A number of years ago -- six, maybe? -- I signed up for a novel writing class at a local community college. It wasn't the first writing class I'd taken, but I quickly realized it would be the best. In fact, despite my debut novel coming out in December, I continue to sign up each semester, all these years later.
His name is James Sallis. He's an award-winning novelist, mostly known for his crime fiction. He writes poetry and science fiction, too. When he's not writing or teaching, he plays in a folk band. He's über talented. You might have heard of his novel, Drive. They made a movie of it starring Ryan Gosling.
I'd only just started my writing journey back when I first enrolled in Jim's class. I was a wide-eyed innocent, my head a jumble of dreams and ambitions. I had no idea what I was doing. And my writing needed a lot of work.
I wrote unwieldy, fragmented stories and poor attempts at novel beginnings. I made all the rookie mistakes. Jim read each submission. Took time from his own busy writing schedule to line edit and critique. Then he workshopped my pages with the class, always handling the discussion with the perfect combination of frankness and encouragement. In time I made less of those rookie mistakes. He taught me how to step back and catch those trouble areas before they got out of hand. He taught me how to move beyond cliché. He taught me that it always, always comes back to the writing. To doing the work. Writing is how we learn.
A couple of times I mentioned to him that I was thinking of applying to an MFA program. Something low-res, so I could still be home with my husband and two young children. He had an unusual response. Save your 40-plus thousand dollars, he said, and have coffee with me before class every other week. I'll teach you everything I know about writing.
A "latte MFA" with an award-winning novelist. How could I pass that up?
Soon, Jim became my mentor. Every other week, we'd drink coffee and talk about writing. I asked him questions about whatever I was tackling at the time. POV. Worldbuilding. Character development. How to start a story. How to end a story. Sometimes I'd bring something for him to read. Sometimes we watched the people around us in the cafe. He taught me how to observe. He taught me how to write. And he taught me how to become a writer.
Not just a writer. An author.
My first novel will be published in December, and I can say without a doubt I wouldn't be where I am now if it weren't for Jim Sallis. I tell him this as often as I can, usually when we meet for coffee. Our conversation has changed a bit from when we first started out. These days, instead of discussing craft we're more apt to talk about the industry. Most of the time, though, we just watch the people around us in the cafe and talk about life.
That's what friends do.