How I Write: Terry McMillan
Published: July 10, 2001
|The author of five novels, Terry McMillan combines a keen sense of family dynamics, an ear for dialogue and astute social observation to create a cast of characters that one critic calls "sassy, resilient and full of life." Two of her books made The New York Times bestseller list: Waiting to Exhale, for 38 weeks, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back for 21 weeks; she also co-wrote the screenplays for both, which were made into successful movies. McMillan received an Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1988 and the Barnes and Noble Writers Award in 1999. She was a Yaddo Colony Fellow in 1982, 1983 and 1985, and a MacDowell Fellow in 1983. McMillan has taught English at Stanford University, the University of Wyoming and the University of Arizona at Tucson. She lives in Northern California.|
Credits: A Day Late and a Dollar Short (2001), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996), Waiting to Exhale (1992), Disappearing Acts (1989), Mama (1987). Editor: Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction (1990).
Why: I write because the world is an imperfect place, and we behave in an imperfect manner. I want to understand why it's so hard to be good, honest, loving, caring, thoughtful and generous. Writing is about the only way (besides praying) that allows me to be compassionate toward folks who, in real life, I'm probably not that sympathetic toward. I want to understand myself and others better, so what better way than to pretend to be them?
When and where: I like getting up at 5 a.m., when the house is quiet, and I don't have to worry about anybody calling. Even the dogs and birds are asleep. It's quiet, and I can think. I write in my office or at a cabin at Lake Tahoe. Four to five hours is normal. If all goes well, I'm pretty wiped out emotionally by that time.
How: When I'm working on a novel, I usually do a chapter a day. Once I finish the entire draft, I go back and rewrite the story in general (filling in holes, things that don't make any sense, things I forgot or want to remember, character development, story movement, time, etc.). The next draft is when I edit for the particular (tone, language). I nitpick big time.
Ideas: I'm nosy. I'm a good listener. Airplanes are good. Newspaper articles, especially "Dear Abby!" The news. Most often, I just think about people in situations that I don't know if I could handle or tolerate. I worry about them and wonder how they manage. This is usually how a story comes about.
Writer's block: I think that most writers suffer from writer's block because they're trying too hard to make it perfect out of the gate when, in fact, they should be writing it for themselves, as if no one is ever going to read it at all. I find it makes for more honest writing--less pretentious or cautious--and it's fluid. I write from my heart without thinking about it too much. And it's been working so far.
Advice: Write in your own voice in your own style and don't worry about it. There's room out here for all kinds of stories and voices, and the world is waiting for them.
Photograph by Stephanie Rausser