All evidence points to the fact that when Joy Baglio wants to avoid writing, she goes figure skating, plays the bagpipes, makes experimental lentil soup and hangs out with chickens. The multi-talented founder of the Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop in Williamsburg MA also teaches writing, edits work by other authors and then fits her own writing into that mix – somehow.
Originally from Buffalo NY, Baglio (pronounced BAH – lee – oh), has always wanted to be a writer. She started PVWW in 2016 and has made such an impact that she was last year named one of Business West’s 40 Under Forty honorees. The annual awards recognize business and civic leaders, under the age of 40, who have made considerable contributions to their communities.
She spoke to Valley of Writers about the patience needed to be a writer, how to be open to feedback, finding an agent, the importance of a writing community and how workshops provide that extra edge.
Since launching Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop (PVWW), what are the main things you have learnt about the challenges that writers face in getting a manuscript completed and putting it out into the world?
This might seem like a non-answer, but honestly the biggest challenge most people face is committing to the work, and doing it to a level where it’s ready to be out in the world.
The writing life is a long, slow process. It can take years just to feel empowered enough to call yourself a writer. Years to find your voice. Years to write a short story. And certainly years to write, revise, and revise again, and revise a bunch more times, a book.
Writers like to talk about the difficulty of publication, and to some extent there are challenges and hurdles and unfairnesses, as there are in any system, yet there are also agents and editors out there searching for good work, and I firmly believe that good work does get noticed, it does rise to the top.
As a literary magazine editor for the last couple years as well as someone who reads lots of manuscripts as a private consultant, what I see across the board are writers who want to send work out before it’s ready, sometimes before they as writers are ready. In my years as an editor at West Branch, I read a lot of stories that lacked clarity, that felt like the writer didn’t fully have control over the story and was clearly reaching for something yet was ultimately unsure how to get there.
In some cases, the story just needed more time, more revisions. This premature urge to publish will always be the biggest hurdle to publication, as it can lead to a disillusionment with the whole industry and process that often hampers further drive. There are so many stories out there that just need a little more time, a few more drafts, a month or two of space between revisions. Sometimes they need more than this.
I always encourage writers to take the time they need: Give your work lots of space between drafts, so you can shed your subjectivity and become your own best editor. Beyond this, once the work is ready or almost ready, then the best thing you can do is to broaden your horizons, increase your knowledge of the literary world.
Start local, and branch out from there. The literary world is full of conferences, residencies, week-long workshop programs, scholarship opportunities, fellowships, contests, and more. There are opportunities and funding for almost every kind of writer – but it does require branching out, getting outside your comfort zone, wanting to grow as a writer, and learning the landscape.
This is definitely an answer. A deep and insightful one. The question then becomes, how do you know you’re ready? How do you know your work is ready? When you’ve been working on a manuscript for years, you just want to let go of it at some point and hope for the best. In this same vein, there are writers who send out manuscripts to a tonne of agents, get rejected over and over and then find that one who says yes.
There’s no easy answer. Every writer has to grapple with that dilemma. We also don’t stop learning or growing as artists, so there’s not a magical pinnacle that we arrive at and then coast onward from there.
Our work will always evolve over time, reach new levels of development, change, etc. But for practical purposes, here are some thoughts on readiness: You have to get to a point where your discernment and ability to edit your own work are greater than your desire to get the work out there. This requires extreme patience and a rigorous level of honesty with yourself.
It requires a lot of space from the piece in question (for me, this starts at two weeks and goes up from there; sometimes it’s six months, a year, etc.) After this space, you’ll be able to see it much more objectively, as a reader might, and if you’re very honest with yourself you’ll know if it’s ready, or if it needs another revision. This is not foolproof of course, but it can be eye-opening and has been for me.
Also, it’s important to find trusted readers/writers whose judgment and writing you also respect who are willing to exchange to read your work and offer feedback. Be careful about seeking this feedback just after you’ve finished a piece, or when you’re in a generative phase. No one really wants to hear what’s not working at those times.
I’m usually in a celebratory phase when I finish something, and I need to wait at least a week or two before anyone else reads it, otherwise I’m more prone to resenting the feedback rather than really considering it and where it might be coming from.
So, make sure you’re really ready for feedback before seeking it. You’ll definitely get a good sense from these early, trusted readers if the work is ready, or if they stumble in any big ways. And if you don’t agree with their specific feedback, that’s fine too, though you can usually still learn a lot from their reactions.
On agents: Yes, there are writers who query hundreds of agents and then find one. That does happen, although my experience talking with many different agents is that finding an agent won’t be the most difficult part of the process IF the work is strong.
Publishing short work, either fiction or nonfiction, is always a good way to get yourself out there first and to increase the chances of agents finding you first (which they want to do). I recently signed with my agent, and he was one of over twenty who reached out to me first, so my experience is that they are out there, reading what’s published, and they will contact you if you are getting yourself out there in visible ways.
The work of Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop is rooted in 5 principles. One of these is “Being part of a writing community.” Why, in your mind, is community so critical for writers?
I think writers, who often spend so much time in solitude, are especially in need of community. Community is the voice that celebrates with us; that offers detailed, attentive feedback; that motivates us to keep going.
Creativity and stories also don’t spring out of a vacuum, and often our literary communities are early guides in helping us express and explore what we’re working on.
Many writers get their work published without ever attending a class or workshop on writing. How much does attending a craft class or workshop help?
There definitely are and have been many great writers who’ve achieved success without attending workshops or classes. Like any of the arts, all writers come into the process with different abilities, gifts, advantages, and of course all have different journeys, so it’s hard to compare.
Certainly in any profession it’s possible to self-train, and since reading is the primary classroom for writers, this is certainly possible. However, in a workshop, what you have is structure. A multitude of other perspectives on your work. Easy and clear access and direction to new processes which can create drastically different results and experiences in your writing.
You also have access to the collective intelligence and insights of the group and, if the instructor is tapped into the larger literary world as well, you’ll get a window into that too.
Workshops also provide the huge advantage of outside perspectives, without which it can be all too easy to become myopic in focus. Without outside perspectives, you only have your own filter, and therefore your growth is limited by your own areas of discernment.
I’m of course biased because of how much I owe to the workshops, classes, mentors, conferences, and fellow writers who’ve helped me on my path. I really can’t imagine being the writer I am today without their guidance.
So many workshop groups and instructors helped me open my eyes to my own voice, to new authors, to craft insights that I’ve been tossing around in my head for years. Though all that being said, being an avid and curious reader is probably the most important way to study writing. Everything you can learn is right there, in the sentences of the people doing it with mastery.
Though reading critically, reading like a writer, is a different process: it’s about reading with an eye toward what “tools” and techniques a writer is using, what effects they’re achieving, and how. Some people come to this process very naturally, though for me – and for most writers I know – it was something vastly helped by being in workshops over years.
You’re working on a novel about marine scientists, identity, and the ocean. How has this challenged you differently from the other work you have done before? What’s your timeline like?
As a short story writer, the length of a novel is definitely a challenge as it can get unorganized and unwieldy so fast. Over the few years I’ve been working on this novel, I found myself struggling to just move the story forward and figure out the general shape of something so long.
It wasn’t until this past summer when I decided to write it out by hand in a notebook that I was able to really advance the narrative and figure out what the story was about.
I finished the first (handwritten) draft in September while at Yaddo on a month-long residency and am now working on the second (also handwritten) draft.
I’ve found that writing draft first by hand really allows me to tap into the flow of the narrative, to trust the process, and to generate a lot more each day, so that has been an interesting and exciting process development.
Though the sheer length of the project has challenged me and I’ve really had to develop a sense of trust and fluidity with the story, allowing myself to write even without knowing how a certain scene will work itself out.
Developing flow like this has been crucial, as I’ve found that many of the breakthroughs I’ve had come while in this state of trust and flow.
You wrote a whole novel by hand!? Do you always do this? At what point did you realize that this worked better than typing for you?
Yes, I did this! And it’s not as terrifying as it sounds. It’s actually a much more efficient way for me to work, since I don’t get as sidetracked by the possibility of moving text around and editing while I write, and there’s only one direction I can go – forward, instead of the countless directions I could go on a computer, or the countless ways I diffuse my energy when working in Scrivener (where I was working before).
I’m wondering, too, if there’s something about the physical act of moving my hand across the page and the pace of that compared with my thoughts, which are similarly paced, that gets me into a rhythm and creates a state of flow.
I definitely prefer typing and am much faster that way, but I just find myself getting so easily stuck in messy typed drafts that then overwhelm me until I’m too frustrated to work. I’d urge anyone having trouble completing their work to give handwritten drafts a try!
The handwritten draft began last June, after literally a couple years of fumbling around in very frustrating and messy typed drafts. It’s amazing to see how when we change our process, so much else can change.
They say if you spit your latte out in a burst of laughter in Western MA, chances are you’ll spray at least five writers, maybe ten. I’m still new here and looking for all these writers. Where do they all hang out?
I haven’t heard that one, but it’s true that there are many writers and artists in the area, and because of this, many literary events and readings going on constantly.
I’d look in the local bookstores! One of my favorite authors and literary heroes, Kelly Link, just opened Book Moon in Easthampton with her editor-publisher husband, Gavin Grant. If you haven’t been yet, definitely go! They have readings, events, and are great at recommending books based on your taste.
Amherst Books is another favorite of mine, and Odyssey also has lots of book launches and readings. I also know of some writers who hang out at the Montague Book Mill.
At PVWW, we also have a free monthly gathering of writers on the third Friday of every month, Open Community Writing, which gathers writers together with the idea of writing together and sharing work. We also offer a constantly changing lineup of workshops and classes, which can allow for more more detailed, rigorous, and ongoing work.
Besides PVWW, what are your favorite writing initiatives in Western MA?
Straw Dog Writers Guild is a great organization that hosts several readings a month, including a great monthly open mic and feature, Writers Night Out.
Forbes Library has a monthly reading series, curated by the writer-in-residence, currently Art Middleton, and it’s always a lot of fun.
I also always recommend Grub Street to writers, even though it’s in Boston, since they have such a wonderful array of programs, top-notch workshops (including many online), and their annual Muse & The Marketplace conference every spring which was called “the #1 conference in America” by The Writer magazine.
I highly recommend the conference for anyone wanting to learn more about agents, publishing, and marketing yourself and your work. There are both craft sessions (“The Muse”) and lots of sessions on publishing and marketing (“The Marketplace”).