Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Threads between my toes, teeth and fingers

by Michele Young-Stone
author of The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors

Do you need a degree in creative writing to write and publish a novel?

Probably not. But I did. I’ve been writing stories since I was in the second grade, but quitting my full-time job as an English teacher and returning to school at age 31, was exactly what I needed. This was a huge risk. When I told people, “I’m going back to school full time so I can write and publish a novel,” they thought I was bonkers.

I thought I was bonkers! But I also thought, This is my dream. This has been my dream since I was in the second grade: to write and publish a novel. If I don’t go for it now, when am I going to do it?

I have endless ideas. My brain has always been wonky and wobbly and full of wonderful tangents and tendencies toward alliteration. What I lacked were craft basics and nuances. I knew well-enough how to put my ideas on paper. I just didn’t know how to keep going (faith) past page 100. I didn’t know how to set the tone of a work (practice) or how to examine each sentence and each word, line by line for effectiveness and aesthetics (more practice). Nor did I fully comprehend or execute the time-tested SHOW DON’T TELL (now permanently tattooed on my brain).

All that said, the best part about learning craft and learning rules is gaining the freedom to break those rules. It’s like painting. Picasso and Van Gogh had to learn form. They painted nudes, still-lifes and landscapes. They learned their craft. Only after learning craft were they free to experiment and find their own visions. It’s no different with writing.

You have to learn the rules, whether it’s through an MFA program or reading voraciously, before you can find your own style, which may or may not include breaking the rules. For example, I do not write linearly. It’s not how my brain works. It’s not how I perceive the world. It’s not my style. I write like a weaver. I have threads between my teeth, fingers and toes and then I have to figure out how they fit together. Time is not linear. It’s about relationships. Who do you tie yourself to? How do you fit?

I worked HARD when I was getting my MFA. The more criticism I received, the harder I worked. I listened; paid attention; volunteered to produce and critique whenever possible. In other words, I was not fucking around. I wasn't there to just get a degree. I was there to learn craft and discipline. And after school finished, I had my beautiful son. Well, I had my son in March, 2005 and graduated in May. I wore my baby Bjorn to graduation.

I spent the next four years raising my son and trying to publish The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, my debut novel. All that criticism from my MFA served me well.

When they knock you down, you get back up. You revise and revise and revise because it's never perfect. I revised and revised and revised. It will never be perfect. There will always be one line or one word or one brush stroke that can be better.

But that's enough about me! What’s your style? What have you learned about writing? Did you get an MFA? Did it serve you well? Are you self-taught? Are you happy, published or not, putting your ideas on paper?

That's the main thing: If you don't love the act of writing for the sake of doing it, you should find a new line of work. The glory is in the act.

Thank you for reading. Shout out to Bill Tester for helping me to understand the beauty of the act. There is nothing more important.

*My next two novels, Perfect Birds and The Saints of Los Vientos are under contract with Simon and Schuster.

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  1. Great guest post and very inspirational for fellow writers. Personally, I can't wait for your next two books.

  2. So exciting to hear about the path to your first book, Michele! Congratulations. I didn't get an MFA (gawd, too many years logged in graduate school already) but I went through the learning curve you described. Best wishes for all of those books and many more!

  3. Wow! I went back to school to take English classes because I'd never had a formal writing class past high school, and knew I needed the craft help. I got pregnant so I couldn't finish, but I did meet fellow like-minded writers to form a writing group, so I've been able to continue my study with their help and critique. :)

  4. Michele, I love how this post continues Maggie's thread about the process of becoming a writer and the fact that it involves lots of writing (aka practice!). So fun to hear that you don't write linearly (which I do--mostly!). And I absolutely agree with this 100%: "If you don't love the act of writing for the sake of doing it, you should find a new line of work. The glory is in the act." Hear hear! Congrats on signing with S&S for your next two novels! The titles are wonderful, btw. Oh, and I'm a grad school drop-out. My hubby has his doctorate (in computer science so he's a doctor of computers), which I figure makes up for my bailing on my master's. ;-)

  5. Thanks for sharing this. I'm still teaching high school English. Year 23.5 and counting. During the school year, I feel like teaching and being "on" for six hours a day sap the creative energy right out of me. So, bravo for your decision.

    "No piece of writing is ever finished. It's just due." Not sure where I picked up that line, but it keeps me out of crazy-land.

    Congrats on your contracts, and I can't wait to read your novel. Great title.

  6. I love the sound of your novels, Michele, and am fascinated by your process. You described it so beautifully -- threads between your teeth, fingers, toes. That's lovely! I tend to work more chronologically on the page but, in my mind, there are lots of threads everywhere, too. As for an MFA -- no, I did my grad work in educational psychology -- but I also took some fiction workshops. The people involved were as interesting to me as the writing exercises :).

  7. I took classes at SMU's Continuing Ed Creative Writing Program for several years as soon as my children were old enough for Mother's Day Out. When they were old enough to leave home with husband for a week, I went to Squaw Valley Writers' Conference, a dream. I agree, the act of writing is what makes me happy. Great post!

  8. Awesome post, Michele! Your enthusiasm for writing is so contagious. So glad you pursued your dream. I'm sure you are an inspiration to others.

  9. Congrats Michele on the rewards of all your hard work!

  10. Thank you guys so much for reading. I really appreciate it, and (I too was "nearly" a high school drop out, Susan). I barely got out. I missed sixty-three days my junior year and then took English and government in a different county to finish school early. I was actually one of those crazy stage-diving slam-dancing chics from A Visit from the Goon Squad. :-) "Then I 'growed' up." Sort of...

  11. I loved that you brought up how important the criticism was. I couldn't do anything without my critique group. Great post!

  12. Michele, this was wonderful, and very timely; I needed some inspiration right now! Revise, revise, revise indeed....xo

  13. Michele, just to clarify...I wasn't a high school dropout...I was a graduate school dropout! I loved high school and college--just didn't like grad school because I was already writing novels by then and didn't see the point. But I'm glad you hung in there through high school...and look at you now! :-)

  14. Very cool book cover, Michelle - welcome to the group!