Writers in Residence

On my first experience with a writer in residence

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There is an elusive and magical creature called the writer in residence.

The creature only shows up in a city for a short period of time, hiding out in public libraries, universities, or writer’s guilds, and it spends its time giving talks and consults to aspiring writers. Its magic comes from the fact that it has done the impossible, the seemingly unachievable: it has successfully made writing its full time career.

Unless you happen to know someone who knows about this creature’s arrival or you actively hunt for information on a regular basis, you won’t know that they’ve been there until they’ve gone. That’s why this creature is so elusive. For something so precious, there is very little advertising for it.

I was lucky enough to catch a writer in residence earlier this week.

It was by mere chance that I stumbled across the facebook event posted by the Alexandra Centre Society the day before it was to happen. A small book store in the city near my hometown was hosting a Q&A with the writer in residence, Lee Kvern.

Had I read anything by Lee Kvern? No. Had I even heard of Lee Kvern? No.

But it was a chance to interact with someone who has successfully done what I can only dream of doing, and it was happening on my day off. I had to go.

The talk took place in a little book store called the Owl’s Nest. It was quite intimate; there were a few rows of chairs set up facing a little table with Lee’s three books, and about fifteen women and two men filled them.

I sat in the second row, and while we waited for Lee to begin her talk, an older woman sitting in front of me asked about my writing. I stuttered a few facts about my novel, feeling sheepish for not having read any of the books sitting at the from of the room.

The woman listened intently, and suggested that I book a consult with Lee, and pointed me to the woman who I should speak to about it. I told her that I’d think about it, as at the time I didn’t really know what a consult entailed. I then asked the woman, still feeling quote shy, “Do…do you write?”

She gave me a secretive smile, before quietly answering, “Yes.”

The writer in residence then approached the front of the room, and the conversation ended.

Lee gave a wonderful speech about writing that seemed to encapsulate the whole experience–the trials, the joy, computers crashing, writing the best thing that’s ever been written, the financial struggles etc. That little summary pales terribly in comparison to what she actually said. It was wonderful, and so insightful because it was real. She didn’t shy away from the struggles that go hand in hand with choosing such a difficult profession. What she shared was a perfect summary of the life of a professional writer, the life I have always wanted.

After her speech, Lee read an exerpt from “the best thing ever written” which is a collection of her short stories, and then opened it up for Q&A. The whole thing was rather informal, but very informative. Because I hadn’t read anything by Lee, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask a question, but I happily listened. Before she released us to mingle and chat with her and one another, Lee gestured to the woman in the front row who I’d been chatting with earlier. Her name was Betty Jane Hegerat, a successful and seasoned professional wroter who is the writer in residence’s mentor. And I had asked her if she wrote.

I could have died of embarassment. When we were released to mingle, I made a point to migrate to the side of the room Betty wasn’t on and to hide amongst other less established aspiring authors.

It was a very interesting mix of people in the room. There was an older woman who had just been laid off who was living on her severance pay and using the time without work to begin her writing career. There was a girl about my age who had graduated with a degree in communications, had just come back from drifting around the states like a nomad, and was now taking her first creative writing class. There was a woman who used to publish her own newspaper. She’d started it with the desire to write, but shortly discovered that only 1% of her time was spent writing, and the rest was dealing with advertisers and marketing. There was also another woman who had two books coming out this year, and another who was working under the guidance of the writer in residence on her first book.

I think I was the only one in the room with a degree in English, which was a surprise. I was also quite a bit younger, and further along in my writing life than most of the other women (aside from the ones with novels published already and the two seasoned writers). It was a good feeling. I firmly believe that you’re never too old to begin writing, but it was kind of cool to be one of the more experienced and one of the youngest writers in the room. If I’m this far along at 23, imagine how much my skill will have improved in twenty years!

After figuring out that “booking a consult” meant sending one of your shorter works or an excerpt of a bigger work to the writer in residence who would would then meet with you and critique it, I took the advice given to me by the mentor of the writer in residence and booked a consult with Lee. I think this was the best thing I got out of the whole event. I often feel like a burden when I ask my writer friends to critique my work because giving a good critique takes a lot of effort. I know Lee will be able to provide me with a valuable critique that’s are better than most of my friends could give not only because of her talent and experience, but also because one of the main purposes of her residency is to provide aspiring writers with assistance. I won’t feel like a burden for seeking her help. And who knows, maybe it will turn into a valuable connection that extends past one meeting. I’ve sent her a short story and I meet with her on May 17th!

The whole event was really valuable: meeting more than one person who’s living my dream, listening to Lee’s speech about writing, and discussing writing with other aspiring authors.

The moral of the story: if you’re lucky enough to hear about a writer in residence, GO! Or if you can’t get the night off work, book a consult! Do it, do it, do it!!

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