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Writers At Work

This is the fourth in Ravenshead's series of interviews with writers.

Gary Entsminger was born in Virginia but now lives in the Rocky Mountains. He's a very eclectic writer and combines an enthusiasm for both arts and science with great self-discipline. He's written book reviews, poetry, technical papers, technical books, and novels. He's also worked freelance for magazines like "Dr Dobbs Journal".

His most recent work includes a report for the Sierra National Park system in California outlining how to inventory, monitor, and protect plant and animal species in their parks.

He's also an accomplished guitarist and mandolinist and can be seen and heard at The Musician's Corner and his web-site is here.

If you've ever thought about working for yourself and make a living from writing, then read on.

Ravenshead (RH) interviewed Gary Entsminger (GE) in early September 2006 and the interview is reproduced here:

An Interview with Gary Entsminger

RH: Can you tell us a bit about your background?

GE: I was born in a small town, Lexington Virginia, in a famous southern general's house turned hospital -- Stonewall Jackson. Jackson was shot one night half way through the Civil War, in 1863, by his own Confederate Army. They didn't recognize him or expect him to be wandering around outside camp in the dark. From the start, I had a strong sense of place, and many of my high school friends stayed in the area to marry and live mostly how their parents lived. I loved my parents and the valley and mountain landscape of rural Virginia, but eventually I left home anyway, a graduated English Major wanting to write like or be like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Ken Kesey, without really knowing what those guys were actually like, except as I perceived them through their writing. A path that led west to a bigger sky and ways of life unlike any I had known in the South.

RH: When did you start writing?

GE: Poems in college, pages and pages of them. My first mentor was the southern poet Dabney Stuart who taught English at Washington & Lee. He taught me to observe and write from the heart rather than from someone else's expectations about what I should write. But he also emphasized structure in writing as a form of freedom, and I liked William Carlos Williams' poems, and for a while imitated his short three line stanzas without using any punctuation including capitals. That was fun and I still picture myself sitting on the big hill above my parents' house, looking out on rolling hills of pastures and scrub junipers that we all called "cedars". I sat, watched, and wrote poems in a notebook. I could write several a day no problem. Then I went home and typed them up on an old black hand me down typewriter. I folded each piece of typewriter paper in half and used one side for the poem and the rest for backing. The paper was always green in my poems, and the poems were rarely more than half to a page long. During my senior year at Washington & Lee, I began writing book reviews for one of the Virginia Sunday newspapers, "The Roanoke Times". This gig brought me no cash but piles of free books, and I enthusiastically wrote a review each week, which I continued to do for another couple of years after I graduated. In retrospect, I think this dichotomy of writing poems and writing about books that others were writing set the tone for my writing life -- a balance of what I was saying and what I thought others were saying.

RH: What makes you write?

GE: Well, there are really two sides to my writing. The writing I do because I have a contract to write something for someone, and the writing I do that no one has specifically asked me to write, except perhaps for encouraging friends. I enjoy both. Contract writing pays the bills and lets me write instead of doing something else for work that would take me farther afield. Plus, contract writing, and I mean writing something, say a Technical Report for an organization, which you would not have written if you weren't being asked to write and weren't being paid for it, is rewarding also because it's challenging, a puzzle not entirely unlike writing a specific kind of poem, a haiku for example. Hey, give me seventeen syllables in three lines about something. Or hey, give me five pages about how a computer simulation model can help us see how plants or animals in a national park are surviving the impact of millions of visitors a year. Mostly, I get paid to write about things that others want me to write about. But I keep writing the "who cares if I write it" stuff anyway. So I know at some level, I must be writing for myself, although my self knows that I'd also like to have more readers who like what I write because I wanted to write it.

RH: Where do you get ideas from?

GE: Others. Observations. Other people. Conversations. Plants, animals, landscapes. What I read. Which is a lot and as often as there's time. Reading is a treat and easier than writing. Several books are going at one time all the time and have been since at least grade school when I fell hard for adventures about Indians and cowboys. I only liked sports and girls better. Lovely creatures to hold and care for. There are books around me most of the time when I'm indoors, and whenever there's a break in work or other play, I pick up a book (or guitar).

RH: Which writers have influenced you?

GE: Influenced or impressed me? The impressive ones have been piling up since I started reading, and there's no stopping the flow. I once worried that I'd read all the books I wanted to read before I was twenty. Now I know I'd have to live to be one hundred and twenty and even then the new ones to read would cast their light impossibly far future. I was an English major and with difficulty acquired a taste for the classics, especially Shakespeare. I still marvel that any writer's magic can be so extensive. The plays are great stories, impossibly great writing, and entertaining. No special effects needed except for language. Ditto for James Joyce, and for Tolstoy's powers of observation, and for another Russian master, Vladimir Nabokov, who combined fiction and science (he was both novelist and lepidopterist) beautifully. Coincidentally perhaps (although I prefer to think it synchronous, in Jung's terms), one of my first scientific research projects was working on Pierid butterflies in the alpine region near where Nabokov collected when he was traveling the USA writing Lolita. Since I write more non-fiction than fiction, tight descriptive prose seems essential. For scientific and technical work, I have to support my claims and point of view with research and references. But I think this is necessary anyway. The worlds we describe or simulate in computer programs (I am also a computer programmer), and the worlds we create in novels, poems, or stories can be as mysterious and subtle, but they also must be as clear as we can make them. Mystery doesn't disappear with clarity, and many modern masters, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, for example, exemplify this balance. The British writer, Colin Wilson, has held my attention through at least twenty books, fiction and non-fiction, because his extraordinary and positive view of the world and his curiosity about just about everything makes marvelous reading. His blend of fact and speculation, narrated conversationally is something I'd like to achieve in all my writing. I am solicited for many of my technical projects I'm told because I write non-fiction as if I'm telling a story. I'm happy with that.

RH: What's the easiest thing about writing? What's the hardest?

GE: For me, rewriting is easiest. Once I have my ideas, rough as they might be, written, the rewriting follows immediately and, although I spend most of my time on any project rewriting, this step at least seems easier. I have a starting point for what comes next. It's much harder for me to get the rough draft or structure sketched. This specific problem is why I bought a copy of WriteItNow. I wanted to know if there was an easier way to structure a book than the way I had been doing it, using a terrific little outline editor, NoteTab Pro (Fookes.com in Sweden), which allows me a very useful level of editing. For many of my projects, that's enough. But for a novel, I need additional levels of structuring (i.e., chapters, characters, events, locations, and so on).

RH: Have other peoples comments affected your writing?

GE: Yes! There is very little I write and nothing that I publish that isn't reviewed by others. But that part is easy enough -- I enjoy responding to others' perspectives, and I want each project to be as good as it can be.

RH:Any advice for other writers?

GE: Read, listen, observe, walk as much and as often as you can, smell the flowers, and develop a consistent work ethic, habits, and environment to work. I've worked out of my home office since the mid-1980s, and I work while traveling, so it's essential to maintain some kind of routine wherever I am -- get up early, have a cup of coffee and write a little, even if it's just email. The rest of each day varies from day to day, but is always pretty much planned along lines of work and play. Then repeat.

RH: How do you handle being disciplined with contract writing? Do you have any tips about this you can pass on?

GE: This is the question I am most frequently asked by friends and others. Although my lifestyle appears to be extremely flexible (I play hard as well as work hard), I am disciplined (almost fanatically so) about almost everything I do. I get up early in the morning, at or before dawn, and I write while I have a cup of coffee. Then I continue with a cup of tea. This writing usually starts with answering emails (I have always loved letter writing, so it was easy for me to switch to being an enthusiastic emailer, since most of my friends no longer write paper letters.) Then I usually walk for an hour or more, continuing my early morning quiet time. Breakfast happens when it happens. Then typically, I work on one of my current projects for a few hours until the next walking break. Living with athletic dogs (my labs have all been field trial dogs who need a lot of exercise) removes the option of not working out every day, which I've done since high school. The afternoon is more or less a repeat of the morning. If I have a deadline, and I almost always have one, even if only self-imposed, then the working day is longer. If I don't have anything due soon, then I might play more than work in the late afternoons. I also don't postpone working on projects. If someone asks me for something (whether a paying project or not), and they clearly would like it soon, then I usually do it right now if I can. If I put something aside without working on it now, it's only because I'm too busy with a deadline, or I want to think about it longer, to let the problem have some time to find its solution inside me. Chances are if I postpone working on something, something else will arrive on its heels, and then I have two somethings to coordinate. So my advice is something like have a routine you enjoy, develop good work habits, don't procrastinate (even if you're working on something that you think no one will ever publish), and create harmony and balance in your working environment and life. Exercise, play, and cutting yourself some slack when you need it will prevent or reduce anxiety and tension. Balance and enjoyment of the work will help make any project feel better. Or as my dad and others used to tell me, "if the work is worth doing, it's worth doing well." & this is wonderfully true, even when no one else is paying you for it.

RH: You spend six months of the year writing in a cabin. This sounds like a near perfect life to me. Is it as good as it sounds? Are you like Thoreau?

GE: Well, I try to deny sometimes that I have an idyllic lifestyle, but I am becoming more inclined as I get older to believe that I have led a charmed life. In part, perhaps, because I do enjoy working and I love it when something I write or play is published or recorded. (I spend almost as much time thinking about, composing, and playing music as I do writing. Part of me always wanted to be a rock star, which of course didn't happen, but I still play and record music with many and various ensembles. I learned a long time ago, in early high school, that the more kinds of instruments and styles of music I could play, the better chance I'd have finding other musicians to play with. For me, music is conversation. & each musician and instrument adds a layer of interest and complexity to the conversation.)

But to answer your question more directly, yes in a way I have a Thoreau like lifestyle and some of our interests overlap. I do live in a cabin much of the year, and even my "house" has an open floor plan and a post and beam style where the living room is open to the kitchen, dining room, and my office. I'm not big on walls and doors, although they are quite handy for bedrooms. Thoreau was interested in creating a simple life for himself, reducing the clutter in his environment, and allowing nature to be a major participant in his thinking and writing. He thought that nature was neglected or even worse abused, and I could not agree more.

We live in a time where we are obsessed with our own lives and making enough money to live well that we forget that we'd be nowhere without nature -- its beauty, the earth, the air, the water. I sometimes fear we won't realize in time how mistaken we are in thinking that we can correct our environmental mistakes with technology. I just don't think that is true. I've programmed computers at a sophisticated level since the mid 1980s, and I've worked with some of the best ecologists in the world for almost as long a time. And unfortunately, I don't see science or technology coming up with the solution to the environmental mess we're making. Despite that, I am extremely optimistic about life and hopeful about our future. I think Thoreau too shared this optimism about life and the potential for humanity to find solutions to its problems, although perhaps through some totally non-technical path. I feel certain that humans have a great untapped potential, a spirituality or something like that, which can and perhaps will get us through these hard times. Thoreau liked to walk to his nearby town to socialize with his friends. I love my solitude, and really would not be able to write without lots of solo time, but I love my social time with friends as much. Conversations, playing music, potluck suppers, and of course hiking or climbing with or without friends are my favorite pastimes. I'm not sure, but I don't think Thoreau had a dog. Did he? I am seldom out of the company of at least one black Labrador retriever.

RH: Well, I'm not sure if Thoreau had pets. Thank you for your comments and for taking time out to answer our questions.

GE: Thanks. It was fun, albeit more self-focused than I prefer to be most of the time.

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