How Juliana Gray Became a Writer

August 19, 2012 — 6 Comments
There’s nothing like reading through a pile of submissions
to show you what’s cliche or overdone or just dull.

Juliana Gray’s second poetry collection, Roleplay, won the 2010 Orphic Prize and was recently published by Dream Horse Press.  Recent poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Barrow Street, Measure, 32 Poems, Waccamaw and elsewhere.  An Alabama native, she lives in western New York and is an associate professor of English at Alfred University.

Read more by and about Juliana:

Poem: “Like, As, As If” at Waccamaw

Poem: “Zucchini” at Waccamaw

Poem: “Summer Downpour on Campus” at American Life in Poetry

Poem: “Woman in the I-65 Rest Stop” at Blackbird

Poem: “The Housesitter’s Note” at Unsplendid

Interview at “The Black Telephone”

How Juliana Gray 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 Juliana for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

Doesn’t every writer begin as a reader?  I loved books and stories and poems, and wanted to make more of them.  Somewhere in the depths of my storage is the Hardy Boys book I tried to write (and illustrate, clumsily) when I was about eight years old.  I’ve destroyed the Doctor Who and comic book fan fiction.  But I think it all goes back to that impulse of trying to crack the thing you love, to see how it was done and to try for yourself to create that pleasure in another reader.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

After the fan fiction?  I went to the University of Alabama and took a creative writing class.  My professor was a grad student named Rob Trucks, and he was a pretty irascible guy, but he was a good fit for me, and encouraged me to take more classes.  I wound up with a creative writing minor and some experience working on our undergraduate literary magazine, which was hugely instructive.  There’s nothing like reading through a pile of submissions to show you what’s cliche or overdone or just dull.

Then I did the usual grad school route, earning an MA at the University of Tennessee and a Ph.D at the University of Cincinnati.  Then came the really hard part, learning how to write without an assignment or a class deadline.  That took a lot of getting used to, disciplining myself and writing with no other goal than to create poems.

Andrew Hudgins at Sewanee Writers’ Conference // Photo from

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

So, so many people have helped me.  Andrew Hudgins, my mentor from UC, and his wife Erin McGraw are at the top of that list.  They’ve been wonderful friends for years.  One of the best things they did for me was to encourage me to go to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.  I did, and I wound up working on the staff of that conference for the next thirteen years.  There I met Wyatt Prunty, Alan Shapiro, Mark Jarman, Claudia Emerson, Erica Dawson, Leah Stewart, Kevin Wilson, Leigh Anne Couch, Phil Stephens and so many other great writers who became friends.  I’m going to make you sorry you asked this question.  Danny Anderson, Mary Jo Salter, Jill McCorkle, Randall Kenan, Tony Earley, Christine Schutt, John Casey, R.S. Gwynn, David Yezzi, Margot Livesey, Mark Strand, Carrie Jerrell, Caki Wilkinson, Sandra Beasley, Chelsea Rathburn, Charles Martin, and so many others who’ve given me feedback on my writing and supported me with their friendship.  I’m incredibly lucky to be a part of this community of writers.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I was thinking about this recently, because I’m going to an artists’ retreat in the fall, and the residents are supposed to bring a book that inspires them.  I’ll be bringing Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems.  Larkin’s life doesn’t inspire me in the sense that I want to live it– I think he was a lonely, unhappy man– but in that he was able to write so well and see so much from the confines of his rather circumscribed life.  He didn’t have to travel the world and attend fabulous parties or go mad– he just went to work every day and kept his eyes open.  I’m a homebody, so that appeals to me.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Dear Aspiring Writer: I hope you’re prepared to fail.  In the meantime, read everything you can get your hands on.  Have opinions about it.  Write lots. Imitate the ones you love.  Listen to your teachers.  Know that improving means changing.  And keep writing.  xox, Juliana.


6 responses to How Juliana Gray Became a Writer


    Such an interesting theme in this blog and always inspiring, thankyou. Loved the long list of her community of writers. Taking the courses that she did were a wise thing to do as she surrounded herself with like and unlike, authentic writers. That is something that is very difficult to find in my rural area but with some perseverance i’ve found some very interesting writers. I’ve come to the writing experience as a very late bloomer.


    Finding these interviews in my mailbox always makes for a day full of happy grins, empty ink pens, and pages comprised of 1 part potential, 3 parts failure. I can relate to the comment Dr. Gray made about transitioning into a writing routine not encompassed by assignments and deadlines. Now that I’ve fulfilled all of the writing concentration requirements for my degree, I (almost) don’t know what to do with myself!

    Also, I love the “Letter to an Aspiring Writer” portion of these interviews, and I had to do a double-take (and then stop and think about it) on the first sentence of this one. Other writers that have answered this question stressed the need for “thick skin”, brave spirits, and understanding the power of the written word. And Dr. Gray summed all of that up with one very powerful sentence: “I hope you’re prepared to fail.” After reading that, I felt a little disheartened, and in the same breath empowered to write for my life! (That was a little dramatic.) The point here is that these interviews always make me think, and that’s why I love them! Thanks for making my every other Sunday (or so)! =)


    I’m sorry, but I hate Larkin with a passion! The only redeeming quality was being able to swear legitimately in class circa 1985 as he was part of the English Lit curriculum…….to be fair, living in my hometown of Hull can’t of helped and probably accounted for him being such a lonely old misery guts! I’ve just had to endure him several times again in my current Uni degree and it still astonishes me that he’s so popular……which just goes to prove that whatever is written the reader/audience can be very objective and split in their opinion and failure is hard to define.


    Thanks for your comments, everyone! Angie, the pursuit of writing can be very dramatic indeed. Keep it up, go forth, be brave. 🙂

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. A letter to an aspiring writer… | projectdrela - August 19, 2012

    […] follow this blog that features interviews with various writers.  Every writer answers the same five questions.  […]

  2. Winners of Book Giveaway: Roleplay by Juliana Gray « ph.d. in creative writing - September 8, 2012

    […] Congratulations to these THREE winners of the latest book giveaway! Each winner receives a copy of Juliana Gray’s Roleplay. […]

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