How Is a Book Project Like a College Semester? (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

I've always been a good student. I'm lucky that way. I'm at least reasonably intelligent, but more than that, I'm disciplined and interested in everything on some level and I test well and formal education rewards those with my particular read-write learning style. Learning is my favorite activity. I plan my vacations around it.

So school has never been a problem.

Nevertheless, my first semester of college threw me for a loop. I went to school back when 15 credit hours was the norm for full-time traditional undergraduates. Now it's rolling back to 12, and sometimes 9. No wonder people are in college forever. No doubt there are elements of this trend I don't understand, but I still say, if that's literally all you have to do, you can do 15 hours. Yes, you will be stressed. Welcome to life.

That fall of 2000 (yikes, now you know how old I am ;-), I sat on my lower bunk in my tiny dorm room with my syllabi and calendars spread around me and inhaled and exhaled very slowly as I looked at the number of exams I would be taking, books I would be reading, and papers I would be writing. This was back in the day when you were just expected to do it and not whine and call your mom to come yell at the professor. (Man, I sound like a crotchety old person, but I know expectations are way lower now because I taught college until very recently and because I hung out with my two favorite college professors in May and they said the same and because we have all seen it many times in The Chronicle.)

My point is that I was looking at a lot of work.

I was absolutely certain it would never get done. I would give it my best shot, but it would never get done.

Well, I said to academia, we had a good run. When people hear that Courtney McKinney flunked out of college, I'm sure they'll be shocked and shake their heads, and say, "It's never the ones you think." Adieu, old friend.

I have always had a touch of the melodramatic, and this moment had all the makings of an extended death scene in which the heroine can somehow still sing after the bullets have punctured her lungs. (Looking at you, "A Little Fall of Rain").

I now have three degrees and several other qualifications in frames on my office walls. My despair was a bit premature. You'd think I'd learn that it's always going to be okay and that I always find a way because I am too stubborn not to. But no. Every semester I go through the same thing, whether I am teaching or learning. I have told many students this story to convince them that they're going to get through it.

I'm on a break from formal education right now (We all know I'm going back, right? There's still room on my office wall.)but I've managed to transfer my melodrama to my writing. Between finishing The Last Sister and its publication, I wrote another novel, in another genre. There are good things about it, but it also has some major issues I don't feel like fixing right now. Last winter I was struggling. The Last Sister was doing well, but I didn't like the first draft of a new project I produced in February. (Neither did my husband, and he is a good judge.) I tossed it. 

I thought, Well, this is it. Two projects that didn't work. We had a good run, writing. I don't know why anyone thinks I can do this again. Goodbye, cruel drafting. 

And then, from the piles of research and tossed pages, a new story emerged. At the moment, it's 3000 words long. And I'm pretty sure that if I can pull it off, it will be pure gold. It's good stuff.

I am always getting schooled. But I've learned to ride it out.

And rain will make the flowers grow.


  1. You will go back to teaching. It's just a matter of finding the right place and right time.

    I don't know anyone who really thinks they can just DO IT. Well, no, I know one guy. And I think he's the next Dan Brown (for kids) and I hope our friendship can survive the success he's sure to have. For now, I just admire his confidence and hope, daily, that it'll rub off on me. Because he sure believes in me as much as he believes in himself.

    I never doubted that I'd be a straight-A student. I wish I could convert that confidence to my writing. Maybe it's because the feedback has been so different and I've been a "B+ student" in writing for so long ("I really like it, but I just don't love it").

    And yikes. I knew I was older than you, but college in 2000? Oh, brother...

    1. My confidence ebbs and flows. I have piles of it or none of it! That "I'm only as good as my last grade" feeling translates easily to writing, unfortunately.

  2. Yay! So glad you found your next story.

  3. When the pure gold is ready for more testing, I am ready to be a fan girl.


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