How an MFA Professor’s Challenge Led to a Student’s First Book
Written by Glen Finland
American University Professor Denise Orenstein was adamant—“Write about the one thing you don’t want to write about.” It wasn’t easy, but she was right. Once I got up the courage to try it, the truth popped out. Ten years later, Putnam published my book Next Stop.
In 2002, at age 50, I decided to go back to school. I’d taken a decade long kids-raising shift away from journalism and was now keen to step into the world of teachers, visiting authors, and everyday folks like me who simply love the written word. Even though I fit into the category of non-traditional student—shorthand for being the oldest face around the MFA table—I learned to never underestimate how being present in other writers’ lives enriches one’s own. Of course, we all know that writing is hard work and often done in seclusion, so it didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen in a bubble. It developed over 10 years inside Washington’s community of writers—and it started with that professor’s dare at AU.
The first time I read my nonfiction aloud to a group of MFA candidates young enough to be any of my three sons, Professor Orenstein came and sat next to me at the start of class. No one could see that under the table she was holding my hand, squeezing me onward, graf by graf.
Over the next three years in that same room, I often witnessed the power of community. With every Can you say more? The genuine curiosity of my fellow writers gave each of us a deeper way into our work. A few were quick to raise a flag over verbal clutter in a work-in-progress or a missed opportunity in a short story; but rather than resentment, the humor and depth of purpose around the table seemed to breed trust. I realized each of us were there to improve our craft. Sitting in that circle forced me to pay more attention to what was not being said, to write more about the ordinary fleas of life.
Some of my best tips came after class, from fellow writers who invited me to bivouac with them in local coffee shops to pick over our stories with tiny, pointed scalpels. Over time, an intimate understanding of each other’s work turned on repeated threads from those stories. This created an intimate trust. Three of us formed an intergenerational writer’s bond that still exists.
After one of my revised pieces was published in the Washington Post Magazine, a New York agent sent me a simple but life-changing email: “Would you consider writing a book proposal?” Yes, I wrote back without hesitation—then turned to my writing club pals and The Writer’s Center to figure out how the hell do I do that! Three months and a book proposal class later, the agent sold my idea to Putnam. Next Stop: Letting Go of an Autistic Son was published in 2012.
That spring I returned to AU as a Visiting Writer to read aloud from my original manuscript. When I finished, I took a deep breath and looked into the generous faces of my fellow everyday writers. No one looked away, and in that moment I knew the writing would hold.
About the Author
Glen Finland is the author of Next Stop (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam), a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick and Penguin’s 2012 Book Club selection for National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Glen’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Family Circle, Revolution, Parenting, American Magazine, Wired, Special Needs, Babble, and Autism Speaks. A featured autism advocate on NPR and CNN, Glen received the 2012 Dean’s Medal for Excellence in Communication from the University of Georgia. The mother of three grown sons, Glen received her MFA from American University in 2006.
If you’d like to experience a writing journey like Glen’s, please check out the MFA creative writing program at American University.
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