Wednesday, December 16, 2009

green girl & the iowa summer writing festival (part I)

Briane asked about this experience when I mentioned it a couple weeks ago and the telling of it actually leads into a cool ending, so here goes:

Go to any bookstore and you’ll find the section on “Writing.” You’ll find dictionaries and grammar guides, this year’s Writer’s Market, books full of writing exercises and prompts, the advice of published authors. Most of these publications assume a few things: you need topics to write about, you have no idea how to get started writing and you require the advice of a total stranger to keep you inspired and hopeful that you’ll succeed. Now, for the people I do know who write, these premises are total bullshit.

I never met somebody buying a cookbook who’d never prepared a meal before. Parenting books assume you already have a child. As a writer checking out the books on writing, I already have ideas for books, I can look up contact info for agents and publishers online and I’ve got rough drafts of projects sitting all over my house. What I need help with as a writer isn’t anything those books address. I need readers for my book and I need connections to help me break into the world of published authors.

For a while I considered an MFA program to teach me how to write. The experience would be grand, I’ve no doubt, but I can’t leave my life for two years to indulge in more academic life. I already have one graduate degree—and I’ve learned plenty about the nuts and bolts of writing through teaching it for over a decade. Yeah, my work could use some fine-tuning—I’m aware of my weaknesses with description and plot. But I don’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to work my way past these problem areas.

Besides, I suspect that most writing programs turn out fussy diva writers—and frankly I’ve no time for that. You’ve heard of these folk—they can only write between two-thirty and five-thirty, and only with a double mocha frappaccino in hand, and only with their favorite bathrobe swaddling their shoulders. Or the type of writers that spend so much time philosophizing about the theory and art and craft of writing that they produce little original work. Or the writers who must write and revise and spend hours and hours meddling and mussing over every phrase. Oh that I had the luxury of any such approach! All I need are a couple of hours of quiet, uninterrupted time with my laptop and I can write anywhere at any time. I believe anyone serious about telling their story can do the same. But let me tell you, it’s a bitch trying to churn out a complete thought or sentence with three kids vying for your attention and Elmo singing the alphabet song in the background.

I’m a thirty-ish housewife with three young boys living smack in the rural Midwest. My peer editors are well-intended friends who “love it, wouldn’t change a thing,” hardly useful feedback to develop my work. The people I’ve given my book to are all avid readers like me—their response is visceral and honest, but it’s not precise as to tell me where the plot lags or where the dialogue might snap better. I’ve no friends who write, so they’re easily impressed by my efforts. Too easily impressed.

For any other career the path to success is clearly laid out. When I became a teacher I completed the requirements for a college degree and a state license, sent out my resume and cover letter to schools with posted positions, and interviewed with potential employers. Scoring a job as an English teacher was simple.

Writing my first book was easy enough.

Becoming a writer, however, has been a much more difficult journey. Where do I begin, in earnest, my quest for publication? According to the books on writing, I’m to revise, revise, revise and write the perfect query and start sending my work out. Excuse me while I double over from hysterical laughter—most agents and publishers won’t look at your work without the recommendation of a current client. From whence does that network evolve when the closest thing to a “real writer” living near me is a New-Age emotive state poet laureate whose work I detest?

But the advice reads the same in all the books and articles I’ve read so I began another book, mailed query letters for my first and received a small pile of rejection postcards from publishers politely and uniformly refusing to consider reading my work.

Trolling the Internet I learned about a Wisconsin writing workshop and sent in my $75 registration fee. Obviously I had to make some writing friends and get their advice. Fresh frustration and irritation overcame me in Oshkosh when I sat at a table with people who were impressed that I’d published a single essay in on online magazine. Their idea of a successful writing life was publishing their own poetry chapbooks—about grandchildren, gardening and family genealogies. Many had never penned a word yet—but wanted to write their first novel … someday. I’d shown up at the only writing workshop in the country filled with wannabes.

Now everyone knows about the University of Iowa and their writing college—anyone who is remotely bookish has read the work churned out by their graduates and faculty. I checked out the website and behold! “Revising the Novel” offered by Maudie Benz—the description assured me this was for the novelist who had completed a first book, not the writer still thinking about getting started at writing. She expected to see a summary of the novel and twenty pages ahead of time—actual qualifications for coming to the workshop. These requirements gave me hope that the money and time necessary to get down there wouldn’t be a complete waste.

After begging my husband and my mother-in-law, I faced the final hurdle to making the trip to Iowa: my OB-Gyn. Mary (MIL) was happy to have my sons stay at her place whilst I headed an hour further south to Iowa City, my husband agreed that I needed to network and this would be a great start to my future career. But there was one little hitch. In June, during the workshop dates, I would be nearly 8 ½ months pregnant with baby number three.

Dr. C smiled tightly when I bounced the idea off of him during my monthly exam. “You’ll need to bring a copy of your records with you, just in case,” he said, his dark, long-lashed eyes on my chart (yes, I go to that doctor--everyone knows Dr. C and we all shave our legs before appointments with him. “I don’t imagine there’s any point in arguing with you, you’ll go anyway.”

“Dr. C, I’ll be perfectly safe—it’s a medical college! I’ll be closer to a hospital there than if I was at home. People will be all around me. My kids will already be in good hands. I’ll mention you on my acknowledgement page when my book gets published.” I smoothed the paper gown across my bulging belly and gave him my most confident smile.

“Please don’t do that. It wouldn’t look good.”

“Okay then, I’ll give you an autographed copy.”

He left the examination room shaking his head. Jubilant, I began preparations—finish my novel, write my summary, photocopy necessary pages. June crept closer and I had all but the final two scenes hashed out and the entire book edited to my satisfaction. Sadie Blair, my main character, was entrenched in her career as a sales rep for Coddled Cuisine, Inc. and had landed herself a sweet country veterinarian to marry after suffering a miserable affair with a bisexual. I slogged through the book assigned to the workshop participants (Smilla’s Sense of Snow). I stuffed the twelve copies of my first twenty pages in my duffel, double-checked the boys’ bags, swallowed a prenatal vitamin and strapped us all into the minivan on that sunny Saturday in June. The workshop began on Sunday, the day after settling the boys at my mother-in-law’s. I waved at them and pulled out to the gravel road, turning the minivan in the direction of Iowa City.


  1. You DROVE to Iowa? While massively pregnant?? Is the next installment in this story about the 47 potty stops you made along the way?

  2. I liked Stephen King's On Writing...

    In publishing, it's "Who ya know and who ya blow"...*HA!* This was advice from the rogue editor who wrote me a nice letter of recommendation so that I could get into a graduate course in publishing, never having graduated. (I got in on letters!) She added, "...if I'd known that when I got into this business I would've bought knee-pads."

    * : o

  3. Had to laugh at Jen on the Edge...

    You clearly know what you want and are gung-ho to get it! I look forward to reading the next installment!

  4. You KNOW how I need to read all of this right now!

    By the way, I just got home from a lecture at the University: "Re-Envisioning Journalism". *sigh* it was awesome!

  5. I used to want to be a writer... and then I realized I had nothing to say, no story to tell.
    Now I can't stop taking photos. I just bored my preschooler with showing him all the photos I took of the Christmas tree, ornaments, lights, decorations, shadows, refracting light....
    I guess when a passion for something hits, nothing will stop it. Can't wait to read the next part of the story. =)

  6. "these premises are total bullshit" - I swear I am going to use that the next time I read some of the horrible lawsuits that we receive at work.

    I am totally impressed with your preggy drive to Iowa.

  7. I can't wait to hear how this turns into the group you are a part of now. It's Screw Iowa, is it not?

  8. Can't wait to hear the rest!!! You go girl!!! keep on writing!!!

  9. Oh...I can't wait to hear more!! Keep it coming. :-)

  10. I couldn't leave my house and drive 5 min without having to pee again when prego ... did you map out your trip to Iowa based on bathroom landmarks?
    Yea, I am totally with you on the friends who "wouldn't change a thing." Had that in college all the time; seriously if that was the case why was I spending my next life in moolah in school if my writing was that 'perfect'.
    Anywho ~ keep writing and let me know where I can pick my copy. ;)

  11. How exciting!!! A road trip, alone, while insanely-big-pregnant? You are a WOMAN!!! Hear you roar!!!!!

  12. hey! i've been to that writing workshop. twice.

    i wonder if i met you? but you'd think i'd remember the enormous pregnant woman, and i don't.

    i took a class from tom barbash, and i forget the other instructor but she taught memoir writing. it was a lot of fun, even though the dorms were bleak as hell (i kind of liked their bleakness) and the dairy queen with the christmas lights has since closed.

  13. You might find Nathan Bransford's blog interesting if you are not already familiar. He is a writing agent. He has interesting posts on the publishing world and trends.


Spill it, reader.