Meet triple-threat Heather Whitaker – writer, teacher, and freelance editor living in Tallahassee, Florida. Whitaker was originally pursuing a PhD in physics at Florida State University before she decided to see where her interest in writing might take her. She is largely self-taught, and after digesting a wealth of knowledge about the craft of writing realized she also had a gift for teaching it to others. Now, she edits manuscripts and coaches writers via workshops and critique groups. I met Whitaker at my first writer’s conference and have had the privilege of working with her and learning from her ever since. Be sure to check out her website and her Facebook page.
The following is a transcript of an in-person interview I conducted with Heather a few weeks ago. Each question is accompanied by a short audio clip.
WHY DID YOU STUDY PHYSICS?
I’ve always loved physics – I love understanding how the world works. I really, really love that. I have a masters in physics, but I left before getting my PHD because I realized that it wasn’t the right work environment for me. I don’t regret leaving because I’ve gotten to do some other great things.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO PURSUE WRITING?
I’ve been interested in writing since elementary school, but it was one of those things where everybody tells you “don’t quit your day job.” But I guess I did, I quit my day job. I had a daughter who was two who I could tell needed more time from me, and we later learned (many years later) she had Asperger’s.
I wasn’t sure what was up at the time, we just knew that life was hard for her so I decided that I would quit work for a few years to stay home and give our two young daughters the time and attention they needed.
And that would also give me the chance to go and study writing.
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT THIS?
The thing you have to know is that I approached writing the way I approached physics, which is that you can’t understand the world without reading all about it.
I felt like I couldn’t just start writing, I needed to read all about it, and the first book that I read was Stephen King’s “On Writing” which is kind of half memoir and half how-to. And the first thing that he said to do was to read books on grammar.
My bedtime reading material was grammar books, and I went through several, and said, “Ok, I know how to put a sentence together, so surely it must be okay to go out and get books on writing.”
I started taking online writing classes because I was told it was too hard to take classes at a university level in creative writing without being a full time student.
So I took online classes and I read lots and lots of books on writing… and at the same time I kept writing and kept writing so that I felt like my writing would improve maybe as I was learning.
WHEN DID THINGS TAKE OFF FOR YOU?
My lucky break, or whatever you call it, happened when Julianna Baggott asked if I would read a novel for her. She said we could do a swap – she’d read mine and I’d read hers.
So I took her novel and I read it, and I gave her feedback, and she said ‘you did this so well I think you should do it for a living, I think you should charge people.’
Summer 2012, people said ‘what you’re really good at is explaining the craft of writing, and you ought to do some writing classes, like workshops.’ I felt really intimidated by the idea of offering writer’s workshops because I don’t have an MFA in creative writing, so who was I to teach other people?
But the thing about writing is that you can learn so much just by studying and really applying yourself.
My sister was the one who convinced me that yes, I really should try offering some classes. So I offered a series of three classes over the summer.
And so from there I’ve gone on to teach for OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Those are a lot of fun. It’s just a great group of people to work with.
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR LOVE FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
I believe that children’s literature is more important than any other area of literature. I think it helps transform us, and it makes us who we are, and so I wanted to write transformative children’s literature. It was books like The Giver and Ender’s Game that really affected me, even though, interestingly enough, I read those both in my early 20s. But still I felt like they shaped me and affected me, and I wanted to write the kinds of books that would influence children.
HOW IS WRITING THERAPEUTIC FOR YOU?
It is my way of dealing with how I feel about the evil things people do.
When I write, I have to put myself in the shoes of the villains, I have to truly understand who they are and what they’re doing. And when I can understand why someone can do these horrible things to other people, and they think they’re doing what’s right, it helps me to find peace for myself with the world.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF YOUR JOB AS AN EDITOR?
I would say that what’s probably the hardest but also the most satisfying is when I can figure out how to offer someone feedback. Because what you’re doing is you’re taking their baby and you’re telling them what’s wrong with it.
With every single manuscript, I take on the angst of the writer. I worry with them that they’ll never get the story published, I worry with them that they’re not going to be able to fix the problem.
I give them my best feedback, and when that author is able to take my suggestions and it makes them feel better about the story, it gives them great ideas on how to improve it, that’s the greatest reward.
BONUS AUDIO CLIP: Listen to Whitaker describe her experience with one of her first moderated writers groups, in which many of the participants were writing memoirs.