The Return

07/17/2013 at 4:27 pm (Author Updates, Squaw Valley, Welcome)


It’s been two years and four months since my last post here, so my return to it after so long is less of a homecoming and more of a new beginning. Quite a bit has happened to me in that stretch of time; less has happened with the novel itself. I suppose a recap of time is in order, but I’ll try to be brief so that we can move forward and closer to the completion of this novel that I alternately love, admire, misunderstand and fear.

I just returned from a very inspiring, mind-clearing trip to the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, also known as the Community of Writers. squaw-valley-logo

It was utterly fantastic, and helped me to realize that a good year of revision on this novel — which I feel is midway through a fairly strong third draft rewrite — is both a reasonable and realistic goal for getting it in shape to send out in hopes of representation and eventual publication. With that decision, I feel I have some breathing room, time to allow the novel to fully declare itself, and to open myself up to different approaches toward finishing it.

Which is where this blog comes in. When I first started it, in February of 2010, I was in the second semester of my graduate program at USC and was deep into the first draft of Bear. I had already completed the best class I have ever — before or since — taken on writing, a master course taught by the unbelievably brilliant Janet Fitch about everything a craft-loving boy like me needs in order to elevate the work a level or two higher. Gina Nahai had also shown a surprising amount of enthusiasm for the first few chapters of the novel, which I had workshopped in her tremendously helpful and supportive classroom. That encouragement from her and my fellow MPWers fueled my desire to not only keep these characters on their fictional path, but to get them to their initial destination soon, well in advance of the last two semesters of the program, when I would work with a thesis advisor to usher me toward graduation and a world outside the rarefied creative air of graduate school.

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I spent time on the exercises here on this blog, and I wrote, and eventually I became so overwhelmed with the very focused work on the manuscript, in order to get it ready for “the final stretch,” that I abandoned this site and all of its potential.

What follows is a brief chronology of what happened when I stopped blogging here, up until the point — today — when I returned:

May, 2011: I finish a first draft of the novel — all 67,450 words or 236 pages of it — and begin my journey toward graduation with my thesis advisor, Rita Williams. She is funny, thoughtful and generous, full of effusive praise and sobering criticism, always asking questions about the characters, the story, what my investment in these boys means to me, constantly challenging the work to become richer, tasking me and my writing to go deeper and emerge more knowing and assured. She is willing to meet me weekly, to read and think deeply about the glut of new material I produce, and I love her for it.

September, 2011: I complete what I dub a “2nd Draft First Pass” for Judith Freeman, my second and last thesis advisor, to read before we begin our twice-monthly meetings. Her overall notes are much different than Rita’s, but instead of creating confusion in me about the novel that could have easily sent me spiraling into despair and inaction, it has the opposite effect: I get excited and even more focused on completing a second draft that is even stronger than the first ever was. Judith keeps me grounded, fosters my voice and trusts my instincts, introduces me to the idea of shaping all my scenes into a structure that “reads” like a novel, and inspires me to finish a final thesis draft that runs 80,800 words, or 279 pages. In late November, I turn it in to Brighde Mullins, the whip-smart, cheerleading director of the program. It is no masterpiece, but it is complete.

January, 2012: I know I need to get a teaching job, now that I have a graduate degree and teaching is to writers what alcohol is to… well, writers. Based on past experience and an English dept. head with a willingness to give a former student a shot, I wind up teaching three composition classes in my very first semester at this O.C. community college.

March, 2012: By this time, I realize that the lesson planning, in-class hours, and paper grading I decide that I don’t have the time or energy that Bear needs from me. Of course, I hold out a small shred of hope that my work load will lessen and I can at least visit Bear from time to time — but that doesn’t happen.

March, 2013: A mere 16 months after I finished the 2nd Draft of Bear, I am ready to pick it up again. I read it in its entirety twice, make so many notes on the crisp, white pages that by the second go-round, the manuscript looks like it’s been infected by red ink. I officially begin a 3rd Draft, intent on finishing it by the end of 2013.

April, 2013: I polish a partial chapter of Bear to submit for the Fiction Workshop at Squaw Valley. Janet Fitch teaches there every other summer, and USC alum I know have attended the conference. I learn that they accept only 1 in 4 submissions, so the odds are not in my favor. It doesn’t matter. The worst they can do is reject it, and rejection is something I’ve made friends with over the past few months, courtesy of the query letters and manuscript pages sent to all the agents for a different book.

May, 2013: I receive the beautiful e-mail stating that it is “their pleasure to invite” me to their “43rd Annual Writers Workshop” in July. I scream, I jump up and down, I can’t wipe the damn grin off my face for a good couple of days. I immediately ramp up my efforts on the latest draft of the novel, the inspiration and the motivation coursing through me. I attempt to finish an entire third draft in less than two months.

July, 2013: The Community of Writers conference in Squaw Valley begins. I have not completed my 3rd draft, but it doesn’t matter. I’m about to breathe the same mountain air as Amy Tan, Richard Ford, Karen Joy Fowler, Gail Tsukiyama, and an amazing array of novelists and short story writers. From the moment I arrive at Reno airport, to the moment I get on the plane back to LAX, I am living the dream. And it is glorious.

Which brings us up to today, the 17th of July, and I am barely home two days from the whirlwind schedule of workshops, panels, readings, dinners, parties and all that swimming in the community pool of creativity and camaraderie. It is time to recommit to the novel, to my writing, and to this blog.

I have a new goal of finishing the novel not by the end of this year, but by next summer. That feels right to me. It feels like a goal I can accomplish, maybe with time to spare. It is not about just getting it done — it never has been, actually — but about completing a novel I can feel so wholly proud of that it doesn’t matter if 2 people or 2 million people read it. I love being a writer. I love writing this book and spending time with these characters, and this blog will allow me to explore the people who inhabit these pages in a way I am unable to do through the manuscript alone. It will give me opportunities to tap into other facets of the novel: its themes, settings, points-of-view and narrative voices that expand the meaning — and my understanding — of The Bear Who Broke The World.

Let’s begin…


  1. Jinny Koh said,

    I took a class with Judith Freeman last semester and loved it. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this and I hope to read more about your journey as a writer!

    • Justin McFarr said,

      Jinny, I really appreciate you reading and commenting. Judith is amazing, you were really lucky to have her as your teacher (and I’m sure she was lucky to have you as her student). Good luck with your own novel and I envy you – I wish I was still in the program, writing my little heart out, surrounded by all that support and talent. Thanks again for checking out my experiment here.

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