by Jessica Harrington
The Writing Loft (www.thewritingloft.com) is a creative writing school located in Paradise, CA. They offer on-line courses in non-fiction, fiction, memoir, publishing, and everything in between. The school puts on boot camps, retreats, and mentoring programs, all with the goal of getting people published. The school itself is a cute little two-room red cottage that has a very cozy atmosphere and beautiful surroundings; it is the perfect place to sit and write. The school was founded by a woman named Nora Profit who has been a writer for all types of genres and styles. She has been in PR and she is active in the local community, participating in events such as Chico‘s Artoberfest. I had the pleasure of sitting down at the Loft, which is located on her property, to talk with her about all things writing.
JH: So, you have an amazing resume. You have done everything one could possibly do in the writing field, from being a news reporter to writing fiction, non-fiction, you ran your own PR firm- you have done everything. Is there a role you feel most comfortable in or a role you like more than others?
NP: Well, you know, I used to hear these things on television about finding your passion, you know, and I thought well, I like it but I don’t know about being passionate, you know. And then, when I started the Writing Loft, I did it with just a small group of people, at the time when chat rooms were really big. So, I worked for a company and we did chat rooms and it was Frontiers of the Mind where I got to look at all the new medical stuff coming in, and stuff like that. So, I thought oh, okay, I could kind of use a chat room. So we used a chat room, I did some BETA classes, and it went on from there. So I thought, okay, I can do this and I found that with that, I was more passionate about that than anything. I am really passionate about The Loft. I mean teaching people the literary technique for getting something really written that has emotional impact, that’s the secret. You know grammar and all that stuff comes in at, you know, a close second, but it’s really whether or not you can make an emotional impact. Cause you know, um, like that um—oh, the book with the vampires?
JH: The Twilight Series?
NP: Yes, Twilight. I was going to say nighttime (laughter). But, Twilight, it’s not that well written, but it has an emotional impact. So, sometimes you can get away with not so great writing. I wouldn’t advise it (laughter) cause you really have to write well in order to affect that, but emotional impact is the key. So, that’s what I am passionate about, to teach people how to do that and how to do that easily.
JH: So, amongst all your awards and recognitions over the years, from Outstanding Writer of the Year (presented by San Francisco Women in Communications) and being the White House Delegate (for the conference on Small Business), would you say that being able to provide a facility to educate people and help people pursue their dreams is your biggest achievement?
NP: Yeah, because I really do believe that the difference between being a remarkable writer and just an okay writer is very small. It’s these little things that people don’t realize or that they don’t know. And, that’s what I was able to do. I am really able to take complex concepts and boil them down so that they’re in a sentence and you can really get it, and that’s what I do here. And, it’s remarkable how it works. I’m trying to think of a name for it, but there is no name for it. And, I look at a lot of writing books, and things like that, and they never get down to the core. I remember when I was starting I was reading a book and it said um, well, first write a compelling sentence and I thought if I knew how to do that, if I knew what to do, I wouldn’t be reading this dumb book. You know, so the “how to” is what’s really important and I am able to do that for my students. We have about two students a month who get published.
JH: Yeah, I saw that. Are you trying to increase that number? Are you trying to get more students published for 2012?
NP: Um, I am. I am working on doing a little bit different than I normally do, so that, um, I can reach more people, which I think is going to be real important. My goal is to make sure that the student learns those skills and that the only reason why they come back is to say I’ve got this manuscript, can you look it over? And, that they go away with the skills. I am very adamant about that; learn those skills and then you don’t have to come back. And that’s how it was when I first started writing. I wanted to know if you would just tell me what to do, I’ll do it I promise, you know, but it was very hard to find out exactly what is was you had to do.
JH: I wanted to ask you about some of your own writing. The essay you wrote for Chicken Soup for the Writers Soul, titled You Can’t Afford to Doubt Yourself, is a great story about you starting out, lying your way into an interview, then after sending it off to Essence magazine, being too scared to open their response letter. Can you elaborate on that a little more?
NP: Yeah, I hadn’t planned that. I wrote a piece for a professor years before that and he asked if he could keep it, and I said sure. Then, years later, I got a phone call from the national operator and they said there is someone looking for a Nora Profit, and I thought oh my goodness, should I say yes? I mean who uses the national operator, the FBI, CIA? (Laughter) I thought what could that be, so I said yes and they told me it was this particular teacher who was doing the chicken soup book and wanted to put that story in, and was it okay with me. So, I said sure. I don’t know about now, but back then it was pretty strenuous to get a piece in [to Chicken Soup books] cause they send them [stories and essays] out and everybody grades them and all that kind of stuff, that’s the way it was. So I didn’t ask to be in the chicken soup book and then it was the one they used to promote the book. Did you read it?
JH: I have.
NP: Yeah, all the other chicken soup books have these little teary-eyed stories. Mine is the only one where everybody goes “oh no.”
JH: It’s really—it’s quite a funny story. It’s pretty hilarious that you did that, all the fear, the anxiety, and the self-doubt that you talk about, how in the end it actually worked out.
NP: Right. And, I believe that you can’t afford to doubt yourself. You can be scared, shake all the way there and all the way back, but it should never stop you.
JH: Was that one of your greatest regrets slash lessons, not opening that self-addressed envelope you got back?
NP: Yeah, cause then I took years and I thought, oh you know, I’ll never write and really, you shouldn’t do it. Just forge ahead, which is what I do now. Sometimes I wonder if my husband thinks I’m a nut. (Laughter)
JH: Walking To The Corner, that was another very strong piece, it was very emotional. Is there a background to that story?
NP: I never tell anybody whether it’s true or not, because if it carries emotional impact then it does. It’s sort of like that book, Million Little Pieces; if it worked it worked. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t tell.
JH: I like that, keep the mystery. What’s your writing process, how do you prepare, how do you get in the zone?
NP: This is going to sound really peculiar but I sort of have to warm up, so I play solitaire for the first 5-10 minutes, but the whole entire time I am thinking of what I want to write, you know. It [solitaire] is something that doesn’t take any thought. And, I do it on the easiest level so I don’t have to really think about where the ace goes (laughs). So, yeah, I do that until I warm up and then I go for hours at a time. I was concerned at one time that I didn’t do it like real writers did. You know, you get up in the morning and you’re sharp, you sit down and start to write. First of all, I can’t do anything in the mornings. I think you have to learn what your biological thing is. I just do not click over until 10:00 so I don’t have any meetings until 11:00, because I just don’t. But, I go way into the night. I am up till two, three o’clock in the morning, but I am really good at those hours, my writing is really good at those hours. So, you know you have to pick what works for you. If you don’t, you’ll never write, you’ll never write what’s you. I am always amazed when I read these books that say to find your voice (laughter). You already have a voice, if you have to look for it, something is really wrong. You just have to find out where your comfortable spot is and um, then, be very concerned about word choice. I think that is something writers don’t do enough of, like is this word exactly the word that you mean to convey. Does it convey the emotion? So, you’re not just writing, it’s word choice. But your voice, nobody can duplicate that. I remember I was watching the T.V. program Prince of Tides and they had a section on there that I wrote out for my students, and I knew right away that whoever wrote that script didn’t write that. It was something I could clearly identify. It was the author who wrote the book Prince of Tides, it’s his words, you can tell. And, you can tell any writer. I can tell if I’m reading whose writing it is without having to look on the cover, because we have our voice, there is no mistaking that.
JH: So, getting back to The Writing Loft, you’ve had it established since the mid-nineties- 1995- correct?
JH: On your website, it said that you treat the Loft kind of how you created your PR firm; that you are turning your writers into authors and giving them the practical skills, which is something that I think is very valuable. Like you say, a lot of traditional courses you take while attending college, getting an English degree, teach you to write but don’t teach you the business side of the industry at all, which is huge. When it comes to marketability and skills, do you think those two are equally important in becoming successful, or do you think if you can market yourself well enough, your writing can be a little less than great?
NP: Well, we know that. I mean, because I mean sometimes you get something that has been marketed and you go out and you go I don’t know, that wasn’t that good, but I think in order to stay in the game, it’s got to be good. So, I think you have to be able to do both. But, you definitely have to know, I mean a good percentage of whether or not you make it, is whether or not you know what to do. You have to get mildly famous, I mean, and part of that is to know who—where it is you are different and then promoting that. And, it’s easy once you do that. We have a purple pen program we call it…
JH: Yeah, I was going to ask you to elaborate on that.
NP: …and that is strictly the marketing, identifying who you are, giving you a brand. Most often, it incorporates giving you a lexicon. Do you know “the secret”?
NP: Okay, it was a big hit. Everybody was doing “the secret”- everything was “the secret”. It wasn’t such a secret, but it got really big and a lot of people spun off of that. The only difference was that they called it something different; one guy called it “harmonics wealth”, you know, stuff like that. So, once you can give something a name that belongs strictly to you, then when people talk about it, they can only talk about in terms of you. So, if we talk about let’s say literary success, well, that doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s just a term. So, you’ve got to get a lexicon of your own and then a brand. Then promote it. You really have to know how to do that in our social media context and when you get in front of people. So, our purple pen folks actually do talks and learn how to be really friendly with people. I had a friend whose book was fiction and she got a $35K advance, this was back in the ‘80’s, so it was quite a bit. It was a great book but she was really lousy on the circuit, so it didn‘t do that well. People buy things from people they like, as horrible as that is. It’s like sometimes you’ll go to a restaurant and the food maybe isn’t as good as someplace else, but these people treat you really nice; they greet you and stuff, so it become like home; a place, you know, where you can ask for special stuff. So, that’s the kind of thing we need to deal with. Marketing isn’t marketing anymore as it used to be.
JH: More of a popularity contest kind of?
NP: Um, yeah, it’s getting people to know who you are. There is a guy named Seth Godden and he has given a lexicon to it all, which he calls now “Interruption Marketing” and we don’t like it, that’s why we buy TIVO so we can skip all the ad’s and stuff. We don’t like it, we don’t believe it. But, we do believe what we already know of a person and then we pass it on. So, right now, it’s word of mouth marketing, and that is perfect for writers because you don’t need the money, you don’t need to advertise; you don’t need any of that. But, you do need to know how to do it. And, once you know, it’s no problem, you’re off and running. I know that from PR. We promoted people that had, sometimes, nothing really to say, some professors who had to get known just to get tenure.
JH: Getting back to the writing loft, what are your requirements for bringing someone on as an instructor? Who can one expect to have teach them, if they decide to attend one of the many classes or boot camps you offer?
NP: If you’ve got some writing background and if you really love words… and you are friendly. Our motto is that our students are our friends. That’s all they need. They don’t have to be published, or anything like that.
JH: I know you have a three-day retreat coming up in mid-March. Can you walk me through a day at a retreat? What can one expect to gain from attending one?
NP: Well, with the retreats, I do a lot of my big kinds of things. I have several big principals that take quite a bit for you to learn how to do. So, the retreats are built around those, but we do have other people come in. The boot camps are what I would think to be the most beneficial for a writer because the boot camp is you working on your work all day long with someone looking over your shoulder saying, “No, no, no this. Yes, yes, yes that.” So, it’s a hard day; we start at nine, end at five, but you are such a better writer when you leave. So, I really like the boot camps. The retreats are fun too.
JH: Do you do them locally?
NP: Yes, and we have a boot camp coming up in April, and that will be here. By that time, everything will be blooming, so it’ll be really nice.
JH: Something else you guys do here is a critique, on the first of every month. Is that a peer critique or an instructor critique?
NP: Well, what I call it is an instructional critique. So, I am there to say, “This is why people aren’t getting that,” or, “This is why this isn’t working and here is what you need to know in order to change it.” At the same time, everyone has the right to make their own decision to change their work or not. You’re not allowed to defend your work; you just put it out there and then you listen. It’s like you are at book club and they are discussing your book. You can ask questions, but most often in critique groups, no one really knows why they like or don’t like something, so I don’t advise for peer critique groups. Nobody knows what they are really talking about.
JH: Well, this has been great being able to talk with you. I have one last question for you: if you had to read one book for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
NP: Hmmm… (Pause). I think…um…I might do Moby Dick. There is a lot of wisdom in Moby Dick, there is a lot of stuff that I don’t think people realize. I think the characters are really good; although, I love Pat Conroy, because his plots are really intricate. Lots of sub plots and they all weave in, but I don’t know if I could read that forever; but, Moby Dick, maybe. I wish it was which author.
JH: Oh, well who is your favorite author?
NP: I don’t know (laughter). I am going to think about that for the rest of the day.
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