Sara Dahmen: “Listen to your gut”

Listen to your gut. It’s the place your stories start, and is a visceral, emotional powerhouse. Once you tap into that, don’t forget it. You can often get tangled up in prose, craft, rules of writing according to teachers, but always remember and dig deep into what you want to say and let it speak […]

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Listen to your gut. It’s the place your stories start, and is a visceral, emotional powerhouse. Once you tap into that, don’t forget it. You can often get tangled up in prose, craft, rules of writing according to teachers, but always remember and dig deep into what you want to say and let it speak loud and clear on the page.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Dahmen.

Sara is an award-winning writer and entrepreneur, as well as the only female coppersmith in America, manufacturing, restoring, and building copper cookware in her Wisconsin copper shop. Sara’s non-fiction book on the history, science, use, and care of cookware, Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Smith’s Journey, (William Morrow/Harper Collins) features her story, recipes, and interviews from the biggest cookware makers in the world. Sara has published over 100 articles as a contributing editor for various trade magazines, has written for Edible and Root + Bone, among others, and spoke at TEDx Rapid City on how women should enter the trades in order to save the trades themselves from disappearing while her historical fiction Flats Junction series (Promontory Press, Inc.), including Tinsmith 1865 and Widow 1881, has been critically recognized as well.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

To be completely honest, I never thought I’d be a published author! It was a hobby. Just a hobby! And here I am! I blame my husband. He told me, years ago, about how “This Amazon thing is letting people publish their own books!” and told me to put some of my work out there for fun. I guess it was good enough to go somewhere! Serendipity (and yes, lots of hard work in the long run!) all the way.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

Learning the ins and outs of the publishing industry took a long time. So many people promise so many things, but only a fraction can deliver. There are people out there just looking to make a buck off of hungry, anxious writers. There are people who mean well but simply don’t have connections. You have to learn how to find people who make sense to be on your author team, because believe me, it takes a village to launch a book — from your agent to your editor(s) to your publishing house and the production team, the marketing, and PR, the social media, the writers who will offer blurbs, or help spread the word…it’s a massive undertaking to launch a book and do it well.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Covers matter. When I self-published a novel early, early on, shortly after my husband said I should just put my work out there for fun…I had the most horrific cover for one of the books. And I mean, disgusting. It was like…mottled orange with just black words for the title. I think I was going for a vintage parchment look but it fell totally flat. I’ve since learned to leave covers to the experts. There’s a science to that, and it’s a science I don’t claim to know!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m going to start over on page 1 of my fourth book in the Flats Junction series. It’s currently over 100,000 words, but I want to re-configure some of the activities to amp up the action. This is based on amazing feedback from my front-line editor, Craig, who is as invested in the Flats Junction series as I am. I’m especially excited about this novel, currently called MEDICINEMAN, because it tackles disease, science, and germ theory from the point of view of a character in the middle of becoming a doctor during this insanely pivotal time in medical and world history, right during the Civil War. It’s especially timely now, with COVID-19, which is ironic. Working on this novel also guarantees my publisher will return the edits for the third book.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

If we’re talking about the most recent release, COPPER IRON AND CLAY: A SMITH’S JOURNEY, then I would say I want people to walk away feeling as though they are able to understand their kitchen tools — where they come from, how and why they work — and to feel empowered to ask questions similar to what we now ask of our food: where is your cookware made, who made it, and why do you own it?

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Listen to your gut. It’s the place your stories start, and is a visceral, emotional powerhouse. Once you tap into that, don’t forget it. You can often get tangled up in prose, craft, rules of writing according to teachers, but always remember and dig deep into what you want to say and let it speak loud and clear on the page.
  2. Listen to other (successful) writers. This sounds contradictory to #1, I know, but that’s the point. Being a great writer means listening to others while balancing it with your gut. You’ll always be hearing and learning, and sometimes that will offer you a huge breakthrough in your work. Know also that sometimes you will listen and realize the advice won’t work for you. And that is OK, too. But you’ll never grow if you stop learning and stop listening.
  3. Read. It can’t be said enough. You’ll hear other author voices, you’ll learn craft through reading, you’ll explore other worlds, genres, features, techniques, and get entertained at the same time. It’s win-win-win for you!
  4. Networking is just as important as putting words on a paper. Yes, writers are often said to be reclusive or introverts. Some of us are (and some aren’t!). But getting out and meeting people as much as you can, or networking via social media in this time of world pandemic, is a big part of success. No one will read your work if they don’t know who you are. Who you are, and who you know, matters in this industry as much as in any other industry.
  5. Be willing to hear critique, criticism, and harsh push-back, and learn to erase your ego when you do. Ego will block your success. You have to hear what others say, and weigh it against your gut and conscience. There is always a chance you may actually discover that that critique has the power to turn your work on its head and make it a million times better, but that will only happen if you let go of your precious work and step outside of your emotions. When I first sent the third fiction book, OUTCAST, to my editor, Craig sent back the notes along the lines of “this is the weakest thing you’ve written to date”. It was well over 100K words, and I sat on that for some months, revisited his notes, and sat some more. Eventually, I started over page 1, and re-wrote the entire thing. He sent back notes after the first 100 pages and said, “this is the best thing you’ve ever written.”

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

This likely goes against so many rules of offering writing advice, but I don’t think anything particular made me a writer (“great” is so subjective!). I simply always…WAS a writer. From the earliest days, when I couldn’t even spell, and mostly drew my stories versus writing them, I simply always had to write. It was, by definition, WHO I was. It was inherently a part of the fiber of my existence. And yes, over time, I learned what my voice sounds like on the page. I learned the skin of the genre I prefer. I understood additional philosophies about the craft. But I never force it. I never say “I must write today” or “I have writer’s block”. I don’t believe in writer’s block. Either a story exists in your marrow and must come out, or it isn’t there. I write primarily on instinct and I don’t even think about structure, schedule, beats, or the idea that ‘this is the middle of the book and therefore XYZ must happen.’ None of that. It comes out, trance-like, in one fat swell of words, which gets sent to my editor the same day I write “The End” because I never look back and pinch words. It’s too raw. I often forget what I write, and re-reading it later during editing, the pages are fresh. It’s like reading something somebody else wrote. Maybe I’m not really a writer. Maybe I’m just a conduit. But one has to be open to being so.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I actually find great inspiration from coming-of-age books of all genres, such as A Wrinkle in TimeJulie of the WolvesCrystal SingerSilver on the Tree, and from other writers of historical fiction such as Anita Diamant, Pearl S. Buck, Geraldine Brooks, among others, and really old fiction of the kind by the Bronte sisters. Jane Eyre is my favorite book of all. What I love to observe and absorb in the variety and talent is the character depths, exploring the different angles of dialogue, points of view, and growth. Writing fiction — good fiction — is so much about gut, which I feel I’ve learned by osmosis in reading across all sorts of genres and listening to different writers’ voices and listening to my own gut.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Read everything. Books, articles, magazines, old tomes. Even the tricky things. I read the Economist every week. It’s a thick read, but my existence feels flung open and connected because of it. You’ll learn so much, your world will be so much wider, and you’ll feel empowered and less afraid of pretty much anything.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Find me on Instagram at @housecopper

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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