Monday, August 29, 2016

My First Time: Michael Kenneth Smith

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Michael Kenneth Smith, author of Scarred: A Civil War Novel of Redemption. Michael trained as a mechanical engineer and began a successful auto parts business in the early 1980s. He sold his business in 2000 and retired. Since then, he's spent time fishing, golfing, cooking, and playing bridge. His previous novel, also set during the Civil War, was Home Again.

My First Writing Seminar

For some unknown reason, I was accepted by Kenyon College to a Novel Seminar with eight other students who also had a basic manuscript of a new novel. The class started on Sunday afternoon and all nine of us met each other and we introduced ourselves. My math is not very good but I estimated that I was twice as old as the second oldest in the class. Everybody was an English major or a journalist of some sort and most had written previous novels. When I introduced as an engineer and had written nothing previously other than a few letters home when I was in the service, everybody smiled with a “where did this guy come from” look.

I felt like going home.

At the end of the day, the instructor announced that on the last day of class, each of us would read a selection of their manuscript to an audience that would include faculty, students and friends.

I felt like going home.

The next morning each instructor spent an hour with each student to discuss his/her novel and what they wanted to work on that week. In both hour-long sessions, my manuscript got torn up and spit out. I listened carefully for positive reinforcement but I didn’t hear one good word.

I really felt like going home.

I stuck it out and to my surprise, I liked it. We talked about each manuscript and had free and open discussions about how each could be improved. The other students were kinder in discussing my novel than the instructors and I started to feel a bit better. Of course, maybe they were just be nice to the old guy sitting in the corner.

In the final analysis, those instructors were really very good. They tore me down, then spent the rest of the week trying to build me back up. As the end of the week approached, everybody was talking about the reading on the last night. One young lady even asked if I would listen to her presentation. It was marvelous. Not only was her story clever and catchy, her delivery was out of sight.

I thought about leaving early.

Well, the big night came and we were given an order in which we would read our work. I was last. I just sat there wondering who in the audience was a professor or dean. After each presentation, everybody clapped and kudos were passed around. I have to admit they were all really good with solid presentations.

I felt like crawling under the table.

Then it came to me. I thought, what the hell, and I stood to read my selection, one of most dramatic scenes in the book. As I read, I felt the audience tighten up. Maybe they were sitting on the edge of their chairs. Or maybe they were about to get up and leave. I read it with as much feeling as possible hoping my voice didn’t quiver too much. At the end, I sat down and for a brief moment nothing happened—nobody said anything—not one clap!

Then one of the instructors said, “Bravo” and the clapping began and grew loud and long with everybody sending up.

I love writing.


  1. You were great! And so was your reading!

  2. Was this the Kenyon Review Novel Workshop? That's an amazing course (I was in the 2012 class). Thank you for this terrific column!