Writer’s Series: Maya Angelou

angeloupoem

Factsheet 

  • 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.

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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

Factsheet

  • 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:

schirach_website

 

Writers Series: Cornelia Funke

Source: Wikipedia © Cruccone
Factsheet

  • 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).

Writers Series: Ernest James Gaines

Factsheet

  • born 1933
  • Education: Writing and American Literature in San Francisco and at Stanford University
  • First publication: a short story in 1956

Gaines was born on a plantation in Lousiana 1933. He says about himself that he started his training to become a writer when he was about 12 years old. He had to write letters for the old workers on the plantation, who didn’t know how to read or write. Since they had not much to say by themselves he wrote the letters for them. Part of it was his own imagination; part of it came from questioning them.

Aged 15, he moved to California and first entered a library. It is not that there had been no libraries in Lousiana – but they were only for white people. The saw the amount of books, however, none them delt with his people. So, he decided to write his own novel.

He wrote his first novel aged 17. It was rejected and he burned it.

He published his first piece, a short story, in 1956.


In short

He knew he wanted to be a writer from very early on and he followed that career path. He studied Literature and Creative Writing, he sent out manuscripts to publishers and he got a fellowship at Stanford University. In general, in was a very straight forward career path.

Life purpose or what?

First of all I wanted to share this post that I read today.

The author starts of my dismissing the term “life purpose” that we are all getting so fussed about. It is a big and lofty expression that really means – nothing. At best you can laugh about it and dismiss it as well, at worst you are frightened by the weight of finding your “life purpose”.

The question, he proposes, we should ask ourselves is the following:

What can I do with my time that is important?

He then leads you through seven questions that will help you define what is important to you. Hopefully it helps. We live in a time when list making and giving you the 20 things you need to do in your 20ies and the 25 relationship advises you need have down by the age of 25 are all over the place. It seems people look for numbers, for countable and measurable steps and advice on how to live their lives. But I’m rambling. I actually thought about those seven questions and I have come up answers to a few of them. I invite you to do the same. Maybe you will be surprised by what you learn about yourself.

1. What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich and does it come with an olive?

I will more than likely not become rich by what I do. I will not earn as much as my peers, who went to university with me.

2. What is true about you today that would make your 8-year-old self cry?

I think the very short answer is, that I do not read enough and that I stopped writing fiction. (I only took it back up this November for my very first NaNoWriMo.) I read so much when I was younger. I took a book home from the school library and read it in an afternoon, then take it back to the library and pick up another one. My teacher in elementary school at first didn’t believe I had read the book. I started about 5 to 10 novels. I didn’t get beyond the first few chapters on any of them before I lost interest and started a new story. But when I got older… I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was just puberty hitting my, but I always remember things in “before my Dad died” and “after my Dad died”. So, to me, it seems like I stopped being able to really indulge in a novel when my Dad died.

3. What makes you forget to eat and poop?

Same answer. Reading and writing. I would add working, if it is work that I enjoy in some way. Like teaching.

5. How are you going to save the world?

Through teaching and learning. Education is something I am really passionate about. I want to make education available to as many people as possible. I believe that e-learning is the way to go. But I am also very passionate about engaging with individual students on a face-to-face basis. It makes me really happy to see that they are LEARNING something new.

6. Gun to your head, if you had to leave the house all day, every day, where would you go and what would you do?

Literarily, the first thing that came to my mind was: the library. I mean, I seems natural, since I have spent so much time in libraries from my early childhood on up until I finished my Master’s thesis. For some periods, I literarily spent all day, every day in a library. What I would do? Learn, Read, Write.

7. If you knew, you were going to day one year from today, what would you do and how would you want to be remembered?

What would I do? This is too big of a question to be answered that quickly. What would I do for a whole year. Probably some travelling.
Being remembered? If I only helped to make one person’s life easier and better, I am ok.