Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘classes’

How I Found My Literary Voice Part 2

After I graduated from undergrad with my BA in English, I had a plan. I wanted to find a job that paid me enough to live and still left me with free time to write. I got my wish with an electronic publishing company in Northern Virginia. The job was interesting and the people were great. I didn’t make huge amounts of money, but it was enough to pay the bills.

I had been so inspired by Raymund Chandler, I thought I would write mystery novels. Through out my teen years, I read Mary Higgins Clark, Jonathan Kellerman, and the Nancy Drew stories. So after settling into my new adult life complete with my own apartment and new job, in a new city, I started to write my mystery story. It was slow going. I liked the idea, but it just didn’t feel right. After a few months, I put it aside.

I had a dilemma now. This was my best idea. If I wasn’t going to work on it, what would I do? My typical writing schedule was to work on my lunch hour and a couple of hours when I got home. In March 2000, I started a short story on my lunch hour. I was just playing around, trying to think of something to write, when an idea came over me. The story would be about a girl who was scared to grow up, so much so that her fear came to life. It was a strange, weird idea that I found compelling, so I followed the thread.

A couple of weeks later, I had to put the story aside. I was being laid off and job hunting became a priority at lunch time, instead of writing. Plus my apartment turned out to have so many problems that my roommate and I needed to start looking for a new place to live. My strange story would have to wait. I packed it away in a box.

Months later I had a new job and a new place. The apartment was good, but the job was taxing. I had a long commute and had zero energy to write when I got home. I also made the mistake of moving myself and instead of doing it in one or two days, I moved little by little over the course of a month. (Pro tip: Never move yourself. Pay people to do it. Trust me.) I didn’t really relax until the holidays.

I opened my writing box and there, on top of a stack of papers, was my story. Funny thing, I didn’t remember writing it. I read it with fresh eyes and realized: 1)I didn’t write an ending and 2) the story was good. I wrote the ending right there on my bed. Also, I realized I needed to quit my job. Writing was my calling and this demanding job that drained me, added thirty pounds of stress on my body, and left me unhappy had to go.

By the end of January 2001, I had a new job (back to electronic publishing) with a sensible commute and plenty of time to write. I enrolled in a community writing class and work-shopped my story. I had no idea how people would react, but I was damn proud of the story. It was the first thing I wrote out of school that I felt was in my true voice.

The class was good and most people reacted to it just as I hoped. But there was this one woman (I can’t even remember her name.) who hated it. She said to me, “I don’t understand anything that is going on here. Why don’t you just get rid of all this supernatural stuff and write a real story.” I was utterly confused by that and, at twenty-three, had never met people who were so hostile to genre stories. I have since met plenty of others who were just at snotty and I steer clear of them. My stuff is not for them, plain and simple.

Anyway, after this lady said her piece, an older woman named Carol took one look at her and shook her head. She leaned closer to me and said, “Ignore her. You write magical realism. That’s who you are.” I had never heard the term, but you’d better believe I went home and googled it. I took a look at my bookshelf and sure enough next to the Chandlers and the Dashell Hametts were Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and quite a few of those teen horror/fantasy books from Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine. (Remember those?) Turns out I had a strong streak of the supernatural in me.

And to even solidify this realization, I found a note written on a realistic story that I had written while at UNM in Advanced Creative Writing. My professor wrote in the margin — This is good, but it is all a bit magical. My true voice had been inching out years earlier and just didn’t see it. After that class, I knew who I was as a writer.

I knew my voice.

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.