After 35 years teaching creative writing at Eckerd College, Sterling Watson whittled down an expedient answer to his most frequently asked question: What does it takes to become a successful writer?
“Brains, talent, a ferocious work ethic, a ferocious belief in yourself and a tremendous ability to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” he says. “That includes criticism, and those times when great things almost happen, but don’t.”
Watson, the author of eight novels, retired from Eckerd in 2013. Today, he teaches as part of the MFA program at Pine Manor College in Boston – it’s not a full-time gig – and is involved with Eckerd’s imminent Writers in Paradise conference, which he co-founded 15 years ago.
Always – wherever he is, whoever he’s around – there’s the question. The soup for successful writers, he says, must also include “luck, good timing, even some degree of charm. And there’s this really mysterious connection to the zeitgeist that some writers have and some writers don’t.” (Everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bret Easton Ellis, whose work all but defined their times.)
Without talent, of course, a writer is merely wasting our time. “And what is talent?” Watson asks. “Talent is the gift of gab, that’s all it is. Verbal facility.”
Watson has been named the MUSE Literary Arts Award recipient by the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, and will be feted, alongside the other designates, at the Feb. 8 ceremony at the Museum of Fine Arts.
For now, there’s the 2019 Writers in Paradise event, featuring talks, workshops, seminars and readings for aspiring writers between Jan. 19 and 26.
Watson created the conference alongside novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island), who’d been his student at Eckerd. In fact, Watson was Lehane’s academic advisor and school-sanctioned mentor.
“The first four or five years of the conference were really pretty chancy, in terms of funding,” Watson recalls. “It was a hand-to-mouth situation. But it developed a reputation; all the New York literary people who’d come down, the editors and agents, said ‘This is the best conference we’ve ever seen.’ And we were brand new.”
Lehane, of course, is among the authors who’ll take part this time around. He’ll be joined by Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog), Ana Menendez (In Cuba I was a German Shepherd), Ann Hood (The Red Thread), Les Standiford (The Man Who Invented Christmas), Florida’s Poet Laureate Peter Meinke, and a distinguished lineup of authors, writing faculty and book-business people from around the country.
Approximately 80 attendees have been chosen from the 200 applications received. “We don’t emphasize ego and competition,” says Watson. “We emphasize learning, and helping. There are some conferences where it’s pretty cutthroat, I hear. Although I’ve never been to one.
“We say we’re looking for talent, and we don’t care that much about experience. If this is the first story you ever wrote, and we see talent in it, we’re going to let you in. If it’s your 25th story and we don’t see talent, or skill or craft, you might be rejected.”
The Kansas-born Watson became a Floridian by proxy when Dad – an insurance lawyer – moved the family south, to take a job with the Florida Gas Company. He graduated from Eckerd and received his MA from the University of Florida, where he got his first teaching job (Carl Hiaasen was his student).
Watson’s list of accolades and awards is lengthy, and even though he’s “retired” from fulltime teaching, he insists that the process – helping would-be writers realize and achieve their potential – will never, ever get old.
“Talent can’t be taught,” he stresses. “But what can be taught is craft – everything from the very simplest notions of grammar and syntax, all the way up to some fairly complicated conceptual stuff. People ask me, ‘how can you teach creative writing?’ I say ‘You get sympathy for a character in direct proportion to the extent to which you bring a character to life.’ And they go ‘oh, I see.’ So, there’s something you can teach somebody.
“If you say ‘The baby died,’ some people are going to cry, but not many. But if you describe the baby, and get that curly yellow hair in there, and a few of the baby’s most cherished little habits, people are going to cry.’ So bring the character to life.
“The aggregate of all that stuff that you can learn about writing is all craft. I never lost interest in that. I’m still interested in it.”