For Natalie Lynn Harrison, finding her path in life via non-traditional educational opportunities is not something new.
Neither is getting creative to get her writing out into the world. You see, back in the 2010s, Natalie self-published two works—a short story called The Short Lives of Lobsters and a novella titled Warp—under the name Nat Fladager.
“I was trying to be swanky and self-publish along with music videos for my stories, or book trailers, which are actually super awesome because of the musicians (Rare Monk) and artists (art by Christ Bigalke at Showdeer and animation by Zachary Winterton) involved,” Natalie recalls. The promotional videos are still on YouTube.
“My first story, The Short Lives of Lobsters, cracked a lot of things open for me,” she explains. “I really challenged myself to write it. It’s about a man who loses his emotions after getting in a Vespa accident and then consequently loses the love of his life.
“Warp is about a girl who wakes up on a different, randomized day of her life every day and is caught in the middle of a past and future love triangle. I love these pieces but am also slightly embarrassed by their naiveté. UC Berkeley Extension helped me grow so, so much as a writer.
“Nonetheless, Nat Fladager was a big stepping stone for me,” Natalie reflects, “and I still feel lots of love for my characters.”
Natalie says where she is living and what she experiences play into her story ideas. Born in Reno, Nev., and raised in the small “cow town” of Gardnerville, she mostly grew up in Davis, Calif., with some time in Sacramento and San Francisco.
“The West Coast—specifically the Sacramento area—plays a huge role in my work,” she divulges. So let’s get to know this burgeoning writer.
Independent Study, Then and Now
“I was always a very independent, hard-working student, but the typical education system did not support my personality,” Natalie explains. “I enrolled at Davis School for Independent Study in sixth grade and then finished up high school through Laurel Springs School, a correspondence school that supported artistic endeavors like dancing and acting. Throughout high school, I was very focused on ballet and spent a year as a student at Oregon Ballet Theater in Portland before needing to shift gears and get a full-time job to support myself.”
As for many, college was not financially possible when Natalie was typical college age. Other professional and personal priorities were at the fore for her, including her mental and physical health.
“I was working to have a career in ballet, and I was also quite unwell with anorexia,” she acknowledges. “I’ve regretted not going the college route because of the undeniable experience such a path would have lent me as a writer, but there was just no way my 18-year-old self would have done anything differently.
“UC Berkeley Extension was such a great opportunity for me to gain knowledge and experience at a college-level without attending a four-year university.”
The Drive to Write
Ever since she “rewrote” Little Women in grade school, Natalie has always wanted to write.
Thinking back on her younger self, Natalie recalls, “I rewrote Little Women to try and soothe the ache that reading it gave me—to try and be a part of something so beautiful and moving, and also to assure that in my version, Laurie and Jo ended up together.
“Later on, my writing became a coping mechanism and a means of escape from a difficult time in life, but there was always so much joy and productivity in it that I did think about making it a career, though I had little faith in dreams coming true at this point. It took me self-publishing a couple of stories and the encouragement of my spouse to give my writing an actual chance.
“Now it’s all I want and it's something I will not stop doing ever again.”
This resolve is a good thing. Natalie writes about the human condition—“Love! Honest, painful, human love”—as well as eating disorders and mental health, which are personal topics that are also pervasive in society, and yet still taboo to speak about and not heavily explored.
Even when Natalie wasn’t tapping into creative writing as a day job, she still managed to discover new ideas and create.
“My first real job was at Borders Books in Davis; that place changed my life and gave me friends and experiences that have shaped me as a person and have shaped my stories,” she tells me. “It helped, too, that I was around books and could sneak in reading while working. I discovered many wonderful authors and books: I remember discovering The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and being so inspired to write in a more contemporary style. Before then I had lived for the classics. I also found a local writer’s group and got the inspiration for The Short Lives of Lobsters.
“All of my other jobs had been purely for survival and gave me no creative pleasure, though I did everything I could to squeeze creativity out of them,” she says. “However, I think it’s as important to experience life in full—with all its normal day-to-day monotony—as it is to sit down and write. Those jobs, as grindy and uninspired as they were, have given me insight and content.”
This includes Natalie’s stint as a real estate and property manager for Boschken Real Estate and as a project coordinator for Frontier Energy. There, she wrote business writing content for fliers, blogs, website and social media content, but her true creative writing skills remained on the backburner.
“I had tried my hand at querying in my 20s and felt hopelessly rejected,” she admits. “Nonetheless, I always sought out writing; I worked at an administrative level at a newspaper for a while, and the editor was nice enough to speak to me about my writing because I spent so much time on composing my emails. Funnily enough, I actually wrote a piece about Border’s closing in The Davis Enterprise. I also had a beer and cider blog for a while, which was also just a means for me to write without actually writing. I needed to get reinvigorated.”
Serious About Her Craft
“I wanted more for my writing” is what Natalie tells me when asked why register for the Certificate Program in Writing.
“I wanted to finally give it a real go. After my self-publishing endeavors—which about 12 people saw—it became clear to me that writing was not just a hobby of mine and that I was in a good place in my life to focus on school again.”
“I discovered the writing certificate and asked for advice from my sister-in-law, who has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Cornell University,” Natalie says. “She thought the curriculum looked great. The schedule was also conducive to my job and to motherhood, and the cost was reasonable.”
Natalie completed the entire certificate program online in just under three years.
“I took an extra writing course because I just wanted to write as much as I could and get feedback,” she says.
The critical but helpful feedback from our esteemed instructors was critical to Natalie’s success. “I found the intermediate and advanced courses in creative writing to be the most valuable,” Natalie commends.
“Monica Wesolowska, who taught Intermediate Fiction Writing, is such a sharp and intelligent teacher, such a wonderful person and such a prolific writer; I feel very lucky to have been taught by her and to have happened upon her beautiful writing.
“Daniel Coshnear, who taught Advanced Fiction Writing, and Katie Flynn, who taught The Craft of Reading, are also fabulous instructors who let me talk (email) their ears off and who lent so much heart to their classes. I am beyond impressed with the instructors; they care so much and have their own terrific, grueling writing careers they are fostering on limited time and energy.”
Fostering our students’ writing careers is just one of the many goals of our program. As a whole, our instructors and staff aim to prepare students for continuing writing education—whether it is in local or online writing groups or for M.F.A. degree programs—as well as on how to decide to submit their work to publishers when the time comes.
Natalie says that the writing certificate has helped her as a writer “in every way possible.”
She adds, “Several of the courses are specifically helpful for the publication process and others are specifically helpful for becoming a better, more self-aware writer. After each writing course, the instructor would help students start writing groups and offer insights into the world of agents and publishing. I have taken every piece of advice and used it. I am now in the thick of the writing/publishing world and feel prepared to take it on.”
Fanning the Flame
“Writing well to me is really about understanding and awareness, and the certificate program has broadened both of those essential qualities. There was a lot of love in the program; a lot of organic, long-distance, Zoom-based friendship and camaraderie for writing and writers and for one’s intrinsic need for artistic fulfillment. When I’m writing, editing and reading, I’m always thinking about what my teachers at Extension enlightened me to, and this keeps me in check and progressing.”
Since completing the program in spring 2022, Natalie already has two new projects in the works to be published.
“I’m very excited that my work has been accepted for publication!” she enthuses.
“I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet and it’s a brutal ordeal, but those two green columns are very encouraging. When the pieces come out, I will link them on Twitter, which, as I’ve come to discover, is where one can easily keep up with calls for submissions.”
In addition to working on publishing, Natalie is also setting her sights on graduate school. “I’m polishing up short stories, tinkering with a novel and working on my application to the UC Davis M.F.A. in Creative Writing for the fall of 2023.”
Reflecting back on her before-, during- and after-certificate experiences, does Natalie have any advice for would-be writers who are hesitant to take the leap and pursue their creative writing interest?
“I think in our society we have a really low appreciation for the arts and for anything that does not promise a big check,” she points out. “However, this mentality does not remove the true importance of being a creative soul. Books and stories move and shape the world; they are essential to a bright, conscious society. The most wonderful thing about writing is that it has no limitations; anyone can write—no matter size, age, gender, class, et cetera.
“As I’ve seen with the instructors, they make a living writing and teaching writing and all of them began somewhere small and new and scary. I say don’t be afraid and don’t wait. You never know what may come of taking just one class.”
You can follow Natalie on her social media: Twitter @nattywritergirl, Instagram @nattything or listen to her writing playlists on Spotify @TrillGirl