Columbus Day 2009. I was just a month into my fourth semester of writing classes as Hopkins, a few days into a new job and I had less than 30 days until my wedding. I was trying my best to stay calm and organized, despite the growing frenzy that was brewing. There was still a lot to do for the wedding. The DIY bride in me was not willing to surrender the creative projects to my very capable wedding planner. Add to that the pressure of landing a new job…a government job where everything had a form and an acronym to boot.
On top of all of the real life pressures tugging at me, I had to churn out an endless stream of fresh writing and critiques for my fiction workshop at school. I was able to take an unpolished piece from a previous class, brush it up and submit it for workshop the first time around, but this time, I had to come up with something new. The clock was ticking. I had workshop on Saturday, and I didn’t have a word on the page. With just a few days (literally a few hours) to work with, I wasted no time putting something on the page. I pulled something from recent memory, and started shaping it into a story. I didn’t map it out ahead of time, or create an outline. I just started writing with reckless abandon. Characters just sprung into action. Scenes unfolded as quickly as the words came to mind. I didn’t put much into the piece in terms of consciousness. Looking back on my first draft of the story, I honestly don’t remember writing much of what was there. It just happened.
Then I turned the story in for workshop. My classmates had a week to read, re-read and then write a critique of my story detailing their opinions of what was working, what wasn’t and how I could revise it. I was prepared for a lot of comments about a lack of structure, a lack of focus, or about the fact that I wrote the piece in present tense.
What was said and what actually happened shocked me.
My classmates commented on how intimate and gripping the story was. Someone used the word “organic” to describe the writing. My professor sat at the front of the room, nodding and agreeing with much of what was being said. Then they delved into what needed work. Of course, the story was floundering in places. It was a rough draft. Of course, I had a lot of crying, and dashes of hyperbolic writing in places. I’m an emotional person and it tends to show up in my writing. There were other things that were mentioned as areas of potential improvement, but overall, my classmates like the piece.
The funny thing about writing workshops is that the person being workshopped is much like a pedestrian at the corner of a busy intersection watching rush-hour traffic. You have somewhere to go, you’ve got to get across, but you have to wait until the light changes. That’s how I felt watching my classmates dissect my writing, trying to figure out if my story was based on a real event (it was), or if it was part of a larger work (it wasn’t).
After class was over, my professor asked me to stay for a few because she needed to talk to me. I was nervous because a few weeks prior she had asked the same thing, but that time it was to admonish me for being late to class two weeks in a row. Commuting from Baltimore to DC even on the weekend was dicey as a bad accident or a DC protest could put the breaks on everything. I wasn’t late this particular week. In fact, I was early. I was nervous and embarrased watching my classmates stream out of the room and into the halls to enjoy the balance of their Saturday afternoon.
With everyone gone, and the door closed, she looked at me and said, “I don’t say this to everyone that comes into my class, but I have to say this to you: You have it.”
I was floored, stunned, thinking I knew what she was saying, but then I wasn’t so sure.
“I read your story the first time through and was blown away,” she said.
Blown away by a first draft? A rough draft? This wasn’t even my best writing.
She keenly sensed that I was just framing something on the page and that it wasn’t a part of a larger work (as in a novel or something), but she said, “it needs to be. This belongs in a novel.” She told me my characters — three generations of women coping together through a crisis — resonated with her. She told me my work could go places. She said I was “publishable.” I melted. I’d been called lots of things, but never “publishable” before.
After our discussion which seemed to go on for ever, I floated out of the room, onto the elevator and onto the streets of DC. Two large epiphanies unfolded before me that day. I was affirmed as a writer, by a writer, someone who went through the same writing program at Hopkins and went on to get a publishing deal with Random House. I also accepted the fact that the story that spilled onto the page was much bigger than I was willing to see before. The story had been there all the time; in fact, I had been running from it. However, a room full of talented and accomplished writers saw its merit and gave me the push I needed to acknowledge what had been there all along.