What I’ve Learned from My Beginnings As a Writer


During the diaper-folding and food-pureeing months of my middle twenties, I began a habit of writing and reading purposefully, both of which I treasured doing. This is what I had on hand: some poem starts, the University of Washington’s “experimental college” that offered low cost non-credit classes, and a husband who could watch the kids two early evenings a week during the long light of summer. I joined the poetry writing workshop I found offered by Michael McGee, a published, newly graduated MA in Creative Writing, who had studied with the poet David Wagoner at the University of Washington. The class met on the lawn under a tree near 15th Avenue at the edge of the University’s grounds. Michael gave us assignments and we came back the next week with the poems we had written. I had never enjoyed myself more anywhere than under that tree, listening and reading my own continuing poem attempts.

During that summer, I also went to the admissions office at the University of Washington to learn how I might study with David Wagoner. What I learned was thrilling–as a credentialed public school teacher, I could enroll in the University as a non-matriculating student and take one class at a time if I wanted. Next, I found out that prospective students of David Wagoner’s had to submit samples of their writing for him to review.

I needed moral support for that venture. A friend and I strolled our babies in their umbrella strollers past the many trim coeds to Padelford Hall, where I dropped off my packet of beginnings, feeling shy and even guilty to be attempting a class that might label me a poet, a writer, not only a mom and a teacher. Who was I to seek such a role in life? I had no idea, but I knew I loved those evenings under the big tree on the lawn at the university looking at poems and talking about how to develop them. I wanted to learn to write them. I wanted to publish one.

It wasn’t long before I heard that David Wagoner had accepted me and I could enroll in his class. I had no idea what he saw in the attempts I’d made that summer, but I was going to meet with a class led by David Wagoner (whose poems I had begun reading) two times a week!

And that is where my writing life took what I considered a giant step. All fall I read as much poetry as I could, and I listened to everything everyone had to say about every poem by a class member that came up in workshop. I listened especially hard to David Wagoner’s words–be they gentle or harsh. I learned that my reading tastes didn’t match David Wagoner’s: he asked each student to take a turn starting off class by reading a poem they admired. I brought in a poem from Erica Jong’s book, Half-Lives, which he criticized. I read what he recommended and what I still liked, despite his dislike. I learned that the revision I did on a workshopped poem pleased him. I learned that it didn’t matter if the young rising star poets in the class didn’t particularly care about my response to their work since I had no publication track record. They were teaching me plenty and by comparing what they were saying with what David Wagoner was saying, I was learning at warp speed.

And I made a friend. The class was a mix of undergraduates and graduate students, newcomers to poetry writing and those who had studied intensively with other poets before entering David Wagoner’s class, because they wanted to be sure to impress him with their ability and publishing record. Paula Jones was one of David Wagoner’s protégés. He’d already published some of her work in the literary journal he edited, Poetry Northwest. He cared about what she said. And Paula Jones asked me if I wanted to spend a day with her doing writing! We would take one of the ferries from downtown Seattle to Bainbridge Island and back and write in our notebooks. We’d read what we wrote and talk about it.

I had never done this outside of class. She taught me a lot about how to respond to another’s writing directly but with kindness, with a real caring for what the poem could eventually accomplish if the poet wasn’t squelched by other’s pejorative statements. We talked about the ways of the class and the ways we might do things if we were in charge.

So now, there was one person in the class and then two, Nancy Reikow, a mom like me, who I could share my work with and my feelings about how grueling it could be sometimes in class. And I could read their poems and learn about the larger network in their writing lives–workshops they attended outside of the University, reading series they went to and participated in, information about the places they sent their work out to for publication, poets they admired and read when they were writing, and the literary journals they thought were worthwhile. I no longer felt like I knew nothing. I didn’t know a lot, but I realized I had found a way to learn more and more, a way to “catch up” with those who had been in the game longer than me.

****

For those of us who write or long to, our lives are not the same without commitment to writing and the writing life. We write to express and nurture our understanding of our lives, our intimacy with others and to honor our humanity–our sense that loving ourselves, our human condition, nature and the others in our world is important. The writing life you are building fosters all of this and brings not only more knowledge, but an increasing feeling of stability in this chosen vocation or avocation.

What do you have on hand for extending your writing life right now? As a member of Story Circle Network, you have already created a resource for yourself as a writer.

  • Can you also enroll in a class at a nearby college or university, community or literary arts foundation, or online (Story Circle Network offers wonderful ones)?
  • Can you join a writing group online through Story Circle Network or in your community or by emailing with others you know who write and may be scattered across communities?
  • Can you read about local writers and read their work in local publications?
  • Can you continue to attend readings regularly, alone or with new writing friends?
  • Can you arrange writing days or café time or email exchanges with some of the writers you are meeting (you can divide the time between doing writing, sharing writing, and supporting one another with writing information)?

Once you dive in, keep track of days you feel like you are an outsider and days you learn something that allows you to feel more connected, more sure footed in your writing world. What makes the difference? Once you know what that is–learning about a body of work, an organization, what language writers use to articulate their responses to work-in-progress, jargon that goes along with particular genres, the names of publications others in your genre are reading, the history of groups of writers, something pleasing about your own writing– you can concentrate on learning what you need to learn without worrying or feeling badly about your position as a new-be. Keep a list of the things that have helped you. Write them down for someone else (sharing what you know is the best way of connecting to learn more from others).

All the ways you study and practice writing in whatever mixture of venues, you are following your path and further negotiating the lay of the land you want to explore.

9 responses to “What I’ve Learned from My Beginnings As a Writer

  1. Sheila,

    Welcome as a regular blogger at Story Circle Network’s Telling Her Stories blog.

    I enjoy reading how you developed as a writer and the lessons you drew from it.

    Janet Riehl

  2. I really, really needed to read something like this right now. Most writers, I suppose, are more or less introverted and I am, strongly. It can be difficult for me, for various reasons other than introversion, to partake of much that you recommend in this piece but I’m going to try. You give me hope. Thank you.

  3. Sheila, you spoke for many of us—newbies and “experienced” writers alike. In particular, your words, “our lives are not the same without commitment to writing and the writing life. We write to express and nurture our understanding of our lives, our intimacy with others and to honor our humanity,” hit emotional center for me.

    Thank you for sharing accessible ways to build writing community, confidence, and craft.

  4. Pingback: Blogtalk: Memoir Writing Advice — Writing Through Life

  5. I found this extremely encouraging and inspiring; thank you so much!

  6. Great suggestions. I enjoyed reading how each step led to another down your writer’s path.

  7. It’s so encouraging to see how all the small steps added up!
    We set ourselves up for failure when we only envision the final huge goal & fail to anticipate & enjoy the smallest, daily decisions that make all the difference.
    Thanks for sharing your inspiring experiences & helping us believe in our own. 😉

  8. Pingback: MotionPoems presents “Thoreau and the Lightning” by David Wagoner (poet) and Adam Tow (video artist) « The Nightly Poem

  9. Pingback: BlogTalk: Memoir Writing Advice – Writing Through Life

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