Monday, January 3, 2011

A Student Becomes A Teacher

© Susan Wingate 2010 all rights reserved

First off, let me say that I've been writing most of my life. I started as a young girl when I realized my father wrote. He graduated with an English degree from Arizona State University before it had received its university accreditation. He also graduated with a minor in speech and used that degree in theatre and the performing arts.

Wingate is  a women’s fiction author.
My mother was a fine artist who couldn't carry a beat and to assuage her ineptness in dance, she entered my sister and me into years of dance study--twelve years, in fact. My first dance lesson happened when I was five years old. So, as a kid, writing and the arts played a big part in my life.

It was because of a creative writing assignment given by our teacher in the third grade, that I wrote my first short story. The story told a tale of a little girl who owned a horse. The horse somehow escaped and then, finally, by the end of the tale the girl and the horse were reunited in a tearful scene. I think I'd just recently finished reading BLACK BEAUTY.

My third grade teacher wrote, diagonally, in big red letters across the page, "Too Schmaltzy!"

It stopped my writing. In fact, I didn't pick up a pen to write again for another six years, at the age of fourteen, when my sister's boyfriend entered the scene. He was a writer. He still is. They ended up marrying and have been together twenty-eight years, today.

But, when I re-entered the world of writing I didn't choose to write short fiction. The third grade teacher had negated my natural tendency to do so. Instead, I wrote poetry and songs.

Around that same time, I joined the drama department at our high school and began to act in plays. I enjoyed reading plays by Shakespeare, Neil Simon and J.M. Barrie. The construct of scripts fascinated me. But, what really happened then was had begun to learn about developing characters to portray on stage. I had to learn what they knew, their backgrounds and how to feel what they felt. My first big part was that of the ostrich in PETER PAN. I know. Laugh. But, still, I had to figure out how an ostrich my act, how it might show emotion. I had to learn its past.

Again, something else, the acting, side-lined my writing until I was about seventeen. I went on the road with an acting troupe called The Robinhood Players. We traveled the southwestern and the Pacific Northwestern states performing for schools, churches and convalescent centers. We traveled from Arizona to Nevada, over to California, up through Oregon and Washington and then came back down via Idaho, passing once again through Nevada and coming home to Arizona.

We drove in a beaten up van for nearly four months staying in hostels and grubby inns. The troupe consisted of four actors. So, fortunately for me, someone else usually drove allowing me the time to write. It was then, I believe, the writing bug kicked in hard. We were in San Francisco for about one month. I wrote a bunch of poems and a few songs as well. I remember the title of one those songs. It was called "Jack Daniels." My sister still talks about it to this day.

After returning, life took me into a love relationship with a man I later married and then divorced. The entire length of our relationship lasted nearly twenty-three years. Near the end, my father became terminally ill. I remember how sick he was at my graduation. He came to the ceremony even though he felt so bad.

I'd never thought about my dad dying. I thought he just had a bad case of the flu. He was invincible to me. But, his illness turned out to be congestive heart failure. When I realized the seriousness of his illness, I lost it and started to write again--to let out all of the emotions I had inside me. The emotions came out in poetry, again.

Thirteen months blew by and my dad passed away.

That's when I started writing more creatively. The stories came to me in bits of my past, in family scenes but mostly from my memories with my dad. It seemed more like writing memoir. It was me and people I knew on the page, not made-up characters like Scout, Jenn and Atticus from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The pain of writing in this form kept stopping me. No matter how much I wrote, I'd always end up at some invisible wall halting the process, halting me from completing the story.

So, I began to change names. And, yes, in some ways, to protect the innocent. Then, scenes began to change and take form and, then, I started imaging new characters with new traits entering these scenes.

I began writing fiction again, after thirty-one years. That was in 1997.

Not only did I begin writing fiction, it was the beginning of my first novel that would end up taking me nearly nine years to finish and one more year to polish. However, in 2006 I wondered if I could write another novel. I had been writing many short fiction pieces but wasn't sure if I could swing another longer work.

Enter: BOBBY'S DINER, the first book in The Bobby's Diner Series. By then, I had been studying writing like a woman on crack and reading every book on "how-to" write, on scene setting, on character development, on voice and point of view narrator. I devoured bookcases full of writing resources in order to learn my craft.

In that period of intense learning, I met a man who influenced my writing indelibly. I met Michael Collins, author of KEEPERS OF TRUTH and THE DEATH OF A WRITER, at, what would be, the final 2003 Northwest Bookfest, a writing conference that was held annually in Seattle, Washington.

Michael was speaking on a panel and although our meeting lasted merely seconds, we made a friendly connection. When I saw that he was teaching at another conference in the same area, I decided to go and I signed up for his workshop.

Students participating in his workshop had to submit five pages of their novel. After the workshop he was to give each student a one-on-one critique lasting no more than fifteen minutes each. My critique lasted thirty minutes. At the end of it, he offered to help me as a writing mentor. Our mentorship would last two years.

It floored me. I mean, I knew I loved to write. I knew the passion burned within me but I never considered, until that day, that my writing could be anything people might really want to read or be publishable material.

In 2004, I quit my day job! And, began writing full time. In 2005, I realized I had a much better method to construct the novel than what I was finding in the "how-to" books I'd been reading. So, I began outlining the parts of the novel and studying people like Aristotle and Gustav Freytag for structure. I took everything I'd learned from my five years of studying and made up my own format.

In 2006, after writing my second book, I decided I needed to help others who might be struggling with the process the way I had. And, after teaching at colleges, writing conferences, libraries and bookstores, more than three-quarters of participants who have attended my workshops have been able to complete their first novels. That's incredible to me. That I might be able to help someone through this grueling task. It's absolutely one of the most profound feelings ever.

So, as I sit here, thinking about my ongoing virtual book tour for EASY AS PIE AT BOBBY'S DINER, the number two book of The Bobby's Diner Series, I think of the seven novels I've written with fondness for my mentor.

I told him, "I don't know how to repay you."

He replied, "Just do the same for someone else."

I know I could not have completed my first novel if not for Michael Collins. I can only hope I've had a similar effect on other writers who I've helped.

About the author:Award-winning author, Susan Wingate, gets a monthly column about writing and the publishing industry in her local newspaper, The Journal of the San Juan Islands. She will also be posting weekly discussions about the writing industry for the regional online newspaper, the site.

Her latest book is EASY AS PIE AT BOBBY’S DINER and you can visit her website at


Marta Stephens said...

Susan, I wrote "Silenced Cry" during a very turbulent time in my life. My mother was dying (also of congestive heart failure) and tension within the family exploded for various reasons. All of my anger, grief, and frustration came out in that novel. In spite of the awards/recognitions my second novel received, I think "Silenced Cry" is the stronger of the two books because of the emotion that sparked it.

Thanks so much for sharing your story here on MB4 and all the best with "Easy As Pie."

Sheila Deeth said...

What a wonderful post. Thank you.

I kept trying to write a novel but the same character wanted to be in everything and I didn't want her there--didn't want to write memoir. Then I gave up and tried to write a memoir, but the character decided she wasn't me after all and it all worked out, as fiction. Now my second novel's been accepted and that first one's still looking for a home.