I discovered fantasy writer Brenna Layne through her lyrical and insightful blog posts. When Brenna writes, she puts her heart into every word. She also has a wonderful sense of humour that never fails to lift me up. Her posts are written so beautifully that I admit to suffering from bouts of envy.
On finding out that Brenna is a teacher and an ESL tutor as well as a writer, I wanted to know about her thoughts on writing and communication. I asked her if she would share her experiences with DBW readers. To my delight, she said yes! Here is our conversation about writing, teaching, connections, and the importance of dragons.
I love your About page, and how you describe your transition from teaching eighth graders to reviving your own eighth grade dream of writing a novel. How did your teaching experiences trigger your desire to write?
As I translated Beowulf by lantern light during a power outage in the middle of a freezing Illinois winter, I kept feeling a disconnect—not with the literature itself, but with the idea of myself in a PhD program. I’m sort of a perpetual student, so it was hard to set my PhD dreams aside, but I realized as a teaching assistant that I enjoyed live students better than dead languages.
In a serendipitous moment, a friend told me that the independent school near my hometown in Virginia where he taught needed an English teacher. I interviewed and ended up teaching eighth grade lit, high school lit, and an intensive creative writing workshop. There were three students in that class; they’d been clamoring for a creative writing course for years, and somebody figured that the new teacher might as well do it. Those three students were amazing—they were committed yet playful, studious yet wildly creative, and so deeply passionate about writing that they inspired me to pick up the novel I’d laid aside years ago. It felt hypocritical to ask them to write if I wasn’t writing.
Their enthusiasm was a powerful reminder of another reason I became a PhD dropout—because I was so in love with the stories I read that I couldn’t be truly scholarly about them. I didn’t want to analyze Beowulf, I wanted to inhabit it, to flop down in it like a kid in the snow and play with it. I’ve always loved writing, but being around those three students was the catalyst that transformed me from a wannabe writer to an actual one—and I think it has everything to do with play, with that intense kind of absorption in imagination that we’re capable of when we’re young.
It’s wonderful being around imaginative kids. And I know what you mean about wanting to inhabit the story rather than analyze it. That’s one of the reasons I decided not to pursue my own PhD in English. I also found that academia tended to dismiss the value of genre fiction, which I loved. What attracts you to the fantasy genre? What do you see as its purpose?
My gut reaction to this question is to say: DRAGONS. IT IS ALL ABOUT THE DRAGONS.
However, it is astonishingly not, in fact, only about the dragons. I remember walking on the beach at the Outer Banks with my artist sister when we were in college. When we were kids, I wrote stories about dragons. She wrote Star Wars fanfiction before fanfic was even a “thing.” We started talking about fantasy and sci-fi and the connections and differences between them. We had this huge, geeky mutual epiphany when we realized that science fiction is about what it means to be human, while fantasy is about what it means to be an individual. By those criteria, we decided that Star Wars is actually fantasy with the trappings of science fiction.
And then, just a few months ago, I had a conversation with my writer brother (yeah, my siblings and I are not super-practical in our career choices) about how neither one of us can seem to write anything without incorporating a magical element. We had a joint nerdpiphany in which we realized that we need that magic, that it helps us to explain the world as it is, with all its mystery and terrible beauty. For both of us, magic is a lens that makes sense, because it captures something about reality that is otherwise inexpressible.
I think that for me, fantasy resonates because there is so much more to the human experience than what’s visible and even comprehensible. Possibly the earliest emotion I can recall is this beyond-verbal sense of yearning, this sense of feeling impelled toward something to which I couldn’t put a name. I was drawn to writers like C. S. Lewis and Tolkien whose works came closer than anything else to naming that unnameable something. For me, the best fantasy uses the trappings of the unbelievable, the impossible, in an attempt to articulate the unspeakable, to make sense of the unknowable. That’s the philosophical purpose, I think, which writers like Ursula K. LeGuin accomplish so brilliantly and profoundly.
Then, of course, fantasy is just plain fun. It’s an escape in a way that realistic literature can never be. As humans, we’re hardwired to strive beyond the limits of the possible, so it makes sense that we’d enjoy stories of impossible things.
That “sense of yearning” you describe perfectly captures my feelings as a child reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time. I think a lot of young people are attracted to the fantasy genre because it provides a sense of purpose and meaning that they have not yet grasped in the real world. You write for young adults—how do you reach out and provide them with what they are looking for? What kinds of things do you grapple with when writing for this audience?
I’m not sure that I think really consciously about writing for young adults. I just write the characters whose voices speak in my head. They happen to usually be adults. I tried my hand at drafting an adult fantasy novel last November during National Novel Writing Month, and it felt incredibly surreal. I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure how to write adult main characters because I still don’t feel like an adult. I just turned 38, and I feel like for the first time in my life, I have a sense of who I am. I’ve had time to percolate all my young adult experiences and I understand them better now. I don’t understand my adult experiences yet; I’m so much in the thick of them.
I think YA resonates with adults as well as young adults because young adults are so fiercely involved in the process of becoming. We all are, constantly, but during our formative years that metamorphosis happens so quickly, like a surging tide, that it’s immediately recognizable. It’s dramatic and unmistakable, and we’re filled with all these messy yearnings and emotions that at least on some level, society allows and even encourages. We encourage young adults to “find themselves,” to figure themselves out, in a way that we don’t with adults. But we are all always becoming, and so I think when we read stories about this time in our lives, it resonates deeply with us. We see ourselves in them—our younger selves, the selves we can observe from a sort of affectionate distance.
So I don’t think I necessarily write with young adults in mind as an audience. I write the stories I need to tell, and write them as well as I can. I think some writers have a tendency to “write down” to young adults, and I really appreciate the ones who don’t. Maggie Stiefvater comes to mind—her prose is intelligent, her vocabulary poetic. Lia Francesca Block crafts this gorgeous, archetypal-feeling prose that reads like magical realism, like the kind of literature that stuffy grownup people describe as “serious.” I think the way to write for young adults is to read books for young adults and immerse yourself in all the ways it can be done. The thing not to do is to write down to them, to stereotype them, to discount their experiences as somehow trivial or juvenile. They’re not. When we’re children and teens, we’re doing some of the most vital work of our lives. For me, writing YA is a way to honor that.
This makes me think of the Harry Potter series, which had substantial adult readership even though it was marketed as children’s fiction. I’ve never understood people who think that fantasy stories are only for the young. I think it’s great that you’re writing YA fiction for a broad audience. What are you working on currently?
I used to be a very monogamous kind of writer—I would write ONE THING until it was completely finished—if anything really ever is finished. But I’ve morphed into this crazy scattered kind of writer who’s got about a zillion irons in the fire. So right now, I’ve got several different things going on.
I almost finished drafting a new novel in November, during National Novel Writing Month. It’s a fantasy strongly inspired by my love of medieval women’s writing. I’ve been reading Julian of Norwich and the letters of Abelard and Heloise, and imagining a world in which anchorites have magical powers. The story itself is about a girl who has been raised to become an anchorite who serves a monastic group of wizards. When their home is attacked and burned, she’s the lone survivor, and has to choose whether to give up or to go out into the world by herself and try to reinvent herself outside the security of the cloister walls. Of course she leaves (because it wouldn’t be much of a story if she just laid down and died), and it’s not until she’s beyond the boundaries of everything known and safe that she begins to discover her own power—and why it’s been hidden from her all her life.
I’ve also been working on getting feedback on a novel I wrote a few years ago. This one’s about a girl raised as a boy who’s trained to become a warrior. She’s been a fun character to hang out with; she has a very literal fight-or-flight response. When she’s upset, she either runs until she’s exhausted, or punches someone in the face. Not my typical main character, so it’s been interesting getting inside her head. As research for this one, I took a broadsword class last spring. It was so awesome that for Mother’s Day, I asked my guys to build me a pell—a sort of practice dummy—and I’m getting some sparring gear for Christmas. So writing definitely bleeds over into my “real” life in some amusing ways.
I’m also percolating some story ideas, and I have a full manuscript out on request to an agent. So basically that means that I have no fingernails and I check my email about a million times a day. It’s funny how much the submissions process brings me back to high school. The whole process of trying to impress an agent makes me feel like I’m sixteen again, desperately hoping that someone will ask me to the prom. At least I don’t have to buy a fluffy dress for this. But in high school, I didn’t have to write anybody a one-page letter explaining why I would be the best prom date ever.
I took a set of fencing classes once and had to give it up because it was killing my knees. Working with the broadsword sounds like more fun. I can think of a few things I’d like to pretend I’m hacking at while practicing, including writing critics. Is it just me, or is it harder to write a short piece selling your work than to write an entire novel? How do you tackle writing that one-page letter?
YES. The query letter nearly KILLED me. I got very grouchy during the months it took me to hone the darned thing. My husband could probably tell you how much time I spent slouching around the house, mumbling things like, “If I could have summed the whole thing up in a page, I wouldn’t have written the flipping novel in the first place, now would I??” It’s so, so difficult to take an entire book you’ve spent months or even years crafting and polishing and then condense the whole thing down into a glorified paragraph.
And then there’s that pesky bio paragraph. As an unpublished writer, I don’t have any creds to speak of, so that paragraph was at least mercifully short. The contemporary YA fantasy I have out on submission now is a retelling of an old Scottish ballad. I’ve set it in the rural South, and so it seemed relevant to mention that I grew up in the rural South. I also mentioned that I spent three years as a dorm parent for fifty teenage girls at a boarding school, since that gave me a lot of insight into the teenage psyche (as if my own teen years were not awkwardly vivid enough still).
But really, the hard part of the letter is that summary/teaser bit. It has to grab the agent’s attention, sum the plot up neatly, and offer a sample of your best writing. That’s a tall order for a one page letter, and I think a lot of writers spend more time honing and perfecting that letter than they might on an entire chapter of a book. Of course, it’s possible I’m doing it all wrong……
It sounds like a great approach to me. I wish you all the best in getting a positive response to your carefully crafted work of art! Before we wrap up our interview, I wanted to ask you about one of your other hats: your job as an ESL tutor. Can you tell me a little about how you became a tutor? What kinds of challenges do your ESL students face, and how do you help them?
I taught English at an independent school for three years. In the third year, I gave birth to my first son. I finished up the school year and decided to stay home with him. Not long after, I began tutoring at the same school part time. With a growing international student boarding population, there were a lot of ESL students of varying skill levels. Some needed extra help with reading and writing.
At first, tutoring was a way to maintain a sense of professional connection, and to supplement my family’s income while getting out into the real world a bit. I quickly grew to love it even more than teaching—it’s all the bits of teaching I love (helping students, engaging with ideas) and none of the bits I didn’t (classroom management, grading, paperwork). I also love the close connections I forge with students. I think they teach me much, much more than I teach them, though I try to be useful. 🙂
I’ve worked with students on everything from research skills to college applications to time management, but most of my students are teens from Korea and China who struggle with English as a second (or third) language. I find that the first thing I need to do is to connect—to find something that lights them up.
With one student, it was food. As soon as I asked her about missing Chinese food, this otherwise quiet kid poured out a torrent of praise for her mom’s cooking. We ended up going grocery shopping and then cooked a huge Chinese meal. In the process, she got to navigate the labels in the grocery store, and order me around as her sous-chef—all of which pushed her English skills.
With another student, it was animals. She asked me to bring my dog to our session one day because she missed her dog at home. So my dog has some tutoring experience on her resume now, too.
I think that connection is the most important thing—to show my students that I care about who they are, and then to engage them with that. With students from Korea and China, the tutoring dynamic is interesting because often those students’ educational experiences back home were very different from the Western system. They spend incredibly long hours in school and on homework, and much of the time they’re being lectured to and memorizing facts. It’s a big transition for many of them to come to the States, where teachers emphasize active participation and discussion. Helping my students navigate the American educational system, with its foreign (to them) emphases on citation and participation, is another huge part of what I do.
I could keep talking about this, I’m realizing. For me, the most important part of tutoring has been how it has changed me. I’m in awe of these young teens who travel across the world to a completely foreign culture to study. They’re incredibly brave. I can’t imagine doing that as a fourteen or fifteen-year-old. The kids I work with are a constant reminder that growth only happens when we push the boundaries of our own comfort—a lesson I’m constantly learning with my writing as well.
I think your students are incredibly brave, too. It’s amazing how much we can learn from the experiences of others. I know I learned a lot from my students in my days as a piano teacher.
And I have certainly learned a lot from you. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with DBW readers today!
For more about Brenna, I encourage you to read her blog.
(Photo of Brenna courtesy of Brenna Layne)
To all my valued readers: This is my first interview on Doorway Between Worlds, and I welcome your feedback. Would you like to read more interviews? Or not? What types of topics would you like me to cover in any future conversations?