Research professor and former teaching professor Walter Wangerin has worked at Valparaiso University since 1991. Throughout his career, and even before, he has been writing. He believes that it is part of who he is.
“It’s not as if I have a choice to write, I am driven to write, it is in my DNA,” Wangerin said.
Ever since he was young, Wangerin told stories to his siblings. Then, in third grade he began putting his stories on paper.
“Writing always found time for itself . . . It was just what I did,” Wangerin said.
Wangerin has published many works, starting with his first novel, “The Book of the Dun Cow.”This first novel won the National Book Award and the New York Times’ Best Young Adult Novel of the Year. Since then, Wangerin believes that he has published around fifty books.
Wangerin’s work is not restricted to one genre or medium of writing. He writes in many different mediums; novels, poetry, short stories, children’s stories, book reviews, essays, theological works, memoirs, oratorios, and film scripts.
Despite writing in so many areas, he doesn’t have a favorite project that he has published. When asked, Wangerin simply grinned and responded with: “Which is a woman’s proudest child?”
Though diverse, Wangerin’s work is most identifiable by how he writes his characters. Unlike many other writers, he likes to focus on external details instead of the internal. In other words, he doesn’t focus on things like an internal monologue.
“Describing their internal feelings, but by describing their external actions, expressions of face, tones of voice, gestures, which reveals what is going on inside them,” Wangerin said.
When writing, Wangerin typically does not plan the plot out ahead of time, instead letting the story develop as he works. His method is to see where the story goes until the ending begins to take shape in his mind.
“If it’s a long novel, there comes a point where I see the ending ahead of me and I need to write toward that ending, but far enough in advance. It's like I'm a pilot in an oil tankard, which means I have to start turning the tankard toward the harbor long before it gets there. It's difficult in the best sense,” Wangerin said.
While many writers want readers to find the message behind their work or learn something from it, Wangerin hopes for something different. For him, it’s all about the experience.
“I would like them to experience the work, as it were, to live inside the work, so that the story becomes their own. I am not interested in teaching morals and not even terribly interested in being interpreted or studied to find a meaning,” Wangerin said.
To those interested in becoming writers, a piece of advice Wangerin used to teach his creative writing classes is to spend more time reading. This advice is what he learned from his experience as a writer and what taught him to write with such skill.
“This is the first: read. Read, read, read, you can’t do it out of the narrow,” Wangerin said. “You have to stand in the garden of the best writers. Then the second is: start. Don’t search for some excellent idea, get a good sense and start.”