to tell the difference. If I write anyway, I’m just writing work I’ll throw away. Not only is that a time-waster, but it’s bad for my morale. So when the work is not flowing, I walk the dog, get the oil changed in my car and balance my checkbook. Because when the work is flowing again, those tasks don’t stand a ghost of a chance. When the work is flowing, I’ll sit at my computer most or all of the day and get down somewhere between ten and twenty-two first-draft pages. Doesn’t take too many days like that to get a novel.

But I don’t want to avoid the question of how you get into the water. You just do. You get in. I think we confuse getting into the water with wanting to get in. With feeling ready to get in. Know when you’re ready to get into the water? When you’ve been in long enough to make the temperature adjustment. We could grow old and die waiting to feel ready to do something. We have to start. Ready or not.

If I’m not sure I can make something flow on any given day, I make an agreement with myself to sit down and write the first few sentences. I can’t tell you how often I then go on to write five or ten pages. Nothing gets you started like starting.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Hyde: My own enthusiasm about the work. I have to love it, be intrigued by it. I have to want to know what happens next as much as (I hope) the reader will want to know. If this is not happening, I put it down. Put it away. If I don’t love it enough to keep writing it, why will the reader be drawn to keep reading it? I give myself permission to work on something else. Later I go back to the work and fix it, take it in a different direction, or pull out the one part worth saving. But I never force myself to work on something I no longer love.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Hyde: I read. Reading work I consider to be successful rekindles my love of a good story. The more those fires are stoked, the more likely I am to get back to my own.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Hyde: I’d say coming up with the ideas in the first place, because that’s the part that’s squarely out of my control. The creative process either hands me a gift or doesn’t. But the more you make use of the gifts, the more they will keep coming. I forget who it was who said something along the lines of, “When inspiration comes, it better find you working.”

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Hyde: Well, a writer is always alone. I mean not at all moments of our lives, but our work is solitary. Over the years I’ve come to trust myself and the process. There’s no shortcut for this, I’m afraid. The more novels you write (write, not publish) the more you will believe, deep down in your heart, that you can write a novel. Even when things get sticky in the process.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Hyde: I think I most love those moments when I’m lying in bed at night waiting to fall asleep. And I play scenes out in my head, very visually, like daydreams. And, as I do, I know they will be tomorrow’s work. Then I literally sleep on it. That’s about as pure as creativity gets.

For more information about Hyde, visit her website:

For more interviews with Hyde, visit:


Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for this interesting interview. It gives me hope to know that even successful writers struggle sometimes to get the words out.

Keep Pace with the Sun said...

I especially appreciate Hyde's honesty about the challenges of writing. I will think of her determination this week as I swim through another chapter of a manuscript that I am editing. Thank you for sharing so many great interviews on Wordswimmer!