Abigail De Witt: On Writing

Abigail De Witt studied at Harvard and the Iowa Writers Workshop, an has taught creative writing at Applachian State University, University of North Carolina-Asheville, Harvard Summer School, and the Duke Writers Workshop. She is the author of two novels, Lili and Dogs, and works privately with writers out of her home in Burnsville, NC.

Genève Bacon: Abigail, I have worked with you for eight years and have had the benefit of your unflagging encouragement and astute criticism. Speaking for myself, you have helped and inspired me to grow as a writer. What inspires you?

Abigail De Witt: I draw inspiration and have learned most of what I know about writing from reading good books and teaching passionate students. The truth is, an eager but unskilled student can teach me as much as a brilliant one. Helping someone who doesn’t have a facility with language, who doesn’t know how to get inside his or her characters, or who can’t develop a conflict, gives me a deeper understanding of language, character, and conflict—but a gifted student is easier to learn from.

GB: What do you think is the most important element is writing?

ADW: The use of sensory detail. Besides drawing the reader in—how can we inhabit a character’s world if we do not know how it smells, tastes, sounds, and looks?—a single sensory detail is often the genesis of an entire novel. A writer can take one sensory detail—a woman’s bloodstained hands, for example—and, simply by asking why?, come up with a plot and a cast of characters.
Sensory detail keeps us honest. It’s easy to fudge the truth with abstractions—she was sad, he was angry, they were upset; what do those phrases really mean?—but when the narrator of “What I Did for Love,” having had an abortion, is sickened by a plate of runny eggs, I know how deeply un-nourished she is, how uncared-for. To be abandoned is to feel a kind of nausea—to be homesick—and when I see those runny eggs I feel lonely with the character. To use another example, in one of the stories in “Coping With Purgatory,” when Toby Heaton’s narrator describes hitting “a small girl in pigtails” with his car—“I hear the ‘whumpff’ of her slight impact as she hits the side of the car, feel the tremor through the steering wheel”—I feel that tremor shudder through my body. And when Heather Newton (“Water Stories”) describes the log-home salesman trudging up the road to a customer’s house and “water seeps through the soles of his worn Gucci shoes,” that image sums up the character’s failed life.
Having worked with you, Genève, I know your stories best, but in Irons in the Fire, all of you have created worlds that are vivid, honest, and compelling, and I am grateful to have been introduced to the stories of Toby Heaton and Heather Newton. I know I will be re-reading them and learning from this wonderful collection for years to come.

GB: Thank you, Abigail. Your generous words about our book are much appreciated.

Copyright © 2009 by Genève Bacon

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One Response to Abigail De Witt: On Writing

  1. Juliff says:

    Abigail made a huge impact on me when I took her creative writing class at Appalachian. In fact, I’ve even passed on her advice about using sensory detail to a friend of mine who is 120 pages into her first novel. Thanks Abigail!

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