In my writing class, there’s a certain format to things. We read a bit of this, then reflect. Read another passage, discuss. A literary liturgy of sorts.
There’s something about this class that reminds me of Catholic masses, only without the standing and kneeling. (Though, I would say, our literary docent probably wouldn’t mind if we stood or knelt or did handstands – this isn’t a formal environment.)
If I’m honest, there is something prayerful about this process. If a prayer is, as the dictionary informs me, “a solemn request for help,” then I am a praying person. I may not direct that energy at an omniscient being, but I do constantly commune with my characters in my mind, pleading with them —
“Tell me what happened to you.” “How did you feel about that?” “Thank you, thank you for sharing yourself with me.” “I’m sorry, I’m really truly sorry I have to expose you like this. I’m sorry I have to make this hurt.”
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I will get better at this. I will write less, but say more. I will be ruthless and intentional. I will navigate the terrain of this story without fear. I will keep going, even when my devotion begins to crack and my faith in the thing starts to evaporate away. I will continue. I will persevere.
Killing time before my writing class, perhaps waiting for something in the way one waits for Godot. A blue-haired girl with large, round rimmed glasses is to my left, Misfits sticker prominently placed on her laptop, studying for what I think is a chemistry exam with a raven-haired girl with thick-rimmed black glasses. To my right, a young man in torn pants typing away on his laptop, which is in his lap instead of on the table. Is he hiding something?
Old men sit and talk of people they know, or have known; their tenses shift as often as they do, clearly uncomfortable on the hard wooden chairs. On the patio, a group of colleagues has some beer after work, badges still hanging around their necks. Flies buzz around, tempted, I suppose, by the general stickiness of the place.
Beast of Burden plays loudly, drowning out the white noise of the traffic outside.
A little confession… Because I like to keep my identity private, I’m sometimes cagey about the details of my life, but I need to share this: The writing program I’m in is the Book Project through Lighthouse Writers in Denver. You don’t need to live in Denver to participate.
The Book Project isn’t an MFA program. You don’t get any sort of degree or certification. It’s a 2-year intensive that gives you the support you need to finish a book. There are classes, both in-person and online, three weekend intensives a year, an optional retreat, and an annual literary festival where you get to talk to agents. Through the process, you get a mentor who’s a published author who will work with you 1-1 and give you constructive feedback on your work-in-progress.
My mentor is the amazing New York Times bestselling author Eleanor Brown, best known for her book The Weird Sisters. The other mentors are equally distinguished and all awesome.
You don’t need to be an aspiring novelist, by the way – we’ve got people working on poetry, short story collections, and non-fiction. It’s a really nice variety.
Why this feels a bit like a confession? My name isn’t really Leah Kent. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. I decided to use a variation of my legal name for two reasons: 1. I have a day job, and likely always will even if I do get published, because most writers, even bestselling authors, have day jobs or side hustles, and… 2. What I’m writing could get me in a bit of trouble professionally and, you know, I like being able to pay my mortgage.
How would you get in trouble? My novel-in-progress explores several major issues in the United States that are very political. My job requires me to not be openly political. We’re actually told to politely excuse ourselves and walk away if anyone tries to engage us in a political conversation during one of our meetings or events.
If I publish a book that takes a strong stance on the particular issue that impacts the industry I work in, it would be a huge headache for my employer. Therefore, I blog and tweet and will (hopefully!) publish under a pen name.
A note on pen names… The Lighthouse has a former literary agent on staff, who is amazing and supportive and will answer all of your questions. I asked her about using pen names, and if that’s something that’s off-putting to agents. She says no, it’s not. It’s no big deal. So if anyone else out there is considering whether to pen name or not to pen name…I have it from someone with experience that it’s totally fine.
In fact, she said that the possibility of me getting in a bit of trouble professionally and using a pen name for that reason could be intriguing to potential agents.
Keep writing, all you writers who quietly follow me. Keep going.
I don’t believe in magical thinking, and yet I find myself being careful what I say, in case my words somehow change the course of the physical or metaphysical world. I suppose that means that there’s a disconnect between what I think I should believe, and what I fear – I know I’m supposed to eschew the idea that my thoughts can influence events external to my own mind. However, I honestly fear that certain types of words or thoughts open doors to a mischievous universe that takes perverse delight in making us face what we most dread.
One of the things I like about where I work is that it’s next to a protected natural area. We get to see a lot of wildlife that one normally only sees in large state parks or zoos or nature documentaries, which is just an amazing experience.
The thing that always strikes me the most is the silence. No cars, no human noise, none of the pulsating hum of civilization. The stillness is eerie when you first encounter it. You don’t realize just how accustomed you are to constant sound until there isn’t any.
I sat on the front steps of my office building the other day and just basked in that stillness. It’s meditative, in a way, to just stop, and be in a wide open, natural space that isn’t teeming with humans and all of our various turbulence. It’s really quite joyous…at first.
For me, the joyfulness of natural, still places is muddled by an unsettled feeling. Humans are herd animals – we like to cluster. A long, long time ago, we realized that we do better if we live in groups. Now there are so many of us that it’s kind of hard not to. So most humans alive today are used to a certain amount of background noise.
What a strange thing to have forgotten – the silence of true, natural stillness. Now, it’s a thing we escape to rather than a thing we escape from. It’s another one of those shifts in the world and in how we interact with it that we simply don’t think about anymore.
Stillness was not necessarily something valued by people who used to exist within or beside it – I delve from time to time into the world of faery stories and their origins, and it was often the fear of forests or other untamed areas combined with fears about things like diseases or natural phenomena that gave rise to stories of changelings and other meddling creatures. Humans are great Explainers of Things, even if the explanation is more imaginative or symbolic than factual.
If you have the ability, find a still place. Sit in it for a while. Just be. Think about a world filled with such stillness, how different it was.
We’ve lost something more than just our stillness, I think, in filling up the world with as much clutter as we have.
As a writer, when you’re building a world and learning about your characters, you’re thinking about a lot of things. Do you ever think about how your characters perceive the world? How they process information?
I’ve been reading a book called The Error of Truth that discusses the difference between changing what one knows versus changing how one perceives the world. It takes a stroll through history, pointing out times when human perceptions massively shifted – such as when people shifted from being hunter-gatherers to planting seeds and staying in one place. It happened most recently when people began to quantify the world.
One of the stories the author tells is about the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755, where a devastating earthquake was followed a few hours later by a large tidal wave. Instead of accepting it as a mysterious event beyond their control, they began to process the event using reason.
This change in how people process large-scale catastrophes didn’t come out of nowhere – it was influenced by the ‘Age of Reason’, that changed how people perceived and processed the world. (This could be an amazing novel – setting it during the Lisbon catastrophes of 1755, and the aftermath as people begin to process what happened in a different way. Anyone want to write it? I’d love to read it.)
I got into a two year intensive writing program for people writing books – fiction and non-fiction, though mine is fiction.
Emotions are high – I’m excited, I’m terrified, I’m confident, I’m plagued with self-doubt. The word of the week is vacillation.
I knew I wanted to do this, but I didn’t know how much I *needed* this until I got my acceptance. The need is similar to a compulsion, of which I have several – it’s that sort of feeling – like anxiety swirled with desire and sprinkled with just a tiny bit of queasiness. Looking at the first year’s curriculum is honestly terrifying – 9 classes and 3 weekend intensives.
I owe this to the 3-Day Novel Contest. It was last year during 3DN that I wrote the very first draft of my book– and it was one of those years that something magical happened. If the writing process in general is like driving through a traffic-burdened city, with lots of stops and starts and turns and merges, then 3DN is (if you do it right) like driving down a deserted desert highway in a convertible with the top down and your hair blowing everywhere.
In 2018, it paid off. I ended up with a story that…well, I have no idea where it came from. Characters just came to life, as if I swallowed inspiration and they all burst from my forehead. It was a strange experience, one I’ve had before but not for many years. It makes me understand the what the ancient poets meant when they said it was the Muses working through them. I felt as if I was merely taking dictation. The story wrote itself.
I had a feeling about that messy, complicated story that started to emerge. I worked at it months, developed a robust outline, turned in application and a writing sample…
And now, 1 year and 1 week after I began it, I will be formally beginning a writing program during which I will be doing a lot of skill-building and working toward having a complete first draft by next summer. Second year focuses on revising and editing.
I’m still a bit stunned. It feels so unreal – and I keep waiting for the universe to drop something bad on me to balance out the good. That’s how stories go, after all – the protagonist never follows a straight line. It’s obstacle after obstacle, it’s moments of doubt, it’s lots of questioning and sacrifice before they finally reach the end.
What challenges will come my way? Muses, gods, fates and faeries ~ be kind.
There’s a book I come back to periodically throughout my life – a strange piece of Scottish literature called The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
I encountered this book when I was quite young. I didn’t completely understand it the first time I read it, but it stuck with me. The main character, Jean Brodie, and her charisma were seductive and enchanting. I was a child, and easily charmed by such people, even in fiction.