Turning Points: Guest Post by Stephanie Burgis (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is author Stephanie Burgis revealing hers…

Guest post by Stephanie Burgis

When I first sat down to write this entry, I froze up. Too many choices were tumbling around my head. Which turning point do I talk about?

Here’s my first major turning point: the moment in 2001 when I made the absolutely illogical choice to attend Clarion West, a writing workshop I knew I most definitely could not afford. Against the advice of many smart people, I put $2,000 on my credit card and flew into the unknown for six weeks, acting as if I were a real writer whose work deserved the investment—as if my writing could ever be worth a $2,000 expense!

As if. I was physically shaking as I stepped onto that plane from Pittsburgh to Seattle. I couldn’t believe what I was doing. I was so terrified that night at our first group dinner, I actually felt like I was floating above my own body as other workshop members asked me respectfully about my writing.

I smiled and I came up with answers somehow, but inside I was thinking: Can’t they tell I’m just an impostor?

Yes, I had known since I was seven years old that I wanted to be a writer—but that was just a crazy fantasy, a pipe dream! Yes, I’d won my acceptance to the competitive workshop—but that was a fluke. It had to be! Couldn’t they tell just by looking at me that I didn’t belong with Real Writers like them?

They couldn’t…and by the end of those six weeks, neither could I. By the end of the workshop, I was calling myself a writer out loud for the first time in my adult life. Those six weeks changed everything for me—not just my writing (which improved so much there), but my whole life, as well.

Less than a year later, I was flying into the unknown again, getting onto another plane—and this time, it wasn’t just for a six-week trip. This time, I was moving to England to live with the amazing man I’d met at Clarion West, one of my favorite writers in the world, and the single reader whose opinion matters most to me.

Even beyond that, I was part of an active critique group I’d joined because of Clarion West. I was writing and submitting stories to professional magazines, coping with rejections and sending those rejected stories right out again. Everything about the way I treated my own writing had gone through a massive shift—I was finally turning my crazy dream into a practical plan, and that made all the difference.

Without having attended Clarion West…well, I would still be a writer. I’ve been a writer ever since I was seven years old. But I wouldn’t be where I am right now, not physically, emotionally, or professionally.

But that’s not the only major turning point for me and my writing. Four years later, I had to choose between finishing my PhD in music history or making another, even scarier commitment to my writing.

I was halfway through my PhD thesis when my funding ran out and I had to take a full-time day job. I knew by then that I didn’t want to be a professor, but after spending three years in a PhD program, it seemed crazy not to finish the PhD, just to put a cap on all that work. Moreover, I come from a family of academics: three of my close relatives have PhDs, and a fourth is in a PhD program now. Education, and degrees, mean a lot in my family.

“No problem!” I told everybody I knew—especially myself.

I just planned to do it all: work the day job during the day, write my fiction at lunchtime, and write my PhD thesis at night. I could finish the thesis within a year, and have that PhD diploma to make me officially a success. Easy-peasy!

Well. Guess how long that plan worked out?

I think it was on the second night of my new schedule that I started crying helplessly when I sat down at my computer, completely overwhelmed. That was when I realized that I’d made a fatal error in my planning: I’d forgotten to schedule any time with my husband, or, in fact, any time to decompress at all.

That was not a livable schedule for me. So, something had to go.

The obvious answer? Fiction writing. After all, although I’d finally published a couple of stories by then, my career certainly hadn’t taken off in any way. No one in the literary world would miss me if I just stopped writing for a year. I could always pick it up again after a year, once the PhD thesis was finished…

…Except that I couldn’t. I genuinely could not do it.

Ever since I was seven years old, I’ve known I wanted to be a writer more than anything else in the world. Writing is like eating to me; it’s like breathing.

No one in the literary world would have missed me that year…but I would have missed myself.

Because without writing, I am not myself. It comes right down to that.

Giving up the PhD was hard. It was hard to admit that I was not going to be the super achiever I had planned to be. It was hard to admit to my wonderful supervisor and advisor that their hopes for me were not going to pan out. It was hard to admit to everyone I really wanted to impress that I was not, in fact, as impressive as I had hoped.

But I have never, ever regretted making that choice—any more than I’ve regretted the fact that, a year later, I chose to finally change literary streams, switching from the darker, adult fantasy novels that had won me my first agent to write the book of my heart instead: a lighthearted, funny MG fantasy adventure set in Regency England, which has since been published as Kat, Incorrigible. I’d been writing darker, adult books because I thought that was what a Serious, Important Writer would do—and surely I had to be impressive in some way, right? Right?

Wrong. It turned out that I wasn’t Serious or Important after all…but what I really wanted to write was so much fun, I couldn’t bring myself to care anymore about what other people thought. And that was the real reward, in itself.

In the end, all of my most important turning points have come down to those moments when I had to step forward and make the choice to believe in my own (quirky! implausible! embarrassing!) dreams…

…Which really means believing in myself, the person behind all the social masks, the person I really am: not Serious, not Important, not capital-I Impressive. Quirky. Human. Me.

I don’t know a scarier step to take—but I don’t know a better one, either.

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now she lives in Wales, surrounded by mountains and castles. The first book in her MG Regency fantasy trilogy, KAT, INCORRIGIBLE, was chosen by VOYA as a Top Shelf pick for Middle School Readers. Her second book, RENEGADE MAGIC, was published on April 3, 2012. You can read the first three chapters of both books on her website: www.stephanieburgis.com


Congratulations to the giveaway winner of a *signed and personalized* hardcover of Stephanie Burgis’s new middle-grade novel Renegade Magic! The winner is…

Shila Ah

Congrats, Shila! Thank you to everyone who entered—and to the author for the prize.

There’s more in the Turning Points series. Catch up with any posts you may have missed here.

36 responses to “Turning Points: Guest Post by Stephanie Burgis (+Giveaway)”

  1. Anyone who could write a book as lovely and fun as Kat, Incorrigible is serious and impressive. What you’ve created takes both hard work and an abundance of talent.


  2. I had a similar experience after I’d been sort of coaxed into finishing the PhD where I sat down with the pompous department head and talked about my future at the university. He explained quite firmly that the fiction writing had to go, not because it took too much time away from other things, but because it “looked bad.” It wasn’t “serious” or “literary” enough. I listened to him and had this moment of absolute clarity, knowing that the one thing I would never give up was my writing, and realizing that all the time I had spent on the PhD was actually the waste, since that was what I *was* willing to give up.


  3. Wonderful story! And I may be biased, but I think authors who write funny, lighthearted MG are doing work that’s both impressive and important. 🙂


  4. Great post 🙂 I’m glad you switched to this fun style of writing because KAT, INCORRIGIBLE was an awesome book and I can’t wait to read RENEGADE MAGIC.


  5. You know, Stephanie, listening to your heart is a great way to go. There’s nothing quite like spending time doing something you don’t want to.

    I had a similar moment, and made a similar choice, but, alas, mine was to wait on my fiction. Which is why I’m a beginning writer…of a certain age. But I always wonder, what if. It’s great to see what if for you.



  6. I think it’s wonderful you gave yourself the freedom to let go of the PhD to work on what you really wanted. Allowing yourself to do what is best for you in the face of disappointing others is brave and admirable.


  7. Such a beautiful post! I followed an eerily similar path, and you’re absolutely right about the way the need to be impressive can get in the way of being true to ourselves. I’m so glad you made the choices you did – and I think you’re all the more impressive for having the courage to follow your own path!


  8. “No one in the literary world would have missed me that year…but I would have missed myself. Because without writing, I am not myself. It comes right down to that.”
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    I’m so glad you went ahead and wrote kids stuff!!! I’ve read the kindle sample of Kat and want to get to know her better.

    I had a similar experience in leaving the academic world. I had just finished my master’s in marine biology (after having to put off a PhD), and my advisor asked me brightly, “So what are you going to do now!” and I said, “I think I’m going to write children’s books. lol.


    • I had just finished my master’s in marine biology (after having to put off a PhD), and my advisor asked me brightly, “So what are you going to do now!” and I said, “I think I’m going to write children’s books. lol.

      Ha! Yes. It’s not exactly what was on the standard setting for a life plan, is it? But it can be SO MUCH better. 🙂

      And I really hope you enjoy Kat!


      • I really do LOVE Kat from the sample!!! And I’m about to order the whole book from amazon, when I order Michael Scott’s The Enchantress. I love the way you write so much! It is so feisty and innocent and brave and – here’s what may be an overused word, especially on my part sometimes lol, but I have to say it this time – magical! You write magically.

        I really like Elissa, too – I love how she is all Miss Manners, but then hugged Kat to her when she realized WHY Kat had been leaving. 🙂 🙂 🙂

        About grad school – yes, science is so great, but it makes my heart sad to be so left-brained all the time, with no room for magical thinking. When I told my advisor that, about writing children’s books, his expression faltered, kind of like it did the year before when I told him my proposal for my thesis: looking for evidence of extinct microbes on Mars. Fortunately my other advisor, the more senior at the time, really liked the idea 🙂 😀


  9. I’m running off to read Kat, just because of your post. 🙂 Thanks for having the contest too!!


  10. That’s a wonderful story, Stephanie. I’m so glad Clarion West was such a turning point for you — it sounds like an amazing experience.


  11. Thank you for sharing that, Stephanie, it’s really inspiring. Funny how with hindsight we can see that ‘following our true path’ was obviously the right thing to do, but at the time it’s utterly terrifying. Well done to you for taking those scary steps and congratulations on being not just impressive, but inspirational!


  12. I think there comes a point in each person’s life — early or late — when she has to admit that some dreams are not going to come true; that it is NOT possible to do it all, no matter what the self-help junkies say. Then comes the triage: Where will I invest my time, energy, and yes, even money? It’s painful. But I am SO glad you chose writing, Stephanie! Your books and stories are magical in all possible ways.


  13. I loved reading your turning point story! i’m also very glad that you followed your heart and stuck with the writing. You have so much talent!


  14. What a wonderful inspiration it was for me to read your journey and how you chose your own path in spite of the standards of all those around you. I can completely relate!! 🙂 It encouraged me to make the choices that are the best ones for me, even when others may not be satisfied.


  15. Steph, It is is nice to read this turning point by you. I hadn’t realized the second Kat book came out. I haven’t talked to your mom in a bit. I will stop and get a copy at B&N for Anna. She enjoyed “Kat, Incorrigible!” She especially liked sharing with friends her connections with the author:)
    Good luck as you continue to truly be a professional writer!


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