Thursday, November 27, 2014

Training as a Writer

Zestful Blog Post #81

Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving. Isn’t Thanksgiving a great weekend? Just heat ’n’ serve.

As promised, here’s more of my publishing history, all of which has informed my decision to launch an imprint and self-pub my next novel. I’ll call this installment:

2) Training as a Writer

After getting my degree in English from Michigan State University, I went to work at a small weekly newspaper in the Detroit area. I’m leaving the name out, because I’ve spoken in public about my boss’s (unwelcome) sexual advances, and in any event the paper is long defunct. I don’t know where that boss is today, but I did learn a lot from him, regardless of his clueless personal behavior.

Being a community journalist was a terrific education, way beyond anything college could have provided. You learn how a newspaper works, how a city works, and how a city really works. In many small papers, the reporters are young and green, and I was that. I remember being shocked to see decisions made by public officials (elected and appointed) that went against the public good because of some City Hall dick fight or other. I remember being incredulous at how people—citizens, officials—would form firm opinions on acutely important issues based on information they knew to be incomplete. I learned that integrity in the public sphere does exist, however, and it’s rare.

I did reporting, photography, and editing. The most valuable stuff I learned was how to write concisely and how to edit for brevity and accuracy. Also, of course, how to write under pressure of an inviolate deadline. Being young and anxiety-free, I never sweated if I didn’t have a front-page story as deadline morning approached; something always turned up.

After leaving the paper to take a finding-myself trip around the country, then knocking around in different jobs, all of which required writing (training-materials writer, tech writer, etc.) I wound up selling books for a couple of guys named Tom and Louis Borders. I wrote short stories and sent them around. Wrote a short novel which I set aside, knowing it wasn’t really publishable. Had a few stories published in another Detroit-based literary journal, Moving Out, which was a by-and-for-women venture. I served on their editorial board for a couple of years, then eventually the thing dissolved. This was in the late 1980s.

[John King’s used bookstore in Detroit, where I bought many a cheap read, and still do, whenever I get to town. Photo by ES.]

Simultaneous with starting to work for Borders (at the second store they built, in Birmingham, Michigan), I enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit for my master’s in English, specializing in composition theory. I thought maybe I should become a professor, but I eschewed the MFA program for two reasons:

1) I was wary of anybody telling me how to write; and

2) I thought the composition theory program, once I got my Ph.D, would foster more job opportunities.

But I discovered a much different school environment than I had expected. For instance, when I challenged a professor’s ideas in a paper, he wrote me a letter suggesting I drop his class. But I did have profs with normal-sized egos too. The main problem for me was academic writing: I just couldn’t get over how stilted and opaque most of it was. I was like, I’m supposed to be learning how to help students write well, and my class texts are this, and I’m supposed to write the same way?

One day the book editor for the Detroit Free Press asked my boss at Borders if he could recommend anybody on staff to write book reviews, and he suggested me. So I wrote reviews for them for a couple of years, which was really cool, because I got paid $100 or $150 per review, plus I got lots of free first editions. RIP book page of the Freep.

Wayne State holds an annual writing contest, the Tompkins Awards (with cash prizes), for its students, and for the hell of it I entered my not-ready-for-publication novel, Things to Come, in the graduate division. It won, to the chagrin (I learned) of the MFA students. I felt validated as a fiction writer, but I didn’t do anything more with that manuscript. Mainly the reason was that at Borders I was busy discovering that I had a talent for managing people, and I was enjoying learning about the world of retail and business. Plus I wasn’t sure whether I had what it took to be a real novelist. Plus I had to pay the rent.

Regardless, I did begin another novel, the beginning of which was based on my experiences at the newspaper. I called it Holy Hell, and I was a long time getting it done, and a longer time finding a publisher. But those things happened, and I’ll write about that and more next week.

Is your house starting to smell great yet? Please enjoy your day and your weekend.

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  1. Elizabeth, massive smiles coming at you from the frozen north. Been waiting for the next installment of this saga, big time.

    This AM, reread for the 3rd time your 7 Simple Ways to Make a Good Story Great. (Is looking as tattered, anointed, highlighted as You've Got A Book In You.) At the top, in massive block letters -- AMAZING. Beside that, on the To Do Revision List.

    Yep, driving through the last 3 chapters. Feeling great about the what I hope is last revision.

    And wondering, wondering, What? Elizabeth is publishing herself? It's gonna be a long week, waiting for the next installment.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    1. Always great to see you here, Morgyn. And I'm so glad the article & book continue to be of help. Best wishes on getting those revisions done...

  2. I can't wait for the next part of this. I really enjoyed your college life. I don't think my school was as strict as to on how to write but the one class I could not wrap my head around was linguistics. In the end, I failed the class because I missed the finals (got my schedule wrong). But I retook it again and passed with a B-C average.

    1. Lidy, it's so funny, linguistics was the course I had the most trouble with too! I tend to use language intuitively, and all that deconstruction hurt my brain.


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