The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: Shanna Mahin On Claiming A Seat At The Table

Shanna Mahin, 2008 Emerging Voices Alum, shares her experience of applying to the fellowship. After feeling completely disconnected from the writing community, she writes how the fellowship gave her the courage to begin a professional writing career. Shanna’s novel, Oh! You Pretty Things, was just sold to Dutton in a significant deal in April. The book is slated for publication in spring 2015.
“I went to my first writer’s conference in 2006. It was totally fancy. Mary Karr and Kathryn Harrison were the headliners, swoon, and the workshops were staffed by a bevy of academic heavy hitters. 
I remember standing in the cafeteria on the first evening, looking at the staff table and thinking, ‘there are the real writers.’ I felt like a total imposter. I’d been working in Hollywood as an assistant to celebrities and rich people for well over a decade, so it’s not like I was unfamiliar with feeling out of place or different.
The sum total of my formal writing education at that point was a 9th-grade English class, a couple of classes at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and a too-short private workshop with the amazing Samantha Dunn. It was Sam who encouraged me to apply for the PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship. 
‘I’m not exactly underserved,’ I said, pointing out my middle class, straight, whiteness.
‘Honey,’ she said. ‘You dropped out of high school in the 10th-grade and you basically raised yourself. You fucking qualify.’  (Disclaimer: I put that in quotes, but I’m paraphrasing. Although I will say that Sam does indeed swear like an old timey saloon owner.)
Sometime between my application and the final interview, my husband’s job changed and we relocated to San Diego. The interview committee was dubious about my potential commute. I told them I would crawl up the 405 every day on my knees if they picked me. I also cried and babbled incoherently. They chose me anyway. 
Life changer. 
The fellowship gave me a lot of things: a mentor who meticulously read every page of my work; a wonderful group of peers I adore; writing classes of all shapes and sizes; the chance to meet dozens of great writers and hear their thoughts on writing, publishing, and life; and so much more. But the biggest, most important takeaway for me was that I learned I have a seat at the table. Those “real” writers in the cafeteria weren’t different or more special than I was, they were just further along the road. My road. Being an Emerging Voices Fellow taught me that. 
When I realized my first book—the sum total of my output since I started writing in 2006—just wasn’t working, it should have been the end for me. Historically, that’s how I roll. I have a track record of getting things to the three-quarter mark and abandoning them. 
And I’m not gonna lie, I was in a face plant for a couple of months. But then a weird thing happened. I woke up one day, opened up a blank document, and started something new. Instead of moving on to sculpting or improv or whatever the fuck, I sat down at the computer and I wrote my ass off. You know why? Because I’m a writer. It took me six years to learn how to write a book and a year to write a new one. Another year to edit it, find the perfect agent, and send it out into the world. 
I have a seat at the table. Thank you, PEN Center USA Emerging Voices, for teaching me that. 
Isn’t it time for you to claim your seat?”
Shanna Mahin is a high school dropout with a fierce desire to disprove her 9th grade English teacher's prediction of “a lifetime of wasted potential.”  She mourns his passing for the missed opportunity to point out her MacDowell Colony fellowship, Norman Mailer Colony fellowship, and PEN Center USA Emerging Voices fellowship. She’s also been awarded full residencies at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and several other writing programs.
To apply to the 2015 Emerging Voices Fellowship, click here.