My 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.