A Tale of Two Bombs

For my applications to MFA in Creative Writing Programs, I have to submit both a personal statement and a writing sample. I wanted to share with you the personal statement I wrote as to why I want to pursue the MFA.

One of the schools to which I am applying is Southern New Hampshire University (which is a 100% online program). They asked me to address the following: explain how someone else’s story – such as a novel, movie, or a personal account – has impacted your life and influenced your drive to become a writer.

Here’s what I had to say:

I was twenty-one years old in the spring of 1996. I had been working on campus in the Office of International Programs, a job I loved because it was all about studying abroad and travel. Tucked at the back of our department were two smaller offices that belonged to faculty in the English department. While I had never taken a class from Dr. T., she was someone who was gregarious and often engaged me in conversation because she knew I loved to read.

I graduated that May and as a gift, my parents allowed me to audit a two-week study abroad program to Italy. On my last day of work, Dr. T. pressed a mass-market paperback into my hands and told me it would rock my world.

I started reading it on the plane to Milan and was immediately engrossed. So much so that I stayed up as night bled quickly into the next morning to find out what happened next. I read it on trains, and at night in my hotel rooms in Florence, Rome, and Siena. Stunning art and architecture surrounded me by day and a great story, well-told, filled my nights.

Finally, in Venice, I finished it. I was sharing a room with two other women and they were both sound asleep. But I had been so completely electrified and inspired by that book that I wanted to jump from bed, fling open the shutters and shout into the darkness of the city: “You must stop what you are doing immediately and read this book!”

The title? A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

Dr. T. was right, my world had indeed been rocked to the foundations. I had always toyed with the idea of writing fiction seriously, but in the moment I finished that book something shifted. I was so astonished by the way Irving gathered together plot threads. Then he didn’t just neatly tie them together at the end, he wove them into a fuse that exploded a bomb in my mind.

If someone so unknown to me as John Irving could have that much impact upon me with a novel, I knew then and there that I wanted to do that. I wanted in.

By nature, life mostly does not go according to plan. I went on to get a second bachelor’s degree, but during my time at the University of Minnesota I took many literature and creative writing classes. I loved them as much as the classes in my major.

In 1999 I had two bachelor’s degrees (one in Anthropology and one in Art History). I knew plainly and painfully that I was neither truly motivated nor brilliant enough to pursue an advanced degree in either subject. While I loved both disciplines, it was the stories they told that held the most fascination for me. 

I did write, but not steadily. I knew I had the requisite talent to create stories and novels, and the muse occasionally got me by the throat and I would write furiously for a couple weeks. But I did not have the dedication nor the drive to create a portfolio in my early twenties.

Even so, I knew that books and literature were it for me. So, I did the only thing I could think of that would surround me with stories that paid well and had health insurance: I became a librarian. It was practical and it helped to lull me into a false sense of being part of the literary world.

It worked for a while, but I knew deep down it wasn’t enough. 

By my mid-thirties I desperately wanted to write something. I craved it. But I had no ideas. I started looking at mythology, thinking I could retell a story from the Greek pantheon. Then, on March 31, 2010, at approximately 4:45 pm, I was scrolling through a web page on the nine muses when I hit on the idea that would become my first novel. Like the explosion that had been detonated by A Prayer for Owen Meany, this too packed lots of gunpowder. I was a live wire, smoking and snapping with the charge I just received.

I was so excited that evening as I went for a walk with my husband. I gamboled around him like a baby goat, telling him about the story I was planning. Details and plot points flew at me in a rush. And with that second bomb, I started writing. Really writing.

I wrote the first draft of my first novel in twelve weeks. I have written three other novels since and have ideas for three more on the back burner. I have a steady, faithful writing habit I have sustained for ten years. Only once, after my mother died after a protracted illness, was I unable to write for grief. But I eased back in by writing flash fiction and working up to short stories. I even got some of them published.

My reasons to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing are twofold. The first is I want to be surrounded with writing in my day job–I want to teach at the college level. The MFA will get me there. The second, and most important, is I simply want the experience. I want to indulge and immerse myself in a program that will engage my critical thinking again and make me a better writer. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

I have come a long way since that night in Venice when John Irving blew my mind. I now possess the maturity and motivation to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing and a portfolio to show for it. I will never forget the gift Dr. T. gave me that day she presented me with that well-worn paperback. A Prayer for Owen Meany cracked me open to the endless possibilities of stories and the devastating effect of great writing.

I want that.

Chelsea Sedoti: Five Questions

Hawthorn Creely is the true essence of awkward. She doesn’t interact well with her peers, she is the total opposite of her golden jock older brother, and she always says the wrong thing. She might be a little self-absorbed too, but she’s too busy thinking about how awkward she is to notice.

But then Lizzie Lovett, a girl who graduated with her brother disappears on a camping trip and Hawthorn’s focus narrows to a point. What happened? Did her boyfriend have anything to do with it? Obsessively following the story, Hawthorn decides to do her own snooping around, including finding out more about Lizzie’s boyfriend and what he might know.

Chelsea Sedoti writes a fascinating tale of obsession, mystery, and danger. Hawthorn gets tangled in a web of her own making and must learn some hard lessons to extricate herself. The marvelous thing about this book is that even though there is darkness and despair there is also humor and light. Sedoti does a beautiful job of balancing the two.

Five Questions
1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

Several years ago, I saw an article in the newspaper about a missing girl. Though I didn’t know her, I became oddly interested in the case. I started following it closely, checking daily for updates. After a few weeks of this, I stopped and asked myself why I was so obsessed with the missing girl. I didn’t have an answer, but decided I should pull back a little bit.

But the incident made me think about putting a character in the same situation. A teenage girl who gets wrapped up in a disappearance that has nothing to do with her. Only this girl wouldn’t know when to stop. She would let herself get drawn in to the disappearance more and more.

And just like that, the main character in THE HUNDRED LIES OF LIZZIE LOVETT was born. The rest of the story followed.

2.  What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I tend to fall somewhere in between plotting and pantsing.

If I begin without knowing where the book is heading, I get lost along the way. It’s not fun to realize halfway through that a good portion of your story doesn’t make sense.

On the other hand, if I know every single thing that’s going to happen in a book, the writing process becomes much less exciting. I miss out on the moments where the characters surprise me.

So before I start writing, I know how the book begins, I know how it ends, and I know the key moments that happen along the way. Beyond that, I just wait and see where the story and characters take me.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

My favorite writer is John Irving, and he’s been influencing my writing since I was a teenager. That might seem odd—he writes literary books for adults, I write strange books for teenagers. But my favorite thing about his writing has always been how he blends comedy and tragedy. Life is never entirely dark or entirely light. Most of the time it falls somewhere in the middle. And sometimes humor is the only way to get through tough situations. This is something I’ve tried to emulate in my own books.

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

I generally don’t listen to music when I write. I get very influenced by the mood of music. So, if I were trying to write a lighthearted scene and a gloomy song came on, it would completely change the tone of the story. Rather than always trying to match the music to what I’m working on at the moment, I opt to write in silence.

5. What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading DARE MIGHTY THINGS by Heather Kaczynski, an upcoming science fiction book about a competition to join a mysterious space expedition.

Chelsea Sedoti

Chelsea Sedoti fell in love with writing at a young age after discovering that making up stories was more fun than doing her school work (her teachers didn’t always appreciate this.) In an effort to avoid getting a “real” job, Chelsea explored careers as a balloon twister, filmmaker, and paranormal investigator. Eventually she realized that her true passion is writing about flawed teenagers who are also afraid of growing up. When she’s not at the computer, Chelsea spends her time exploring abandoned buildings, eating junk food at roadside diners, and trying to befriend every animal in the world. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she avoids casinos, but loves roaming the Mojave Desert.