Becoming A Writer

by Ginnah Howard – Guest Blogger

What led me to start writing in my mid-forties, something I’d never considered doing before? The thrill of living alone for the first time in my life—that magic free-fall through all that empty space. My children were off on their own, and a friend loaned me her log cabin on a stretch of back road: no neighbors, no phone, a pump for water in the yard, an outhouse in back, a woodstove, and kerosene lamps for light. And our big dog, Butch. I taught English in a high school twenty miles away, but, in the evenings in the silence of “nothing I had to do,” I began to write.

That first fall, I often wrote while sitting on the porch. A few times a week a Harley Davidson would roar past, driven by a bearded man wearing a bandana, with a long-haired woman on the back. We’d wave, but it was a while before I knew who they were and that our children had gone to school together. I learned they’d been members of the Pagan Motorcycle Club in California who now kept an album of newspaper clippings of Pagan arrests on their coffee table. I loved to visit them, to take it all in.

If I hadn’t met this family, I might never have started that long process of learning the craft of fiction, the deletion of pages of stuff that did not work. Using one true fact from what was for me an exotic world, I tried to make up stories. Though I was an English teacher, a person who had loved to read all my life, I knew almost nothing about writing scenes, about point of view, about narrative tension. Using material from this family and my own life, I wrote one hundred pages of stories. I then went to a one week workshop at Skidmore. The author, Lynne Barrett, taught a class titled “How to Write a Short Story.” She talked about the need to begin the story in the middle—in medias res and showing instead of telling. I threw away that first one hundred pages.

I wrote the first story that “worked” based on a true incident. I had gone to our little local grocery store and as I stepped out of the car, a man on a scaffold working on an old Inn across the street fixed me with an intense stare that made me uncomfortable. It turned out he was on a work-crew from the area correctional facility. When I left the store, I bowed my head and scurried to my car. A few hours later my motorcycle friend went to the store to buy cigarettes. When the man gave her the eye, she waved back and thus began a daily staring match between her and the prisoner as she sat on the bench in front of the store pretending to read the paper. This contrast between these two women’s responses to danger formed one of the cores of the thirty-four stories that eventually became Rope & Bone. And it offered that great learning experience for me as a beginning writer: How to turn the real experiences of my own life into fiction and how to deeply imagine the motorcycle world family fully and convincingly enough to make that world real.

I kept at it to finish Rope & Bone: A Novel in Stories and two other novels, Night Navigation and Doing Time Outside, about these same two families to complete an upstate trilogy. What a long, strange, and thrilling trip it’s been.

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Ginnah Howard’s work has appeared in Water~Stone Review, Permafrost, Portland Review, Descant 145, Eleven Eleven Journal, The Tusculum Review, and elsewhere. Several stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Night Navigation, Book 2 of her upstate novel trilogy, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Chronogram called Book 3, Doing Time Outside (Standing Stone Books), “a beautiful read.”  The first book of the trilogy, Rope & Bone: A Novel in Stories (Illume) was listed by Publishers Weekly as one of the “best of the best” Indie books of 2015. In her latest book, I’m Sick of This Already: At-Risk Learning in a High School Class, Howard focuses on a year of working with students in a small rural town. Currently she is putting together a collection of poetry and prose titled An Opera of Hankering. To learn more, visit:

Ginnah Howard will be the visiting author at the Women At Woodstock Writers Retreat on Nov 2nd.


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