Archives For academia

Earlier today a student came to my office for a conference, and I keep trying to figure out what I could have said instead of what I did say.

We bantered for a bit about literary magazines and publishing in general, and then he got to the point: “I guess I really just want to know if my writing is any good.”

And suddenly we were having “the talk.” Not the birds and the bees, but just as awkward. I would have preferred him to ask about that. All aspiring writers want to know whether they are talented and have what it takes, and some of them are bold enough to ask their teachers. I never was.

As I always do when I am asked questions along these lines, I stuttered and stammered through an explanation of why I did not, in fact, want to tell him whether his writing was good.

“I don’t want that kind of power,” I said, invoking a weird image of me tapping a sword on his shoulders, as if proclaiming his knighthood. (But I called the sword a magic wand, mixing my metaphors and confusing things further.)

“Nor is this the only question to be asking,” I added, citing the importance of things like artistic vision, persistence, determination, desire, inner strength, 500 pounds and a room of one’s own.

But then, feeling like I’d de-emphasized the importance of good writing, I blurted out, “But good writing is important too!”

We sat in an awkward silence while his original question hung in the air.

——

This semester while I am teaching writing, I am also taking art classes. I took an 8-week figure drawing class at the South Bend art museum, and a couple weeks ago I took a week-long mixed-media workshop in Mexico City over spring break (which I have lots to blog and post about!). So all semester I have also been a student of something I really really want to do well.

When the instructors would come around and look at our works-in-progress, I would feel myself get nervous, and if they praised me, I would leap with joy (you know: inwardly).

I'd never used pastels before. My teacher told me these sketches reminded her of Giacometti's drawings. I took that as a major compliment because I love his sculptures. But when I looked up his drawings, I saw that they are mostly scribbles.

My teacher told me these sketches reminded her of Giacometti’s drawings, and I took that as a major compliment because I love his sculptures, but I’m not sure that’s how she meant it. When I looked up his drawings, I saw that they are mostly scribbles!

 

In other words, I want and need external validation as much as my students. I would love to ask an art teacher, “Hey, I know I’m like 20 years late to the game, but are my drawings any good?” But I guess I know that the answer would matter and not matter. That it’s up to me. That it’s a process – the learning of the craft, the shaping a vision, the commitment to a certain type of life.

Plus I’m of the ilk that thinks: go figure it out for yourself. If you want to do it, do it. Don’t wait around for permission.

Thus, I didn’t tell the student that his writing is good (even though it is, yes). I did ask what he thinks of his writing (he thinks it’s good). I tried to tell him that there are other questions to ask. I didn’t think to tell him I’ve had dozens of students who are excellent writers doing everything from finishing up MFA programs to quitting school to raise kids. I did tell him to email me in 5 or 10 years and let me know what he was doing.

——

I started my “How to Become a Writer” interview series because I was surprised to see how much my own idea of “becoming a writer” had been shaped by wrong and romanticized ideas based on black-and-white photos of writers smoking.

It was only after I’d been writing for a decade that I realized how much of it was about the things I’d been doing all along: writing, revising, going to conferences, meeting people, meeting deadlines, writing reviews and blurbs, reading literary journals, figuring out how and where and when to submit, writing more, revising more, reading my fellow-writers’ work, etc. Occasionally I attended a party where someone smoked a cigarette.

So, maybe I should have directed my student to my super long list of interviews with writers who advise aspiring writers to persist, keep going, believe in yourself, and don’t stop believing.

But maybe I should have just said, “Yes, yes, your writing is good.”

Because man it’s nice when a teacher tells you you’re doing something well.

 

I already hate myself for the impulse to write this post. I find few things more annoying than a short op-ed or whatever in the New York Times or whatever about the English Major or the Humanities or whatever and how they are disappearing or dwindling or whatever and how we should keep them around because they preserve our highest values and make us better people or whatever and how everyone (“everyone” here is defined as a bunch of sappy humanities people) weighs in with treacly, cliched supports or refutations or whatever.

But I’m an English professor; I just read Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker; I can hardly help myself.

Gopnik’s final sentences: “The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.” Does this make anyone else throw up a little in their mouth? And then swallow it again, which is actually the worst part throwing up in the mouth. We’re human! How very profound!

Last month I met with my Dean, who, having reviewed The Numbers, observes that students are hot on Creative Writing. Writing of all sorts – creative writing, business writing, writing for the web – is where it’s at. Duh, I think. My creative writing colleagues (none of them tenure-track, btw) and I have been making this claim for years, begging for more money, more support, more staff. Students want to create, whether it’s stories, poems, or friggin’ web content. Some of them even want to write literary analyses, which is also creation, the creation of ideas and arguments and insights.

[Side note: Eminem is playing on my Pandora. Yes.]

The Dean seems to think that, just like at Pomona (where English majors are down to 1% of the student body), the English Major is dying. That everything is trending toward Writing.

One would think that I, as a creative writing prof, would be super excited to have the Dean seeing what I have been trying to tell the Dean since it was a different Dean I was talking to. And yes I am. Except I’m not saying that the English Major is irrelevant or dying. I’m just saying we need more support for writing, which is a growing component of the discipline. The problem, at least as I see, at least in my department, is that we have a disproportionate number of faculty teaching literature to faculty teaching writing.

But that doesn’t make the Literature classes irrelevant. One of my colleagues occasionally laments that our English Department, in terms of curriculum and staff, looks exactly like his undergraduate program in the 70s. I can see his point, and I do think English Departments can be shockingly conservative in their structures, especially when people are fighting for their jobs. But I’d argue that what happens INSIDE the classroom is WAYYYY (sorry, I’m shouting) different than what happened in the 70s, especially at Regional Campuses of State Universities, like ours.

[Now it’s Amy Winehouse “Back to Black.”]

My literature colleagues are pretty much all from Research One graduate schools (or, you know, Yale), and they all engage in complex, 50-shades-of-gray literary analysis, and they demand rigorous thinking and writing from our students. Thinking about things they (the students from small-town, northern Indiana) have experienced but not necessarily reflected on. Or about things they’ve not experienced, but that other people have. Or about things that other people have imagined and that suggest alternative ways about thinking about what the students have experienced. Then they have to analyze those textual representations, make connections to both experiences and other texts, make arguments about their relationship, and support those arguments with evidence.

Which is why I regularly make this claim: that English Majors are the smartest kids on campus.

I know it’s not new in the realm of defenses-of-the-English-Major to cite critical thinking as an important skill and outcome. And I know that some of this happened in the 70s in the wake of the radical 60s; it wasn’t all Literary Appreciation. And I know, as the Dean suggests, that most of our students don’t want to go on to graduate school; they just want a degree. I also know that, as everyone else suggests, it is stupid to go to grad school in English in this economy. But I also know, because I teach these students, because I WAS one of these students, that they have NO IDEA what they want to do or can do or what might be available to them if they pursue what they are passionate about.

[Lana del Ray on the Pandora now. “Blue Jeans” remix.]

I remember taking my daughter, who is now 17 but who was actually, impossibly, at one time 2 years old, to the park. Mt. Storm Park at the top of a hill overlooking the west side of Cincinnati. I was pushing her on the swing and she was squealing with glee or whatever. Then she met a friend at the park and they ran off to climb the jungle gym and throw mulch at each other. So I started talking to the mother of the other kid, who turned out to be the wife of an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, where I had just been accepted to grad school.

“Don’t do it,” she told me, referring to grad school. “It’s miserable and there are no jobs.”

This was 1999. They say the same thing today.

I had just quit my job and was so excited to start grad school I could hardly stand it. Who wanted a job? I was going to get to read and write and talk about reading and writing and meet other people who loved the same thing? I remember thinking, “Whatever, lady. Nothing can stop me.”

And nothing did. Not my family, who would have preferred that I have a ‘job’; not the lack of money; not the limited job prospects. And when I finished my MA and PhD and applied for jobs, I got offered not one but two. Even my friends who didn’t get them right away, eventually got jobs. I’m not saying academia always works like this, or that I don’t know people who got exploited on the adjunct track. And I’m certainly not saying that any of my mom-friends understood what the hell I was doing in grad school when my daughter clearly needed me to get from soccer practice to violin lessons. I’m just saying it’s Life, who the hell knows what will happen?

Dammit. I’ve lost track. I was surely going to say something profound about English Majors. Something even more profound than “We’re human.” But now I’ve gone on too long for a blog post. And I don’t even have any pictures!

[And now, no joke, on Pandora is a commercial for an online degree. The University is dead. Long live the Online University.]

 

In April 2014, I led a four-day writing workshop with a dozen graduate students at Miami University. The subject: The Architecture of Stories. The assignment: Write a story inspired in both form and content by a significant architectural structure.

I’ll be posting excerpts from the stories along with info about the architectural structures. Here’s the first one!

Architectural Inspiration: Meera Sky Garden House, Singapore

“The concept of Sky Garden House is strongly influenced by the ambition of enhancing the occupant’s quality of life. This is largely achieved by the roof gardens on every level. As well as having direct access to these, interior spaces have large areas of glazing with views out over the gardens to the sea and sky.” (from Archello)
Click here for more views.

The Story: Excerpt from “Nobody Belongs Here Less Than You” by Michael Stoneberg

When he begins walking toward the house, it surprises him. He doesn’t have a plan, but he knows there’s a pool running along the front of the house, and that submerged basement windows look out into it, and he wants to look into the basement. The ground-level yard slopes up to those picture windows where the man and woman are watching TV, but with the lights blazing, he knows they’d only see the inside reflected back at them.

The pool is long and narrow, but deep.

He is aware of the daughter perched

in the garden above him. He kicks

off his flip flops and sits at the pool’s

edge, easing his legs down. The water

is warm, the pool lights, if it has them,

are off, but cool ambient light

from the basement leaks up through

to the water’s surface, dancing where

his legs leave ripples. He eases himself

down, submerged to his waist, then his neck.

He lets go of the side and sinks.

The story behind the story (as told by Michael Stoneberg)

I did not immediately have a building in mind, but I was interested in sustainable (or green) architecture, and so I searched around for examples. I was pretty taken with the terraced shape of the Meera House from Guz Architects, the sloping grassy roof and pool with subsurface basement windows looking into it. I was also pretty taken with the $20 million price tag, and the way these green projects are often unattainable without fatcat pockets. It’s also on this resort island in Singapore called Sentosa, and the more I read about the island, the more I felt inspired to write about it. So I wanted the story form to reflect the shape of the house, the shape of the actions, in the layout of text on the page (something poets dabble in often, and, hey, why not fiction?), and to have the tension between sustainability and cost at its core.

 

stoneberg

About the author

Michael Stoneberg is a drifter and writer of fictions, originally from Oregon, currently at Miami University in Oxford, OH working toward his Master’s in Creative Writing. His fiction has been published in a chapbook from Plumberries Press.

 

 

I recently returned from Miami University (that’s Ohio, baby), where I was happy and honored to teach a week-long class to fiction writers in the graduate program. The class is called a SPRINT Class because it’s short and fast and intense: we met 4 days in a row for 2.5 hours of class each. Plus I assigned them 70 pages of reading. Plus I made them write a story. Plus I met with all twelve students in a half-hour conference. Plus I gave a reading. Plus we had a party. So, yes, a sprint. But way more like one of those intense and long 800-meter sprints than, say, a hundred-yard dash.

image-19

I attended Miami my freshman year of college, and here’s a pic of my old dorm, Dorsey Hall.There’s a huge track in front of it that I used to run on VERY SLOWLY. No sprints.

 

The topic of the class was The Architecture of Stories. I asked the students to do what I did in my book, Liliane’s Balcony, set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater:

Choose an architectural structure and write a story that engages it in both form and content.

So, under the watchful eye of this guy…

image-14

…these students made the most amazing stories!

image-21

I created a tab on this blog with notes and quotes for the class (Architecture of Stories), which I plan to continue to develop – maybe into a craft book of some sort. And I’m going to be sharing excerpts of their work on the blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Thanks to Joseph Bates for inviting and hosting me, and thanks to the students for making is such a fun and fulfilling week!

I wasn’t one of those who wanted to be a writer when I was a child. For a long time I thought I’d be a visual artist. But, something tripped a switch in college, and I couldn’t stop reading.

d004d2_18d4d73a052ade47dfe4d99fd6749c0b.jpg_srz_p_476_451_75_22_0.50_1.20_0

David James Poissant’s stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The New York TimesOne Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in the New Stories from the South and Best New American Voices anthologies. His writing has been awarded the Matt Clark Prize, the George Garrett Fiction Award, the RopeWalk Fiction Chapbook Prize, and the Alice White Reeves Memorial Award from the National Society of Arts & Letters, as well as awards from The Chicago Tribune and The Atlantic and Playboy magazines. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters.

His debut short story collection, The Heaven of Animals, will be published by Simon & Schuster on March 11, 2014. He is currently at work on a novel, Class, Order, Family, also forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

Web site: http://www.davidjamespoissant.com

Read more by and about Jamie:

Book of Stories: The Heaven of Animals

Story: Black Ice

Story: Nudists

Chapbook: Lizard Man

NY Times Essay: I Want to Be Friends With Republicans

How David James Poissant 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 Jamie for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I think that it was Saul Bellow who said that all writers are readers moved to imitation. That’s absolutely what happened to me. I fell in love with books and with language, and I wanted to be part of the conversation. I wasn’t one of those who wanted to be a writer when I was a child. For a long time I thought I’d be a visual artist. But, something tripped a switch in college, and I couldn’t stop reading. I read The Great Gatsby at least half a dozen times in college, then got hooked on the short stories of John Updike, Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Lorrie Moore. The more I read, the more I wanted to write fiction of my own.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I went the normal route (or what’s becoming the normal route these days). At 25, I applied to a number of MFA programs. The only one I got into was the University of Arizona, so I went. I was thrilled to go. I’d become a big fan of the stories of Jason Brown, and I couldn’t wait to work with him. Once I got there, though, I enjoyed working with all of the faculty, Jason, for sure, and also Aurelie Sheehan, who was a guiding force for good in my work. I also learned so much from my fellow students in the program, especially Rachel Yoder and Mark Polansak, who now edit the journal Draft, and Cara Blue Adams, former Fiction Editor of The Southern Review. They’re fantastic writers, and they all raised the bar high for me. After Arizona, I did a four-year PhD at the University of Cincinnati, which gave me teaching experience and time to revise my collection and begin the novel that is now under contract with Simon & Schuster.

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

I had so much help along the way. Early on, Sandra Meek, the poetry professor at Berry College, where I did my undergrad, gave me tons of encouragement. Jack Riggs and Bret Anthony Johnston convinced me that I could do this thing while I was still trying to decide whether to apply to MFA programs, and I owe a huge debt to them. At Cincinnati, Brock Clarke, Leah Stewart, and Michael Griffith were all huge helps and keen editors. But, most of all, my wife, Marla, has given me unconditional love and support. I absolutely couldn’t have done this without her unwavering belief in me and in my work. She’s one of those people no one deserves, and I don’t know how I got lucky enough that she agreed to spend her life with me.

Karen Russell; image from The Daily Beast

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

I’m super-enamored right now with Karen Russell, who is not only a genius writer, but also fearless. Most of all, though, she’s a hard worker. I think we look at people who produce great art and assume, sometimes, that it comes easily to them. I suspect that things don’t come easily to most people. I think Karen works harder than most people, and I think that makes a big difference. I’m inspired by her example and her endurance and tenacity.

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

Don’t give up. Write every day, or write most days. But, mostly, read. Read everything. Read widely. Read and let the multiplicity of voices tangle in your subconscious. Read enough and, one day, you’ll find you’ve found your voice.

 

Something Wrong With Her VBT Banner

This is one stop on Cris Mazza’s virtual book tour!
Click to keep up with the rest of the tour here.

———


I didn’t go to artist’s colonies or conferences,
didn’t flirt with, seduce or receive seduction from visiting writers.
I just kept writing, and submitting.

2013 author photo

Cris Mazza is the author of over 17 books, including Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?   Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, including Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. In addition to fiction, Mazza has authored collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Website: cris-mazza.com

TrickleDownFrontCoverRead more by and about Cris:

SOMETHING WRONG WITH HER companion novel: Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls

Stories: Trickle-Down Timeline

Editor: Men Undressed: Women Writers on The Male Sexual Experience

On the Radio: Ask Dr. Love

How Cris Mazza 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 Cris for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

Something happened around the time I was 13 or 14. I changed from an outgoing girl who had wanted to be an actress to a girl to whom being noticed was not safe, especially to be noticed for any female qualities I did (but mostly did not) possess. This “something” that happened was not an assault or huge betrayal. I can’t even point to an event or moment. Probably a culmination of disillusionment coming out of the feral world of junior high where I was none of the things that counted: stylish, popular, beautiful, mature, worldly, sexually provocative, or even up-to-date. It wasn’t called bullying then, and what I experienced of it was hardly the life-threatening sort one hears about now. But I turned inward, and I began dressing as androgynously as allowed on my hand-me-down clothing availability. I also turned to a typewriter to “talk” to. A journal is not an unusual way to discover that writing was a career path. But in the hours I spent pounding that typewriter, I discovered (and honed) my written voice, my written self … a self I was more comfortable putting out there to be “looked at.” On retrospect, I can see that the escapism of reading is also related to turning toward writing as an escape from an unfriendly world at adolescence. But I wasn’t making the connection to reading at the time. Pounding at the typewritten journal was communication; reading was escape. I needed both. I never thought “This is a way I can get attention,” but more like “This is who I am.”

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

In college, I majored in Journalism. I loved everything about it. Except that I could not see myself pushing into crowds or calling strangers on the phone to get stories and quotes and sources. I loved the idea of journalism, and learned a lot, but abandoned it as a career as unsuitable for the introverted way I worked and thought. But I knew I needed to support myself. So I took my journalism BA to secondary teaching. I went through my student teaching before I quit that. I was very bad at it because I only could care about my own writing projects. No high school students deserve a teacher like that. Then I went back to grad school and this time focused on fiction writing, even though there was no clear “career path” at the other end. It’s possible to become a writer without a graduate writing program, but I hadn’t had enough of an absorption of reading and being around other nascent writers, so for me it was an environment that I needed. I now teach in a PhD program for writers and can see how just the community there adds easily as much as their coursework and mentorship from professors like me.

Mazza new cover -FrontBack

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

I had good professors, but never had a consummate mentor in the way movies might portray. In the 80s, outside my in-home study, there might have been just as much career-building quid-pro-quo going on as is highly visible now, but I wasn’t aware of it nor part of any cliques or circles. I didn’t go to artist’s colonies or conferences, didn’t flirt with, seduce or receive seduction from visiting writers. I just kept writing, and submitting.

Instead of help from a mentor, a big break came for me when an unpublished novel manuscript won a national award. The judges didn’t know my age or gender (they said so in their comments) … I point this out because gender and age disparity is so much in the literary conversation these days. But this was in an era before one had an “internet persona” or could be looked up instantly to find a photo and bio. For once being unpopular, even genderless and obscure, had not been a deficiency. I was not writing to anyone’s expectations, and “somebody” (the judges) heard me.

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

I have probably unconsciously steered clear of author biographies (although I read memoirs and personal essays). A memoir is an experience that the writer, by virtue of being a writer, is able to share in an artful narrative. A biography, it would seem, would have the purpose of building the story of how that person came to be a successful author. I don’t find that sort of knowledge beneficial to my appreciation of the author’s work. It is inspiring that Annie Proulx and Toni Morrison both started their publishing careers in middle-age. I also admire Alice Munroe, for staying the writer she was meant to be instead of allowing huge success to cause her to start writing toward expectations, or believing too much in the hype about her.

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

Have something to say before you worry about having readers. Don’t be afraid of isolation – it used to be a writer’s world. Don’t avoid having the thoughts in your own head for your only company. Don’t be in such a hurry to spew those thoughts in public; let them mull, work them out. Don’t read something just because everyone else is. But read. Don’t expect feedback and/or gratification to be available every day, even though you see and hear others yapping about everything from how many pages they wrote today, to who they’re sending work, or what their characters did today. Have something to say before you listen for applause.

Writing fiction—much less, pursuing an artist’s life—
was not part of the culture in which I was raised….
You didn’t make it if it wasn’t useful, if wouldn’t be for the greater good.
We had canning and quilting. And no one called these things “art.”

Patricia Grace King grew up in North Carolina and spent years in Spain and Guatemala. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a Ph.D. in English from Emory University. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Narrative, Nimrod, and elsewhere. Her chapbooks, The Death of Carrie Bradshaw and Rubia, won the Kore Press Short Fiction and the Jeanne Leiby Memorial contests, respectively. She is the recipient of a fiction fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center and is the 2013-2014 Carol Houck Smith Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. She lives in the Printers Row neighborhood of Chicago with her husband. Patricia is at work on Gringos in Paradise, a collection of linked stories and a novella set in wartime Guatemala.

Website: http://www.patriciagraceking.com/

Kingcvrfrntlo-res_000Read more by and about Patricia:

Story: “Rooster Hour” in Narrative

Chapbook: The Death of Carrie Bradshaw (Kore Press)

Review of The Death of Carrie Bradshaw

Excerpt: from “Dogs in Guatemala” in Nimrod

How Patricia Grace King 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 Patricia for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I wanted to be a writer since before I can actually remember—before I could technically write. I loved stories: having them read to me, making them up. In my pre-literate years, I made dozens, maybe hundreds, of “books”: stories I illustrated, stapled together, and dictated to my mother, who transcribed them for me.

Nine was a pivotal year, though. I found Little Women and went sort of nuts. I read it nine times that year. I even read Alcott’s obscure stuff, like Under the Lilacs and an Old-fashioned Girl. I wrote my own novel, plagiarizing Little Women. (I wrote another, plagiarizing National Velvet, two years later.) Nine was also the age when Anne Frank got me started keeping a journal—I named mine “Ellen,” the way Anne called hers “Kitty”—and filled up more than forty of those lined “Record” books they used to sell at Eckerd Drugs.

The film editor Walter Murch once said, “Your chances for happiness are much increased if you wind up doing something that reflects what you loved most when you were between nine and eleven.” I think he’s right. I think you can call my pre-adolescent obsession with stories “wanting to become a writer.”

But in another sense I had no notion at all that there were such people as writers—that being a writer was an actual career or vocation.

Writing fiction—much less, pursuing an artist’s life—was not part of the culture in which I was raised. I grew up Mennonite, the granddaughter of Mennonite preachers on both sides of the family. Arbeite und Hoffe, work and hope, is the traditional Mennonite motto. It might sound like a fine motto for a writer too, but in the Mennonite context work means specifically, Work the land. And hope? Hope your soul’s saved.

Mennonite Quilting Circle;
Courtesy of artnet.com, article by Wendell Garrett,Garret’s Attic

Such art as there was, for the more conservative Eastern Seaboard Mennonites among whom I was raised, was functional only. You didn’t make it if it wasn’t useful, if wouldn’t be for the greater good. We had canning and quilting. And no one called these things “art.”

I didn’t get it that writing fiction was something people did anymore. I didn’t attach it to any activity going on out in the world beyond me. It was just this secret personal thing that I did. Not so secret, because I wrote in the middle of my large, active family, but secret in that only I knew what I was up to in those pages in front of me. In our old home movies, there’ll be this long table of my relatives talking, and I’m the one at the end with my head down, lost in my journal.

Maybe that’s the best reason of all to become a writer. Because you can’t not write. Because it’s this thing you just do—all the time, in the middle of the rest of your life, whether or not anyone else pays attention. Because you can’t help it, and there’s nothing in the world you’d rather do.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

The short answer is: It took a life crisis.

The long answer is: I didn’t know what to do with my love of stories except study the stories other people had written. When I started high school, I’d stopped writing fiction. I’d be an English professor, I thought. But I was never very good at it. I know this because all through grad school, I kept wanting to do other things. I’d run off to Guatemala: to work as a translator for medical brigades, to accompany refugees and other victims of the civil war with the human rights organization Witness for Peace. A friend and I traveled around North America for a year with an art project, “100,000 Faces,” that we made during the Persian Gulf War.

I was never driven to do scholarship. When I began dating my husband, Dave Janzen, who’s a Hebrew Bible scholar, we both had tenure-track teaching jobs; in the summer we’d go do our research. I’d watch Dave at his work, and he was so into it—in a way I never was—I’d be awed. Knowing Dave, who is a true scholar, helped me to see I’m not one.

I still did not understand that I was—that I am—a writer. It took a new set of experiences in Guatemala, where Dave and I worked shortly after we married. Those were the two hardest years of my life, and somewhere in the middle I started asking myself: What do I really hope to accomplish in this life I’ve been given? What would I most regret not having done, if someone told me I’d die tomorrow?

It was writing—writing stories. Writing as I’d done it as a child.

Our last year in Guatemala, I started writing fiction again. I haven’t stopped since. When we returned to the States in 2005, I took a half-time teaching job and used all my spare time to learn how to write. Fiction writing was a profession, I saw, and I wanted to become part of it. But it took training. It takes training: a training as long and arduous as my Ph.D. work. I read books on fiction writing (James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer were two of the best). I read Poets & Writers. I joined a local writers’ group and went to my first workshop, at the Iowa Summer Festival, at age 39.

Mainly, though, I just wrote. Summers and other days off, I wrote for six to eight hours a day. I’d denied the desire so long, I was starved for this exact work. I wrote and I wrote and ended up throwing out everything from those first years, but it was all part of the training. I sent my work out eventually. A few of my stories found homes. When I’d gotten as far as I could on my own, I joined the MFA program at Warren Wilson College, from which I’ve just graduated.

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

The person who has helped me most is my husband, Dave. My teaching half-time for eight years has been crucial to my development as a writer, but I could not have done this—I could not have afforded to live on that salary—without Dave’s serious financial investment and personal sacrifice. He also supported and helped me finance my recent MFA studies.

Dave believed in me as a writer from the moment I began trying to be one—long before there was any concrete evidence that I could make it work. He values good literature almost as much as I do and sees it as a worthwhile pursuit, to a degree no one else in my personal life ever has.

Maybe what it comes down to is this: It’s incredibly hard to be a writer—to be an artist of any stripe, I suspect—without significant financial and emotional backing. And Dave Janzen has been both for me.

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

I no longer follow up on the bios of writers I like. It’s another change from being a Ph.D. in English—where reading was so much about context—to being immersed in creative writing, where it’s all about the story and how it works.

I’m almost afraid now to know too much about the writer herself. I don’t want it to get in the way of how I experience her story. I’d rather read the story for the story itself.

However, because of Malcolm Gladwell’s essay, “Late Bloomers,” in the October 20, 2008 New Yorker, I am somewhat aware of Ben Fountain’s biography, and I admire it. I probably wouldn’t admire it as much if I didn’t also just downright love Fountain’s first book, the short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. It is on my all-time Top Ten Books list (right up there with Little Women, for obvious sentimental reasons). Fountain does in those stories what I try to do in my own. He wakes you up to an often-neglected part of the world and then just immerses you in it: all the ethical and cultural and political complexity of the place. And Fountain’s a kickass story teller. I resonate with his biography in that he gave up a seemingly much more viable career to try to become, in midlife, a fiction writer. And I love his commitment to knowing Haiti so well that he’s been there at least thirty times! Finally, I love the tribute that essay pays Sharon Fountain; Gladwell rightly calls her Ben Fountain’s patron.

I’ve also been inspired by the life (as well as the poetry) of Muriel Rukeyser. My long-ago dissertation was on American women who witnessed the Spanish Civil War and wrote about it (talk about a “niche” dissertation!), and Rukeyser was my favorite of them. I admire her chutzpah and her fabulous cheekbones. I’m also moved by her lifelong commitment to social justice and the way that commitment interacted with and shaped her writing. Rukeyser didn’t just write about social justice problems—she went to the places where people were living them and literally bore witness to them. Her poetry became a second, longer-living form of testimony.

Image from albavolunteer.org; click for link

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

The first thing I would say is: Don’t think of anyone else—NO one else: not your mother, not your teacher, not your writing group or your agent or editor or future audience: NO one—while you are writing a story. Stay inside the dream world that is your story. Don’t let the outside intrude.

Think of these other people only after you’ve written the story and revised it and revised it again: only after you’ve pushed the piece as far as you can and are ready to send it out to the world.

Always have something to write on (and with) within your arm’s reach. Sometimes the best writing happens when you’re not actually at the desk or computer. Don’t lose those ideas that come to you when you’re falling asleep, waking up, taking a walk, or riding a train. (A train, it turns out, is a very good place to write.)

That said, do sit down at the desk every day. Do it for a good chunk of time. Don’t be afraid if you don’t immediately know what to write. Even moving stuff around on the page is part of the writing and can help trigger ideas. Or open a blank document and do what I charmingly call a “mental vomit”—write without stopping to edit yourself or even trying to type properly. The thing is to get some ideas on the page. Later on you can play with them, pretty them up, see if they work in your story.

Find or get some people around you who understand how important writing is and who are 100% behind your pursuit of the writing life, even if they don’t do anything like it themselves.

Also: Know other writers. Get an MFA if you can. If you can’t, go to writers’ conferences, or join a workshop. Get out there; get connected. Read Poets & Writers. Be supportive of your fellow writers’ work too. Writers almost always work alone, but we are also a community, and we need each other.