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  • Meet SWU Instructor Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
This blog was featured on 04/11/2018
Meet SWU Instructor Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Written by
She Writes
April 2018
Written by
She Writes
April 2018

Born and raised in New Orleans, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton studied creative writing at Dartmouth College and law at UC Berkeley. She was a recipient of the Lombard Fellowship and spent a year in the Dominican Republic working for a civil rights organization and writing. Her debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

SW: Briefly set the scene for your writing habits: Where do you write? How do you write? What's your routine?

MWS: I have three small children, so I don’t have as much time to write as I once did nor do I have a structured routine. That said, I try to spend at least a few hours a day working. When I do, I just sit on my bed and plug away. I do try to have at least a vague idea of how the story will go before I sit down to start it, though some of my most interesting work has come from writing scenes with nothing in mind. It does seem to save a great deal of time, though, to at least know on a basic level who my characters are, what they want and what’s blocking them from it, what themes I want to explore and how all of that can be presented in a compelling story.

SW: What is the first thing you can remember writing?

MWS: I wrote a poem at my Catholic elementary school about “shining my light”. My father thought it was brilliant and I believed him. Of course when I looked back at it years later, I saw it was age appropriately ordinary.

SW: Describe a moment when your own writing scared you or surprised you.

MWS: Writing my first book, which was never published, was scary because it was so personal I felt out of control of it. I couldn’t pin down the storyline or the characters because they stemmed from my own life, and I knew so much about myself, or thought I knew so much about myself, the main character who was based on me wasn’t focused enough, and the story came out muddled. I’ve found that writing works better for me now when I am not the basis for a character in any way. I can see the characters clearly and convey them to the reader better when I am nowhere in them.

SW: At what point did you begin to truly feel like a “writer”?

MWS: Sometimes I don’t feel like a writer still, but I began to feel more legitimately like one once I sold my book, and I could say it would hit shelves on August 15th. Then the feeling hit me more intensely once the galleys were out, and I was able to sign them!

SW: What’s one of the lessons in your She Writes University class that you really wish YOU had learned earlier in your writing career?

MWS: I wish someone had told me how to start a story. I spent years working on a book that was never published, and one of the issues with it was that I started it at the chronological beginning and not at the most compelling piece of the story. Writing a story is not so different from telling one to a friend. If you’re telling a funny story about your classmate, do you start with when the classmate was born, when he started school, when you met? Not necessarily. You start at the point that’s most relevant to the story you’re telling, the point that’s most captivating. I wish I had known I could work all the rest of it into backstory.

SW: Why do you feel it’s important to offer a writing class to other women writers through She Writes University?

MWS: For various reasons, I wasn’t in a position to attend a formal MFA program but I learned so very much from conferences and other more flexible programs; not only were they more fitting for my schedule, they were more tailored to what I was focused on, so I could pick and choose subjects or teachers that were most relevant for my own work. That type of focus was instrumental for me in finishing A Kind of Freedom and I see the She Writes classes serving the same purpose for so many writers.

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