I’d like to think I’ve always been a strong writer, but that just isn’t the case. In grade school, I had nice penmanship. I studied hard for vocabulary tests. I won 3rd place in the third-grade spelling bee. By sixth grade, I was deemed literate and forgotten by an education system so overran and underfunded that simply pumping out piles of functionally literate people is considered an accomplishment. I slept-walked through junior high and might have been pushed a bit harder in high school, but I didn’t go to high school. While most girls my age were sitting in limousines complaining about feeling fat in their prom dress I was headed to my second job to earn enough for rent on the apartment I had moved into at age sixteen.
Statistically speaking, my fate was sealed. There is no grand explanation for what drove me to strive for more, but there are a few, small, standout moments. One of which involved a guy at a party telling me that Stephen King had dropped out of ninth grade. That's not true. One of King’s most famous characters was inspired by the biography of an evil man who had dropped out of school and ran away from home in the ninth grade, so maybe the guy at this party had misconstrued something he’d seen, read, or overheard someone talking about. I’ll never know. Whatever the case, that silly lie was a saving grace in the bleak existence of a teenager who’d been pushed out of an airlock by troubled parents. Since I was looking for motivation to succeed I likely would have found it eventually, but that off-the-cuff comment in that moment undoubtedly prevented me from drifting through space for longer than was necessary.
I had identified as an aspiring author before and during college, but I knew it was a near impossible way to earn money. I majored in psychology, slipping in journalism and creative writing classes along the way. But, as always, my core nature prevailed, and after a Ronda Rousey style match with a stack of psych-program applications, I ended up in graduate school for creative writing. Fresh off the assembly line, armed with little more than the advice of one teacher to “vary the length of my sentences,” I felt ready to conquer the world with words. Kidding. I was a total wreck. I’m pretty sure I cried on multiple occasions during my first week and almost quit at least a dozen times.
Despite showing up to my first writing workshop with an abysmal pile of scribblings, a tiny, talented woman with a huge presence and kind heart defended my work during a verbal assault from a fellow writer. A bond was forged and she went on to mentor me through my first semester. I was appreciative for her feedback from day one and soaked it up like rock moss does water on a scorching afternoon. But I was also very humbled and admit to cursing under my breath on an occasion or two. (I suspect she did the same.) Had I known then what I know now, I would have seen the brilliant ways in which she ever-so-gently (and sometimes sternly) was guiding me in how to transform my turbulent imagination from functionally literate to a ball of fire I could skillfully wield at will to ignite others. But changes that grand take time. Time I rarely see other aspiring writers willing to give themselves.
Hell, that neat little wrap up could easily seem like the end of my story, but there were three more highly accomplished mentors and workshop leaders who came after. Each more generous than the last, given that they had to contend with a girl who at the start of every new semester was increasingly convinced that she was ready to rule the Library of Congress. Patiently, each offered up inspiring reading recommendations and forced me to tackle the weakest elements in my writing at times when even scrawling a grocery list felt impossible. Ever so slowly—as current standards go, I learned to write.
The MFA formula was an enriching experience for me, but it’s not for everyone. There are a number of ways to emulate that learning/teaching model without the extreme expenditure. Contacting any program for a list of graduates (or even professors), reading their work, then reaching out to the people you’re interested in working with for editing services is a great path. Teaching positions are sparse and underpaid, so there are a great many of us out here offering freelance writing services and you can pick our brains for far less than the cost of tuition to pretty much any university.
The most productive relationship with a client often develops when a writer is seeking guidance. Some editors may disagree, but for me, it’s nothing like trying to sell timeshare. I’ve been fortunate in having some really great people land on my doorstep. Also, some not so great—but I try not to focus on those. ;) My favorite clients are those who push to develop a relationship more like a mentorship. I relish these. Though I still struggle to skillfully wield the same fire as my former mentors and have no doubt scorched a few eyebrows in failed attempts, I continue striving to pay it forward by helping others hone their craft. All the while, eternally grateful that so many people have dedicated their expertise to helping me develop and enrich mine.