The year was 1999. It was my first day to teach Introduction to Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas, (which just happened to be the first time the course had ever been taught at my university) and there she sat, second desk from the front, on the right side of the room, near the window: Brandi Lynch. A first-year student, and as fresh-faced and dewy about writing, about college, about everything, as she could possibly be. Bright, eager, sitting up so straight, when you looked over at her, Brandi was always grinning, brown eyes shining, long brown hair flowing down her back, obviously happy to be exactly where she was. Eventually, you start looking over at students like that a lot, because they make you feel like you might actually know what you're doing.
First classes of anything are often memorable and so several students from that class remain imprinted in my mind, forever 18, just as I am forever 32. But then life happens. Years pass and I see Brandi less and less in the classroom and more on the university grounds, now in a blue physical plant uniform with her name embossed on the pocket, expertly planting tulips in the front plot of our new building.
"I'm still writing," she tells me, when we stop to talk. And this time, it is me who grins. This, is a good sign, I think to myself, as I walk into the building. She's still writing.
Fast forward another five years -- spring 2008. Brandi is back again in my classroom, in another new course on how to live a creative life, how to make your own success as an artist and as a writer. Grinning still, happy as always, it seems, to be there. Listening, absorbing, she misses nothing.
Taking a page from Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life, I require students to write "charming notes" to writers they admire, making moves toward connecting to the literary world around them by giving back, showing appreciation to their favorite writers. Brandi wastes no time in emailing publishing wunderkind Christopher Paolini and a brief email exchange flutters between them. I remember musing at the time that the two of them were probably about the same age.
At the end of that class, in an effort to drive home the message that tenacity is as important as talent in this writing life, I hand out slips of paper laster-printed with NEVER GIVE UP and my email address to each student (I still hand these out but now the message is printed on business cards with a graphic of Abraham Lincoln). Brandi and I go back to greeting each other over dirt and tulips. She graduates with a Creative Writing degree. I know she's writing because she finds me on twitter and we talk about our passion over cyberspace, writer to writer, supporting each other in this difficult life we have chosen, as if we had a choice. She starts a blog. She promotes other writers and books she is passionate about. And then...
One of my colleagues' keys are stolen and our whole building has to be re-keyed. Now promoted to Administrative Assistant at the Physical Plant (no more uniform), she sits, back still straight, still smiling, in our conference room, distributing our new keys.
"I sold my book," she says softly as I finish signing the paperwork. And then she tells me how this came about, how she sold Lead Me Back Home to Spencer Hill Press. It turns out there's even more to this story, more tenacity, more perseverance, but I'm saving that for another post, closer to when the book comes out, when I'll interview Brandi and let her speak for herself.
This is actually the fourth book one of our undergraduate writing alums has sold and I'm always thrilled for them. Always. I don't think it will ever get old. But there's something special about it this time. When I was 32 and first taught Brandi, I suspected that someone with who poured that much energy and dedication into her work would succeed in the long run. But I had to grow older along with her, watch her story unfold, before my suspicions were confirmed.
Brandi kept writing. And it was a good sign. So writing geeks, take heart, take inspiration. Really. Keep writing. Never. Give. Up.