Okay, not really. But evidently I am blithe, or oblivious, or more isolated than I realized because I can’t remember getting any writing advice. From anyone. Ever.
Not that I shouldn’t have. My undergraduate college has a strong legacy of writers in its alumnae (Zora Neale Hurston, Erica Jong, Lionel Shriver and Jhumpa Lahiri among them) and I was lucky enough to be admitted to the creative writing concentration as part of my English degree. When I applied to the program, I had fantasies of going from graduation to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and becoming the next Flannery O’Connor. In the meantime I took classes, went to readings, and finally got into the hallowed Story Writing II, taught by the college’s Guggenheim-Fellow, Story Prize-winning author-in-residence. At the end of the semester I turned in my 50-page final portfolio, eager for the one-on-one feedback that was often absent in the discussion-oriented class.
And I’m pretty sure she didn’t read it.
I worked so hard to produce that manuscript, which was an admittedly disjointed but heartfelt, minimalist tale of a woman whose self-isolation was illustrated through her fear of flying. I toiled – I bled! Yet after a few halfhearted margin comments like “nice imagery” and “good”, the professor’s comments ran out. She didn’t make a single note on the latter two-thirds of the manuscript, and her three-sentence, evaluative write-up on the attached grading form was so bland it could’ve been about anything from Moby Dick to the Book of Mormon.
I got an A- on my portfolio. I did not apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In fact, as far as I can remember, I never wrote another word of literary fiction after that.
But I did start writing romance.
I guess I owe a lot to that professor, albeit not in a way I could’ve predicted. It wasn’t her bad advice that changed me, it was her ambivalence. I would’ve loved some bad advice at that point! Instead I got radio silence, and that was far worse. Why bother to write what someone can’t be bothered to read? And why sweat over crafting perfect, evocative, edgy, Raymond Carver-esque sentences when it’s so much easier to gush out a description of a swoony hero’s six-pack?
I began writing romance out of compulsion, not design. And since I certainly wasn’t going to show my rock star-meets-fashion designer tales to my literati circle (I still remember the story about a guy drinking Scotch in a bathtub that was presented during one of my short-lived writers’ group attempts, specifically the description of his testicles shrinking in the cold bathwater), I continued to write on my own, and still do to this day – with no intrusions, no interactions.
Thing is, it’s the only way I know how to write. I’ve never used a beta reader, I’ve never been to a conference, and only since moving to Johannesburg a year ago have I joined my first association (which is fledgling and nothing like the RWA powerhouse). It’s probably not the right way to do it – I’d probably benefit hugely and produce more commercially successful material if I had guidance and feedback as to markets and trends and styles. But at the same time I steer clear of the wrong advice…and the ambivalence. And that works for me.