Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Getting There One Kick in the Butt at a Time

This evening, I'm working on my application for Hedgebrook, a women's writing residency on Whidbey Island near Seattle. Thought I'd share my answer to one of the questions on the application. Now you have some insight to how I became a fiction writer!

Who or what has influenced or inspired you and your writing?

I wasn’t one of those girls who knew at age six that she wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up – except a thousand miles from the town of 1,200 where I lived. Then, several teachers throughout my junior and high school years suggested I try writing as a profession. They were adults. They knew more than I did about life. So after graduation, I decided to pursue a journalism degree… only to have a well-respected writer from Texas Monthly magazine (who happened to live in my tiny hometown of 1,200 people) tell me I didn’t need a ‘goddamn j-school degree.’ He said to study political science or philosophy or go see the world instead. Alas, I ignored his advice, finished up j-school and became a reporter. For the next two decades of my career I continued as a nonfiction writer and editor, working for national nonprofits and the United Nations.

Up until 2009, fiction was something I read. I didn’t want to write fiction. No way. No how. Well, until the Universe smacked me on the head one day with an idea and told me to sit my butt down at the computer and write.

I protested: “I have a day job. I didn’t have time for this foolishness. I don’t know anyone else who writes fiction!” To stop my whining, the Universe introduced me to AROHO, or A Room of Her Own Foundation. It said, “Go to the desert and make nice with other writers. It’ll be good for you.” So, I showed up at Ghost Ranch in August 2009 for my first AROHO women’s writer retreat. I met 80 women with niggly voices in their heads calling them to write poetry, plays, short stories, novels. Together, we took classes from women who’d been published, who’d made it as “real” writers. We told them our fears and they wrapped their collective arms around us and told us to be brave, to listen closely to the voices, and of course, to sit our butts down and write.

At that retreat, I met two women who went on to shape the next two years of my writing life more than anyone or anything else:

  • Flash fiction writer Pamela Painter introduced me to the “short form” and I fell in love with telling stories using a brevity of words. I had two pieces published that next fall in literary journals and then had proof that yes, indeed, I write fiction.

  • A literary agent (who shall remain anonymous) critiqued the first chapter of my novel in progress. She said it was trite with clich├ęd characters, and too dark to be marketable. That evening, I sat alone in the desert, watching a brilliant lightning storm and crying my eyes out. I’d tasted rejection for the first time and I survived. Little did I know how much rejection awaited me…the fiction writer.

As my nephew told me recently. "Mandy, you can't not write. It's who you are. Trying to imagine a different kind of life is giving up."
Please tell me about that person, place or thing that influenced you are today...or who you want to be in the future!


  1. My father influenced me with wisdom. He once told me this: Writing is an action word. You can't be a writer without writing, so you have to go out and do it.

    I've taken that to heart and have lived it day to day.

  2. Windows were my nemesis in school. Out the window my thoughts would go. I imagined stepping outside through the window and flying high over my hometown (ha! -- smaller than yours, at about 500 souls) and watching all the people, imagining each one as having its own story ripe with passion and disappointment and victories. At first, that made me into a poet. Then a flash fiction writer. Then a short story writer. And now, finally, a novelist, trying to learn my craft.

    I love your honesty in your writing here, Mandy. It makes you crackle with life.

  3. My son inspired me. First it was because I made up stories and songs to entertain him, and later when I wrote them down discovered I loved to write. He's also my beta reader and continues to inspire me.