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Writing Certificate

THE WRITER'S SPOTLIGHT

The Online and On-Campus Writing Programs offer more than one hundred courses each year, including the two-year Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. This space will aim the spotlight on the talented alumni and faculty of our courses, featuring news of recent successes, opportunities for networking and publishing, short personal essays, and interviews relevant to all aspects of the writing life. If you have a piece of news or know of an opportunity you'd like to share with our community, please email: continuingstudies.stanford.edu.
 

October 2021

This month, we are thrilled to spotlight Jack Livings, author of the new debut novel, The Blizzard Party. Jack’s earlier story collection, The Dog, received the PEN / Robert W. Bingham Prize and the Rome Prize for Literature, and was named a Best Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Jack lives in New York and teaches fiction writing courses in our Online Writing Certificate Program in Novel Writing program. He contributed this beautiful essay about his writing process and how he eventually discovered the true subject of his novel. Jack and his agent, Anna Stein, will be one of five author/agent teams who will be featured in our Winter 2022 course, “From Writer to Author: Navigating the Twisty Path to Publication.”

Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
It seems I never know what I’m writing about until I’m almost finished. And knowing that I’m almost finished is a function of finally being able to say, Oh, that’s what this is about, so there’s a devious circular logic to the process that’s required me to get used to flying blind most of the time. When I started writing The Blizzard Party, long before there was a blizzard or a party, I had one character, and I had some index cards. The character was named Erwin Saltwater. I really liked his name, and I knew he was a novelist. I got the index cards at the Rite Aid on Clinton Street in Brooklyn.

The index cards propagated until I had a few more characters, some scenes, some ideas. But most important, I had that stack of cards, tangible proof that I was making something, even if I had no idea what. I put a rubber band around the cards and took them to work with me every day. I didn’t usually have time to take them out of my bag, but I knew they were there. The stack grew and I added another rubber band, crosswise, so the thing was strapped up like an old-fashioned parcel, until some of the cards formed a faction and seceded, so I had two stacks. This went on for a while, stacks generating stacks, and I still had no idea what I was working on. 

I bought the cards to tame my fear of the blank page. I’d read Nabokov’s unfinished novel The Original of Laura, in which the index cards he was working on when he died had been meticulously reproduced. If so moved, you could tear the cards out—they were perforated—and shuffle them around to make your own Nabokovian adventure. I opted not to. I had enough problems writing my own fiction without taking on his, but I found comfort in Nabokov’s deliberate script, the slow, generative process implied by the legible, A+ schoolboy handwriting; and though the standard line was that he’d drafted on cards to facilitate structural changes, I sensed that he used cards to ease his passage through that most terrifying stage of the process, when the empty page can look as vast as the universe itself (maybe because we know it can contain an entire universe). I was probably only projecting, but it helped. 

My year of index cards turned into a second. I can’t truthfully say I wasn’t still writing on index cards into the third year of what, all told, was an eleven-year process, but eventually, maybe overcompensating for all that time with those little cards, I switched to writing in a sketchbook as big as a baking tray. And then, after filling six of them, I started transcribing from the sketchbooks to the computer. I thought I’d figured out what the book was about, and it was time.

I was wrong. The protagonist hadn’t even shown up yet. She was still a couple of years away, assessing the situation from a safe distance. Only after she arrived and took over the story, gave it shape and a reason for existing, did I understand what it was all about: her, her life, her attempt to write a book that would explain her own existence. It’s like that, isn’t it? We write in the dark, sometimes for years, until the lights go on all at once, and the hard thing is keeping faith that when we’re bumbling around, walking into walls and falling down stairs, there’s a fuse box somewhere in the house. But there always is. It just takes a while to find it.
 

September 2021

This month, we are delighted to spotlight the publication of Tracey Lange’s sparkling debut novel, We Are the Brennans, which concerns a large and messy Irish American family. Tracey was a student in our Online Writing Certificate Program in Novel Writing (OWC), and when I invited her to write a guest post about the writing of her novel, she chose to share specifics about her experience in the program and how it helped her to produce this book. We are honored to have worked with Tracey and thrilled for the success of her novel, an instant New York Times bestseller!

Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
 

How I Made the Most of My OWC Experience
 

One reason I was attracted to the OWC program was the flexibility it offered. It was entirely online, and I could complete assignments when my schedule allowed. But even more important was the option to develop and workshop the material of my choosing at any given time, whether it was in the first draft stage or a later, more developed stage. Ultimately this enabled me to share and receive feedback on two projects during the program, which was valuable in helping identify my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. It also assisted with getting my book in the best possible shape before I ventured into the scary world of querying agents.
 
Prior to beginning the program in September 2017, I was about 40,000 words into what would become my debut novel, We Are the Brennans. However, I didn’t workshop it until the second year of the program. Instead, I worked on and presented a different novel during the first three courses. I realized by then that Brennans was going to be a complex story with a big cast of characters and many points of view, and I wanted more knowledge and experience before I fully tackled it. In hindsight, I know I was also nervous about sharing it because I was so passionate about the idea, and it felt a bit fragile. So while it was difficult to take a step back from the manuscript for several months, working on a new idea freed me to experiment with different material and build up a thicker skin from those workshop critiques—which were essential to helping me learn and improve.
 
When the second year of the program began, I felt ready to share Brennans. I’d spent the summer between courses working on it, applying everything I was learning about the craft of writing, as well as my own skills as a writer. By this time I’d also been lucky enough to connect with a few other people in my cohort who wanted to meet and share work outside of our regular classes, something I found extremely valuable. (And still do. Some of us continue to meet regularly, almost two years after completing the program.)
 
In order to obtain the most feedback possible, I finished Brennans in time to share the whole novel with peers in the last core course, “Manuscript Preparedness.” Armed with their thoughts and suggestions, I went through a significant revision before presenting it for the one-on-one tutorial with my instructor, the wonderful Deborah Johnson. Deborah’s fresh eyes and tough questions helped me take the novel to yet another level, and it was this draft that I submitted to an agent when I had the opportunity. After yet another rewrite she agreed to represent my book (which eventually went through several more revisions before being bought by an editor, and then a few more before being published).
 
Throughout the process of publishing my first novel I’ve often thought about what brought me there, and I will be forever grateful for the OWC program. Not only did I learn fundamental tools necessary for novel writing, but I also realized how crucial it is to collaborate with other motivated writers who support and challenge me every step of the way. Without the program, it’s hard to believe my novel would have found its way out into the world.
 

August 2021

This month, we spotlight a wonderful nonfiction instructor in our program, Chaney Kwak, whose first book, The Passenger: How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruises & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship, was published in June 2021 and garnered praise from The Washington Post, Afar, and many other publications.

Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator



 
Malena Watrous: Chaney, please start by telling us about the assignment that landed you on the sinking ship of The Passenger. What did you realize that things were going horribly wrong?

Chaney Kwak: In 2019, a travel magazine hired me to write about the beauty of the Northern Lights—as well as the cruise ship I was on. But nobody had planned that the ship's four engines would fail in the middle of a bad storm. The high waves and wind pushed the useless ship toward the shore, and once the captain told us to evacuate, I stuffed my passport down my underwear—because I figured there was a good chance I wouldn't make it out of there. I wanted my body to be identified.

MW: Can you talk about the process of creating a memoir out of this experience? When did you realize that you had more than an article? How did the book take shape?

CK: It probably wouldn't surprise you to hear that the magazine killed the story. Cruises advertise heavily in travel magazines, after all. After I got off the ship (spoiler! I didn't die; in fact, nobody did), I wrote and rewrote about the experience. I didn't think it was a memoir, let alone a stand-alone book, though. Looking back, I was attempting an exorcism of sorts.

MW: Exorcism? 

CK: Maybe that's too dramatic, but I felt haunted by what the experience unleashed in me. Mind you, I was a pampered passenger on a cruise ship, and pretending that the experience was hardship would be laughable. The crew were cooking and cleaning the toilets even without a working engine while the passengers sat around. (That kind of inequality, by the way, is among the larger issues I try to tackle in the book—and seems to infuriate some of the cruise lovers who read the book.)

“Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events,” Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. “What matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

MW: And your book uses this sinking ship as a metaphor for other aspects of your life that you came to realize also were dragging you down. Is that something that occurred to you in that moment, or later, when you were writing the book?

CK: Even though much of the physical action of The Passenger takes place aboard a luxury ship, what I was trying to articulate—and yes, exorcise—wasn't what happened on that ship. And that epiphany would not have happened without the pandemic. During the early months of the quarantine, everything seemed so uncertain while we hunkered down. I realized I'd already had that experience—during that cursed cruise! 

What began as a funny, salty story about a cruise gone wrong—originally told from a rather superior point of view, I'm embarrassed to admit—grew a heart during the quarantine. First I interviewed rescue workers who stayed up all night to ensure that the 1,373 people on the ship stayed safe. Then I realized I was trying to make sense of the demise of a personal relationship. When the COVID-19 lockdown happened, I also began trying to make sense of this calamity we were all experiencing. And that lockdown wasn't just an isolated event, I realized, but another jigsaw piece making up the world we inhabit, touching upon class, migration, history, family, and relationships. 

The Passenger is a scrappy little book that tries to involve those weighty issues because you can't write about any (near-)disaster in a vacuum. This is to say: Yes, during the twenty-seven hours between the cruise ship's power failure and the time we docked safely, I did a lot of thinking about how my life was going off course. But that as a sinking ship metaphor? No, that came out of the process of writing and rewriting and rewriting, because I'm a very slow thinker and only seem to see the most obvious things when I'm revising for the millionth time.

MW: You write in your book about wondering if your memoir will be too "me-moi-me-moi," which I take to mean self-involved or self-regarding. This is also the name of a course you are teaching this quarter at Stanford Continuing Studies: "Beyond the Me-Moi." Where did this term come from, what does it mean to you, and what techniques do you use to write about personal experience while striving for something more universal? 

CK: I never thought I'd have a life interesting enough to warrant a memoir. Michelle Obama? Of course. Me? Nah. I don't think I'm interesting; it's just that my understanding of memoirs has changed.

The Passenger wasn't meant to be a memoir. But I realized that, if I wanted to tell a story about interconnectedness of lives, there was no going around the self as a character. How could I excuse myself off the page when I'm writing that we set off countless different domino tiles each day, inadvertently affecting lives while also being affected by others' choices? I own up to a lot of my mistakes. There are parts that I wish my family would never read. But without honesty, The Passenger would have stayed what I started with: a smug little vignette, not a book that tries to understand the self as just one of the billions of parts that make up this world.

The question of universality is a difficult one. Are there certain things that are universally resonant? Reading is a uniquely human activity. This is what separates us from animals. So I hope, even if you simply cannot see yourself in any of the characters in The Passenger, it still gives you a reason to keep turning the page. 

So when I say “me-moi,” it's in part a caution against aggrandizing the self without seeing the larger issues. If you just want to look good and flatter yourself, don't resort to a memoir; just get on Instagram and use a filter like a normal person. Being honest and personal doesn't automatically mean being self-centered. Honesty is hard; it can be painful, and there might be some casualty in your personal life. To that end, sharing oneself—and making oneself vulnerable—is an act of generosity. 

But I also mean me-moi as a caution for readers. It's not just about handpicking things that you can relate to. Because if we were to only read books that we can relate to, what does that say about our ability to empathize? How does that bode for our future? 

MW: Finally, what's next for you as a writer? Do you have another project in mind? Or do you prefer to see where life takes you and write serendipitously from experience as it happens?

CK: I've seen enough writing projects of mine wither and die, so I can't say I know where I'm headed. But I'm writing. I'm trying. And hoping. That's the best that a writer can do, really.
August Extra
We are also thrilled to highlight Sheila Ongwae, who recently took our course "The Magazine Story: From the Real World to the Page" and has had her first publication accepted. Read her Modern Love piece in the New York Times,When a Summer Hookup Lasts 12 Years, It’s Time to Reassess.”
 

July 2021

This month, we spotlight Olympus, Texas, the debut novel by Stacey Swann, who taught creative writing online through Stanford Continuing Studies for many years. Stacey Swann was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and is a contributing editor of American Short Fiction. A native Texan, her home state forms the setting for her novel, which is both raucous and moving, and a book that everyone should hurry out and read. Please enjoy our interview below, which includes several real gems of wisdom that every aspiring novelist can use. (I know I will!)

Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
 
Malena Watrous: Stacey, I absolutely love how you wove together this rich tapestry of mythology together with a contemporary family drama. Please share a bit about the origins of the project. Which came first—the Greek influences or the Texan clan? Or did you have the idea to write a contemporary pantheon and then come up with characters and stories to match?

Stacey Swann: The novel actually began with the mythology. It occurred to me that Greek and Roman mythology—with its larger-than-life characters and events—made a good fit with Texas mythology, which also views itself as feeling larger than life. Everything's bigger in Texas, as they say! The early drafting and planning of the novel felt like a really fun game as I tried to take the gods from myth and create counterparts that were fully mortal, modern-day Texans.


MW: In that same vein, how did the process work? Did having these myths as inspirations made it easier for you to figure out the plot of the story you wanted to tell? Where did you feel like you had to be true to the source material and where did you let yourself deviate?

SS: In the first couple of months of my drafting, I was sticking really close to actual myths that I knew. I had a whole chapter that was an update of the myth about Hades kidnapping Persephone, and I was building up a longer plot revolving around the labors of Hercules. It was tough work, though, making them feel believable in their updated settings. I workshopped the opening chapter during my first workshop as a Stegner Fellow, and I got the invaluable advice from the class to not feel bound to the actual myths and to feel free to build my own plot. From that point on, I focused much more on the character archetypes themselves rather than the actual myths—though there are still a few myth scenes that made it through to the final version!

MW: What is your writing process like these days, now that you have finished and published your first novel? Is there anything you learned as a result of writing it that you would either replicate or avoid the next time around?

SS: It wound up taking me twelve years to write this novel, with a lot of gaps when I put the book away to work on other projects, and then another three years to find an agent, sell the book, and do two more rounds of revision with my editor at Doubleday. So for the past year I took a break from fiction and mostly worked on essays. However, I have finally started work on a new novel with an idea I've been kicking around for a few years. I feel really lucky, as teaching for so many years with Stanford's Online Creative Writing Program, and especially the courses for the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing, taught me so much about more effective ways to write a first draft and new ways to approach novel structure. I'm excited to try out these tools on the next book.

The biggest thing that I learned is that there is a special kind of magic created when you work on a book every single day, even if it is just fifteen minutes of re-reading. Stopping and starting creates an extra set of hurdles, as too long of a break means having to fight your way back into the world of the book. I'd have to write a lot of words before the scenes felt fresh and alive again. I've set a goal for myself for the next novel to write a very rough, very messy first draft in six months.

MW: What advice do you have for your former students and anyone else working on their first novel?

SS: I think the main reason I never gave up on the book is that there came a point, probably five years in, that I made a promise to myself that I would finish it. Even if I didn't think it would sell, even if I just put it in a drawer when I was done, I had to finish the draft and revise it to the best of my abilities. I told myself that if I gave up and started a new idea, I'd just hit this same tough part all over again and be tempted to start another new project. I had to prove to myself that I could actually finish a book. When my inner critic would inevitably despair over the quality of the book, that promise to myself ensured I kept writing anyway.
 

June 2021

Writing Poetry in a Time of Crisis
Esther Lin, Continuing Studies Instructor, Former Stegner Fellow, Stanford

The newly turned year of 2021 seemed to promise change: the release of the vaccine that would save lives, a new administration in the White House, and all our dark jokes about the heartbreak of 2020 would be outdated. Yet January proved still darker with the riot on the US Capitol. And vaccine distribution remained slow.

During this time, eighteen strangers, from many time zones, gathered.

It was a modest gathering. A class. Online. Together, they studied poetry. They read Gwendolyn Brooks and Kimiko Hahn. As the season began to turn, they read Brian Turner and Layli Long Soldier. They analyzed these poets’ work with care; they began to break apart, imitate, filch what these poets did. They wrote their own poems.

Studying poetry during the uncertain winter of 2021 was a strange act. Poetry is “useless.” It can’t protect your body, it can’t pay your rent. Our guides, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Poet’s Companion, teach: “Writing a poem in such times may feel a little like fiddling while Rome burns. Yet we’re poets.”

As the instructor of the class of poets, I was honored by their willingness to grow and deviate from who they were before, what they’d written before, and to approach this art with hunger, brilliance, and above all, hope. Their hope for a world where intimacy, beauty, and memory matter. Nine of these extraordinary writersGail Nezvigin, Vini Rupchandani, Arthur Manzi, Amira Salaam Amro, Christina Petrandis Krasilinec, Stacey Lee Patton, Susan Olson, Bonnie Nortz, Nkaujntsuab Txakeeyangshare their poems and their critical writing with you.

Writing Poetry in a Time of Crisis (pdf) >>

 

May 2021

Cover image of The Best Part of USThis month, we are delighted to spotlight former Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing student Sally Cole-Misch, whose novel, The Best Part of Us, was published by SheWrites Press in September 2020 and was a finalist for the 2020 Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction. Cole-Misch has advocated for the natural world throughout her career as a journalist, environmental educator, public affairs director for a US-Canada boundary waters commission, and consultant for effective environmental communications. About her novel, Kirkus Reviews said: “The novel…honors the natural world with dazzling imagery....A dramatic, rewarding story about woman reconnecting with family, nature, and herself." She generously wrote a piece for us this month, describing her evolution from journalist and environmentalist to novelist, how the certificate program helped her to realize this dream, and how she used this story to explore and deepen her ideas about the natural world.

Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator


Sally Cole-Misch headshotSally Cole-Misch:

Does a story come from us or through us? If you’d asked me that question ten years ago, I would have answered the former. As a journalist and environmental communicator, I followed a traditional writing process: research; hypothesize; outline‘ identify key points and quotes as linchpins to drive the article, report, or video forward; and summarize with a strong, clear conclusion. Always from me, using knowledge and experience gained over time.

By 2012, after decades of reporting on the state of our natural environment (which includes us, by the way), my optimism had reached a low confidence level that my writing could help humans use our collective intelligence and our will to live to change how we live. In the early days of environmental reporting, we hammered home all the horrible ways humans are destroying our air, water, and soil. By the early 2000s, we realized that this approach wasn’t creating enough personal or collective change and switched our focus to helping people connect with nature first, because what they value, they will act to protect.

The benefits of spending time in nature are well documented in hundreds of studies: nature feeds the soul, reduces stress, makes us more aware of the world around us as well as within, and gives us a sense of generosity and commitment to something larger than ourselves. Research also shows that once we are connected with nature, scary news about climate change or other environmental issues is more likely to drive change in our daily actions.

While those of us who are making those essential connections with nature on vacations are seeking refuge in natural spaces, family cottages, and national parks, the average American spends only 7 percent of their daily life outdoors. Even if we only need two hours outside per week to reap all of nature’s benefits and enhance our caring for it, we’re falling far short.

I needed a new approach to my writing in order to reinvigorate my optimism and my messaging. Could I try fiction—write a novel that reflects how we are part of and interconnected with the natural world, without preaching? Where nature is as much of a character as the people are, and which is written well enough that someone besides my family or friends want to read it?

All credit goes to the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing’s gifted instructors and to the generous, amazing writers who also completed the program in the 2013-2016 cohort for providing the instruction and encouragement I needed to give it a try. With the first draft of a manuscript in hand at graduation, I spent any free hours over the next three years writing eleven more drafts and listening closely to beta readers to get to a final version. The Best Part of Us is the result.

Here’s the best part of this story: a writing exercise in my first OWC course changed my entire perspective toward how and why to write the novel and toward my environmental work, too. After completing detailed biographical sketches of primary characters (in my case five humans and nature itself), we were assigned to freewrite a letter from each of them to ourselves. The first line was to read, “Dear Sally, There’s something you don’t know about me...”

I still remember the odd sensation of sitting in my local library, closing my eyes, and letting the letters spill onto my computer screen for eleven hours without a clue about what most of the sentences meant. Feeling the characters come alive through me, however, was magical and exciting. Like I was meeting new friends who would become lifelong companions and had important thoughts to share. The joy of writing I’d once known but forgotten was coming back.

As I wrote and rewrote, every time I focused on listening rather than controlling the narrative, the characters and the story deepened. I played with what scenes to add and where, like puzzle pieces, and let the characters color them in. By the tenth draft I could see how their various storylines wove together into a united story. That’s when I let myself read their letters again, and I was amazed how the story had become true to each character’s original message.

The novel writing certificate program and writing The Best Part of Us reminded me why I love to write, and renewed my faith in the value of what I’m writing. By freewriting the essential messages and emotions behind the latest environmental report or article, I can get to the heart of those issues literally and figuratively—which creates greater response from readers as well. And I’m meeting a new set of characters, who are introducing themselves with greater impatience in every freewrite. What fun.

 

April 2021

OWC 2021 Info Session banner

This month, we would like to use the Writer’s Spotlight page to announce an upcoming information session about the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. The application window for Fall 2021 runs from April 12 through June 4. This information session is intended to help prospective students determine if this program would be a good fit to serve their particular needs as aspiring novelists.

The program consists of a five-course series and an elective and was designed to guide dedicated fiction writers from the idea for a novel (or early draft stage) to a full manuscript. At the end of the sixth course, students have the option of signing up for a one-on-one tutorial, launching their novel’s revision under the direction of an accomplished fiction writer and instructor.

Join us for our online information session on Wednesday, April 21 at 12:00 pm (PT) to hear from program administrators as well as recent alumna Tracey Lange, who used her two years in the program to work on her novel, We Are The Brennans, which will be published in August of 2021.

While attendees will get a chance to ask questions of their own, program co-founder and coordinator Malena Watrous answers some common questions below. Malena is a novelist and also teaches in the certificate program.


Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing FAQ


Q: How is the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing similar to or different from getting an MFA?

A: Most MFA programs mix cohorts between long and short fiction writers, while our program is exclusively focused on novel writing. An MFA (or sometimes a PhD) can be a requirement when someone is applying to teach at the university level. This certificate won’t fill that role. Most students in MFA programs are expected to take fairly substantial course loads which include studying literature and theory. We only ask students to take one course per quarter, which is a writing class, but instructors bring literature and theory into these writing courses.

Q: How flexible is the schedule/are there set times when I have to be online?

A: Because our program is (and always has been) entirely online, our students come from all over the country and even world. Most of our instruction is asynchronous, meaning there is never a time when students must be online. can log into Canvas and do their work when they have time. We do have a weekly hour-long Zoom session, but attendance is optional and it is always recorded for later viewing.

Q: Who is the right applicant for the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing?

A: Someone who is quite serious about their fiction writing, who has been working at it for a while in a demonstrable fashion, ideally by taking at least one prior writing workshop. We have novelists writing in various genres: contemporary fiction, mysteries and thrillers, sci-fi, historical fiction, even some novels-in-stories, and YA. Regardless of genre, we look for applicants who care about language and wish to create resonant books. We don’t accept writers working on middle grade fiction (intended for ages 8-12) or below, because when you’re writing for readers that young, the concerns and constraints of the genre are significantly different from adult fiction, which is the focus of our program and instruction. This is not a program for memoirists, although autobiographical fiction writers are welcome to apply.

Q: How selective is the program?

A: We can accept 60 students, which recently has been about 40-45% of total applicants. The selectivity of our program means that the cohort is comprised of passionate writers who have already learned the basics of fiction writing and are ready to learn how to make their novels work—everything from balancing subplots to weaving in a character’s misbelief, to figuring out how to sow the seeds of the ending in the beginning of a book. The selectivity also means that students can enjoy collaborating with similarly dedicated and informed classmates. Many of our students end up forming writing groups that they sustain for years after finishing the program.

Q: Do I already need to be working on a novel when I apply?

A: You don’t necessarily need to be at work on your novel, although almost all students apply with at least a pretty fleshed out idea for one, if not also a sample chapter or two. We love it if the description of the project in the Personal Statement matches the writing sample, although we know that’s not always possible. However, some students have been admitted who may have only written short stories in the past and are applying with the desire to start their first novel. Some students also enter the program with a rough draft already finished, knowing that they want to use their time to refine and revise it, which is also fine. Our goal is to offer you the tools, instruction and community to write the best possible novel that you can in two years.

Q: Do your students go on to publish their novels?

A: Many of our students have begun publishing the books they’ve written while in this program, and this monthly column often features their success stories. Nothing thrills us more than when we learn of a student getting a publication, winning an award or finding other forms of recognition for the novels they produced under our guidance. Our students have also sometimes gone on to attend such prestigious MFA programs as the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

 

March 2021

Cover image of The Model Citizen by Joshua MohrThis month, we are delighted to spotlight our wonderful writing instructor Joshua Mohr, whose second memoir, Model Citizen, will be available March 9. Joshua Mohr is the author of a previous memoir, Sirens, as well as five novels: Damascus, which The New York Times called "Beat-poet cool"; Some Things that Meant the World to Me, one of O Magazine’s Top 10 Reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller; Termite Parade, a New York Times Editors’ Choice; Fight Song; and All This Life, which received the Northern California Book Award. He is the founder of Decant Editorial. Josh recently shared his thoughts on his latest book, the memoir versus the novel as forms, and an exciting project in the works.

Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator


Joshua Mohr headshotMalena Watrous: I am so excited to read Model Citizen, which sounds incredible, but also so sorry to hear of your strokes and how they have required medications that potentially affected your ongoing sobriety. Can you talk a little about the time period covered in the memoir and how you got through it? Did you realize as it was ongoing that you wanted to write a book about the experience, or was it only after coming through to the other side?

Joshua Mohr: I wrote this memoir in two discrete chunks. Parts 1 and 2 of the book, I wrote while waiting for my heart surgery. My third stroke was on January 1, 2015, and my heart surgery was scheduled for March 11 of that year. So I had two months sitting on my hands, worrying. My daughter was only eighteen months old at the time, and if I died on the operating table, she'd have no idea about our relationship, who her old man was, et cetera. So I wrote the book as a love letter to her. Then about two years after my surgery, I had another stroke. That one was so demoralizing because they had said—and still do—that the surgery worked. Which means they don't know how to stop these strokes. They said I wouldn't live out of my forties. That sort of "unknowingness," if that's even the right word, is so terrifying. I wanted to write into that complexity, that horror—and that became parts 3 and 4 of the memoir.

MW: You have published novels and a memoir before this one. Tell us a little about your different experiences with fiction versus nonfiction. Do you have a preference at this point? What does each genre give to you (or ask from you)? When do you know that you want to use an experience more or less as it happened (in nonfiction) versus transforming it via fiction?

JM: I try to always have a fiction and a nonfiction project going at the same time. That way, I can never use writer's block as an excuse. I hit the wall in this one, so I flop over to the narrative. I derive a lot of daily joy, scribbling, regardless of genre. That's the thing for me: Life makes the most sense when I scribble every day. I try to honor my art, look it in the eyes, and whisper that it's important by carving out the time. While I wrote Model Citizen, I was also deep into a historical fiction novel about Gold Rush San Francisco. That will come about in about two years with Farrar Straus and Giroux as publisher. I've already sold the television rights and the filmmaking team Radio Silence is attached to bring it to life. If you didn't see their debut feature last year, Ready or Not, it's good, pulpy fun.

MW: Having built a writing career with longevity and range, and as a popular writing instructor in the Continuing Studies creative writing program, what is the main piece of advice do you have for our students as they try to create sustainable and productive writing careers of their own?

JM: Honor your nuanced imagination. Write the stories that only you can cook up. I'm teaching a dialogue course right now, and in our office hour recently, I told the students, "Write what you know, but never what you understand." That's very important, too. You can't start from a place of clarity; it has to be curiosity, writing into the moral mud of being alive. We need open hearts and open ears to approach truth as storytellers.

MW: Do you write every day, always? How about when you've just finished a book?

JM: I write every day, yes. Even if it's just to line-edit a paragraph, on a day with sprawling dad/husband/job duties. I find at least ten minutes a day. None of us is so important we can't find ten minutes to honor our craft. To me, it's muscle memory. I've been writing every day for over twenty years. It's almost involuntary at this point, but that only came because I put the hours in. Butt in the chair. I'll take work ethic over talent any day of the week, though I'm glad they aren't mutually exclusive.

MW: Did the process of writing this memoir surprise you? What kinds of discoveries did you make while writing it, versus while living through the experiences it chronicles?

JM: This is gonna sound uber-nerdy, but writing memoir is the most exciting, the most surprising to structure. Reality, obviously, is formless, and memoirists need to find shape, aboutness, an arc from that formless reality we call a life. I'd argue that most memoirs fail due to inferior architectures, not content. So how we curate our system of life experiences is as vitally important as the material itself. Model Citizen is very ambitious structurally, and I learned a ton writing this book. That's honestly what it's all about for me. I'm not trying to get "good" at writing; I want to remain an apprentice forever, constantly challenging myself on a project-by-project basis. We all know that our characters need things at stake for a book to work, but I'd argue the artist needs something at stake, too. For me, that's the willingness to try new things, to risk abject and public failure, to evolve via experimentation. And if we stay apprentices, we'll always slake to learn more.

 

February 2021

Cover image of poetry chapbook Picking Scabs From The Body HistoryThis month it is my pleasure to spotlight numerous recent accomplishments from Joanne Godley. Joanne is a physician as well as a “triple-threat” author: a poet, fiction writer, and creative nonfiction writer. Over the years, she has taken many courses in the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Creative Writing Program, and was an early participant in the two-year Certificate Program in Novel Writing. There she wrote a lyrical and haunting historical novel about a young teacher at a boarding school for Native American children who have been forcibly removed from their homes and placed into a system that aims to strip them of their culture. Joanne’s prose is exquisitely poetic, and I was thrilled to learn of the publication of her first poetry chapbook, Picking Scabs from the Body History. Her most recent creative nonfiction piece is forthcoming from The Massachusetts Review.

I asked Joanne to write about her trajectory as a writer in three different genres. She produced this lyric essay addressing why the lyric essay—often oversimply defined as a hybrid of poetry and essay—is itself her favorite form.

Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator


What to a Poet Is the Lyric Essay?
 

Joanne Godley headshotAs a participant at the Kenyon Review Nonfiction Writers Workshop two summers ago, I snuck into a luncheon for poets. After introducing myself, I murmured, “I’m gender-fluid.” It took me a minute—taking in the silence and the perplexed looks around the room—to realize and correct my error: “I am genre-fluid.” A mid-career physician, I have advantaged myself of Stanford’s potpourri of online writing courses: how to write everything nonfiction, from memoir to magazine articles. In order to improve my fiction writing, I matriculated in the Certificate Program in Novel Writing, which culminated in a historical novel yet to be published. I’ve continued to take poetry courses. But what I love best is writing lyric essays.
 

***

If the traditional essay involves coloring within the lines, the lyric essay is a Jackson Pollock painting. In dog terms, the lyric essay is a delightful mutt.

***

During the 1800s, Dr. J. Marion Sims, a gynecologic surgeon once lauded as the “Father of Gynecology,” kept a small cache of enslaved women on whom he obsessively operated, hoping to perfect a surgical technique he had developed. I had read his autobiography and longed to write an essay from the viewpoint of Anarcha, one of the women on whom he experimented. How could I portray her story? What was a creative nonfiction writer to do without this woman’s written statement?

I began with the information I had amassed:

1. I started with a paragraph of backstory about Anarcha derived from Sims’s autobiography. Her master had brought her to Dr. Sims because of complications incurred during childbirth.
2. I researched the reactions of women from African countries who had suffered similar postpartum (after childbirth) complications. How had they understood and processed their ailments?
3. I researched primary source data on the technical details of the operation, which included Dr. Sims’s footnotes.

Then I began writing:

4. I wrote a poem about a woman in pain.
5. I imagined what Anarcha might say if I were able to interview her.
6. I inserted survey statistics on the perceptions medical students have about Black people and their alleged resilience to pain.
7. I included a flash memoir piece about pain.
8. I used lyrics from a song about pain. I incorporated all of the above bits into a lyric essay. It is entitled “The Herstory of Pain” and is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review.

***


In the January/February 2021 edition of Poets and Writers magazine, the feature article describes the notebooks of eight writers. Rachel Eliza Griffiths, a poet, compiles, as part of her creative process for a forthcoming book, what she calls a wall triptych of associative paraphernalia: a blue dress, photos, a hat, drawings, erasure poems, magazine clippings. It looks like a collage wall. I, too, gravitate toward things that are loosely, but intimately, associated.

***


One of my favorite visual art forms is the collage. I also enjoy (and have done) mosaic art work. I’ve collected interesting and colorful china that I’ve broken and used to mosaic a fireplace, steps, a bathroom sink, and mirror frames. Grout is what holds a mosaic together. The piece is connected by the colors of the individual pieces, or by the color of the grout. Sometimes, the sheer randomness of the individual pieces conveys connectivity.

***


As a teenager, I wrote poetry in response to events impacting my world. When the Detroit Tigers won the World Series in 1968, I lamented baseball celebrations in the wake of the 1967 Detroit uprising in a poem published by one of our local newspapers. I’ve continued centering my poetry on social justice issues, alternate histories of oppressed people, and poetry of witness. My chapbook, Picking Scabs from the Body History, was published last July, just after the murder of George Floyd. This excerpted poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize:

Anatomy of a Scar

 

I will not touch this wound    will not    I’ve taped my hands at night worn mittens and gloves
created internal distractions to stay as far the hell away     from myself so the hurts could crust
and scab over     I am a Black mother who told both children at their becoming ages what it
meant to be a Black in America; as they left the Cute age, transitioned to the Intimidating age, &
arrived at the Dangerous age-America's categories for Black youth—I read the little black book
to them at night How to Be Black and Stay Alive—my girl included—the book told you to look a
grownup in the eye; to neither smirk nor shirk nor grin when spoken to; stressed the importance
of enunciating and articulating the King’s English every day; to respect their elders; to neither
lie nor cheat; to say 'yes sir' to an officer; and understand that milk is a food not a beverage


  ***

The lyric essay suits me because it invites poetic language and defies linear formatting. It welcomes associative thinking and it invites playfulness. It embraces rhythm and metaphor and ushers in loads of white space. It marries poetry and prose. And, it speaks to my soul.

 

January 2021

Malena Watrous headshotInspiration for Writing in the New Year

January is the traditional time to set resolutions. I’m not a huge fan of the typically austere New Year’s resolution (go to the gym more, lose twenty pounds, etc.). January and February are cold and dark and hard enough, even in a non-pandemic year, without also having to worry about giving up sugar or abandoning other pleasures. But I do like setting specific goals for what I’d like to accomplish in my writing.


Last January, I bought a black leather-bound Moleskine notebook, the thickest one available. I wanted to reduce some of the anxiety that had built up around writing, so on the first page I set my intentions on that for the coming year. I decided to start each day with three free-associative “morning pages” (a strategy made famous by Julia Cameron), and then end each day with three things I noticed and was grateful for. A year later, I can read back over those intentions to see where I lived up to them and where I deviated. I didn’t write morning pages every single day, but I often did. The notebook is filled, and I’m buying another for 2021.

In the coming year, I’d like to write a twenty-page chapter of my new novel each month, for the next six months or until I finish a draft. Half the magic of this kind of intention setting is just thinking about what I want to do with my writing, being as specific as I can. Then I can figure out how best to support myself in meeting it. For instance, I’ve formed a writing trio with two friends who are at similar stages in their own novels. Knowing that I have to hand in ten pages to them twice a month keeps me moving forward. I have our meetings and their pages to look forward to. And as the year goes on, I can check back in with the goals that I committed to paper, adjusting them if need be.

As writers, we share a lot of commonalities in terms of what inspires us, and what gets us to sit down and keep producing work. That said, different writers have also discovered different tricks that work for them in particular. For example, I like to write a little star on my calendar next to every day of the week that I write. I sometimes also make a note of the number of words that I wrote, especially if I’m trying to meet a specific goal like finishing a chapter or working to a certain target in a manuscript by a given date. Seeing what I did acknowledges my accomplishment and inspires me to do it again.

I’m always fascinated to hear writers talk about their unique processes, creative methods, and habits. As we enter 2021, I thought you might benefit from hearing from some of our writing instructors about theirs. So I asked each of them this question: “What is the best piece of advice that you have to offer your fellow writers?” I hope that their responses inspire you as you enter this new year and think about what you want to accomplish on the page in 2021.

Happy new year, and happy writing!
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator


“Sometimes we can be hard on ourselves as writers when we are not writing. We have an idea in our heads of how many hours we should be working or how many pages we should be producing. But many writers write while holding down jobs or juggling family commitments and, inevitably, there will be times you just can't get to the computer. During those times, remember that the writing is still happening in some part of your subconscious, that your brain is still working out scenes or characters or a sticky point in the plot, and that when you do finally get back to the page—which you will, I promise—the time away will prove to have been invaluable, providing you with the necessary perspective you needed. So take the pressure off yourself and let lulls happen as a natural part of the writing process.”
—Samina Ali

“If I’m feeling blocked or unmotivated, I make a deal with myself that I’m just going to open up a document and look at it for five minutes. I don’t have to do anything to it, just look at it. Turns out I can never resist messing with something, and then before I know it it’s been an hour.”
—Rebecca Schuman

“Find the connection between your current thoughts or emotions and your book. Consider what you're struggling with, or what the world is, right now. Does this relate in any way to the struggles of your characters? Fiction can create a bridge, imbuing your old project with new urgency.”
—Ammi Keller

“When you find that you're withholding crucial information from the reader, consider the pros and cons of not putting this information on the page. Sometimes there are clear benefits, for example an intentional, specific mystery. Other times, your story would improve by a more open telling. Think of the reader as a friend you can trust with your character's deepest secrets. The reader is excellent at keeping secrets.”
—Lauren Kate Morphew

“Try editing out of sequence. It forces you to ponder each scene's/chapter's contribution to the overall cohesive whole to edit without thinking about causality, arc, adjacent material, etc. You analyze that one scene's/chapter's role and then you can finesse from there. For example, tomorrow morning, edit chapter 17, then chapter 4, then work on chapter 31. Either those chapters are accomplishing their intentions or they aren't. I like remix strategies like this, as they are a concrete tool to tell if something works in its current iteration.”
—Joshua Mohr

“Remember that the author of a completed novel is a composite of the writer over many, many days of writing. So for any given writing session, just focus on doing your part, knowing you’re part of a much greater collective ‘you’ that’s smart enough to finish this book.”
—Ron Nyren

“Writing is always more fluid—or more possible—for me if I'm also meditating. When I'm feeling dragged down by a project, approaching it as though it's a game I'm playing can make the work feel lighter and freer. I give myself a lot of leeway to follow my curiosity. If I get a wild idea or impulse, I spend an hour or two following it, whether I expect it to end up in the piece or not. Some interesting and unexpected openings can appear that way and renew my sense of surprise and excitement in the project.” —Rachel Smith

“When it’s really hard to write, we can say to ourselves, ‘It doesn’t matter if I make anything good today. But I will be happier for the rest of the day if I do this than if I don’t.’ We can edit the work from the day before, write a bad paragraph or page, make notes. It can help to set a timer for twenty minutes or even ten. Usually if we get started, we can keep going.”
—Sarah Stone