Saturday, June 3, 2017, was one of the happiest days of my life. I graduated from Wilkes University with a master’s of arts in creative writing. A dream come true. Most of my kids were able to attend the ceremony and one of them shaved off his beard for my graduation gift. My husband, Jim, threw a surprise party. After 37 years of marriage, I never knew he had party decorating skills. My house is full of flowers and gifts and congratulations banners. I may leave the streamers up till Christmas.
I’m grateful to Jim for investing our nest egg in my education. He’s always believed in my writing, encouraging me to write for years while I generated no income. So much of what I’ve accomplished in life is due to his belief in me. As I branch into teaching college, Jim is starting a new career as well. He took a position as a corporate chaplain–walking around and talking to people all day—he’s in extrovert heaven.
The Wilkes University Creative Writing Program’s strength lies in the positive atmosphere the professors foster. I suspect most writers are insecure like I am. Criticism can paralyze and, in my case, warp one’s work. At Wilkes, I was told what was right with my pages before the constructive suggestions come out. Even then, the comments were gently offered. Positive feedback, even on pieces I disliked, geysered creativity.
Dr. Nancy McKinley, who I had for The Professional Writer and many other individual classes throughout the program, taught me a raft of skills I immediately incorporated into my own teaching of writing, such as writing into the room, ways to wake up creativity (improv, unusual stimuli, writing on demand, insisting students read their work aloud), and the power of praise.
Dr. Kevin Oderman—also known as Mr. Picky—a fount of positivity and wry humor, taught Writing Nonfiction. I came out of his class thinking, maybe I could tell the truth, i.e. write nonfiction.
Dr. Becky Bradway, author of my favorite textbook of the program, Creating Nonfiction, served as my mentor. Lucky, very lucky, me. I’m shocked that Becky was able to goad me into writing another 30,000 words about growing up on a sailboat. I started the MA program with 40,000 words of boat stories that appeared on my blog. I’d washed and pressed every scrap of memory. “What about the four years your dad spent building the boat?” Becky wanted to know. “What about your mom?” She kept niggling me with questions and I kept writing. Now, at 70,000 words, I have a whole book. And Becky says the story has gained resonance. Well, compliments don’t get any better than that.
Writing a book with a mentor’s substantive and line editing has been the best writing experience of my life. Years ago I read about a similar class that Arizona State University offered in novel writing. At the time I sighed and thought it sounded rapturous. But the unlikelihood of landing a professor who “got” my writing—along with being perennially broke—kept me from taking the course. In my two mentoring semesters Wilkes gift-wrapped and handed me my version of heaven. Program Director Dr. Bonnie Culver is a Yoda at matching students with mentors. Becky “gets” me as a person as well as my work. I’ve been writing seriously for fifteen years and been bruised by editors, agents, and some brutal critique partners. One freelance editor I hired told me my protagonist didn’t change from page 1 to page 300. Some real tears went into that re-write. Becky, however, manages to wield a deft, yet gentle, hand when ladling criticism. Rather than feeling attacked, I feel like she’s come along side and given me a leg-up. Due to Becky’s expertise and hard work, Home to Annie Lee is, by far, my best book.
Currently, I’m querying literary agents for Home to Annie Lee: A Memoir about a Girl and the Boat that Bears Her Name. After signing with an agent, he or she will look for a publishing house for the book.
My next project is an already-started memoir—about my teen and early adult years—that I will work on during my next year of college. In June 2018 I will earn a Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing, the equivalent to a PhD. in other fields.
More than new skills, though I’ve honed quite a few writing tools, my attitude has changed. I feel validated as a writer, and therefore as a person. Experts like my work. Even if I were cynical and said Wilkes paid their professors to be positive, my feedback has been over the top. Multiple professors hinted that they would be delighted to mentor me. I scotch-taped one of Becky’s midterm evaluations to my office wall. Assistant Director Bill Schneider even found something to compliment in a crappy rough draft synopsis.
I learned a lot about writing nonfiction, enough to realize there’s still a Grand Canyon of information I don’t yet know. Fiction is my first love, but I’m willing to consider taking on more nonfiction projects. I think about my contemporary, Anne Lamott, whose fiction didn’t grab me, but whose nonfiction (Bird By Bird, for example) I found riveting. I’m open to following her writing trajectory, minus the dreadlocks.
I plan to teach college creative writing part-time and write part-time. Although I lean toward introversion, I need to be with people on a regular basis. I’m an encourager at heart. I love teaching and establish a strong rapport with my students. My students tell me I’m effective.
Intrinsic in my educational process—as a student and as a teacher—have been the new friendships with creatives who think like I do. The sense of being among “my people” infused the whole educational process with magic.
Also among my people are my blog readers. After a career in fiction, writing memoir felt like walking through Kroger naked, but my blog readers are a forgiving crowd. I wonder if I could have blogged this book into being if you had not rallied around me. Thank you. And thank you for soldiering through all my pissy moods and belly button gazing. I’m mystified by your interest and so very grateful.