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Community Voices: When a literary life takes a turn to fiction

Shuly Cawood, Community Voices Columnist • Jan 20, 2015 at 12:00 AM

When I was in sixth grade, I wrote short stories, which I read to my sixth-grade bestie, Camilla. This was around that summer that we spent traipsing to the public pool with our silver-pin season passes, when the high dive was scarier than world affairs, before boys became big deals. Love was abstract, something we could imagine because of Judy Blume books and pop songs on the radio.

One day, Camilla and I set up my audio cassette recorder and taped ourselves each singing Diana Ross’s part to the duet, “Endless Love,” with Lionel Richie. Diana could be heard in the recording, but we sang over her voice as best we could, thinking we not only sounded superb but knew what we were singing about.

The future seemed as easy as lyrics. I tell you all that so you understand that sixth grade was a time when the world and my place in it seemed utterly possible. Back then, I decided I wanted to be a writer. What kind? A novelist.

But the best of stories take unexpected turns, and mine took a few. I turned to poetry in high school, and in college, I returned to story writing only briefly by taking a fiction class. It was my worst grade in all my English courses.

Dr. Dixon kept telling me, “You have no conflict,” and I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought my stories were full of conflict, just, well, understated.

After that, I didn’t try again. I stuck to poetry, and poems coaxed me through the kind of soul searching you don’t do in sixth grade but you do a lot of later, at least in my case, when life takes those unexpected turns. What I mean is: when life is turning into story.

I didn’t think I had short stories in me anymore, and during my college junior year, I decided to go for an MFA in poetry, except by the time senior year rolled around, my professors kept urging me to take a year off and work, to get some “real-world” perspective. But employment plummeted that year, and the real world didn’t have a job for me and my liberal arts, English major degree.

So in the middle of the hot brutal summer right after college graduation, my mother convinced me to apply for graduate school in journalism, the degree that all the jobs I wanted seemed to request. Her logic made sense: if you can’t find a job by fall, grad school is your backup plan.

So when September arrived, I started a degree I never loved but that, when I finished, gave me a career. I worked for university admissions offices and wrote recruitment pieces, and I worked at non-profits, editing their material and developing content for their websites and publications.

But none of it was creative writing, not the kind I wanted to do. I thought about an MFA, but as the years passed, I gave up on that dream. What I didn’t count on was my husband, Preston, being able to see what I wanted better than I could. He was one of those unexpected turns in my life that helped me believe in possibilities again. I was writing essays and memoir by then, and Preston suggested I get an MFA in creative nonfiction. I was accepted into a program and started my degree a year ago.

It’s been like falling in love.

This past summer, on a break from school, I decided to try writing fiction again. A flash story here, a tiny tale there. Students can study up to two genres but have to apply and get into the second. Could I do fiction? To apply, I had to turn in a manuscript. Twenty-five pages, which I had to write the weekend before because it’s not like I had 25 pages of fiction lying around waiting to hit the town.

I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter whether I got in, but it kinda did. I prepared myself for no, but instead the program director shocked me with a yes. And though he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic in his evaluation of my 25 pages, I tried to focus on the important thing: I was in.

Now, I’m about to start my fiction semester, and I have no idea whether I will be any good at it. But believing I can seems like a good place to start, and I promise you, after all this time, I think I finally have that part of the story right.

Shuly Cawood is a writer who lives in Johnson City. You can read more of her work at www.shulycawood.com.

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