We lived in a split-level and I’d hide on the stairs below the living room and listen as they smoked cigarettes, drank scotch or gin-and-tonics, and gossiped, joked, and confessed to each other in hushed tones. I learned everything a writer ever needs to know about love, friendship, and heartbreak from my mother’s friends, and if I close my eyes right now I can picture those women as they were and hear the cadence of their voices.
Forrest Anderson teaches creative writing and composition at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. He has a PhD from Florida State University, where he worked for two years as an archivist and assistant for Robert Olen Butler. His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, the Fiction Writers Review, The Southeast Review, Blackbird, the South Carolina Review, and elsewhere.
Read more by and about Forrest:
How Forrest Anderson Became a Writer
This is the latest installment in the new How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Thanks to Forrest for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I never had much interest in writing until after I graduated from college. I loved to read as a kid, but by high school I’d pretty much stopped. It was shortly after Ms. Bell assigned Ethan Frome, I think. I do feel like I robbed myself whenever I read interviews with other writers who talk about reading comic books and writing five-hundred page science fiction novels as ten-year olds. I wish I’d been reading and practicing the craft for that long.
That said, however, I was exposed to fantastic storytellers growing up in a small town in eastern North Carolina. My mother was (and still is) active in a variety of social clubs—La Coterie, Junior Guild, Duplicate Bridge Clubs, Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, and on and on—as well as the center of her group of friends. Most everyday of the week, I’d come home from school to a house full of women. We lived in a split-level and I’d hide on the stairs below the living room and listen as they smoked cigarettes, drank scotch or gin-and-tonics, and gossiped, joked, and confessed to each other in hushed tones. I learned everything a writer ever needs to know about love, friendship, and heartbreak from my mother’s friends, and if I close my eyes right now I can picture those women as they were and hear the cadence of their voices.
I spent the weekends with my dad hunting dove, deer, or duck—depending on the season—on farms and swamps in Whitakers, Leggett, Tarboro, Roxobel, Ahoskie, Colerain, and Mann’s Harbor. I learned about the woods sure, but I learned even more by sitting in blinds with my dad and his friends (men from all walks of life) during the early mornings and late afternoons and listening to them bullshit in hunting cabins at night. I earned their trust by keeping quiet and not complaining about cleaning the deer and washing the dinner dishes while they drank. I liked the work because it kept me close to them while they talked and told dirty jokes. Occasionally, before telling one of their wilder stories, they’d remember that I was in the room and remind me not to repeat what they said.
I became a writer because I lacked discretion.
2. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Let me tell you how lucky I’ve been. Well, I’m terribly unlucky in life—just this summer my son fell on the last day of school and needed stitches in his forehead, our basement was invaded by snakes and our attic by bats, and my wife was bitten by a stray dog and we thought she might be rabid. In writing, though, I’m lucky. I grew up in the same town as Allan Gurganus. He went to high school with my mother’s sister, but he doesn’t know me from Adam. When I wrote my first short story, I put it in an envelope and mailed it to him for advice. It was as bad as a first story can be (much worse if I’m being honest)—a town floods, a power plant explodes, and a woman dies abandoned in a nursing home… I remember killing her dog, too, to heighten the emotional tension. To be honest, I can’t believe I was presumptuous enough to mail him that story. I’m even more surprised that Allan sent back a two-page handwritten letter offering detailed criticism. After that, I was up and running and two years later he wrote a recommendation letter for me for graduate school (he still has no idea who I am).
At the University of South Carolina, the first fiction workshop I took was with Ron Rash. He asked me to write a case study on Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. I fell in love with the book. Rash encouraged me to sign up for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference where Butler was teaching. I hit it off with Butler and he invited me to apply to the PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University where I ended up becoming his assistant and archivist…
I have dozens of stories like this… every writer you know has stories like this. The writing world is a small one and, for the most part, writers are nice people and are willing to help you out. All you have to do is work hard and put yourself in a position to ask. Another teacher, Mark Winegardner, puts it this way: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. He’s right. And, oh, if a writer is ever a jerk about your work, then count yourself lucky. That’s some great ammunition to write on those days when the sentences aren’t coming so easily.
3. How long has the journey been so far, and what were a few important moments along the way?
Eleven years. I’ve been feeling discouraged lately. I have a lot to show for those years, but not as much as I would like. It’s hard for me to remember that the best moments in writing are the ones that nobody sees, the ones that your mom can’t put on the refrigerator, the ones that you can’t point to as proof to your wife that it’s worth it for the alarm to go off at 5:30AM six days a week. The best moments are the ones where you discover something about writing or the story that you’re writing. That’s what should keep you working, not the promise of a published poem or story (because to be honest that’s rarely the high that you expect it to be). It’s hard to keep that straight in your head. It’s hard for me to keep that straight in my head. More often than not, I find myself wanting the book or the fancy prize to hold up in front of the naysayers of the world and say, “In your face!”
That’s probably not all that helpful so let me tell you about a moment where I feel like I really learned something about writing. Like I said, I didn’t read much at all in high school or college. Because of that, I felt like I was at a real disadvantage when I started my MFA program. I tried to make up for it all at once and it turned out to be one of the best moves I made as a writer.
In pretty much every workshop I had at USC, the students were asked to pick a story collection or novel and write a case study on it. Each week, one of the students would present their story collection or novel to the class. What I did was find out what books my classmates were reading, order them from half.com, and read the book. That meant during graduate school I was reading a story collection or novel a week (it worked out to about twelve books a semester). It was a baptism by fire type of reading experience and it did wonders for my writing.
George Singleton, who visited during my last semester in my MFA, offered a piece of advice that really helped me perfect what I was doing. He suggested that I keep a reader-based response notebook. For each story I read, I would write a one-page response where I talked about how the story worked, what I might steal from that writer, or what sort of memory it made me think of from my own personal experience that might make a good story. Basically, it was a modeling exercise using good stories as templates. That’s one of those important moments in my writing life, a moment where I really started to understand the possibilities of fiction.
4. What writer’s biography has inspired you or might inspire others?
I love this question. I used to worry nonstop over writer’s biographies when I was starting out. I’m not talking about long-form biographies. I’m talking about the little write-ups in the backs of literary journals. The bios that always worried me were the ones along the lines of, “After ten years digging freshwater wells in east Africa, Fancy Writer, spent six years working as an attorney in New Orleans, four years lobbying for clean air in Washington, DC, and then retired to follow Phish and box professionally. He had a record of 42-3-1.”
I married pretty young. I focused on working and finishing school. I didn’t have exciting jobs either. I worked at a bank first as a teller and then as a loan officer. Later, I worked as a project manager at two failed dot-coms. Did this mean that since I hadn’t knocked out forty-two boxers that I’d never make it as a writer? Also, I was dismayed by the number of writers who’d been drunks and married multiple times. I didn’t want that for my life.
I know this makes me sound nutty and earnest and boring, but I really did question whether I had the right type of background to be a writer. It wasn’t until I came across an interview where a writer—I think it was Tim Gautreaux, but I’m not able to back this up—said that he lived a pretty boring life because he woke up at seven and then worked bankers’ hours on his stories and novels. I felt like that gave me permission to be a writer. I guess I’m most inspired by the biographies of writers who are faithful to their spouses and good parents to their children and manage to write like people possessed.
5. What do you know now that you wish you’d know then? Or, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
I don’t feel like I’m in any position to offer advice. Yet, I’m a teacher so I end up getting asked for advice all the time. A couple of days ago, for example, a student pointed out that I was quite a bit older than him and, therefore, more experienced in the world before asking if it would be okay to return a pair of flip-flops to the store after wearing them for only one day. I told him, “My advice is: stop crying. Look you need to pick yourself up. Man up, aight. You will win this in the end. It’s all about heart. And character. Be your best self.” I didn’t tell him that I stolen that from Darryl on The Office.
Here’s another piece of advice that I say to my students all the time. I pretend like I thought of it, but it’s also stolen. This is from Conan O’Brien, “All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”