Joyce Sweeney's Writing Whirl
by Stephanie Krulik
There are not enough hours in a day for this marathon writing machine to touch pen to paper. Like a well-honed triathlete, Joyce Sweeney, the award-winning young adult novelist, poet, writing coach, workshop leader, manuscript editor and drama director, barely has time to finish one thought before a new one takes over. Life is intensive.
Sweeney has just returned from a writers' retreat, a “next level” Craft Intensive weekend for dedicated writers that is held five or six times a year in Florida. Her words pour out: "It happened again. I've watched a student make a breakthrough in her writing. She changed one character's voice and the story moved forward."
Sweeney gallops forward. She has teamed with Woodstream Writers Director Jamie Morris to offer writing prompts, plotting, characterization, voice and more in these comprehensive weekends titled, Love and Sequence; Memoir; Interpretation and Creativity. "Depth Charge," new for 2012, "will deepen a writer's work by making it more complex," she offers. "These sessions push a student to new levels. They get something they never understood before."
Weekly invitation-only critique classes held in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel offices afford budding writers an opportunity to work with Sweeney. "To write a telling story that encompasses your own feelings is a powerful way to work through them. You're not just telling your side, you watch characters play together. You watch the words and scenes play out. By the end you know more about the topic then when you began."
The challenge is to know enough, write the right words and sign with a publisher. That's when it happens: one person who is dubbed “likely to succeed next” is handed a wooden rattle and quickly dance-walks around the room and stops in front of that just-got-published writer. "This is what it's all about," Sweeney says. "They all wait for this moment." She is talking about the "Bean Ceremony" − the giving of a highly polished seed pod from the Costa Rican Guanacaste (Monkey) Tree. It breaks up the hours of tedious dedication to why writers write.
Sweeney's writing career began 25 years ago when her novel, Center Line, won the 1984 Delacorte Press Prize for an Outstanding Young Adult Novel. She is the author of 14 novels for young adults including her early books Shadow, which won the Nevada State Reading Award (1997) Free Fall and The Spirit Window − an American Library Association Best Book for young adults. Sweeney always writes in the voice of a 13 year-old boy. "That voice is always easy for me,” she says."As a writer, you experiment until you find characters that speak to you."
Sweeney writes in her home in Coral Springs on the couch, in longhand, in a notebook, with her Javanese black cat, Phantom. Computer-edited chapters come later. Her husband, Jay, has been her best supporter for 32 years. Sometimes she knows the book's ending and sometimes she writes to it. Sweeney says, "I know the idea and I write three chapters of the book, then I outline the whole story. Then I change it." Often she doesn't find the first line of the first chapter until the book is finished. This, from her young adult novel, The Guardian (Henry Holt & Co, 2009): “I start answering the door so I won't feel invisible.”
Invisible perhaps, like her new obsessions with Fairies and Celtic Mythology. Sweeney admits she writes about obsessions in books like The Guardian or Headlock (Holt, 2006; winner of a Silver Medal in the Florida Book Awards) where the supernatural is dominant. She notes, "Your writing process goes on forever. You are an artist who learns new craftsmanship."
Sweeney was born in Dayton, Ohio, and attended Wright State University, where her papers are held. Her undergraduate mentor was the poet, Gary Pasternick, who taught her language and imagery. Sweeney attended graduate school at The Ohio State University and learned craft and manuscript critique from the writers Daniel Keyes (Flowers for Algernon) and Walter Tevis (The Color of Money.) An only child, Sweeney was raised by a mother who espoused Metaphysics: “You are responsible for your own happiness and your own success. You can make it happen by the way you think.” Has it happened? "Yes," she acknowledges, "there are always curveballs you can't control."
Sweeney has her own curveball. She once wrote a short story about a ride on a bus because she cannot drive; a Spatial Motor Integration Deficit won't allow moving and looking at the same time. Asked where she would go if she could drive, Sweeney quickly replies, "I would drive along A1A in a convertible, hair blowing, scarf on my head, looking at the water. I love motion, roller coasters, airplanes and wind."
The wind and then Impermanence, her poetry chapbook, interrupted her fiction writing when her mother was dying of Alzheimer's disease. From the poem, Last Battle on Earth: "At 87 my mother is...watching the wind...she will find a window...the body struggling to thrive/the soul, longing to fly away."
The poetry led to a renewed passion for drama. Sweeney's moment came when The Writers' Network offered plays at the Broward County Main Library and ArtServe. She will direct the historical drama Broken Angels, playwright Todd Caster's powerful two-act play based on Carrie Buck's Eugenics trial. Sweeney admits she lives, eats and breathes characters. She once went to the post office as her main character. She claims, "That's the theater part in me; acting is so close to writing."
Yet, it is the writing that challenges and propels her through this kaleidoscope of life. She loves to see the little shifts forward a student can make. She watches closely to see a student weave new plots to make a story stronger. Why does Sweeney write? "To tell things I just can't express any other way and they have to come out,” she says. “Even the most verbal person I know has thoughts they wouldn't say to their best friend."