The last days of summer are are winding down. The beach toys are being put away, the late bedtimes being re-adjusted, the new school supplies being labelled…
And as a writer you’re counting down the days to when you can have your mornings back, to when you can make a cup of coffee and dig in to your work-in-progress (WIP) that has been collecting dust all summer, right? I know I am!
Summers are great, but when you have a family, it’s nearly impossible to find the time to write. But sometimes, those first days back in a quiet house, it can be hard to pick things up where you left off.
And that’s frustrating. My head is filled with playtimes and BBQs and sunsets and that new book I want to read, but not which character was doing what in my WIP. And certainly not why they were doing what… And that’s true after every break, even if I never stop thinking about writing, even if I’ve tried to work on the rare morning I was up early or I read a book on writing craft while at the beach.
But over the years, I’ve found a few things that help me get back into my writing rhythm.
1. Don’t worry.
Okay, this can be valid all year round – but here I’m trying to tell myself, ‘don’t worry, you will be able to write again even if if right now it doesn’t feel that way’.
Sometimes September feels daunting. Writing feels daunting. Getting back into the rhythm feels daunting. And that’s when I need to slow down and remind myself I was writing in June, so there’s no reason I can’t do it again on the other side of summer in September.
2. Don’t feel guilty.
It’s so easy to feel bad, especially when other writing friends are saying ‘oh, yeah, we had a great time at our beach house and I wrote almost 50k of a new MG novel!’. But it doesn’t help. Just as with last week’s post on jealousy by Joshua, you have to let it go. Remind yourself of all the fun times you had teaching your goddaughter to ride, or hanging out with friends, or travelling to the other side of the world. You had a full summer, it was great!
3. Read your WIP.
Sit down and breath deeply. Preferably in front of your computer.
With your WIP open.
Nothing else. No pen in hand, no critical hat on. Just reading. Get re-acquainted with your characters, your ideas, your story world.
4. Make a writing date.
Meet a writer-friend at a cafe. After a quick chat over coffee or tea or a smoothie, and you have both pulled out your laptops or notebooks or whatever you use to write/brainstorm, you’ll find the ideas begin to flow. And if they don’t, you still have to stay there looking at your blank page or your WIP because you can’t get up and do the laundry and your buddy is writing and you don’t want to bother them by talking. And eventually, ideas come back. Maybe it’s tweaking a scene here, or a whole new world to explore there, but somehow, after being forced to do nothing else, I will usually slow down enough that I can be creative again.
It doesn’t always have to be a session where I produce a lot. Sometimes even just the beginning of an idea is all it takes, and then ideas and creativity flow again and spill over into the next day.
And if you don’t have a writer buddy who can join you that week? Pick a cafe that isn’t too busy and go on your own. Sometimes just getting out of the house can help get you to focus again. Or maybe it’s not wanting to feel like an idiot sitting alone doing nothing. Either way, I’ve often found a morning at a cafe will kickstart me back up again.
And sometimes, I go back the next day. Because I write well there. Not because I like the special-flavored latte they happen to be serving.
Wishing you all a happy, creative, Back-to-School season!
In Shakespeare’s Othello, the villain Iago speaks the following famous lines:
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
Nice phrase for jealousy, “the green-eyed monster.” I’m jealous I didn’t come up with it myself.
And that’s what I want to talk about today: jealousy. It affects all writers (or at least, it affects all the writers I’m personally acquainted with, including me). We know it’s not a good thing; we know we should simply celebrate other writers’ successes, without wishing they were our own.
But writers are human. And humans get jealous. And this blog is about open and frank discussion of the writing life, so I think it’s important to acknowledge the role jealousy plays in that life.
I was stunned when I was told recently that several writers whom I know personally were jealous of me. The source of their jealousy was apparently that I have a new book out right now, as well as another book coming out next year. According to my source, these writers wondered why I was the one getting the book deals and they weren’t.
But you know, I didn’t have long to feel superior to my benighted peers. Because a few weeks later, I attended a talk with several writers I consider friends, and two of them announced that they’re currently on the New York Times bestseller list.
And man, was I ever jealous.
Why couldn’t I be the one on the list? Weren’t my books good enough? For that matter, why wasn’t I the one invited to give the talk instead of them? While I was genuinely happy for my friends, I found at the same time that I wanted what they had.
If I ever do make the list, I’ll probably feel jealous of those who’ve been on it longer.
Jealousy isn’t all bad. It’s one of the things that makes us strive to succeed. But it also has the capacity to destroy friendships, to twist our perception of ourselves and others, to stifle creativity and foment mimicry, and ultimately, as Shakespeare recognized, to swallow joy. It might be natural—organisms are hard-wired to compete with others of their own kind—but it can’t be allowed to take over.
So here’s my advice for controlling the green-eyed monster.
First, acknowledge that feelings of jealousy are normal. Don’t add to the negativity by telling yourself you’re the worst moral degenerate who’s ever lived. Allow yourself to be imperfect, like the rest of us.
Second, celebrate what you have achieved. Maybe you’ve finished a manuscript. Or gotten a nibble from an agent. Or been asked to sit on a panel. Whatever it might be, it’s worth celebrating. Your achievements are not less than anyone else’s; they’re just different than.
Third, when your writer-friends achieve successes of their own, go out of your way to congratulate them. Spread the word about their accomplishments. Enthusiastically review their books. Offer heartfelt toasts at their launch parties. They deserve it, just as you do.
None of these strategies is foolproof. Deep down, you might not be able to avoid the pangs of jealousy. But you can avoid letting those feelings eat you up inside.
Which reminds me: I’m off to tweet about my friends who’ve made the bestseller list. The last time I checked my eyes in the mirror, they were still mostly brown.
I’ve written a fantasy novel where the protagonist and supporting characters are in their teens. Some people have told me it’s adult and some have told me it’s YA. I’ve looked for a solid definition online, but haven’t really found one. What makes a book YA?
This is a hotly debated topic among people in the biz and in particular, writers, who tend to rebel against the need to box their work into a neatly branded package. I’ve read the commentary out there about what makes a book YA, and rather than give you a concrete definition, I’ll offer my viewpoint on what I believe are the conventions most YA books have in common:
- Stories written for and marketed at teenagers;
- Tight narrative that spans a shortish time period (1 day to 1 year);
- Teen protagonist who determines their own destiny through the choices they make (the teen is active rather than passive);
- Character arc where some growth is involved, whether it’s “coming of age” or otherwise;
- Limited sex and swearing (there are books who break this rule, but in YA there are several gatekeepers—teachers, librarians, parents—which often dictate what content is permissible.)
I feel compelled, also, to list some things that make YA awesome, if not uniquely YA:
- Any and all genres welcome (romance, horror, dystopia, etc.);
- Fast pacing with real conflict and stakes;
- Narrative styles that take risks;
- Stories that feel immediate and authentic;
- Books that push boundaries—societal, thematic, literary and otherwise.
With regard to your own novel, the main question to ask yourself is, did you write it with a YA reader in mind? That might help you determine whether or not your book is indeed, YA.
(Readers, do you have your own conventions or rules you live by when writing YA? Share them in your comments below!)
I’ve written my first book and I’m looking for an agent to represent me. Do you have any advice on how I go about it?
In a word, RESEARCH. Nowadays, most agencies have a website with their staff listed online. In most lit agent bio’s there is a section on what types of projects they are looking for and whether or not they are “open” to queries.
Most agencies/agents also have a standard query procedure explained on their website for what to include in your query, including details like subject line so that your query doesn’t go to spam. Some agents want a query letter only, some want your letter plus pages, and some want the whole manuscript. It’s IMPERATIVE that you read these guidelines and follow them to the letter.
Additionally, just as when embarking on a relationship in real life, it helps to research the agent you are querying to find out what deals they’ve brokered in the past and who they represent. PublishersMarketplace.com is an excellent resource for that.
Finally, and perhaps I should have started with this, make sure you have a standout query letter, which includes:
- Title of your project
- Word count and genre
- Your name
- A short and compelling pitch/synopsis of what your story is about
- Similar works, if applicable
- If relevant, professional background that qualifies you as the writer–keep it brief!
Have a few writer friends look over your query letter and give you feedback before sending. Make sure there are no typos or grammatical errors and DOUBLE CHECK that you’ve addressed the literary agent by the correct name.
Once your responses start coming in, log them in a spreadsheet so you can keep track of whom you’ve queried and what their response was. There are also a variety of online tools available, including QueryTracker.net, that can help with this process. Most replies fall into one of four categories:
- Flat-out rejections (usually by form email)
- Rejections with feedback
- Requests for more pages
- Request for a call to talk about representation
For those agents who reject your project but give constructive feedback, take careful notes and if the overall tone of their email is positive, ask them if they’d be open to you querying them again after you’ve revised.
Above all else, always be polite and professional because the publishing world is a very small world indeed. Remember, it is not you as a person or even you as a writer being rejected, it is a very specific project that does not appeal to a very specific agent, many times for reasons that are out of your control.
Rejections are a sign that you’re putting yourself out there, which is half the battle.
Laura Lascarso is the author of two YA novels, COUNTING BACKWARDS (2012) and RACING HEARTS (2015). If you have a burning YA question you’d like answered, tweet it to @lauralascarso with #DearLaura or include it in the comments below.
Hello, loyal readers!
With June at an end and July kicking in, we’ve decided to do something that most of you are doing right now. Take a vacation.
Don’t worry! We’ll be back again in Autumn with new content.
If you are a YA writer and would like to become a contributor to this site, send us your ideas using the form below.
In the meantime, stay cool–and happy writing!
Hannah, Kacey, Steph
All The Way YA
When I first started writing a certain number of years ago, I didn’t know any other writers. I was just eager to sit down and write, happy to finally be finding the time to be creative again after a hiatus due to jobs, marriage, kids – you know, life stuff.
I was excited, alone, but not realizing it could be any different. Don’t get me wrong, I would have liked to have met other writers at that point, but the fact that I didn’t know any didn’t bother me. I was writing, I was happy. I delved into my world, my characters, my 4-book story (I like series, so of course I was going to write a series not just one book!).
I wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more. Loving all my characters and exploring all kinds of situations. They were all fully developed characters, very much alive to me. They each had their own storyline. And filled up a first book that was about 230k words long.
I was thrilled. And – needless to say – very unaware of the market.
As you can imagine, that manuscript didn’t find a home. And I started to realize that maybe I needed to learn about craft and do some market research. I bought some books on writing and the market, revised the manuscript, signed up for an online class… and met some other writers.
For the first time, I had someone I could share with. For the first time, I wasn’t alone as a writer.
That first class, where I signed up to learn more about craft and the market, actually gave me something much more valuable: contact with fellow writers.
Through that first contact, that first experience getting and giving feedback, also came the suggestion to join a local crit group. When I admitted to having no idea how to find one, a fellow writer-now-friend suggested I join my local chapter of SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).
I did. And discovered a whole new world: the writing community.
Not only were there crit groups but also workshops, conferences, opportunities to meet industry professionals and get their feedback – and most importantly, fellow creatives.
Joining SCBWI was probably the best thing I could ever have done for my writing. It gave me a network of fellow creatives to learn with, to share with. Here, I found other people with the same passion for children’s literature, all at different stages of their path to (and after) publication. We understood each other, the ups and downs, the various stages of excitement, frustration, hope and fear that we all feel – even after getting a contract.
And although it’s true that when you sit down and write you are alone, it doesn’t mean you have to be a recluse. In fact, one of the things I have come to cherish as a writer is the writing community.
This past weekend, for example, I went to the Book Bound Retreat in Kent, UK (pictured above). It was heaven. A beautiful manor house, amazing professionals sharing their experience and knowledge, committed and dedicated fellow writers – most of whom I had never met before – and time to discuss our work and dig in deeper.
The Book Bound Retreat was amazing, for many reasons, but the one that sticks out the most for me was the way everyone came together and shared. We went from being strangers to a warm, supportive group in less than an afternoon. And although a large part of that was due to the humor and warmth of the people running the event (hats off to Sara Grant, Sara O’Connor and Karen Ball!), it also came from each of the participants. Every single person there was working on getting their story to its best and was supportive of everyone else. And that’s what makes the writing community so special. The support, the understanding, the willingness to share and be there for the ups and the downs.
Ultimately, we write our books alone – but we don’t have to go down the writer path alone.
In fact, now that I know what it’s like to have a supportive network, writer friends who understand the journey and the excitement of writing ‘the end’ dozens of times for each manuscript, I can’t imagine not having all my fellow creatives on the path with me!
For those wondering how to meet fellow creatives, here are a few that have worked for me:
- joining a writers group like SCBWI (for everything from picture books to young adult)
- attending a retreat like Book Bound or one run by your local chapter of SCBWI/other writers group
- attending workshops and conferences (they can be local, national or international – each will have a different flavor, but all bring something special)
- taking online classes
- joining an online writers community like Savvy Authors (they have classes, writing groups, forums etc.)
- attending local author events at a library, a bookstore, a community center
- if you are living overseas (as I am) you can often find something through your country’s national group like FAWCO (Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas) or the British Women’s Club.
And what about you? How have you found fellow creatives? What has your experience been like?
Happy writing to all!
Born in the US, Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. Somewhere between New York and Paris she picked up an MBA and a black belt. Dina is currently the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her husband, two children, three horses and a cat. Dina loves to create intricate worlds filled with conflict and passion. She builds her own myths while exploring issues of belonging, racism and the search for truth… after all, how can you find true love if you don’t know who you are and what you believe in? Dina’s key to developing characters is to figure out what they would be willing to die for. And then pushing them to that limit. Dina’s debut YA Fantasy, Dragon Fire, was a finalist in ForeWord Reviews’ 2013 Book of the Year Award, in the 2014 Eric Hoffer Award and in the 2014 Readers’ Favorite Award.
Like many of you, I woke up Sunday morning to hear the devastating news about the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. An hour later, the number of victims being reported as dead, more than doubled. As I write this, 49 lives were torn from this earth in the midst of celebrating freedom, love and acceptance—people who were dancing, rejoicing, and embracing. Several remain in the hospital, some in critical condition.
The fact that the gunman’s target was a gay nightclub during Pride Week on Latinx night cannot be ignored or swept under the rug.
I imagined the families waiting to hear if their loved ones were one of the fallen. I thought about the people inside that nightclub who lost friends and family members, who experienced this terrible hate crime, their terror and their sadness. I think about Ramon Guerrero and Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, a young couple in love, who might have one day planned a wedding together, but whose families instead are planning their funerals.
In the midst of tragedy, there are stories of hope and bravery as well. The law enforcement officers and first responders who saved lives, the doctors, nurses and hospital staff currently working around the clock to save lives, the hundreds of people who stood in line to donate blood, the thousands of people who came out for Monday night’s vigil in Orlando to honor and mourn the lives of those who were lost, the activists who organize these events and speak out for the LGBTQX community on a daily basis because they know how important it is for all communities to have equality and justice, and to stand united in the face of fear, violence and hate.
When I look at the beautiful, young, vibrant faces of those who were murdered, my rage at this injustice is immediate and visceral. I ask, who is to blame? But we are all part of a society that puts profit over human lives. We allow bigotry to prevail in our schools, in our legislatures, in our houses of worship and in our communities. We are all responsible.
As writers, editors, agents, librarians, publishers, parents and educators, it’s so important that we use our talent, time, and energy to promote the virtues we want reflected in our society—compassion, love, respect and kindness. Our stories should reflect our world in all its beautiful complexities. Young people should see themselves represented in our pages—their ethnicity, their sexuality, their religion, their passions and their fears. Our message to them: You are not alone. We are with you. We understand you and we love you just as you are.
As individuals, we must lead by example and stand up for each other. As communities, we must make sure that our laws are inclusive and promote the individual liberties of all its members. As citizens, we have to educate ourselves on the issues and the leaders who represent us. We must do more than hope and pray, we must vote and elect leaders who reflect our values and priorities and work to ensure our demands are being heard.
We must be vigilant and we must be brave. We must stand together with our brothers and sisters in Orlando, the LGBTQX community, the #BlackLivesMatter movement and beyond, open our hearts, our minds and our arms to each other and show unity, solidarity, and power. I believe we as a nation can do this because I believe #LoveWins
LGBTQX READING LIST
ASH by Malinda Lo
ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Alire Saenz
BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
BETTER NATE THAN EVER by Tim Federle
BEYOND MAGENTA: TRANSGENDER TEENS SPEAK OUT by Susan Kuklin
EVERY DAY by David Levithan
EVERYTHING LEADS TO YOU by Nina LaCour
FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters
GEORGE by Alex Gino
IF I WAS YOUR GIRL by Meredith Russo
MORE HAPPY THAN NOT by Adam Silvera
MORE THAN THIS by Patrick Ness
M OR F by Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts
NONE OF THE ABOVE by I. W. Gregorio
SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA by Becky Albertalli
Do you have LGBTQ titles to add? Add them to the comments section and we will update our list!
Laura Lascarso was born and raised in Largo, Florida, graduated from the University of Florida and currently resides in Tallahassee, Florida. She stands with the Orlando community in this time of suffering and healing. She is the author of COUNTING BACKWARDS (Atheneum) and RACING HEARTS (Leap Books). Her forthcoming novella, ANDRE IN FLIGHT, will be published with Dreamspinner Press later this summer. Follow her on Twitter @lauralascarso
Every year, when I go on vacation, I tell my family that I’m not going to write. I’m going to focus entirely on them and relax.
Here’s how the discussion usually goes…
“You’re not going to edit anything?” they ask.
“No,” I say. “I’m not even going to bring my laptop.”
“What about starting a new story?” they ask.
“Nope. I’m not going to start anything new, either. It’s just going to be about you.”
But, they don’t quite understand that writing is not only my job, it’s my passion. I’ve tried explaining to them over and over that getting to write is an escape for me. It even helps me be a better parent. But they don’t get it.
So…I’ve lied. Every time.
Before you get mad, or, like one woman I’ve encountered, tell me I’m going straight to hell. I have spent time with my family on these vacations. We’ve had many memorable days driving through towns, picnicking on the beach, collecting seashells, catching crabs off the dock, movie marathons, and donut shop visits. But what my family’s never realized is that on these trips I’ve either written or worked on something writing-related every day.
Now, I’m betting that by this point you’re staring at your screen in wonder, hoping I’ll share these amazing secrets. Never fear. Here’s my summer gift to all of you.
Steph’s tips for making your family think you’re on vacation, when you’re really not…
Vacation in the place where your current W.I.P. is set. Personally, I thought this was a brilliant plan on my part. I don’t need to be writing all day when I’m camped out in my novel’s setting. Sure it’s tough to do if you’re writing say apocalyptic thrillers, but get creative. Since mine was set in the Outer Banks, I went there. Did my husband and mother raise an eye when I drove them and the kids to the Cape Hatteras High School, Medical Center, Library, and Dancing Turtle Coffeeshop? Maybe a little. “If you’re going to visit a place, you really need to see it through the locals’ eyes,” I said.
- Get up extremely early under the guise of picking seashells or watching the sunrise. No one is awake then, because vacation usually tires everyone out. Even me, which is why I compensated by making a double-strength pot of coffee every morning and falling asleep by ten. This time is usually good for at least a thousand words, unless you, too, are traveling with my mother, and she also
wants to bond with you. Get up early, do what you want until they wake up, and then enjoy. I participated in everything my family wanted. “Don’t you want to get up early, too? The sunrise is gorgeous.” I asked.
- Buy a journal and take it with you. I’m pretty proud of this angle. Yeah, I took a journal, but it wasn’t mine. It was a Character Journal. I wrote it from the POV of my main character. Although I was definitely capturing what happened on vacation, I did it through my main character’s eyes. “This journal is so calming,”I said.
- Make a playlist for your WIP and play it during dinner. This is a surefire way to keep those gears churning all throughout the evening. Pop the cork on a bottle of wine and turn up that Iron Maiden or Civil Twilight or Mozart. Who never got inspired over a little House Of Pain? Just because you aren’t pounding away at the keyboard, it doesn’t mean you can’t drum a new plot twist over some shrimp cocktail, a glass of Chardonnay, and a Bach Fugue. “Let’s listen to some of Mommy’s music,” I said.
- Take pictures of places and people that remind you of your characters. I’m a visual person, so nothing’s better than having something to reference. Not to mention, you’ll end up with some great photos to document your trip. Admittedly, I had a lot of explaining to do when pictures of random cars, people, and dogs showed up in the shared family pics folder, but there’s something to be said for using your own images. When you go home, you can even upload them to Evernote or Pinterest for additional inspiration.
There you have it. My shortlist of ways to keep writing while on vacation. You may call me a workaholic. But let me tell you something I didn’t include above. I did unplug from social media, shut off my email notifications, and just explore.
Though I may have been just a wee bit stealthy about not taking a writing break, I didn’t miss a moment with my family. When I came back to my desk two weeks later, I was refreshed, happy, and bursting with new ideas.
Happy summer, my writing friends. Here’s to sticking your toes in the sand and just exploring.
I can remember the moment I knew I was a writer. It wasn’t when I got my first book deal or held my words in my hands. It wasn’t when the reviews came in—the raving ones and the not-so-raving ones. It didn’t happen at writer’s critique group or at my first signing. In fact, I think I was more of a writer then than I am now.
Let me explain.
My moment came in 2009. I was fresh out of my college prerequisites and four weeks from beginning my ultrasound program. In those four weeks, I parked myself in front of my laptop and I wrote with reckless abandon. I didn’t think, I just did. My sentence structure was terrible. I didn’t know anything about description or character arcs or what made a plot, I simply knew I had a story to tell.
At the end of those four weeks I had a behemoth. 120,000 words of a YA novel. In case you missed it earlier: It. Was. Terrible. But that’s not important. What matters is how I felt. Exhilarated. Proud. Like I could take on the damn world simply because I created one. This was the moment that made me a writer. It didn’t matter that I switched between present and past tense every other paragraph or that my character rolled her eyes 469 times. My word count was 40,000-50,000 words above the limit for my genre. My exposition went on for pages like some terrible voiceover in a bad movie. I had no idea what I was doing. But, listen to me: None of that mattered.
Writing fulfilled something inside of me. It was a hollow place I’d been carrying around for decades, an empty space just begging to be filled. And I was BRIMMING with it. What’s it? you ask.
Hope. Purpose. Sadness. Sweetness. Pain. Possibility. Bitterness. Understanding. Magic.
I had created a whirlwind out of nothing. And it was the most amazing thing I have ever done. This is how art should feel. It should be everything, and yet, at the same time, it should be nothing at all.
In the space between my college break and now I have become many things. Am I still a writer? Absolutely. But I am also a copyeditor, a proofreader, a designer, a marketer, a social media expert, an agent searcher, a publicist, a giveaway creator, a review reader, and an internet Googler. And because I am all of those things, I no longer allow myself to just be a writer.
Now, because I am also an editor, I don’t allow myself to write with reckless abandon. There is a voice inside my head analyzing every word, sentence, page. Am I better because of this? Of course. Because I am a publicist, I must know what’s hot right now and how I can use it to my advantage. So what if I want to write a 700 page epic fantasy about a spork who goes rogue from Taco Bell. People want strong female characters (but not too strong) and males that know how to be in second place (but not too second place) and flowing, beautiful settings in cities I’ve never visited. They want characters who surprise them (but not too much) and romance that’s new (and yet the same). They want and want and want…
You know what I’ve lost along the way? My exhilaration. My purpose. Because I am also all these other things, my wonder with creation has suffered.
It all boils down to validation. (I could spend ten posts talking about writer validation!) In becoming all of these things and stretching myself so thin, I am telling myself that who I am is not good enough. I need an audience to be good. A web presence. An agent. An editor. I need reviews to validate everything I have written to prove…
To prove what?
That I am a writer?
But that’s wrong. The moment I felt most like a writer happened before I even knew how to write properly. Art should be messy. It should be soul-searching and in your face, not orderly and rigid, defined by rules and the limitations of knowledge. And it shouldn’t be defined by society, no matter how much they think they know.
I wish I could tell you that I find myself fulfilled simply by writing. What’s that saying? Ignorance is bliss. When I was blissfully unaware that my writing was terrible, it was PURE JOY to write. Hours flew by beneath my keys. My words—although not stellar—made me so happy I could’ve burst from it.
I do not know how to return to this place of reckless abandon…I only know that I want to.
“So that’s your first assignment,” the teacher said. “Go find a comfortable place to write and come back with a first draft in two hours.”
I don’t remember what the assignment was, but given what I do remember of the summer, it likely had something to do with a small, traveling circus.
It was July 1992 and it was one of the first days of a program called the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts (PGSA) – a now defunct, tuition-free, five-week residential program for high school artists of all varieties. I was 16.
There were ten or so of us fiction writers and another ten or so poets. Our workshops were held in unremarkable classrooms, but when given time to write, we had access to the entire campus of a small college tucked into the corner of Northwestern Pennsylvania. Over the summer we fanned out across the grounds staking claims at the base of trees or in the grotto next to the statue of the Virgin Mary. Some of us went to the main building to sit in comfy chairs and enjoy the air-conditioning. That first morning though, we all stayed within eyeshot of one another.
We had been told at orientation that we were the “best of the best,” but we were also told of an experiment the program had done several years earlier – they had invited students who didn’t seem to show the same amount of promise as everyone else. They wanted to know if being surrounded by the “best of the best” would positively impact the other students. I don’t know if any of us remembered hearing the outcome of that experiment. We were all too busy wondering if that were their subtle way of telling us: The experiment might still be going on and some of you might be our test cases.
That first morning we sized each other up. Was I the test subject? Was he? But that wasn’t the only thing bothering us. After just a few moments of trying to write in our own little locations, we started to gravitate towards each other. Awkwardly, we tried to talk.
Then one of us said what we were all thinking: “This is so hard. Give me a pre-calculus assignment and I’ll write you six poems, but tell me to go write a poem and I freeze.”
As high school students, we were use to sneaking time to write. Personally, and my 7th grade math teacher can attest to this, I always had two notebooks open. One for taking notes and one for writing stories. No one had ever given us permission to prioritize our writing. If writing was our dream career, high school was our job. We had to get used to our new freedom.
Earlier this month, I was reminded of that summer, and what freedom to write really means, when I had the opportunity to “unworkshop.” An unworkshop is a self-directed, writing retreat, held at The Highlights Foundation, a rustic collection of buildings tucked into the corner of Northeast Pennsylvania. Writers are given a clean, cozy room of one’s own, plus three delicious meals a day, unlimited snacks and beverages, great conversation in small doses, encouragement from every direction (including from the chef and servers) and an unspoiled countryside for wandering.
As a wife, mother and full-time-plus employee, it was the embodiment of permission to write. Unlike my experience at PGSA, it took no time to get used to. I dove right in. I wrote 9000 words in 47 hours. I plotted the rest of the manuscript by a stream. I figured out how to fix another manuscript. I made friends. I got wonderful advice. I was my true self.
When I told a writer friend that I was going to Highlights, he suggested it might be more economical to get an AirBnB in the town where we lived. I believe he suggested getting cereal and Ramen noodles and just powering through a weekend. I considered it. But in the end, I made my reservation at Highlights. It was the right thing to do.
I had no way of knowing that being taken care of (in the way I was at Highlights), would fuel my writing. It wasn’t just that I’d been given permission to write, it was that everything there was set up to benefit and support my writing.
Was I the “test subject” at Highlights, eating meals with “real” writers who had agents, book-deals and best-sellers? Yea! But they were so welcoming and eager to heap advice on me that I was happy and honored to be carried forward by their talent, experience and generosity.
Unworkshopping is relatively inexpensive at $129/night. That’s a new price as of June 1, but it is inclusive of meals, snacks, local transportation and wifi. If you have the means, make this happen for yourself. You will not be sorry. But, even if you aren’t able to make it to Highlights, consider finding another way to give yourself permission to prioritize your writing. While it was terrifying as a 16-year-old and actually froze a few of us up, as an adult, it opened a floodgate of creativity right when I desperately needed it.