5 Ways the Short Story Incubator Changed My Writing Life
From revision frameworks to creating craft goals, Short Story Incubator alum Jennifer Marie Donahue writes about how the program challenged and changed her writing life. Applications for the 2021-2022 Short Story Incubator are due Monday, August 8th at 11:59pm ET.
1. Learning to Love Revision
On the subject of revision, author Bernard Malamud said it’s “one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”
For a long time, if you professed to me that you, like Malamud, loved revision, I thought you were either lying or enjoyed torturing yourself. For me, revision was bewildering, unpredictable, and often full of despair. I would workshop a story and return to my desk with a wealth of information about the reader experience but no clear path forward in translating that feedback into improvements for my work. Where to begin? The task felt daunting and overwhelming. I felt lost. I knew revision could give my work the shape and meaning I craved, but for all the craft lessons I'd encountered on character, plot, or setting, I'd found little help in understanding the process of revision.
In the Short Story Incubator, instructor Ron MacLean presented a set of revision frameworks that enabled me to see my work with new eyes. It sounds deceptively simple, but these tools provided the distance and perspective I needed to understand what my story was trying to accomplish. I learned to identify places where the work fell short of my vision. With the frameworks, I could see holes that needed filling, moments of confusion that needed to be cut, and ways to restructure that served key moments. It worked! I revisited stories that were years old, where the prose and structure felt locked in stone, and with the frameworks I was able to break open these older stories and successfully revise them. I'm not sure I would go so far as to describe revision as an “exquisite pleasure” just yet, but I've discovered a certain love for the revision process and the space it allows me to experiment, refine, and add layers to my work. The tools for revision I learned in the Short Story Incubator proved integral to helping me create my best work.
2. Publishing: Pushing Beyond “Close” Rejections to Acceptance
When I first read about the Short Story Incubator and its focus on taking a story from “workshop good” to publishable quality, I was intrigued. I had been working on a novel-in-stories manuscript for years, fine-tuning each story to stand-alone and also build towards a larger, narrative arc. But I felt stuck. The work was not yet meeting my vision for it. I felt frustrated by the “close” rejections the stories were receiving from editors at literary journals. As nice as it is to receive personal responses to stories and encouragement to submit more work, I began to worry I might be stuck in a “close” mode forever. The knowledge I gained during the Short Story Incubator didn't eliminate rejection from my writing life, but with hard work I have increased my rate of publication acceptance. The Short Story Incubator lived up to the promise of giving me the tools I needed to move my work beyond “workshop good” to the next level. After extensive revisions following the Short Story Incubator, I queried and found a literary agent to represent my novel-in-stories manuscript and this work is currently on submission to editors.
3. Better Reader = Better Writer
I am a firm believer that you learn more in workshop during discussions of other people's work rather than your own. You can understand more about crafting compelling fiction by reading accomplished work. Becoming a better reader and a better critique partner makes you a better writer. Over the years, I've made friends with writers who produce excellent work. The challenge in critiquing work that’s this good is that you can get lost in the beautiful sentences or the writer's mastery of craft techniques and fail to pinpoint the ways the work isn't quite living up to its full potential. The Short Story Incubator gave me new tools that I can use to read other's work and offer substantive feedback, or take apart published stories to investigate how they work. I am particularly grateful for how the knowledge I gained allows me entry to a wide variety of stories, beyond what may be considered “traditional” narratives, and allows me to think in broader ways about the nature of storytelling in terms of style, structure, and scope. Every student in the program is tasked with creating a craft goal and I still refer back to these researched topics from my peers for insights and lessons. I've even adopted the practice of setting my own craft goals as a way to read more deeply and target areas I want to improve in my work.
4. Community of Writers
Writing itself is a solitary pursuit, but the work of being an artist and putting yourself out in the world requires building a community. Being part of the Short Story Incubator means sharing the intimate space of workshop. In this process, I forged relationships that blossomed into important friendships that offered both support and inspiration. These are the people that I trust to give me honest, practical feedback on my work, who will commiserate with the struggle to finish a project or to publish it, who share opportunities with me, and who I can meet to chat about books and craft. I am very grateful for the writer friends the Short Story Incubator brought into my life.
5. Taking Risks and Embracing Challenge
The Short Story Incubator is an intensive program of study that has the potential to transform your writing and your writing life. It is a big commitment. Prior to the program, I had taken master classes at GrubStreet and participated in week-long workshops at various writing conferences around the country. I knew that participating in the Short Story Incubator would be intense and take considerable time and energy. I was both excited and nervous. How would I carve out enough time? Could I push myself and my work to new places? What would success in the program look like? Applying and being a part of the program represented both a challenge and a risk because it was an investment in becoming the writer I wanted to be. In the end, the pace and intensity of the program proved rigorous but worthwhile. It was powerful to see exactly what I was capable of doing and achieving when I focused my efforts and energy on my writing. Taking on the challenge of the Short Story Incubator improved my work and helped me understand that investment in my writing was worthwhile and necessary. Putting my work out there and learning to embrace uncertainty on the page opened up creative doors for me. My new work takes bigger risks, and I can feel my writing being pushed into new and exciting places. If you are on the fence about applying to the Short Story Incubator program, I encourage you to take the risk and invest in your work. If you are focused and embrace its challenge, this program can propel you and your work to new places.
Applications for the 2021-2022 Short Story Incubator are due Monday, August 8th at 11:59pm ET.
Jennifer Marie Donahue’s writing appears or is forthcoming at Catapult, Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Pidgeonholes, Yalobusha Review, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, JMWW, The Rumpus, and other fine places. Her writing has been named a finalist for the Barry Hannah Fiction Prize and the So to Speak! Nonfiction Prize. She has attended workshops at Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, Sirenland, The Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Wishing Stone, and the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. A native of Virginia, she currently lives in Massachusetts.You can find her online at: www.jmdonahue.com.