This week we would like to introduce you to Dr. Beth Peterson, a nonfiction writer and associate professor of writing at Grand Valley State University.
What was the inspiration behind becoming a creator? What do you enjoy most about the creative process?
I’m a writer, though I actually entered writing through a back door of sorts. I’d always been interested in art and did a lot of painting, drawing, working with ceramics, and other materials. At the same time, I loved wilderness and was very invested in protecting disappearing spaces; in my early 20s, I worked as a wilderness guide. For some reason, my art and my work as a guide felt separate. In 2006, though, I began spending time near Europe’s largest continental glacier; even after a year or two, I was stunned to see the glacier’s recession. I began to photograph the glacier and to write about it. First it was just my own journal. The journal became an essay; the essay became a book of essays about disappearing people and places.
Can you talk through your creative process? How long does it take? Does everything you produce make money?
My creative process is a bit unusual. Many writers that I know emphasize the key is to write every day, to simply get words on the page. From there, they whittle those words down to an essay, a novel, a poem. My creative process almost always starts with running. There’s something brewing in my mind: a question, an image, a conversation. I run and as I run, I think about that. Slowly, ideas begin to come together. One run turns into weeks of runs and then months. I record ideas in my phone as I go. Still, I don’t start writing a single word until I have the entire idea mapped out, beginning to end, on those runs. To borrow a metaphor from music, I need to hear the larger symphony before I can play the individual notes. This has worked very well for individual essays; it was a bit trickier when writing my first book (as it was a lot to hold in my mind!) Still, even with the book, it was the process that I used. Once I had the entire structure of the book and each of its chapters in mind, only then did I begin writing.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about your line of work?
The biggest misconception about my line of work (writing nonfiction) is that I just sit at home at my desk, by a roaring fire, and think about ideas. My work actually requires extensive primary and secondary research. Being an essayist, I’ve begun to feel like I could write a book on each of the essay topics that I’ve picked up, as I do so much reading just to be able to know what the conversation is. From there, I’m often out in the field, seeing things, talking to people, finding scientists, historians, and regular citizens and trying to understand their angles on a topic. I use archives regularly, and even more regularly, find myself calling sources or trying to meet them in person. There’s a significant amount of note taking and tracking required in my profession, to make sure I have the most accurate information and that I’ve always given credit wherever it is due.
When did you first become aware of copyright, and why?
I first became aware of copyright when I began publishing. The journals I was submitting to had different policies on what would be copyrighted and also what/how author rights worked. When I began writing my first book (which originally included some lines of poetry from a disappeared poet I was writing about), I quickly found out that both poetry and song lyrics can be very difficult (and expensive) to get copyright permissions for. This was eye opening.
Have you experienced copyright infringement and, if so, how has it affected you personally and financially?
I have not personally experienced copyright infringement, though I have experienced plagiarism of my work. I was in a graduate school class devoted to workshopping (or providing peer and instructor feedback) on teaching and other job-related materials. I have a masters in education and very particular thoughts on what makes good (experiential) teaching. I was the first student to hand in my teaching philosophy. A few weeks later, another guy handed in his. Not only were many of his terms taken directly from my statement (terms I’d spent a lot of time thinking about and refining); he directly pulled several paragraphs and copied/pasted them into his document. I’m not big on conflict, but I remember sitting in that small room with my face getting hotter and hotter. I emailed him after class to talk about it. As you might imagine, he never responded.
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