This is part two of the history of my writing life. If you missed it, here’s part one. Part three will be up next week.
College, of course, brought me back to original fiction. As a creative writing major, I got to write poems and short stories on a semesterly-basis. Poetry, thankfully (at the time; I’m better about poetry now) happened only during my Intro. to Creative Writing class. Short stories were the most important and numerous, with some creative non-fiction (of which I never considered myself any good) sprinkled in there. I liked writing short stories, but I yearned for more. When I decided to do a senior honors project, I chose to write a novel, even though my advisor cautioned against it. It wouldn’t be the first novel I’d ever completed; that was the romance novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2003, which marks the first and only time I completed NaNo (I did it once, why bother with it again?) and the first finished novel I ever wrote. I saw no reason to view writing a novel too ambitious.
So for the project, I wrote a novel. I wrote it the summer between junior and senior year and was quite proud of myself during that first meeting with my advisor, novelist G.W. Hawkes. He didn’t like it. He told me everything that was wrong with it (some things I agreed with reluctantly and some that I still don’t agree with). He told me to re-write it. This was really the only time I have ever completely overhauled an entire novel. What I ended up with doesn’t look anything like the first draft, the summer-written novel. It’s more solid, better, and more deserving of being my honors project. I haven’t looked at it in years. It’s bound and in the Lycoming College library. I have a copy too, somewhere. Besides the NaNo romance novel and short stories I’ve written, it’s quite possibly the only “adult” or “literary” novel I’ve written. Everything since has been YA.
In college, I learned the “rules” for writing short stories and novels. I hated them. I wanted to write what I wanted, but my fiction professor continually said that we had to follow the short story ‘arc’ in all of our pieces. I didn’t understand how important this was until I went to graduate school. There, I read a lot of nonsensical pieces from some of my classmates, pieces that would never have succeeded in my undergrad workshops. I’m not talking just about experimental pieces, either; I’m talking about pieces that made no sense, had no structure, no plot, and no readability. It was there I realized that in order to break the “rules,” you had to know the rules. Once I understood that, my writing world expanded. One of the best short stories I have ever written was done as a final “paper” for my James Joyce lit class. It’s called “Morning,” was inspired by Ulysses, and I would love more than anything to find a published home for it. (Perhaps I ought to start sending it out again.)
One of the worst things that has ever happened to me in my writing life happened around my MFA thesis. I wrote a novel (novella, really, which I can admit to now), and it was YA. My thesis advisor gave no hint that it wasn’t ‘good enough’ (that I can remember). Not many people know this, but when it came time for my thesis defense, I failed. It was the worst feeling in the world, and I sat there crying during my defense, in front of my professors.
I kept thinking, this came out of nowhere, how did this happen, I’m the worst writer in the entire world, why didn’t I know it wasn’t good enough before I got to this point, what do I do now, is this the end. I had already passed my MA exam (and I am not a good literature / literary critique student), but I failed my MFA, the entire reason I went to graduate school. My heart was broken. Seriously. That’s the best way I can describe those moments, moments in my life I would love to never remember again. But fear not! I was allowed to revise, to edit, and to defend again, which was met with success.
Of the experience, I have two things to say:
1. I wish I had known before my defense that it wasn’t good enough, and that I could have re-worked it and postponed it and succeeded without the failure.
2. I know that the experience of this failure was just one of many things that have formed me as a writer, and I would love to have my thesis defense committee one day read anything I have written since then because all of it is 150% better than my thesis. Anything I have written since would have served me so, so, so much better than what I did write. (I have never re-read my final MFA thesis novella and have no intention to, ever.)
Am I glad to have my MFA regardless of the disaster that was my thesis defense stuff? Absolutely. My writing grew and strengthened by leaps and bounds during grad school. I learned to break the rules. I met amazing writers and made amazing friendships. I read authors I didn’t know existed. I learned how to step outside of my box. Maybe most importantly, I learned how to fail.
I blame my three-and-a-half year stint in the children’s section at B&N for pushing me to write YA novels almost exclusively since grad school. Well, to finish exclusively YA novels. I’ve started and abandoned other novels, but the bulk of my writing in the last five years (oh my God, has it been that long) has been in the YA genre, which I thought I’d talk about now but realize this is already very long so I’ll extend this two-part series into a trilogy. Next week, I’ll share part 3.