Today’s article is written by Suzannah Windsor.
Update—2020: Since first writing this review, I’ve published short stories in the Canadian literary magazines The Dalhousie Review, Geist and Prairie Fire, as well as a personal essay in The Writer magazine. I’ve also been the recipient of several writing grants from the Ontario Arts Council to help me complete my short story collection and write a novel. Finally, in 2017 I was invited to be an instructor for The Story Intensive, a semester-long live version of Sarah’s self-paced creative writing course.
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between your average published book and the ones that go on to receive accolades? The type of books that have gold stars and big-name blurbs on the cover?
I think I know now.
About a year ago, I discovered Canadian author Sarah Selecky. She had an intriguing site full of really helpful articles about writing. I mean really helpful.
Shortly after becoming a devotee of her site and after reading her collection of short stories, This Cake Is for the Party, I signed up for her online course Story Is a State of Mind. I can say it’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made in my writing.
Margaret Atwood calls Story Is a State of Mind (SSM) “Smart, encouraging, practical.” Yes, you read that right. Margaret Atwood.
Story Is a State of Mind is pure magic. It has given me a renewed sense of freedom, brought me back to the basics of pen and paper, helped me unlock my memory and improve my critical reading skills, completely changed the way I feel about practising writing, and changed my mentality from ‘must get published’ to ‘must write something true and valuable.’
That’s the difference between good and great. I’m on the verge of a major breakthrough, and I owe that to Sarah and her course.
So, who is Sarah Selecky?
Sarah is the author of This Cake Is for the Party, a collection of short stories that was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book in Canada and the Caribbean.
You can find her stories in The Walrus, Elle Canada, Geist, The Journey Prize Anthology, and other publications.
Update—2018: Sarah’s first novel, Radiant Shimmering Light, is also being published this spring (HarperCollins), and Muse Entertainment has bought the rights to turn the book into a TV series.
What is the ‘Story Is a State of Mind’ course?
“The Story Is a State of Mind program was created for writers whose self-doubt, absent muse or lack of discipline has driven them from their craft. No matter what wall you’ve hit, this program is designed to work alongside and within that resistance, to make the task of writing not just enjoyable, but simply irresistible.
In seven parts, participants learn (and experiment with) the finer points of freewriting, starting a story, character development, dialogue, plot, point of view and receptive reading: all developed to sharpen and support their own writing.
Each lesson contains how-to explanations, practice materials and tidbits of wisdom perfected over Sarah Selecky’s 11 years of teaching. The in-depth exercises, video tutorials, extraordinary story examples and detailed audio debriefs are on hand to help you stay dedicated and inspired, every step of the way.
“Sarah Selecky has been teaching ‘conscious creative writing’ for over a decade. Her program combines refined technique with mindful exploration, helping participants not only create marvellous work, but discover their unique voice, depth and presence of mind as they write.” ~ Story Is a State of Mind
Is ‘Story Is a State of Mind’ the perfect writing course?
Story Is a State of Mind is what I’d call “the perfect writing course” for a number of reasons.
- Absolute flexibility. I have four young children, so I usually have to decline courses and workshops because of the busy-ness factor and lack of a babysitter. However, this course is entirely flexible and available online, which makes it perfect for young parents, those who work full-time, students, or anyone who just prefers to work at their own pace. There are no start or end dates, so you can work as slowly or as quickly as you like.
- Private writers forum. There is an active members-only Facebook page where writers can discuss the readings, post snippets of their writing, share further writing resources that have been helpful to them, and provide one another with support and constructive criticism. So, ‘independent study’ doesn’t mean you don’t also have access to support if needed.
- Handpicked readings. Sarah has personally chosen the readings for this course, which are all provided in the initial cost. You can read them on a computer or device, or you can print them out. There are no further materials to purchase. And I have to say that many of the stories are life-changingly magnificent, and you’ll want to read them over and over. Authors include Tobias Wolff, Amy Bloom, Zsuzsi Gartner, George Saunders, Dave Eggers, and more.
- Opportunity for publication and mentorship. Each spring, Sarah hosts “The Little Bird Writing Contest,” which is judged by a successful author (past judges have included Alix Ohlin and Zsuzsi Gartner). This is an opportunity to have your work read by an author you respect, plus the chance to be published in an anthology and receive mentorship and feedback from Sarah, herself. I just submitted my story to the contest today!
- Suitable for writers at all stages. Story Is a State of Mind is suitable for both beginning, emerging, and already-published writers, because it’s not about getting published. I’ve been published multiple times, but this course has transformed the way I write. SSM is about helping you get out of the way of your own creativity.
- Pays for itself. Once you take the course (and discover you love it as much as I do), you have the option of joining Sarah’s affiliate guild. That means you’ll receive a referral fee whenever someone joins the course using your unique link. So, over time, this course will pay for itself and then some. (Sarah only accepts members of the course into the affiliate guild, because she only wants it to be promoted by those who love it, too. You won’t find this course advertised or reviewed just anywhere.)
What kind of writing will you do during the course?
Here are a few snippets from a piece of unedited writing I did in response to an exercise Sarah calls “I Remember”:
I remember two cottages: an old one and an even older one; an orange one and a yellow one. One belonged to our family, and the other to my aunt’s family. I remember the way the road dips down into the earth and through the forest, to get to those cottages. […]
I remember the long, golden arc of beach from one end of the bay to the next. I remember how hot and sweaty and sandy I felt sitting wrapped in a beach towel on an Adrirondak chair. I remember not wanting to let my feet touch the grass because it wasn’t the soft, lush, green type of grass but the crunchy, brown, patchy type that leads toward the beach, and it was filled with ants and ant hills and I avoid ants at all costs. I remember orange pop and the crackle of a potato chip bag—salt and vinegar—because these were the flavours of summer. […]
The waves were so big that day, we felt we were in an ocean instead of a lake. My brother and I rode a gigantic black inner tube so big you could disappear inside it. Rising and falling, rising and falling, the crashing waves consuming all of the beach and some of the lawn, too. I remember my Dad wading out to save us from being sucked further and further away from the shore, but the waves were so strong that he got pushed down over me, pinning me breathless to the sandbar. I remember the terror of being prostrate on the lake’s floor, the crushing weight of the water holding him over me, and thinking I would drown and it would be my father who killed me, and the absolute shame of that. When the waves eased and Dad yanked me up, we were wiping water away from our faces, and laughing and crying at the same time. […]
I remember when the railway took our cottage from us, reclaimed the land they said was rightfully theirs. How they plowed our life to the ground one September and left a long scar of earth in its place.
I used to hate writing exercises—really I did. Now I see that the freedom to be creative without barriers often leads you toward much deeper and more truthful writing than simply writing for the purpose of publication.
Writing and reading ideas for partners or groups
While working through the course materials, I took note of ideas that came to me for using SSM in different ways. If you have a partner or writing group, have each member purchase a copy of the course and try some of the following ideas:
- Print off the readings and keep them in a binder so you can write in the margins. Read the stories on your own first, then do a shared reading aloud. Afterward, discuss the stories. And make sure someone brings cake (because cake is good).
- Plan a week-long retreat at a cottage or some other quiet, inspirational place, and treat the course as an intensive 7-day workshop, or take just a weekend to dive deep into the lesson you’re most looking forward to.
- When you finish all the modules, host a group reading celebration where each member reads his/her favourite piece written during the course.
- For online writing groups, use shared documents in Google Drive to collaborate on the assignments and provide feedback.
Are there any drawbacks?
If you’re not interested at all in writing short stories and don’t enjoy reading contemporary literary fiction, you might think SSM isn’t the right course for you. However, I do think the course is beneficial for writers of all genres—for anyone who wants to improve their powers of observation and learn to write more creatively, more truthfully and without barrier. And, if you have your heart set on writing a novel, the strategies you’ll learn will carry over nicely.
What about the price?
In terms of price, the course is great value for the following reasons:
- There are no further course materials to purchase (other courses may require you to buy several texts or collections of stories).
- There are no travel costs or babysitting costs which might be associated with taking an in-person course.
- You would probably pay 3–4 times this amount, or more, to attend a live course with a writer of this calibre.
- You have lifetime access to the course materials, so you can re-use them again and again.
- You can later recoup your initial investment by becoming an affiliate.
Free bonuses for joining ‘Story Is a State of Mind’
If you sign up for Story Is a State of Mind or The Story Intensive via any link on this page, I will receive a referral fee. Such fees always go back into covering running costs for Write It Sideways and other online projects.
- A FREE critique of any piece of your writing, up to 2500 words in length. (I put a lot of effort into these, so you’ll get plenty of useful feedback.)
- A FREE copy of my short story “Perfect,” which was published in Grist: The Journal for Writers and isn’t available anywhere online. (If I had to choose a favourite of my stories, this is it. Grist has published some very accomplished writers such as Sherman Alexie, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Bret Anthony Johnston.)
You might save your free writing critique for when you enter a writing contest or prior to submitting a story to literary magazines. As the editor of a literary journal, I’m constantly evaluating short stories for the purpose of publication. Getting feedback from a published writer/editor before you submit is a huge advantage.
Just shoot me an email after you register, and I’ll send you details about your free stuff immediately.
If you purchase SSM as a gift for someone else—no problem. Contact me with their details and I’ll pass the bonuses along to them.
And remember, to receive the bonuses you must sign up using one of the links in this review, or by clicking on one of the SSM badges on this site. Just to be on the extra safe side…
Remember, send me an email after you register so I know where to send your bonuses.
Tweet this. Facebook this. Email it to your writing group.
Spread the word, my friends—the more, the merrier.
I hope to see you in the SSM forum soon!
P.S. I won’t be able to offer these free bonuses forever, so please don’t wait until it’s too late!