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Old Skills, New Habits: How I Used What I Learned in Grad School to Write My First Novel

Author, book reviewer, and essayist Amy Gentry shares how she used what she learned in grad school to write her first novel, as well as those that followed.
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It was my husband who first suggested that I just write my novel.

Just? What did he know about it? I had recently graduated with a PhD in English but had decided not to pursue an academic job, and the reality was sinking in. The way I saw it, I had spent six years destroying my mental health and racking up a mountain of debt, only to come out the other side with nothing but a degree that overqualified me for normal jobs and a dissertation no one would ever read.

(What They Don't Teach You in MFA Programs.)

But of course, I had more than that. Over the next five years, I held down an assortment of part-time jobs while freelancing and working on my novel. And, much as I hate to admit it, the skills I’d gained in grad school came in handy—with a few notable adjustments.

Old Skills, New Habits: How I Used What I Learned in Grad School to Write My First Novel, by Amy Gentry

Grad School Skill #1: Research.

In grad school, I had learned to absorb and synthesize a great deal of information rapidly. “Reading” books by skimming the intro, first and last chapters; plundering bibliographies for source material; rifling through an overwhelming deluge of database search results and quickly judging what was worth printing out. My advisor told me I was a “quick study.”

Many of the same research skills applied to my writing career, which started with freelancing. I scoured the hundreds of books coming out every month for book review pitches; I prepped for interviews with lightning speed; I researched and applied for writers’ residencies so I could finish drafting my novel in between part-time jobs. And, down the road, when I was writing my first novel under contract, I inhaled screenwriting books in order to internalize three-act structure.

Most importantly, though, I took my research skills out of the library and into the world. First in my freelance career, and then in my novel-writing, I found things to write about by looking around, talking to people, attending events. I got in the habit of pulling over every time I saw anything that remotely interested me—a new building, an odd-looking storefront, a mural, a faded flyer—and taking a picture or scribbling some notes. Suddenly everything looked like a story, and the world seemed to come alive around me. It did help to be a quick study, but it helped even more to be a curious one.

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Check out Amy Gentry's latest novel, Bad Habits.

Bad Habits, by Amy Gentry

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Grad School Skill #2: Networking.

In grad school, the focus on networking often put me in a panic. At conferences, I hung back as grad students shoved each other trying to speak to the star professor. I went to office hours for visiting professors, only to sit speechless, wondering how this would help my career, while a famously ribald academic celebrity rattled off dirty stories about Norma Shearer. When the keynote speaker at a conference complimented my paper from the podium, I felt like a rockstar. But what was I supposed to do next? Was this networking? I had no idea.

(4 Networking Strategies for Authors Who Hate Networking.)

Toward the end of grad school, I moved back to Austin, which had always been my happy place, and started hanging out with people I liked—my old friends, my husband’s friends. I met people, not to “advance my career,” but because they were fun and interesting. This, too, is networking, and eventually it began to pay off. I got a few part-time gigs here and there, but far more importantly, I felt connected to a community of interesting people—writers, artists, actors, filmmakers. 

Eventually I started manufacturing excuses to interview the people who interested me, pitching the interviews to event blogs and the local alt-weekly. That led to assignments, which led to meeting more people. I interviewed author after author and asked them how they’d gotten published. Freelancing was like a magic key that would allow me to talk to anybody.

Eventually, it led to a breakthrough in my creative life, too. A friend of a friend who had read my work online extended an invitation to join her fledgling novel writing group. That writing group is the reason I finished my first novel. We still meet almost every week (over Zoom, these days), and their cheerleading and support continue to sustain my writing practice.

I still freeze up when I’m around famous and successful writers. But I’ve learned that networking is not about buttonholing the most successful people in your field. It’s about meeting people, all kinds of people, who interest you—not just in your field, but everywhere. It’s about finding supportive friends to read your work and reading theirs in return. And it’s about reaching out to make sure that people who may be less connected than you get included, too.

Grad School Skill #3: Writing.

There’s an old saw about academics being terrible writers. In fact, they are typically great writers—in no small part because they write all the time. They just write in a particular style most people don’t read. And since many have internalized shame around not writing more, they often don’t feel like good writers. But anyone who regularly writes papers, literature reviews, grant applications, and dissertation chapters has acquired tons of writing experience. For me, at least, the hardest thing wasn’t dropping the stylistic tics I picked up in grad school. The problem wasn’t how I wrote. It was why.

I look back on my early book reviews, written shortly after graduation, and blush. The positive ones are full of verbal prancing and virtuoso close readings; the pans mimic the lacerating tear-downs that were common in grad school. I was still hungover from academia, where nobody read my work but my advisors, and the point I was trying to communicate was obscured by the need to prove how smart I was.

Shifting out of that mentality took time. Looking back, the turning point came when I started writing about a political cause that mattered to me. Joining protestors at the state capitol to fight for reproductive rights, I blogged and tweeted my outrage and dismay over what was happening. Those posts found a wide audience, and suddenly it felt like what I said really mattered. 

(10 Rules for Writing Opinion Pieces.)

Later, I wrote a weekly style column, whose frequent deadlines forced me to abandon perfection and focus on voice. Writing for people who actually wanted to read my words built up my confidence and instilled a greater sense of responsibility toward my readers. These days, I write when I have something to say—and thanks to years of practice getting things done, I know I can say it.

When I had something to say, I did “just write my novel”—and another, and another. It’s fitting, maybe, that my most recent, Bad Habits, circles back to academia—the place where I learned a multitude of skills that only came into their own when I relaxed enough to let curiosity and passion guide me, instead of fear.

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Fearless Writing William Kenower

If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.

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