Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insights into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers.
Amy M. Miller is a writer and Administrative Coordinator for the nonprofit organization, Louisville Literary Arts. Amy’s essays have appeared in Salon, Hippocampus Magazine, [PANK], The Louisville Review, MOTIF, and Under The Gum Tree. She is a graduate of the Spalding University MFA in Writing program and holds an M.A. in English from University of Louisville. Currently, Amy is working on her first collection of essays as well as several children’s picture books. Amy lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband and two children.
Location: Louisville, KY
I am drafting and revising two essays and one picture book, while simultaneously seeking representation for two other picture books. Lots of plates, constantly spinning.
I’m finishing a guilty summer read, Sue Perkin’s Spectacles, a memoir from the host of The Great British Bake Off (I’m addicted). I also have a toe in Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, by Dinty Moore, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, and Small Fires, by Julie Marie Wade. I’m a nonfiction writer and reader. All of the nonfiction I read informs what and how I write. That said, I love a good, engrossing novel and next up for me is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and a kids’ middle grade novel my son is reading for school, Wonder, by R. J. Palacio.
1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?
Well, I’m a multi-tasker (which is a kind way to say I’m distracted). I love many different genres of literature and that is true for my writing, too. I began my MFA work in creative nonfiction, which is still my first love; however, after four years of writing personal and introspective essays, I needed to explore topics that were not about ME. I have always enjoyed the whimsical and hilarious prose of children’s picture books and have collected picture books even before I had kids of my own, so I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and have been writing books for 3-7 year-olds. It’s very freeing to write outside of my first genre, and loads of fun, too. Aside from creative writing, I work on public relations work (web content, press releases, social media campaigns), as well as contract grant writing.
2. When/where/how do you write?
I don’t have a specific time when I write because I have kids who constantly require feeding, chauffeuring, and all manner of attention, plus I work part-time. I write when I can — when my kids are in school, my workload is light, and the house is quiet. My writing spot has moved around the house. I used to make a home at the dining room table, but grew tired of moving my papers and iPad on and off the placemat. Most days, I’m parked at my desk in front of a giant screen in my hard swivel chair. When I’m brainstorming or revising, I might take the iPad or a notebook to the couch, where I sit next to my dogs. Invariably, all of my writing happens in the morning or afternoon. If I write at night, I’ll have too many ideas buzzing around my head to sleep.
3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?
I love accessorizing — at least for writing. You cannot beat a good spiral bound notebook for notes — something that can lie flat or be folded over. For writing implements, I prefer a roller ball pen because the fluidity of ink allows me to continue writing without pause and doesn’t leave imprints in the paper. We writers are weird about our instruments. I also like odd colors of pens: purples, oranges, greens. But to be perfectly honest, I spend most of my writing time perched in front of the desktop computer, mostly because it is the most reliable device I own and I can save my work on the cloud and desktop. I also use Google Drive to share writing with critique partners. Over the years, I have moved away from listening to music while I write and prefer silence, but I always have a hot cuppa coffee and a bottle of water next to me.
4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?
I begin a piece in a variety of ways. Sometimes I have an idea while walking the dogs or sitting in carpool or taking a shower. I try to keep a small notebook in my purse or in the car, or at the least, a scrap of paper and pen nearby. Other times, I just sit at the computer and start free writing. I almost never write the full draft in one sitting. On complicated essays, in which I play with structure, I often need to break away from the writing and map out the essay as an outline. I highly recommend reverse outlining for revision. Start with your draft and outline what is on the page. Does it flow from one idea to the next? If not, move the pieces around and use the outline to direct how and where you will make changes. It feels less scary to cut and paste an outline and it’s a great way to look at the piece more objectively and holistically. Another invaluable word of advice: Always find an impartial reader who you trust to give you constructive feedback! My critique partners always see connections and glitches that I am unable to because I am too close to the piece. Lastly, read your work aloud. This is a foolproof way to find where a piece needs work.
5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
Be concise, cut your modifiers, and don’t hold your readers at arm’s length — invite your readers to see all of the ugly, messy truth. Readers respond to flawed narrators and non-fiction writers have a responsibility to the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that truth might be.