I find my students and the tiny pieces I know of their lives very inspiring; I think they’re so brave, many of them, to want to become writers, and they make me want it for them, too.
Erica Bernheim is the author of The Mimic Sea. She was born in New Jersey and grew up in Ohio and Italy. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since 2008, she has been an Assistant Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she teaches creative writing and directs the Honors Program.
Book: The Mimic Sea
Poem: Like a Face
Review of The Mimic Sea
Poem: 63rd and Pulaski
How Erica Bernheim 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 Erica for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I was fortunate to grow up in a home where reading was encouraged. Becoming a writer seemed like a natural progression to me, something you could do after you had read enough books to have your own ideas. My father is a writer and an English professor, my mother is an editor, and books were almost always on hand; when they weren’t, creating my own stories seemed like a logical step, although I never did much with poetry until later. I also grew up in a family that travelled constantly, both overseas and for long car trips on a regular basis, and I was fortunate to be a good car reader (of books, never maps!). I learned to read quickly and would think about whatever I read for a long time afterwards, trying to remember sentences verbatim, and puzzling over whatever I had forgotten to remember, hoping I could try something like whatever I had read in a book of my own at some point. I wanted to make other people feel the way I did when I read something I loved.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I majored in English in college, but it wasn’t until I enrolled in an MFA program that I found a community of writers, many of whom I remain close with still, like Michael Dumanis, Robyn Schiff, Nick Twemlow, Suzanne Buffam, and Chicu Reddy. Being around other writers showed me how to be one, as well as how not to be one. After finishing the MFA program, I moved to Chicago and worked in publishing for a few years. For me, taking a few years off between the MFA and PhD was important. I wrote a lot during that time; I relied on writing in a way I never had before, and I realized that I wanted to be around writing all the time, that it shouldn’t be a luxury or just a special occasion.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
I already mentioned my parents and their guidance and encouragement, but I’ve also had incredibly smart and generous teachers. Keith Tuma, Jim Reiss, Jorie Graham, Mark Levine, Dean Young, and Jim Galvin were tremendously supportive. Studying Faulkner at UIC with Chris Messenger taught me a lot about how to be a scholar and a professor. And of course there are so many poets whose work has helped me. The most important has always been Robert Creeley, whose poems I happened upon happily in Paul Hoover’s Norton Postmodern Anthology. After reading Creeley’s work, I switched from writing fiction to poetry and have never switched back. I also started reading John Berryman and Denis Johnson around this time. Brenda Shaughnessy and Noelle Kocot’s work has helped me find more to admire in language and scope and narrative, as do the poets I mentioned in Question #2. Working with 42 Miles Press and with David Dodd Lee has been a wonderful experience, and their support has been somewhere far beyond helpful and into the miraculous.
This was the hardest question for me! I am inspired by the work—rather than the lives—of many artists and writers, and yet I struggle with a semi-New Criticism impulse to separate biographies and texts. Oliver Sacks might be a good answer for me to this question; I admire people who can do practical things, like figure out how to relieve people of suffering, and I think he is a beautiful writer, someone who clearly loves sounds and language and humor and pathos. And perhaps it’s strange to say this, but I find my students and the tiny pieces I know of their lives very inspiring; I think they’re so brave, many of them, to want to become writers, and they make me want it for them, too.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Read a lot. Read everything. Go to other people’s readings. Find a community of writers. Get used to sending your work out. Keep track of both the rejections and the acceptances. Try other things, too, and see if writing is still the best. Listen to every conversation you can. Eavesdrop. Keep a pen and scrap of paper with you always and write everything down before you can forget to remember it.