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

Jen reading

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

Read more by and about Jen:

Short Story: “Human Movements

Short Story: “Lillian in White

Interview: Talking about The Tide King

Novella Collection: Could You Be With Her Now

Fiction Collection: Close Encounters

How Jen Michalski Became a Writer

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

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

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

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I took an intro to philosophy class and learned Plato’s theory of the forms,
which blew my mind with its assertions about the nature of language
and the spaces between us, the idea, the image, and reality.
After that I took an intro to creative writing class.
Those two classes, combined with some other experiences I had
outside the classroom, changed how I saw the world.

MATT MULLINS is a writer, musician, experimental filmmaker and multimedia artist. His first book, Three Ways of the Saw, debuts this week from Atticus Books, and his fiction and poetry have appeared in Mid-American Review, Pleiades, Hunger Mountain, Harpur Palate, Descant, Hobart, and a number of other print and online literary journals. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Ball State University where he is a faculty fellow with the Emerging Media Initiative. His recent works of interactive/digital literature can be found at lit-digital.com. Read excerpts, find info about readings, and more at his blog.

Read more by and about Matt:

Book: Three Ways of the Saw

Title story: “Three Ways of the Saw”

Story at Bull: “The Bachelor’s Last”

Story: “I Am and Always Will Be”

How Matt Mullins 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 Matt for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As soon as I understood enough about fiction and poetry to be fully impacted by the things going on inside what I was reading, I felt an immediate urge to try and join the conversation.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I was a solitary kid who read a lot.  Sci-fi, fantasy, history, non-fiction, all kinds of things, though nothing you’d call literary.  I loved being transported by books, and wished I could do it for myself, but I never ventured to try beyond the first paragraph of a Star Wars knock off with a protagonist named Reb Starbayer.

Around age twelve I got distracted by music.  I spent many hours wearing headphones and setting the needle back over the same section of an album while teaching myself how to play the guitar.  I started a rock band my freshman year in high school.  By my senior year we were playing high school dances.  I’d go on to play in working bands for many more years.

But when a record label didn’t materialize out of nowhere to limo me off to LA the instant I graduated high school, I came back to reality and did what my parents expected me to do and went to college.  I had no idea what I wanted to be.  I was considering journalism. Then I took an intro to philosophy class and learned Plato’s theory of the forms, which blew my mind with its assertions about the nature of language and the spaces between us, the idea, the image, and reality. After that I took an intro to creative writing class.  Those two classes, combined with some other experiences I had outside the classroom, changed how I saw the world.  I became a creative writing major and started focusing on learning how to write fiction and poetry.  Next thing I knew I had an MFA, a Ph.D. and manuscripts in hand.

The following is a video poem by Matt Mullins and Michael Pounds:

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

From the standpoint of how others have helped me evolve as a writer along the way, I can say that the teachers I had in graduate school were instrumental.  They exposed me to a wide spectrum of writers, taught me the language of critical examination, and showed me how fiction works.  Likewise, the many excellent writers I’ve known as peers have been helpful in both practical and aesthetic ways.  Every editor who’s ever encouraged me by publishing my work has also helped.  But I think I’ve found the most help in the writers I’ve read.  Nothing is of greater help to someone who wants to write than a great book.

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

Hubert Selby Jr.  Diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis as a teenager while serving in the merchant marine, he was given a year to live.  He underwent an experimental treatment that saved his life but essentially left him unable to work.  Having no money or education or support, he supposedly said, “I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.”  Then by sheer force of will and hard work he became a writer of outsider fiction who ran parallel to and beyond the Beats.

“I was sitting at home and had a profound experience. I experienced, in all of my Being, that someday I was going to die, and it wouldn’t be like it had been happening, almost dying but somehow staying alive, but I would just die! And two things would happen right before I died: I would regret my entire life; I would want to live it over again.” - Hubert Selby, Jr.

Two of his novels, Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream were made into films.  Along the way, his chronic pain caused him to fall into heroin addiction for a few years, but then he kicked it and remained clean for the rest of his life.  He lived to be a grandfather in his seventies.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is an important book for me.  It’s lyrical.  It’s dark.  It’s profound.  It’s technically and structurally unique, and it completely humanizes people who the self-righteously judgmental in our society would consider to be moral outcasts.

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

Hail, Writer!

Consistency is the hobgoblin of the little mind, but that hobgoblin knows a lot of really, really good stories.

Your friend in deed,

Matt

So my romantic theory is this: The religious doctrine I was learning (in many ways irreconcilable with my gender), the mass’ obvious theatricality, and transubstantiation’s inherent metaphor, all helped to make me the poet I am—these things and An American in Paris, of course.

Lesley Jenike is currently an assistant professor of English at the Columbus College of Art and Design where she teaches courses in poetry writing, screenwriting, American literature, and film studies. She received her MFA in poetry from The Ohio State University in 2003 and a Ph.D. in twentieth century American poetry and drama from the University of Cincinnati in 2008. Her first book of poems is Ghost of Fashion (CW Books, 2009) and her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, The Southern Review, Sou’wester, Blackbird, Verse, Rattle, The Birmingham Poetry Review, and other journals. She has received an Academy of American Poets Prize, and fellowships and scholarships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her second book of poems has been a finalist twice for the Anthony Hecht Prize and excerpts will be published soon in an anthology by Waywiser Press.

Visit Lesley’s online home base and blog: https://ccad.digication.com/ljenike/Welcome/published

Read more by and about Lesley:

Book: Ghost of Fashion
“The Stag at Eve” at The Poetry Foundation
Two poems at Blackbird
“On Formalist Poetry” at 32 Poems
“Three’s Brainchild Is” at Verse Daily

How Lesley Jenike 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 Lesley for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was a little girl I enjoyed reading stories and having stories read to me. I honestly think it was as simple as that. I was a verbal kid from the start, and I just really liked the plasticity of words. I’m also lucky enough to have a mother who knows a bunch of old songs and who loved to read to me before bedtime, who sang a lot around the house, and who has a wonderful vocabulary. But my childhood wasn’t all Nabokov, Proust and lollipops at a preternaturally early age. I spent a lot of time alone watching TV, lots of older movies—big 1950’s and early ‘60’s Technicolor musical extravaganzas. Those were my foundational “texts.”

Of course once I hit middle school and life was suddenly complicated—for a variety of reasons—I turned to language again as a way of controlling my own story when I felt so absolutely out of control. This was also the time I started Catholic school. I was at most vulnerable and malleable in those years, spending more rainy afternoons with the Gospels than I ever imagined I would. I loved to sing during mass too, and I found myself looking forward to those songs that happened to have strange and evocative lyrics about blood and ghosts, etc. So my romantic theory is this: The religious doctrine I was learning (in many ways irreconcilable with my gender), the mass’ obvious theatricality, and transubstantiation’s inherent metaphor, all helped to make me the poet I am—these things and An American in Paris, of course. At least this is the story I’m telling myself these days.

At any rate, I must have first encountered Gerard Manley Hopkins during my Catholic school years. Oh Hopkins! He’s always been, for me, the quintessential definition of what poetry is: humanity’s melodious struggle with the Eternal. Or is that a working definition for the American musical? I think it was around then that I really started to write.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I began sharing my writing with other people once I was in high school—The School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood. Even from the first, the place smacked of some kind of hurried professionalism. We were all training to be somebody. If you weren’t in commercials, in touring companies of The Sound of Music, or in Jodi Foster’s movie Little Man Tate, then you knew somebody who was. But despite all the premature jockeying for position, I had trouble differentiating between the arts. I wrote plays for my actor friends and I enjoyed being on stage myself. I drew a little bit and sang a lot. I think I preferred the words I was reciting or singing to the performance itself, but performing was a way to get attention and a way to further engage with language—a means to an end.

I was first in college at the Boston Conservatory of Music, thinking—oh I don’t know—that I would spend a few years singing and dancing, but that writing would be my real future. Writing as a future? At the time I had no real understanding of “academic poetry” or how poets made a living, or even if they made a living. I just knew that I wanted to write and study literature, and that I couldn’t do that at the Boston Conservatory. So after one too many makeup and movement classes, I transferred to Emerson where I started writing in earnest. I took critique seriously and I read a lot. I met some of my life-long writer friends there, and from there I went on to graduate school—simply because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I became a writer because I wasn’t really anything else.

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

Andrew Hudgins

My first creative writing teacher, Nancy Bailey (now Nancy White), was an absolute godsend. She took the time to see me. In college, Bill Knott wrote me a letter for my graduate school applications. I wasn’t really sure whether he liked me (or my work) or not, but he just assumed I was going to graduate school. So I went. At Ohio State I was lucky enough to take classes from so many wonderful professors, but I’m most especially grateful to Andrew Hudgins. Either he saw my potential, thought I was moderately funny, or took pity on me, but in any case, he’s one of the finest teachers anyone could ever hope to have and an immense poet. When I can’t speak to him directly (and I still often ask him for help), I just go to the poems themselves. Jeredith Merrin taught me the value of the “scholar-poet” model (as did Randall Jarrell) and thanks to her, I take very seriously my responsibility as a writer to discuss other writers’ (dead or alive) work, to stay engaged intellectually, and to contribute as much as I can to the ongoing “conversation.”

My professors at the University of Cincinnati were, of course, tremendous. I’m grateful for all the time and energy Don Bogen dedicated to my dissertation, and I’m grateful to John Drury for helping me fall in love with poetry all over again. But the study of writing is really a matter of reading. Shakespeare helped me more than I’ll ever understand (though I imagine Harold Bloom has a theory). Robert Lowell, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Jean Rhys, Henry James, John Ashbery, Virginia Woolf, Jean Genet, Jean Toomer, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Conner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edward Albee, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Coleridge—all these people (and many, many more) help me. And not least of all, my peers, colleagues, and students, who are eternally writing the stuff that wows me.

Edna St. Vincent Millay in NYC

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

Most of the writers I love suffered some (if not innumerable) setbacks. I say this with the luxury of historical distance; I can look at the trajectory of their lives as if they were plays with succinct beginnings, middles, and ends. Of course, as they were living their lives, they no doubt experienced both hardship and happiness, as we all do. I wish I could cherry-pick certain moments. For example, I would love to be a bohemian Edna St. Vincent Millay in Greenwich Village, circa 1920. I’m sure Elizabeth Bishop had moments of pleasure in 1950’s Brazil. And out of curiosity, I’d like to make the pilgrimage to Rapallo with Robert Lowell—but we all know how that journey ended.

Cole Swensen

If I had to choose a living author whose life (from the outside) seems exceptionally beautiful, I’d choose Cole Swensen’s—a poet and scholar whom I admire tremendously. She spends part of the year teaching at Iowa, part of the year in Washington D.C., and part of the year in Paris. Her elegance, intelligence, worldliness, and the sheer drama of her poetic line, are a revelation. The Paris thing isn’t half bad either. I would someday like to live at least a year abroad.

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

Stay modest. Maintain a student’s state-of-mind as long as you can, preferably forever. Certainly form your opinions and tastes, your allegiances and preferences, but never stop learning. The literary tradition is rich and diverse and it’s your responsibility. It should haunt you. It should wake you up at night. It should follow you on your run and cheer you when you’re out at the bar. It should spot you at the gym and hold your hand in the dark of the movie theatre. The minute you stop seeing yourself as a neophyte, you’re dead.

Music and writing have a lot in common.  Songs, of course, are narratives.  Some musical narratives have lyrics, some don’t.  . . . Maybe what I love about language is the cadences and rhythms and susurrations – the music of it.

Darrin Doyle’s first novel, Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story (LSU Press), was described by the NY Times Book Review as “an original tale that earns its readers’ trust, and breaks their hearts a little in the process.”  Publisher’s Weekly called his second novel The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (St. Martin’s Press) “relentlessly inventive.”  Darrin’s stories have appeared in Puerto del Sol, The Long Story, Alaska Quarterly Review, Laurel Review, Harpur Palate and other journals.  He lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan and teaches at Central Michigan University.

Visit his web page: www.darrindoyle.com 

Read more by and about Darrin:

Novel: The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo
Publisher’s Page for GWAK
Novel: Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet
Publisher’s Page for Revenge
Short story: “Foot”
Short Story: “Hand”

 

How Darrin Doyle Became a Writer

This is the latest installment in the new 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 Darrin for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

The short answer is that I’ve always loved words.  The long answer has something to do with an artistic impulse that manifested when I was young.  I played the drums and guitar as a teenager, had a sort of awakening at age 15, stopped playing sports and began channeling my energy into The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Dead Kennedys, Camper Van Beethoven, The Flaming Lips, and lots of other bands.  I started writing originals with a friend of mine, and we formed a band with a couple other guys in high school called 42 Gehenna.  We wrote songs like “Big Bad Bart” and “The Twisted World of Malcolm Potts.”  Of course we stunk, but we managed to beat out five other bands in the Caledonia High School Battle of the Bands in 1987.  Yes!

On King Tammy: "...keeping five guys working together in close quarters, happily functioning as a group while doing constant rehearsing and traveling and eating crappy gas station food and living in bars…it’s fun, but it’s not easy." (Long-haired Darrin on left.)

Anyway, the band – which changed into a group called King Tammy – continued throughout “the college years” all the way to 1996.  We had a decent amount of success, recorded a couple albums (which, if anyone cares, can be found here: http://www.leonstemple.com/kingtammy.html) played lots of shows, opened for some bands that ended up getting famous (Everclear, 311, Urge Overkill).  Ultimately, though, King Tammy broke up.  The indie band lifestyle is difficult to sustain for a long period.  I’m not even speaking about commercial success, which is ridiculously hard to attain.  I’m referring to keeping five guys working together in close quarters, happily functioning as a group while doing constant rehearsing and traveling and eating crappy gas station food and living in bars…it’s fun, but it’s not easy.  Writing, by contrast, only requires me and a writing implement.  When King Tammy broke up, I found the writing life to be a nice change of pace, although I do miss the camaraderie of playing in a band.

But music and writing have a lot in common.  Songs, of course, are narratives.  Some musical narratives have lyrics, some don’t.  I was always better at writing melodies and chord progressions than lyrics.  I’m not sure why, and this flies in the face of my claim that “I’ve always loved words.”  Or maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe what I love about language is the cadences and rhythms and susurrations – the music of it.  I still continue to play, too, so it isn’t as if I stopped being a musician and replaced it with writing.  It’s just that writing is now my livelihood.  In fact, you can find some of the music I currently do, as well as probably the finest band photo ever taken, right here:  http://www.myspace.com/loopdloops

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I worked my ass off.  I simply wrote every day of the year, for at least two hours at a time.  I read voraciously.  I’d been a big reader my whole life, long before I ever had any aspirations to become an author, but once I began concentrating on the craft of fiction I started to pay more attention to style, narrative arc, character development, and those sorts of things in the material I was reading.

I especially tried to absorb the mojo of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Paul Auster, Nathaneal West, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, Franz Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Shirley Jackson, to name a few.  I would jot down lines from their stories in a notebook.  Sometimes it was lines that sounded pretty or memorable.  Sometimes I searched for specific things, such as the way these authors did physical descriptions – of faces, eyes, noses, mouths, hair, gestures, mannerisms, landscapes – as well as psychological descriptions of moods and motivations.  It’s very useful as a beginning writer to closely study exactly how – with what words, precisely – authors achieve certain effects, and then to imitate them.

The mojo of Flannery O'Connor (© Marc Yankus)

The other component for becoming a writer was to diligently submit stories for publication.  I received a boatload of rejections before I had any sort of success, but I kept doing it and doing it and doing it, and eventually it paid off.  I used to collect the rejections and stuff them in a manila envelope, but before long the damn thing was full.  I decided it was lame to keep my rejections and dwell on them, so I unceremoniously threw them in the garbage.

I mark the beginning of my “serious” writing at 1996, although I’d been writing stories since I was pretty young.  The most important moments along the way had to do with schooling.  Going to pursue my MFA was the best decision I’ve ever made, because until that point I had no idea that a person could make a career out of writing and teaching (I know, I was clueless).  The MFA was a terrific learning experience – both humbling and encouraging, if that makes sense.  I learned I was both better and worse than what I’d previously thought.

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

So many people have helped that it’s difficult to name them all.  My wife has probably been the most crucial person to my writing career.  She and I kind of went all-in when we gave up our jobs in Kalamazoo and moved to Cincinnati so I could earn my PhD.  We went from earning two decent incomes to earning below-poverty wages from my assistantship.  Then we proceeded to have two children, and so I was really feeling some intense pressure to make something out of myself – make something out of this art that I had decided was going to be my livelihood.  To make a long story short, my wife was my rock during this time.  She never lost faith even when I wanted to chuck it all and find a different line of work.  I would’ve lost my mind without her.

Many teachers had significant impacts on my abilities and professional development.  Jaimy Gordon, Stuart Dybek, Elizabeth McCracken, Michael Griffith, and Brock Clarke were incredibly important and skilled fiction teachers, and they all gave generously of their time and energy.  A few poetry teachers such as William Olsen, Nancy Eimers, Mark Richardson, and Herb Scott were also influential.  And of course my peers in graduate school provided much-needed camaraderie and inspiration.  In some ways, these peers were the most important, since they were the backbone of the community of artists that I had been craving.

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

I honestly don’t pay attention to biographies – of anybody, but especially of writers.  I don’t know why, but peoples’ life stories don’t interest me.  Maybe it’s my own discomfort at the thought of people peering into my personal life (like this interview!).  But if your question also includes the biographies of writers I’ve known personally, then I suppose when I was struggling to get my first book published I took a good deal of solace from hearing about the long, bumpy roads numerous writers traveled when trying to get their own first books published.  My mentor Michael Griffith, for instance, spent the better part of a decade revising his first novel, trying to find a home for it.

There are thousands of stories just like his decorating the literary landscape.  I’ll admit that I actively searched for anecdotes of struggle and heartbreak as a way to make my own struggles and heartbreaks more palatable.  The truth is that the writing life involves far, far more rejection than acceptance, so I think it’s very important to find a way of dealing with it, even if that method involves the “misery loves company” adage.

5. What do you wish you’d known before you got into writing?

I wish I’d known what a grind it is.  I had this notion that the writing life was some kind of exotic, cerebral, romantic undertaking that would always be stimulating and beautiful and entertaining.  I’ve come to agree with what Gloria Steinem said: “I don’t like to write.  I like to have written.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I truly love it and have an absolute need, a compulsion, to put words on the page; but it never gets any easier.

Writing a novel (and even a short story) is like constructing a house without a plan, without even knowing what materials you’re using, or how big it’s going to be, or even where the damn thing is going up.  In the woods?  On the side of a mountain?  In a city?  In the country?  Who knows!  Just stick a board here, pound a nail there, put a bathtub in this room.  Day in, day out.  After three months you might, with any luck, start to see a shape to your house, but you have to keep the option open of demolishing large portions of what you’ve build at any given moment. And you’re constantly digging out entire tiled floors that you’ve already caulked, removing nails that you thought were fine but on second look appear to have been hammered sloppily.  It’s laborious.  It’s difficult.  It’s unromantic.

I think Nathaniel Hawthorne is credited with saying, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  The moments of pure satisfaction are few and far between, but when they come – those “momentary stays against confusion” that Frost mentions – they make it all worthwhile.

“Writers were like unicorns—rare and miraculous and hard to spot, living in some forest long ago and far away. They surely weren’t real people, not the sort of person I could actually become.” – Caitlin Horrocks

Caitlin Horrocks lives in Michigan by way of Ohio, Arizona, England, Finland, and the Czech Republic. She is the author of the story collection, This Is Not Your City. Her stories and essays appear in The Best American Short Stories 2011, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story and elsewhere. Her work has won awards including the Plimpton Prize, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences and the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.

She was formerly the 2006-2007 Theresa A. Wilhoit Fellow at Arizona State University. Currently, she is an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University and a fiction editor at West Branch. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the writer W. Todd Kaneko.

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

Read more by and about Caitlin:

BOOK: This Is Not Your City
Excerpts and reviews at Sarabande Books
Interview at The Story Prize blog

“At the Zoo,” story in the Paris Review

Just published this weekend: Review in the New York Times!

How Caitlin Horrocks Became a Writer

This is the second installment in the new 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 Caitlin Horrocks for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I was one of the many, many kids that loved reading. I usually had my face in a book, and my favorite books tended to be fantasy and escapism. As I got older, I mixed in books that I identified as “important,” usually either particularly thick or particularly old. I loved Jane Eyre, and in hindsight I think it was a bridge between different types of reading—I could imagine myself in the bleak orphanage or English manor house, but I could also see something harsh and interesting in who she was, how she might make a decision different from what I would, but how that decision would come from who she was, how she was drawn. I got angry with the book and then I was won over by it. I loved being told a good story, taken somewhere new, but also being given something to chew on. I knew that’s what writers did, but I also didn’t think I had any hope of ever actually becoming one. Writers were like unicorns—rare and miraculous and hard to spot, living in some forest long ago and far away. They surely weren’t real people, not the sort of person I could actually become.

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2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

In high school and college I took writing classes, and wrote stories that had nice sentences but gasped for breath under a lot of heavy-handed symbolism. I liked writing, but it always felt self-indulgent, something I would set aside when I grew up and got a real job. It really didn’t seem like something that would or could be part of my adult life. In the years after I graduated college, I still didn’t know what “real job” I should be aiming for, and I was still writing. I applied to MFA programs, but even that felt like a temporary decision, a way of delaying something more permanent. I’d like to say a passionate commitment to writing finally came welling up from somewhere within me, but I only started to feel truly committed when I first began publishing stories. There was no monkish marriage to Pure Fiction. The fiction is more important to me than publishing, but having editors take me seriously allowed me to start taking myself more seriously.

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

So many people. My parents, for making sure that books were valued in our house, and for, while being ever so slightly skeptical about pursuing creative writing, never making me feel bad or dumb about my choices. My teachers. The people I met in grad school: when I arrived, I hadn’t ever finished a publishable short story, and the types of discussions I was used to having about literature were more of the dead-important-people variety. At Arizona State there was suddenly this community of people swapping the names of up and coming writers, hero-worshipping authors I’d never even heard of. They revised their stories and them put them in envelopes, sending them out to editors. They collected rejections on little slips of paper and put them on the wall like trophies. I wanted to have those little slips of paper. I wanted to know the authors they talked about. This never felt competitive to me—just participatory. For three years, I was in the type of club I wanted most to join, and things like getting rejected were the way to know that you were in the game.

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

"Cocteau and Satie thrived on scandal..."

I’ve been obsessed lately with the composer Erik Satie, although our work and our personalities are very different. Both his life and his compositions are incredibly quirky and fun to read about. His playfulness, inventiveness, his I-don’t-give-a-damn-ness, are inspiring, but I also get intrigued by the question of how sincerely he meant much of what he did. He was an artist and a prankster, and sometimes the art was the prank. His need to play a role, to only show certain sides of himself, would, I think, have made him kind of infuriating to know in real life.

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

It’s not a race, and the goal isn’t just “to be published,” or to “express your feelings.” (Well, expressing your feelings is a perfectly good goal, but I’m assuming here that the aspiring writer also wants to be read by other people). The goal is to write good work, great work, the kind of work you feel a complete stranger would get something out of, and then trying to get the work in those strangers’ hands. Have the loyalty to your own ideas to polish them, and the necessary patience to shepherd them out into the world.

More about Erik Satie: Minnesota Public Radio

Listen to Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopédies”:

I haven’t been writing much lately, unless you count long paragraphs of feedback on student papers and projects. But I’m trying to stay inspired by short reading binges and by watching videos of artists and writers on those amazing sites, TED and Big Think.

I fell a little in love with Natalie Merchant all over again…

The TED conference, or whatever it was, served as a perfect venue for her new project, in which she puts mostly forgotten 19th and early 20th century poems to music. (I saw her perform a song on the Today show back when the album came out, and something about 7 a.m. and tourists peering through the giant windows in the background contributed to the sense that Merchant was old and out of touch.)

In the video above, however, she is inspired and inspiring, quirky and cool. The audience was full of her creative peers, so she was in her element. And that she could show images of the poets on the big screen (those old b&w pics are always ghostly and alluring) and talk about their lives, highlighted the fact that this  creative/historical/research project is not just a failed attempt at pop (for which she is known), but a mature artist’s engagement with other artists and other art and other lives.

Last night I turned on the TV to watch Brett Favre, and ended up watching VH1’s Top 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. I tuned in at #14 Nirvana and watched the final countdown to Michael Jackson and The Beatles. (spoiler alert! too late. like we didn’t know.) After that I watched the next episode, #40-#21. Then they repeated the #20-to-Beatles episode, so I got to see #20-15.

Last night I was also reading for a Best Books competition I’m judging.

What is the Best? Who is the Greatest? How do we know?
These are questions on my mind.

Part of the answer is: It depends on who you ask. After The Who was featured at #13, the VH1 host said, “I think The Who should be Top 10, but they didn’t ask me.”

Which makes sense. The host has probably listened to a lot of music and is surely a fan, but his training is probably in, well, hosting. Maybe they’ll ask his vote for the Top 100 Hosts of All Time.

Who did VH1 ask? Many famous musicians and music journalists – people whose lives and livelihoods are intertwined with the music industry, people who themselves are on the list. So that’s good. The top 5 lists of a few of those people were posted on the screen at different points. Alicia Keys’s top-5 list included Sade; Billy Idol’s, The Velvet Underground. (I’m with Billy on that one.) Such diversity of judges allows for a diversity of results, in a good way.

Then there’s criteria. A lot of the people featured on interview clips (musicians and journalists) invoked criteria such as: influence, songwriting, performing, guitar-playing, singing, risk-taking, longevity, “changed the way we thought of ____,” “voice of the generation,” etc. These seem like good criteria to me.

[…googling pause…]

Oh dear. I just found a link to the top 100 list, which says: “Vh1: Top 100 Artists Of All Time list is a major source of controversy on the internet right now. . . . One of the main problems with the list reportedly is the lack of female presence in the top end: Madonna is the only one who made the top 20.”

And now, as I look at the list, by my count there are only 14 women artists in the total 100. And that’s counting the Pretenders and Abba and Fleetwood Mac as women artists (sorry, Mick Fleetwood; sorry Abba dudes).

[I so wasn’t going to go there, but I also read this last night about how The New York Times reviewed 62% men to 38% women in the last two years.]

WHAT I WAS GOING TO SAY is that VH1 seems to be asking the right people to judge, and the people seem to be using good criteria, and that even if we would put The Who in the top 10, most of us can feel good about and agree with them being in the top 20.

AND THAT I expect to have a similar top-3 list as my fellow judges in the contest I’m reading for, based on fairly noncontroversial criteria for good writing. (A necessarily over-simplified claim I’ll elaborate upon in my next post.)

AND FURTHER THAT BEST AND GREATEST are both subjective and somewhat objective. That once you objectively sort out the wheat from the chaff, you can get into your subjective brawls. We can.

BUT NOW I’m just depressed.