Author Interview: Tim Semmerling
How did you become a writer?
I became a writer in 1993 and during my M.A. thesis project. My semester papers in college and early graduate school were always panicked, flailing, and painful assignments. While taking four classes, keeping a job, and dealing with life’s demands, there never seemed to be enough time to complete four papers under four competing deadlines. However, I decided to take a full year to concentrate on writing just my thesis alone, and I found that I could devote my efforts, thoughts, and time into unique research, expanding theory, and making a difference. I was transformed. I was no longer struggling to reach the minimum 10-to-20-page assignments, rather I was setting goals to limit myself to just 30 or 35 pages per chapter.
What inspires you to write?
Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb is a guiding inspiration to me when I write. Carter’s knowledge and devotion to his field, his intuition and drive to believe that something was there while others gave up and even scoffed, the discovery of a threshold step which, when excavated further, led to more downward steps and into the depths of a royal tomb, and poking a hole through the wall and being the first and only one in 3,000 years to see the vast and priceless treasures inside are absolutely thrilling. I feel this way when I write. No matter if I am writing my own book, a report of a defendant’s life story for the court, or even a four-page letter, I feel exhilaration in belief, pursuit, and discovery. After spending time contemplating and reading around my subject, I might think that theorists or writers have already exhausted the field. But, there is an itch that I can come up with new ways of looking at my subject. It’s just a hunch at first, but when I write out the new idea and do more research, I uncover more and more about my subject, which takes me deeper into thought and lights up new epiphanies. Hours melt away and my pages build. If I try to explain the concepts and my findings to others before I am finished, their eyes may glass over or their concentrations might wane, but I can see it. I know it’s there! At the end of a chapter, I can see the treasure inside, and I learn that this is just the antechamber of even more to come. I realize that when it is published the whole world will be able to see it with me as well. Ultimately, the metaphor of the tomb as a writer’s own mind is even more intoxicating and sublime.
Could you share some of your challenges as a writer?
I had to learn that I can always improve in writing and that there are different methods of writing. My original writings and successes as an author, during and after graduate school, were targeted for academic audiences in the humanities. That method is to identify theory, discuss the advancements and critiques in theory, and then apply the theory to my data. This did not serve me well in law school. I could not grasp the legal-writing style, I lost points, and could not always achieve the A-grade in my courses. In the same year that I was receiving awards for my new book, other law students were doing better than me in my coursework. I had to overcome my ego and accept a whole new way of writing: argument first, then a short synopsis of case facts, a statement of the law, and an analysis of how my case is similar or dissimilar. After years of attempts, I eventually succeeded, and now my firm’s reports are often entered into evidence. Today and with this new memoir project, I recognize that I am writing for a popular audience. I have to accept a whole new approach. During my search for a literary agent, one agent gave me some advice. Rather than argue my conclusions up front, which sound angry and screeching, I should relate the story more objectively, drawing the readers into the subterfuge, so that the readers will be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me by the time confrontation in the story gets hot. I had learned to accept criticism like this over the years and understood that there was always new ways to grow as a writer. I did exactly as this agent suggested, and, after sending the new version of my chapter out to other literary agents, I received more interest and ultimate acceptance at Metamorphosis Literary Agency.
Do you have a routine when you write?
My best writing comes in the evenings while sitting on a couch with my laptop and my dogs and occasionally reaching for an ice-cold Pepsi on the end table next to me. I usually have done some reading about my subject earlier in the day, thought all day about what I want to write or what I want to fix in my manuscript so far, and I cannot wait until I can get back into it. I begin by reading what I have already written, evaluating tweaking, subtracting, or expanding as needed, before I continue writing something new.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Quit rushing. Continue to strive, but advance steadily, embrace growth, and recognize failures and rejections as enrichments, not setbacks, in my overall journey.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Take your time to read about and even around your subject. Ideas of others validate, challenge, and expand your own conceptions. Incorporate the ideas of others into your text and find benefit in critique. Then take your time to write, but write something, even pen out a paragraph or reread and improve what you have written, almost every day. In so doing, a blank paper or white computer screen grows from a paragraph into tens of filled pages before you know it. Furthermore, never give up. You can change, alter, or reroute. But always remember, patience, some politics, and perseverance are key.