Finding the Heart in Your Story
Today’s VCFA guest post is by Pam Watts:
I decided to be a writer after some minor success with my first book when I was seven. I took a year off from college ten years ago and blithely wrote my “first novel.” Ha.
Many critique groups, writing classes, and conferences later, my novel was going nowhere. But I was serious about this writing thing, so I found myself at Vermont College of Fine Arts. They gave me a scholarship when they admitted me. I thought I was Pretty Hot Stuff. I just needed to learn to turn a prettier phrase (but I thought my phrases were already fairly pretty). Again, can I say: Ha.
I got to my first workshop–the extremely squirm-worthy process whereby 15-20 extremely articulate students and a teacher who has written so many books that he could generate an award-winning plot in his sleep tell you exactly what is and isn’t working with your novel–and discovered from the inimitable Tim Wynne-Jones that my characters lacked emotion, my plot lacked internal logic, my language was altogether too flowery. Oh, and that setting I thought was Wales?–Well, it felt more like Ireland, actually.
I cried big, fat, heavy tears alone in my dorm room. Then I put my hair up in a pompadour and I got on with life.
My first semester studying with one of my literary heroes — Martine Leavitt–did not go any better. I spent the entire semester trying to convince her that she just hadn’t understood my perfect vision.
Now fast forward through three semesters, a few World Wars, and a great deal of craptastic writing to my penultimate residency. Here you will find me crying in my closet after my good friend Clete finished his graduate reading.
Why was I crying this time?
Because the story Clete read from was so deep and heartfelt and emotionally honest that I suddenly realized how much resistance I have to my own writing. I realized that I aggressively “try” so I don’t have to do the real work of writing from my heart.
I’d like to say that I’m a new person now, that I have no ego and I always dig deep. Sigh. But over the course of my last semester my writing did change. I started to actually listen to my wonderful advisor — Margaret Bechard. My writing became a little darker, scarier, and more fluid. And I started to ask the question: why do I need to tell this story?
Now that I’ve graduated, that question is with me each time I sit down to write. And with it I’ve occasionally found a deep openness. This space is scary and so I often avoid it. But not always.
It’s a process.
Finding the heart of your story is like finding the heart of yourself. You never really get there, but every step you take gets you a little bit closer. And if it’s worth it to you, you keep going.
Pam Watts is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program. She writes fiction for teens, speaks about graphic novels and literacy at conferences, and blogs about children’s books and childhood adversity at Strong in the Broken Places. If you have questions or comments about this post, or about Vermont College, she can be reached directly at [email protected].