Neither Holding On nor Pushing Away, by Amber Foxx

A yoga teacher I studied with years ago gave this guidance for how to be with one’s thoughts during meditation: Neither holding on nor pushing away. It helps me now with writing in addition to meditation and life in general—neither holding on to my old normal nor pushing away the present. I’m experiencing writing now as a balancing act, both a remembering practice without holding on and a letting-go practice without pushing away.

My work in progress, book eight in the Mae Martin series, is pre-pandemic. My books are always set several years in the past because I want to get the context right. While I don’t write directly about current events, they exist in the background and have a realistic impact on my characters’ lives. Eventually, maybe in three to five years, I might set a book in the spring of 2020. It’s too soon to write fiction about what’s happening now, and too soon for anyone to want to read it.

I’m keeping notes, though, and making an archive of how we live through this in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, since my stories take place here. Maybe I’ll never write the book, but preparing as if I’m going to helps me process everything and stay focused. As well as saving copies of statewide public health orders and keeping track of the news, I’m writing down daily observations on life in our community during our present challenges.

I haven’t decided what the mystery in that distant future book will be. My books aren’t about murder, but other types of wrong-doing. I’ll have a better idea by the time I’m ready to write it, in whatever kind of world we live in then. Preparing the background for that book is part of releasing both worry and expectations. I record the full spectrum of events, and then I can let go of them for the day. I can’t plan the plot yet, because I can’t know what the future holds. Meanwhile, I’ve sketched out possible scenes with my characters in a state of not-knowing and uncertainty, of real loss and potential loss, as they struggle with the sudden change. So far, a lot of the dialogue in these quick drafts is humorous, as are many of my conversations—on the phone or six feet away—with my neighbors and friends. Dark humor at times, but it’s part of how we cope.

Meanwhile, my main creative focus is on a book in which people visit each other’s homes, go out dancing, meet for coffee, take aerobics classes and college classes in person, and share hugs. This is my remembering practice. Not clinging to what was normal once, but honoring it.

 

Writing your way to a college degree

By Sally Carpenter

Whatever I know about writing mysteries, I didn’t learn it in college.

Centuries ago when I was an undergraduate, colleges didn’t offer creative writing majors or even minors. English department classes consisted of solely teaching what I called “stuffy old books,” the kind with tiny print and antiquated prose that made comprehension laborious. I didn’t have the patience to struggle with that kind of literature.

Only one university in my state offered a Masters of Fine Arts in writing. I had my eye on that for a while although I felt I’d never be good enough to get in the program. Then my parents squashed my hopes with “you’ll never get a job with that degree!”

My undergraduate college offered only one or two creative writing classes. The professor “taught” by saying, “write whatever you want.” No instruction on how to craft a short story or a poem or suggested topics to ignite our imaginations. My life experience was limited at that time so I had little to write about.

In grading, the prof disagreed with my opinions and marked my grammatical and spelling errors (plenty of those) in red ink. No helpful critique and encouragement to do better. If her goal was to smash any spark of creative or desire to write in her students, she nearly succeeded.

Flash forward to the late 1990s. I’m back in college for a master’s degree in theater with a focus on playwrighting. Once again, I’m in a class with an incompetent prof (having a PhD must mean Pathetic and Hopelessly Dumb).

While I learned nothing from the teacher, the upside is that the one-act plays I wrote in that class were finalists in a regional college playwrighting competition. I received affirming feedback from the judges and one play became the inspiration for my cozy mystery series.

The English Department of that university had a master’s degree with a concentration in writing. While the department offered a creative writing workshop that students could take, most of the required coursework seemed geared toward rhetoric/composition teachers.

That was then, this is now. In perusing the internet it seems that today nearly every college has a creative writing major or at least a minor. Undergrads can take courses in scriptwriting, short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction and technical writing. My alma mater now has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing—too late for me, I’m afraid. And in my home state, several universities now grant an MFA in writing.

What happened? How did writing become a popular academic course of study?

I don’t know, but one possibility could be that as professors retired, the new teachers coming in wanted to revise the stale curriculum, expanding the literature options and adding writing classes.

Perhaps students asked for writing classes. Or maybe the writing courses were a way to get students interested in an English major after years of the teachers putting up with “you can’t do anything with that degree.” Technical writing, copy editing and publishing courses expanded the degree’s usefulness.

Some universities even have courses in genre writing, hopefully creating the next generation of mystery authors. A couple of schools have MFA programs for genre writers.

Maybe students want to write because of the internet and self-publishing. Young authors have an instant forum for their work instead of waiting years for publication in an obscure literary journal.

Whatever the reason, I’m happy to see that in spite of the emphasis in elementary and high schools on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), colleges are affirming students in their writing journeys.