Writer’s Series: Maya Angelou



  • Born in 1928
  • Education: high school
  • First publication: I know why the caged bird sings (1970)


Maya Angelou was already in her 40ies, too, when she wrote her first book. It was an autobiography. She has written mostly autobiography. She didn’t come from an intellectual background at all. For all I could find out, she finished high school and that’s it. From then on she worked in all kinds of professions and lived in many different places all over America. A point was made that even though she didn’t have a university degree, she was  later on appointed as a professor of English.


I, personally, had not heard of her until her death. It may be my fault, but she wasn’t really present in the book market in Germany or any other country I lived in around Europe. This is reflected in the lack of translations of her work into German. As far as I know, only her most famous first book I know why the caged bird sings has been translated into German.


Besides my interest in the birth of the writer or the transformation of an ordinary person into an artist, I am also quite interested in the writing habits of authors. Many readers will have heard of the book about the daily rituals of famous intellectuals. I don’t know, what pattern the choice of the people was based on. Maybe none. I am particularly interested in what writing habits there are. How writers make time for writing and how much they write or how much of their time they spend actually writing. I personally find writing a draining and exhausting task, so I cannot imagine any writer to follow a “normal” 8-hour workday routine.

In any case… Maya Angelou described her writing habit in an interview with the Paris review. She says that she leaves the house around six and starts her day’s work at around 6.30am. She works until 12.30 or 1.30pm and then goes home, takes a shower and “plays sane”. That means she goes shopping and runs errands of all sort. In the afternoon she looks at the writing has done in the morning and starts editing, dismissing etc. That’s 6 to 7 hours of writing a day. Straight up writing. Not counting in the editing in the afternoon.


Special gift

When I was little I wrote multiple novels. That is, I started writing multiple novels. None of them were ever finished. The longest piece was about 20 pages (handwritten) and I was very proud of it. Only secretly obviously, because I never showed my work to anyone. I was too afraid and shy. I thought I was born to be a great writer, but I didn’t want anybody to know – yet. So, I never talked to anybody about my novels. Had I done that, I might have come out of that lofty cloud of being a oh so special writer a lot earlier.

Today, as I work as a teacher, I talk to many children on a daily basis. And to my surprise a lot of them tell me that they have written stories and novels already. I mean, not hundreds, but a few. Many more than I would have ever expected, especially when I was a child myself. And they talk about it openly. I would have never done anything like that. The thought of anybody knowing about my secret scared the shit out of me. These brave kids. They probably have a far greater chance of ever making it to writers heaven than I had.

Writers Series: Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach


  • born in 1964 in Germany
  • Education: studied law (specialisation: criminal law)
  • First publication: short stories Verbrechen (crime) in 2009 (aged 45)

Ferdinand von Schirach was 45, when he published his first book, a selection of short stories that are loosly based on cases he had worked on as a lawyer. Before his career in writing, he was a very successful lawyer and had many famous and influencial clients. Following the success of his first book, he has published several other collections of stories, novels and essays. He still keeps his chambers.

Apparently, he is one of the few contemporary German writers with international success.

I first heart of Ferdinand von Schirach through an interview with the German newspaper Die Süddeutsche. The title is: “It is not about loneliness, it is about distance.” That caught my attention. How he openly spoke about feeling distanced from people and how he likes to be alone, even prefers it sometimes. He seems like a person, who knows what he’s saying, because he has thought about already for a very long time. Maybe because he only started his publishing career in his mid-40s. He is not overwhelmed by his success. It feels like had given this interview many times before in his head.

It is not a common and popular way to be these days. Everybody is supposed to be active on social media to keep up with life, especially if you are writer and want to promote your book. You need to be proactive, outgoing, even slightly aggressive. Is seems that writing the book is only half of it – once it is written, you need to become some happy go lucky puppet that loves smalltalk and canapes. And if you are not into all that – how dare you speak out about it?!

After the newspaper interview, I was intrigued and read his first book Verbrechen (crime), because I like crime and detective stories. I read, or rather listened to, it in one go on a very long train ride between the Netherlands and the south of Germany. It grasps the banality and triviality of life in a very distanced and detached style of writing. The tragedies of life stand on their own, without being dramatised through literary transformation – naked, just as they are: normal tragedies of life.

His literary work is not only reflected in his interviews, but also on his website. Here is a screenshot from the landing page:



Writers Series: Cornelia Funke

Source: Wikipedia © Cruccone

  • born in 1958 in Germany
  • Education: studied pedagogy and illustration
  • first publication: children’s book Die große Drachensuche (The great dragon search) in 1988 (aged 30)

Funke says, she wrote her first story, when she was “ancient”. Before she studied pedagogy and worked on an activity playground in Hamburg. Something that had come up in the late 60s, when children develop skills and play in nature. Something of that sort, I think. Simultaneously, she studied to become an illustrator of children’s books. When she finally worked as an illustrator, however, she claims to not have liked to stories she was given to illustrate – she started writing her own. She published her first story with her own illustrations in 1988, when she was 30.

On her website she says that she realized that one couldn’t live against their talents or skills, during the time that she was working at the activity playground.


2015-01-28 09.41.50To me, Cornelia Funke was always one of those authors, who became popular and famous in the aftermath of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the popularity of these kinds of fantasy stories of witches and wizards. Suddenly everybody seemed to be reading children’s books, even teenagers and students like me and my friends. I always thought, however, that the original was the best without ever bothering to look at other authors like Funke or Pratchett.

It was only a year ago or so that I saw Funke on TV. They showed a portrait of her a one of the most famous German writers. Turns out she now lives in the US and has sold the film rights to many of her books to Hollywood producers. She was shown in her huge and beautiful house with a dog and an amazing view of LA and palm trees and the ocean. I was rather impressed, I have to admit. I had no idea.

Today I am using many of her children’s books in my German classes with primary age students. At the end of class, I always read a chapter from one of her books. Right now, we are reading Gespensterjäger (Ghosthunters).

Artists that inspire: Vivian Maier

I’ve started a series about writers this year, where I want to share information about how writers find their profession/calling and when and why and what kind of carrer paths they take and how they later create myths around their initiation as writers. This post would generally fall in the same category, if only the artist concerned was a writer. She was a photographer: Vivian Maier.

I heart about her for the first time a few months ago through a social network… facebook probably. Somebody posted an article with her photos, which grabbed my attention. I googled her and then her biography more than anything grabbed my attention. It is just too fascinating.

Vivian Maier worked as a Nanny for rich people’s kids almost all her life. When she wasn’t living with a stranger’s family, she was traveling the world. On her days off or even together with the kids, she was taking care of, she would wander the streets of Chicago or New York and take pictures with her camera. Apparently, she never left the house without a camera around her neck. While living with on the family’s she had a her own bathroom. That wasn’t so common for house staff at the time, I suppose. We are talking about the 1950s and 1960s. In that bathroom she developed her pictures. When she moved to another family, she didn’t have that possibility any more. So, she didn’t develop her pictures and her film rolls started piling up. She gave them into storage, but later in life had no more income and couldn’t pay the the rent. The boxes full of undeveloped films where auctioned off. The guy, who bought them, made her famous. She has exhibitions all over the world now. She never knew anything about that. She died in 2009. I’m sure, it would have been rather intimidating her.

Yesterday went to see her exhibition at FOAM Amsterdam. It is so intriguing to see this artist, who has never seen her own work of art. Can you image she took all those pictures (about 120,000) and not seeing most of her work? How could she develop as an artist without learning from her own work? Was she only interested in the process of taking the picture rather than the end product?

To see some of her pictures, visit her website.