I teach at the San Francisco Writing Salon and also privately in my home. Here’s what I tell new students:
My name is Karen Bjorneby, pronounced the Norwegian way (“Car-In”), and I came to writing by taking night school classes exactly like the ones I teach. I didn’t study English in college; I don’t have an M.F.A. I worked a long time in a finance career where I seldom could provide the news people wanted to hear. Eventually I asked myself what the hell I was doing with my life. In answer, I radically downsized my expectations along with a whole lot of pride, took a job as an administrative assistant, and then, since I read all the time, I decided to take a writing class.
I did read all the time: I read all the paperbacks sold in supermarkets. I’d never even heard of the writers the night-school teacher discussed, so when the class ended, I began a long course of self-study, bringing to that reading my own prior studies in psychology and philosophy, paying very close attention to character motivation and deep structure. Three years after writing my first story for that night class, I gathered my courage, sent a piece out to a dozen literary magazines, and the next day left the country for six months. That story was accepted at five different places, which caused me some problems to sort out, but once I’d done that I imagined I was now traveling a writing road that would roll out smoothly before me.
What I discovered was that each story sent me down a different road. Meanwhile, like every one else, I had family crises, financial crises, health crises: sinkholes in every one of those roads. I learned through trial and error how to navigate around some of those sinkholes, while others I had no choice but to fall into and then dig my way out of.
I joined a workshop. I published a short story collection. I wrote two novels I shoved into drawers, learning a great deal from those failures. I took a detour into poetry, which turned out not to be a detour at all but instead a major thruway into the landscape from which I write. I began teaching, and I helped others write and publish their work, which sometimes meant helping them with the way the words read on the page and sometimes meant helping them figure out how to get those words written in the midst of daily chaos and demand. I’m now finishing a novel I feel very good about.
None of which is to toot my own horn. Instead, it is to say this: if you didn’t study literature, if you don’t have a degree, if you don’t have an MFA or can’t get one – none of that matters. What matters is reading and writing. What matters is rewriting. What matters is understanding what you like and why you like it. What matters is finding someone who can give you the critical feedback and technical suggestions that will help you shape your work so a reader experiences the story you want to tell. What matters is figuring out a way around the sinkholes opening up in front of you or, failing that, finding someone who can help you climb back up onto the roadbed.
I believe strongly that writing is a craft, and as with any other craft, like woodworking or knitting, there are techniques you can learn that will bring confidence and elegance to your work. I also believe writing is art, but I don’t teach that. I don’t need to: the art of writing already lives inside you, in your loves and disappointments, your fears and challenges, your angers and wishes and griefs. Instead, I teach you how to dramatize that art through compelling characters, and I work to demystify plot and structure so you can refine and tighten your story’s architecture.
Literature is vast. There is room for all kinds of stories and all kinds of voices, and I don’t set any one genre above another. On any given bookstore shelf, there is a critically-acclaimed masterpiece and another book the critics all snubbed. If you write and revise it, your book can fit somewhere on that shelf. I can help you make your book better, and I can help you get it done.