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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.

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

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

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

Kingcvrfrntlo-res_000Read more by and about Patricia:

Story: “Rooster Hour” in Narrative

Chapbook: The Death of Carrie Bradshaw (Kore Press)

Review of The Death of Carrie Bradshaw

Excerpt: from “Dogs in Guatemala” in Nimrod

How Patricia Grace King Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Patricia for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

The short answer is: It took a life crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from albavolunteer.org; click for link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I immersed myself in new situations and surroundings all the time—I lived in South Bend, Indiana; Philadelphia; Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic; Rottenberg am Neckar, Germany; Caracas, Venezuela; Austin, Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv. I had a baby. All of these things make the world absolutely new—or maybe they made me new, and forced me to reinvent language and my relationship to it.

sulak photo

Marcela Sulak was born and raised on a rice farm in South Texas.  She attended The University of Texas at Austin, where she received a BA in Psychology and Honors English.  She received an MFA and an MA at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, winning the William Mitchell Award for Best Graduate Creative Thesis. She holds an MA in Religious Studies from VillaNova University, and her Ph.D. in English is from The University of Texas at Austin with concentrations in Poetry and Poetics, American Literature, and a certificate in European Studies. She is a four-time recipient of the Academy of American Poetry Prize, and has won five FLAS prizes for the study of Czech and Yiddish. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Immigrant (Black Lawrence Press, 2010) and the chapbook Of All The Things That Don’t Exist, I Love You Best (Finishing Line Press). Other poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as  Guernica, The Black Warrior Review, The Cimarron Review, The Notre Dame Review, Fence, The Indiana Review, The Cortland Review, Quarterly West, Third Coast and No Tell Motel, among others.

Website: http://www.marcelasulak.com/

2389082Read more by and about Marcela:

Book of Poems: Immigrant

Chapbook: Of all the things that don’t exist, I love you best

Translation: A Bouquet of Czech Folktales

Poem at Guernica: Marriage

Poem at Cortland Review: Jerusalem, a ghazal

How Marcela Sulak 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 Marcela for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I am not sure I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to become a reader. I grew up on a rice farm five miles outside of a town of 250 or so (the town was not incorporated), so I read a lot.  All the time, in fact. And when my siblings and I were outside, our immediate world was mediated through the stories my father and my maternal grandparents told about it—we grew up a mile from where my father did, and ten miles from where my mother was raised. I grew up with the expectation that everything around me contained a story.  I suppose I began to write in order to have a dialogue, to add to the family conversation with the land and with one another, and with the books I read.

The world portrayed in books never matched the world of our rice farm, though; we did not have snow or really much of a change in seasons. We had no highrise buildings or elevators—I must have been in high school before I saw either an elevator or an escalator. And since this was the end of the twentieth century, not the end of the nineteenth century, I realized later, my experience was unusual.  At any rate, after I left the farm, I found the world a pretty exotic place. It gave me the sense of a foreigner everywhere I went. Somehow, this feeling seems to be conducive to writing.

413vaBo3gmL._SX240_2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I read a lot, everything in the public library and school library. I began to keep a journal when I was twelve and have kept it ever since. I try to free write in the journal for at least 30 minutes a day—everything from new words to recipes to names of birds to things that happened to me or things I saw. I also studied literature at university and creative writing in graduate school. But what really helped me become a writer was simply the practice of reading and writing.

Also, I immersed myself in new situations and surroundings all the time—I lived in South Bend, Indiana; Philadelphia; Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic; Rottenberg am Neckar, Germany; Caracas, Venezuela; Austin, Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv. I had a baby. All of these things make the world absolutely new—or maybe they made me new, and forced me to reinvent language and my relationship to it. They certainly forced me to renegotiate my relationship to the world. This can be exhausting, but there is nothing like the perspective it gives you.

I did my MFA straight out of undergraduate, but that was really too early for me. I needed to expand my horizons first.  I worked as an English teacher, free lance writer and university adjunct instructor for ten years, then went back to graduate school, and that’s when I started publishing poems in journals. I also translated poetry, and my first book-length translation of poetry was published before my first book of poems.  As for my poems, I just kept writing them, editing them (by which I mean throwing most of them away and cutting the others quite a bit) until one day I had enough that weren’t completely awful to start thinking about a book.

41DI6lVn0dL._SY320_3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

In sixth grade my teacher introduced me to her friend, Mrs. Mickey Huffstutler, who was a “real poet.” I think she even drove me to meet her at her house in another town the first time. Mrs. Huffstutler introduced me to prosody and received forms, and told me I needed to frame my highly subjective impressions of the world, and to write more concretely—to use nouns and verbs instead of adjectives. Also, I needed to give the reader a frame or a place to enter the poem, thereby introducing me to the idea that my poem might have a reader apart from me. She also introduced me to the concept of a writing community, by introducing me to the Poetry Society of Texas.

At the University of Notre Dame, where I received my M.F.A., I was greatly aided by John Matthias, Sonia Gernes and Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, and later, at the University of Texas, where I received a Ph.D. I was aided by studying prosody with Tom Cable, and poetry with Tom Whitbread, David Wevil and Khaled Mattawa. They were all exceedingly generous and helpful. When I was an undergraduate, Joseph Malof and Kate Frost both at the University of Texas, taught me to close read modernist poetry and Shakespeare, and that has been life-changing.  Today I am helped a lot by the writers with whom I’ve studied, and with whom I remain close, and writers whose work I’ve admired.

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

I am inspired by Veronica Franco (1546-1591) a Venetian courtesan who was one of the most eloquent writers of her period; she also was a prolific writer in many genres. By her eloquence (and perhaps her connections) she defended herself against accusations of witchcraft before the Inquisition and was acquitted. She allied herself with the most distinguished families of Venice, and all who traveled there, yet she publicly defended her fellow courtesans and spoke out against their mistreatment by men. I love how she lived by her wits; indeed, she often wrote for her life.

Veronica Franco (Image from wikimedia)

I admire those who look beyond their own difficult lives and give voice to those whom no one else defends.  To do this well, you have to use new forms in fresh and energetic ways, so as to give the reader a stake in the story. Muriel Rukeyser, C.D. Wright and Lola Ridge write the kind of documentary poetry that puts the reader in a sort of jury box.  And perhaps most of all I an inspired by Nazim Hikmet and Taha Muhammad Ali, whose writing reaffirms their deepest humanity despite the fact they were placed in the most dehumanizing of circumstances—imprisoned and evicted from their home, respectively.

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

Read as widely as you can the best books, poems, stories and essays you can. Try to be as compassionate as possible. And write every day. I learned a lot by imitating the poets I admired in order to learn their tricks. Also, only send your work to journals you yourself enjoy reading.

How Jac Jemc Became a Writer

November 11, 2012 — 3 Comments

I love to read, and so I want to write things that I would like to read. It’s the only thing more rewarding than reading for me.

Jac Jemc lives in Chicago where she makes monsters and writes fiction and poetry. Her first novel, My Only Wife, was published by Dzanc Books in April 2012 and a chapbook of stories, This Stranger She’d Invited In, sold out at Greying Ghost Press in March 2011 .  Jac’s writing has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, finished 2nd place in the Marginalia College Contest and placed as a finalist for the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Contest and Sentence Firewheel Chapbook Contest.  Her story “Women in Wells” was featured in the 2010 Best of the Web. Jac received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has completed residencies at Ragdale and the Vermont Studio Center. She is poetry editor at decomP and member of the editorial team at Tarpaulin Sky. She has served as a guest editor of Little White Poetry Journal  and and Hobart Web, and worked as a reader at Our Stories and The Means. In 2012 she was the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Professional Development Grant.

Visit her web site: http://jacjemc.com

Read more by and about Jac:

Novel: My Only Wife

Novel excerpt: My Wife, the Weight at Melusine

Story: The Grifted at Collagist

Story: Prowlers at Necessary Fiction

How Jac Jemc 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 Jac for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was in the third grade, I told my teacher my dream was to write a 100-page book. Then I forgot about that for a while, and tried some other things: music and acting, but I continued being a big reader. When I was in college I started writing again more seriously, and I realized how important it was to me, and that I could accomplish what I wanted to express in a way I hadn’t been able to achieve before. The more I read, the more ways of telling a story there seemed to be, and that made writing more and more attractive to me. I was finishing out a degree in theater, but I discovered that I really preferred working alone.  I think I might not be a terrific collaborator because I tend to want to follow through my own idea from beginning to end, and theater had a few too many variables for me. I think the short answer though, is that I love to read, and so I want to write things that I would like to read. It’s the only thing more rewarding than reading for me.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

So all of the things I just said go into the actual steps to ‘becoming a writer.’ But I started a double major in English Creative Writing and worked with some terrifically supportive professors in undergrad. I made a couple independent studies in novel writing and playwriting (which I realized was not for me) that seemed super important to my development. The novel writing independent study was with a poetry teacher, so I was already on the road to hybrids. When I started looking at grad schools, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago seemed ideal because they’re one of the only schools that doesn’t make you choose a concentration. You can take a poetry class and it might be full of painters who want to talk language and you can take a fiction class that’s full of poets, and the world just opens up. Luckily (haha) it was the only school that I was accepted to, so I wasn’t given the chance to mess up that decision. At SAIC, students have the option to meet weekly with advisors, which I found to be the most valuable part of that program.  I started by setting goals for how many hours a week I want to write. I try to stick to a schedule – if not a regular time every day to write, a certain number of hours a week. Of course, life intervenes and messes with the schedule often, but setting that expectation and working for it is what makes me feel like I can call myself a writer. As soon as I stop making that time a priority is when I’m in jeopardy of “writer” not being a word that applies to me.

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

Those advisors in grad school were huge helps. They taught me how to ask the right questions, and the right question is usually, “Is this what I want it to be? How do I make it what I want it to be?”  Advisors that were invaluable to me were Beth Nugent, Janet Desaulniers, Carol Anshaw, Ellen Rothenberg, Bin Ramke. I could go on; the whole community was just life-changing. My peers are my biggest motivator now. I’m surrounded by people that write AMAZING work that is exactly what I want to read. I see how hard they work and how true they are to themselves, and I makes me want to work harder.

by Edward Gorey

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

Edward Gorey comes to mind. What an entirely singular vision. He made what he wanted to make even though there was no category for it, and he lived his life in a way that seemed just wholly true to himself, too.  And he LOVED to work! That is so exciting to me.

Eileen Myles, too. Her novel, Inferno is about her life, and she is such an inspiration. She was so fearlessly herself. Patti Smith, too. Lynda Barry. Andy Warhol. All of these people have a way of weaving their work so seamlessly into their lives. That sounds like the perfect world to me, to erase that divide between my creative life and the work it takes to live and keep going.

Book trailer for Eileen Myles, Inferno:

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

I’d say: Read. Write exactly what you want to write, even if it seems like a piece of crap while writing it. Learn how to listen to criticism in a way that allows the writing to become better, but learn how to recognize the suggestions you do and don’t want to follow through with. See lots of art and watch movies and be with people and live your whole life. It’s easy to feel like you need to accomplish everything immediately, but you need to live, too.  There is time. So much time. You can be Woody Allen and put out a movie every year, whether it’s good or bad, or you can be Terrence Malick, making a film a decade: whatever works for you. Read and write.

I find my students and the tiny pieces I know of their lives very inspiring; I think they’re so brave, many of them, to want to become writers, and they make me want it for them, too.

Photo Credit: Drew Dalton

Erica Bernheim is the author of The Mimic Sea. She was born in New Jersey and grew up in Ohio and Italy. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since 2008, she has been an Assistant Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she teaches creative writing and directs the Honors Program.

Read more by and about Erica:

Book: The Mimic Sea

Poem: Like a Face

Poem: Elegy Next to Cleanliness

Review of The Mimic Sea

Poem: 63rd and Pulaski

How Erica Bernheim Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Erica for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I was fortunate to grow up in a home where reading was encouraged. Becoming a writer seemed like a natural progression to me, something you could do after you had read enough books to have your own ideas. My father is a writer and an English professor, my mother is an editor, and books were almost always on hand; when they weren’t, creating my own stories seemed like a logical step, although I never did much with poetry until later. I also grew up in a family that travelled constantly, both overseas and for long car trips on a regular basis, and I was fortunate to be a good car reader (of books, never maps!). I learned to read quickly and would think about whatever I read for a long time afterwards, trying to remember sentences verbatim, and puzzling over whatever I had forgotten to remember, hoping I could try something like whatever I had read in a book of my own at some point. I wanted to make other people feel the way I did when I read something I loved.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I majored in English in college, but it wasn’t until I enrolled in an MFA program that I found a community of writers, many of whom I remain close with still, like Michael Dumanis, Robyn Schiff, Nick Twemlow, Suzanne Buffam, and Chicu Reddy. Being around other writers showed me how to be one, as well as how not to be one. After finishing the MFA program, I moved to Chicago and worked in publishing for a few years. For me, taking a few years off between the MFA and PhD was important. I wrote a lot during that time; I relied on writing in a way I never had before, and I realized that I wanted to be around writing all the time, that it shouldn’t be a luxury or just a special occasion.

Robert Creeley in 1972. Photo by Elsa Dorfman, courtesy Wikimedia.

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

I already mentioned my parents and their guidance and encouragement, but I’ve also had incredibly smart and generous teachers. Keith Tuma, Jim Reiss, Jorie Graham, Mark Levine, Dean Young, and Jim Galvin were tremendously supportive. Studying Faulkner at UIC with Chris Messenger taught me a lot about how to be a scholar and a professor. And of course there are so many poets whose work has helped me. The most important has always been Robert Creeley, whose poems I happened upon happily in Paul Hoover’s Norton Postmodern Anthology. After reading Creeley’s work, I switched from writing fiction to poetry and have never switched back. I also started reading John Berryman and Denis Johnson around this time. Brenda Shaughnessy and Noelle Kocot’s work has helped me find more to admire in language and scope and narrative, as do the poets I mentioned in Question #2. Working with 42 Miles Press and with David Dodd Lee has been a wonderful experience, and their support has been somewhere far beyond helpful and into the miraculous.

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

This was the hardest question for me! I am inspired by the work—rather than the lives—of many artists and writers, and yet I struggle with a semi-New Criticism impulse to separate biographies and texts. Oliver Sacks might be a good answer for me to this question; I admire people who can do practical things, like figure out how to relieve people of suffering, and I think he is a beautiful writer, someone who clearly loves sounds and language and humor and pathos. And perhaps it’s strange to say this, but I find my students and the tiny pieces I know of their lives very inspiring; I think they’re so brave, many of them, to want to become writers, and they make me want it for them, too.

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

Read a lot. Read everything. Go to other people’s readings. Find a community of writers. Get used to sending your work out. Keep track of both the rejections and the acceptances. Try other things, too, and see if writing is still the best. Listen to every conversation you can. Eavesdrop. Keep a pen and scrap of paper with you always and write everything down before you can forget to remember it.

…I only read classics, especially 19 th and early 20th century novels. The longer the better. Dickens, Austen, Wharton, Zola, Thackery, Hardy . This was how I wanted to write – long novels, a ton of description, metaphors, and intricate plots. But I couldn’t write like that, which is why I always felt like a failure.

Jen McConnell has just had her debut collection of short stories, Welcome, Anybody, published by Press 53. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and undergraduate degree from the University of California, Irvine. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines across the country. Originally from California, she currently makes her home on the Lake Erie shore with her husband, daughter, and pugs. She is currently working on a novel.

Web page: http://www.jenmcconnell.com/

Read more by and about Jen:

Book: Welcome, Anybody
Short Story: “Shakespeare’s Garden”
Short Story: “What We Call Living”

How Jen McConnell Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jen for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer? 

I don’t remember a specific moment where I decided to become a writer. But I remember very clearly when I decided I did NOT want to be a writer.

Like most writers, I was an avid reader as a kid. I picture myself being born with a book in my hand and being annoyed at the doctor for interrupting my reading. Reading and going to school were my escapes from everything unpleasant in life.

I read everything I could get my hands on. I remember in middle school going to our tiny branch library two or three times a week and having trouble selecting something because I’d read every book in the Young Adult section. That’s when I got hooked on Stephen King and Agatha Christie.

I never really thought about books being written. It sounds silly and I knew that an author wrote books, but to me, books just were. They appeared in the library (my family rarely bought books) and I gave no thought to how they arrived there.

I wrote stories in high school for English classes and enjoyed it. I wrote your average awful teenage angsty poetry but it wasn’t until college that I had some vague idea that I wanted to write. Not BE a writer but just write.

Sophomore year, I wrote an O. Henry type story and sent it into a contest. It was rejected. That’s when I thought, “Nope, not for me. I obviously have no talent and should just give up now.”  So I did.

After college, I moved from southern California to Washington, D.C. and back. In between I married my college sweetheart. There was hardly enough time to read books much less write them. We constantly worried about employment and money. I dabbled a bit here and there, keeping journals, writing down ideas, but didn’t write any fiction.

When I was 25, married and living in Sacramento, CA, I decided, ok, now I am going to be a writer. I was unemployed again so I had some time. I told people I was a writer. I had a ‘big idea’ for a novel and spent months outlining the novel, writing character sketches, etc. but not actually writing any of the novel.

A year later, I got divorced and moved westward to San Francisco. I didn’t know anybody in the city but had a job and a room in an apartment. I decided two things for my new life: 1) I couldn’t call myself a writer unless I actually writing something and 2) I was going to do three things that scared me the most: play a team sport, speak in front of a group of people, and take a fiction writing class.

Volleyball was a total bust. I was as bad at team sports as a grown up as I was as a kid. I took an acting class where I discovered that yes, I am still petrified of speaking in front of people, so I kept forgetting my lines.

But that fiction writing class? The universe smiled on me for that one. It’s a long story so I will just say if it wasn’t for that class – and that teacher – I would not be a writer.

"...the scales falling from my eyes - Raymond Carver."

2. How did you go about becoming a writer? 

I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I still didn’t believe that I had any talent but within the structure of a class, I had no trouble churning out pages. By the end of a year I had a basic, and very terrible, first draft of a novel.

I also began to read contemporary writers. I am embarrassed to say it but it is true – during college and after, right up until that first fiction writing class I only read classics, especially 19 th and early 20th century novels. The longer the better. Dickens, Austen, Wharton, Zola, Thackery, Hardy . This was how I wanted to write – long novels, a ton of description, metaphors, and intricate plots. But I couldn’t write like that, which is why I always felt like a failure.

The teacher, the writer Lewis Buzbee, introduced me to the works of Joan Didion, Richard Ford, Alice Munro and – the scales falling from my eyes – Raymond Carver. I’m not comparing myself to Raymond Carver but his deceptively simple prose showed me a different way to tell a story. A way that didn’t need fancy metaphors or convoluted plots. And – another revelation – I could write short stories. I didn’t have to write novels.

I didn’t call myself a writer, however. Now that I was reading amazing contemporary writers, there was no way I could call myself that.

I studied with Lewis for another two years, until – with his encouragement and guidance – I was accepted into Goddard College’s MFA program. Again, the universe knew what it was doing. Goddard was/is a crazy place but it was exactly what I needed when I needed it.

It was toward the end of my first year that I began to call myself a writer. I realized that the definition of a writer is one who writes. It is as simple as that.

And while I still didn’t think I was any good (I had published one story at that point, but assumed it was a fluke), I never stopped writing. I thought maybe I could fool people into forgiving the quality if I overloaded them with quantity.

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

Of course the most influence and helpful along the way was Lewis Buzbee. It wasn’t just that he was a great teacher and mentor, but that he was also a working writer. And a great one at that.

Lewis Buzbee

Obviously the program at Goddard, especially two of my professors, the writers Tara Ison and Rebecca Brown. They pushed me hard enough to make me better but in an encouraging manner that made me want to keep going and not give up.

Another huge support was my boyfriend, then fiancé, then ex-fiancé who helped me financially during grad school AND provided me with so much angst material.

My writing friends from Goddard and beyond, and other friends who have always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.

My husband, Dan Doron. Besides the obvious, the best thing he does is just listens when I give my “that’s it, it’s hopeless, I can’t write, I’m giving up” rant. And he never says “I told you so” when I pick up my pen the next day.

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

Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf definitely. A Room of One’s Own was life-changing. I had read it in college, but because I didn’t think of myself as a writer, it didn’t resonate. Reading it again during grad school motivated me even more. Neither of these women did what they were ‘supposed’ to do, damn the consequences. Their courage inspires me always.

I admire and envy writers, or any artist really, that does what they need to do for their craft. In other words – be completely selfish for their art. Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword. Woolf, Hemingway, Pollack – gave themselves completely to their art but they didn’t exactly live happy lives.

Recently, when I was scraping wallpaper off a bedroom wall so I could repaint it, I thought “I bet Hemingway never in his life scraped wallpaper.” I had just finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain so I was thinking about Papa and the devastation that his selfishness wrecked on everyone around him. But look at his writing – his gift to all of us.

I thought, "I bet Hemingway never in his life scraped wallpaper."

Sometimes I want to be that selfish – to live like I did during grad school – work enough just to pay rent so I can spend ten hours a day writing. But then I look at my family.  Writing is like breathing to me, but life wouldn’t be worth living without them.

If that means I will never be a great writer, so be it. I have an amazingly family who support my writing. It doesn’t get better than that.

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

Don’t give up. You will want to, many times over. Some of your friends and family may not support that decision, seeing how crazy writing makes you but don’t give in.

Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep thinking about writing. Take breaks – sure. But if you are truly a writer, it’s not something you can abandon for long. Those words, ideas, stories will find a way to seep out.

I know it’s hard, believe me I do. But you can’t give up.

Acknowledge that your writing may never be published in the manner you think it should be. It’s not about publishing; it’s about writing.

You know that saying “Dance as if no one is watching”? Write as if no one is reading.