Mary Vensel White-bannerThe trajectory of my writing career has never been a normal one (if there is such a thing). My major was English, not Creative Writing, because I loved reading and writing about literature (I still do), and I didn’t finish my graduate degree until I was thirty. But during those formative years of study, I did begin to dabble in prose. And poetry. And very bad prose poetry. I was reading lots of short stories then, so I started writing the same. I remember taking one creative writing class during my college years. I didn’t like it. The process seemed very private and sacred to me then, and not something I wanted to share. The idea of critique was nauseating. Writing was something you suffered through alone.

writers tribal tattooMy now-published novel was written during the day at a receptionist job I had while I attended graduate school in the evenings. It was the second novel I completed. I still think the first one has merit, these many years later, but that’s beside the point. That second/first novel, the one that struck through, was published in 2014, at least 15 years after I wrote it. In the interim we had moved back to California, had four children. I still read, all the time, but I didn’t write much for many years. I had finished a third novel during that child-free, college period, and had made some tentative notes for a fourth.

This is all a roundabout way to talking about my first workshop experience, which happened recently, long after I finished college and despite the fact that I had already published a novel and written a few more.

My favorite writer is Kent Haruf. If you don’t know who that is, please go and look him up. His most well-known novel is Plainsong, but all of them are transcendent. He passed away last year, after writing his final novel, Our Souls at Night, a tribute to his wife and their love story.

My novel, The Qualities of Wood, was published by HarperCollins in 2014. I found my way to publication through a website for unpublished writers and went through the entire, long (four years!) process in an abnormal way, without an agent. This isn’t a post about that.

A few years ago, I started writing a collection of stories, for fun. And I realized I hadn’t been reading short stories for a long time, not even the ones in my Harper’s and New Yorker every month. I don’t know why. I started reading them again to look at different ways collections are structured and not surprisingly, I started loving the form again.

Since then, I have discovered many writers who have been around for a long time, but whom I missed during my years of reading mostly the classics during college, and only novels in the child-raising years after. I kept working on my own story collection, which was experimental in form and probably the most fun I’ve had writing (so far).

I discovered Ron Rash, whose evocative style and subtle wisdoms I thought might go some distance in filling the Haruf-sized hole in my heart. I found Richard Bausch’s writing, of which I felt the same. His story “Not Quite Final,” which I had, in fact, read somewhere before, is one of the best I’ve ever read, and I said so in my 2015 end-of-year Favorite Reads post on my blog.

When my novel was published, I attended many signings and events as a published writer, and met many wonderful writers. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed talking craft at conferences. I had a great time. Having a book in print was very gratifying but alas, it was not a bestseller. Now, in many ways, I find myself back at the starting line—no agent, no book deal queued up, scrabbling around for a foothold. But this post isn’t about that. It’s a struggle most writers know well.

I finished that project, the collection of stories (which I’m now calling a novel but that, too, is beside the point) and last year for NaNoWrimo, I started yet another novel, my sixth, if you count the stories-turned-novel. And alongside all of this work, there has been the constant, solitary roller-coaster of the writing life. Rejections and small victories, struggling to find time and motivation, life getting in the way in good and bad ways.

You know the feeling when you spend time with family and friends, and everyone talks about their jobs and you end up not saying much? During the period when my book was being published and there were things on the calendar, it was easier to have conversations about writing. People who don’t write, nice as they are, tend to think in terms of events, or practical matters. “When is your next book coming out?” they ask; or, “How much money did you make?” When the answers are “I don’t know,” and “Not much,” things get awkward fairly quickly. And it’s not like a real job, anyway, is it? You don’t have tasks someone asks of you, or coworkers who annoy you, or changes in company policy you’re forced to implement. There isn’t much to talk about when nothing much is happening on the outside, when it’s just foolish you, missing fun times to toil away on something no one will probably ever see.

Earlier this year, I came across a notice about an upcoming workshop being taught at a local university by Richard Bausch, the excellent and venerated writer I’d, coincidentally, recently discovered. It seemed like a sign, like something I needed to try. Maybe, I thought, I should finally learn something about creative writing in a “normal” way. And why not learn from a master of the short story? I had no idea how our busy family would juggle things so that I could attend this weekly workshop over a period of months, but I figured the chances of me getting a spot were remote anyway.

Short version: I got into the workshop, and it certainly kick-started my writing output. For many weeks, I spent Tuesday evenings soaking up Mr. Bausch’s wisdom, reveling in his anecdotes about famous writers, benefiting from the insights of the other talented writers in the room. But there was scant, “normal,” instructional stuff. Sure, from time to time, we’d touch on something practical, something I imagine you’d cover in a “traditional” creative writing class. But the best parts, for certain, were the constant encouragements from the kind-hearted Mr. Bausch, who reminded us time and again about our special calling, and how fortunate we should feel for being able to write. He gave us great insights into the writing life, and the mantras you must adopt to weather the insecurities, the failures, the hardship of the task. It was both reassuring and humbling to hear that after twenty-something books and prestigious awards, he could still doubt his ability, his purpose.

He implored us to continue meeting even after his part in the workshop had ended. Finding your tribe is the most important thing, he told us. One of his strongest satisfactions in teaching the annual workshop, he claimed, is the part he plays in facilitating the formation of these continuing, supportive writing groups.

For me, writing is still that private and sacred act, completed in isolation, with heavy doses of doubt and angst for fuel. But emerging from the cave once in a while, to blink in the light and gather round a water cooler, talking shop with other similarly tormented souls, can make those sequestered times more bearable.


MARY VENSEL WHITE is an author and contributing editor to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.