Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Secret Writing Life

Most people in my life don't know that I want to be a writer. Only three close friends know that I keep a blog; I haven't told my parents about it, or my students. I haven't told any of the other graduate students in my program about it. Although there are several people who are studying creative writing in my graduate program, I am not one of them.

I don't tell a lot of people about my blog, because if a lot of people I know are reading it, I'd feel pressured to write in a way that wouldn't offend them. I also probably wouldn't write about how I unintentionally embarrass myself on a regular basis, because I want people to think that I'm in control of my life and not the type of person who would literally walk into a newspaper dispenser and bruise her leg because she was distracted by an extra large chocolate chip cookie that someone nearby was eating. (That did happen recently. That cookie looked REALLY good.)

I don't tell people about the stories I'm working on, because then they'll ask to read them, or they'll ask if I've published anything. And I don't want people in my life to know about my writing until I actually do publish something; I feel like even if they don't like my stories, at least I'll have that validation from being published and the knowledge that maybe there is someone out there reading what I have to say and actually liking it.

Last night I went to a one-night writing workshop at StoryStudio, which is one of my favorite places in Chicago. StoryStudio Chicago is a wonderful place that offers great writing classes on several topics, like memoirs, short stories, novels, and how to market your writing. I've also attended two of their Write-A-Thons, where I paid $12 for the privilege of spending the day writing at StoryStudio. I could've written at home for free, but I loved writing in the company of other writers (and all the great food and drinks were perks too) for hours; both times I went to the Write-A-Thons I ended up getting several pages of writing done.

Once I save up enough money, I'm going to take one of their writing workshops, which usually run for a few weeks or a couple months, depending on what the topic is. In the meantime, I satisfy myself with their one-night workshops, which usually cost $40 or $35 each (members get a $5 discount). The one-night workshops were what first attracted me to StoryStudio, because I'd done a Google search for cool writing classes. Before I discovered StoryStudio, I was afraid that if I signed up for a class that I didn't like, I'd just end up thinking of all the other things I could have spent my money on. But I have loved all the classes I've taken at StoryStudio: Just Get Me Started (which was a night of writing prompts and exercises to get us in the writing mood), Quickies (flash fiction), and Life Writing.

The class I took last night was called "Digging into Character" and taught by Stephanie Kuehnert, who's published the YA novels Ballads of Suburbia and I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. I almost didn't go to the class, even though I had already paid for it. I was having a rough week, and it was only Tuesday. I was stressed out about teaching and writing my dissertation; I had this bad headache that wouldn't go away; there were several unexpected (but necessary) expenses this month that I had to create a budget for. But the biggest reason was that I was a little scared about going to the class.

Even though I've been working on my novel for a while now, I haven't showed it to anyone. I do want people to read it, but only after it's revised and polished. What if people in the class didn't like my characters? What if they got bored during my descriptions of my characters, or pretended to like them, only to make fun of them once I was out of earshot? What if the teacher tore apart my ideas, causing me to flee from the classroom, never to return to StoryStudio again? What if this thing I had been working on all these months really wasn't as good as I thought it might be, and I had just been wasting my time?

Despite my reservations, I went to the class. I knew that we'd be writing short character sketches, and I figured that I could get some help for developing some of the characters in my first novel. Like all the other classes I've taken at StoryStudio, I loved it. Stephanie told us about her writing process, and how she creates note cards for each character with little tidbits of information about each person. She also had us make lists of certain unique characteristics that defined our characters, like what their greatest fears and motivations were, and what their most significant relationships were like. It was good to hear about the things that other people came up with.

She also had us each write a scene that included a "defining moment" for a particular character that would let the reader know something about what was at stake for that character. She had us close our notebooks for a moment and picture the scene in our minds; she told us to focus on specific objects, gestures, sounds, and smells in that scene. I did what she told us to do, and in my mind I could actually see and hear what was going on; I got to step into this world that I'd created.

Then we each read excerpts of our scenes to the class, and I almost didn't want to. But even though I was nervous, I wanted to introduce two of my most important characters to the class. I kept my eyes on my notebook as I read so that I wouldn't have to see anyone's reaction, but when I looked up I saw Stephanie's encouraging smile and heard her praise my scene. And it made me feel good, and it made me realize at that moment that my headache was gone. And I kept listening to the instructor teach us about writing, and I listened to the other students read from their own writing. I wasn't watching the clock or thinking about all the other work that was waiting for me at home. For once I was just living in the moment and feeling happy about what I was doing.

And I'm glad that I finally let two of my characters out into the world and let other people know them. I do want people to know my characters eventually, after all, and it made me realize that my characters don't necessarily have to be perfect before I let other people "meet" them. Going to writing classes like the ones at StoryStudio and being around other writers always inspire me to keep writing, even if publication is still years away; that's if publication ever happens at all for me. But in the meantime, I'm going to keep writing. And I'm definitely going back to StoryStudio in the future.

When I got out of the class my mother called, wanting to know why my cell phone had been turned off. I told her that I went to a reading, which was at least half-true. But eventually, when I'm ready, I will tell the other people I know about my secret writing life.


  1. Secret writing life... how sexy, haha! I know how you feel though: it look me ages until I felt comfortable telling people that I write and even now I still feel a little flicker of... something.

  2. Stephanie is TOTALLY AWESOME, riiiiight? I wasn't able to go to that class last night, but I took it in November and it helped me so much.

    I know what you mean about not telling people. It wasn't until after I got a residency that I started calling myself a "writer," and I'm STILL a little uncomfortable with that label. (I have no problem with others using it for themselves--I'm just weird when it comes to me.) And with my first manuscript in 2007, I started writing it in April and didn't tell my closest friend until October.

    StoryStudio rocks! I'm taking a one-day class on Point of View in July, and I can't friggin' wait.

  3. I have a great writing group and they are really the ones who made me comfortable with having people read my work. I still have my moments of fear but by Sam is very encouraging and will read whatever I'm working on and pushes me to finish my novel.

    But I do know what it's like to not want to share anything because you're not very far in the process or as far as people think you should be.

    I think of it now as I am a writer. It's part of my identity. I don't care how far I am and I don't care what other people say or think, because I'm writing. I'm doing what I was meant to do.

    The classes sound like a great way for you to do that!

  4. writing is also my secret love. i knew i wanted to be a writer since childhood but was so afraid to try it out. so i eventually ended up blogging and none of my friends knew about it.

    i'm quite excited about your novel. hopefully you can show us a few excerpts if you don't mind hehe...

  5. I hope before I turn 30, I write and publish a book but i don't know what. but anyways I've been writing in online journals since I was 14 years old and it's been a secret for a long time, I recently have been more open about having an online journal just as a way to keep in touch with friends after graduating because they have blogs. I feel like since then I've been revealing a different side my friends haven't quite seen like my creative side.

  6. Hi Talli,
    I suppose it'll just take some more time before I feel more comfortable telling more people about my writing; this blog is a good way for me to share it without feeling too self-conscious.

    Hi maybeimamazed02,
    Stephanie is awesome! Thank you for recommending her class to me; I'm glad that I got to take it.

    Hi Palindrome,
    I've thought about joining a writing group too, but for now I'm going to stick with the classes. I think groups are good, though, because it's a great way to get feedback from a variety of people.

    Hi janjan,
    Although I do plan to continue taking classes, I've decided not to post excerpts from my stories online. I figure I'll let the public read them if and when I get published; that way it gives me something to look forward to. :)

    Hi nurhogirl,
    Keeping an online journal is a good way to keep in touch with friends! I think often people feel more comfortable expressing themselves in writing, so it definitely provides interesting perspectives.

  7. You sound exactly like how I used to be. I didn't believe it when people told me this, but the more you put yourself out there and own your journey, the easier this writing business will actually be. You have to take pressure off yourself to only unveil your secret when you are safely in the land of success.

    I agree that you don't want to show your work to people too soon, but showing your work to people is essential (and I mean workshops not Mom or friends). When I finally started sharing in workshops I saw how it was OK to not have everything polished - people get it. And the critique transcends minor quibbles.

    Good luck!

  8. I totally understand this. My friends all know that i blog, but only one of them knows that i've always wanted to write the great American novel. If i ever finish it, i'm not sure i would have the balls to let anyone read it. What if its awful? what if i suck? will they think less of me because of it?

    I just can't deal with the answers to those questions yet.

  9. Hi Rebecca,
    Thanks for the advice! I definitely plan to sign up for a workshop once I can afford it; there are some really cool ones at StoryStudio that I'd like to try. I'm sure I'll still be nervous to show my work to the other people at the workshop, but like you said, it'll be worth it.

    Hi Coyote Rose,
    You should totally let other people read your book, but of course, it's not like you have to do it tomorrow if you're not ready yet. And ah, the great American novel! The main character of mine drinks a lot of coffee. She's like me in that sense. :)