I've been writing for (pause to count, run out of fingers, take off shoes and socks, start counting toes.....) three decades now, and last week was the first time I paused to take advantage of a local Writer in Residence program.
A Writer in Residence typically holds office hours a few days a week, offers instruction and consultation and adds to the enrichment of the local literary community. Usually, the only qualifications you need to book an appointment would be submitting a piece of writing in advance of the meeting (usually limited to a specific page count). But I'm sure if someone wanted to book an appointment just to ask the WIR questions about writing in general, that would be fine. So I suppose maybe the only requirement would be that you're able to book an appointment and show up. Pretty simple.
McMaster's current Writer in Residence is Daphne Marlatt the highly acclaimed poet and Member of the Order of Canada. I had the pleasure of meeting with her last week to go over one of my more "literary" stories (ie, a story that didn't contain any speculative or supernatural content -- although there was death in it.....you can take the boy out of horror, but you can't take the horror out of the boy). This was a story that I originally wrote years ago and have tried in at least 6 "literary" markets over the years with rejections from all of them. While I did get some feedback from an editor that the story had too much going on in such a short word length, I was eager to get more detailed feedback on it from a professional writer to see if I should keep working at it or just toss it into the drawer permanently.
Daphne offered the same advice, but in much more helpful detail, outlining the fact that there were at least four strong plotlines running through this 6000 word story, basically packing too much into such a tiny little package. Apart from helping me with specific points where my clarity in storytelling was lacking, and letting me know which scenes in the story really stood out and capture the reader's interest or where I might be able to dig deeper in a scene, she suggested I try to rework the story into a novella.
It was a great half hour session of discussing one of my stories, and I came away from it newly charged with a few things: 1) The story didn't completely suck as a contemporary fiction piece 2) The multiple plot-lines were worth exploring in more detail (novel/novella length) 3) While it is frightening putting your work in front of someone for the purposes of critiquing, the benefits are 100% worth it.
So I'm offering this tiny bit of advice to other writer's out there, whether you're just starting or you've been doing it for years. There's always something great to be learned from other writers -- and if your local University, College or Library has a Writer in Residence program, I would encourage you to take advantage of it. I know I'll be taking advantage of it again next year when a new WIR at McMaster is announced.