As I delved into research, I had an opportunity to travel to Romania and talk with people who could fill in some of the gaps for me. I read everything I could about everyday medieval life, carefully trying to balance the story with historically accurate details. The short story swelled into a 140,000-word novel that was revised many times—from the first person POV to third and back to first, all the while, my thesis advisor saying that despite its Gothic influence, it needed to be less ornate and more relatable and to make a strong connection between the reader and history.
My thesis, which featured the first few chapters of the novel, made an impression on the dean who helped me through the program. When she launched a course on vampire literature and film shortly after I graduated, I was asked to serve as a teaching assistant and writing instructor for the course. From the other side of the classroom, I learned even more about the writing process.
I’ve worked as a teaching assistant for this dean for more than three years now, and with each course, my writing style changes. A course in Modernism in Paris taught me to pare down language and work in simpler structures. My second novel, a medieval spy novel about Irish pirate queen Grania O’Malley, is much more focused on action and dialogue than the otherworldly inner landscape of Dracula’s consort. Classes in Darwin’s influence on Victorian literature made me reconsider the perceptions of a stuffy era, where more and more women were discarding their corsets to traverse the world in search of adventure. Reading George Eliot taught me how to better integrate research into a story.
With each course comes not only new inspiration, but also a better way of explaining to students how to develop writing skills. There are several essential keys to success I share each semester. First, be patient. No matter how many notes you have, or how detailed the outline is, ideas continue to appear throughout the first draft, and everything can change. As you process the information, let the circular points go and see what insightful ones suddenly come out of nowhere. Often, some of the best ideas that frame the whole piece can come at the end, and the conclusion turns out to be a stellar introduction.
One of the most beneficial ways to get inside the soul of your writing style is to read the work out loud. Yet I’m surprised by how many students are reluctant to do so. Not only is it one of the best methods of catching typos, overused words, and awkward sentences, it’s a great way to hear the flow of your unique voice. Your essence as a writer shines through. And it serves as excellent prep for doing readings in front of an audience.
Finally, there is the importance of revision. The courses I work on are all writing intensive, meaning if one of the revisions is missing from the process, the student receives a substantially lower grade. Learning to adhere to page counts, refining the work until it says precisely what it should say, and using the best words are elements of writing many students would rather live without. To be an artist means you need to allow yourself the time and the attention to detail to transform your inspiration into a work to be presented to the world. While working on the Modernism in Paris course, a shining example came through in the form of a new edition of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, in which all 47 different endings were published. Art is obsessive by nature, and the best thing to do is to embrace it and realize learning is always a work in progress.