The time has come. I am officially a graduate of Oakland University. This final article as Photo Editor (and occasional reporter and blogger) for the Oakland Post marks the end of an era of learning my passion in life: creative writing. I have met many people on my journey to getting my bachelors, but one person who has helped me the most is the one and only Annie Gilson.
I had Gilson as a professor for my Advanced Creative Writing course about a year and a half ago. My good friend and fellow author Adrian Schirr was joining me, and I felt prepared to take the class by storm. However, I was not at all prepared for the intensity that is professor Gilson and her teaching.
To put it simply, she is a powerhouse of creative writing. Her energy was never less than 150%, and her passion for writing was even higher. She didn’t hold back with her critiques, and I admit that I left class with tears in my eyes after having some of my work ripped apart. However, it was the critiques I needed to hear, not the critiques I necessarily wanted to hear. That was one of the most important values I learned after taking Gilson’s course. I needed to develop a thick skin when it comes to revising and critiques. My writing isn’t perfect, and I need to know and not let my feelings get hurt when someone says “this makes no sense!”
The best part is that Gilson applies everything she teaches to her students to her own writing, which I learned when I interviewed her about her novel New Light, which was first published in 2006, and reprinted in 2010.
A Natural Born Teacher and Writer
Gilson grew up in New Jersey and started writing at a very early age. Young adult fantasy was her gateway drug to literature, and by the time she was in second grade, she had written her first novel, or rather the first 60 pages of a novel. Regardless of its size or quality, it was an important step to become a published author and beloved teacher at Oakland University.
However, she didn’t always write fiction. She started with writing poetry, and published a few poems before she was able to develop the skills required to write a novel. Gilson explained that writing her dissertation – which is a book-long piece of critical work – gave her the marathon rhythm to write novels.
“I don’t do poetry anymore. I read poetry and love it still, but fiction has always been my big love,” Gilson stated. When asked what her favorite genres of fiction were, she said she loves literary fiction, but also loves elements of the fantastic.
Of course, schooling was an important factor in Gilson’s life and career as a writer. She went to undergraduate school for creative writing.
“I had to do that, I had been writing all my life!” she said with a grin as she leaned back in her office chair.
Gilson told how she took one semester off and traveled through Europe for four months. She had decided that she needed to live in a place to fully get to know it, rather than simply traveling through. She lived in Portugal, Morocco, and England before moving back to the United States to settle in New York with her husband. She had intended on living in Greece as well, but right before she was to move there, Chernobyl blew and the country was saturated with radiation.
After her travels, she decided to continue her studies and go to grad school. It was then that she learned her love, and her innate talent, for teaching.
“As a PhD student I was teaching at Washington University in St. Louis. It was something that I found really exciting and the professors said I was a really good teacher,” Gilson started. “Most grad students have to teach composition for many, many years before they can teach other subjects, but I was lucky because after a few years of teaching comp they let me teach literature classes.”
Clearly, Gilson was made to teach, but she was also born to write.
Although she wasn’t in the MFA program for creative writers, she would often submit her pieces to their creative writing contents. Not only that, but she would win. That was what allowed Gilson to shift from teaching Literature courses to Creative Writing, and she adored it.
“As long as you’re an engaged teacher, you learn as much as the students do,” Gilson said. “It helped me with my own writing to work with other people on their own writing.”
Her favorite thing about teaching is connecting with the students.
“I love when the magic happens, when someone has the “Ah-ha!” moment and their stories skyrocket. It opens up new doors for them and they get excited, and then I get excited,” she added.
Now, Gilson is not only a 20th Century British Literature and Creative Writing professor here at Oakland University, but also the Creative Writing Program Director.
Perfecting her Craft
Gilson has come a long way since her first 60 page novel in second grade. However, learning doesn’t end once the diploma is in hand. She continues to learn every day from her students and takes what she learns home with her.
“Anybody who is in the workshop learns as much from critiquing other people’s work as they do having their own work critiqued,” Gilson explained. “In the workshops, my job is to be the lead critic and to help other people develop their critiquing skills. Every time I do that, I learn more about the work of writing and how to approach problems of narrative and characterization.”
Gilson emphasized the importance of not only writing, but revision and critiquing.
“If you don’t critique and edit other people’s work, then you’re not going to be able to be that person for yourself,” she explained. “For me, editing helped me be a better critic of my own work. It’s also so exciting to be in a room full of people who are writing and creative, it’s one of the most fun things ever.”
Her biggest piece of advice or young writers was to expect spending the next 20 years learning yourself, your craft, and your voice.
“Not to say you won’t publish before then,” she added, “but after 20 years you will really feel like a writer who is confident in his craft.”
She also mentioned taking your time and not rushing, emphasizing to learn, enjoy, and love writing and that publishing will come in time.
“I was in a hurry and it didn’t help at all,” Gilson explained. “When I realized that, I slowed down and began to enjoy it more.”
When she isn’t at school teaching the art of writing, she is at home perfecting it herself. Gilson stated she doesn’t have a writing ritual like some authors do. Her responsibilities for work and school often get in the way, and some days she doesn’t get to write at all. However, she does have one ritual that helps with her writing. Walking.
“I have to come down from social time by taking walks,” she started after I asked her what it was like being such an introverted, yet engaging teacher. “Walking is part of my pre-writing time. I take walks with my dogs in the woods for an hour every day. The walks help me mentally sort everything. Once I clear my head, then I can start writing.”
Breaking the Rules with New Light
Contrary to what people believe, there are a lot of rules to writing. Only once you understand the basics of how to write can you effectively write a novel, and once your manuscript is complete there are rules on how to go about getting your masterpiece published.
Gilson broke all of those rules.
While living in St. Louis, Gilson heard about a commune in Southern Missouri called East Wind. She and her husband drove down and visited, and that is where she found the inspiration for her novel New Light.
“I think it’s interesting to opt out of the cookie cutter American corporate life, and to try and create a life that’s different,” she said. “I’m kind of a mystic myself and I’ve always been interested in people who imagine other ways of existing. I’ve known a number of visionaries; not necessarily people who have literal visions, but the idea that there are people who see or imagine things that aren’t there is interesting.”
Her main characters, Beth and Houdini, drive the story forward as they try to understand those living in New Light. The inspiration for those characters came as vision as well.
“Seriously, they just appeared in my mind,” she said through laughter. Of course, the characters in her novel have small traits that Gilson derived from people she knew, but none of them represent one specific person from Gilson’s life. Her personal favorite character was Ty.
Although the inspiration for New Light came in a flash, it took much longer to finish the work and get it published.
“I wrote a couple drafts and had a few New York agents who were interested. They read it and said, ‘well, you’re a poet, aren’t you?’ Which is bad for New York, because it means the language is beautiful and lyrical and they can’t sell it. I knew then that it would have to be a small press. With sex cults and visionaries, of course it had to be small press!” Gilson exclaimed.
Then, Gilson came to Michigan to work at Oakland University, and she put New Light in a drawer. She had more important things to focus on, such as a new school and a new culture to understand. However, after only two years she realized that she wasn’t practicing her own advice to her students. While she was telling them that they had to send out their work and not put them away in drawers, she saw herself as a hypocrite and began to try publishing her novel once again.
“I did the worst job of selling my books. I opened up the Writer’s Market to the beginning of the small press section, and I sent my manuscript to the first press that did stuff that seemed to fit,” she explained as she pointed out her copy of the Writer’s Market sitting on her overflowing bookshelf. Luck was on her side, because the small publishing house, Black Heron Press, accepted it immediately. Although it worked for her, she still firmly believes it was the worst way of going about selling her book to publishers.
“You don’t start at the beginning of the alphabet because there may be other presses that are a better fit,” Gilson stated.
New Light is a solitary novel, but she is currently working on a literary fiction novel for adults and a young middle grade novel that her husband is illustrating. In addition to that, she is working on a young adult trilogy that is undergoing final revisions before being sent out for publication. Gilson landed her agent for her series in an unorthodox way as well.
“While I started revising my 700 page literary fiction book, I had the beginning of the young adult book and I thought, ‘Why not send it out?’ Again, I broke all the rules. You’re not supposed to send out unfinished works. I only had 25 pages done, but the agent I sent it to loved it and she took me on,” she said.
Finals Thoughts on Publication
When it comes to getting published, Gilson is a firm believer that you never know what is going to happen unless you try. She mentioned that you can break all the rules and nothing will happen to you, or you can follow all the rule and still nothing will happen.
One of the biggest parts of writing that no one likes to talk about it rejections. Writer’s often don’t talk about how many rejections they get. Even big name authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King had to face mounds of rejection letters before hitting it big. The same goes to new authors who hope to aim for the big publishers like Penguin Random House and Harper Collins. Agents are required to submit to these publishing houses, which adds another step in the publication process where a rejection can come flying into your inbox.
Small publishing houses, like Black Heron Press, don’t always require agents, but they too can reject your book if they don’t believe it’s a good fit. However, if they do pick it up, you don’t have to worry about having your book go out of print. The caveat with small publishers, and even self-publishing, is the ability to sell your own book.
“Where to publish depends on what you’re writing and what kind of a PR-person you are,” Gilson explained. “I don’t enjoy selling my own work. If you’re someone who can do that, then self-publishing could be a great route. But it’s important to be honest with yourself what kind of person you are.”
Another way to boost your chances of having your book sell is to be involved in the writing community.
“I did review for many years so I was a good citizen, but after that I was tired of reading and reviewing books,” Gilson added. “Adrian [Schirr] was good at PR, and she was involved in the romance community, so it worked for her when she published. Matt Bell, one of our alumni, is really good at being a fellow writing community person. In the end, know who you are as a writer and what you’re comfortable doing.”
With that final piece of advice, I said goodbye to Annie Gilson, to Oakland University, and hello to my future as a creative writing major.
Written by Dani Cojocari. Originally published in The Oakland Post on December 19, 2015