About Author Carolyn Walker
Carolyn Walker is a memoirist, essayist, poet, and creative writing instructor. After working twenty-five years as a journalist, she returned to graduate school and earned her MFA in Writing degree from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2004. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Hunger Mountain, The Writer’s Chronicle, Gravity Pulls You In: Parenting Children on the Autism Spectrum, and many other publications. Her essay “Christian Become a Blur” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and reprinted in the 50th anniversary edition of Crazyhorse. In 2013, she was made a Kresge Fellow in the Literary Arts by the Kresge Foundation. She is a lifelong Michigan resident and the married mother of three grown children.
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“Your writing reveals an excellent eye and an ear for graceful language. Your love for your daughter and your appreciation for her interest in a full life also shine through. I can see why your literary star is on the rise.” – Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister
“Every Least Sparrow is a poignant, heartbreaking, wonderfully written celebration of a life that is different, but in the most important of ways undiminished. This book is an accounting. It balances the sacrifices and the rewards, the pain and the joys of raising a daughter with physical and intellectual challenges. That daughter’s achievements speak profoundly not only to her humanity, but to that of her mother who is witness, guide and chronicler of her daughter’s profoundly resilient spirit.” – Sue William Silverman, author of The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew
“This is a wonderful and touching book that takes us into the world of disability. Kudos to Carolyn Walker, Jennifer’s mother, for writing a book that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. This is such a beautiful story of Faith, Hope, and Love — Faith to keep believing without seeing; hope to carry on when life seems dark; and Love that hangs around though problems do abound. What an amazing family. WHAT AN AMAZING BOOK. I definitely recommend Every Least Sparrow.” – Amazon Customer
“Grace, courage and steadfast love is what you’ll find in Carolyn Walker’s new book. Unflinchingly truthful and at times emotionally wrenching, Walker describes growing up her daughter Jennifer, with RT syndrome, to independent living. This is a beautifully written many-layered book of family survival.” – Amazon Customer
Garn Press Interview of Author Carolyn Walker
Garn Press: Do you have a favorite author?
Carolyn Walker: My favorite author is Truman Capote. I discovered him as a young person through his holiday books The Thanksgiving Visitor and A Christmas Memory, and immediately fell in love with his style. I’ve read most of his work. I enjoy his writing because of his gorgeous use of language. It’s music on the page, as far as I’m concerned. His ideas are also unusual and interesting.
GP: Is there one author who has influenced your writing more than any others?
CW: Capote has influenced me more than any other writer, but I am also influenced by the beautiful writing of Toni Morrison. When I’m “stuck” I often get their work out and read a few passages to get going again. The lyricism of their prose is contagious.
GP: Do you think the relationships between authors and readers are changing?
CW: That is a good question, and a hard one. I think the answer is both yes and no. I think people who love books, who love to hold and read them, are probably the same as such readers have always been. Book lovers, pure and simple, who maybe have their favorite go-to authors or genres. I think readers probably maintain their expectations about any given author and his or her work, regardless of format. But I also think that the e-books and deluge of reading opportunities on the Internet — and by this I mean e-magazines, news sources, and so on — create a kind of “hurry,” “aloofness,” and “distance” between writer and reader that might translate to book author/reader relationships sometimes. Reading on the Internet, at least to me, is much less personal than something I can hold in my hands and savor. As a reader myself, I have, and love, a Kindle for its convenience – but I think that, while handy, that’s less personal too. And, I have a certain devotion to my favorite authors, and consistent expectations of them. I imagine many readers are like me in those regards. I wonder how many people read thousand-page books these days? For that matter, I wonder how many authors write them!
GP: Have you noticed any difference in your own relationships with your readers?
CW: Well, the truth is that as I’ve become a better writer over the years, with more exposure, reader enthusiasm has increased. That’s a good thing! And I’m so grateful!!
GP: If you could express one thought to all your readers what would it be?
CW: Appreciate all life.
Writing as Part of Daily Life
GP: When do you write? Do you have a routine?
CW: I have no routine (and don’t want one). I can write just about any time and any place. I first learned to do this when I was a busy journalist. I’ve also had to train myself to do this because of my on-the-go lifestyle. I have two adult children who don’t drive and I sometimes find myself writing in the car while I wait for them, parked out in a field or dim-lit lot some place. One thing about writing, it’s portable! However, I prefer to write in the morning, when I’m fresh, on my laptop, while reclining on the bed with a cup of coffee. I do try to write daily. I love it when I really get into what I’m writing and don’t notice the passage of time. When this happens I can write all day.
GP: How do you begin a writing project?
CW: I spend what seems like a lot of time mulling any given project. Once I sit down to write, I try to begin with the most beautiful line I can to get me going. And then I follow the threads I’m given. I’m a nonlinear writer, which means my writing can go off in all sorts of directions. I like that, though. It is almost impossible for me to write in a linear way. Being nonlinear, I write as it comes.
GP: Do you keep notebooks? Use special paper?
CW: No, I don’t keep a notebook or journal. I used to but I wasn’t very faithful about it so I quit. I keep a list of ideas, quotes, scenes, and so on, in a computer file. When I need to, I dip into them. I also have zillions of artifacts I can turn to — pictures and old letters, and so on. If an idea comes to me when I’m out and about, I email it to myself for later, so I don’t forget it.
Also, since I began my professional writing career as a journalist I of necessity wrote on a computer. That became a habit. I never write using paper anymore, although once I’ve gotten something completed, I print it out to read it in paper form. I do feel like I have to experience any given piece on paper. To hold it in my hands.
GP: What about pens and pencils? Are they important?
CW: No, not at all. Half the time I can’t find one!
GP: Do you mix up writing instruments? (Oliver Sacks never wrote on a computer. He started with hand written notes and wrote on a typewriter.)
CW: Ha! I only go from one Apple product to another.
GP: Do you listen to music when you write?
CW: Sometimes. I find that music evokes certain moods in me, and I like that when I’m trying to write something emotionally compelling, usually sad or pensive. A particular favorite piece is The Lark Ascending, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I don’t find that music helps when I want to write work that is happy, excited, or funny. Music with lyrics usually distracts me because the words of the song invade my own words. So no, “She loves you, yea, yea yea” or “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” for me when I’m writing!
GP: Do you share your writing while you are still writing or wait until you have a draft?
CW: Usually, I do not share my writing until I have a complete first draft. And then, only with a select few writers that I trust as reader-critics. Never with family or friends.
GP: How does your “day job” influence your writing?
CW: Hmm. My day job these days is teaching writing to mostly novice writers online. While I enjoy these people (and do remember that I was once a novice), their work sometimes has the unfortunate effect of frying my brain (all that bad grammar), and I worry that it infects my own writing. I have to be on guard not to let students inform my work. On the other hand, I have discovered that the best way to learn to write is to critique the work of others. That’s a great lesson!
GP: What about ideas for books – do they percolate for years before you write, or do you work it out as your write, or perhaps a combination of both?
CW: For me, it’s a bit of both. Ideas are forced to percolate because mostly there’s never enough time in a day. But I do find that I work the writing out as I go. I call it “following threads.” Writing, for me, is exploration on the page. That and I love surprises. I like that I don’t know where my stories are going, necessarily – even if they’re autobiographical (that seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?). To me, it is an advantage to let them unfold and to find the connections between events. One has epiphanies in this way.
GP: What book or chapter of a book are you most proud of writing?
CW: I think I’m most proud of the passage I wrote about seeing my disabled daughter, Jennifer, for the first time. That was a moment that was fraught with almost every emotion imaginable. As I wrote, I allowed myself to relax into that simultaneously frightening and loving memory, and tried to evoke her human beauty. I think I was successful in that attempt. The passage always makes me cry.
The role of the writer in society
GP: What does it mean to be a writer in troubled times?
CW: Writers play a vitally important role in society (although I suspect they always have). To coin a phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Writers are both provocateurs and healers. And they keep people honest. I can’t imagine what the world would be like without them.
GP: What worries you about today?
CW: Like most people, I am worried about the lack of peace in our world. Peace seems so elusive in a society where we see differences and want control, rather than embrace what we share in common, as humans. I wish we could see the humanity in everyone, and successfully teach this to our children. I worry for our planet, and for the generations to come.
GP: What keeps you awake at night?
CW: I am unable to turn off my mind at night, and therefore I lay in bed and think about everything from the people I love, to my goals, to my fears, to the meaning of my life. I also get songs stuck in my head that make drifting off next to impossible. That, and my dog takes her half out of the middle of the bed.
GP: Is your writing connected to present day events?
CW: Yes, in the sense that my memoirs represent people within the context of modern society and culture. Sometimes they are people living on the margins in one way or another.
GP: If you wrote a book about the future — the way you imagine it will be — what kind of book would you write?
CW: I would write a wild science fiction book, crazy with magic.
Early Reading Experiences
GP: What are your earliest memories of words?
CW: I remember Dick and Jane. And I remember my mother taking me to the library and forcing me to check out Charlotte’s Web. I think I was somewhere around 7 or 8. Then sitting on the couch next to me and forcing me to read it to her, until the book was finished. I was quite miffed about it at the time, but by the end I was emotionally hooked. I loved the outdoors, and was a tomboy, and I found reading to be a boring activity – until I discovered Nancy Drew, that is. She was a girl I could identify with.
GP: Do you remember your first books?
CW: As I ponder this question, I find that I remember quite a few of my first books. One in particular is a book of children’s fairytales. There are giants and fairies and all sorts of interesting characters. What makes this book unique is its long, slender shape. I still have that book somewhere.
I also still have my favorite, by Ruth Dixon. It’s called Three Little Bunnies, and features photographs of live bunnies dressed in clothes, and in one case spectacles. I must have been about 4 or 5 when I got the book and I was quite amazed by those clothed bunnies. How did they dress those bunnies, I wondered. How did they get their paws (and tails) into pant legs and sleeves? My favorite photograph is one of Mr. Bunny White Ears, wearing a sort of suit and pink eyeglasses. I remember wondering how they got the rabbits to cooperate. I also note that I wrote my first name in the book, using the awkward penmanship of a girl just learning to print her name.
I also remember my collection of Nancy Drew books. I remember them in part because I used to trade them with my friend, Sandy. At one point in time I had read all of them. And I remember my mother taking me to the department store to buy them, after a long day of clothes shopping. The buying of books was saved as a treat for last. We’d ride the elevator down to the basement floor, and the scent of all those wonderful books would greet us. Getting books was an exciting tactile experience.
Another early memory is of reading the poetry of Eugene Fields. I had a very old book that was my mother’s when she was a child, with the most wonderful, amazing pictures. Some of his poems broke my heart. I still have all the books mentioned.
GP: What about your earliest memories of someone reading to you?
CW: I remember grade school teachers reading to our class. Little House on the Prairie, for one. I’m sure my parents must have read to me, but I do not remember it. What I remember is my father standing in the door of the bedroom I shared with my sister, and singing Good Night Ladies. That, and my mother forcing Charlotte’s Web on me.
GP: Was there a moment when you first knew you could read?
CW: I don’t remember a moment when I first knew I could read. But I remember the moment I wanted to read well. We used to read out loud in the first grade, Dick and Jane, probably. A new girl came into the class (the aforementioned Sandy). She was interesting and fun and smart and immediately popular, and she was a fantastic reader. I wanted to be like her. After that, I started to work a lot harder on my reading, and I remember my teacher wondering what was going on. Why the burst of energy and the sudden improvement?
GP: What did you like about reading?
CW: I liked the peace of reading, settling down in the evening with a book, in the dim yellow glow of a lamp in the room, the quiet household making me feel safe. And I liked reading about Nancy Drew’s adventures. I didn’t start to really love reading, though, until I was in junior high and read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. After that, I was hooked by stories and people, and places, of all types.
GP: What did you dislike about reading?
CW: The boring part: having to sit still when I could have been climbing trees.
Did you have a favorite author when you were a young child?
CW: No, I didn’t.
GP: Did you read book series as a child?
CW: Yes, Nancy Drew, and some of the Hardy Boys and Cherry Ames. At one point in time, I had read all the Nancy Drew books. I remember that they didn’t allow them in the library at school because they weren’t “educational” or “literary” enough. Not knowing this, I asked the librarian if there was one I could check out one day, and she basically told me Nancy Drew was “beneath” the quality of library books and the school didn’t have any. I was personally affronted and insulted. The very thought still irritates me.
GP: Do you remember your first reading lessons when you went to school?
CW: Yes. I remember Dick and Jane and that oral reading, and feeling very self-conscious when it was my turn.
GP: Can you remember doing research for a project in school?
CW: I remember doing a science project in junior high, and researching the planets, and building a mini-solar system out of Styrofoam balls.
GP: Did you study for exams — if so how?
CW: I didn’t study like I should have. I was bored by schoolwork, and content to “get by”. As long as I passed, I didn’t care and was good to go. Hence, I sort of crammed as much information in at the last minute as possible, and hoped for the best. Actually, strangely, I somehow expected the best out of that kind of behavior.
Early Writing/Drawing Experiences
GP: What are your earliest memories of writing at home?
CW: I wrote my first piece, a poem, “My Auntie’s Garden,” when I was about six or seven years old. Then I didn’t write again until I was in high school, during which time I took up writing silly poems and limericks. I have been writing ever since, almost, but not quite, non-stop. I took drawing lessons when I was 10, making the branches of trees bigger at the tips rather than tapered. The instructor informed me that’s not how trees are drawn, and I never picked up a pencil, crayon or brush for another 40 years. I now draw and paint frequently.
GP: Did you like to draw?
CW: Yes, still do.
GP: Did you paint as a child?
CW: Yes, some. Paint by Number. I had a wood burning set, also. It was lots of fun to “draw and paint” with that!
GP: Do you still have any of your early writing, drawings, or paintings?
CW: My mother saved everything. I have the poems I wrote in high school and college, as well as “My Auntie’s Garden.” And a few drawings from my early years as a grade schooler – not the hapless tree limbs, however.
GP: Can you remember being taught to write at school?
CW: I don’t remember being taught to write creatively (as opposed to penmanship). But I remember that from an early age, my teachers saw potential in my writing, and encouraged me. As did my mother.
GP: Do you remember if writing and penmanship were muddled? They often are.
CW: No, I don’t remember that being the case. I can remember being taught to write in cursive – the goal being to get good enough that the teacher would allow the students to use fountain pens. I was so happy when I got that first fountain pen! It was turquoise. A real beauty. But I do not remember being taught to write content.
GP: Was drawing linked with writing?
CW: Not for me.
GP: Do you have memories of learning to write an essay, a story, or a poem?
CW: I have a memory of sitting on the living room floor with a piece of lined paper and a pencil and writing the poem called “My Auntie’s Garden.” I was a young child, and my aunt’s beautiful garden left an impression on me. The penmanship of the poem went all over the place, however.
GP: What about taking tests – can you remember taking them?
CW: I remember hating them, mostly. I remember taking a standardized test in junior high school. I scored highest in mechanical reasoning, although I have no idea why.
GP: Did you have to fill in bubbles on multiple-choice tests?
CW: Yes. I always did better on tests that involved essay writing, as opposed to answering questions.
GP: Can you remember if you had other sorts of tests? Short answers? Essays?
CW: Yes, I had all of these. I remember our spelling tests, and spelling bees. We lined up in the classroom, kids on both sides, and competed with one another. I do not recall that there was a prize.
GP: What advice would you give teachers if they asked you how they could create opportunities for their students to become enthusiastic readers and writers?
CW: Encourage, encourage, encourage, and back off the criticism. When students are writing, permit their creativity its freedom, and don’t micro-manage penmanship, spelling, grammar or quality of ideas. A mind needs its freedom when it’s writing creatively, especially for a first draft. I believe strongly in creative writing in the classroom, and don’t think they have enough of it. Opportunities for reading and writing should be plentiful. And don’t judge. It’s not necessary to judge to teach. Students should be lifted up and made to feel excited and empowered about their writing. They should fall in love with writing. And who ever fell in love with someone breathing down their neck?
Additionally, based on my own school experience, as well as the experiences of college students I taught, it’s best to let students choose what they want to read. People seem to balk when they’re forced to read a particular book, just as I did with Charlotte’s Web.
I also feel that teachers should not judge the quality of books, like the librarian did at my junior high school. That kind of thing is subjective, anyway. If a student wants to read – let him or her read!!!