Why I Write: A Writer Named Chris

I’ve spent a lot of time in the town of Comfort Rock, VT, the past couple of years. To some degree, I’ve gone there every day over the past two decades. And it’s certainly been around the blog a bit these past few days. Plus plenty more to come.

Visiting Comfort Rock feels like going home, and I love it there so much.

For those who haven’t read The Comfort Rock Chronicles here on the blog yet or haven’t read all the way through to the end of an entry, Comfort Rock is a fictitious Vermont town that’s been in my head since the autumn of 1997. It’s populated with people, places, and things that represent the best, worst, and in between of life in Franklin County and Vermont in general.

Comfort Rock is also where the main characters from my first novel – currently deep in revisions – come from. The story currently playing out in The Comfort Rock Chronicles takes place three decades before the novels. A prequel, at least from my creative perspective. 

But why did I create Comfort Rock in the first place? The answer to that is a big reason why I write.

My first crack at college in the early 1990s wasn’t so great. After a year and a half at Johnson State College, I’d screwed up enough to realize I needed to step away and do something else. The five ensuing years of getting kicked in the crotch by adulthood helped me decide it was time to give higher education another shot. I started out slow, taking a couple of evening classes at the late, lamented Trinity College.

It was the right choice and the right time. I was fortunate to end up in a creative writing class with an instructor who changed my life.

Chris Bohjalian

In the autumn of 1997, Chris Bohjalian had just published his fifth novel, Midwives. I had no idea who he was. Just some professor dude, as far as I was concerned. As it turned out, he was something else: an incredibly human and humane writer who inspired me to put my thoughts on paper in a way no other teacher did before. 

There’s a litany of skills, tricks, and tips I picked up from Chris in that one short semester, but I’ll share the three I return to the most: the rule of three, the importance of the quotidian, and his description of the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story. (I’d share it here, but I consider it his description to share en masse.)

A pop-culture atomic bomb detonated in our classroom one October evening when Chris informed us that his new novel was selected by Oprah Winfrey as her new book club selection. Our minds were blown. So was Chris’s. The smile on his face that day was one I’ll never forget. A perfectly balanced combination of pleased, humble, excited, and overwhelmed. But mostly grateful. A master class in and of itself in how to appropriately approach success. 

It was a beautiful experience to be a small part of.

Our big project for the semester was to write a story that was worthy of submission to a magazine or other publisher. It had to be worthy because we had to do exactly that. It was terrifying.

Comfort Rock was the fruit of that project. I wrote a short story about a farmer (you know him as Lauren’s dad in The Comfort Rock Chronicles) facing down a flash flood on the land he managed for a man named Henry (Mr. Winchester in my current story). 

I worked so damned hard on that story and fully understood for the first time why a first draft is a first draft, not to mention why sometimes a fifth draft isn’t a final draft. The story I wound up with – uncertain, awkward in many places, all-around amateurish – was rejected by Yankee Magazine. As I expected it to be and as it should have been.

Then I learned the trick of the project. My classmates and I received our first rejections and survived. Even more, I got feedback from Chris that I listen to still. And he saw something in my work – or was at least nice enough to say that he did – and encouraged me. Said that someday I would be published.

And he wasn’t wrong. As a reporter, newspaper editor, and freelancer, I’ve been published a whole bunch. Now I’m at a place mentally – anxiety and depression managed much healthier than over the past 20 years – where I’m ready to go for the big one: a novel. Am I doing it right? I have no idea. All I know is I’m doing it, and if I’m appropriately using what I learned from Chris and others like him (more on them later), I can’t be too far off course.

I’m excited to share more of Comfort Rock with readers, including some version of that first story from class. And each time I do, I’ll think of Chris. How could I not? He’s part of why I write.

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