In the winter of 2010, I finished writing my book.
In many ways, I did the whole thing backwards. No one asked me to write a book. I had no proposal. No chapter outline. No plan or platform or agent or advance. It sort of just happened anyway.
The whole thing started when I was more than a year into my Master of Fine Arts program. For no particular reason, I (somewhat reluctantly) wrote an essay about my evangelical past for my Creative Nonfiction Core class.
I’m not sure what spurred me to write about that part of my life. I certainly hadn’t intended to. In many ways, my decision to go to Hamline University was motivated by a desire to flee the conservative Christian “bubble” that I’d spent most of my life in. I was a little jaded, a little cynical, a little tired of the whole thing.
I had drawn a line in my heart between “Christian writers” and “REAL writers,” and I wanted to be somewhere where my writing could grow into something a little bit unsafe. Something gritty and honest and hopefully good. I hoped that the sheer act of being at Hamline would push me out of some subpar subgroup and toward a literary elite.
I was taking all these memoir classes, slowly becoming obsessed with the structural freedom and unique perspective that the creative nonfiction genre had to offer. I felt at home in memoir writing. And, at the same time, I’d spent my formative years shaped by the waves of that powerful 90s Christian subculture.
I couldn’t embrace creative nonfiction without diving headfirst back into that strange sea. So I wrote an essay about my Super-Christian high school boyfriend. I was writing about first love a little bit. But mostly, I was writing about how the strength of his faith and of the dazzling Christian subculture pulled me in like a magnet.
After class, my adviser took me aside. “This is clearly your work,” she said, and I knew with a fearful certainty that she was right.
When I applied for the MFA program at Hamline, the thesis requirement was a “book-length work of publishable quality.” By the time I got to my Thesis year, however, they’d softened the requirement to 80-100 pages: a polished subset of a future work.
I chose to write the book-length work anyway.
Partly, I did it to see if I could. I wanted to know if I had the chops for an actual, honest-to-God book.
But also, I did it because I had to find the end of the thread. Not a happily-ever-after, necessarily. But some kind of resolution to the doubt and pain I’d been sifting through.
This is the problem with being in a creative nonfiction writing program at the moment when you most desperately want to give up on your faith. You keep getting pushed back to where it began, prompt by prompt, class by class. You are forced again and again back into the surging tide of your evangelical youth, forced to engage with it on the deepest levels. You have to repaint it scene by scene, conversation by conversation, one fragile moment at a time.
From a literary standpoint, I should probably have been further removed from the events of the book before I set them down on the blank page. But I did it anyway, and my adviser kept saying, “This is your work,” and they sounded like holy words, strong and sturdy in the middle of my doubt and fear.
So I wrote and wrote and wrote until it was done.
I finished the book just before Christmas 2010. In February 2011, I gave my graduate reading. I was 7-and-a-half-months pregnant with my second son, gasping for air from my crowded diaphragm as I read to friends, family, colleagues, professors.
I spent the next couple of months pulling out bins of newborn clothes and picking through publishing blogs. For the first time, I came across words like “platform” and “readership” and “Wordpress” and “Twitter.” Words I knew of, vaguely, but had never given much thought.
I didn’t really know blogs were still a thing until then, but I started reading them in earnest, and slowly it began to dawn on me that even though I had a book-length work of (potentially) publishable quality…I was missing other somewhat essential things for a non-fiction writer. Internet presence. Readers. Platform. Published articles in national and literary magazines. A well-read, much-loved blog.
In the world of nonfiction writing, I learned, authors submitted not full manuscripts, but rather proposals. Outlines. Brilliant ideas bolstered by all kinds of brilliant, quantifiable ways to market them.
I’d done it backwards. I’d written a book that I loved. A book that changed me in the writing.
I’d done my work, and it had been hard and beautiful and bitter all at once…and now I stood in the cavernous middle, not sure where to turn next.
[Note: This is Part 1 of a 5-part series on my publishing journey. The next installment will be published next Friday, September 27. I hope you’ll join me here then!)
[Also, you can read the Prologue and first chapter of When We Were On Fire HERE.]