On Writing

I grew up at North Litchfield Beach, an obscure nook on the South Carolina coast. Very few people lived at the beach year-round, and I had just a couple of friends to pass the time with. My parents ran a restaurant in Murrell’s Inlet where they worked most nights, and so my two younger sisters and I had to create a way to entertain ourselves. In order to quell the boredom, we made up story after story with long, outlandish plots, and I became aware (at age eight or so) that once a character is up and walking in your mind, they really take on a life of their own. As Faulkner once said, “All I have to do is catch up with them and write down what they say and do.” After my sisters and I would finish a story, we’d act it out on the screened porch for our babysitters. I suppose if it weren’t for a whole lot of free time, I never would have started writing.

We moved to Greenville, South Carolina when I was twelve years old. I had an English teacher who encouraged me to apply to the local fine arts high school and once I was accepted I chose to focus on poetry. Poet Jan Bailey was my beloved Creative Writing teacher and, she cracked open the world for me by exposing me to quality poetry and fiction. Jan soon pointed out that all of my poems were narrative and forced me to try my hand at a short story. My first story was about three crazed nuns in a parochial school who locked their students away for cracking the campus birdbath. It was so much fun to write fiction (and much more forgiving than poetry) that I never looked back.

I went on to the undergraduate Literature and Creative Writing program at Hollins College because I yearned to study with the very professors who had taught some of my favorite authors such as Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle and Annie Dillard. At Hollins I read and wrote voraciously and submitted my stories to be workshopped on a regular basis. It was an immeasurably beneficial experience because it helped me to identify my voice.

After I graduated, I moved to Washington, DC to work for Share Our Strength where I spent three years working with writers, bookstores and MFA programs to coordinate Writers Harvest, a literary benefit that took place in over 100 locations nationwide to raise money for community food banks and soup kitchens. During this time, I had the opportunity to work with some of the country’s best authors including Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Charles Baxter, Richard Russo, Gloria Naylor, Maya Angelou and Bret Lott. After encouragement from several of these authors and a blessing from RHW Dillard, my Creative Writing professor from Hollins, I decided to attend the MFA fiction writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. I started my first novel, Grace at Low Tide, during this time. Portions of the novel served as my graduate school thesis.

Overall, writing and publishing my first novel was a ten year process. I wrote and revised the novel over a six year period. (However, I had a baby in the midst of it, and I certainly took off several months during that time, so it’s difficult to say for sure.) After I completed the manuscript, I spent two years securing an agent and two more searching for a publishing home.

For those aspiring writers out there, this is an important piece of the story- My agent, who certainly did shop the book around, didn’t actually open the door for me with my publisher. A kind novelist, Gayle Roper, who I met at a writing conference read a portion of the book and called the fiction editor at Thomas Nelson to tell them to be on the look-out for my manuscript. Therefore, it never hurts to attend a writing conference and show your work to other writers. You never know what good Samaritan might stick their neck out for you.

My advice to aspiring writers is to read the best quality literature you can get your hands on. The New York Times compiled a survey a few years ago taken from among the top writers and editors in the publishing world regarding the best work of American fiction published over the last twenty-five years. I’d recommend any book on that list. The top choice was Toni Morisson’s Beloved and the rest can be viewed at the following link http://www.nytimes.com/ref/books/fiction-25-years.html.

Some of my favorite books on the craft of writing include Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor, Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, Writing the Break-Out Novel by Don Maass, and Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway.

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