Becoming a Writer
Isabel Lachenauer (MA 2013) describes how studying at St Andrews gave her the skills, life experiences and ‘story doctor’ she needed to write a book that was recently sold in a major deal at a five-house auction.
In the first week of May 2022, I defended my PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago while also releasing my debut novel, The Hacienda, to critical acclaim. As I reflect on these significant career milestones, I believe that I could not have accomplished either without the foundation that studying at the University of St Andrews gave me.
Coming to St Andrews
At the age of 18, I already knew I wanted to study Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies. When I was rejected from all my top choice universities in the US, my guidance counsellor invited me to a talk that two representatives from St Andrews were giving later that week. When I met them and heard about St Andrews’ excellent Arabic language instruction, I knew it was fate. I hopped on a flight across the pond and never looked back.
The Arabic instruction at St Andrews was indeed world-class and gave me the opportunity to study abroad in Egypt at the American University of Cairo (UAC) during 2011-2012 – a politically fascinating (and turbulent) time in Egypt’s history.
Get out and live
My first piece of advice for young writers is given so often that it teeters close to cliche: leave the blank page behind, get out, and live. Expand your worldview. Get out of your comfort zone. Try living in new places and fail at it. Try again. Studying at St Andrews and AUC meant that I was able to travel widely at a young age, encounter new people and discover different ways of living and thinking. I would not be the writer I am without those experiences.
It also was the history modules I took at St Andrews that developed the skills that I use regularly in both my work as a historian and a novelist. They taught me to look at the more distant past with a critical eye and to interrogate how history is written. A narrative, be it fiction or non-fiction, is never truly neutral. This especially informs my fiction work, which replaces colonial narratives with the voices of those whom history has otherwise erased.
I began writing as a child and wrote furiously through high school, but by the time I was at university I had stopped. At the time I told myself that the reason for this was to focus on my studies, but in truth I became discouraged because past boyfriends had shown no interest in or flat-out refused to read my work, while a professor at a fiction workshop I attended while in high school and even a Creative Writing MLitt student at St Andrews had derided my love for fantasy fiction.
Ignore negative voices!
My second piece of advice to new writers is to take negative voices like these and chuck them unceremoniously in the bin! Write what you want. Find people who support what you write and encourage you to improve your craft. It is a challenging art and an even more challenging career—do not waste your energy on voices that hold you back.
Seek out people who support your passion
The support I needed came unexpectedly in my fourth year at St Andrews in the form of one of my flatmates. We began dating in our last semester of university and it quickly became apparent that he was as passionate as I was about genre literature. While everyone else (including me) was tearing their hair out while studying for exams, he kicked back and binge-read Dune (and, infuriatingly, still got better marks than all of us). He asked questions about what I was reading and encouraged me to tell him about my writing. Slowly, I became brave enough to share my work with him.
Nine years later, he is my first reader, my sounding board, and my story doctor, untangling plot snarls and celebrating the completion of every draft. With his encouragement, I finished my first novel in 2016 and my next the following year. I queried literary agents and signed with one in 2017, then weathered years of rejections on multiple projects. While on our honeymoon in 2019, he held my hand as I sobbed in public after receiving a particularly heartbreaking rejection. He encouraged me to get back in the saddle and dive into a new book idea I was toying with. That idea became The Hacienda, which my agent and I then sold in a major deal at a five-house auction. I’m currently revising my second book for Berkley Publishing and look forward to its publication in Summer 2023 with the knowledge that I could not have achieved what I have without his support.
Becoming a writer …
People often ask me if I studied creative writing in university, but the truth is, you don’t have to do so to become a successful writer. The only prerequisites to becoming a writer are to live – and to live alongside those who support your passion. St Andrews gave me four years of life-changing experiences living in a different country alongside students hailing from all corners of the globe. It also gave me the one person I’ll spend the rest of my life with. For that I will always be grateful.
For more information about The Hacienda and Isabel’s writing, visit www.isabelcanas.com.