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How I Found My Literary Voice Part 1

In December 1997, I quit writing for the first time. I was twenty years old and had just finished the first semester of my junior year at college. This was the end of my first writing class and I was completely disillusioned. My first real, honest-to-God creative writing class was so disappointing, I wanted to quit right then and there.

The professor was more interested in not teaching, than teaching. We would show up and he would walk in and say, “Go off and write.” I had a friend in the classroom next door and she said to me one day, “Do you ever have class?” It was a general writing class, so there were a lot of students from other disciplines. Once we were sent on our way, everybody would pretty much blow off writing in favor of video games, TV, or doing work for other classes. Ya know, the ones where we actually had to do work. I could count on one hand the number of classes we actually had and then when I did turn in work, it was no good. The criticism felt fake to me, like he didn’t read my work, and instead gave generic guidelines. I remember on the last day walking out of the building thinking, “Well I’m done with this! I need to think of something else to do, because writing is not for me.”

The next semester, everything changed. A year earlier, I applied to an exchange program, so I spend the spring of 1998 at the University of New Mexico. Not only did I change schools, but I changed climates, school size (UNM was a whopping 25,000 students compared to my campus of 2,500.), and campus life. I was still an English major, so I kept taking literature classes, but the grades didn’t transfer. All I had to do was get C’s or better and I would pass the class.

There are two classes that are important for the story: Advanced Creative Writing and Spies and Private Eyes. I started out just going through the motions of attending class, reading the books, and writing whatever I was supposed to. It was too late for me to change classes. (I had to get special permission for each class when I registered.) I liked the classes fine, but I wasn’t invested. I did enough and nothing more.

All that changed in March 1998. As my class was starting in Spies and Private Eyes started, my professor held up a copy of Raymund Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. She said, “What kind of book is this?” Various answers were called out. “It’s detective fiction!” “It’s a mystery book!” She nodded her head and said, “Yes, yes, it’s all of those things, but there are some people who feel like this is literary book too.”

If a thought bubble could’ve appeared over my head, it would have said, “That’s the kind of writer I’m going to be. Wait… didn’t I quit writing? Aren’t we supposed to be looking for a new career?” Too late. My intellect was peaked. My brain was off and running with new ideas, inspired ideas, that I wanted to write down. I left that class with my head full of ideas.

So much for quitting.

Advanced Creative Writing¬†was changing me too. We had an honest-to-goodness real class with homework assignments that worked on various techniques. We would read and analyze stories and write our own work to be critiqued by our classmates. It was my first time ever being critiqued and not as bad as I thought it would be. To this day, I consider Tim O’Brien’s story The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong to be one of those definitive stories that would shape me as a writer. I read that story in this class.

I left UNM in May 1998 feeling renewed as a writer and excited to keep working. I would have another year before I would graduate. In that time, I would continue to write, while I finished up my degree. I didn’t have anymore writing classes, but I continued to read and hone my craft.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, I’ll write about what happened after I graduated.