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Taking Your Writing
to the Next Level

December 31, 2009

Hmmmm. When I first read the prompt, ‘’How I took my writing to the next level,” naturally I assumed it meant a higher level. You know, a step up. Well, now that I’ve given it some thought, and now that I’ve looked back over the past year of my writing life with a great deal of scrutiny, I’m not so sure that’s it at all. Levels can be up, or down, or maybe even across a hanging bridge suspended over swirling waters.

When I read Patricia Sprinkle’s lovely and very thoughtful blog (Dec. 29th), I realized that there are multitudes of things in a life that inspire, prompt, nudge, or in my case, shove a person to try new things; new levels. Patricia’s story of her mother’s physical/mental state, and hence her own change in genres, made me think of the saying that goes something like this: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

In 2001 I was happily gathering rosebuds. A short story of mine won a contest in a local arts magazine, and then my first novel practically sold itself to a local publisher, and then they sold the paperback rights to Simon & Schuster, who subsequently found an agent for me (they said “We don’t like to work with unagented authors"). Then, my agent sold two more books of mine to Simon & Schuster, followed by another one to Penguin in 2008.

I was happy on this level. I was writing. And selling. Well, then the recession came along, and I got a big, cold dose of reality. Still furiously scribbling along, I wrote two entire books in three years. Books which my agent loved, yet which met with a number of rejection letters. My agent said to me, “Julie, several years back these would have been a slam-dunk.” She said the book industry was feeling some of the pain of this economy, too.

But, the thing was, the bills didn’t stop arriving in my mailbox. Frantic thoughts circled in my head like turkey vultures. I’ll go back to school, I decided one moment. I’ll get a teaching certificate through the Georgia TAPP program and I’ll teach English in elementary school. No, I changed my mind in the next moment; I’ll get my Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, and then I’ll teach on the college level. But, then I talked to the head of that department, and she informed me that most area hires were generally Ph.Ds in Literature and Creative Writing who can teach both, mainly comp and lit. Anyway, job prospects were not the best, so I wrote that off. I called numerous places I might enjoy working, to no avail. I did part-time work which had nothing to do with writing. I applied for an odd sales job. I was not called for an interview. I was a little depressed.

Meanwhile, I kept praying and I kept writing, two things to hold my sanity intact. My agent worked with me on half a dozen proposals. Proposals where I’d write a very detailed (twelve pages or so) synopsis and a couple of chapters (anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 words). I did this for months on end, and she sent them out faithfully. I waited. But all we got were rejections. I tried to keep hold of my hope and my faith that something would take in this writing career. That I’d move on to “the next level.”

One day as I took a break from spinning stories to check my emails, I noticed one from the Manager of Literary Programs at the Atlanta History Center/Margaret Mitchell House. Melanie wanted to know if she could hire me to teach a creative writing workshop. For cold, hard cash. A hopeful bubble formed inside me. Without hardly thinking, I wrote back, “Yes, I’d love to!” At least this job was in the field of writing. I had done a few small, scattered workshops over the years; things mainly for high schoolers and young collegiates. But, for these I’d been given the curriculum, and so it had been more like I was just a facilitator of an hour-long workshop.

I went through the process of selecting a topic, researching it just a bit, outlining a course, and presenting it to Melanie. I decided on a class about memoir writing. I called it ‘Canning Memories.’ She approved it and sent out word to potential attendees.

When she wrote me that my class had received enough reservations to make, I got started on the real work. What we had decided on was that I would teach a three-hour class on the first Saturday in October. Well, to be honest, at first I freaked out. What could I offer these souls that would fill three hours and be worth their time and money? I’d never taught a three-hour class, much less one on memoir writing.

For two weeks solid I feverishly gathered material. I worked around the clock; ate it, slept it, and lived it, writing what amounted to a fat textbook. I read swarms of my books on the technique of writing, I dreamed up exercises my students could do, I practiced teaching my material. I made hand-outs with subtitles such as: Getting Started and Staying Started, Writing Deeper by Using Your Fears, From A Different Point-of-View (exploring the difference between First and Third Person), Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Prose, Open Mike (The Importance of Reading Your Work Aloud, along with Breathing Techniques To Relax), Tips for Turning Personal Experiences into Salable Fiction, and, finally, What a Character! The key to Unlocking Motive and Turning Real People into Interesting Characters.

In the end, I must have had gathered and written enough material to teach an entire college semester. I know after the class, there were pages and pages of material we hadn’t gotten a chance to cover. One important thing I did manage to drill home to the participants was this quote by Jim Rohn (I don’t know who that is) that I keep taped to my monitor; “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” I told them to sit their fanny in their writing chair every single day.

This new level of writing was beautiful proof to me that there are places full of potential for rich personal reward. I, who had entered this world with a fairly severe case of laliaphobia (fear of public speaking), thoroughly enjoyed teaching! I was genuinely happy up there talking for three hours straight, imparting some of the things I’d learned over my journey to class participants ranging in age from their twenties to their eighties. I got to hear stories from many of them. Stories which touched my soul. I know you’ve heard people who have gone off as missionaries into remote regions, and who came home saying things like “I got more out of it than I gave.” But it’s true! Words were just pouring out of these people. The different levels these writers were on was astounding. Several have communicated with me post-class and enriched my life even more.

Eventually, around the end of October, my agent called me and said that one of my proposals had found a publisher! So now I am taking my writing to yet another level. Like Patricia Sprinkle, it is a different genre than I am used to. I don’t know if it is higher, lower, or across that shaky rope bridge hanging over swirling waters, but I am 50,000 words into it and enjoying the process immensely. The book is set to come out in October of 2010, and I imagine I’ll have the cover art and more on it to share in one of my upcoming blogs.

Truly, Julie

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