Believing in What She Writes

Writing graduate Nancy Tompkins sought structure, receives recognition

Writing essays and short stories may not be on Nancy Tompkins’ career path. But it is now part of who she is.

You see, Nancy had worked as a lawyer for 25 years before taking her first writing class with us. Writing had always been a part of her life—in the 1990s, she sold some essays to Glamour magazine—but she’d spent most of the 2000s writing legal briefs for appeals. “I’ve always wanted to write—it is how I understand myself—and I’ve always worked at getting better at it,” she says.

After leaving a law-firm job in 2014, Nancy wanted to finally write according to her own inclinations, without having to defend every proposition or even make perfect sense.

She wanted to explore creative writing.

“I find that ordinary life—the news, hilarious conversations with friends, predicaments I read about in my work, the mini-trials and triumphs of my family life, growing up and present time—stimulates my writing,” says Nancy.

What she needed was something to keep that writing on track: structure. That’s where our Writing certificate comes in.

Show, Not Tell

“I'm a striver,” Nancy states. “I like having a little Mount Everest before me. I knew that aiming for the certificate would keep me on track and have me sign up for more classes. I also liked the distribution requirement: the need to study some literature, for example, and grammar, which I love.”

Keeping her and the other students on track were our devoted writing instructors.

“My teachers were great overall, as were all the people I ever talked to at Extension,” she says. “I learned a great deal from Thaïs Miller, Caroline Goodwin, Steve Albert, Margo Perin and Laurie Ann Doyle.

“For instance, I first learned about describing settings and characters from Margo.

“I first learned about writing dialogue from Laurie.

“In Steve’s Writing Creative Fiction introductory course and in his Creative Nonfiction Workshop, I first learned about ‘showing not telling’ and writing scenes.

“I'm still working on all of these things.”

And although she is still undecided, Nancy may pursue an M.F.A. in writing in the future. She feels prepared, thanks to Extension.

How so? In addition to its workshop curriculum, the Certificate Program in Writing also provides students with the real-world experience of submitting writing to literary magazines thanks to the program’s literary and art journal, Ursa Minor.

Nancy submitted “Belief”—a short story that she first wrote as an exercise for Margo Perin’s The Craft of Reading course—for consideration in Ursa Minor’s 2017 volume, Dark Matter. It was selected by the journal’s staff of student writers and editors and program literary advisers.

“I grew up in rural Vermont, and ‘Belief’ features some pretty vivid descriptions of snow, which I know a lot about.”

When asked about her inspiration behind “Belief,” Nancy answers: “The ocean is miles from my house, but I smell it sometimes from my front stoop when the wind is right. This surprise prompted me one morning to remember the prophet in Moby Dick who tells Ishmael, ‘At sea one day, you’ll smell land where there’ll be no land’―foretelling the appearance of the whale, so large and encrusted with barnacles that he smells like a land mass in the middle of the ocean. ‘Belief’is the story I wrote when I got to thinking about how eerie it would be if you smelled the sea where there is no sea.”

Recognition of her work didn’t stop once it left the classroom walls: “Belief” was recently shortlisted for the Grindstone International Short Story prize.

Nancy adds, “A different story I wrote for Laurie Ann Doyle’s The Craft of Writing course, ‘My Bitter Half,’ was longlisted for the American Short Fiction prize in 2017.”

Imagine, Then Write

The feedback she received for “Belief” and other writings from instructors and fellow students all contribute to Nancy’s writing success.

“Steve has offered good and generous career guidance,” she says. “My fellow students were very friendly and constructive in their criticism, though some classes gelled better than others. I am still in touch with a few friends I met during my very first year in the Writing program.”

As to Nancy’s future, one thing is clear: she will definitely be writing.

“I might consider a second career in creative writing, but for now I’ll be working at a regular job, one that leaves me plenty of time to dream and write,” she says. “In five or 10 years, you never know. Maybe I'll be dreaming and writing and flitting around the world. Or in an M.F.A. program.”