Friday, March 30, 2012

How Do You Finally Get Your Book Finished (and Published)? Passion and Determination--An Interview with New Author, Atina Diffley

Atina Diffley, an organic vegetable farmer in her former life, is now an organic consultant, author, and public speaker. Her just released memoir, Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works, is called "a must read love story, a lesson in entrepreneurship, a master class in organic farming, and a legal thriller."

Atina showed up at one of my writing workshops at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis a few years back. She had a book in mind.  She was passionate about the topic, and--from her determination to make others passionate about it too--I could tell she would be successful at writing her book.  Although she'd written quite a bit, she needed help structuring and developing the material.  As an experienced organic farmer, she wanted to share what she knew, but in memoir form.  Her life, and her farming, were and are very intertwined.

From that first workshop, Atina got fired up.  She liked what she learned about book structuring.  And over the next year or so, I saw her again in a workshop, then another.  She began bringing along her writing friends to learn about structuring their books.

Flash forward to last Friday, when I was back in Minneapolis teaching at the Loft Literary Center.  It was the same two-day book-structuring workshop that Atina had first attended.  She wasn't there.  But two of her  friends were.

Before class began, they handed me a book.  Atina's just-published book:  Turn Here Sweet Corn.  University of Minnesota press had accepted it, and they'd done a great job publishing it.  On the back cover were strong endorsements, and I've heard since the class that Atina is getting good reviews and interviews.  As an author, she's launched.

I felt very privileged to share in her writing journey, from early days of crafting her manuscript to finally glory.  This happens fairly often in my classes, I'm happy to say.  One of my favorite moments is when a former student stops by and hands me their published book or sends me a copy by mail.  I'm so happy to celebrate with them.

So I asked Atina to share her writing journey, from seed to sprout to published memoir.  What did she learn along the way that might help other writers who are dreaming of a book?

When did you begin writing this book--and why was it so important to you to write?

I thought about writing a book for over a decade, but I’m glad I waited, as crucial parts of the story hadn’t been lived yet. It became a priority for me in November 2009.

There are so many reasons I wrote Turn Here Sweet Corn. To pass on the support and guidance I have received to other women and farmers, for personal healing for my family and myself, to bring more people into the conversation on food and farming, but the most powerful—the subconscious driving force that kept me on task—was the ecological collapse I experienced in the development of our first farm.

This was burning to be shared.

Any obstacles you encountered along the way?

Mostly myself. I had everything—all the support and teachers I needed. Sometimes self-doubt would interfere. I had to learn to trust.

What was the biggest turning point in your writing process?

Two weeks in, I wasn’t accomplishing much at home so I went off alone to write for two weeks. I didn’t really know what the book was about beyond being a memoir based on my farming experience. I started to write and it was like my life was on a Rolodex card file and each card contained one moment. I couldn’t figure out which belonged in the book.

 Painful memories piled up and became emotionally exhausting. The thought of publishing made me feel completely exposed and vulnerable. The card file spun faster and faster, and I became so overwhelmed that my body developed bursitis of the right shoulder. I was in excruciating pain, close to vomiting and passing out.

I spent the next week doing nothing but emotional work and by the end of the week the bursitis was cleared and I was one determined and committed writer.

I later learned in a writing class that the body sometimes acts as a “gatekeeper” to prevent a writer from going into areas that are emotionally painful.

What would you do differently, based on what you know now about book writing?

I LOVE the island method I learned in Mary’s class "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book." It solved my problem of not knowing what the book was about. Once I learned to trust the process and my subconscious to bring forward the needed storie,s the islands literally poured out of me.

 I couldn’t write them fast enough. Next book I’ll start right in on writing islands.

Any advice to first-time book writers?

Believing in ourselves is the most powerful thing we can do. When I sit down to write, I thank my inner critic—her name is Sylvia—for all she’s done, and I assign her the role she has in my present work. (I learned this from Mary Carroll Moore in a class at the Loft Literary Center.) During freewrites Sylvia is sent on vacation. While line editing she is appointed the responsibility of “specific” and “constructive” feedback. If she’s having a bad day and insists on self-defeating criticism, or her ego is raging out of control offering talk shows with Oprah, I send her packing.

How did you land your publishing contract?

Every writer’s dream! Turn Here had a fairy godmother, food writer Beth Dooley, who not only mentored me during the writing, she also connected me to her acquisitions editor, who just happened to be a freezing-corn and canning-tomato customer of ours from twenty years ago. I never even wrote a query letter.
The University of Minnesota Press was fantastic to work with and many of the staff had eaten our produce over the years so they had a personal connection. May the stars align again for my next book!

What's it feel like to have your book out there? 

The thing I felt most vulnerable about--not having any control over the reader’s relationship with Turn Here or their interpretation of my writing--has turned out to be the greatest experience! Readers are telling me how the book is affecting them and of parallels in their own life. I am receiving stories of their own loss and grief, and celebration, in connection with land and nature.

Their relationship with the book has brought me deeper understanding of the inner story of Turn Here and of my own life!

What's the reader response so far?

Readers are loving it, and it is meeting my goal of a compelling read for people from all walks of life! But there may be some liability issues. The story is so engaging that readers are reporting irresponsible behavior. One person turned a kettle on high, started reading, and forgot until hours later when smoke was pouring out of the kitchen, another reported forgetting to pick his kids up from daycare, there have been marital disputes about who gets to read, and one reader laughed so hard, and for so long, that she couldn’t drive and was late for work.

How has writing your book affected your life?

I’ve heard that writing is cathartic, but writing Turn Here has transformed me! It gave me the structure to completely reevaluate my life experiences and what they mean. In the process I learned that bad things happen but me, I’m fine, in fact I’ve thrived.

Anything else you'd like to share with others who are writing a book?

The world needs your story. Trust yourself and the process. Make a commitment and let the writing happen.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Evaluate your commitment to your book, especially your passion about or interest in its subject.  Does it meet the level required for the journey to publishing, as Atina describes?  Why or why not?

2.  Visit Atina's blog and see what else she has to say about her passion.  Think about starting a blog of your own.  If you already have a blog, post a comment at the end of this article and share your blog's URL with readers.

3.  Interested in attending the same book-structuring class that Atina took?  You can enroll now in my 12-week online version of the class--take it from your home, do the same exercises, and get feedback each week from myself and your fellow book writers.  Check it out at How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book.  Sponsored by the Loft Literary Center's online program, this class begins the week of May 14.

4.  And read Atina's article on the Loft's blog, Writer's Block, at . .


  1. Was at that workshop last weekend where "Corn" was brought forth. At times I felt like I was in a painting class, a breezy yet substantive flow.

    I am at the choosing what to write about stage, yet was heartened to hear that these tips might save me beaucoup time. So grateful. Brian Pettee (at yahoo)

    This "Corn" nexus is a lovely story. Beautiful.

  2. Thanks for being in the workshop, Brian! What a cool description of it.

  3. This was a wonderful interview! I enjoyed reading it, I loved your questions and I'm very happy for Atina's success.

    I really do like your islands method especially when my free writing is blocked -- or I'm procrastinating by working on short stories/poems instead of my novel.

    Just wanted to say I appreciate your site, insights and helpful videos.

  4. Thank you for visiting. I'm glad you're enjoying the islands method.


  5. Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

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  6. Katharine MalagaSaturday, April 07, 2012

    This is very inspiring. I have eaten the produce from the Diffley farm, and now will enjoy reading the book.

  7. Thanks for conducting a fantastic interview! My aunt is an inspiration to all of us writers. I can't wait to read her book.

  8. Thanks for visiting, Christina. I agree!