If you’re interested in honing your writing skills outside of the traditional classroom you have a lot of options. I’ve been cobbling together my own DIY MFA curriculum over the past several years through a combination of reading craft books, taking online classes and in-person workshops, and attending writing conferences and retreats. My path has been less a strategic plan of attack and more a meandering exploration. It’s worked well for me, but I have some tips and thoughts to share that are useful even if you prefer a direct route.
At the beginning of this year I mentioned in a post that I had recently submitted something to a literary journal after an unplanned break in writing:
Brevity, a journal and website I thoroughly enjoy, was seeking submissions for an upcoming episode of their podcast. They were looking for ‘One-Minute Memoir episodes,’ pieces up to 150 words (on paper) and up to one minute (recording time). On the day submissions closed, I pulled something together and sent it off with an hour to spare.
As someone very new to submitting my work, it was an amusing ride on an unfamiliar roller-coaster and an embarrassing peek into the ego of a writer. What follows is a play by play of my experience with two recent submission from beginning to end.
I’m not into superheroes, but I do enjoy a good origin story. I like to know where people come from, how they ended up where they are, and what led them to their areas of interest—professional and personal. And if you’re a writer, I especially want to know how you got started. Were you one of those kids who kept a daily journal starting in second grade, never missing an entry? Or was it encouragement from a beloved middle school English teacher? Did you have the support of parents? Or was writing almost an illicit activity, something you hid from friends and family?
A couple weeks ago I found myself in the office of an ophthalmologist I hadn’t been to before.
“Alright, Jessica, I need you to lean forward, rest your chin here, and press your forehead against this brace,” she said as she turned off the lights. “Now tell me, which one of these is better, one or two?” She continued, “one or two?”
“One,” I answered.
“Okay, now three or four? Three or four?”
“Three?” I said, less confident.
I doubt myself sometimes when answering these questions. The stakes feel so high. Like if I somehow pick the wrong number, I’ll end up with contact lenses that make my vision worse, not better.
A string of a dozen four-year-olds paraded by the front of the coffee shop, chubby little hands grasping the rope connected by a teacher at each end. Some kids waved and smiled, one asked the teacher what we—the folks sitting at the open coffee shop window—were doing, but it was a little girl in the middle that caught my attention. She was in the center of the pack holding onto the rope just like all the other kids, but what made her stand out was that her eyes were closed. She had red, curly hair, and a tiny, knowing smile on her freckled face. She followed along, trusting the rope, trusting the teachers at either end, trusting the kids in front of and behind her. The pack moved slowly enough for me to see that she wasn’t peeking out from squinched eyes, she wasn’t glancing at the ground while trying to maintain the impression of trusting. In fact her eyes weren’t squeezed shut, they were simply closed. She looked…relaxed.
I tried to read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” years ago while on a spiritual retreat in the San Jacinto Mountains of California. In my early 20s, I believed it was required reading for a good feminist. Sliding that thin book off the shelf among all the other options, I felt like an actual grown-up woman, anticipating the wisdom I was about to receive.
Here’s the thing, though: I could not get into it. And I tried. But it was: (a) boring, and (b) irrelevant to my life. A year post-college, I had recently moved to Chicago and was crashing in a rundown house with a group of my new co-workers. I was years away from beginning to write, and nothing about my sketchy living arrangement indicated the potential for a closet of my own, much less a whole room.
I have yet to gain an appreciation for Woolf’s style, but as I have aged I’ve certainly come to understand the wisdom behind having a room of one’s own.
I’m feeling like a bit of a fraud.
I am a member of this group of women who write in spite of the unyielding demands of daily life—the jobs and kids and partners and hobbies and chores. All of it. I am working on my first book, a memoir about loss and grief and cultivating resilience. It’s about navigating the death of my mom and the subsequent loss of the daughter I thought I had, and what I’m learning along the way. But for the past few months I’ve had a secret: I haven’t been writing. Reading? Yes. Writing emails, Facebook posts, and text messages? Absolutely. But not much real writing.