A dreary, muted, winter, light shone through the diaphanous curtains in the eaves of my then-boyfriend’s home. I was a New Yorker who had just moved to a tiny town in rural west central Minnesota. All my friends were far away. I knew almost no one. In a word, I was lonely.
As a songwriter and a depressive I had learned that the best way to deal with my negative feelings was to create. So I tried to write songs about how I was feeling. I ended up with horrible, repetitive, and derivative insults to the art of songwriting (“I am so lonely, woah woah woah, hey, hey…”). I couldn’t figure out how to write interesting songs about the very uninteresting way I was feeling inside.
When I engaged in freewriting—my preferred way to start a creative project—I wrote wide, lengthy, and detailed chunks of text instead of my usual narrow pillars. The text chunks fought against the constraints of song architecture. I gave in and started writing prose. The prose turned into a regular column for the local newspaper, The New York Mills Herald. I wrote about how much my new town flummoxed me: how people talked about deer hunting with religious fervor, what I didn’t know about canning, how confused I was when I went to Fleet Farm for the first time, what I didn’t know about how to dress in the country, how the winter cold felt like pain to my uninitiated limbs.
The newspaper columns, it occurred to me, would make a nice start to a book. A book that could be my creative means of adjusting to the very unusual circumstances I found myself in: being a city girl on the prairie.
In August 2010, three years after I’d started noodling away at columns and daydreaming of the day I’d have a completed book in my hands, I received an email from the Minneapolis literary organization the Loft. I had taken a few workshops at the Loft and drooled over their weekly classes, but the three-hour commute made anything other than the occasional workshop impossible. But now, the email said, the Loft was embarking on a whole new project: online classes. Their first offering would be an online writing class called How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book by writing teacher Mary Carroll Moore.
It was meant to be: a writing class, online, starting that week, about how to write a book. I’d have a book draft written and ready to go by December. I’d be published within the year. The decision was almost made for me. I paid the—ahem, startlingly large to me—fee, and wrote up my introduction for my virtual classmates.
It took one week for my bubble to burst. My writing teacher and classmates gently, and very kindly, informed me that my writing was, in not so many words, terrible.
I was shocked. I was already a writer, wasn’t I? I wrote songs. I wrote business reports. I wrote newspaper columns. Turned out, writing prose—good prose that could support an engaging memoir—was totally different from the kinds of writing I had done so far.
That December—the month I had assumed would have me slapping a completed manuscript onto my desk—I signed up for How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book Part 2. The following summer, I attended a week-long writing retreat with Mary Carroll Moore. Then came two iterations of How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book Part 3.
I kept writing, I kept enrolling in writing classes, and I kept working on my book. I wrote daily. I edited cruelly. I cut with abandon. I hired editors. I started all over again.
Then, one day I wasn’t so bad at prose. And I had a draft of a book that was almost ready. It took four years.
The process of writing Hundred Miles to Nowhere took me far away from the initial ideas and minor concerns I had when I started writing a column for The New York Mills Focus. It utterly changed my view of how to write and, moreover, what the heart of the story of my move was. I learned about myself, what I most feared, and how much more there is for me to grow as a writer of prose.
But that’s another story. For another post, and maybe even another book.