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Review of Story is a State of Mind from Sarah Selecky

I promised you a review of Story is a State of Mind, and here it is.

Fiction writer Sarah Selecky has created an online writing program based on her decade of experience leading groups in her living room.

Since we can’t all gather on her couches, and since Sarah needs time for her own writing, she has transformed her live class into a self-paced program that you can do from anywhere, on any schedule.

I received a free spot in Story is a State of Mind so that I could review the material and decide whether to become an affiliate, and I was very impressed with what I found. (I wouldn’t be doing this review if I didn’t find the program worthwhile.)

My review is based on completing Lesson One and browsing through some of the other lessons. I’ve only been in the program for a week and I want to savour it!

What’s included?

Story is a State of Mind has the classic components of a hands-on writing workshop, thoughtfully adapted to new media and organized into seven modules.

You get:

  • Lessons: Teaching on familiar topics such as freewriting, dialogue, character, and plot, as well as more enigmatic ones like consciousness and influence.
  • Assignments: Instructions and prompts for timed writing sessions.
  • Readings: A curated collection of stories and excerpts that illuminate the lessons and feed your creative appetite. Sarah also includes debriefs of the readings so you can process what you’ve read, and recommendations for other books of fiction if you want to go further.
  • Community: A closed Facebook group just for participants, where you can discuss the program and post your writing assignments if you want to.

Most of the material is available in both PDF and MP3 format, so you can read or listen. Some lessons also have video lectures included.

Note: This course does not include manuscript critiques. The focus is on writing first drafts rather than polished final pieces. I think this is a good choice on Sarah’s part, as it keeps the cost down and makes the writing process less intimidating.

The course has rolling enrollment, meaning you can start any time and work through the lessons at your own pace. There are no live calls or deadlines ~ you can fit the work to your schedule.

The approach

Story is a State of Mind combines right- and left- brain approaches to writing.

You’ve got your Natalie-Goldberg-inspired intuitive stream-of-consciousness freewriting, and Sarah’s deep understanding of navigating the emotional undercurrents of creativity. You can hear in her voice just how much she loves writing, and loves you for wanting to write, and knows how hard and scary it can be, and believes you can do it anyway.

Then there’s the careful study of high-quality work by authors like Lisa Moore, Tobias Wolff and Charles Baxter, the parsing of the components of short fiction, the worksheets and methodical exercises that give you a comforting structure to contain your wild sentences.

In case it isn’t obvious, I love the combination.

The presentation

The design of the website and course materials is classy minimalist and very professional. The serif font sends a subliminal message that this stuff is for bookish types.

And as a technical writer, I so appreciate the instructions about how to use the course materials. There are videos and FAQs and help pages to walk you through everything, from downloading the class notes to posting assignments on the Facebook page.

The price

Story is a State of Mind is $250.

This price compares very favourably to other writing courses. I’ve taken live 8-week courses with local authors for about the same price. A Continuing Education distance course in short fiction from Ryerson University would cost you $390.

Who is it for?

This course is for people who want to write what they love to read: well-crafted and authentic fiction. If you don’t enjoy contemporary realism, you probably won’t like the readings or the way the lessons steer you toward writing short imagistic pieces.

Story is a State of Mind works for beginning writers because it covers all the basics and gently encourages you to start where you are.

Story is a State of Mind works for seasoned writers because it takes you out of your habitual ruts and back to beginner’s mind. The teaching and exercises help you approach your work afresh and lift your eyes to rich material you may have been overlooking.

My thoughts so far

I’ve completed Lesson One, which means I’ve done about an hour of freewriting, read two short stories, and listened to 30 minutes of teaching.

I’ll say this right now: I am not a fan of freewriting and using prompts to generate material. It makes me cranky. I don’t like writing in a notebook because my hand cramps and slows me down. I don’t like being told what to do ~ I have lots of my own ideas for stories that I can’t even get to, thank you very much! I resist the messiness and throwaway nature of freewriting.

But here’s the thing ~ I’ve decided to trust Sarah. Through her stories in This Cake Is for the Party, and the copy on her website, and the material in Story Is a State of Mind, I’ve seen something sensitive and successful in her approach to words and to her writing students. So I’m going to go with her on this one. I’m going to be curious and see how changing up my methods affects what comes out.

So Lesson One has felt like a stretch and also like a treat ~ a beautiful safe place to expand my toolkit and bring a sense of play back into my relationship with writing.

I’ve also been astonished by the group of writers that is assembling in the Facebook group. Interesting, generous people, passionate about the stories they read and the ones they have to tell. I am already enjoying hanging out there.


This is telling, that the only flaws I can see in the program are tiny little things that feel silly to mention, but I will for the sake of completeness.

You can download the MP3 audios or listen directly on the website, and I’m not crazy about the audio player widgets. I can’t seem to jump forward in a clip, and in Chrome there’s no indication of how far along I am in the audio.

It would be nice if the PDF documents of the class notes and readings had bookmarks so I could skip down quickly to the lesson I want.

See? Hardly worth mentioning.

The upshot

If you care about artful stories that move their readers, and you want your writing to be easier and better, I don’t see how you can go wrong with Story is a State of Mind.

And just in case you need the pot sweetened, I’m offering a bonus.

If you purchase Story is a State of Mind using my affiliate link, you’ll also get an hour of one-on-one coaching with me ($125 value). Use it to explore life design or the writing process or whatever comes up in your creative life. (I’ll remove this offer when it’s no longer valid, so if you’re reading this, rest assured that the bonus coaching session is still available.)

Let me know if you have any other questions about the program, and I’ll keep you updated on my progress through Lessons Two to Seven. Check out my interview with Sarah to hear more about her own writing journey and how it informs her teaching.

And thanks to Sarah for creating this experience ~ I know how much time and love it must have cost, and I’m grateful she took the trouble.

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Lupus Anthropos August 16, 2016, 4:19 am

    Regarding your wanting bookmarks in the PDF files, try using the Moon+ Reader app. I’m not sure all of the platforms for which it is available, but I use it on Android and it does allow me to set bookmarks in PDF files.

    Thank you for your review of Sarah Select’s course. It sounds wonderful, but I can’t even begin to afford it. If the economy (both the country’s and mine) improves, I may consider it – maybe even her “The Story Intensive.” I do find her daily, emailed writing prompts to be very helpful – more so than what I’ve seen on other sites or with random-idea apps, so I’ll continue with those, for now.

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