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Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake.

 

fresno-saroyan-statueDear William,

You’re everywhere and nowhere. There’s an elementary school named after you. There’s a bronze statue. A dedicated society perpetuates your name. Your signature, rendered in huge silver letters, adorns the Saroyan Theatre at the Fresno Convention Center; the stage has hosted countless concerts by the Fresno Philharmonic, the Fresno Grand Opera, the Fresno Ballet, and performers from all over the world, in every artistic genre. To the visitors passing through, your legacy in the San Joaquin Valley must seem mighty indeed.

william20saroyanYou divided your last years between Paris and Fresno. I can’t think of two more different cities, at least in how they appear in one’s imagination. A decade ago, when I felt trapped in Fresno, its heat and flatness and provincialism combining to make a prison I longed to escape, I took comfort in the idea you kept returning here from Paris. I searched for what brought you back. I needed it, whatever it was, for myself.

Now your former house sits vacant, in a neighborhood turning beige: the faded stucco, the grass, the heavy dust. It’s sad to see. Not as sad, however, as the state of Fresno’s bookshelves. Your books, those odd, funny, beautiful books, which you wrote quickly and with the rarest of literary attributes—with heartbreaking joy—where are they now? How is it possible to see your name everywhere, to grow up knowing your name, but never read the words that made you famous? I fear that if it weren’t for exhumation via the internet (thank you, AbeBooks) I might only know your name. What does that mean for writers? Especially for writers who come from the other California, the San Joaquin Valley?

What would you say, William? In the title page of My Name is Aram, you wrote:

The writer returns these pleasant memories to the world of Fresno, California, from the year 1915 to the year 1925 (from the time he was seven years old and was beginning to inhabit the world as a specific person to the time he was seventeen years old and had forsaken his native valley for some of the rest of the world), and to the members of his immediate family in that world during those years. That is to say, to the ugly little city containing the large comic world, and to the proud and angry Saroyans containing all humanity.

A little, ugly place. A proud, angry people. I think there’s something like a reason in these lines for why you’ve fallen out of print, especially in your hometown. And yet, the memories are pleasant.

I can tell you what I’d like: I’d like you to cast the same long shadow over valley writers as Faulkner casts over writers from the ethically challenged state of Mississippi. I want to arm-wrestle a literary legacy of your quality and quantity, though I would be beaten before for the contest begins. I would like the contest, in losing it, to leave my voice a little bruised, a little twisted, much as the fight with his William left Barry Hannah’s voice crooked and deranged. Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake. One must find the words that led to the statue being made in the first place. And with you, my William, that’s not been easy.

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I suppose by now I’ve let you down. I’ve included none of the things in my letter to you that make your stories so rich. There’s been no food to eat, no trees to shade us from the warm day, no sunny rooms in which to enjoy conversation. I’ve talked, instead, about fighting and cynicism. Violence, when it appears in your stories, is seldom the bleeding knuckle kind, but rather the spiritual kind: a death in a distant war, hitting home in the form of a telegram; the pain of displacement and genocide, rendered in narrators who speak hilariously of uncles, cousins, and friends. Your characters refuse to believe that evil deeds cancel out the beauty of good people. In fact, they work to insure that it never will. It must speak to the privilege and relative peace of my time, compared to yours, that I welcome violence and cynicism in my writing, whereas you guarded strongly against it. I’ve done the unforgivable, I think: I’ve complained.

Let me try to redeem myself. It’s May 2003, and I’m in my classroom at Kerman High School, twenty miles west of Fresno. The door stands open, and that hard valley light manages to coax a shine out of the asbestos tile floors, unwaxed since last July. The students move between periods. I hear snatches of things as they walk past, talking with friends. Here only outcasts must walk to class alone.

The most gifted student I’ve ever taught comes in carrying a purse large enough for a woman three times her age, which, I suspect, in her soul she truly is, and from my desk she picks up a copy of My Name is Aram. It’s the Laurel Edition from Dell Publishing, an economic paperback with illustrations by Don Freeman. She thumbs the pages then presses her nose into the crack, breathes deep.

“I’ve never read him,” she says.

“Borrow it,” I say. “Bring it back when you’ve read him.”

She lays the enormous purse at her feet and begins lifting out binders, textbooks, a spiral bound journal, more things than I’ve ever considered carrying around with me, and rearranging the contents so your book won’t be mangled in a landslide of bigger, meaner books. As she does this, she holds My Name is Aram in her mouth. A few days later, when she brings it back to me, I notice that the soft cover holds the semi-circular imprint of her teeth.

Since that day in my classroom I’ve been struggling to understand something important, which I’ll try to put down here. It’s good to have memories of Fresno, but it’s a hard place to live. Perhaps that’s why you chose the word forsaking to describe leaving “for some of the rest of the world,” because the same things that make the valley hard for us also tie our hearts there. I left the valley ten years ago, but I write about it every day, walking the family vineyards and the streets of Caruthers in my imagination. I also still have that cheap, chewed copy of My Name is Aram to remind me what it feels like to be bookish in a small valley town. Hungry, that is, for something to explain the conflict of loving and hating your home. Your books help me make sense of my place and my impossible feelings for it.

I hope the next daydreaming child of Fresno who reads your name on a sign won’t have to wait so long to find out the writer you really are.

—–

[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

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John Carr Walker’s first book, Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside), was a Small Press Distribution Best of the Press pick and a featured title on Late Night Library’s Debut podcast. His writing has been appearing in literary journals since 2007 and in 2014 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2012 he was awarded a Fishtrap Fellowship for an early draft of his novel-in-progress, “Get.” A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.

William Saroyan (1908-1982) was born and died in Fresno, California, and many of Saroyan’s stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley, or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy and the colorful characters of his immigrant family.

 

I liked the way in writing I also felt like I was doing something magical. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I went chasing after that feeling ever since.

 

Douglas Cole has had work in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Red Rock Review, and Midwest Quarterly. He has published two poetry collections—Interstate (Night Ballet Press) and Western Dream (Finishing Line Press)—as well as a novella called Ghost with Blue Cubicle Press. He is currently on the faculty at Seattle Central College in Seattle, Washington.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is the beginngin of Douglas’s story “Wanderers” published at Talking Writing:

Out in the dark field, Ronnie was running. I was running, but my gut was too full of beer to keep it up. She came back with a few deep breaths and hands on hips. John wasn’t even trying. I love that guy, but he’s soft in the middle—a soft, Connecticut, slow-moving mescaline freak.

Read more by and about Douglas:

Story: “Wanderers” at Talking Writing

Story: “Standing In Hawaii” at Baltimore Review

Poem: “Counsel” at Eckleberg Review

Three Poems at Black Heart Magazine

How Douglas Cole Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series at Ph.D. in Creative Writing. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Douglas for his answers!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was a kid in school, one of my English teachers assigned Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. It was the first book I ever read all the way through. I was hooked, you know? I couldn’t put it down and just became completely absorbed in it. It was very addictive and set me on a voracious reading journey. I think that was when I first caught a glimpse of the magic of words and stories. Later, in another English class, my teacher, Mrs. Sheridan, had us write a descriptive piece. We were sitting in class, so I decided to just describe what I saw around me in the room. I don’t remember it, except I remember that I ended it with a description of a poster on the wall of a ballet dancer and the words at the bottom of the poster: Twyla Tharp. I was just fooling around, but she liked it and ended up reading it to the class. I liked that feeling. I liked feeling good at something. And I liked the way in writing I also felt like I was doing something magical. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I went chasing after that feeling ever since.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I read everything I could, everything that I thought would teach me something, even if I didn’t think I liked it at the time, like if I had heard it was an important work. If a teacher assigned a story or a poem and I liked it, I’d go find that writer’s books. I’d go to Moe’s Bookstore and in a groping way just scan other books and read the first paragraph if a title caught my eye, give it that test and see if it grabbed me. And once I started something I would never put it down without finishing it. I felt almost a moral obligation to go all the way. And if I found writers I liked, I would absorb everything I could. I’d read everything they had written, even biographies and critical stuff on them and their work. I realize I was listening like a safe-cracker. And I treated everything as somehow connected, or I’d look for a connection. Movies, for example, and how a filmmaker tells a story and sets a pace and a mood and works an image. Music, the same thing. How does a song work like a poem or a story, or what does it do differently that can be converted, and what does it do that I want to do? All my classes in college: philosophy, history, science, weight training, tennis! What could they contribute? How did they relate? What could they teach me that would work for writing? I was that conscious about it. Friends? Any moment? I always thought in terms of creating. Not to sound pretentious, but I remember reading Joyce say that he wanted to convert the bread of everyday to the holy host. I took it that seriously.

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

Charlie, Chris and Mike Steele. I met them when I was sixteen. Chris was going to PSR, the Pacific School of Religion, where my mother was a student. She and my mother were friends. And Chris brought her brother Charlie down to stay, there in Berkeley, right after he had finished college, and he and I became friends. On my seventeenth birthday, he gave me a copy of A Hundred Years of Solitude with a big fat joint taped to the inside cover. Then their brother Mike came down a little while later. He was an actor and a musician and a writer. They were all talented musicians and writers and scholars, just beautiful people, physically, energetically. And they had such a rich vocabulary for the world and love for art and music and literature. Charlie turned me on to Richard Hugo and Joni Mitchel and Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. They were intellectuals, poets, people who lived with passion and never said a dull thing or yawned. And I connected with them right away. They inspired me to love even more deeply what I already loved, and they helped make my love of the arts cool. They’re still my family. I love them dearly and feel I owe them a great deal in terms of finding what would be the only real community I ever wanted in connection to writing. I’ve always been pretty private about it.

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

Reading Douglas Day’s biography of Malcolm Lowery was almost as harrowing as reading Under the Volcano. I knew I was reading a genius, though, when I read Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce. I couldn’t finish The World as a Lie, though, the biography of James Dickey. And that’s unusual for me. I love Dickey’s work, of course, but I was going through some rough time, to be honest, and I just couldn’t handle it. I still intend to go back and read it. I think that’s one of the only times I can remember not finishing something I started. But as I get older, I’ve come to let go of that imperative a little. When you have less time, you treat it more dearly. I love biographies, though. When I’m in a good one, it’s like time travel or shape-shifting. A crazy leap into another world. Negative capability. Cold but intimate friends.

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

Read. Read everything you can. Study the world and write all the time in all forms and no form at all. Just write. Don’t even think about publishing or money or fame. Just write and reach for that illusive image in your mind. I love what William Faulkner said when he received the National book award. He said “I accept this on behalf of all, who like me, failed. Failed to create what we imagined in our minds, but in failing set out to get closer the next time.” Keep your crap detector on, especially with yourself. But also have compassion. We’re all struggling. So be open. Think. Look for the connections. Experiment and be joyous. Like John Gardner said, “Write what you’d like to read.” Write and write and write freely without concern for punctuation or intellectual coherence. Follow music, like Hugo said. Meaning will come. And when you revise, revise ruthlessly. But always save a holy space for the private prayer of writing with no intention for public consumption. That’s your gold. That’s your soul. Never sign anything in blood except for love. Dive into the dream and the unconscious ocean. Steal without guilt. See through the eye that’s seeing and record your vision in whatever languages you know or create. Have no fear. You’re always all right.

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Synopsis—Vignettes of a middle-class American family told through lists, each reflecting their obsessions, their complaints, their desires, and their humanity.

A suburban family of four—a man, woman, boy, and girl—struggle through claustrophobic days crowded with home improvement projects, conflicts at work and school, a job loss, illnesses, separation, and the wearying confrontation with aging. The accoutrements of modern life—electronic devices and vehicles—have ceased to be tools that support them and have become instead the central fulcrums around which their lives wheel as they chase “cleanliness” and other high virtues of middle American life.

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Matthew Roberson is the author of three novels, 1998.6, Impotent, and List, and the editor of a critical book, Musing the Mosaic. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Fourteen Hills, Fiction International, and Western Humanities Review. He teaches at Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

Matt Roberson book coverRead More By and About Matt:

Short Story: Midwestament

Poem: “Do Not

Board Member: Fiction Collective 2

Interview: The Collagist

Review: Impotent

How Matt Roberson 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 Matt for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

From early on I loved reading and language. I read anything I could get my hands on and went through all the genres, science fiction, fantasy, mystery. Eventually, I found myself most interested in books that could also really help me explore what it means to be human, and I went on a Vonnegut kick, and then Nabokov, Atwood, Pynchon. It became clear to me early, too, that I could express myself and tell stories and entertain with the written word in ways I couldn’t any way else, and so I always wrote.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

Writing was always just something I enjoyed, and I always got a good response to my writing when I was a kid. In secondary school and in college I wrote for newspapers, and fiction for classes. Once I started placing some of my fiction, I realized that’s what I wanted to keep doing—sharing my ideas and stories with audiences.

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

So many people. Creative writers often have very strong and supportive communities, thankfully. So I had many peers reading and encouraging my work in grad school and a couple of very smart, talented mentors then and after. Cam Tatham, for one. Ron Sukenick. Then I realized that what I was writing shared a lot of interests in common with FC2 authors like Cris Mazza and Lance Olsen and Lidia Yuknavitch and Jeffrey Deshell, and I just gravitated to that clan–which is still doing some of the most exciting, adventurous, NOVEL novels around. I’m very proud to have done List most recently through FC2.

Matt Roberson raymond federman4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I feel like it’s kind of weird to say this, but I’m less interested in the lives of writers and artists. It’s their work I find important. I actually got a kick out of writers who played around with making “themselves” characters in their books, people like Raymond Federman, because they toyed with the idea of what’s real and fiction, and, guess what—there’s no clear line.

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

If writing is important to you, and you want to keep doing it, keep doing it, every day, or every day you can, and read like a crazy person, and get involved in a writing community, because we don’t do this in a vacuum, and good for you, because it’s important that we love language and crafting it.

*Tomorrow, visit Book Puke to follow the tour and read an excerpt of List plus Matt’s insights from the passage: what he was thinking while he was writing, the trail of thoughts that got him there, and a whole lot more!

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Today is the first stop of Jen Michalski’s virtual book tour celebrating her new collection, From Here. The twelve stories in From Here explore the dislocations and intersections of people searching, running away, staying put. Their physical and emotional landscapes run the gamut, but in the end, they’re all searching for a place to call home.

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Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, and other works listed below. She is the host of the Starts Here! reading series, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com.

Read more by and about Jen:

Short Story: “Human Movements

Short Story: “Lillian in White

Interview: Talking about The Tide King

Novella Collection: Could You Be With Her Now

Fiction Collection: Close Encounters

How Jen Michalski 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 Jen for saying yes!

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I’m not sure it’s a question of “want.” I’ve been writing since I learned to write, and even if I never published a word again, if no one except me read another sentence that I wrote, I would continue to write. It’s as natural to me as breathing, as seeing, and definitely how I am able to organize my thoughts and understand the world. If I couldn’t write, my ability to be “Jen” would suffer as a result. It’s not about making an observation or a statement or wanting people to listen to me as some sort of authority. It’s the way I dialogue with my mind and with the outside world, a conversation.

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

It wasn’t a concerted effort, at least to writing fiction. I majored in Language and Literature at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the early 1990s, and I wrote some bad poetry during those years, but I never thought about being an “author” per se. I had always written novels, but they were more for my own enjoyment and trying to figure out who I was.

I graduated from St Mary’s thinking I would write features for magazines and newspapers, or be an editor, and I got my MS in Professional Writing from Towson University a few years later still thinking that. One of the classes I took at Towson, however, was an independent study, and I wrote another novel that someone actually read–my independent study professor, who also happened to be my advisor. She encouraged me to submit it. I sent it to a couple of places and was rejected, but I began to wonder what would happen if I wrote another novel and submitted it. Then, after I graduated, I started the literary quarterly jmww to sort of remain involved with the writing community. Over the years I got to meet other, more successful writers, and learned you could get an MFA in creative writing (seriously, I didn’t know) and all this other fun stuff. So, I started writing and sending out short stories. I guess this was about 2004, and I haven’t stopped.

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

My grandparents, both maternal and paternal, were very working class but voracious readers. My dad’s mother read a lot of mysteries and Ellery Queen and would give me the issues when she was finished, and my mom’s dad, who loved Westerns and historical romances, would take my brother and me to the library every Saturday morning. Coming from a family who only went to the beach, which was two hours away, one week every summer, books offered me vistas I didn’t know even existed, helped me nurture a great curiosity about people and the world.

When I graduated college, I reviewed art and books and the occasional play for The Baltimore Alternative, and my editor then, Rawley Grau, read a few of my stories and made me feel as if I had a little talent. I also was enamoured of his life as an editor and aspired to have a career in the writing arts.

These days, there are so many people–the many editors who have published my stories; Gregg Wilhelm, with whom I have worked for years to try and maintain a vibrant, fun writing community here in Baltimore; Savannah Schroll-Guz, who gave me my first break (and book) at So New Publishing; Michael Kimball, with whom I co-hosted the 510 Readings over 7 years and who has been instrumental in encouraging me to take some risks as a writer; Ed and Ann Berlin of The Ivy Bookshop, who work twice as hard as everyone else in making sure writers have a voice in Baltimore; Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett at Dzanc; Diane Goettel and Angela Leroux-Lindsey at Black Lawrence Press; Cynthia Reeser at Aqueous. Years of writing groups here in Baltimore, and happy hours. My family and friends and my partner, Phuong, for their unwavering support.

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

Without coming off as incredibly pretentious, I’ve always been struck by Beethoven, who began to go deaf around 26, when he was working on “Pathetique.” He wrote to his brothers about wanting to commit suicide but decided to continue living and creating art. At one point, he didn’t even know that his work reviewed a standing ovation until he turned around and saw everyone in the music hall clapping. If Beethoven didn’t throw in the towel, then how can the rest of us? And I think we should work in that vacuum as well, deaf and blind to applause, to reaction, good or bad.

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

It is always about shouting the words into the wind, into the tempest, because they need to be purged, not because they need to be heard.

*Tomorrow, visit The Next Best Book Club blog to follow the tour and read an excerpt of From Here plus Jen’s insights from the passage: what she was thinking while she was writing, the funny trail of thoughts that got her there, and a whole lot more!

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Today is the first stop of Désirée Zamorano’s virtual book tour celebrating her new novel. Mercy Amado has raised three girls, protecting them from their cheating father by leaving him. But Mercy’s love can only reach so far when her children are adults, as Sylvia, Celeste, and Nataly must make their own choices to fight or succumb, leave or return, to love or pay penance. When tragedy strikes in Sylvia’s life, Mercy, Celeste, and Nataly gather support her, but their familial love may not be enough for them to remain close as the secrets in their histories surface. Forgiveness may not be accepted. Fiercely independent, intelligent, they are The Amado Women.

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Désirée Zamorano is Pushcart prize nominee, and award-winning short story author, Désirée has wrestled with culture, identity, and the invisibility of Latinas from early on, and addressed that in her commentaries, which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Latino USA. She delights in the exploration of contemporary issues of injustice and inequity, via her mystery series featuring private investigator, Inez Leon (Lucky Bat Books). Human Cargo was Latinidad’s mystery pick of the year.

The Amado Women has been listed among 5 Must-Read Books for Summer 2014 by Remezcla, and has been named among Eleven Moving Beach Reads That’ll Have You Weeping in Your Pina Colada by Bustle. It was selected as the August 2014 Book of the Month for the Los Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club.

Read more by and about Désirée:

Short Story: “Mercy”

Novel: Modern Cons

Travel Essay: “The Ruins of Mexico City”

Interview: “Q&A: Désirée Zamorano on the Lives of Latinas and The Amado Women

Reading: Human Cargo

How Désirée Zamorano 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 Désirée for saying yes!

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As far back as third grade I thought being a writer was the most amazing thing in the world. Of course, I had no sophisticated sense of drafts and revising; I was simply dazzled by the stories and books I consumed. I, too, wanted to be the creator of something mesmerizing. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I wanted to enchant and entertain. As my understanding of writing and writing as a career deepened, I still clung to this goal, partly out of stubbornness, partly out of who I planned on being.

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

While very famous people got their MFA from my alma mater, I had financial and emotional pressures that precluded that. So, instead, I went to writers conferences, like Squaw Valley and La Jolla. As I toiled away at short stories, my sister pitched us as playwrights. Together we wrote two plays that were produced.

cover-human-cargoI really think of the Joe Jackson song, “You can’t get what you want til you know what you want.” Like everybody in Southern California, my sister and I collaborated on a couple of screenplays, but with the demands of my children and day job, I really felt I had to narrow my pursuits to what I really wanted to achieve: writing novels. Sure, the fantasy of screenplay money was sweet, but the reality was thousands more dedicated people were our competition. And I wanted to write novels.

In practical terms I did what writers before me have done: carved words out of the day. Writing is so abstract and theoretical, especially if you’re not published or don’t have a deadline or a paid assignment. I made it the most important item on my to-do list and gave myself achievable goals. When I was raising small children, 250 words a day was a goal. I increased the word count as I grew comfortable and confident. Today, the goal is 1,000 new words on writing days. (And I’m not Stephen King or Lisa See; they’re not all writing days! I like scheduling goof-up days, as well).

After feeling particularly isolated, my sister told me to find a writer group, and there was one so close by there was no excuse not to join. Finding like-minded people really nurtured what I was trying to do. Over the years the group has changed, but we continue to cheer each other on, and today, with the explosion in social media, I think it’s even easier to find your soul’s community.

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

I am grateful for my supportive friends and family. Since publication is unsure, I certainly needed a cheering squad around me. When I finished a novel, a group of my friends read it, then we’d have a mini-book club, with praise and criticism to help me improve it. That fed my attention-seeking artist soul!

At one point I wanted to excise the desire to be a writer from my soul. The lack of success was causing me too much grief, bitterness, and resentment. It was at that point I came across Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life. It truly sustained me through the most challenging time of my writing life.

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

I met Dagoberto Gilb on the bookshelf of Pasadena’s Central Library. His collection of essays, “Gritos,” was riveting–about his life as a struggling Mexican-American writer, about his childhood in the same small town where I grew up. I admire his ferocity, his word play, his brilliance. I’m a big fan.

Dagoberto Gilb

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

Good luck! Every writer’s path is different, and you must forge your own way. My favorite words of advice come from the French film director Robert Bresson: “Make visible that which without you might never be seen.”

*Tomorrow, visit The Next Best Book Club blog to follow the tour and read an excerpt of The Amado Women plus Désirée’s insights from the passage: what she was thinking while she was writing, what research entailed, and a whole lot more!

I was initially invited to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour by the fabulous Rebecca Meacham, whose fiction I admired even before the publication of her debut and award-winning story collection, Let’s Do. She was ahead of me by a few years in my Ph.D. program and I always admired and looked up to her – despite the fact that I think she’s a foot shorter than I am. Check out her post from last week.

Then, when I was just about to send a message to My Go-To Guy – the dangerously charming and talented Joseph Bates, author of the story collection Tomorrowland – inviting him to participate, I received a text from him, and he was inviting me. Like at the exact same time! Since he was up first, we decided he could tag me, and I’d tag other writers. Check out his post here, and see below for the three awesome writers who agreed to do it next week.

So anyway. Here are the questions and here are my answers.

1) What are you working on?

My personal life, mostly. It’s been a year in which I’ve felt more like a character in a novel than creator of characters. And things are never easy for characters in novels. So many internal and external conflicts! So many unexpected plot twists and cliffhangers! Obstacles! Antagonists! Only now do I feel that things are settling down enough that I can be the kind of character I prefer: Mrs. Dalloway wandering the streets of London, pausing as Big Ben rings another hour (irrevocable) and pondering the messages of aeroplanes.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I am not very generically stable. Fortunately I’ve found a publisher – Rose Metal Press – whose mission is to mix-and-match genres. I sent them the manuscript for Liliane’s Balcony, calling it a “novella-in-flash.” I’d never heard of such a thing, but they were like, yeah, sure, we love novellas-in-flash. This fall they’re publishing a collection of five novellas-in-flash.

Rose Metal Press is also going to publish my next book, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, which I am calling a collage biography. It’s all found texts from books and letters and internet sites. It’s also got images – photos, collages. It may or may not also include postcards that I’ve been writing to Božena. Stuff about my aforementioned personal life.

dont feel free

3) Why do you write what you do?

I go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house on a chance trip to Ohiopyle, PA, I take a tour, I am overcome by the place, by its natural and architectural beauty, I think OMG I have to write a story set here, I listen to the tour guide who tells of the Kaufmann family who purchased the house, I remember being a kid in Pittsburgh and going to the Kaufmann department store, I think, “Same folks?” I go home and read up on the house and the Kaufmanns and I learn that the wife Liliane was beautiful and smart and tri-lingual and an art collector that her life ended in an overdose of pills in her bedroom at Fallingwater. I start writing.

Or. I go to Prague on a chance trip, I buy a book of Czech fairy tales for my daughter, I notice that there’s a picture of a woman (a woman!) on my Czech money and that her name matches the name on the fairy tale book, I do some research to learn more about her, I find conflicting info, poor translations, and outdated material, I find that someone has translated some of her letters and they are nothing like what I expected based on the research, and I take all my notes and quotes and arrange them until they tell some combination of her life and the impossibility of telling it.

4) How does your writing process work?

My favorite part is the research. I don’t think we talk enough about the importance of research, or the fun of it. You get to work on your writing project without actually writing, and research gets you excited and loaded with ideas so that you can’t help but write.

For Liliane’s Balcony, I volunteered as an Ask-Me Guide at Fallingwater, traveling to Ohiopyle, PA once a month and volunteering all weekend, talking to visitors and employees. I traveled to Cincinnati where I uncovered an archive of letters from Edgar Kaufmann to Liliane. I took photos of each letter, transcribed them at home, and incorporated excerpts into my book. I toured Wright’s other houses in Chicago. All of this informed and inspired my writing.

For my Božena Němcová project, I took a month-long Czech language class in Prague, visited her home town of České Skalice, and toured the extensive museum dedicated to her in the town. (I also got totally lost in this unpopulated village of non-English speakers.) I went to a used bookstore in Prague and bought old copies of her books to make collages. Most recently, I bought a 1968 Czech typewriter on eBay. All part of the writing process.

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A sketch I made of Bozena’s glasses, pen, notebook, and rosary displayed at her museum in Ceska Skalice.

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Here are the three writers who I have tagged for next week. And when I say ‘tag,’ I picture myself holding a magic wand that sparkles as I touch it to their shoulders.

Donna Miscolta is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced. Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, and her story collection Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent was selected by Peter Ho Davies as a finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. She has received over a dozen grants and fellowships and has been awarded artist residencies at Anderson Center for the Interdisciplinary Arts, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. See her website and blog at www.donnamiscolta.com. [I also interviewed Donna for my How to Become a Writer series!]

David Dodd Lee is the author of eight full-length books of poems and a chapbook, including Downsides of Fish Culture (New Issues Press, 1997), Arrow Pointing North (Four Way Books, 2002), Abrupt Rural (New Issues Press, 2004), The Nervous Filaments (Four Way Books, 2010) Orphan, Indiana (University of Akron Press, 2010), Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, the Ashbery Erasure Poems (BlaxeVox, 2010), and The Coldest Winter On Earth (Marick Press, 2012). His newest book, Animalities, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in October, 2014. [He also makes gorgeous collages! Visit: http://seventeenfingeredpoetrybird.blogspot.com/]

Margaret Patton Chapman is the author of the novella-in-flash, Bell and Bargain, forthcoming in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press 2014). http://margaretpattonchapman.com/

Publishing is just like dating.
Just because one editor doesn’t like it, or even hates it,
doesn’t mean another won’t fall in love with it.

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Jessica Tyner, born and raised in Oregon, is a member of the Cherokee Nation, a Pushcart Prize nominee and a graduate of the Ooligan Press program. She received her master’s degree in Writing from Portland State University, having completed the second year of the program as an intern with the Fulbright Commission in London, England. An extensive traveler, she has lived in England, South Korea and Costa Rica and has had her poetry published around the world. She’s the founder of The Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund, an annual gift for graduate students with a Native American connection who are pursuing an advanced degree in writing or a related field.

Read more by and about Jessica:

Book of Poems: The Last Exotic Petting Zoo

Poems: “The Carving Station” and “Bronco Bustling”

Poem: “Love You More”

Poems: “Two Days Prior to the Burial” and “How to Oil an Indian Man’s Hair”

How Jessica Tyner 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 Jessica for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

Writing has always come naturally to me, but I grew up in the era where those with an English degree could “only” be teachers. This was right before the boom of SEO, web content writing, monetized blogging and other potentially lucrative writing careers. I pursued an undergrad degree in English followed by a master’s in writing based on pure passion. Throughout my academic career, I worked for non-profits writing grant proposals and marketing materials—always publishing my own poetry on the side. However, it took my department being shut down and a fluke of a segue into freelancing to discover that writing really can be a “real” career. The simple answer is “always,” though. I’ve always known I’m a writer, but I don’t think it’s something you become. You can definitely, constantly improve your writing skills, but I think for most writers it’s something we’re born with.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I got into the non-profit field via a work-study position. My university placed me with Oregon Literacy, a local non-profit, simply because they thought the words “English major” and “Literacy” went hand in hand. I had a knack for grant writing, and it was the first time I was paid for writing so I stuck with this industry probably longer than I should. Honestly, my first freelance gig came about when I was perusing Craigslist after my department got laid off. One ad was for a writer for a short-term project, and was rich with arrogance and elitism. I just had to write to the poster to let him know my thoughts on such a haughty ad. He ended up being my first project manager—we worked together for years.

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

In terms of becoming a successful professional writer, that Craigslist poster was the biggest boost. From a poetic standpoint, my undergraduate poetry professor, Michele Glazer, was hugely inspirational. I’m sending her a copy of my book with a note of thanks. I still remember the best (I think) piece of advice she gave us: “You should memorize poems because if you’re ever put into solitary confinement, you need beautiful words besides your own in your head.” I actually wrote a poem about that advice, and still remember many of the poems I memorized for her classes, particularly Kim Addonizio’s “What Do Women Want?”.

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

I’m a big fan of Li-Young Lee. He was born into a family that was literally exiled, and into a country that wasn’t his own. His history is steeped in political strife, yet his work centers on the self and love, much like my own. He also married into a different culture. I greatly admire what he’s achieved, and even after years of reading and re-reading his work, he continues to have the ability to manipulate my emotions with ease.

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

Grow a tough, thick skin and don’t let anyone tell you that a creative degree is useless—but don’t be passive either. As a writer, you need to forge your own path and work much harder than many in other industries. I had an editor of a journal write a nasty personal letter to me once calling a particular poem clichéd. That same poem was nominated for a Pushcart. Publishing is just like dating. Just because one editor doesn’t like it, or even hates it, doesn’t mean another won’t fall in love with it. Believe in yourself and your work, but write every single day (even when it hurts) and look for new publishing opportunities relentlessly. Unfortunately, many writers fall into the stereotype of being flaky and missing deadlines. I know because I’ve hired quite a few. Be the exception, blend business savviness with your writing skills, and you’ll have an edge.