To be a writer: Visiting author Angela Woodward balances her many roles with grace
Woodward’s wide-ranging pursuit of writing—from encyclopedia entries to award-winning novels—has helped her develop a unique perspective on her occupation.
Ask Angela Woodward what it means to be a writer, and she’ll give you at least three different answers.
Over the course of the author and Interlochen alumna’s career, Woodward has developed a rich and nuanced perspective on her occupation. In part, that’s because she’s filled so many different roles as a writer: she’s written encyclopedia entries, company histories, and marketing newsletters as well as novels and short fiction.
But it’s also because Woodward is a woman of varied interests, whose full bookshelves are a reflection of her wide-ranging mind. She’s interested in everything from cave art to mountain climbing disasters. She loves music, studied violin in high school, and regularly enjoys going to concerts.
Woodward’s time at Interlochen was a valuable part of her artistic journey, and helped shape her understanding of her craft. According to her, writers are artists who express truth in abstract form. They’re entertainers who take our minds off of our troubles. And they’re witnesses to history—especially the uncomfortable parts of it.
From violinist and bibliophile to published author
Woodward’s journey as a writer began with her passionate love of books.
“I wanted to become a writer as soon as I could read,” says Woodward.
As an eight-year-old, Woodward was already composing her own stories. She started by writing short detective fiction, based on a book of three-minute mysteries she had at her home.
Writing wasn’t her only passion: Woodward was also a gifted violin player. She pursued the instrument seriously for many years, and ended up studying Violin, Creative Writing, and Orchestra at Interlochen Arts Academy, where she graduated in 1980.
I don’t know of any other arts environments that are as pure and concentrated as Interlochen.
“Interlochen is amazing. There, I had the most focus I was ever able to have on my art, even while doing both violin and writing. I don’t know of any other arts environments that are as pure and concentrated as Interlochen,” she says.
Woodward played the violin throughout college and into her twenties. But after marriage and having kids, she decided to switch gears and pour her focus into writing. She sought out freelance writing jobs and earned a living by writing encyclopedia articles and company histories. Through it all, she continued to carve out time for more creative work.
“I write early in the morning. That was because when my kids were little, it was the only way I could figure out to have some time. I would write before they got up,” says Woodward.
Her early-morning efforts paid off. Woodward’s novel Natural Wonders won the Fiction Collective Two Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, and Origins and Other Stories won the Collagist Magazine prose chapbook competition. Her short fiction won a Pushcart Prize.
When asked why she writes, Woodward says the answer is rooted in her love for reading.
“They say that you should write what you want to read, and the biggest pleasures in my life have come from reading. I've just always been a word person—I love playing with language,” she says.
She maintains that love to this day, and enjoys perusing her eclectic library of books.
“My bookshelves are such a crazy mix between really high modernist European novels and hardboiled American noir,” she laughs. “I follow all kinds of crannies in my reading and that's really informed my writing.”
The writer as abstract artist
Woodward’s diverse interests have deepened her understanding of what it means to be a writer. She likes to compare her writing to painting, and was deeply impacted by an art class she watched a friend teach.
“It was called ‘Abstracting the Human.’ That phrase resonated with me so strongly,” Woodward remembers. “I got really excited about what my friend was doing with her students. She had a live model for the class, but rather than having her students work with pencil or brush, she had them paint with a broom, on the floor, on big papers.”
Something about that project—its scale, and the shift of perspective it involved—appealed to Woodward’s sensibilities as an author. She began to see herself as ‘abstracting the human’ through her own work, whether she accomplished that through a unique narrative structure, or by blending fact and fiction in unexpected ways.
“I'm trying to look at the world that we're living in, and real things, through an abstract lens,” she says.
The writer as entertainer and witness
In her latest book, Ink, Woodward steps into another role as a writer: she’s a witness sharing details of painful aspects of history. In Woodward’s novel, two women work to transcribe the tape-recorded statements of abused detainees at Abu Ghraib. The American-run prison in Iraq became infamous for the torture and human rights violations committed there.
“The book is fundamentally concerned with witnessing, with what it means to make a record or an account of something that's unbearable. I want to find a way to get people to look at something that we really don't want to look at,” says Woodward.
A book of fiction or nonfiction can bring you really close to someone else's suffering in a way that allows for empathy and compassion.
She believes that there’s an ethical component to writing, and that every writer has certain responsibilities to her readers.
“One is to be an entertainer. You are healing people, taking them away from their own pain by giving them somewhere else to go,” she says.
Woodward gives the example of herself as an eighth-grade student, secretly reading science fiction so that she could escape from the daily grind of school. But—returning to the idea of writer as witness—Woodward also believes that a good piece of literature will force you to confront more difficult emotions.
“A book of fiction or nonfiction can bring you really close to someone else's suffering in a way that allows for empathy and compassion,” she says. “Literature can take you away—and we need that—but also it can bring us into someone else's suffering.”
Coming back to Interlochen
Woodward remains connected to the place that impacted her so deeply in high school. This February, she’s returning to Interlochen to share her insights with students.
Woodward will lead a workshop with Arts Academy Creative Writing students, showing them how to create text collages as a launching point for new work. In addition, she will offer a reading, Q&A session, and book signing. She looks forward to working with the high school students.
“I expect them to be talented, well prepared, and ready for anything. It's going to be good,” she says. “I can't wait.”
Throughout her work, Woodward strives to balance the roles of artist, entertainer, and witness. She’s also very comfortable filling another role—that of teacher. Shaped by her experiences at Interlochen and beyond, Woodward stands poised to help the next generation of young creatives understand what it means to be a writer.
Learn more about Creative Writing at Interlochen Arts Academy.