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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.

 

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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.

Dear Writer,

Persistence is all.

Well, most. It’s most. The most important thing is not that you get a fancy degree or make money doing this (which is different from making a living, in my book), but that you come out of every story with more empathy for the human condition than you went in with.

 

Katie-Cortese-Headshot

Katie Cortese lives in Lubbock, TX, where she teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Blackbird, Gulf Coast, Sport Literate, and The Baltimore Review, as well as the upcoming Rose Metal Press anthology, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. She holds a PhD from Florida State University, an MFA from Arizona State University, and was granted a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, as well as a residency at the Arte Studio Ginestrelle near Assisi, Italy. The former editor-in-chief of The Southeast Review, she now serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review, and her flash fiction collection, GIRL POWER AND OTHER SHORT-SHORT STORIES, is slated for release by ELJ Publications in the fall of 2015. She is currently at work on a full-length story collection as well as a novel.

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

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 an excerpt of Katie’s story “Flight Plan” published at Talking Writing:

Maya’s new apartment complex had eight units, four to a side across a small courtyard. She’d rented one of them, sight unseen, against her father’s advice. The landlady, Alma, was waiting in the parking lot as promised when Maya eased Black Beauty’s powerful engine to a stop. The ’79 Corvette celebrated the end of her cross-country romp in a musical crunch of gravel. Maya tried not to stare at the woman’s sun-spotted shoulders—or the amber folds of flesh melting down her thighs—and climbed into the heat of midday, bending to stretch her legs.

Alma gestured to Maya’s car with the business end of her cigarette. “She’s a prize.”   

“Black Beauty,” Maya said. “Used to be my dad’s. She’s hell on gas.”

Read more by and about Katie:

Story: “Flight Plan” at Talking Writing

Story: “Lemonade” at Chagrin Review

Story: “Gentleman’s Game” at Sequestrum

Story: “Wakulla Springs” at Baltimore Review

How Katie Cortese 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 Katie for her awesome answers!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

The short answer is I didn’t, at first. I chose which colleges to apply to based on the strength of their theatre programs and at eighteen years old I had every intention of moving to New York and auditioning my heart out after graduation. I’d always loved to read, and I’d written a little in high school (just some angsty journaling and a few cheesy revenge poems that are—hopefully—lost to the annals of history), and I recognized the need for a more practical major alongside theatre—so, of course, I chose English, because teaching, right? By my senior year of college I’d taken a few fiction workshops and fell in love with a composition process I’m too old to replicate now—writing for eight hours at a stretch through the night, usually waking halfway through the next morning to find I’d slept through Geology again. I was still fifty-fifty as to pursuing acting or writing by my senior year, but I credit my eventual choice to two excellent professors. Doug Glover, a Canadian story writer and novelist, took me aside after one class and shook a rolled up copy of a recent story revision I’d handed him. It hit all the undergraduate landmarks: a husband who mysteriously died at sea, the melodramatic disposal of his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean, and a precocious child wise beyond his years. In any case, Doug waved around the tube of my revision and told me it was the best one he’d seen. Not the best story, he clarified, but the best revision. I’ve always been a little too hungry for praise.

The second professor who gave me a significant push in this direction was Steven Millhauser, and I had no idea how lucky I was to be able to work with him at the time. He told me not to get an MFA (in so doing, he alerted me to the fact that such a thing as grad school for writing existed), but to move home and write in my parents’ basement until either I got a book published or they kicked me out. Then he walked me down the hall to the director of the New York State Summer Writer’s Institute and set me up with a small scholarship to attend it. After that summer of being surrounded by teachers and students who’d made writing their lives, I tossed my headshots and acting resume in a drawer and haven’t looked back (okay, maybe once or twice).

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I got the writing bug in college, as I mentioned above, but I didn’t actually start my journey until I did the exact opposite of what I’d been advised in college. I applied to eleven MFA programs and got into two of them, one of which offered me funding. I got the news that Arizona State had offered me a place in their program while I was on a six-month work visa in London, typing a rambling eighty page novella on a Toshiba satellite roughly the size of a VCR (remember those?). I cried when my mother read my acceptance letter on the phone. After I was back in the States, I moved from my parents’ house in Massachusetts to Phoenix (by way of San Diego, but that’s another story). I’d never been further west than Pennsylvania. The heat was debilitating. I felt like a writer right up until my first workshop class, when I realized I was out of my league. Way out of my league. I didn’t actually start the process of learning to write until I realized how much I had left to learn, and how talented everyone else in my class (and beyond) was. Once I got over the feeling of not being the star pupil (which, I think, most of us in that MFA had been in college), I could finally stop trying to impress everyone and just try to be a better writer every day than the one I’d been the day before.

The short answer to how I became a writer is by writing and reading. A lot. I’d argue that’s how everyone does it, in some form or another.

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

Wow, this is a very long list. There are those professors back in college I mentioned above, plus the amazingly talented Greg Hrbek who was the first person to introduce me to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. My friend Jillian Schedneck lived with me in London while she was applying for MFAs in Creative Nonfiction. She ended up going to West Virginia’s program, and got her PhD in Australia where she still lives and teaches. We still read each other’s work and I think we kept each other’s spirits up as ex-pats waiting for good news from home. My MFA teachers have been my rocks, and years later I’m still bugging them for advice and letters of recommendation and favors (maybe just to make sure they don’t forget me!): Melissa Pritchard, T. M. McNally, Ron Carlson, and all the visiting writers I was fortunate to work with in brief stints during my three years at ASU.

I tell my current students to hold onto their good readers because they are a rare commodity out in the cold, hard world, and that’s advice I practice. Most of my readers are my former MFA colleagues—truly generous and brilliant human beings who are now pursuing PhDs and working in tenure-track positions and publishing books every other year, it seems like. I went to Florida State for my PhD and will be forever grateful to my professors there—Mark Winegardner, Julianna Baggott, Elizabeth Stuckey-French. My husband is my first reader and biggest cheerleader. And my parents, of course. My mother had me memorizing Shakespeare at four years old. My father read me The Hobbit at bedtime every night for a year. If one of those links in the chain had given way, I might not have kept at this pursuit. There’s a lot of rejection. I’m guessing there always will be, but now I feel that I owe all of the people mentioned above my best effort and if I falter I imagine having to explain to one of them why I quit writing. I’m accountable to them, and thank god for that.

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

For a long time, I’ve hung onto the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t start writing until her fifties (or at least, that’s when she published her first book). I grew up with the Little House books, and so did most of my peers and their kids, and I hope my kids will grow up with those books too. It’s amazing to me that she taught herself how to write over the course of the series (sort of like J.K. Rowling, as far as that goes), though she had the tools because she had everything a writer needs to succeed: a love for literature (she was a teacher before she married Almanzo, of course), empathy for other humans, time (once the children were raised), patience, and persistence. Now her works are an institution unto themselves. That’s so cool to me.

I’m also interested in writers that had other abiding interests and/or careers. William Carlos William and his doctoring. Barbara Kingsolver has a degree in biology, and it shows in her work. I like Stephen King’s path to becoming a writer because his is a story of persistence and perseverance, drives which developed ahead of his talent and which every writer needs in order to get past those first few (thousand) rejections. I should have mentioned King earlier, actually, because he’s another reason I wanted to become a writer. His book It. Not the monster stuff, which is cool in a “this is why clowns can never not be creepy again” way, but I fell in love with those kids he writes about and the adults they became; I admire how he grew a fictional town from the ground up and invested it with a history that speaks to real towns all over America; I envy the way his language made me forget I was reading so I actually saw the story unfold, even if I would rather not have looked at some aspects as closely as he wanted me to. The first few stories I wrote were all imitations of It in one way or another. And then The Stand. And then The Body (which became the movie Stand By Me). Heck, maybe they still are.

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

Dear Writer,

Persistence is all.

Well, most. It’s most. The most important thing is not that you get a fancy degree or make money doing this (which is different from making a living, in my book), but that you come out of every story with more empathy for the human condition than you went in with. That doesn’t mean forcing happy endings onto everything, but it does mean treating every character as the full human he or she would have to be in order to move us. There are no villains, especially in their own minds. In fact, tell the villain’s story. Jane Smiley did this in A Thousand Acres. Gregory Maguire in Wicked. Actually, remember that everyone has potential to be the villain in someone else’s story. Write every character this way, with shades of all that humans are capable of.

Remember that you never need permission to write. And never question your subject. There are no wrong stories. There is no “right” age to start, or to stop. All a writer needs to succeed is a love and appreciation for literature, to read widely and omnivorously, to have empathy for people and an abiding interest in the strange, horrifying, and often gorgeous world we occupy, and to persist. Not everyone will care if you persist, so it’s up to you to provide the momentum.

Take risks, fail, and remember that if you experience a lot of success early that you should appreciate it for a few minutes, and then get back to work. Early success is dangerous. Be suspicious of it, and always have another project in the pipeline. Unfortunately, or fortunately, your work will never be done.

And thank god for that.

Man of Clay VBT Banner Draft 1

Today is the first day of CL Bledsoe’s virtual book tour celebrating Man of Clay, a novel with elements of magical realism and a dash of steampunk. This funny, engaging story redefines what Southern Literature is capable of being. Man of Clay can be pre-ordered today!

HeadshotCL Bledsoe is the author of four poetry collections, one short story collection, and five novels, including the Necro-Files series. His stories, poems, essays, plays, and reviews have been published in hundreds of literary journals, including Cimarron Review, Barrow Street, New York Quarterly, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Arkansas Review, Pank, Potomac Review, and many others. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize thirteen times, Best of the Net four times, and has had two stories selected as Notable Stories of the year by Story South’s Million Writers Award. Bledsoe currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with his daughter.

ManOfClay_novellaRead More By and About CL:

Short Story: “Mouth”

Short Story: “Texas Never Whispers”

Poem: “The Sad Lobster Speaks”

Poems: “Roaches” and “Anthem” in Story South

Interview: By Cervena Barva Press

Interview: By Etopia Press

Poetry Book: Riceland

Novel: The Necro-Files: $7.50/Hr + Curses

Essay: “My First Critic”

Essay: “Thesis”

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 CL for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I was raised by storytellers, so it was a natural progression to want to tell stories myself. I grew up in the rural South on a farm, and my dad, brother, and uncles were always telling stories. Everything was a narrative to them. If you asked if someone had seen a movie or TV show or read a book, there was no “yes” or “no” answer; instead, you got a story about the experience. And they were entertaining stories. I’ve always been enthralled by the abilities of good storytellers who can control an audience. Stories, specifically books, but movies, and comedy performances also, were the only things that really provided comfort for me when I was growing up, but more than that, stories were exciting. I had an unusual and difficult childhood, and I never saw much gain from church or school or the social conventions one was supposed to pursue but didn’t seem particularly welcoming to me. Similarly, we were poor and the farm was struggling to stay afloat. There wasn’t a lot of hope or optimism around. But stories showed people with dignity and wisdom and all those things that we’re taught matter when we’re little kids, but we learn don’t really exist in any reliable sense when we grow up. Stories reconstructed the world into something better. In a good story, there is a God—the storyteller—and s/he does care about the characters, loves them, even when s/he makes them suffer. In that sense, it’s pure escapism for me. It’s a better world, but it’s a true world because it presents people we strive to be. And, most importantly, it shows us what we can be.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

When I was a kid, I’d play “writer.” I’d gather up whatever office supplies I could get a hold of—crayons and paper, glue sticks, scissors—and sit at our big dining room table and…mostly make messes.

When I got older and more serious, I struggled quite a bit to work out the various conventions of writing novels and short stories, especially, but also poems. I didn’t realize that writing IS that struggle. I went to college to learn how to write. I worked my ass off. All around me, I saw folks calling themselves writers who lacked work ethic. Not me. I took every suggestion I could get and tried them all. I’d submit something for workshop every week, if I was allowed. I set up off-campus workshops in addition to my classwork, and provided new material for all of them constantly. This was because I was a really rough writer, but I wanted to improve.

I started sending work out to literary journals as an undergrad because that was something I understood. I’d been on the staff of one in high school, but they wouldn’t publish me until I purposefully wrote something about Jesus, which they snatched right up. In college, I cast the net pretty wide. I’d send out work to fifty places at a time. Most would reject me. I started targeting places I’d seen the grad students get published in, and I had some success. My first big publication was in Nimrod as an undergrad. That was quickly followed by Story South. I had certain journals I aimed for and loved, and these weren’t usually the popular ones. I remember the first time I placed something with Clackamas Literary Review, which I considered one of the best journals out there but I’m sure most people have never heard of. Hobart was another real coup, though it has become, deservedly, pretty high-profile. I’ve continued submitting work to those kinds of journals—solid journals that aren’t necessarily hip but publish good work. I’ve been in plenty of hip journals—and I realized pretty quickly that popularity had nothing to do with quality. The same way my high school journal wanted Jesus poems, these hip journals wanted whatever fads. I’ve never been a cool kid, but I have been guilty of trying to follow the fads on occasion.

"The writers and artists I most admire are those who labored, at times in total obscurity, just to create their art. Henry Darger, the outsider artist/writer, comes to mind."

“The writers and artists I most admire are those who labored, at times in total obscurity, just to create their art. Henry Darger, the outsider artist/writer, comes to mind.”

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

I never really had a mentor, per se, which I regret—it was kind of one of the main reasons I went to grad school—but a ton of people have helped me, and still help me. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of publishers, editors, and other writers, and I think that most of us understand that we have to help each other. More than that, we enjoy it. I don’t want to name a lot of names, but I’ll narrow it down to two major groups of folks. The first group was centered around The Arkansas Review. I’ll expand this to include several folks not really connected to AR but who are connected to Arkansas, where I was born and raised. Several, several folks have helped me by publishing me, promoting my work, and just being friendly, because we all are either from Arkansas or are connected to it. We’d reach out to each other and share stories about being away from “home,” and we’d promote each other’s work. Along the same lines, when I moved to the Baltimore area, I met so many wonderful writers and promoters who have invited me to read or submit writing to their journals. Baltimore has an incredibly vibrant literary scene, really supportive but also wild. I love reading in Baltimore. Maybe somebody gets drunk and heckles you, or maybe somebody takes their clothes off, but they listen. And they’ll buy you a drink afterwards.

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

Some terrible instructor asked me, once, what my goals were as a writer. I told him I wanted to be a mid-list writer, plugging away, pumping out books on university presses without a lot of accompanying fanfare or drama. I was being an asshole, but I was also not. I am definitely more of a tortoise than a hare when it comes to writing, and the writers and artists I most admire are those who labored, at times in total obscurity, just to create their art. Henry Darger, the outsider artist/writer, comes to mind. Van Gogh. Emily Dickinson. Wilhelm Stekel was quoted in Catcher in the Rye when Holden’s former teacher tells him, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” That’s how I feel about writing and art, and I admire those who live accordingly, in the same way that I admire those who live their lives humbly. Writing, for me, is more about life than lifestyle.

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

Only do it if you have no choice. A friend once told me that we’re writers because we’re damaged in such a way that this is how we communicate. I have to write; it’s a physical necessity. If I don’t write, I get anxious, depressed, antsy. It’s how I process and think and live and love. If this doesn’t make sense to you, go do something else.

Having said all that, I think the greatest lesson to learn about writing is to be open, which is also the greatest lesson to learn about life. Read voraciously—not just within your own preferred genre—and write voraciously. Don’t worry about what others will think of what you’ve written until you’re revising, if even then. And be open to every opportunity you find, or that finds you.

Be kind to yourself. Write every day, except when you don’t. Fuck up and start over.

Follow along with the Man of Clay virtual book tour by heading to [PANK] tomorrow!

 

 

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This is the first stop of Lynn Kanter’s virtual book tour celebrating her new novel. Be sure to click the banner to see the full tour schedule and follow along for new content each day!

Lynn SMALL horiz arms crossed copy

Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels Her Own Vietnam (2014, Shade Mountain Press), The Mayor of Heaven (1997) and On Lill Street (1992), both published by Third Side Press. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Lost Orchard (SUNY Press), Breaking Up is Hard to Do, and The Time of Our Lives: Women Write on Sex After 40 (both Crossing Press), and the literary journal Verbsap. Her nonfiction has appeared in Referential Magazine and the anthologies Coming Out of Cancer (Seal Press), Testimonies (Alyson Publications) and Confronting Cancer, Constructing Change (Third Side Press).

Lynn is a lifelong activist for feminist and other progressive causes, and has the T-shirts to prove it. Since 1992 Lynn has worked as a writer for the Center for Community Change, a national social justice organization. She lives with her wife in Washington, DC.

lill streetRead More By And About Lynn:

Novel: The Mayor of Heaven

Novel: On Lill Street

Essay: “What Did I Have”

How Lynn Kanter 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 Lynn for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I’ve always loved words. The printed word, the spoken word, stories told in books or movies, as slogans or jests. I was the girl who studied the lyrics of the Top 40 songs and was drawn to the message more than the melody. I think becoming a writer was a natural outgrowth of my interests and enthusiasms.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I started writing stories when I was a little girl, sitting behind my father’s upright black manual typewriter, a beautiful machine that was old even then. Some of the metal keys had cushioned rubber caps that you could, with difficulty, slide on and off. The rubber had turned hard and cracked like an old pencil eraser that now can only rub holes in the paper.

I can distinctly remember as a child typing the words, “This is a story about a boy and his” – and then hesitating. Should it be his dog? His horse? I wasn’t sure. But I had no doubt the story had to be about a boy, because no one would be interested in a girl’s adventures. Now, of course, I find it sad that a young girl had already absorbed such a clear message about the value of her own stories.

The Mayor of HeavenAs a teenager, I stayed up late filling notebook after notebook with handwritten tales never meant to be shared, losing hours to the sheer exhilaration of writing. I often wish I could reclaim that unselfconscious energy and creativity. I still find joy and deep satisfaction in writing – otherwise no one would do it – but it’s much more effortful now and more burdened with self-criticism. That, I think, is the downside of getting published or working toward publication.

And I did aim for publication. In college, I papered the walls of my dorm room with rejection letters from magazines and journals. Later I stuffed a file cabinet with them. For my current novel, Her Own Vietnam, I probably could have filled another file drawer with rejections from agents, except they were all emails.

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that my first story was published. By then I had found my subject, and it turned out to be the theme I had rejected as a child: the adventure of women’s lives.

I’ve heard of writers, like the late J. California Cooper, who said that stories and characters’ voices just came to them. I’ve never met any writers that lucky. Nor do I believe that Cooper – a hard-working writer who wrote more than a dozen plays before her fiction was finally published when she was in her 50s – meant that she literally sat around waiting for inspiration to strike.

I became a writer in the only way I think it’s possible to do so: by continually writing, continually reading, and trusting, despite sometimes overwhelming evidence, that somewhere a reader is yearning for exactly the stories you want to tell.

"I'm inspired by the work of Rachel Carson."

“I’m inspired by the life and work of Rachel Carson.”

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

I had a teacher in high school who took me aside after I’d turned in a routine class writing assignment and told me I could become a writer if that’s what I wanted. Over the years I’ve had numerous teachers who helped in various ways, particularly by equipping me to read and appreciate other people’s writing.

But the people who helped me the most are other writers, both aspiring and accomplished. They read my unfinished, unpolished work and allowed me to read theirs, so together we could lay bare the structure of a story and find its weak spots. Other writers have been astonishingly generous with their time, their support, and their insights about the craft of writing and the perils and satisfactions of publishing. I hope I have opportunities to pass on some of the wisdom and kindness I’ve received.

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

I’m inspired by the life and work of Rachel Carson. She wrote books that were both lovely and compelling, and through them she launched a movement to save the earth. She did this while hiding the fact that she was dying of cancer, because she thought that knowledge might undermine her credibility, which was already under attack simply because she was female.

I’m also inspired by Edwidge Danticat. Like so many immigrant children, she had a difficult and painful childhood, emigrating from Haiti to Brooklyn when she was 12 to follow her parents. English was her third language. Yet she turned the unfamiliar English words into beauty and power, using them to open the eyes of the world to the Haitian experience and to advocate for change to alleviate the suffering of immigrants.

"I'm also inspired by Edwidge Danticat."

“I’m also inspired by Edwidge Danticat.”

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

Read everything you can. Enjoy the suspense of “what will happen next?” and study how the author created that feeling. If you find books you love, reread them. You’ll notice and appreciate more each time.

Create a writing community for yourself. The support of other writers is invaluable – both to give and to receive. Plus, no one else wants to want to hear shop talk about the actual work of writing.

If you can, participate in workshops. You’ll learn how to give and take criticism and, most importantly, how to discern unhelpful criticism from the kind of instructive, insightful criticism that you should act on immediately.

Writers write. They don’t plan to write or intend to write; they sit down and write. Of course, the act of writing requires a good deal of researching, reading, and staring out the window – behaviors that other people might confuse with procrastination. Sometimes it is just avoidance – writing is work, after all – but I do believe some amount of daydreaming is intrinsic to the writing process.

You are a writer because you write. It is not dependent on whether anyone will publish what you write.

Protect your writing time. Consider yourself unavailable during that time, and insist that others do so as well. Many people in your life won’t equate writing with work, and will think you’re free to chat or have lunch or run out for milk. It doesn’t matter if they think writing is just a casual hobby for you. What matters is that they leave you alone to write. Making this happen is up to you.

Face the fact that you will almost certainly have to do something else for a living. If you can get a job that uses your writing skills, great – but be sure the kind of writing you do for work does not come from the same place within you as the writing you do for life.

All of this sounds very somber, but the big secret about writing is that it’s difficult, sometimes tedious, often frustrating – and profoundly fun. Enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

I have no degrees in creative writing, journalism, literature.
It’s all been on-the-job training.

J Tinney Pic 1

Jason Tinney is an award-winning fiction writer, musician, freelance journalist, and actor. His previous books are Louise Paris and Other Waltzes (poetry/prose) and Bluebird (short stories and poems). Three of his short stories were published in the anthology Out of Tune. Tinney and artist Brian Slagle have collaborated on The Swinging Bridge, a traveling literary and visual arts project, since 2004. He performs with, and is the co-founder of, the award-winning music groups, Donegal X-Press (DXP) and The Wayfarers. As an actor, Jason Tinney has appeared in more then thirty stage productions. He has been a contributor to several magazines, among them, Baltimore, Style, Gorilla, Her Mind, Urbanite, and Maryland Life , which won the International Regional Magazine Association’s Award of Merit in the category of Culture Feature for Tinney’s article “The March,” a first-hand account of life on the front-lines with American Civil War reenactors. Ripple Meets the Deep, a new collection of short fiction, was published in October 2014 by CityLit Press, an imprint of the CityLit Project.

Ripple-Cover-OnlyRead More By and About Jason:

Story excerpt: Ripple Meets the Deep

Story excerpt: Shave ’em Dry

Story Excerpt: January

Interview: Baltimore Review Coffee & Questions

How Jason Tinney 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 Jason for saying yes!

 

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

Honestly, there came a point where I didn’t know what else to do. I had been acting and studying theatre in college; I joined a band and, of course, worked other jobs to pay the rent. But I was also writing—all the time. I just made a decision that this was where I needed to focus. The solitary nature of the work, that’s a place I felt comfortable and I didn’t have to depend on anyone else to do it.

Looking back, it may have been as simple as a need, or drive—not in a confessional way—to express something I couldn’t say verbally. So, I do buy into what Samuel Beckett said: “…you don’t do it in order to get published. You do it in order to breathe.”

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I have no degrees in creative writing, journalism, literature. It’s all been on-the-job training. First, I organized. I had poems, short prose and stories, pages of dialogue. I reshaped and rewrote that material and jumped into new pieces with a clear intent. I researched—did my homework—attended literary events and networked.

I got lucky. In 2001, a small press, Hilliard and Harris, took an interest in the work and published my first collection of poetry and prose, Louise Paris and Other Waltzes, followed by a collection of poems and short stories, Bluebird, in 2003. I began pitching non-fiction stories to magazines; one assignment turned into another. I feel very fortunate.

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

There are a few folks, who early on, I owe a great debt of gratitude: Rafael Alvarez, a fiction and television writer, and long-time journalist for the Baltimore Sun; writer/editor, Angela Davids, who gave my name to Elizabeth Evitts-Dickinson. At the time, Elizabeth was the editor of a Baltimore magazine, Urbanite, and offered me one of my first assignments. Dan Patrell, publisher and editor of Maryland Life magazine, and articles editor, Holly Smith—they took a chance on a freelance writer who had no experience; Dave Sheinin, a writer for the Washington Post—we met through music connections; and Gregg Wilhelm, director of the CityLit Project/CityLit Press.

All of the people I mentioned are extraordinary at their craft… they were very generous and patient with their time and took me under their wings. They were honest with their experiences, evaluated pieces I had written, and called out all the B.S. I put down on paper. I credit them for helping me learn to write.

More importantly, I’m honored, and blessed, to call them dear friends.

Larry Brown, courtesy NYTimes, “The One That Got Away”

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

Larry Brown, who passed away in 2004. He was an Oxford, Mississippi firefighter who decided he wanted to write. He didn’t have any formal training—just did it, and it took him awhile, but, before his death, he created these amazing collections of stories and novels—Facing the Music and Joe, among them—that are raw and honest, brutal and beautiful. When I read these books and learned his own personal story, it felt like I had been given a driver’s license.

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

Plunge in. Be confident. No one else will own your voice.

Matthew Roberson banner

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.

Matt Roberson bw author photo

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!