It seemed like this type of storytelling was within my reach; it seemed like something I might be able to do myself—with a lot of hard work, of course, but it seemed possible in a way that, say, writing the type of literature I had read in other classes, big Victorian novels and Russian epics, had never seemed possible.
Andrew Porter is the author of the short story collection The Theory of Light and Matter, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and a novel forthcoming from Knopf in Fall 2012. His short fiction has appeared in One Story, The Threepenny Review, Epoch, and The Pushcart Prize anthology and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has received a James Michener/ Copernicus Fellowship, the W.K. Rose Fellowship, and the Drake Emerging Writer Award. Currently, he’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Trinity University in San Antonio.
Web site: http://andrewporter.com
How Andrew Porter Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Andrew for saying yes! (And thanks to new blog subscriber Denise Richter for recommending him!)
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
Well, from an early age, I think I’d always known that I wanted to do something creative with my life. As a young child, I was drawn to visual art; and later, in high school, it was music, writing songs and so forth, and then, in college, I was pretty consumed with the idea of becoming a filmmaker, at least at first. I’d even begun to take some courses toward a film major at that point. Then, at the end of my sophomore year, I took an introductory fiction writing workshop, and everything changed. I remember sitting in that class and feeling very intimidated by the other students in the group, but also very inspired by the stories we were reading, contemporary short stories by writers I had never heard of before, people like Lorrie Moore, and Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. These writers seemed to be speaking to my own experiences in a very direct way, and I remember thinking how amazing that was, that you could write about such seemingly small conflicts and such ordinary people and yet make these character’s lives and experiences so compelling.
To put it another way, it seemed like this type of storytelling was within my reach; it seemed like something I might be able to do myself—with a lot of hard work, of course, but it seemed possible in a way that, say, writing the type of literature I had read in other classes, big Victorian novels and Russian epics, had never seemed possible. On top of that, for the first time in my life, I was actually getting some positive feedback on the work I was doing. My professor in that class was a very kind and generous man, and though I’m sure that the work I was producing wasn’t very good, it meant a lot to me at the time to know that it wasn’t horrible, that there might actually be something there.
Shortly after that, I think I simply caught the writing bug. It became hard to imagine a life in which I wasn’t writing or in which writing wasn’t at the center of my world. I didn’t really know why I was doing it, and perhaps I still don’t. I just knew that it was more fun than almost anything else I’d ever done.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I think I began to seriously entertain the idea of becoming a writer around my senior year in college. That’s when I started talking to some of my professors about it and also when I began to do a little research on what other writers I admired had done. Not people like Philip Roth, but young, emerging writers, people who were maybe eight or nine years older than me. I think, in retrospect, what I had hoped to find was some sort of logical path, a series of simple and easy steps that would lead me to where I wanted to go. What I found instead, of course, was that the writers I admired had all taken vastly different routes and most had come to the profession somewhat indirectly. Still, I did notice that a good number of them had eventually gone on to get MFA degrees, something I had heard some of my professors talk about in class. I didn’t really understand what an MFA was at the time, but it seemed that there was some sort of correlation between getting an MFA and becoming a writer, or at least that’s what I thought at the time.
So I ended up applying to programs, and three years later, after earning a degree from the University of Iowa, I discovered that I was in exactly the same place I was before. I had a few more stories under my belt, a little more experience and knowledge, and of course some wonderful new friends, but I didn’t feel any closer to actually publishing a book.
What followed after that was basically a decade or so of struggling along, trying to keep my head above water financially, trying to find a free moment here or there to work on my stories, enduring a lot of rejections, jumping between agents, being told again and again that nobody wanted to publish short story collections anymore, and so on. I came very close to throwing in the towel on several occasions, but I think what helped me out, what kept me going, was the fact that I’d always found a way to surround myself with other writers, people who were struggling along just like me, fellow adjuncts at the colleges where I taught or people in the community who had found a way to support their writing habit without going into too much debt.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Early on, it was the professors I had as an undergraduate and grad student—writers like David Wong Louie, Frank Bergon, Marilynne Robinson, and Barry Hannah—but later, it was really the friends I’d made in grad school who helped me the most. These were the people who I could call at any time of the day or night to talk about writing, the people who I shared my early drafts with, the people who kept me going during those frequent moments of self-doubt. To be honest, if I hadn’t had those friends, it’s hard to imagine where I’d be now.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
Charles Baxter has a great epistolary essay called “Full of it” (excerpt here), which appears in Frederick Busch’s anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer. It’s a wonderful essay—very funny and smart, like all of Baxter’s writing—and for a long time it served as a source of inspiration for me. Not because it painted a romanticized picture of the writing life, but because it painted just the opposite: a realistic one. Basically, Baxter catalogues all of the many setbacks and early discouragements he faced—all of the novels he wrote that didn’t get published, all of the stories we wrote that got rejected, all of the agents who abused him, his descent into despondency and hopelessness, the many years that he spent knocking on a door that simply wouldn’t open.
If anything, one might interpret this essay as a kind of cautionary tale, an argument for why one shouldn’t pursue this particular path. But for me, it never read that way. For me, as a longtime admirer of Baxter’s work, it always read like a testament to hard work and perseverance. I remember thinking, if someone as talented as Charles Baxter had to endure these types of setbacks, then why should I expect anything less? So, for a long time after that, as the rejection slips were piling up in my drawer, it was this essay, and Baxter’s story, that saw me through.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
I would say what Baxter says indirectly in the letter I referenced above: it’s not going to be easy, by any means—it might even take you to some very low moments in your life—but in the end, it’s the writers who persevere and push through these periods that ultimately succeed. I honestly believe that. Talent is obviously important, but it’s only a very small part of the equation. The rest has to do with whether or not you can endure the sacrifices you’ll have to make, the discouraging comments, the setbacks, the self-doubt. If you have the fortitude to keep writing in the face of all of these things, then I’d say your chances of publishing a book are pretty good.
Beyond that, I’d say it’s important to surround yourself with other writers, as I mentioned above. No one can write in a vaccuum, and it’s important to have a support system of some sort, a group of people who you can trust and who you can rely on for encouragement. In a world where most people aren’t going to really understand what you’re doing or why you’re doing it, it’s really important, I think, to have at least a few people who do.