Wednesday, June 22, 2011

VCFA Blog Initiative: "Finding the Heart of Your Story" by Pam Watts

The TeachingAuthors are proud to be part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Summer Blog Initiative. We're especially pleased to be the first blog to feature these inspiring and practical posts by students and graduates of the MFA programs because four of us (Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, Carmela Martino, Mary Ann Rodman and JoAnn Early Macken) hold MFAs from Vermont College. As for me, I’ve vicariously attended Vermont College since it began in the late 90’s via my writing friends, colleagues and even students whom I recommended.  One of these days my Summer teaching schedule will change and I can at least attend a Summer Intensive.  (I’m saving the Winter Intensives for my Next Lifetime.)
Our series began last Monday with Jodi Paloni's entry, "The Point of Point of View." In last Wednesday's guest post, "Decide vs. Discover," Cynthia Newberry Martin shared a technique for letting the characters tell you what happens next in your story.  Sion Dayson gave us another method for moving forward in last Friday’s post, “What Happens Next? Inch Forward in the Dark.”  On Monday, Lynn Miller-Lachmann put forth the VCFA way to critique a fellow writer’s manuscript in "Critiquing Others" The Constructive Critique."

Today’s post by Pam Watts, "Finding the Heart in Your Story," addresses the heart of your story and how it can be found. It captured my writer’s heart instantly.  Following the post, I've offered a related Writing Workout.

The next stop in the VCFA blog initiative?  Pam's very own Strong in the Broken Places blog.

Thank you, Pam, for sharing your insights with our readers and writers.

Learning from you and your fellow VCFA bloggers these past two weeks gladdened this teacher's  heart immeasurably.--Esther Hershenhorn

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Finding the Heart in Your Story

I decided to be a writer after some minor success with my first book when I was seven. I took a year off from college ten years ago and blithely wrote my “first novel.” Ha.

Many critique groups, writing classes, and conferences later, my novel was going nowhere. But I was serious about this writing thing, so I found myself at Vermont College of Fine Arts. They gave me a scholarship when they admitted me. I thought I was Pretty Hot Stuff. I just needed to learn to turn a prettier phrase (but I thought my phrases were already fairly pretty). Again, can I say: Ha.

I got to my first workshop--the extremely squirm-worthy process whereby 15-20 extremely articulate students and a teacher who has written so many books that he could generate an award-winning plot in his sleep tell you exactly what is and isn’t working with your novel--and discovered from the inimitable Tim Wynne-Jones that my characters lacked emotion, my plot lacked internal logic, my language was altogether too flowery. Oh, and that setting I thought was Wales?--Well, it felt more like Ireland, actually.

I cried big, fat heavy tears alone in my dorm room. Then I put my hair up in a pompadour and I got on with life.

My first semester studying with one of my literary heroes -- Martine Leavitt--did not go any better. I spent the entire semester trying to convince her that she just hadn’t understood my perfect vision.

Now fast forward through three semesters, a few World Wars, and a great deal of craptastic writing to my penultimate residency. Here you will find me crying in my closet after my good friend Clete finished his graduate reading.

Why was I crying this time?

Because the story Clete read from was so deep and heartfelt and emotionally honest that I suddenly realized how much resistance I have to my own writing. I realized that I aggressively “try” so I don’t have to do the real work of writing from my heart.

I’d like to say that I’m a new person now, that I have no ego and I always dig deep. Sigh. But over the course of my last semester my writing did change. I started to actually listen to my wonderful advisor -- Margaret Bechard. My writing became a little darker, scarier, and more fluid. And I started to ask the question: why do I need to tell this story?

Now that I’ve graduated, that question is with me each time I sit down to write. And with it I’ve occasionally found a deep openness. This space is scary and so I often avoid it. But not always.

It’s a process.

Finding the heart of your story is like finding the heart of yourself. You never really get there, but every step you take gets you a little bit closer. And if it’s worth it to you, you keep going.

Pam Watts is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program. She writes fiction for teens, speaks about graphic novels and literacy at conferences, and blogs about children’s books and childhood adversity at Strong in the Broken Places. If you have questions or comments about this post, or about Vermont College, she can be reached directly at

Writing Workout

Your story’s heart and yours share the same blood supply. What’s pumping in one is pumping in the other. 
No bypass is surgically needed.

I recommend writers create a Writer’s Journal to use - in tandem – with the Writer’s Notebook they keep for each writing project.

In your Writer’s Journal, answer the questions below for the story you’re currently writing:

(1)    How might your character introduce you to an audience of writers and readers?
(2)    Why does your character NEED you to tell his/her/its story….and now?
(3)    What thoughts/concerns/worries might your character have about your keepin’ on…as you travel your writer’s plotline to tell his/her/its story?  How and why is he/she/it 100% certain you'll do just that?


Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for sharing your "heart" with us, Pam. I went to a similar experience at Vermont College.
And Esther, thanks for the terrific Writing Workout.

Faith E. Hough said...

Great post! I'm excited about the initiative! :)

Anonymous said...

Oh Pam, I love this: Your story’s heart and yours share the same blood supply. What’s pumping in one is pumping in the other. That is so true! Maria Gillan, with whom I took a poetry workshop years ago that echoes in my mind still, calls that connecting with your own heart "going into the cave." When everything else tanks, that inner self is there, waiting.