Updated: Aug 10, 2021
This week, Creativity Matters is beginning a four-part series about the origins of my novel in stories, The Goodbye-Love Generation, which was released last year through Bezalel Media, Inkling Creative Strategies’ parent company. When I connect with authors at in-person writing events, on social media, or on my complimentary Virtual Meetups, one of the biggest questions they ask is how independent publishing works and whether or not they should do it. I can’t answer that second question for you, but I think it would be worth my time to break down how my own book came to be—not just the writing process, but how I went about publishing it, and why I chose to do it myself instead of looking for a publisher. Just so you know…I’m by no means suggesting that I’m the world’s foremost authority on this topic or that my experience is the gold standard. You might find that what I’m going to share with you this month may not work for you at all or that only parts of it might be relevant. I’m just here to tell you what the independent publishing experience involved for me.
But before we get to May 1, 2020, when The Goodbye-Love Generation officially hit the streets, we need to go way back to 2007, when I walked into my first writing workshop at West Virginia University’s Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing program.
All book ideas start somewhere, and mine started with a rude awakening about who I was meant to be as a writer. During my undergraduate creative writing courses, I got really interested in historical fiction. I loved the research process and imagining myself into different eras. When I arrived at WVU, my hard drive was packed with stories of different times and places that I couldn’t wait to get in front of my colleagues for a critique.
I had a piece about a family devastated by the explosion of New London School in Texas during the Depression, a drama about two teenagers dealing with the impending doom of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and dozens of stories set in Appalachia.
I’d done my homework on these different eras, researching the experiences that the people I wrote about would have encountered. There was just one problem. These stories didn’t exactly go over well with my newfound writing compadres. It didn’t help that I’d showed up there with kind of a big head—my professors in my undergrad praised me often (maybe a little too often) and I had a massively inflated ego. As I've talked about in previous posts, graduate workshops don't mess around, and egoism is a dangerous trait to have in that environment.
But all that set aside, a lot of the feedback still stung. In particular, one of my peers wrote in a critique that she had a problem with my ethos. My work lacked authenticity, she said, because she didn’t believe the material was really mine to write. I needed to dig deeper to find my true subject matter. Looking back, I now see that there was a lot of truth to this statement even though the author could have expressed her ideas with more sensitivity. But at this point, I was still too ego-stricken to see the critique for what it was. Undaunted, I spent most of the course continuing to write more of the same stuff, mainly because I wanted to “show them.”
Sidenote: If I’ll show them is your motivation for writing something, it’s most definitely a bad idea. Then, at the end of the semester, something happened that would change the course of my writing. After class one day, I was talking to an undergrad named Stephanie who was auditing the workshop. I can’t remember how the topic came up, but somehow, I ended up mentioning that I was from Kent, Ohio and lived about a mile away from where the Kent State shootings took place on May 4, 1970. Fascinated, Stephanie asked me what that was like. Before long, I was telling her about my lifetime of experiences growing up in the shadow of the tragedy.
My generation was the children of the student protestors. All of our parents had stories about where they were when the National Guard opened fire into the crowd, leaving four students died and numerous others wounded.
Some people I knew were former Guardsmen who were there at the time of the shooting and had never gotten over what happened. My uncle was best friends with Sandra Scheurer, one of the students who lost their lives, as well as many of the those who were injured.
My dad was the drummer in one of the most popular bands in Kent and he and my mother were trapped in a basement bar when a riot unfolded the weekend before the shootings.
When I finished, Stephanie just stared at me. “Why aren’t you writing about this?” she said. “I mean, you like historical fiction, don’t you?” I thought about what Stephanie said all night. Truthfully, I always felt like I couldn’t write about Kent. It was too loaded. When you say “Kent, Ohio” people immediately picture that photograph of the teenage runaway sobbing over the body of Jeffrey Miller.
They start singing “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash in their heads. Some of them make snide remarks about “those radical leftists,” which really burns me because a lot of those “radicals” are my friends and family.
I didn’t want to carry that baggage into my writing. It seemed easier to just adopt other places as my own than to deal with all the potential dirt. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I even had a choice in the matter. Flannery O’Connor, my biggest influence as a writer, has a lot to say about the role of place in writing. Hailing from the south, which plays a crucial role in her stories, she famously wrote that “to know oneself is to know one’s region,” and that writers have a special responsibility to portray their “country”—the places and ideas that they know best. I spent a lot of time reading and rereading O’Connor’s writing about this topic. Eventually, I decided that Stephanie was right. For one thing, I was robbing myself of the best material for fiction writing that I had at my disposal.
More importantly, though, I was doing my readers a disservice by keeping it from them. I frequently quote one of my favorite writing teachers, Jonathan Rogers, on this blog. He says that the job of a good writer is to give readers something they can’t get for themselves.
This should be the question we ask ourselves about what we’re creating.
What experience or knowledge do you and only you possess that can truly bless your readers and influence them in a powerful way?
If you’re reading this blog because you’ve got a project in some stage of development, you need to consider how it fits into this framework. Remember, if you really want to share your writing with others, you need to consider how to best meet their needs. This question then becomes a powerful tool to determine what decisions you need to make as you write, edit, revise, and eventually publish. Armed with this newfound understanding of my responsibility to Kent and to my true subject matter, I wrote a story called “Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon.” It was about a girl from California named Maddy who gets off a bus in Kent and befriends a boy who is thinking about dodging the draft.
They go to a club called The Purple Interlude to see a band play and end up having sex. At the end of the story, he blows town for Canada without her and she willingly is arrested during the riot downtown. It was filled with Vietnam-era clichés and melodrama, but it was a step toward reclaiming Kent as my writing territory.
In the final version of my book, Maddy, who appears in that story as shy and largely ignorant of the world, would become the brash, radical lead singer of a band called The Purple Orange. You’ve got to start somewhere. And knowing your “country” is the first step. Next Week: Find out how I put the book together as a whole and my process for revising the stories into a complete manuscript.
For now…have you decided on material for a story or book? If not, why not get started by grabbing a copy of my free Ultimate Writing Project Workbook?
It contains writing prompts, templates, exercises, and more tools for developing your project so you can reach your full potential as a writer and impact and inspire more readers. Click here to get your copy. Also…I know we just got started, but are you curious to learn more about The Goodbye-Love Generation? If so, check out the book’s official website to watch the trailer, learn more about Kent, and download the first story for free.