MFA, Schm-MFA…and Other Reasons Why I’m the Unlikeliest of Authors

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I’ve always been a reader. My first word was “book,” and some of my most treasured childhood memories are from the days I spent cozied up with Roald Dahl stories. By the time I was thirteen, I discovered Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury, gateway authors into the science fiction world. My geekiness soared tenfold.

Perhaps those authors give the impression I was a sophisticated child reader; my big sister would claim that I’d be remiss (read: a liar) not to confess that I went through a phase during which I read nothing but Goosebumps. Embarrassing, yes, but today this fact makes me a hero to my now eight-year-old nephew.

Despite my love of reading, the only time I wanted to be an author was first grade. (I’m hoping Mrs. Capizzi forgives me for not dedicated my first book to her as she requested!) My first-grade aspiration was before I realized I was terrible at diagramming sentences, before my sixth grade composition teacher gave me a coming-to-Jesus lecture for being unable to form a thesis statements, and before I cheated on words and fell in love with numbers.

I was a math major at the Air Force Academy. Math majors don’t write books. At least not ones with more sentences than equations.

Then living through the story which would become my memoir compelled me to write.

I started writing Caged Eyes the way any sensible math major would attack a book: I made charts. I turned my life history into plot points and stapled the diagrams to poster boards as if it was a science fair project. Eventually I realized I would have to, you know…find words. When I finally sat down at a computer, all I could do was compose a detailed chronological account: 96,217 words (see, numbers!) Those pages were a long way from the literary quality necessary to be considered a memoir.

This is the point I’d recommend a rational person to seek out a Masters in Fine Arts program for creative writing. I didn’t do that – I didn’t even know to do that – but by luck, I found the best alternative: Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

Lighthouse is a non-profit literary center in Denver which offers classes to the public. In eight-week workshops, writers swap work for critique and learn from each other as well as from accomplished instructors.

The first time I climbed the stairs to the attic of Lighthouse’s Victorian-style mansion, I was terrified. Sitting around an oak dining table with eight other writers humbled me beyond measure. One of my classmates now claims that back then I didn’t even know who Emily Dickinson was. I’m pretty sure that’s an exaggeration…but not my much. I was sure that if we had taken bets on which of us would succeed in publishing a full-length memoir, I would not have been on that list.

But here I am, thanks in large part to the Lighthouse community. My first instructor, Shari Caudron, became a long-time mentor and coach. Four of my classmates in that initial workshop decided we would continue to meet, and our writers’ group carries on nine years later. They are fixtures in my writing and in my life.

Lighthouse grew with me as I grew as a writer. The instructors went easy on me at first, then challenged me once I was ready. I took breaks – at one point even for a few years – and Lighthouse waited for me to return. My friends there supported me as I searched for an agent and then a publisher, and they continue to support me as I await my pub day. Without them, Caged Eyes wouldn’t exist.

That’s the story of how a numbers nerd transformed into a published author. Don’t worry, I haven’t abandoned the left hemisphere of my brain entirely. I still have a half dozen Excel spreadsheets mapping Caged Eyes to show for it.

 

 

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Lynn Hall is a memoirist, activist in the movement to end sexual violence, ultra-runner, and crazy cat lady. Her memoir, CAGED EYES: AN AIR FORCE CADET’S STORY OF RAPE AND RESILIENCE, was published by Beacon Press in February 2017. Her writing has previously appeared in the New York Times, The LA Times, Hippocampus Magazine, The Sexual Assault Report, The Manifest-Station, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and elsewhere. In the summers, Lynn copes with publication anxiety by spending too many days in the Colorado mountains, and in the winters, with pans of brownies. She lives in Boulder with her partner and their 23 cats. Just kidding…she only has five.

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