Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Never Stop Learning (Stephanie Kuehnert)

I am a proud nerd. I've always loved school. I was the kid who secretly looked forward to September instead of dreading it. I was the teenager who smoked pot and skipped class, but still made time for her homework and especially for her own reading. The bleakest part of my life was the two-year period that I dropped out of college, barely read, barely wrote, just drank and partied and watched TV in a hungover daze. One of the brightest parts of my life was in the fall of 2000 when I decided to go back to school for my BA in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. I felt more alive than I had for years sitting in a sunlit patch of cool grass in Grant Park, poring over Kafka's diary entries and essays about censorship and pouring out my own words about a character named Kara who hung out in a park--a very early draft of what would become my book, Ballads of Suburbia. It was like falling in love. Those quite memories of just me and my books, I cherish them the same way I do the memories of falling for my husband.

Addicted to all that I was learning about the craft of writing and to the stories, I went straight from my BA to my MFA. I was on a roll. I was learning so much. I'd gone from being that girl who hated revising and honestly believed her first draft was closest to her Original Vision to the girl who eagerly awaited notes from trusted critiquers and professors so she could puzzle out the ways to take her story apart and put it back together again, making it stronger, more compelling. I devoured all of the information I was giving about character building, about story structure, about the publishing business. Still the nerd, the Lisa Simpson-type overachiever, when I walked across the stage in 2006 to collect my Master's degree, I had a finished novel under my belt and another one in progress. Also, because I was quite lucky, I had an agent--I'd met her at a literary festival that my school put on--and she was already shopping that first novel.

When it sold a little less than a year later, I met my next teacher--my editor, Jen Heddle, who called me out when my writing was too flowery/"purple," when my point-of-view slipped, and who challenged me to get closer to my characters, to get into their heads, to dig into the hard scenes instead of summarizing. Admittedly, despite six years in creative writing programs, I was still fuzzy on what exactly "show don't tell" meant until working with Jen.

This was also the time period that I fully immersed myself in the YA writing community. I took one YA Fiction class while in school, taught by a woman named Laurie Lawlor who became one of my biggest mentors both as a writer and a teacher. (And she is included in this recent feature in my alumni magazine which also includes an interview with me about my writing journey.) But during 2008 and 2009 when my books came out, I lived and breathed and very, very seriously studied YA.

The next few years were hard. I wrote and got frustrated, blocked. I wrote and didn't sell. I became obsessed with the business side of things, of writing as "career." I got depressed. I struggled to read. Creatively, I was in a rut. Two things kept me going: I started teaching YA Fiction classes and I started writing essays and other fun, non-fiction pieces for Rookie. My editors there--Anaheed Alani, Phoebe Reilly, Danielle Henderson, Lena Singer, and Amy Rose Spiegel--helped me to focus my ideas, to nail getting my thoughts across in this shorter form, to zero in on each word and phrase. My fellow writers there challenged me. Their ideas and innovation, the way Rookie blends writing and image--a modern version of the cut-and-paste zines I made in high school, it made me hunger to do something new. Meanwhile, my teaching did the same. Additionally, as I looked for new ways to help my students examine the writing process, I applied them to my own work. I taught myself while I taught them. Maybe this isn't something I should admit to. I'd always thought of teachers as all-knowing, which perhaps is why I was always scared to be a teacher. But this is the teacher I am, one who is still learning, still growing, still discovering.

Still I was restless and frustrated, though. I needed to shake up my life like I had when I went back to college. So I moved to Seattle. It gave me a lot of things. Among them: a new environment to explore, an incredible YA community, and two new jobs. My day job is on a college campus. It's just office work, but being around students every day increased my desire to learn, learn, learn. I started reading more, a lot more than I had been in the past few years, and not just fiction. I read non-fiction about the environment, essays on feminism. I started listening to the podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class.

My other job is at an organization called Hugo House, a place for writers. Not a college, just a space where bright eager people in various stages of their writing career come together to continue learning. "Home. Home. I knew it entering," reads a sign on the building, a quote from a poem by Richard Hugo, the house's namesake. I smile every time I see it because that is exactly how I feel when I am there. I am home. I am ready to write. I am ready to learn.

Last summer, I finally broke my dry spell and sold another book. It's a zine-style YA memoir, inspired by Rookie and the part of my teenage writing life that it helped me get back in touch with. I have a new teacher, my editor Julie Strauss-Gabel, and according to the New York Times, she's a tough one. I'm definitely a little scared, but mostly I am eager. I want to shake up my writing the way I shook up my life when I moved to Seattle. I'm ready for the next phase, not just in my career but in my lifelong education as an artist.

There are still things I need to learn and I know it, especially about plot and structure. I want to do things that I've never done. I want, I realized at the beginning of this year, another MFA program. My first one taught me what I needed to know a decade ago, but now I need new things because I want to keep growing and achieving. Getting an actual second MFA is not feasible and kind of silly--I'm still very in debt for the first one and will be for the foreseeable future. But I realized, I have Hugo House. At the beginning of spring I took a class with the YA author, Karen Finneyfrock. She is as genius of a teacher as she is a writer. (I recommend her classes if you are in Seattle and her books if you are anywhere.) I absorbed everything she shared about plot and structure, about creating conflict between characters. I took copious notes and am currently applying them to one of my books that did not sell in hopes that I can get it to live up to the possibilities I saw for it. Additionally, I am re-reading The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, and about to start The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, both of which Karen used heavily in her class. I'm also thinking of creating a self-designed course in mythology for myself (if you have book recs, I will eagerly take them) and making a list of other topics that I think will inspire my storytelling and/or grow my writing abilities. Between this reading, Hugo classes, conversations with my writer friends who are also devoted to expanding their knowledge of the craft, and the work I'll be doing with my new editor, I'm creating my own self-designed MFA program, the thesis of which, I hope, will be new novel!

What about you, what do you do to keep learning and growing as a writer?


  1. Everything. (Though not all at the same time.) Take classes and workshops; rededicate myself to reading; try new genres. I'm not trying to publish poetry, so I took poetry classes because they would be pure craft, and would make me stretch. And traveled, tried new experiences, anything (healthy) to get unstuck.

  2. I love the idea of a self-designed MFA program. I'm adding The Anatomy of Story and The Writer's Journey to my TBR list. Jenn, I've often thought about taking a poetry class for the same reason. You and Stephanie are inspiring me!

  3. Stephanie, this is a really inspiring piece! Right now, I'm reading (and getting lost in the gorgeous visuals of) Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. Highly recommended!