The happiest day of my life was the day I realized I would never have to live in my hometown again. With my belongings moved into an apartment in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, my twin bed siphoned off from my two roommates' beds, and my nineteenth birthday party taking place in my new dining room with my new friends around a German chocolate cake purchased at the two-level grocery store on the corner, I knew that all of my hard adolescent work had paid off.
I now would be free. My greatest fear of withering away at home would not come to pass.
The saddest day of my life was the day I moved from Chicago back to my hometown.
There are a lot of reasons why this happened. For starters, money. For other starters, external pressure. Heartbreak was another reason. But soon I found myself back on familiar streets living an ordinary life in a place where the extraordinary refused to surface.
We have no oceans in my hometown. We have a river, and it's filthy.
Many people feel this hopeless giving up, although I doubt many of them feel it as early as twenty-three. I did good work here, and I continue to do good work, but something was missing. The glimmer that happened when I wrote far off worlds, the echo of my voice when I sang. "Why don't you sing anymore?" someone asked me ... no, a lot of people asked me.
There was no point, I could have answered. It will just remind me of what I could have been, would have been another good one. But usually I just answered, "Oh, I'm busy. And things. And life. And no one wants to hear it, anyway."
It had to stop.
Ray Bradbury writes in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, that in order to live, in order to "stay alive," we have to keep writing. We have to come up with those crazy worlds no one else can see. We must believe in magic, or "Buck Rogers," as he puts it.
So Alex, my fiance, found Mur Lafferty's podcast and in turn found Stonecoast. For months, the two of us schemed to get me into the MFA program. And then one day, Nancy Holder called and told me the good news.
As you know, I went to my first residency last week. And I am about to tell you why you should stop not singing, start staying alive, and find your own Stonecoast.
The night before, I was afraid. I told Alex that he needed me, that my dead friend needed me, that the dishes in the sink needed me. "It's too far away, I'm too scared, I can't make friends, everyone will hate me, I'm not good enough." But stalwart Alex lugged my 49.5 pound checked bag all the way to his car, and then all the way into the airport.
In my book, Abigail is a young girl who is trapped in Boston and damned to walk the earth after her airship is taken from her. There is a scene where she escapes, bursting into the sky and seeing the sun strike the white clouds from above. And when that plane pierced the rainstorm and breathed out into the air, I felt like something new was about to happen.
For the first time in a long time, I had a chance.
Maine is a different sort of place. I say different because it's not like anywhere I've lived. Even my hometown is loud with this incessant noise from the interstate and the planes from the airforce base. But Portland is silent. As soon as I got rid of the jet engines in my ears, I realized how quiet the airport was. And then I recognized silence in the parking lot, the road, the highway, and finally Bowdoin College Campus.
And for the first time in five years, I was welcomed by people who understood what I wanted to do with my life.
It was like coming home.
Stone House sits on a peninsula (which I loudly remarked in our coach bus upon seeing it: "WE ARE ON A PENINSULA!"), and it is beautiful. If you look through the trees in the front yard, you see sailboats and the ocean. Mist hangs in the trees, mud flats magically transform into roaring seas in a matter of hours. At night, I walked around the park with my friend as trails dissipated into the fog. This was the land of Stephen King, Herman Melville, Jules Verne, and my own imagination.
"You are not an aspiring writer," the director of the program told us. "This is the point in which you become a writer. Virginia Woolf had a moment where she became Virginina Woolf. And this is yours."
I ran back to my temporary dorm room and I typed, typed, typed on my story. My teachers knew my heroes, my teachers were my heroes, and I'd read them all my life. This was a place where students published their work and won Campbell Awards.
Stonecoast was a place where people did the things other people talked about maybe someday doing. Stonecoast was a place full of people who said, "I understand. I hurt, too. It's okay. We'll write about it together." Stonecoast was where the Muggle borns came together for ten days every six months to build their armor, give out six months' worth of hugs, and write as fast as our hands could go.
I watched the graduation of the class of 2014, and I saw that this program did not just change my life, but had changed their lives.
I'm back home now, reading Bradbury and finishing up Verne. Tomorrow, I lock myself up in a hotel room and revise the beginning of my manuscript for my mentor. And although I know this year is going to be a long one, I know that I'm not alone. I know I have a goal.
I know Maine exists.
Please do not wrap yourself up in a blanket of malaise. Please go out and do what you love to do. Find people who also love to do that thing. And be happy for it.
It's not too late. Go be happy. Find your magic place where the fog comes in and the sailboats can get all the way out to the ocean.
So my good friend Mardra Sikora (check her out here) is asking us all to do a blog hop. I've never participated in a blog hop, but why not? I'll just make it writer-related.
The question that she poses is "What are you grateful for?" So here are ten things that I am grateful for.
Also. Here is a picture of Estes Park. Because it's pretty, and I am also grateful for Estes Park. Always be grateful for Estes Park.
10. Characters taking over.
I am grateful for this one time, when I had a character who just took over the story. I still remember sitting there, screaming at my computer going, "Why did you do that?! Why oh why did you do that?! Bad things can only come of this!" It was the opposite of what I thought the character was going to do. But I am so glad he went off track and did what he did, because it taught me that characters (when written correctly) will do what they do, and you lose control over what they do. I've met authors who scoff at this, but think about it: you're creating another living, breathing human. Of course that human is going to spiral out of your control and make his own decisions. Welcome to parenting.
9. Victor Frankenstein, Sirius Black, and Boxer the Horse
I am grateful for the characters who grabbed my attention in other books and got me interested in writing my own characters. We all have them. For me, it was a workhorse in third grade, a mad scientist in fifth grade, and Harry's godfather in sixth grade (and if I spoiled Harry Potter for you, I'm not sorry, because it's been out for twenty years now). There were others, but these are the guys who leaped out of the pages and throttled me by the neck and said, "Look at us! We're awesome! You can write awesome people, too!" And so I tried to.
8. Radical Face and my best friend's mix CD's.
I write to music. Who doesn't? But sometimes music means more than just pretty background noise. Sometimes music can teach you how to tell a story and use metaphors and emotions to manipulate the audience to your whim. Cry, audience, cry! Yes, the tears ...
Oh, don't pretend like you aren't excited when people cry at your stuff.
For those of you who don't know Radical Face, you need to. Here's a link. This music taught me how to write short stories just as much as my undergraduate workshops did. See, this guy is a genius and he says so much with so little. Another good one is Josh Ritter. And there's a chock-a-block of amazing storytellers in the weird, warped music my writing partner and best friend in college handed off to me throughout the years. Now when I hear the Decemberists or Avett Brothers or Mountain Goats, I get the itch to write. Honestly, I think the mixes my friend made for me and their inspiration had less to do with the music on the mixes themselves, but more to do with the fact that someone cared enough about me to push me to write and force me to expand my horizons.
7. The people who push me to write and force me to expand my horizons.
And there are a lot of them. First, there was Gramma and Mom, who taught me to read and write when I was two and then taught me how a story is written when I was three. I still remember Gramma and me reading through a Berenstain Bears book, and I asked, "How does the author know when to change paragraphs?"
"Well, he feels it," Gramma said. "I suppose when an author writes so much, he just knows."
"Do you think I could do that?" I asked, and of course my Gramma, who thought I could do anything, said, "Of course. You can do anything."
Mom held me to a high standard, even when I was a kid. At eleven, I was way deep into writing long speculative fiction. Every night, I would hand her a chapter and ask her, "Tell me if you got bored." In the morning, it was like opening up the New York Times to find a review. Actually, it was worse than the Times. My mom was brutal.
"It didn't really pique my attention," she'd say. "And didn't you steal that idea from something else?"
As I grew up, there were teachers that joined the mix. Tracy, who shut the lights off in the room and put the music on and made us open up our imaginations. Brian, who is the main reason why I went into playwriting and shoved myself into DePaul (and got into Stonecoast). David, who gave me an internship and my first published piece. Steinbruck and Jorgenson, who put on my little plays and made me try out for contests that I never won. Christine, who actually believed I could play with the big boys and was worth something. Martinez, John, Don, and now Nancy.
But there were also friends.
Upon arriving in Chicago, I met another playwriting major. She was working on a YA steampunk novel before anyone really knew what steampunk was. Actually, four years later when I first heard the term, I called her and said, "Oh! That's what you were doing!"
She has long moved away and began her next adventure, but those four years we spent in Chicago together were the most formative years of my writing existence. I showed up in the city as a little girl who thought I was weird because I wrote weird stuff, and I left the city with an armful of movies, books, and music to prove to me that I was not alone. She took my writing seriously; sometimes more seriously than me. We actually dropped out of a class together and sat at a coffee shop across the street and discussed different characters and archs and plots and symbols. We believed it all mattered. She believed it all mattered. And because of her, it did matter.
6. Nature and Wordsworth.
I am not a poet. I will never claim to be a poet. I have friends who are poets, and they are very good. I am not a poet.
That said, you can imagine how painful poetry classes could be for me. I did not get it, I did not want to get it, and I actually spent most of my time in poetry classes learning to be ambidextrous in my notebook as I sat in the back of the class (sorry, Professor, I never said it was a smart move).
But then came 19th Century British Literature. And thus followed Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey."
I think "Tintern Abbey" completely revolutionized the content of my writing. It was like someone a hundred and fifty years ago totally got what I felt about the city and how much I missed my home. There's always been a definitive struggle inside of me as a person: to live in the hustle and bustle that will give me opportunity and make me successful, or try to be happy in the countryside that I was born into. Wordsworth didn't give me any closure on that conflict, but he did vocalize it beautifully. Shortly after, I started playing with this juxtaposition of nature versus industrial city, and most of my work since then has had some sort of semblance of that poem.
We all should read more poetry.
5. Laptops, pop, library stalls, writing desks, and Hershey bars.
I am grateful for all the little things that help me write. I started off with paper stapled together, and my hand could never keep up with my brain. The fact that laptops exist, they're portable, and they don't weigh as much as a brick now ... all good things for me. Also, chocolate. Because chocolate. And always chocolate.
4. Having a job that allows me to create stories all day long.
I'm lucky. I don't work behind a desk. I won't say much about my day job, but I get to create and I get to help others create and that makes me happy.
3. Getting into Stonecoast.
I always wanted an MFA in Creative Writing, and now I get to have one. But turns out that Stonecoast was the best option and I really lucked out. I know that I'd be miserable writing lit fic and having to quit my job and move across the country to an undisclosed location. It's just not for me right now. But Stonecoast fits in with my life and the people there are writing what I write. Someone's writing steampunk and another is writing adult spec and another is writing solarpunk and another is working on a space opera. How amazing is that?!
I think it's amazing.
Not only is Stonecoast awesome, but I got in. And I had the courage to try for an MFA and I had those recommenders who helped me through the process (Brian, John, Christine, and Jen ... notice they're the teachers who were mentioned earlier). I had support from them and my wonderful Alex, and I did it. I really did it.
2. The complication in my current book series.
I won't talk about it, because I don't want to spoil it. But my current project had this moment where it was being written, and something brilliant happened, and I had that moment where a writer thinks, "Oh. This is actually going to work. This is actually special."
I love that moment. And I am so grateful when it comes. Not all projects get that moment. A lot don't. But if you ever do feel that relief that you have that "spark" in your manuscript, you thank your lucky stars. You didn't just waste the last year of your life typing random words in random order on a random word doc.
So when it happened, I just sat back and smiled. And then I kept writing.
1. All of the many pages I've cut and never used.
For just the last book I wrote, I know that I have discarded over 1,000 pages of writing.
Since the age of nine, I've worked on about twenty full-length manuscripts and playscripts.
Out of those twenty, about five of them have been published or produced. And honestly, about three of them are stories I would consider awesome and worth anything.
I am always really sad when I write something in vain. I am always really sad when I work on something for a year and then I find out it's trash and I scrap it. But there's always this comfort in knowing that every word I write --- no matter how awful that word was --- propels me forward into growing and maturing as a writer.
I am grateful for all of the words that no one will read. I am grateful for all of the awful, teeth-grating scenes I wrote and slaved over, just to delete them or stick them in a "maybe" folder, just to have that "maybe" folder turn into a "never" folder or a "oh yeah, I forgot this was here" folder. I am grateful for all of the characters who lived so others could live more vibrantly. And I am grateful for all of the misspelled words and weak dialogue and funky chapter breaks that are lost to the times.
Because they made me who I am. They were just one more step in the right direction.
So what are you grateful for?
Just to make everyone feel better ... to your left, we see a picture of the brilliant Brandon Sanderson. I met him at a signing/reading/lecture a couple of weeks ago, and he was brilliant.
Now let's talk about sad things.
For those of you who may not know, I actually have a day job. And a lot of people who are writers have day jobs. Nay, a lot of writers also have children or old sick parents or three-legged mogwais. So at least I don't have those ... for now.
But I thought we may want to touch on the sad fact that in order to start off as a writer, you're probably going to have to work.
This came up in my mind when I read on a board about someone who didn't want a crappy job anymore and they wanted to "Be Someone," so they were going to attempt to get into an MFA program. Someone candidly said, "And are you going to be okay having a crappy job and not Being Someone while you get that MFA?"
It's true. A lot of people work through their MFA program. Not everyone ... not most people, actually ... get a full funded deal. And even if they do, they need to take out loans or they need to work in order to keep their heads above water.
Another lovely moment that happened in the past two or three months was an author who actually came to my work and told us, "You will never be a writer if you keep working a day job. It's not going to happen."
Oh. Is that true?
So I've compiled six fun pieces of advice that will help you cheat-code your way through your job while you are trying to also write.
MAKE A SPACE THAT YOU WILL USE
Make a space that is yours. Don't try to make a writing space that you "think" you're supposed to have; there have been many a blank notebook and many an unused desk up against the wall because I tried to put together a writing space that fit some contorted worldly view. So you know what mine looks like? I turned the dining room into a writing room, complete with a desk looking out to a pinetree-infested courtyard. And also, I included a bed. That's right. I put a bed in my space, because that is usually where I write. Notice I have more than one place to write, depending on how I'm feeling on a given day. And guess what, I actually sit in this room and work!
Boom! Pictured! And no, that's not leopard print. That blanket is legit with book quotes.
YOU HAVE TO WRITE. YOU HAVE TO.
I am awful at getting things done if I don't have deadlines. So I tried to work to get myself some deadlines. But the thing is ... the reason why deadlines work for me is because I have the pending fear of disappointing a third party. So when it comes to that self-imposed deadline and realizing I'm going to miss it, I am very good about forgiving myself. I just shrug, say "Oh well, it's okay, I understand," and move on. But then nothing happens, and an awful cycle of self-loathing and petty forgiveness happens.
So I had to learn to work from within; that is to say, from a place of passion and excitement about a piece. If I want to work on a piece just for the sake of working on it, then I'll sit down and work on it. If a piece gets too hard, the motivation becomes not so much writing good stuff, but instead just writing until the good stuff happens.
No matter how you get yourself to write, you just have to do it. Every single day. You have to sit down in your space and write.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH SUPPORTIVE PEOPLE
God love the people in my life, but I have to say they're split into two camps. The first camp is full of people who find writing a hobby or a silly little activity you can do when everything else is done. If it comes down to either going out to the premiere of Catching Fire or sitting at home and finishing a scene, they'll pressure you to go out and see the movie. They just don't understand, and that can mangle your priorities.
However, if you can find what I can a "writing buddy" or at least a support system who will pressure you to take your writing seriously, then your priorities will get a little jab in the right direction. When you get your coat on to go out to the Catching Fire premiere, they'll say, "What, what, what are you doing? You didn't finish that scene." And you'll be held accountable for your actions.
But you will not always have someone sitting there breathing down your neck. Writing is a very sad, very lonely profession. We just sort of type away, trying to make sense of something that is honestly kind of pointless in the large scheme of the world. Yeah, there are authors who have changed the world, but for each Upton Sinclair there's been a Barney McNo-One who died with four hundred pages of a manuscript no one ever read. So I feel like writers try to look for gratification and validation from external sources. Even if you get into Brown MFA and you publish a book with Random House, you're never going to feel validated. So you have to learn to write from that place of not knowing. You have to learn to write through the fear.
JOIN A WORKSHOP/GET INTO A LOW-RES/READ READ READ
You are going to need to have an external stimulation, however. You can't just keep writing those vampire stories and memoirs about your first bike ride. You need to go forth and listen to other writers, read other authors, and learn from other sources.
AND FINALLY: TREAT IT LIKE A JOB.
You want this to be your job? Then treat it with the respect a job would deserve. You go to work and you get yelled at if you don't do your work. Then you come home and no one gives a crap if you go to sleep, watch Hulu for five hours, or write the Great American Vampire Novel. That's the dangerous thing. Make it a priority. Make it your life. And make something.
Have a great week!
One of the things for which I personally have a soapbox is a writing community. In college, I spent two years trying the route of brooding artist in my basement with no one but my writing partner to talk to. And I knew people who didn’t even have a writing partner, but just brooded all on their lonesome. Around the end of sophomore year, I realized my writing was becoming stagnant. I realized that I had no one to look at my work, and in order to get better at not only writing but reading other people’s manuscripts, I was going to need to branch out and find a community.
It seemed as if there really wasn’t a community on campus. There were the Creative Writing majors, there were the Playwriting majors, some poetry club, and a couple of students who hung out with professors after class to talk about their work. So a few of my friends and I got together and decided to start pushing to get a community going.
In some ways, we were successful. We started The Writer’s Guild at DePaul University. We brought together about forty students at one point in a collective workshop, and filling the entirety of the Student Center’s third floor with college kids excited about not only sharing their own stuff, but helping others with theirs was exhilarating.
Those who were involved in the Writer’s Guild or some other group of writers became better by leaps and bounds. And here are some of the reasons why:
It’s great to have a family member or a friend read your work. But what you really need are a lot of voices with a lot of different opinions and points of views. Especially some who you don’t agree with or are offended by. Which leads to my second reason …
BUILDS A TOUGH SKIN
There’s always that one person in a writing group who doesn’t like anything anyone does, who has read some very impressive book more times than you’ve read Harry Potter , and who believes he is the next big thing to hit the scene. This guy is annoying, but you need him in your life. Why? Because he’s going to make you stronger. When you work on a short story for a month nonstop, barely stopping to eat and sleep, and you’ve built it up in your head to be the next great piece of American fiction, you have to eventually bring it into this guy. And this guy is going to tear it apart. He’s going to stomp on it and laugh as you cry. And regardless if he’s right or if he’s dead wrong, you’re going to have to deal with him. This builds up tolerance in you, so when you get that very not-nice letter from the publishing house or agent about your “baby,” you can already have the antibodies to deal with rejection.
It’s not easy to stand up and read. I had a friend who was terrified of sharing her work, but she went to the Guild and was forced to share. She was the best writer out of all of us, and a year later, she read a portion of the story at a reading at school. Public speaking and sharing our hearts and souls (i.e. our writing) is very difficult. But communities give you practice.
BRUSH UP ON YOUR EDITING SKILLS
You know that age-old bit of wisdom that everyone gives you about the more you read the better you’ll write? Turns out it’s true. If you can read other people’s work and see what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, you won’t only be a more productive, helpful writer in a larger community, but you’ll also be a better editor to yourself.
Everyone needs a support system. Does it feel like you’ll never get that book done? Are you stuck on the fiftieth page and don’t know what else to write? Did a character totally boggle you and you have no idea what to do with him? Chances are there is someone else in your group that has gone through the same thing or is going through it right now. Comradery goes a long way, and sometimes other writers have brilliant ideas as to how to work through the rough patches.
In college, I had a very special group of friends who I called my “writer friends.” I met my best friend and soul sister through writing. I met a cool girl who opened for Suzanne Vega. I met a cool guy who became one of my closest confidants. I met a ridiculously talented playwright who has gone on to do work in LA and New York. A lot of my closest, most dearest persons were those who read my stuff and who let me read their stuff. Through sharing comes a bond of understanding that you will only share with those people. There’s no feeling like making an inside joke about one of your characters and having someone else laugh. And there’s definitely no feeling like watching one of your friends go on to do wonderful, successful things.
On the reverse side, I’ve seen writers who don’t join communities. They don’t go to coffee shops and chat. They don’t let anyone else edit their work. They only can muster up the courage to show off their writing to those who they know will love it. These writers did not grow as fast as those who were involved in a community. They were lonelier. They were more frustrated. They had less of a gauge on what they needed to work on and what they did well. And they missed out on opportunities to meet amazing people.
Writing Communities are one of the most important things in our profession. It’s a lonely, lonely road without one. So next time you have a script or a manuscript in a good place, call your friends over. Put on some music. Order some pizza. Invite them to bring their own work. And start the conversation.
I received my first acceptance to an MFA program this week.
What is this?
Dawson is an editor and writer and MFA student at Stonecoast. She writes stuff.