This June something extraordinary happened. I published my debut novel, Dreaming Home. It has already gotten positive notice, including—unbelievably to me—a favorable review in The New York Times. I’m over the moon about this recognition for something I labored over for more than fifteen years.
But here’s the thing, I didn’t write the novel alone. Okay, sure. Most of the time I was solo, my fountain pen hovering above scribbled sheets of paper. But over those fifteen years, I had help. A lot of help.
And boy, did I need it. I was a massive reader, had a B.A. in English Lit, but no formal education in writing. So in the early years, the words piled up but led only to lackluster results. I had to admit when it came to writing, I hadn’t a clue.
What was I going to do about it? Though I didn’t understand it at the time, the answer was simple.
Finding Your Literary Family
I live in Toronto now, but for 25 years I was an Alaskan. Around 2008, I started taking my scribblings to a critique group that met at Borders Books. I was (and still am) a literary short fiction author, but each week around a long wooden table were writers of sci-fi, urban fantasy, murder mysteries, vampire love stories, Regency romances. Over the years of sharing our writing, I can’t say I finally got a clue, but I made good friends.
I found my literary family. As it turned out, one of its many clans.
I stumbled upon another in 2010 at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference. Most Alaskan writers then were novelists or creative non-fiction authors. At that conference, Martha Amore and I were giddy to find we both wrote short stories. Over the years, her input rescued many of mine from impending disaster. That initial meeting led as well to the Lambda Literary finalist, Building Fires in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry (The University of Alaska Press, 2016).
Years later, I found still another clan of my literary family, a group of some of Alaska’s finest authors. Over wine, we discussed our writing, issues with finding agents, problems with publishers.
Thrilled by these experiences, I was no longer satisfied with scribbling solo in the dark each morning before I trudged off to work. I wanted to connect with the larger literary community.
Becoming a Good Literary Citizen
I immersed myself in 49 Writers. I was a coordinator of the Reading and Craft Talk Series. I performed other volunteer tasks, was a fundraiser and a regular participant in programs and classes. (Bringing all this full circle in Alaska in October, I’m thrilled to be a speaker at the ongoing reading series, as well as to be teaching a class.)
All this activity spurred on my passion for scribbling. In 2011, I published my first story, followed the same year by a second. Still, I felt no closer to having a clue and decided to attend my first writing workshop.
Finding Your Mentors
When it came to navigating the map of possibilities I relied on dumb luck. I more or less threw a dart at that map and it bulls-eyed on Gambier, Ohio. I’d barely heard of The Kenyon Review, but the generative workshop they held there each summer sounded just the ticket for a clueless author.
Dumb luck favored me again when I was assigned an instructor—Nancy Zafris, a demanding teacher who refused to suffer mediocrity. I returned to Gambier three more summers—having the honor in my final year of serving as her fellow. She remained a supportive presence, up until her death in 2021.
By 2020, I’d published quite a few stories, but still counted myself among the clueless. So that April—hoping to find help polishing my work—just as I was about to head off to The Writing Studio at the Banff Centre, Covid shut the program down.
More dumb luck. During lockdown over the following nine months, I was mentored privately by the program’s director, Caroline Adderson, a Canadian writer with a host of works and awards under her belt. We divided those published stories into two groups, stripped them to their bones and wrote new linked ones on top of them.
Enter mentor number three: John Metcalf, an author, critic and editor. For fifty years he has mentored writers who have gone on to have prominent literary careers. John agreed to publish the first group of stories, provided I strengthened the overarching narrative—a process that required an additional nine months.
A year and a half working with Caroline and John—right there, that’s my MFA program, one that makes me as proud as any degree ever could.
The result of our work, Dreaming Home, is a novel in six tightly-integrated parts, each of which happens to be a short story. An unusual approach, but not one without models.
Expanding Your Literary Family
To write, we must be in conversation with authors outside our immediate family. Dreaming Home has many influences, but to pull off its unusual structure, I looked for similar work. I didn’t have to go far. Caroline Adderson wrote the beautiful novel, Ellen in Pieces, whose stories tell the overarching narrative of Ellen, her family and friends. The stories in Kathy Page’s novel, Dear Evelyn, explore the ups and downs of a decades-long marriage. Though more loosely linked, other novels-in-stories are Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and We the Animals by Justin Torres.
Through opening myself to an array of literary influences, through mining other novels-in-stories for ideas, with Caroline and John’s counsel, slowly this difficult form felt like one I could pull off.
Believing In Yourself
Someone once tweeted that self-doubt was the greatest impediment to creative writing. To which I replied, yes, but it’s also inevitable. Even if we plot out our novels—meticulously filling up 3 x 5 notecards and pinning them like specimens to the wall—that plan is only a trellis on which our story must grow, on which we must get lost.
The way through this necessary doubt is to stubbornly persist, word by word. To do this, we need our family of fellow writers and mentors, reminding us of our worth. We need to engage with the wider literary family through reading and as good literary citizens, helping others on their paths.
So, ask yourself: who are the members of my literary family, who are my mentors, how am I honoring them by giving back?
If you don’t have a literary family or mentor yet, put yourself out there. You’ll soon find writers who mirror your passion. For Alaskans, that’s easy. The state’s strong literary community is a treasure. Use it to find your family—to help you over the finish line, to one day publish your book. Build out that trust over a lifetime, for beyond this finish line is another. And another still. With your literary family by your side, who knows how many books you will go on to write?
Lucian Childs is a fiction writer whose debut work, Dreaming Home (2023), was published by Biblioasis. He was a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Project Grant awardee, a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and an artist-in-residence at Byrdcliffe Art Colony and Artscape Gibraltar Point. He was a contributing editor of Lambda Literary finalist, Building Fires in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry. His stories and reviews have appeared in the literary journals Grain, The Puritan, Cirque and Prairie Fire, among others. A twenty-five-year resident of Anchorage, he now lives in Toronto, Ontario. For more information, please visit www.lucianchilds.com. You can register for his class HERE.