From Art School To The Writing Workshop

Bookshelf-Christopher-CobbMy writing education began, oddly enough, in art school. I went to the Portland School of Art (now Maine College of Art) straight out of high school, armed with a Pentax camera and a tackle box full of charcoal and kneaded erasers. PSA had a wonderful two-year foundation program, where every student had to take a wide range of studio classes–sculpture, drawing, design, color theory, even a class called tool technology where you learned how to use the power drill and the table saw–so we would always have access to the tools we needed to make what we were inspired to make.

I spent two years making art. Sometimes terrible drawings. Sometimes eerie photographs. Sometimes surprising relief sculptures. We learned to take risks and we learned to love the process and not the product and we learned how to really look at something and we learned how to talk about art.

I dropped out right before my junior year, ostensibly because I had not yet paid for my sophomore year and lacked the funds to do so. But I really didn’t know what I was doing in art school. I hadn’t connected to a medium the way my peers had, and it felt terrifying to keep moving forward in the dark. When I told a dear friend that I was thinking of leaving school, she looked at me calmly and said you should be a writer.

No matter how busy I was at school, I still read at least one novel a week. My favorite class in art school was English. The only way I could digest the world was through writing in my journal. It was as if she had sharpened the camera lens, and there before me was my creative path.

I wish I could say I jumped right in and wrote my first story, but I didn’t. Wanting to write and knowing how to write felt like two very different things. In the meantime life went on. I moved to Boston. My dad died. I became a pastry chef. I spent a lot of time taking care of that dog I mentioned last week. I fell in love. I would occasionally take a writing class at an adult education center, but I longed to study fiction in a more committed way, with teachers and mentors and other dedicated writers. Without an undergraduate degree this seemed impossible.

Then I found Grub Street. Grub Street is a private writing center in Boston that offers writing classes from beginners to masters levels, in all genres. I have to admit, in the beginning I was terrified when taking classes at Grub. The students were way more experienced than the ones I had encountered in adult ed. Many were already published. But I kept coming back, because I found something there that reminded me of art school–a commitment to the process.

A few years later, with a first draft of THE CITY BAKER’S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING in hand, I entered  Grub’s Novel Incubator program, a year-long workshop dedicated to novel revision. For the first time I had the opportunity to study the craft of writing in a serious way. We dug into all the elements of novel writing while reading and critiquing each other’s full manuscripts. It felt like being back in art school. I made friends and met mentors, and I got to experience that wonderful feeling of immersion that comes when you give yourself the time to focus on what you are making. It was then that everything I learned in art-school came flooding back. How to look at writing with a critical eye, and how to talk about it in a constructive way. How to really see and hear your characters. How to receive feedback, and how to work with it. And most importantly, how to take risks in your work.

I am so grateful that writing centers like Grub Street exist, where the study of the craft of writing is available to everyone, not just those on the academic path. It’s the place where I built the foundation of my writing practice, and where I continue to learn how to use all the tools, so I can make the stories I am inspired to make.

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Louise Miller

Louise Miller is the author of THE CITY BAKER'S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking/August 9, 2016), the story of a commitment-phobic pastry chef who discovers the meaning of belonging while competing in the cut-throat world of Vermont county fair baking contests. Find out more at louisemillerauthor.tumblr.com.

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This article has 10 Comments

  1. Louise, I love reading what you just wrote about starting out in Art School until you found it didn’t meet your full commitment or drive your passion. Glad you found the way to being an author! I am a sometimes artist, and find that somehow my passion was interrupted by life circumstances. However, I am hoping to renew my commitment to oil painting soon. A quote I love by the author, Julia Cameron who wrote the Artist’s Way….”A painting is never finished, it simply stops in interesting places”. I am looking forward to reading your novel – The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living! I bet there is a pastry chef in Vermont in there! 🙂 !

    1. Thanks so much, Carol. I love that quote.
      I hope you can start painting again soon!

      P.s. Yes, there is indeed a pastry chef in Vermont 🙂

  2. Lining up your buyers with enthusiasm! Knowing your heart, creativity , life experiences, sensitivity, hard work, compassion, with a great sense of humor , we are all looking forward to your novel

    1. Abby, I never thought about it that way before!
      I loved this topic too–there are one million paths to the same place. Can’t wait to read yours!

  3. Grub Street sounds like a fantastic place. A year dedicated to revision through study and having dedicated readers and teachers to guide you? I can’t imagine how much you learned about the process that I am still figuring out. I wish there had been something like that in my neighborhood. But I also don’t want to minimize what it took to be accepted into a program like that: lots of hard work and talent!!! I am so excited to read your book!

    1. Thanks, Heather! Before I started taking classes I would read the acknowledgments page in the back of novels and wonder how on earth they could have so many people to thank when writing is such a solitary activity? Now I know! So excited to read your book (and your post!)

  4. Louise, I love this! In so many ways, the MFA degree is misfit in academia, because being a writer isn’t a scholarly field, it’s a vocation. I love Grubb Street and other places that have popped up for people who want to do the work, like The Grotto in San Francisco. Congrats on finding your tribe.

    1. Thanks Aya! Finding my tribe is the perfect way to put it–I am so grateful for all of the writer-friends I have made over the years, and for all the writers I have been in workshop with.

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