Archives For inspiration


[Today THE RUMPUS will publish a visual essay I wrote about what it was like to make a painting every day, featuring a number of this year’s paintings as illustrations. I’ll update this post with the link when it goes live.]

In 2018 my non-resolution was to make 50 pounds of art (metaphorically) by making a painting every single day (literally). I did it – I painted or sketched or made a comic every day this year – and it has utterly transformed my creative life. The idea was to focus on quantity and process rather than on perfection and preciousness.

I’m a writer and professor of creative writing, and while I’m incorporating more and more visual material in my storytelling (especially comics and collage), visual arts are not my primary focus. Which means painting can be a space of exploration and experimentation. With writing, I rarely share work that hasn’t been revised, vetted, edited, and published by someone who is not me. With painting, I just make a thing and then post it on Instagram in its often imperfect form.

I’ve learned to see in new ways, not only as a human in the world, but as a story-teller. In a written story, certain visual specifics can be eclipsed by atmosphere and the rhythm of sentences, and I’m starting to realize how much I’ve done this–avoided details that didn’t feel necessary. This is true in a comic as well–that you choose what to include and what not to–but you are also forced to answer certain questions, like: okay, you’ve drawn a nightstand: what’s on the nightstand? what kind of lamp? Or, what color is the house? what is the character wearing?

I’ve also found new artists I admire and whose work inspires me. I participated in Inktober this year (the challenge is to make an ink drawing each day of October), and I learned how use ink in ways I’ve never tried before (like the sketch of my journals on this post!). Then I participated in National Novel Writing Month in November and made over 30 pages of a graphic novel about my great-grandmother from Ireland.

And I filled so many journals! Like most people, I typically buy a journal, write or paint in a few pages of it, then abandon it. This year I filled 13 journals (with paintings on one side of each page) and 3 art portfolios with loose sheets of watercolor paper.

Yesterday I was carrying the heavy stack of journals and portfolios I’d filled in 2018 to make the above drawing, and my daughter said, “Weren’t you going to make 50 pounds of art or something? How much do those journals weigh?”

So I weighed them: 22 pounds. Then I weighed a larger painting I’d made on a wood panel; with the frame it was 7 pounds. Then I weighed one of the three a 30×30″ canvas I’d painted: 4.8 pounds (x 3 = 14.4 pounds). Then I weighed the 30×24″ canvas and the 36×24″ canvas and the 36×36″. And a few other smaller wood panels. And then next thing I knew, it was over 50 pounds. Turns out I made a painting every day AND 50 pounds of art – literally!

Click here for my first post of the year where I describe the 50 pounds of art idea for 2018 – and where I have links to the last several years of non-resolutions.

Click here for 12 thoughts after I made it to the 3-month mark.

Click here to see my daily posts on Instagram.


It’s been a busy and inspiring coupla months. Here’s a little recap of things I saw and did, starting with the AWP Writers’ Conference in Washington, DC, where I was on a couple of panels, did a reading, and got to sign some books at the Rose Metal Press table. Those are my books on the left side of the sign:

My colleague and friend, David Dodd Lee had a book release and art show at Lang Lab. Here he his reading from his latest Ashbury erasure book, surrounded by his fans and collages:

I was thrilled to have my visual essay, “Empty Nest/Emptiness,” published (in full color!!!) in the latest issue of Passages North. It’s 14 pages, something I made when my daughter left for college:

Speaking of my daughter, I got to see Mamma Mia in Bloomington, IN with her and her bestie for her birthday. The next morning I saw the whole cast and crew in the lobby of my hotel!

Colson Freaking Whitehead came to my campus, Indiana University South Bend, and I got to sit in the almost front row. Here he is talking to Darryl Heller of the Civil Rights Heritage Center:

I invited the comic artists Marnie Galloway and Scott Roberts to visit IU South Bend, and the room was full for their artist talks:

Then the poet Steve Henn came to talk to my classes about his new book by Wolfson Press: Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year. Here he is showing off his “tour” T-shirt:

Another visual/collage essay published in Quarterly West!

I already blogged about being the guest author at Butler University’s Litfest and doing a workshop for the Indiana Writers Center, which was an honor and a blast.

And over the weekend, Wordman and I headed to Chicago and saw Lambchop at Lincoln Hall:

Then I got to read at Sunday Salon Series with amazing fellow readers and a fabulous crowd. Here’s Howard Axelrod reading:

Got some partial views of the Navy Pier Ferris wheel from the hotel window:

And made it to the Bean for the first time, and took the requisite selfie:

Mexico City Magic

August 3, 2016 — 2 Comments

I’m just back from three weeks in Mexico City, where I studied some Spanish, worked on a new project, visited old loves like Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo, and found new loves like Lilia Carillo, the painter, and Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god.

Here’s Leonora Carrington’s Cocodrilo on Paseo de la Reforma (and my quick watercolor sketch of it):

I almost didn’t go to Frida’s Casa Azul again (here’s a link to my 2014 visit), but I’m so glad I did:


I love her amazing collection of retablos, amateur paintings made to thank the Virgin of Guadalupe for interceding at life-threatening moments:


These influenced some of her most famous paintings, and the museum juxtaposes small reproductions of her actual paintings with the retablos that inspired them:



At the Museum of Modern Art, I got to see Dos Fridas in person for the first time:


This painting was made after one of her breakups with Diego and represents two sides of herself, one as a comfort to the other. She is dressed in European attire on the left and in her classic Tehuana dress (which Diego preferred) on the right.

In all my times of viewing the painting online, I’d never noticed that the heart on the left is gray and withered:


And I discovered the beautiful abstract paintings of Lilia Carrillo:

We saw an outdoor film at the Monument of the Revolution:


about this guy, Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god:


…who was removed from his original site in Coatlinchan and relocated to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The film, La Piedra Ausente (The Absent Stone), tells the amazing story of the removal of the stone amidst the town’s protests and its celebrated/contested arrival in Mexico City.

[More Mexico City magic: The night before the film, we went to a birthday dinner for a friend and met a woman named Sandra. After we’d talked for a while, she said, “I made a film; it’s screening tomorrow night at the Monument of the Revolution. You should come!” So we did. It was awesome.]

At the Palacio Nacional, we saw the journals of the artist Francisco Toledo, which were part of an exhibit of — get this — art that Mexican artists give to the nation as payment for their taxes:

These inspired a couple of my own journal sketches:

I thought I saw a Dirty Dancing sculpture, but it was just a strange sculpture that happened to have an ad for Dirty Dancing, The Musical behind it:


Finally, I should mention that there was a tree hanging in the center of our airbnb apartment building:


Every year I have a theme. No resolutions, which I’d just break by tomorrow and hate myself for the next day. Just a guiding principle, a phrase to think of when faced with laziness, lack of focus, or a looming decision (or, more likely, indecision).

Last year it was Live Lovely because I really needed a fresh way of thinking of life after turning in my tenure dossier. The year before was Put Yourself Out There because I needed to be brave when my first book was published.

Sometimes I have subthemes for certain parts of the year. Like during my sabbatical this fall it was Finish the Fucking Novel. Which I basically did.

This year the theme is Dig Deep because that’s what I need to do. In my writing and thinking and reading and blogging, even my cooking with my daughter. We’re armed with lots of new kitchen tools and cookbooks. I’ve got essay ideas brewing and notes for blog posts. I’ve started reading Les Miserables, and I’ve finished 87 of 1463 pages.

And in Digging Deep, I hope to do what Neil Gaiman wished for us all this past year:

Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Happy New Year to all my blog readers, and here’s to all of the glorious and amazing mistakes we’ll make this year!

I don’t make Top-5 lists. Because that always means leaving out so much awesomeness. But luckily for me, this one made itself.

I call this the International Version because none of them are from the U.S. and because that gives me a chance to do a separate Top-5 U.S. Women Writers if I want to. Only one of these women writes in English, so a huge shout out to translators everywhere!

Who are your top women writers (international)? Please share in the comments. I love to discover new authors!

In alphabetical order, then, because I cannot bear to rank these woman against each other, here they are:

1. Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington, Self Portrait

Her Words: “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse. . . . I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”

When She Lived: 1917 – 2011

Where She Lived: Fled debutante British upbringing to go to France where she was with Max Ernst until the Nazis arrived. Fled to Mexico where she thrived for over 50 years.

What She Wrote: My favorite of her stories is “The Debutante,” about a girl who doesn’t want to go to her debutante ball and sends a hyena in her place. The hyena disguises itself by using the face of the maid. In order to get the maid’s face, however, the hyena had to eat the maid. (Note the hyena in her Self Portrait above. The painting and story were written at about the same time in her life.)

More Reasons to Love Her: She was a major painter and artist, and a fiesty old lady who gives interviewers a hard time. (See video, the first few minutes tell it all.)


2. Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector

Her Words: “So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing.” – The Hour of the Star

When She Lived: 1920-1977

Where She Lived: Born to Jewish parents in the Ukraine, taken as an infant to Brazil where she lived most of her life

What She Wrote: In the short story, “Looking for Some Dignity,” Mrs. Jorge B. Xavier gets lost in Brazil’s large football (i.e., soccer) stadium and lost in the streets to her home and all of this echoes the way she is lost in the labyrinth of her aging mind and body. The story culminates in a fantasy of a love scene with a contemporary pop star. Lispector’s novella, The Hour of the Star, is similarly heady and dreamy.


3. Herta Müller

Herta Müller

Her Words: “I’ve had to learn to live by writing, not the other way round. I wanted to live by the standards I dreamt of, it’s as simple as that. And writing was a way for me to voice what I could not actually live.”

When She Lived: 1953-present (she lives!)

Where She Lived: Born and raised in an ethnic German minority in Romania, endured rule of Ceauşescu, now lives and writes in Berlin.

What She Wrote: Her story collection Nadirs has mind-bending flash fictions that play with time and space. And the lyrical, wrenching novel, The Appointment, which I wrote about here.

More Reasons to Love Her: She won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, making her 12th woman to win in over 100 years!


4. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Her Words: “Russian literature has been a kind of religion in this country–a religion based on the moral position of writers, on their suffering. All our greatest writers have been sufferers and saints.”

When She Lived: 1938-present!

Where She Lived: Russia. Many of her relatives were rounded up during Stalin’s Great Purge.

What She Wrote: I’ve only read her collection of stories, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, and the title pretty much tells it all. These are fairy tales set in Socialist housing units.

More Reasons to Love Her: She was banned by the Soviets.

Main source: The Nation


5. Virginia Woolf

VWHer Words: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”

When She Lived: 1882-1941

Where She Lived: Britain, purebred

What She Wrote: Only the best novels of the 20th century! Mrs. Dalloway! To the Lighthouse! Orlando! The Waves!

More Reasons to Love Her: Not to mention A Room of One’s Own! Her takedown of the patriarchal systems that privilege the male perspective, literary and otherwise. What if, she asks, Shakespeare had a sister? What if her name was Judith? She would have been “as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as [her super-famous brother] was. But she was not sent to school.”


Honorable Mention: Božena Němcová (1820-1862)

Božena Němcová

A Czech writer of Austrian and Bohemian parents, grew up knowing Czech and German. I’m working on a collage-biography project about her. I am as captivated by her story (her life story, full of affairs and death and disease) as for her stories (her fairy tales and famous book, The Grandmother), which are as dark as they are quaint. She’s hard to learn about without knowing Czech, so I’ve tried to learn a little. Czech, that is.

I wrote more about her here.

[Most basic source info taken from/confirmed by Wikipedia unless otherwise noted.]

Writing is like breathing.  We all breathe and think we know how to, but only a few of us pay attention to it.  I teach yoga as one of my many jobs and much of the practice of yoga is about breathing.

Joanne Avallon is a freelance writer living in Rockport, Massachusetts. She was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize from Wellesley College and received an M.F.A. from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Sundog, The Norton Anthology of Microfiction, Smokelong Quarterly, FictionNow, BlinkInk, and other online literary sites. She has read her poetry on National Public Radio. Joanne also teaches American Literature at North Shore Community College and consults for the Clean Air Task Force. She is married, with two children and a 70-pound dog.

Read more by and about Joanne:

Flash Fiction: “All This” & Interview

Flash Fiction: Beauty, Bridge Mix, The Game of Life

Flash Fiction: Mice Cube

Flash Fiction: Kapha

Interview: Smokelong Quarterly

How Joanne Avallon 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 Joanne for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I don’t know that I had a choice; as soon as I could write, it seemed to me that I should write.  I was a sensitive child and sometimes, for reasons I didn’t understand, I felt my heart was about to burst.  I wrote to find out why.  Poetry fit that purpose because I could ponder one idea – a few lines of verse – for a long time.  When I hit my teenage years, or they hit me, I discovered that I had a knack for telling stories.  When I was sixteen, I remember telling a story to my father – a voluble and busy man – and I had him stuck to his chair until I decided to end the story.  Now that is power.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I majored in literature in college with a focus on creative writing.  I thought then, and I still think now, that it makes no sense to be a student of literature and not write.  There were so many English majors in my class who had never actually tried to write what they studied so assiduously.  When I graduated, my parents told me that I would starve as a writer and that they would only pay for a graduate degree that would get me a job.  So, I followed the steps of Carlos Fuentes and went to law school and became a lawyer.  I practiced law long enough to earn the tuition for my MFA in Literature, Writing and Publishing at Emerson College.  In the middle of all of this, I got married and had two children.  I was pregnant or post partum for most of time I was studying for my MFA.  I defended my thesis when I was seven months pregnant with my son and endured endless puns and double entendres about that fecund period of my life.  I am glad I got my law degree.  It helped to me be a better writer and has come in handy when I needed to earn some money.  I did find it hard to write with small children and decided those years would be my “stockpile” years where I would develop my writing without worrying too much about publishing.  I am just beginning to get back into the publishing world now.

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

Frank Bidart, my poetry professor at Wellesley, was tirelessly encouraging and went over my senior thesis, a book of poems, word by word.  That thesis won me the Academy of American Poets prize.  At Emerson, Pam Painter opened my eyes to the world of flash fiction, which I consider the perfect storm between poetry and prose.  In her class, I wrote “All This,” which is in MicroFiction:  The Norton Anthology of Short Short Fiction.

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

My favorite piece of short fiction is Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net.”  I had the pleasure of listening to her read it while I was at law school.  When she was done, the reading organizer presented her with a chocolate pecan pie and she said, “A pie is the best payment I ever got for this story.”

I love that story because it is a retort to all the male writers of her generation writing male adventure/journey stories.  That story is about a husband’s journey to find and understand his young wife.

Eudora lived in her hometown or nearby for a good long time.  I grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts and just recently moved to Rockport.  Many of my good friends I knew as children.  There is wisdom to be gotten in letting yourself grow old where you once were young.  I appreciate Eudora’s eye on small town life and on the way time passes.  She also has a wonderful hand with character, drawing them deftly with a few well-written sentences.

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

Dear Friend,

You have no doubt already faced the blank stares of friends in response to your announcement that you are a writer.  Writing is like breathing.  We all breathe and think we know how to, but only a few of us pay attention to it.  I teach yoga as one of my many jobs and much of the practice of yoga is about breathing.  When you focus on your breathing – the simple inhale and exhale – you begin to notice how it makes you feel and how controlling your breath can help control your emotions.  And then you start wondering about breathing itself and about what it means to be alive.

Such a simple thing leads to huge insights.  Writing is simple, too.  Almost everyone in our culture is literate but few stop to focus on writing as a craft, to understand the power of it or the importance of it.  If writing does nothing else for you than force you to lead an examined life, then it’s a fair trade: work for insight.  Be brave and continue.

The other response you will get when you tell people you are a writer is the dreaded question, “are you published?”  This is a rude and inappropriate question asked by someone who doesn’t understand your art.  Always answer “yes.”  If they ask you where, say “The New Yorker” and then ask them what they do for a living.  No doubt they will talk happily about their careers, forget your name and walk away thinking they just had a wonderful conversation with a talented writer.  Do nothing to disabuse them of this notion.

Life is long.  Sometimes writing will come easily; other times it will not.  Be patient with yourself, keep working and remember, the journey is the reward.



Writer and professor Cathy Day has a terrific blog post that is framed as her last lecture of the semester. It’s about the relationship between publishing and the question her students really want to know: But am I a writer?

Here are a few exquisite tidbits from her post:

In my experience, a writing apprenticeship is about 5-10 years long. The timer starts the day you start taking writing seriously—meaning you stop thinking of writing as homework and start incorporating it into your daily life.

The apprenticeship period is key. I have addressed my own ten-year apprenticeship in a previous post: Get Back to Me in Ten Years

And other writers in my interview series have also set 10 years as a crucial developmental period. Check out Robert Flynn’s interview here, and Molly McCaffrey’s interview here.

The Great American Novel
Jenksinson’s Boardwalk, Point Pleasant, NJ
summer 2012

Day continues to quote from and respond to her students:

You say things to me like: “I just want to publish a book and hold it in my hand.” Are you sure that’s all you want? Because these days, you can publish a book and hold it in your hands fairly easily. What I’m trying to talk about are all the different ways to publish. Only you can decide what it means to you to be meaningfully published.

This is one of my favorite points from the post. How it’s not just about being published, but deciding for yourself what it means to be “meaningfully published.” And the thing is, this will change over time. As soon as you have reached the level you wanted to achieve, you’ll set a new level.

Day, who has published two books and achieved lots of acclaim for her writing, closes with the following point:

I’m 43 years old, and I thought that publishing a book meant I was a writer, but I was wrong. Convincing yourself each day to keep going, this means that you are a writer.

Read the whole post here:

And keep an eye out for my interview, How Cathy Day Became a Writer, coming this fall!

How can I learn to be wild, to be bewildered,
to be wilderness?

Jennifer Perrine’s first collection of poems, The Body Is No Machine (New Issues, 2007), won the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry. Her second book, In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press, 2011), received the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Prize. Perrine lives in Des Moines, Iowa, where she is an associate professor of English at Drake University.

Visit Jennifer’s web page:

Read more by and about Jennifer:

Book: In the Human Zoo
Book: The Body Is No Machine
Poem: If Life Gives You Lemons, Make
Poem: When the Dazzle Isn’t Gradual
Poem: Gender Question #2: Butch, Femme, Androgynous, or All Over the Map? – .

How Jennifer Perrine 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 Jennifer for saying yes!

Book Giveaway: Enter here for a chance to win both of Jennifer’s books!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

This is a trickier question than it seems because of that word want. I wanted to become many things—as a young child, I wanted to become a teacher; as a teenager, I wanted to become a peacemaker; by college, I wanted to become a visual artist and an activist for social justice. In some ways, I might say the desire to become a writer wasn’t an overt choice, but arose out of my attempts to become these other things. When I left college at 21, two courses shy of finishing my degree, I had grown disillusioned with the possibility of ever finding a way to do any of this work that I so longed to do. Instead, I worked two or three minimum wage jobs at a time, doing work that made me feel like I contributed nothing to the world—I sold people donuts and sold them CDs and made institutional meals and scrubbed toilets.

During those years, though, I read rabidly and filled notebooks with writing. I had always been an avid reader and enjoyed writing, but this was when I began to send my writing out into the world, not because I wanted to “be a poet,” but because I ached for connection, both to other people and to a wonderstruck, bold self that seemed to be rapidly disappearing in the rigor and monotony of earning my daily bread. Looking back on my writing from that time, I feel a certain fondness for how earnest it was—I love those poems, even at their most didactic and sloppy, because I see now how they began carving out a space in the world for me to be unabashedly feminist and anti-racist, for me to experiment with the visual aspects of language, for me to assert that I had something worth saying, something worth teaching. I became a writer as a way of finding peace with work that felt soul-crushing and inescapable, and then I wanted to become a writer because writing reminded me I had a soul and that I could escape.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I see now how much, for me, the process of becoming a writer was and is tied to the reasons why I wanted to become a writer. I went about becoming a writer, at least initially, by writing enough to discover that writing could change my world and so, in some small way, change the world.

But there’s more to it than hope and hard work, no? Inspiration and perspiration do account for quite a lot of the process, but there’s something to be said for serendipity, too, as well as for the kindness of relative strangers.  For me, that kindness came from Cynthia Hogue and Saundra Morris, both of whom taught at Bucknell University during my slog through those lean years I mentioned above. I don’t know precisely why they decided to reach out to me—one of their former students was a close friend of mine, and I’d often attended poetry readings at Bucknell, but beyond that, I don’t know quite what they saw in me. In any case, they invited me to apply to the graduate English program in which they taught, were patient while I finished my undergraduate degree, and helped me through the process of acclimating to becoming a writer in academia. Perhaps because of when and where I began becoming a writer, doing so in the context of academia has always been both exciting and perplexing—academia continues to both foster and challenge the ways in which I become a writer, even now that I’m a tenured professor. Perhaps I’ve stayed in academia so long because it does perplex me, and being a bit lost and confused helps me to keep searching for the clarity that writing can bring.

As you might expect, between that initial kindness and my current place in the world, I engaged in many of the predictable ways one might become a writer—I participated in many classes that introduced me to literature and theory with which I’d been unfamiliar; I continued writing and shared my poems in workshops, in journals, in books; I placed many poems in the mail and received many form-letter rejections. I also became many other things while I was becoming a writer, though, and I wouldn’t want to divorce those processes. I became—or more aptly, rediscovered—a person who loved to explore the world, who wanted to try things that were difficult or uncomfortable or even downright frightening, who aspired to understand people and situations that seemed incomprehensible, who found empathy when finding apathy would have been so much easier.  I learned about anatomy and religion and history, and I also learned how to tend a garden, how to care for animals, how to love well. I learned to speak, to be assertive, but also to remain patient, to listen. I’m still learning all these things, but each has helped me become a writer, by leading me to discover what writing might also have to teach me about the world of which I’m a part and how to care for that world, about the importance of the right word and of silences.

“Ex Ovo Omnia,” Poem by Jennifer Perrine, art by Julie Evanoff

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

Who hasn’t helped me? I’ve been tempted, with both books, to write an acknowledgments page that reads like liner notes, shouting out to every person who’s helped me become a writer, but the list grows and reaches its tendrils into every bit of my life, until it could become a book of its own. So, I’ll offer here a Cliff’s Notes version of that book.

I’ve been lucky to have a few close friends who are also writers—Stacey Waite, Susanna Childress, Sara Pennington—who have supported and inspired me, both as a writer and as a human being. They’ve read my poems, shared their work with me, given me ideas about what to read next, but more importantly, they’ve been good friends and good people, consistently willing to speak the truths and ask the questions that I most need to hear.

My teachers have helped me, too—every one of them. I’ll mention some that I didn’t have the presence of mind to thank at the time, though, in the hopes that they’ll read this and know how grateful I am.  I’ve had a number of literature teachers who have shown me the power of writing and then have given me gentle nudges, suggesting that I, too, might be capable of becoming a writer. Jeanne Zeck, Susan Bowers, Larry Roth, Harold Schweizer—they each helped guide me on the path to becoming a writer, partly by expecting more of me than I expected of myself, and partly by knowing how to handle with compassion the rough, raw person I was a decade or more ago.

Sonia Sanchez

I also want to acknowledge one teacher who gave me a not-so-gentle nudge: Sonia Sanchez, who led a poetry workshop in which I participated, once began a meeting in her office by telling me that, though my poems were carefully crafted, I had no wilderness in me. I broke into tears, and then made up a ridiculous excuse for my crying because at the time, I prided myself on being tough and did not want anybody, let alone Sonia Sanchez, to know that they could so easily reduce me to rubble.  Later, I raged—How dare she say I have no wilderness? She doesn’t know me! Later still, I puzzled over her statement—how does one go about finding wilderness? I’ve spent the last ten years trying to answer that question, and that question has shaped not only my process of becoming a writer, but also my life as a whole. How can I learn to be wild, to be bewildered, to be wilderness?

I’ve been fortunate to have people who help me practice seeking wilderness on a daily basis. I try to encourage this wilderness in my students, and this helps keep me vulnerable to being wild myself. After all, when I speak to them of risk-taking, of discovery through failure, how can they trust me unless I show them that I’m engaged in that process, too? My students challenge me, ask me to think and feel more deeply and broadly, and continually remind me, as I work with them, why I wanted to become a writer. I’m delighted to have work that helps me become more compassionate and creative, more exuberant and empathetic, but I’m gobsmacked that I’ve been lucky enough to have a partner who understands that the process of becoming a writer is an ongoing one and who encourages me to walk that path even when it’s confusing or frightening. I know how cheesy it might sound, but to live in the world with someone who is also becoming is a pretty wondrous thing.

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

I’ve always tended to be inspired by writers’ work, rather than their life stories. Perhaps because I have heard so many artists’ biographies cast as one long tale of trauma, suffering, and madness, punctuated by drugs, alcohol, and suicide, I’ve shunned learning too much about the lives of artists I love. I made a recent exception, however, for Jeanette Winterson, whose fiction I have read eagerly and repeatedly. When I discovered she had published a memoir, I knew it would be beautiful and difficult, but I really had no idea how much it would inspire me. Because I had read her semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, I expected certain parts of her memoir to resonate with me—and indeed, her relationship with her mother, with religion, with her body and sexuality all fulfilled those expectations. What surprised and affected me most, though, were the parts of her life where she found language. In a household in which only religious books were allowed, she saved every cent to buy novels, which she read and stored in piles under her mattress until her mother discovered them and promptly burned them all. Winterson writes in her memoir about how this was an empowering moment for her—the spark that led her to memorize passages of books and to write her own because, while books could be so easily destroyed, her memory and her creativity couldn’t.

Jeanette Winterson

Winterson also writes quite frankly about what she describes as “going mad,” as well as the process of allowing herself time to become healthy and sane. While I appreciated her courage in showing that vulnerable part of her life to the world, what inspired me wasn’t so much her recovery as her acknowledgment that after becoming one sort of writer for 25 years—one who believed that the measure of love is loss—she would now have to find a new way to become a writer—one who is learning to love and be loved well. Though my personal struggles haven’t been so dramatic, nor my writing so prolific or widely read, I find myself in a similar place in my life—one in which my way of being in the world has changed quite significantly recently and in which I know my writing must change, too. Winterson inspires me with her willingness to embrace that change—I aspire to be so intrepid.

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

Whatever your means, have broad, deep, varied experiences with the world. Discover what makes you uncomfortable, and then be in that place, spend time with that person, do that thing—the discomfort might remain, but you’ll find that the edge where you reach that discomfort gets further and further away. Cultivate a desire to learn—not just literature or the craft of writing, although those will certainly serve you well, but also anything that could end the sentence, “I’ve always wanted to…” Take risks with your writing—experiment with every possibility you can imagine, and love your “failures” for all they’ve taught you. Get lost in your writing, find some mystery and wilderness there, and let your craft be a vessel that sets you adrift into unexplored territories that your words will map along the way. Practice being in your body, with all its sensations and emotions—this may entail watching less TV. Be kind to other writers—encourage them, inspire them, seek out community and fellowship with them, and don’t let competition and ego undo your good work or theirs. Examine your reasons for writing, your ethics of writing—answer these questions as a way to start that examination.  Enjoy your life.

When students asked if they could write I told them that ten years in the future if they were writing they were writers; if they weren’t writing, they weren’t writers. The reward of writing is writing, just as the reward for being a Marine is being a Marine.

Robert Flynn, professor emeritus, Trinity University and a native of Chillicothe, Texas, is the author of thirteen books. Nine novels: North To Yesterday; In the House of the Lord; The Sounds of Rescue, The Signs of Hope; Wanderer Springs, The Last Klick, The Devil’s Tiger, co-authored with the late Dan Klepper,  Tie-Fast Country and his most recent, Echoes of Glory. His dramatic adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying was the United States entry at the Theater of Nations in Paris in l964 and won a Special Jury Award. He is also the author of a two-part documentary, “A Cowboy Legacy” shown on ABC-TV; a nonfiction narrative, A  Personal  War in  Vietnam, an oral history.

Visit Robert’s web site:

Read more by and about Robert:

Jade Books: Jade: Outlaw, Jade: The Law

Novel: Echoes of Glory

Novel: North to Yesterday

Story Collection: Living with the Hyenas

How Robert Flynn 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 until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Denise at San Antonio Tourist for recommending Robert, and thanks to Robert for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

From an early age I felt a sense of vocation. I was born and reared on my father’s farm and I spent a lot of time alone working in the field or herding animals. To entertain myself I made up stories or sometimes impromptu speeches beyond the hearing of any human. I spent a lot of time trying to understand what that feeling meant before I knew there was a word called “vocation.”  I took a longer time trying to understand what “vocation” meant to me. I didn’t know any writers and had no idea that someone born on a farm could be a “writer” or “author.” Those were from far away places like England or New York City. I dropped out of college to enlist in the Marines because my country was at war and I didn’t know how I could not go to its defense. The only thing I remember my father ever asking me to do for him was to keep a diary while I was in the Marines. His father was murdered when my dad was eight-years-old and he and his older brothers had to help their mother save the farm. They went to school when there was no work to be done on the farm. I don’t know how far my father got in school but he kept records on the farm and he had kept a diary when he was in an infantry division during World War One. He asked me to do the same. He never asked to read it or whether I kept one but I did write every night before I went to sleep and I learned that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I liked examining my life.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

After the Marines I returned to college and Paul Baker, highly regarded professor, wrote on one of my papers that I could write. He didn’t say I could write well, just that I could write and I took that as permission. Telling someone that you’re going to be a writer is not like saying you’re going to be a doctor or lawyer. It’s like saying you’re going to be a movie star and seeing your friends snickering. “Who does he think he is?” So, I never said that to anyone. I did work up enough courage to tell my wife that I wanted to be a writer. She didn’t scream or laugh. She said that if that’s what I wanted she would help me. We were very young and neither of knew what that would entail. We did know that we would have to support writing, that it wouldn’t support us. I had graduated from Baylor University and they had classes in playwriting so I decided to return, get a Master’s Degree and then see how the world looked.

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

My wife supported me, sometimes financially, even when I took risks and sometimes I did. Two men were my mentors, critics, guides and friends. Paul Baker, chair of the Baylor Department of Drama and Eugene McKinney who taught playwriting. Directors in the directing classes selected plays from the playwriting classes and cast students from the acting classes to perform the selected plays. Two of my plays were selected and performed before an audience. I knew then that writing was my vocation. However, every idea comes in its own form and the ideas that came were better suited for reading than for viewing. I wrote stories that were rejected, sometimes seemingly on the same day. Because of a major upheaval I began writing my first novel. I saw it as an anti-western, a story that dispelled western themes and myths. It was a quest story, the search for a “holy grail,”  a pilgrimage story of men trying to find themselves in their dreams of doing something heroic. However, the plot was a cattle drive from Texas, after the days of trail driving were over, to “Trails End,” a former cow town that had become a near ghost town. If I sent it to a publisher that published westerns it would likely be rejected because it didn’t follow the western format, and if they did publish it readers and reviewers would prejudge it as a western and declare it a failure. In searching for a publisher I found that Alfred Knopf declared they did not publish westerns. If they published it, everyone would know it was not “Six-guns at the Junction.” I sent in to Knopf “over the transom” with a letter that stated the story was no more a western than “Don Quixote” was a western. That seemed to intrigue them. After several months I received a letter that the novel had been read but they wanted another editor to read it. I sent that letter to an agent who was recommended to me and he said that if they were that interested he would contact them and tell them to give me a contract or a rejection so that he could move on to other publishers. They sent a contract.

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

The book that has most inspired me and to which I often return is “The Creative Process” edited by Brewster Ghislen, a collection of writings about their creative process by creative thinkers such as Henri Poincare, Albert Einstein, Amadeus Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso  Henry Moore. Among the writers are William Wordsworth, A.E.Housman, William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, Henry Miller, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung.

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

Be patient. Paul Baker told me that it took ten years to be a physician. When students asked if they could write I told them that ten years in the future if they were writing they were writers; if they weren’t writing, they weren’t writers. The reward of writing is writing, just as the reward for being a Marine is being a Marine. There is no guarantee of “success”  unless you define it as writing as long as you can think. Discover your resistances to work. We all have them. The most common one is fear of failure. If you never begin the poem, never finish the story, never mail the manuscript to a publisher, you can pretend you haven’t failed. Take the Thomas Edison approach: you have discovered 3, 10, 20 ways not to write a poem or story. Every kind of work has its frustrations; learn to live with them. Enjoy the process. Maybe nothing you write will be published in your lifetime but writing is something you can enjoy every day for the rest of your life, God be willing. And maybe, even if doctors think you are comatose you are back in your childhood inventing stories for your own pleasure.

It is no accident that slaves were forbidden to read and write, or that women were long kept out of universities. Knowing this so early on made me believe that being a writer was the best thing one could be and that writing literature was the most revolutionary, dangerous, powerful, empowering and important thing a human being could do.

Dr. Amina Lolita Gautier is the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her short story collection At-Risk. Gautier is the second African American writer to win this award in its thirty year history. Gautier is a writer, scholar, and professor. Following in the footsteps of the late nineteenth century African American intellectual (Charles W. Chesnutt, W.E.B. DuBois, Frances E. W. Harper, and Pauline Hopkins) who merged both critical and creative talents, Gautier’s academic interests are two-fold. Her background as a scholar of 19th Century American literature and, more generally, African American literature combines with her training as a fiction writer such that she is both a critic and a creative writer, fully engaged in the analysis and creation of literature.

More than seventy of her short stories have been published, appearing in Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review and Southern Review among other places, and her fiction has been extensively reprinted, appearing in several anthologies, including Best African American Fiction 2009, Best African American Fiction 2010, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2008, The Notre Dame Review: The First Ten Years, The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Contemporary Women Writers on Forerunners in Fiction, and Voices. Gautier is the recipient of the William Richey Prize, the Jack Dyer Prize, the Danahy Fiction Prize, the Schlafly Microfiction Award and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Award. She has received fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Callaloo Writer’s Workshop, Hurston/Wright Writer’s Workshop, and the Ucross Residency.

Visit her web site:

Read more by and about Amina:

Book: At Risk
Story with audio: “Love, Creusa” at Shenandoah
Story: “Preferences” at Pindeldyboz
Story: “Minnow” at River Styx
Interview at Dominion of New York

How Amina Gautier 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 until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Amina for saying yes!

Note: This is an April Fool’s Day treat! I’m posting the newest interview today – a week early – and will take off on Easter Sunday. Enjoy!

1.     Why did you want to become a writer?

I came of age during the anti-apartheid movement in the US; I was an adolescent when Stevie Wonder recorded his anti-apartheid song, when the play Sarafina! toured New York, when the Cosby spin-off A Different World was weaving anti-apartheid material into its episodes, and when Nelson Mandela was not yet free. At home, my mother had a copy of Kaffir Boy and when I entered ninth grade, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People was selected as the book in common, the one text all incoming students would have to read and discuss communally. I was surrounded by adult and peer discussions of apartheid, which also led to conversations wherein which it was easy to draw parallels between the restrictions placed upon native (black) South Africans during apartheid and on African Americans during slavery and after the Reconstruction, one of the most obvious being restrictions upon literacy and education. This atmosphere impressed upon me the importance, power and danger of literature. When factions attempt to create oppressed societies, one of the foremost ways they go about doing so is by banning thought-provoking literature. It is no accident that slaves were forbidden to read and write, or that women were long kept out of universities. Knowing this so early on made me believe that being a writer was the best thing one could be and that writing literature was the most revolutionary, dangerous, powerful, empowering and important thing a human being could do.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

Short Answer: I have always been a writer.

Long Answer: I played with dolls and listened to music. When I was a child, I imbibed many elements of craft without any conscious effort on my part, learning quite a bit about writing stories from playing with my toys and listening to music. Any child who has played with toys—be it Barbie or Transformers—has the makings of a fiction writer. As any kid knows, there’s no game without a premise or story. Playing with dolls went a long way to helping me learn the intricacies of plot. No matter what I had in mind for Barbie and Ken, Midge or Skipper could always interfere. Enter subplot. Enter characterization. Enter forward moving action motivated by a character’s wants or desires.

The Temptations; image from Wikipedia

The first stories I ever recognized as stories were actually songs. There was no way to live in my childhood home and not be exposed to music. When I was younger, I was part of an extended family and I had only to walk from one room to another to hear a different song i.e. a different story. My grandmother played gospel, my cousin favored hip hop, and my uncle preferred rock, but it was in my mother’s room, where she played soul music that I first absorbed stories. The songs I heard: Ashford and Simpson’s “Hi-Rise” The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and “Since I Lost My Baby,” Luther Vandross’s “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me,” The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” and “Children of the Night,” Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It” and “Jimmy Lee,” Natalie Cole’s “Just Can’t Stay Away,” Blue Magic’s “Sideshow” and Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s duet “You Are My Heaven” were complete and linear narratives set to music. They had beginnings, middles, and ends. If you took away the musical accompaniment, you would have short stories.

In the more formal sense, I began with writing poetry, in the way that most elementary school kids in Brooklyn begin with writing poetry. My language arts teacher exposed us to poetry around the fourth grade and made us kids in the gifted class enter a variety of poetry contests. My poems won a bunch of these school-wide, district-wide, borough-wide, city-wide contests. One particular win allowed me to meet the mayor (Koch, at the time) and shake his hand. All of the contest wins came with trophies and savings bonds. All in all, it was a good deal and it wasn’t anything I thought very much about. When I got to Stanford, I majored in English with a Creative Writing Emphasis (the precursor to the minor which the university now offers). The creative writing courses were all taught by Jones Lecturers (former Stegner Fellows who stayed on to teach) and entry into the courses was by lottery only.

As lottery would have it, my number came up for the fiction workshop first, though I continued to write poetry. My fiction instructor shared an office with one of the poetry instructors and one afternoon I brought some of my poetry to Chris Wiman for some feedback. After showing him my poems, he promptly shot me down. And—here’s the thing—I let him. I realized that I had no desire to be a poet if I had to train to do it. This was partly because the rewards of it had come too easily to me as an adolescent and partly because I just wasn’t interested enough. That’s how I knew I was a fiction writer. I’d only been in the workshop for one quarter, but I already knew that if I’d shown my fiction teacher my stories and he told me I would never make it and advised me to quit, I would not have been meek and walked away with my tail between my legs. I would have ignored him, marched to my dorm, written ten brand new stories, and made him choke on his words. After only weeks, I was fully invested. There was no one in the world that could discourage me. In order to be a fiction writer, I was willing to be in it for the long haul, to work as hard as it took, to write as many hours as it required, to dump as many boyfriends as it necessitated and to lose as much sleep as I could afford.

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

Odd as this may seem, my Latin teachers helped me to become a good writer. I started studying Latin in fifth grade and continued with it all the way through high school to AP Latin my junior year, after which there was nothing left to study until college. The rules of grammar, which I found confusing or irregular in English, made sense to me when I viewed them through the lens of this non-native language. Exposure to Latin will, of course, improve anyone’s vocabulary, but the focus on word formation, etymology, derivatives and nuanced language will serve the fiction writer a good turn. Since no one expects secondary school Latin students to prepare for lives as theologians or priests, much of the material students learn to translate is secular rather than ecclesiastical. Thus, Latin exposed me to rhetoric and poetry. Although I learned first through another language, I was already well-versed in scansion, metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, hyperbole, irony, litotes, caesuras and all of the other rhetorical devices long before I ever got to AP English. My study of Latin made me hyper-aware of language, syntax, diction, and rhetoric earlier than I might have been expected to care about the formal qualities of language. Thank you—ago tibi gratias— Mr. Doddington, Mr. Schroeder, Mr. Mulgrew, Miss Bennett, Barb Watson and David Demaine.

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

I’m not particularly interested in any fiction writer’s biography. Perhaps I would be if I were reading poetry or autobiography, but when it comes to fiction all I need to know about the writers that I read is that they write damn good stories and don’t cut corners. Just as Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan never met a shot they didn’t like, I’ve never met a story I didn’t like. For just a small investment of my time—somewhere between five and thirty minutes depending on the story’s length—I can read a story that will make my heart and mind grow by leaps and bounds. That’s a great return on investment if ever I’ve heard of one. Unfortunately, I’m not as open-minded when it comes to novels. Given the tendency of many contemporary novels to disintegrate three fourths of the way through, I’m hardly willing to invest hours or days of my time into one unless multiple trusted sources can vouch for it. If, by some chance, I am roped in to reading a novel that dies midway through, I make it a point to never read anything else by that author ever again. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

I am, however, inspired by lines and passages in stories. If I’m in a funk, reading the last line of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or the opening paragraph of Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies” or the “Be a Martin” scene in Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews” will always bring me back to a better frame of mind.

I have always been inspired by the section of John Gardner’s Art of Fiction, in which he says:

To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on. That is not to say, of course, that the writer who has no personal experience of pain and terror should try to write about pain and terror, or that one should never write lightly, humorously; it is only to say that every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded toward life or death. It does not mean, either that writers should write moralistically, like preachers. And above all it does not mean that writers should lie. It means only that they should think, always, of what harm they might inadvertently do and not do it. If there is good to be said, the writer should remember to say it. If there is bad, to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.”

Gardner’s suggestion that literature can soothe the desperate and that good literature is a matter of life and death rings true with me. Literature has certainly saved my sanity. Therefore, whenever I write, I am always mindful of Gardner’s inspiring advice. It reminds me that my reader has many faces. He or she is not just a person with leisure reclining on a sofa. He or she is also a nursing home patient, the quiet teen who turns to books when shut out of reindeer games and socializing and reads late at night in corners of the house/apartment when parents are asleep, an infirm person who rarely has visitors, the adolescent who closes the bedroom door and buries himself or herself in a book to drown out the noise of adults fighting, the retiree who has been waiting decades to read literature at leisure. Knowing this prevents me from cutting corners and taking shortcuts as a writer, it deters me from writing gimmicky material, veers me away from sentimentality, forces me to write however many drafts the story requires.

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

Dear Writer,

1.     Get Out of Your Own Way:

In his rap “Bad” LL Cool J rhymes “You want a hit? Give me an hour plus a pen and a pad!” Bravado aside, his lyrics boil the writing process down to its bare essentials. In terms of accoutrements, all a writer needs in order to write is pen and paper. All of other the niceties are a bonus, like sprinkles on ice cream, nice but not necessary. Real writers can write anywhere, anytime, anyplace. You don’t need a certain time of day, peace and quiet, the right circumstances, the correct placement of the constellations in the sky, green apples or any type of rituals. You don’t even need a muse. These esoteric needs are actually self-imposed obstacles and roadblocks aspiring writers place in their paths. If you spend your time awaiting optimal conditions to begin writing, you are setting yourself up to fail. Writers are not picky. When we need to write, we will write on whatever is handy. I have written on computers, typewriters, and word processors. I have written by hand. I have filled spiral notebooks, Trapper Keepers, legal pads. I have written on index cards, construction paper, receipts and cereal boxes. I have even written on myself. I am a writer. I write.

2.     Don’t try to write something ‘new.’ Just try to write something good.

Although fiction is not as old as poetry in terms of genre, it is at least four hundred years old (if not older), if we date it back to 1605 with Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which many cite as the “first novel.” Plenty of stories have been written since then and most, if not all, stories have already been told. Writing a short story as a series of emails is neither new nor innovative, since it is based on the premise of writing a short story as a series of letters, a technique which is at least as old as Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748). Same thing goes for writing the story in the form of a photo album, homework assignment, map, radio broadcast, telegram, or PowerPoint presentation. Ditto for writing the story in second person, first person plural, or the point of view of an animal/inanimate object/ghost. This is not to say that the writer should eschew experimenting with these forms or any others; it is merely to say that the writer who does so in the belief that adopting any of these forms makes the story “new” is a writer who is not well-read enough to discern. There has been a tendency among aspiring writers and workshop students (at least in my own classes) to offer the following commentary as praise when discussing a fellow student’s story: “This is good. I’ve never seen it before. It’s very original” which erroneously conflates quality, originality and lack of exposure, when all it really means is that the person making the comment needs to read more and read better.

3.     Remember what Yoda told Luke: “Do or do not. There is no try.”