December 12, 2009
Bjorn Steffensen: How does the writing process work for you and what techniques do you use to make the experience more efficient, productive, and enjoyable?
Judy Shell Busk: I write for a reason. When I was writing a weekly column for the Spectrum newspaper for six years, I was alert to anything that could be turned into a column: my teen daughter wearing jeans with holes in them, comparing the beauty of Utah red rock formations to a Japanese art form called bankei (which I had studied in Japan), the beauty of Fish Lake, and freedom from material possession.
When I had a National Endowment for the Humanites grant to study pioneer women for a year, I used research findings for my column to expand appreciation of the diversity of pioneer women. When my high school students were doing oral histories with WWII interviewees, I used excerpts from the women’s interviews to show their contributions to the war effort, the “other half” of history, to my readers.
During other parts of my writing life, I wrote of significant events, like the death of a child, coping with cancer, caring for someone ill, moving to a foreign country, birthing a child, the death of my father, etc.
I write quickly and naturally. My weekly columns typically took one to two hours to write. However, I need to have quiet and isolation to do creative thinking, but I never neglected my family in order to write. I felt I would be losing too much of this part of my life if I had. I strove for balance. If you are consumed with guilt about the time you devote to writing, I feel it will not be productive unless you want to dwell on guilt as a topic. The journalism training and sending off a column every week made me productive because I couldn’t dwell on revision ad infinitum.
Overall, I would say I write to teach something to others, feeling that the unique experiences and insights that have enriched my life might do so for other people as well.
Writing is enjoyable for me because often I use it as a gift. I wrote about a granddaughter’s baptism comparing it to mine as she wore the baptismal dress I had worn when I was baptized. I wrote a children’s story called “Zachary Goes to Puzzle Land” for a grandson, whose parents make hand crafted puzzles. I wrote a poem about another grandson’s delight at a Rainbow Popsicle. For a granddaughter who loved to read as I did a child, I wrote “Journey to Kamis Brooke” and gave her one of my childhood books along with the poem. In this way I hope my grandchildren will remember me when I am gone, remember how I loved them, and also remember their childhoods.
BT: Do you have any unique or special methods to help you with idea generation or brainstorming?
JSB: I really don’t have any difficulty generating ideas. I do sometimes make lists of ideas in a small notebook l carry in my purse when an inspiration strikes me. Sometimes I transfer these to my computer so I have a rich “ideas” file. Writing workshops generate ideas for me because I am under the influence of the teacher and the flow of ideas among committed writers.
Authors impact me sometimes. When I was reading Willa Cather during my pioneer research time, I found my writing taking on qualities of hers, like when I tried to capture the images of the grasses and the impact of the land on the pioneer women who lived there. My notes later gave me material for a chapter of my book, The Sum of Our Past: Revisiting Pioneer Women.
My notes from retracing the Mormon and Oregon Trails were invaluable in writing the book. A few notations about me being in wind and snow at Devil’s Gate in the fall served later as a lead-in to introduce Patience Loader’s experiences with a handcart company in 1856. It’s important to get words jotted down immediately before the impression leaves you. A short passage will prompt your memory and help you return to that time and place.
When I was at Snowbird presenting on oral history, the leaves were golden and I wrote a description and noted a reference to Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” poem. This worked into a nice column on the theme of loss and how the possibility of loss intensifies experience. When I was getting tired of the American youth adoration as displayed on magazine covers as I stood in line at the supermarket, I went home and wrote a column called “Old is Beautiful.”
When I was in the harbor near Athens, Greece, on September 11, 2001 and heard of the 9/11 attacks, I tape-recorded my reactions and that of my eighty-five year old mother traveling with me also. This was the basis for an award-winning essay called “The Fire Next Time.”
When I was teaching high school English, I gave my students manila folders with a painting or photo in them and included a prompt like, “What might this person be thinking?” “Describe this scene using as many senses as you can.”
I have kept a diary for over thirty-five years, just the small “five-year-diary” type. I can go back to any page and just the small notation there will bring back a multitude of memories.
When I was an exchange student to the Soviet Union in 1960, I kept a diary. Experiences were later taken from that for an essay “Sketches in Red,” published in the WYE literary magazine at BYU, winning the prose prize.
I wrote examples for my students to follow; for example, a triptych on memories of my grandfather’s house as a model for them to write about their childhood memories of Richfield.
BS: What do you feel is the single most important quality a person must have to become a successful writer? What is your definition of a successful writer?
JSB: Perseverance is very important if the person wants a professional career. Success for me is being able to capture experiences and feelings in words for people who can’t. Many people tell me in relation to a work, “That is how I felt also.” Success is intensifying a moment you might otherwise not be sensitive to and therefore miss the impact of the moment. Success is preserving a memory that might otherwise be lost to you and to others. Success is leaving a legacy of thinking, and feeling, and wondering.
BS: Have you noticed a significant change in your writing over the years? If so, what would you say has brought about the change?
JSB: I write now with a deeper sense of allusion, metaphor, universality, and philosophical implication. The change was partially brought about by maturing as an individual, feeling connected to a variety of people through knowing them, and partially by returning for a master’s degree, received in 1996 when I was fifty-five years old. My thesis committee was comprised of the dream team: Susan Howe, Louise Plummer, and Maureen Beecher. Each woman was an inspiration and an excellent model. During my grant year 1993–1994, my association with Marilyn Arnold, as a Willa Cather mentor, made me stretch academically. Attending seminars including Women in Literature, Native American Literature, the Utah Writers’ Project, Writers @ Work, and League of Utah Writers improved my work as well.