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Getting Outside and Getting Back to Writing

by Isabelle Altman

Since starting my first semester of a Creative Writing MFA at UNC Wilmington, I’ve been driving out to Long Leaf Park once a week, or more often when I can. I make sure to walk at least a couple of miles, dodging dog walkers and kids on scooters and hoping I’m speedy enough to finish just one last loop before dark. 

It’s not a big deal to walk in the park, especially if you, like me, spent the summer reading about people hiking the Appalachian Trail or climbing in the Himalayas. But it’s refreshing after spending two years exercising to YouTube videos because the area around my concrete apartment complex was unsafe for pedestrians. There’s something about being outside that’s spiritually healthy in addition to being physically healthy.  

I could write about the trees being lovely or how fresh air is nice, but other people have said that better. For me, leaving the four walls of my room reminds me the world is wide, and has infinite potential for adventure and storytelling. 

And now I’ve got the crazy idea in my head that outside is so great that I too want to hike part of the Appalachian Trail (or maybe even some other, cooler, international trail) sometime in the next three years. 

Is walking in the park the same thing as hiking the AT? No. But when you can’t get to the mountains for the weekend, does every small walk take you one step closer to that plan? Maybe. 

In that same time period, the head of my MFA program assures me, I’ll have brought a book, or at least a book-length manuscript, into the world. Granted the world in question will be the size of the department, but at least the manuscript will exist. A novel or a book of essays, short stories or poetry is the end goal of any MFA program. 

That sounds roughly as daunting as hiking the AT. Not impossible, but a challenge to realistically achieve in the next three years. I spent most of the last decade accomplishing only what supervisors at work wanted me to do, with such a demanding schedule and so much stress that just applying for the MFA program, much less being accepted, sometimes still seems like a miracle and a fluke. 

Now they expect me to pull off another miracle in the next three years? And not just any miracle, but a book? (OK, book-length manuscript.) How do I even start?  

During our annual Writers Week in November, a panel of faculty talked about how you keep writing, with one professor suggesting writing at least seven sentences every day. Another faculty member did the math and pointed out that’s 2,555 sentences in one year. That’s progress. 

Numbers aside, the approach of writing a little every day, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s getting you anywhere, is the equivalent of a walk in the park. It doesn’t seem like much, but by the end of one year, you’ve walked hundreds of miles.  

So, I sign up for workshop courses that get me writing short stories, pull up some writing prompts, try my hand at flash fiction for the first time ever. And I hope that each dinky, awkward little paragraph that comes out takes me one step closer to the goal. 

One prompt I found online suggested writing a scene about a divorced couple who have to sit next to each other on a flight to Paris. I wrote the scene, agonized over it, gave it a light edit, and sent it to my professor.  

One scene is not a novel. But it was enough to get my professor writing back, telling me she wants the couple to get back together. That’s lucky, I thought. So do I. She also wanted to know what happens next. Time to go for a walk. 

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