Next up in my year-long series of interviews with Idaho authors is Bruce Ballenger. It’s safe to say I would have never had the confidence to become an English teacher had I not been exposed to the teaching methods utilized by the writing program at Boise State University. Once upon a time, I also took a class on the history of the personal essay from Professor Ballenger. After years of hedging, I’m finally answering the call to get serious about writing nonfiction.
Official Bio: Bruce Ballenger is the author of seven books, including three writing textbooks—The Curious Writer, The Curious Reader, and The Curious Researcher—as well as a book on creative nonfiction, Crafting Truth. His essays have appeared in the journals The Writer’s Chronicle, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, College English, The Boston Globe, and a range of other publications. Ballenger is a professor of English at Boise State University, where he has taught courses in creative nonfiction, the essay, and theories of teaching writing. He’s been on the faculty at BSU for 22 years.
1. Please provide a brief synopsis of your most-recently released book.
Pearson published the ninth edition of my writing textbook, The Curious Researcher, last month. This success of this book always surprises me because in so many ways it’s an anti-textbook, written in a very personal voice and includes many autobiographical moments. In all, I’ve published seven books.
2. Tell us a little bit about what motivates or inspires your writing.
In general, I think there are two kinds of writing: direct and open. As an academic, I do a lot of direct writing, which is work where I know pretty much what I want to say before I say it. But the real joy comes from the open-ended work, where I write to find out what I think. What motivates me to write more than anything else is to write to discover what I didn’t know I knew. This is probably why I’m drawn to the personal essay.
3. As an Idaho resident, what do you most enjoy about living here? I love the outdoor culture, and for the most part I find my fellow Idahoans incredibly friendly and generous.
4. Describe some highlights of Idaho’s literary community. For a city of its size, Boise has an extraordinarily vibrant literary culture, with The Cabin as its focal point. I served on The Cabin board for six years, and I was constantly amazed at the energy and enthusiasm for reading and writing in the community.
5. What is the name of your blog and what can readers expect to find there? My blog is at curiouswriter.blogspot.com, where visitors will find occasional short pieces about writing or excerpts from longer personal essays. A recent post, for example, looks at the emotional work of revision. Another features a recently published essay that appeared on the website Fully Grown People. I also maintain a website for my work bruceballenger.com, and that features many of my published essays.
6. What does your drafting and/or editing process entail? The key to my writing process is the necessity of calibrating my need to perform. If I’m always focused on writing well—coherently, clearly, and with grace—then I won’t get any work done. I’ll sit and stare at the blank screen and feel like an idiot. To get around that, I need to feel free to write badly, especially as I’m generating new material. I do that on old manual typewriters, where the writing is not only bad but looks ugly. I craft work on the computer.
7. Are you traditionally published or self-published? I’ve never self-published. All of my books are with commercial publishers, including Pearson Education, which is the largest academic publisher in the world. I also have an agent, which is key, I think, to not getting run over by these companies over the business details. The upside is that the publishers handle marketing and the details of production, including covers. I’d rather leave that stuff to the experts.
8. Can you offer one or two helpful tips for fellow writers when it comes to marketing and publicity?
It’s interesting, but I’ve never gotten any advice about marketing and publicity. My publishers have always handled that. I wish I could say something smart, but I’m pretty sure whatever I’d say about marketing and publicity is obvious: exploit social media, carefully craft lists of potential reviewers to send copies to, and sell books at speaking engagements (in my non-profit days, this was called opportunity recruiting).
9. What future projects can we look forward to?
I’m planning a new book with a colleague on revision. No title yet. I continue to write and publish creative nonfiction, and recently published a piece about collecting and writing called “Return to the Typewriter.” I have an interest in writing about birds, and I’m working on a new essay called “Bad Birds.” Another piece will appear soon on writing called “A Narrative Logic of the Personal Essay” in the Associated Writing Program’s magazine Writer’s Chronicle.
10. Is there anything else you want your potential readers to know? What passions drive your life?
It may be comforting to apprentice writers that one can be bad at writing for a long time before one gets good. In college, my poem was singled out in my poetry class by a visiting poet as one of the worst poems he’d ever seen. Ouch. I majored in botany instead of English, so that helped. I find some of my early manuscripts nearly unreadable. My father was a writer—and a pretty good one when he wasn’t drunk—and I never thought I’d write better than he did. Now I do. I used to say that I hate writing, but love having written—one of the dumbest things I’ve ever uttered. Like anything difficult, you have to love the process, and if you don’t, find something else to do.
You can connect with Bruce Ballenger and his social media sites via his author website and blog.
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