Continuing with the Take Ten interviews, next up is Coffee and Critique co-founder, Donna Volkenannt.
Donna is a writer, an editor, and a creative writing teacher whose stories, essays, reviews, and interviews have been published in hundreds of print and online publications.
Her work has been recognized with more than 100 awards. She recently received notice that her true story "Remembering Miss Tobin" was a top ten finalist in the 2014 Erma Bombeck Global Human Interest writing competition category. In 2012, her true story "Honey, Can I Borrow Your Garter Belt?" won first place in the Erma Bombeck Global Humor writing competition category.
Here are her take-ten questions and answers, which also appear in the recently published Coffee and Critique anthology:
1. What (or who) inspired you to become a writer?
My parents and the nuns who taught me in school.
I grew up the middle child of seven, surrounded by storytellers. Mom’s family were Baptists, originally from the Little Dixie area in and around Hannibal, Missouri. When we got together with her “relations,” the women swapped gossip, shared recipes for things like calves’ brains, and talked about their superstitions, especially when one of them had a dream of muddy water – a sure sign someone was about to get sick or die. Dad grew up in North St. Louis, in a large Irish-Catholic family. He served in the Army infantry during World War II. When we got together with his brothers, they drank a lot of beer, told stories about their wild childhood, argued about who saw the most time in combat, and whose first name was the most Irish. Those family memories have been fodder for my stories and essays. As a child I loved to read, and the nuns who taught me encouraged me to write.
2. What is your writing specialty?
Good question. I write where my ideas take me and like to experiment with different genres.
3. How would you describe your writing process?
I jot down ideas, snatches of conversations, titles, outlines, and such in a notebook or on scraps of paper. I believe there is a connection between the physical act of using a pen and writing on paper. When I begin to write a first draft I consult my notes as I type on my laptop, but the words seem to flow because I’ve already connected physically with my story or essay. Usually, I write several drafts then let my manuscript sit for some time before bringing it in for critique.
4. What is the best part of being a writer? What is the worst part of being a writer?
The best part is when I’m in the “zone.” It’s an almost spiritual experience when the words flow from somewhere deep inside. It’s magical when I write something then wonder, “Where did that come from?”
The worst part is not having time to write and losing focus.
5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
Two memorable pieces of advice given to me from other writers come to mind.
The first occurred several years ago during one of my first work-in-progress readings. When I finished, I apologized for my work not being well written. Afterwards, an older gentleman said that he liked my story and encouraged me to keep writing. He told me, “Don’t hide your lamp under a basket.”
The second came from the late Nick Nixon during a critique group session. After I read a personal essay, Nick told me to put more emotion into my work and to not hold back. He wrote on top of my essay, “Take your gloves off.” When I got home I misread what he had written as “Take your clothes off.” His advice was inspiring and turned out to be humorous as well.
“You need to change – ” which messes with my writing voice. Equally harmful is when someone else tries to impose his or her sensibilities on my work. I’ve learned to ignore remarks suggesting I “need to change” parts of my stories or essays because they are too religious or too Catholic. Just like a writer’s unique voice, a writer’s personal beliefs should be respected and left alone.
6. Which books on writing can you recommend for other writers?
My shelves overflow with books on the craft of writing. The fundamentals are: Elements of Style by Strunk and White, On Writing Well by William Kinser, On Writing by Stephen King, and Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. I also have a large stack of college-level literature textbooks which contain short stories and essays from esteemed writers. Finally, I recommend reading books in the genre in which one wishes to write.
7. How has belonging to Coffee and Critique affected you as a writer?
Meeting once a week keeps me focused and energized. There’s no feeling like being around other writers to spark my creativity. I also have made several writer friends whose wisdom and encouragement are golden. No matter how much I revise and polish my manuscript, it is always made better after bringing it in for critique. The writers in Coffee and Critique are worth their weight in gold -- and ink!
8. If you’ve been published or have won awards, which are the most special to you?
The most special are two true stories about my late children. “Julie’s Gift” in A Cup of Comfort for Women is about the lesson of selfless giving I learned from my late daughter Julie while we were living in Germany. The second, “Santa Wore Cowboy Boots” in A Cup of Comfort for Christmas, is a true story about a lesson my late son Erik taught me about the real meaning of Christmas when we were living in Arizona.
9. What three words best describe you?
Never stopped believing.
10. What is your writing dream?
To finish the projects I’ve already started and continue coming up with ideas for more.
Bonus question: If you could interview one or two famous writers or historic figures living or deceased, who would they be and what would you ask them?
I’d interview Missouri writers Mark Twain and Kate Chopin.
I’d ask Mark Twain what it was like to live in Missouri at the time of the Civil War. I’d also ask if he knew any of my maternal great-grandparents, who lived in Hannibal the same time he did.
I’d ask Kate Chopin how writing helped her overcome her grief after the loss of loved ones, and what it was like living in St. Louis during the 1904 World’s Fair.