Getting to a Published Novel the Nanowrimo Way

Debut novelist Shelly King is a Silicon Valley social media strategist and information architect by day, but still found time to write The Moment of Everything, which Grand Central Publishing will release September 2. Tracy Guzeman calls this debut novel “a gift for those who believe in the magic of bookstores … and in the power of books.” Shelly’s stories have been published in the GW Review, Epiphany, Slow Trains, the Dos Passos Review, and the Coe Review. And if you’ve ever participated in NANOWRIMO–or even if you haven’t–I think you’ll enjoy her post. – Meg

The Moment of Everything by Shelly KingAbout ten years ago, I woke up and thought, “I want to write a novel!” So I tried. Then I thought, “Crap! This is hard!” You’d think that a lifetime of voracious reading would be all I needed. Well, that’s a big NOPE.

I signed up for a writing class with the amazing Ellen Sussman. I wrote some short stories that were OK, but the idea of the novel grew as big as Jupiter in my mind. I just couldn’t see any way of getting there. Just a 20-page short story was killing me.

Then one night in class, Ellen told us about a new thing called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Yeah, it was still a pretty new thing back then. 50,000 words in 30 days. No plot, no problem. Turn off that inner editor and just write. It sounded insanely nerdy. I was all over that.

During that NaNoWriMo, I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Moment of EverythingI kept a journal along the way, which I’m sharing with you here. I must warn you—beyond this point, there be ninja clowns.

October 31 (0 words) A few minutes before midnight, I sit in the back room at a Denny’s with forty other would-be novelists, our fingers poised over laptops plugged into a six-foot power strip called Gandalf the Great Stick of Power. Ten seconds to midnight, the countdown begins followed by an explosive cheer as the clock strikes twelve. NaNoWriMo begins! Ninety seconds later, the guy sitting next to me throws his hands in the air and shouts, “82 words! Woo-hoo!” Wild applause rips through the room. Another novelist yells, “That’s nothing! I’ve already killed twelve people!” Much wilder applause. Two hours and a Grand Slam later, I’m at 1999 words. I add “now” to my last sentence for a cool 2000 and stumble home, filled with beaming optimism that the next 30 days are going to be a piece of cake.

November 1 (2000 words) Sitting among several seasoned NaNos at a coffee shop, my optimism is now a puddle of sweat and tears. Less than 24 hours in, I’ve forgotten the cardinal rules of NaNoWriMo: Don’t stop. Don’t rewrite. Never look back. After several hours, I only manage to pound out an additional 500 words after rewriting most of what I wrote the night before. I bang my head on my keyboard in frustration. 50k is a million miles away.

November 8 (6867 words) I start nerding out on the numbers. 50,000 words in 30 days averages to 1667 words a day (about seven pages). A 50,000-word novel, double-spaced, is roughly 175 pages long. The veterans posting to the NaNoWriMo forums advise a goal of 2000 words a day to give yourself some breathing room. I create a spreadsheet to track my progress. According to the formula, I’ll finish around Valetine’s Day.

November 11 (8,201 words) My plot has completely stalled. A fellow writer suggests turning to the Idea Jar, a Costco-sized jar filled with slips of paper that hold ideas to help faltering plots. Basically, it’s a story defibrillator. Clear! My main character is now in love with a squirrel named Fenster.

Shelly King author photoNovember 15, (10,192 words) I can’t do it. I’m supposed to be at the halfway mark and the spreadsheet is telling me at my current pace, I’ll finish around the start of baseball season. I hate my story. My characters suck. I’m practically in tears. My fellow writers tell me I’ll catch up next week. I say many curse words.

November 16, (12,056 words) One of my fellow writers put another Nano writer in her novel and killed him off! There’s a forum started with posts detailing how other people have killed this guy off in their novels. So far, he’s been a Roman centurion, WWII soldier, a drug dealer, mail prostitute, frog in the road….

November 18, (15,325 words) Things are looking brighter. I’m still miles behind, but when I post my word count on I start feeling a little cocky. “Oh, puh-lease,” I say to myself, reading a post in a forum, “this guy only has 1700 words written and we’re supposed to listen to him? Hah! Come back when you’ve hit the 15,000 mark, buddy!” I read postings from people’s novels. My crappy writing is just as crappy as theirs! All is not lost. I’ll catch up next week.

November 19, (15,473 words) My laptop, Gladys, dies! Nothing but the blue screen of death! Thank goodness for backups. From my work computer, I post notice of her death on the forums and receive tender expressions of sympathy from other NaNos. I haven’t met people this nice since the last time someone tried to get me to join a religious cult…hey, wait a minute….

November 20, (16,124 words) Gladys lives! I owe the IT guy at work a six-pack. I plug in my numbers and it’s not pretty. But Gladys’ rebirth gives me new hope! I’m getting playful with my horrendously implausible plot. I use the word “pizzle” in a sentence which makes me ludicrously happy. If I write 3255 words a day between now and the end of the month, I’ll finish on time. No problem! I have the whole Thanksgiving weekend.

November 22, (16,498 words) I can’t think of anything to write today. I spell out all the contractions and give all my characters middle names, scraping up 374 words. I call it a win.

November 27, (18,071 words) I’m beginning to loathe people with a higher word count. I haven’t written for days. I bring a bagful of Tupperware to a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner and load up like I’m preparing for Everest.

November 28 (25,071 words) Around 2 a.m., my cat starts talking to me in the voice of one of my characters. I sit down to write a short sex scene before calling it a night. That short scene turns out to be 4000 words. The female NaNos online at this hour tell me this is perfectly normal.

November 29 (34,482 words) Between scenes, I dash to the kitchen to dunk my arms up to my elbows in a cooler filled with ice to sooth my aching hands and wrists. I have a brief moment of panic when, honest to God, I can’t think of one other thing to write. “Use the plot ninja!” cry the NaNos in the forums and it’s my “Run, Luke. Run.” moment. The plot ninja is a pre-determined, out-of-left-field entity to restart a stalled plot. This year’s plot ninja is clowns. I cover my bases and make them ninja clowns.

November 30 (42, 672 words) A 9:00 a.m. phone call from my mother wakes me up.

“Have you finished your contest yet?” she asks.

“Nope, 8,000 words to write today.”

“What happens if you don’t make it?”


“What happens if you do?”

“Um, well, nothing really.”

“Why are you doing this again?”

Around 5:00 p.m., I check my word count. Only 3500 words to go! Time to wrap up this puppy! Then the panic comes. I have no idea how all of this will end! As despair overwhelms me, I feel my characters taking me by the hand and beckoning me to follow them. They know the way out of this. At 8:47, our journey is at last over at 50,199 words. My fellow NaNos give an online cheer as I enter my final word count and post to the winners forum. I’m overcome. I’m a novelist. I think I’ll celebrate with a Ben and Jerry’s. And a shower. Possibly at the same time.

So that was my crazy journey to the first draft of the novel that became The Moment of Everything. How much of that first draft did I end up keeping? Mmm…about 2%. But more important, I learned I had the words in me to write a novel. So go find your writing tribe. They will get you through the tough times. Give yourself permission to write badly. Good writing comes with editing. Whenever you get stuck, write a sex scene. And if that doesn’t get the words going, there are always the ninja clowns. – Shelly

Posted in Stories of How Writers Get Started | Leave a comment

From Factory to Bestselling Author

If you think you have an excuse not to write, I have little doubt that today’s guest post by bestselling author Jean Kwok will disabuse you of that and send you to your writing chair. I’ve known Jean’s writing since the fabulous success of her first novel, Girl in Translation, an award-winning New York Times bestseller which has been published in 17 countries and taught in universities, colleges and high schools across the world. She’s back with a second novel which has already been named a Best Book of 2014 by Woman’s Day and Real Simple. Mambo in Chinatown is the story of a young woman torn between her family duties in Chinatown and her escape into the world of ballroom dancing–a story which may sound a little familiar after you read her post. – Meg

Mambo in Chinatown coverAs a child, I did not dream of becoming a writer. I was a working class Chinese immigrant girl growing up in the slums of Brooklyn. I dreamed of leaving our grueling life working at the dust-filled garment factory in Chinatown. Many of the workers entered the sweatshop as children, like me, helping their parents as much as they could. When they became young women and men, they took on the most demanding and dangerous jobs on the sewing machines and steamers. As age weighed them down, they graduated to the slower and less-paid tasks until they hobbled to the factory as senior citizens to clip thread off of the finished garments.

For most of my life, my desires revolved around escaping that life somehow. I loved books and reading but concentrated my energies on becoming a scientist, which was a real job unlike being a writer. I did most of my homework on the subway or during breaks at the factory. Fortunately, I had a talent for school and with this ability, I tested into a high school for gifted kids and went on to study at Harvard. In college, I worked four jobs at a time to pay my own way and often had to stay up all night in order to do my schoolwork. During one of these all-nighters, I was trying to finish a paper and wrote a poem instead. I was as astonished as if I had laid an egg.

For the first time, I allowed myself to consider becoming a writer. After graduation, I was looking for a day job to support myself while I embarked on this writing insanity, and came across an ad in the paper that said, “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer, Will Train.” Miraculously, they hired me. After waltzing by day and scribbling by night for three years, I went to Columbia for an MFA in Fiction.

I published a few stories before I finished my degree and suddenly, editors, a film company and agents were taking me out to lunch. It seemed like an instant success story but it wasn’t. I signed with a smart, thoughtful agent and then, because I’d fallen in love with a Dutch guy, I moved to the Netherlands. I dropped off the face of the literary world and struggled to write my first novel while I was adjusting to a whole new culture and language.

It took me ten years to complete my debut novel. By then, I was married to the same Dutch guy and had a toddler and a baby. I took care of my kids all day, then when they finally went to bed, I’d race to Leiden University and teach evening classes in English. I got home at 11pm, caught a few hours of sleep interrupted by crying children who woke up for the day at 6am, and then I’d do it all over again. I only had a few hours in a week to write.

When I finally finished my book, I sent it to my agent, who had encouraged me through all those years. His response was worse than my most paranoid nightmares. He said, “Jean, there is no market for this book. And if you need any help finding a new agent, I’d be happy to help you.” Not only had my most beloved and respected mentor in the publishing world just told me that my book was worthless but he’d dumped me at the same time.

Jean Kwok author photo

photo by Chris Macke

At that moment, I had to seriously consider the fact that I might just be a stinky writer. It happens to the best of us; we can’t all be talented. I had a family to take care of and with my working class background, I’d always worried that I’d made the wrong decision when I chose writing. I made a desperate phone call to a dear friend who told me to give myself some time, to give my book a bit of light and air.

I took her advice and a month later, reread my whole novel from beginning to end. I thought, “I love this book. Whatever might be wrong with it, I can’t write a better book at this moment in my life.” I needed to find a new agent. I decided to make a list of the biggest, most powerful agents who represented work like mine. My plan was to start with the top ten agents, who would all reject me, then I’d move onto the next ten, who would reject me too, and so on until I got to number 500 or so. If everyone rejected me after a year, I would reevaluate my life choices then.

I finished writing the query letters on a Thursday night in the Netherlands. Some agents accept e-queries, some only paper ones, and I had the first batch of e-queries ready. I knew I would wind up in the dreaded slush pile along with thousands of other query letters. I looked at the name at the top of my list – Suzanne Gluck, co-head of the Worldwide Literary Department at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment – and I started to shake. An agent like this is not going to take an unknown from Holland who has no connections, no recent publications or prizes, I thought. This was ridiculous. I needed to rethink my entire strategy. Well, my hands were trembling so much during this panic attack that I clicked on the mouse and – whoosh! The e-queries were sent.

It was approaching midnight in Holland but still working hours in New York City. Twenty minutes later, Suzanne’s office emailed me to request the full manuscript. I almost fell off my chair. On Friday, more requests for the manuscript came in. On Monday, the first agent phoned to offer representation and on Tuesday, Suzanne called… and she is my agent today. I was so terrified while she was on the line that I started wheezing like a fat, asthmatic cat but luckily, she did most of the talking.

I had not changed a word of the manuscript after the rejection from my first agent. Not because I thought it was perfect but because I had no idea how to improve it. I think this whole experience taught me to trust my own gut feelings. Of course, it’s important to be open to criticism but in the end, a writer creates something that he or she is passionate about.  It’s essential to keep the heart of your writing alive, and to believe in yourself, no matter who is telling you otherwise.

That same novel, the one for which there was no market, sold to a wonderful major editor within a week and went on to become Girl in Translation, which has been published in 17 countries, won many awards, hit the New York Times bestseller list, and is now taught in schools across the world. My second novel Mambo in Chinatown has just been published and I’ve recently returned to the Netherlands after completing a great deal of national and international publicity.

Nowadays, when I’m facing a blank page, I still worry that I’m a stinky writer. But I’ve learned to move forward anyway. – Jean

Posted in Stories of How Writers Get Started | Comments Off

Every Writer’s Nightmare

A Pinch of Ooh La La by Renee Swindle just released yesterday! My friend Ellen Sussman says of it, “Renee Swindle writes about the complications of love with great humor, compassion and sass. A Pinch of Ooh La La is a pure delight!” Renee is the author of two previous novels, Please Please Please, an Essence Magazine/Blackboard Bestseller, and Shake Down the Stars.  Renee earned her MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. She lives in Oakland, California- Meg

A Pinch of Ooh La La CoverYears ago, I experienced every writer’s dream. After writing my first novel, Please Please Please, it went to auction and I earned an advance that allowed me to quit my day job and write full time.  Hoorah, right?  Uh… no. You see, while I may have experienced every writer’s dream, I also experienced every writer’s nightmare.

I based Please Please Please on a short story I wrote while in graduate school. After earning my MFA, I worked as a substitute teacher for a year while rewriting the first one hundred pages. This was in 1998, and during that time you could actually sell an uncompleted manuscript, so I thought I’d try to find an agent based on my partial draft.  I made copies of the first thirty pages and sent them off to several agents at once. Less than a month later, I had an agent and we were getting offers.

Mind you, this was during the days when Waiting to Exhale was widely popular, and it seemed every publisher was looking for the next Terri McMillian. Although Please Please Please is nothing like Waiting To Exhale, publishers didn’t seem to care, and a bidding war ensued.

All too soon I was living the dream. Only problem, along with the dream came an enormous amount of pressure. I still had to finish the uncompleted manuscript–with only an inkling of how to write the second half of the book–and I also had the pressure of a due date from a major publisher, the same publisher that had already released a fat check. I won’t go into my poor spending habits back then, but let’s just say, I was spending as much cash as MC Hammer during the heyday of “Can’t Touch This.”

Writer’s block took hold so fiercely I had no other choice but to find a therapist, someone to help me deal with the feelings of doubt and anxiety that took hold every time I sat down to write. It took several months for me to write the second half of the book–let alone get over my writer’s block, but I finally turned it in; albeit a year past its due date.

I went on tour, stayed in fancy hotels and then it was time to start writing the second novel. At this point, I wanted to prove that I was more than a commercial writer. I didn’t want to be compared to Terry McMillan; I wanted to be compared to Toni Morrison.

I spent the next year writing my literary masterpiece, an overwritten, boring story even I knew somewhere deep down was not working. This is when my editor gently told me she was passing on the book and I was dumped from my contract. Oh, and by the way? They wanted their money back. Money I’d already spent.

Luckily I had a fairy godmother in the form of my agent, who fought off the big publisher and told them, in short, that I’d turned the manuscript in on time and it wasn’t my fault that they didn’t like it.

My agent gave me about a week to cry, and then said, as if I’d ruined dinner and could simply make something else—write another book.  She was so matter-of-fact about it, so calm, I began to believe that I could do just that–start over and–write another book.

While her advice was exactly what I needed to hear, I was also at an emotional low point and felt I had to prove myself. Since my literary masterpiece had failed, I set out to write a commercial hit, a quick and easy comedy that would make lots of money. I wrote with various rules in my head and stuck to them even though I was not having a bit of fun; I doubt, in fact, that I laughed a single time while writing that book; and no surprise, it didn’t sell.

Renee Swindle author photoI’d written two back-to-back failures by that point.  My saving grace, besides my agent who said just as calmly as she had before—write another—was that I was so broken I was more than ready to drop all notions about how I should write and finally started writing with my own voice and style. What a difference writing from the heart makes. My third novel, Shake Down The Stars, sold to Penguin/NAL, as did A Pinch Of Ooh La La.

There’s something liberating about failing. Twice.  I now see how writing those two failures helped me build my craft, discover my voice, and develop fierce discipline.  Now I can actually say I’ve fallen in love with the process of writing. And falling in love with the process is something the highs and lows of publishing can never take away. I suppose that’s what I want to leave you with today. If you happen to “fail,” and I hope you never do—write another. - Renee

Posted in Stories of How Writers Get Started | 5 Comments

Write Like a Girl

It’s not just about the running.

I’ve been a runner since the days when women were prohibited from running marathons on the excuse that too much exercise might hurt us. I attended the first women’s Olympic marathon and, in one of the highlights of my career as a writer, got to have breakfast decades later with Joan Benoit Samuelson, who’d taken home that first Olympic long run gold. I conceived the idea for, and many of the scenes of my first novel on long runs as I trained for and ran a marathon. But it’s not about the running or even about sports for me or, I suspect, for most of the almost 50 million viewers, and counting.

It’s not about girls, either. Let’s be honest here: we’re talking about an advertisement for feminine products. Its target audience is women of childbearing age.

And yet it has gone viral.

If you haven’t seen it, “Like a Girl” is a nifty video produced and directed byLauren Greenfield, about the very subtle ways we as a society shape gender presumptions. Older girls and women, and even boys and men, when asked to run or throw or fight “like a girl,” do so in silly, noncompetitive ways. Very young girls just run or throw or fight their little hearts out, in ways that look very like boys their age might do.

“Like a girl” is still thrown around as an insult, and yet if you look at the facts you have to start to wonder why. Women, who have long earned more than half of all undergraduate degrees, now earn more than half of all post-graduate degrees as well – and do it with, on average, higher grades than male students. On average, women’s IQs are now higher than men’s.

Yet we remain a society riddled with subtle and not-so-subtle gender presumptions that suggest females are something less than males, and we perpetuate those stereotypes in ways we often don’t realize.

In film and on prime time programming, women not only have far fewer speaking roles, but are far more likely than male characters to be hypersexualized, and far less likely to have identified careers. Is it a surprise that the percentage of women to men hanging out in director’s chairs or writing rooms is appalling?

In fiction, we ghettoize novels centered on women’s lives as “chick lit” – with the implication that men need not even consider reading some really fine books – while similar stories written by men are shelved in “general fiction” and not, as perhaps they ought to be, under “dick lit.” We identify fiction written by women, the novelist Meg Wolitzer points out, with covers that leave men reluctant to pick up books.

Teachers at one boys’ school, according to the novelist Mary Gordon, defended the fact that their students weren’t reading Austen or Woolf on the excuse that they were looking for works that boys could relate to, while at the girls’ school across the street, “no one would have dreamed of removing ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Moby-Dick’ from the syllabus.”

The question is whether that will ever change, and how we might make that change happen.

Run like a girl. Study like a girl. If you’re a writer, write like a girl. Dream like a girl. Achieve like a girl.

That’s what the viral spread of “Run Like a Girl” is about: the appetite for a world in which “like a girl” isn’t an insult, but rather something about which we all might be as justifiably proud as Joan Benoit Samuelson must have been when she took home that first Olympic gold medal for the marathon thirty years ago this Tuesday, on August 5, 1984.

Posted in Meg's Posts | 1 Comment

Writing … Now or Never

I am SO delighted to host my pal, Cassandra Dunn, and celebrate the publication of her debut novel, The Art of Adapting. Publisher’s Weekly calls the novel “a lively, engaging, and heartfelt tale of learning how to cope with change… thoughtful and touching.” Cassie received her MFA in creative writing from Mills College. She was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. I’m looking forward to her reading at the Books Inc. Alameda store Thursday, August 14. – Meg

AofA.hirescoverI wrote my first short story in 4th grade, and I was hooked. From then on I scribbled stories and essays in notebooks or typed them up on an old typewriter. I wrote them, read them, patted myself on the back, and put them away. I have a rusty old file cabinet in my garage, 4 drawers full of decades of writing that not one other soul has ever seen. Fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, plays, poetry. I tried it all. I loved it all. I had zero confidence that anyone else in the world would.

My high school English teachers encouraged me to pursue writing, and I did. I majored in creative writing, and graduated with a lot of work under my belt, but did nothing with it. I sent in an essay to a magazine, received a hand-written reply from the editor suggesting a few revisions, and tucked the submission away as a failure without even attempting a rewrite. Then repeated this scenario again with a different article for a different magazine, shutting the door on myself before anyone else had a chance.

I got a job as an editor, because that was as close to a writer as I felt comfortable calling myself. But I still kept writing. I worked at UC Berkeley, and they had a writing competition that was open to staff as well as students. I took a chance and submitted. And won. I read my essay aloud at an awards ceremony, and I was so nervous that I don’t remember a single thing about that day, but I knew that it was time. Time to get serious about writing. Time to put myself out there. I applied to one MFA program, and figured if I didn’t get in, that’d be a sign that it wasn’t for me. I got in.

Cassandra Dunn Author photoI worked full-time as an editor while attending school full-time for my MFA. It was a crazy schedule: work 8-3, rush across town for class until 8pm, back home to log on and finish my last two hours of work, up past midnight doing my schoolwork. Repeated day after day for two years. I gave up downtime, time with friends, sleep. I had three free minutes a day. And I absolutely loved it. Two years of total immersion in writing and reading, of being surrounded by writers so good that I had no idea why they’d need an MFA at all. I came down with mono and never missed a single class. I was determined not to lose my focus on writing.

By the time I completed the program, I was burned out. I put writing aside to rest, reconnect with friends, fall in love. Then it was time to buy a house, plan my wedding, have kids. Life got busy, and in no time at all I’d gotten away from the one thing that had always made me happy, and I wasn’t happy. My husband traveled increasingly for work, and I was alone: a stay-at-home mom, freelance editing while caring for my children, feeling adrift and anxious, exhausted at the end of every day with nothing to show for it. My marriage was stalled, slowly disintegrating, and I was scared. Scared to start over. Scared to raise my children alone. Scared to admit I’d failed. So I started writing about it. Motherhood, marriage, divorce, failure, fear, and glimmers of hope. I wrote essays, stories, screenplays. I wrote without inhibition, because no one was going to see any of it. And then I decided to take a risk and show some of it to the world.

I submitted short stories to literary journals, prepared for mountains of rejection. And mixed in with the silence and “not for us” replies, there were a few acceptances. There is nothing like that first moment of seeing your name in print. It makes all the years of doubt and failure evaporate. It makes it all worth it. And it makes you want more.

I submitted a novel to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. It made it to the semifinal round. I sent it out to fifty or sixty agents, and all of them passed on it. But I wasn’t deterred. I had yet to make a dime as a writer, but I could see it now, the dream, the way it could maybe, possibly, one day become a reality.

When my husband moved out, I put the pressure on myself. I was looking down the barrel of returning to a full-time job as an editor, wondering who’d watch my kids before and after school, how they’d adjust to not only having their dad move out but having me gone most of the day, not knowing how I’d ever squeeze writing time into a full-time working and almost full-time single-parenting schedule. I knew, as I started working on The Art of Adapting, that it was a “now or never” situation. I wasted no time. I was disciplined and methodical. I wrote during every free moment in that first year as a single mom. I wrote more short stories, chasing publication, knowing that I needed more publishing credits on my query letter once the new novel was done. I wrote out of fear, out of longing, out of hope, and I put it all on the page. I didn’t tell many people what I was working on. I introduced myself as an editor, because I was still freelance editing, revising other writers’ novels and memoirs, keeping my skills up and making new contacts for future editing gigs and hoping I wouldn’t need them.

I polished, cut, revised, rewrote, and reshaped The Art of Adapting, until I could think of nothing else to tweak. I assembled a list of my top agent choices, and was signed by one of the first I queried. We began an extensive revision together. One week after the mediator said, in our divorce proceedings, “You’ll need to return to work full-time, to become self-supporting,” we sold The Art of Adapting. The dream was no longer a dream. I removed editor from my bio, and put author there instead.

It’s been an unnecessarily long road to get here, mostly because I had a habit of getting in my own way. But I like to think that it happened when it was meant to happen. That I got my big break just in time. And also that it was destined to happen in front of my daughters, once they were old enough to understand, so that it might shape their own self-images, so they won’t hold themselves back when it’s their turn to chase a dream. – Cassandra

Posted in Meg's Posts | 1 Comment

Robin Black: There Was Only Moving Forward

Robin Black’s debut novel, Life Drawing, is an Indie Next pick for August, and on the long list for the Flaherty-Dunnun First Novel Prize. Claire Messud calls it “at once quiet and memorable.” Robin’s story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. Her stories and essays can be found on The Rumpus, O. Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune. And if you are giving any thought to MFA programs, this post is for you. – Meg

Life Drawing CoverBy the time I applied to the MFA program at Warren Wilson College, I was just shy of forty-one years old and had been writing, after a long, long hiatus, for a little under two years. I decided on an MFA because I very much wanted to learn more craft – for which I’d discovered a strange love. All talk about such things as narrative distance and point of view felt like my native language to me. I couldn’t get enough.

But there was something else as well, what I still call the Wizard of Oz syndrome. I wanted the professional stamp. (If you have a Diploma, you must be a Writer!) I had been home with my kids since having my first at twenty-five, and I had come to recognize the dismissive way in which my claim to be writing was met by almost everyone. It was a dismissal that came with the unspoken words materializing in the air: “Oh, how sweet. You’re a wife and mother, and now you’re trying to write.” They might as well have pat me on the head.

And the biggest problem with that reaction was that I half believed the attitude behind it myself. It was incredibly hard to take myself seriously, especially as the rejections for my early stories began to arrive. And arrive. And arrive.

I didn’t stop writing though, even with my doubts. I was writing all the time – and I do mean all the time. My husband and I would go out for dinner and he’d catch me drifting away: “Are you writing?” he’d ask; and the guilty answer was invariably “Yes.” So, I was putting in the time, working away, but I just couldn’t imagine the path that would emerge connecting me, sitting at my desk making up stories that journals would reject, to me, as one of those august and seemingly god-like creatures: An Author.

Whatever the path, though, I thought some structure would help. Structure and a little institutional back-up for the identity I was trying to achieve.

On the first day of the program, a late June day in 2003, I woke up in Asheville, North Carolina, checked out of the B&B where I’d spent a couple of nights, and drove the fifteen or so miles out to Warren Wilson College. The campus was breathtakingly beautiful, a real working farm, and an old one with enormous gnarled trees dotting the backs of the fields, all stretched out in front of distant mountain views. I couldn’t remember ever being more moved by a landscape – or ever being as excited to be part of a place.

As I approached the buildings, I started to see what looked like giant yellow sticky notes posted everywhere, scrawled with the letters MFA, and then arrows. Then MFA Parking, and a final arrow.

I parked. I sat looking out at the campus, the portion in front of me, a formal garden, a manicured emerald lawn. I took a deep breath, got out of the car, turned to enter the building that was festooned with balloons and a few more MFA signs, took maybe five steps, spun around, got back in my car, turned on the engine, and drove away.

It was one of the strangest and in some ways one of the most honest moments of my life. This panic I felt. This sudden tear in the fabric of my resolution and my confidence. An absolutely pure emotion, leading to the logical next act.

I drove over the roads I had just been on, but in the opposite direction, and, in a true mental haze, I followed signs for a Museum – or maybe just a store – of Appalachian Folk Art. I parked, and went in, with no hesitation, no return to my car this time. No problem! I was good at being an observer and a consumer. What I was struggling with was. . .

I honestly didn’t know. I couldn’t sort it through. As I looked at the quilts, and a collection of finely honed wooden hats, I ticked off the anxieties I might be feeling – social, professional, missing my family; but nothing resonated. My panic had lacked any content.

Fight or Flight? It had felt that primal; and I had chosen flight.

The clock was ticking though, the afternoon nearing its deadline for checking in; and I had to either go back, or give up and drive the twelve hours home. There was no middle ground between facing down whatever fear I’d felt and giving into it. No middle ground, and really no choice. For all I had tried to turn back, in reality there was no turning back. There was only moving forward. And I knew it.

When I remember that day now, when I see myself in the car again, driving past those same fields another time, following the arrows, finding some parking, and this time walking into the building, into a new era of my life, there’s a twist. Though I know that it was pure panic I felt that first time, it doesn’t always seem like that now. In my mind, in my memory it often feels more like a kind of tribute I paid to the momentous nature of what I was about to do. As if I returned to my car to give myself just a little more time to be the me I knew so well, before stepping into a completely mysterious role.

But whatever it was I felt, panic or awe, within hours, I was immersed, surrounded by other writers, and on the path that I needed to be on, the one I hadn’t been able to imagine, not always a smooth or easy one, but the right one for me. – Robin

Posted in Stories of How Writers Get Started | 1 Comment