A Writer’s Habits: Sam Werbalowsky

What type of writing do you do?
I write nonfiction and fiction. I do a lot of research based stuff. My first long project was written over the summer before my junior year. It was about birdsongs and human songs, and the zebra finch — a songbird — and folk musician Woody Guthrie. See, Woody died from Huntington’s Disease, a neurodegenerative disorder. The zebra finch is a bird that regenerates neurons, and one potential application of studying it is to cure Huntington’s, or at least know a bit more about it. So you have that science connection. Then it gets real wild — Woody Guthrie wrote only one really original tune. His words were original, but the tune was mostly lifted from other songs. Pastures of Plenty, a song about migrant workers, is a reworking of Pretty Polly, an old murder ballad that has origins four hundred years old or so. The zebra finch passes on its song from generation to generation, so it’s kind of like a bird folk song. Just some interesting connections that I wanted to explore.

I actually mostly do fiction. I’ve written some short stories that just come from here or there. My favorite to write though are historical novels. I love research stuff. I have a draft of a story about a migrant musician and Negro League baseball player who meet in Arizona during the Dust Bowl. I got the idea after the Guthrie stuff — the musician is similar but I like to think he’s more of a badass. Right now I’m working a story about Middletown during the 1850’s. It actually reaches into the Civil War a bit, but barely, because a Civil War general, Mansfield, was from Middletown. I like to just put cool stuff from history in. John Brown comes and buys guns from Starr Manufacturing. John Brown never came to Middletown as far as I can tell, but Starr Mfg. was here. There’s a cool scene where they move the church; I just put it in because it really happened and seems incredible.

Where is your favorite place to write?
I’m not picky. Most desks or tables. I like to be around people, but I don’t want them sitting near me. It’s weird, I guess, I like to see people walking by. I don’t want long conversation but I can handle a three or four second distraction.

What’s the first thing you wrote that you can remember?
I think I was about four or five. I wrote a story called “Let’s Walk.” It was a picture of two people walking and it just said Let’s walk. That’s the whole story. I really remember it being creative, even though it’s just a two word story.

How early did you begin writing?
Well what I said above was the first thing I remember writing so maybe then. Then nothing except in the first grade I wrote a story about apples, but it was a class assignment. Then in sixth grade I wrote a poem about a girl because I wanted to be in the middle school’s lit mag. Then in 12th grade I wrote a story about being in a waterfall for a creative writing class. It was some hippie shit. I even used the word trip in it.

I’d say I started to write how I write now sophomore year at Wesleyan. I took a writing class to see if I could do it. I got serious about it. I don’t really consider what I wrote before then to be writing. I hadn’t developed a set of principles to write by. There weren’t issues that consistently came up, or subjects I consistently wanted to explore.

Where did you find your subjects?
Wikipedia. I’m not completely joking. I dick around on the internet a lot and find some characters sometimes. The Leatherman, a 19th century vagabond, shows up in my thesis and he’s on a reddit post that has the 372 most interesting wikipedia articles. I’m a huge internet nerd. Sometimes I take local characters and write about them. I grew up on the Hudson River so there’s a lot of that sort of stuff in my short stories. Sometimes I just luck into them. I wrote a short piece about riding along with a cop. We were supposed to write about somebody working and I ran into a cop and he took me a long. Officer Rob. You can see him in the sauna sometimes.

What’s the best thing you’ve read recently?
Daniel Woodrell’s The Death of Sweet Mister is the last book to really knock me out. He’s from the Ozarks and he sort of stumbled into writing. Sweet Mister is about a boy living in the Ozarks dealing with his ma and abusive dad. It explores incest. You just have this tension building up the whole story. It’s fantastic. Woodrell wrote Winter’s Bone which was adapted into a movie recently. I think he’s going to get some long overdue recognition soon.

I just read Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye on an airplane. I read that book about once a year so it’s not really fair to say that I read it recently even though I have. I know what’s coming when I open the cover. He’s a big influence on me actually. He writes very simply and plainly. He’s certainly not the best author I’ve read but he sort of convinced me I could write. I read Post Office for the third or fourth time and decided I could try it, and it all came from there.

What writers have influenced you?
I’ve mentioned Bukowski. He’s the big one who got it all started for me. I like Harry Crews and Larry Brown, two southern writers. Crews had some essays and interviews in Playboy and Esquire. He’s done some cool stuff — he went to the L.L. Bean factory and wrote about it, he got to interview Charles Bronson, and he did a really cool piece on the fall of independent trucking in America.

Larry Brown was a firefighter turned author. You have a lot of time when you’re just sitting in the fire station, I guess. His first book Dirty Work is about two Vietnam vets in a V.A. hospital. It all takes place in the hospital room and is fantastic. A lot of his novels sprawl, and are about location and setting as much as they are about their characters. He did some nonfiction too, which is equally as good as his fiction. He did a cool piece on a music festival down south. What I like about Larry is he was open about how much hard work writing was, in a totally unpretentious way. He just kept on trucking until he had success. It seemed like meeting his favorite authors (Crews was one of them) and musicians really blew his mind. Bob Dylan said he read every word Brown wrote, and one of his new albums has the same cover as one of Brown’s books.

When you start writing, do you start with a complete story in mind or do you pursue an idea and see where it takes you?
I start with an image usually. I don’t think I’m an especially visual writer. I don’t spend a lot of time describing things. But I start with an image. Then I write a little bit. I write very slowly — I usually limit myself to 500 – 1000 words a day. When a new idea pops into my head — usually another image — I write down a note at the bottom of the page. Then when I don’t know what to do, I look at the bottom of the page and choose one of those ideas. There are a lot of ideas that go nowhere, usually as a result of what I’ve written between coming up with the idea and running out of momentum. My first drafts are usually pretty boring. They don’t have a lot of life. I like to go back and then add the life to it, beef it up with emotion. The first draft is very matter of fact and skeletal — the action is there but there’s nothing that makes the reader feel anything, I think.

How do you know when you’ve reached the end of a piece?
Good question. I don’t know. Sometimes an image will pop into my head. I wrote a story about a kid burning down a bridge. It’s all about what happens before burning the bridge. You know the bridge is going to burn. Then it does, and it’s at the end.

How much do you consider the reader when you write?
A little bit. When I edit, I think of the reader a lot. For the first draft I assume the reader is dumb, I think. I explain things a lot. Then when I edit I think that the reader is really really smart. I cut things left and right, think to myself “He’ll get it.”

Is there a particular person who you share your early drafts with?
Yeah, but she’d be embarrassed if I told you.

Do you hope to pursue writing in the future? How?
Yeah, but I’m not sure how. I’d like to be able to write in my spare time. I like to write at nights. I’m a pretty casual writer, I think. I’m not involved with any writing on campus besides Stethoscope, which I’m an editor for. I just got on board with that this year. I was a T.A. for a writing class here, and I loved doing that. I like editing other people’s work. Maybe I could do that somehow, I don’t know.

Sam Werbalowsky is a senior Math major. A Writer’s Habits is a series of interviews with student writers on campus.

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