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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Higgins

Becoming a Fiction Writer

by Joanna Higgins

It all began with reading. But the genesis of my becoming a bookworm — to use my

mother’s word — is rather a mystery. In my early childhood, books were scarce. A cabinet in a shadowy corner of my grandfather’s Victorian-style house in northern Michigan, where my mom, dad, and I also lived, held a few old hardcovers that seemed glued there, for all the interest they generated. I don’t recall there being any children’s books around though there must have been a few. But each Sunday night relatives would visit, and there’d be one story after another, often in Polish, along with lots of laughter. My aunts and uncles loved recounting past events, things that had happened, for instance, when my grandfather owned a grocery store during the Great Depression. They usually put a humorous spin on whatever the narrative. My father had

that knack, as well. Subconsciously, I must have soaked in the power of “story.”

Meanwhile, as I got older I acquired stacks of comics and dime-store books, and then — in a kind of evolutionary leap — a library card! Even our TV, when TV finally arrived up north, was no match for the wood-paneled elegance of the library across the river bisecting our town. There, I discovered Hemingway. I discovered Jack London. I discovered John Steinbeck. And that was it. I not only wanted to become a writer; I wanted to be able to write like that. Create force-fields of emotion and experience: love, loss, forgiveness, courage — on and on.

Soon, college — and majoring in English — thanks to a scholarship, a loan, and the help of my working-class parents who raided their small savings account. I’d written columns — sketches, actually, heavily Jack London-esque — for our high school newspaper, and helping to edit the paper had instilled the fundamentals of writing. And then a nun, the chairman of the college’s English department, rigorously built on that foundation by assigning many essays in her literature course. My initial efforts came back looking like carmine sunsets. Discouraging! Yet what I was beginning to understand is that sentence clarity is absolutely essential for communication. If you’re not clear in your head about what you want to say, it won’t be clear in the reader’s mind. Years later, when I was teaching college writing — both nonfiction and fiction — I stressed this point. It’s like what the great jazz musician John Coltrane said about playing the sax — if it’s not in you it won’t come out the horn.

It's the same with fiction. While creating characters, the writer has to draw from lived experience and then find exact words to convey it. That happens through the writing process, which means revising. The point is to tell a good story; the best ones enable us to sense a deep connection with our fellow humans. Think of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

I’ll forgo the numerous by-ways along my journey except for one — studying with the novelist and scholar John Gardner, author of the now-classic Grendel, among other masterful works. You can read more about this time on my website blog, The Way of the Writer. In the early ‘80s Gardner was an international literary star who, nonetheless, was dedicated to teaching young writers. Like that nun at my former college, he was no shirker when it came to assigning and critiquing student work. A short story — or novel — was either “there” or it wasn’t. But unlike that diligent nun, Gardner didn’t red-ink our manuscripts; there’d be just the occasional penciled comment. Often, it was, simply, “Dig deeper.” Yet from time to time, he’d hand one of us a single-spaced letter detailing what he sensed we were trying to get at, in a particular story — or novel — and where it became blurred, incomprehensible, or puffed with distracting showy language. Flaws that would only serve to disrupt “the vivid and continuous dream” in a reader’s mind.

In 1982 John Gardner died in a motorcycle accident on a fine September morning in

rural Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. He had been on his way to SUNY-Binghamton, the saddlebags of his Harley filled with student manuscripts. In the face of this tragedy — he was only 49 — the only thing I could think of to do was keep writing. Several years later, my first book The Importance of High Places: Stories and a Novella was accepted. One of its stories is from that time. The others were written, as were all of my subsequent books, with John Gardner in mind as the imagined first reader. My latest novel, In the Fall They Leave, is dedicated to his memory.

Briefly, In the Fall They Leave is about a student nurse during WWI in German-occupied Brussels who finds herself in a moral quandary as well as dangerous waters: Either break her pledge as a nurse by obeying the new laws of the occupiers, thereby betraying her matron but securing a successful career, or help her law-breaking matron save Allies, thereby risking death by firing squad for treason. At its heart, the novel is about moral courage — the difficulties and costs but also the rewards.

Although In the Fall They Leave is a historical novel, I don’t see myself, solely, as a

historical novelist. Ideas can and do come from the past and the present. Something read or seen or overheard or even experienced creates a compulsion to explore, imaginatively, a potential drama. Then the idea owns me, and I become its servant, striving to give it the best form I’m capable of creating. With the new novel, the imaginative spark was a chanced-upon feature article about the heroic British nurse Edith Cavell and her clandestine efforts at a Brussels clinic to save Allies and smuggle them out of the country during the early years of WWI. The matron of my novel is modeled on this courageous historical figure.

My advice for aspiring writers? Read. Have a high bar. And when you begin writing, be patient. A lot of good things will happen in the rewriting. Just keep going until you’re “there.”

About the Author

Joanna Higgins is a National Endowment for the Arts recipient whose work has been included in The Best American Short Stories series. She's written six novels, her latest, In The Fall They Leave, published by Regal House Publishing, is set for release on Feb. 21, 2023.

There will be a book signing for In The Fall They Leave at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26 at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca.

Preorder your copy here. Learn more about the author at


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