Archives For Ph.A.Q.'s

Earlier today a student came to my office for a conference, and I keep trying to figure out what I could have said instead of what I did say.

We bantered for a bit about literary magazines and publishing in general, and then he got to the point: “I guess I really just want to know if my writing is any good.”

And suddenly we were having “the talk.” Not the birds and the bees, but just as awkward. I would have preferred him to ask about that. All aspiring writers want to know whether they are talented and have what it takes, and some of them are bold enough to ask their teachers. I never was.

As I always do when I am asked questions along these lines, I stuttered and stammered through an explanation of why I did not, in fact, want to tell him whether his writing was good.

“I don’t want that kind of power,” I said, invoking a weird image of me tapping a sword on his shoulders, as if proclaiming his knighthood. (But I called the sword a magic wand, mixing my metaphors and confusing things further.)

“Nor is this the only question to be asking,” I added, citing the importance of things like artistic vision, persistence, determination, desire, inner strength, 500 pounds and a room of one’s own.

But then, feeling like I’d de-emphasized the importance of good writing, I blurted out, “But good writing is important too!”

We sat in an awkward silence while his original question hung in the air.

——

This semester while I am teaching writing, I am also taking art classes. I took an 8-week figure drawing class at the South Bend art museum, and a couple weeks ago I took a week-long mixed-media workshop in Mexico City over spring break (which I have lots to blog and post about!). So all semester I have also been a student of something I really really want to do well.

When the instructors would come around and look at our works-in-progress, I would feel myself get nervous, and if they praised me, I would leap with joy (you know: inwardly).

I'd never used pastels before. My teacher told me these sketches reminded her of Giacometti's drawings. I took that as a major compliment because I love his sculptures. But when I looked up his drawings, I saw that they are mostly scribbles.

My teacher told me these sketches reminded her of Giacometti’s drawings, and I took that as a major compliment because I love his sculptures, but I’m not sure that’s how she meant it. When I looked up his drawings, I saw that they are mostly scribbles!

 

In other words, I want and need external validation as much as my students. I would love to ask an art teacher, “Hey, I know I’m like 20 years late to the game, but are my drawings any good?” But I guess I know that the answer would matter and not matter. That it’s up to me. That it’s a process – the learning of the craft, the shaping a vision, the commitment to a certain type of life.

Plus I’m of the ilk that thinks: go figure it out for yourself. If you want to do it, do it. Don’t wait around for permission.

Thus, I didn’t tell the student that his writing is good (even though it is, yes). I did ask what he thinks of his writing (he thinks it’s good). I tried to tell him that there are other questions to ask. I didn’t think to tell him I’ve had dozens of students who are excellent writers doing everything from finishing up MFA programs to quitting school to raise kids. I did tell him to email me in 5 or 10 years and let me know what he was doing.

——

I started my “How to Become a Writer” interview series because I was surprised to see how much my own idea of “becoming a writer” had been shaped by wrong and romanticized ideas based on black-and-white photos of writers smoking.

It was only after I’d been writing for a decade that I realized how much of it was about the things I’d been doing all along: writing, revising, going to conferences, meeting people, meeting deadlines, writing reviews and blurbs, reading literary journals, figuring out how and where and when to submit, writing more, revising more, reading my fellow-writers’ work, etc. Occasionally I attended a party where someone smoked a cigarette.

So, maybe I should have directed my student to my super long list of interviews with writers who advise aspiring writers to persist, keep going, believe in yourself, and don’t stop believing.

But maybe I should have just said, “Yes, yes, your writing is good.”

Because man it’s nice when a teacher tells you you’re doing something well.

 

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

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

Ripple-Cover-OnlyRead More By and About Jason:

Story excerpt: Ripple Meets the Deep

Story excerpt: Shave ’em Dry

Story Excerpt: January

Interview: Baltimore Review Coffee & Questions

How Jason Tinney Became a Writer:

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

 

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

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

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

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more by and about Désirée:

Short Story: “Mercy”

Novel: Modern Cons

Travel Essay: “The Ruins of Mexico City”

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

Reading: Human Cargo

How Désirée Zamorano Became a Writer

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

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

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

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

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

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

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

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

Modern Cons

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

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

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

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

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

Dagoberto Gilb

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

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

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

In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice, and my direction in life.

Andrew Lam is the author of Birds of Paradise Lost, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, which won the 2006 PEN Open Book Award, and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. He’s an editor and cofounder of New America Media, an association of over two thousand ethnic media outlets. He’s been a regular NPR commentator, and his essays have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and many other journals.

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 now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Andrew’s story “Grandma’s Tales,” published at Talking Writing:

The day after Mama and Papa took off to Las Vegas, Grandma died. Lea and me, we didn’t know what to do. Vietnamese traditional funerals with incense sticks and chanting Buddhist monks were not our thing.


“We have a big freezer,” Lea said. “Why don’t we freeze Grandma? Really, why bother Mama and Papa—what’s another day or two for Grandma now anyway?”

Since Lea’s older than me and since I didn’t have any better idea, we iced Grandma.

 [Read the rest here at Talking Writing.]

Read more by and about Andrew:

Story: “Grandma’s Tales” at Talking Writing

Audio of Andrew reading “Grandma’s Tales”: American Public Media

Book of Stories: Birds of Paradise Lost

Book of Essays: East Meets West

Book of Essays: Perfume Dreams

NPR Commentaries: All Things Considered

How Andrew Lam 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 Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Andrew for saying yes!

 

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

In my freshman year at Berkeley I fell hopelessly in love; in the year after I graduated my heart shattered. While working at the cancer research laboratory on campus while planning to become a doctor, I took to writing, in part, in order to grieve. Daytime and I bombarded the mammary tissues of mice with various carcinogens to see how they grew; nights and I gave myself to memories, to heartbreak. I typed and typed. I got good at writing, bored with science, with studying for the MCAT, and so I dropped the test tube and kept the proverbial pen. 

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?
I took courses at UC extension. One of the teachers said, “Andrew, you are not going to medical school. You are going to creative writing school. And I already sent your stories to the San Francisco State University. They say for you to fill out the application, and you are in.” I said, “My mom is going to kill me.” I applied. Got it. And my first semester in my autobiography class I read my first essay out loud. The assignment was, “Why Did you want to become a Writer.” I talked about the Vietnam war, I talked about childhood memories, the falling bombs, the bravery of men and women. My parents’ struggles and fears. My own sadness. My longing to return to those bomb craters filled up with monsoon rain where children, who survived the battles, laughed and swam. “After all these years, I want to dive into that water,” I wrote. when I finished reading, there was this strange silence. The entire class looked at me in awe. The professor wept. The piece somehow reached the writer Richard Rodriguez and the editor Pacific News Service, Sandy Close. They took me to tea. They more or less offered me a job as an op-ed writer. I started to travel the world, started to write about my past, my history, and the Vietnamese Diaspora. And it resulted in “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” which won a Pen award. In any case, it was all unexpected. And it started from a heartbreak.

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

Many people helped me. My first English teacher in 7th grade was instrumental in providing a fun and safe environment – his classroom turns into a fun lunchroom and full of books; he gave us books to read in the summer – and I fell in love with the  English language as I was going through puberty, a literal transformation along with a new literary life. Richard Rodriguez became a mentor of sort, turning my gaze toward literary non-fiction whereas before my only passion was for the short stories and the novel. He gave me Joan Didion, James Baldwin, VS Naipaul, Truman Capote and a whole lot of the literary giants to read. My boss, Sandy Close, who won a MacArthur Genius award, who gave me opportunities to travel the world the years after  the cold war ended, and professor Franz Schurmann, of UCBerkeley, who made me think deeper and more seriously than I had before. My sister, who bought me EB White and William Strunk’s classic “The Elements of Styles,” because I didn’t have any writing confidence, English being my 3rd language after Vietnamese and French.

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

James Baldwin comes to mind. His is a voice of grace. He wrote at a time when he is – a gay black man – is marginalized twice over, at a time of segregation. yet he wrote from that margin knowing full well that his voice mattered, that in time the margin reaches and changes the center, and integrates into collective consciousness of this country. He wrote with a generosity of vision and confidence that in time, his story belongs to America, to all Americans. It encouraged me, a refugee boy who comes from a defeated country that was encouraged to fight then abandoned by the United States, to write with that hope – that mine too, in time, become an American story.


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

Be willing to live with disappointment,  with heartbreaks and difficult questions when you have no readily made answers. For as certain as the rain,  disappointments will come. And you will have to live with them and embrace them. And work through them. I myself lost a country. I’ve been homeless,  and stateless. I lost friends and relatives due to war and the subsequent exodus. I had my heart broken. And yet I write to you today feeling profoundly grateful and blessed. Why? In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice, and my direction in life.

You are writing today at a challenging time in which being a citizen of the world is just as important as finding voice. So you must find the balance between the I and the we, between following your own conviction and finding a way to contribute to the greater good. But move forward, always. Don’t be afraid of failure. Or rather, move forward, despite of the failures and self doubts. And keep on writing.

I’ve always loved the feeling that reading gives—like the author is letting you in on some mystery, big or small: the mystery of a huge world event or the mystery of a private individual consciousness.

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Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. She is the author, most recently of the novel in poems Robinson Alone (Gold Wake, 2012) and her debut novel O, Democracy!has just been released by Fifth Star Press. She lives in Chicago. Her latest chapbook with Elisa Gabbert is The Kind of Beauty that has Nowhere to Go (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Follow her @KathleenMRooney.

Web site: http://kathleenrooney.com/

ODemocracyCoverRead more by and about Kathleen

Novel: O Democracy!

Novel in Poems: Robinson Alone

Essay at Poetry Foundation: Based on a True Story. Or not.

Project: Poems While You Wait

5 Poems with Elissa Gabbert: Five Poems

How Kathleen Rooney 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 Kathleen for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

Mysteries. Not like mystery novels, but the mysteries of the world—supernatural, mysteries-of-the-unexplained type mysteries, the mysteries of why people act the way they do, religious mysteries, mysteries of history, especially those that involve once-popular things that have long since been forgotten. From the time I learned how to read up until the present day, I’ve always loved the feeling that reading gives—like the author is letting you in on some mystery, big or small: the mystery of a huge world event or the mystery of a private individual consciousness. Also from the time I learned how to read I wanted to do that, too—to have that sense of discovery you get when you are trying to write about something, either through research or through the act of trying to sort your ideas out on the page.

I’ve always wanted to be a detective, like a private investigator a la Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe and since that seems not to be in the offing, being a writer seems like the next best thing. Private detectives and investigators have always intrigued me, at least as they’re depicted on shows like or The Rockford Files or Murder She Wrote or Magnum P.I. Columbo, I guess, is the exception, in that he is an official—a police detective and not a private one—but he’s so unrealistically so—I mean, he’s basically an angel—that he makes the list too.The Wikipedia page for Sam Spade says that he is notable for his “detached demeanor, keen eye for detail, and unflinching determination to achieve his own justice.” All three of those seem like writerly traits—the degree of removed observation necessary to understand how people act, the intention of getting the details right, and the impulse to shape a story into the form or outcome you desire.

PWYWShades
2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

This is not an original answer, but: I read. A lot. Everything. I still do. All genres from poetry to fiction to cereal boxes to nonfiction to comics to newspapers to magazines both high-minded and trashy. Formally, I studied creative writing from high school through grad school, and that formal education was certainly important in terms of becoming a writer, but I’m not sure it was more important than just trying to “be one of the people on whom nothing is lost” like Henry James recommended.

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

This, too, is probably not such an original answer, but I had brilliant English teachers when I was in high school: Beth van Es my freshman year, Irv Lester (RIP) my sophomore year, Jane Rice my junior year, and Linda Augustyn my senior year. They were supportive and encouraging to me at an early age—all four of them took my aspirations and my earnest dorkiness seriously and at face value and went out of their ways to help me become a better reader and writer. Essentially, they treated me like an adult and a whole human, not like someone to condescend to. The same can be said of my undergraduate teachers, especially Margaret Soltan (whose excellent blog you can find here http://www.margaretsoltan.com/) and Tara Wallace. And of my graduate teachers John Skoyles and Bill Knott (RIP), the latter of whom taught me how to be a contrarian when necessary and how to be a teacher—he was so sincere in his love of poetry and so incapable of bullshit and so determined to try to help everyone be a better reader and writer and thinker. He died earlier this year, and that was a huge loss, I think, to everyone who knew and read him.

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

The poet and writer Weldon Kees’ biography—from his Midwestern roots and early promise to his likely very sad and mysterious demise (Did he run away to Mexico? Or did he jump off the Golden Gate Bridge?) inspired me so much I wrote a book about him, Robinson Alone. In his introduction to Kees’ Collected Poems, Donald Justice writes that Kees is “one of the bitterest poets in history,” and that “the bitterness may be traced to a profound hatred for a botched civilization, Whitman’s America come to a dead end on the shores of the Pacific.” I like his bitterness, because it is also smart and sad and sharp and funny. Kees was an optimist, and his capacity for deep disappointment came from his equal capacity for deep hope. I admire that.

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

Indirectly, from Fred Leebron, “Writing is a game of attrition; don’t attrit.”

 

Something Wrong With Her VBT Banner

This is one stop on Cris Mazza’s virtual book tour!
Click to keep up with the rest of the tour here.

———


I didn’t go to artist’s colonies or conferences,
didn’t flirt with, seduce or receive seduction from visiting writers.
I just kept writing, and submitting.

2013 author photo

Cris Mazza is the author of over 17 books, including Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?   Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, including Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. In addition to fiction, Mazza has authored collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Website: cris-mazza.com

TrickleDownFrontCoverRead more by and about Cris:

SOMETHING WRONG WITH HER companion novel: Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls

Stories: Trickle-Down Timeline

Editor: Men Undressed: Women Writers on The Male Sexual Experience

On the Radio: Ask Dr. Love

How Cris Mazza 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 Cris for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

Something happened around the time I was 13 or 14. I changed from an outgoing girl who had wanted to be an actress to a girl to whom being noticed was not safe, especially to be noticed for any female qualities I did (but mostly did not) possess. This “something” that happened was not an assault or huge betrayal. I can’t even point to an event or moment. Probably a culmination of disillusionment coming out of the feral world of junior high where I was none of the things that counted: stylish, popular, beautiful, mature, worldly, sexually provocative, or even up-to-date. It wasn’t called bullying then, and what I experienced of it was hardly the life-threatening sort one hears about now. But I turned inward, and I began dressing as androgynously as allowed on my hand-me-down clothing availability. I also turned to a typewriter to “talk” to. A journal is not an unusual way to discover that writing was a career path. But in the hours I spent pounding that typewriter, I discovered (and honed) my written voice, my written self … a self I was more comfortable putting out there to be “looked at.” On retrospect, I can see that the escapism of reading is also related to turning toward writing as an escape from an unfriendly world at adolescence. But I wasn’t making the connection to reading at the time. Pounding at the typewritten journal was communication; reading was escape. I needed both. I never thought “This is a way I can get attention,” but more like “This is who I am.”

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

In college, I majored in Journalism. I loved everything about it. Except that I could not see myself pushing into crowds or calling strangers on the phone to get stories and quotes and sources. I loved the idea of journalism, and learned a lot, but abandoned it as a career as unsuitable for the introverted way I worked and thought. But I knew I needed to support myself. So I took my journalism BA to secondary teaching. I went through my student teaching before I quit that. I was very bad at it because I only could care about my own writing projects. No high school students deserve a teacher like that. Then I went back to grad school and this time focused on fiction writing, even though there was no clear “career path” at the other end. It’s possible to become a writer without a graduate writing program, but I hadn’t had enough of an absorption of reading and being around other nascent writers, so for me it was an environment that I needed. I now teach in a PhD program for writers and can see how just the community there adds easily as much as their coursework and mentorship from professors like me.

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

I had good professors, but never had a consummate mentor in the way movies might portray. In the 80s, outside my in-home study, there might have been just as much career-building quid-pro-quo going on as is highly visible now, but I wasn’t aware of it nor part of any cliques or circles. I didn’t go to artist’s colonies or conferences, didn’t flirt with, seduce or receive seduction from visiting writers. I just kept writing, and submitting.

Instead of help from a mentor, a big break came for me when an unpublished novel manuscript won a national award. The judges didn’t know my age or gender (they said so in their comments) … I point this out because gender and age disparity is so much in the literary conversation these days. But this was in an era before one had an “internet persona” or could be looked up instantly to find a photo and bio. For once being unpopular, even genderless and obscure, had not been a deficiency. I was not writing to anyone’s expectations, and “somebody” (the judges) heard me.

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

I have probably unconsciously steered clear of author biographies (although I read memoirs and personal essays). A memoir is an experience that the writer, by virtue of being a writer, is able to share in an artful narrative. A biography, it would seem, would have the purpose of building the story of how that person came to be a successful author. I don’t find that sort of knowledge beneficial to my appreciation of the author’s work. It is inspiring that Annie Proulx and Toni Morrison both started their publishing careers in middle-age. I also admire Alice Munroe, for staying the writer she was meant to be instead of allowing huge success to cause her to start writing toward expectations, or believing too much in the hype about her.

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

Have something to say before you worry about having readers. Don’t be afraid of isolation – it used to be a writer’s world. Don’t avoid having the thoughts in your own head for your only company. Don’t be in such a hurry to spew those thoughts in public; let them mull, work them out. Don’t read something just because everyone else is. But read. Don’t expect feedback and/or gratification to be available every day, even though you see and hear others yapping about everything from how many pages they wrote today, to who they’re sending work, or what their characters did today. Have something to say before you listen for applause.

“…my fellow writers in the SUNY Albany writing program…
pushed me over the ledge into a free fall where I found my voice,
which involves treating every new story as a brand new thing
which deserves its own brand new way of being told.”

ronNOLA5

Ron MacLean is author of the novels Headlong (2013) and Blue Winnetka Skies (2004) and the story collection Why the Long Face? (2008). His fiction has appeared in GQ, Fiction International, Best Online Fiction 2010, and elsewhere.

He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He teaches at Grub Street in Boston.

Web site: http://ronmaclean.net/

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 now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Ron’s most recent TW essay, “Literary Criticism Is Dead“:

I love literature and believe it has a future. I hope serious criticism does, too. But we’ll only be able to attain that future by accepting the reality of the present.

The study of literature is dying, partly because of self-inflicted wounds. I’m happy to debate all the reasons why: the dominance of an elite school of mostly white, male academics; increased theoretical abstraction; easy-to-mock “littray” pronouncements.

But my focus here is more basic: Literary criticism has become irrelevant—the neglected lima beans on the cultural dinner plate. In order for criticism to matter, literature has to matter. It doesn’t, and it won’t again soon, at least not in the same way it did for a hundred-plus years of its history. [Read the rest here at Talking Writing.]

41OjyYGtpSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Read more by and about Ron:

Novel/Literary Thriller: Headlong

Stories: Why the Long Face

A cowboy-movie novel: Blue Winnetka Skies

Story: “The Night Dentist”

Essay: “Is Fiction Empathy’s Best Hope” at Talking Writing

Essay: “Literary Criticism Is Dead” at Talking Writing

How Ron MacLean 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 Ron for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As far back as I can remember, stories have been the way I’ve understood the world. Reading stories gave me insights I craved, and writing them gave me a way to understand my own perceptions and experiences.

I started out as a journalist. And I love journalism. Especially investigative journalism. But I probably should have recognized my fate back in high school, when I told a friend as I complained about an assignment for journalism class, “the story would have been much better if I wasn’t limited to the facts.”

cover-blue-skies_large2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

In the beginning I was self-educated, and that’s continued to be a huge aspect of my learning. I read a lot, and I re-read work that moves me. Again and again. I’d puzzle at it trying to figure out what made it touch me. I’d trace an evocative sentence at the end of a short story back through the text, looking for where its power originated. And then I’d try to do the same.

Once I left journalism, I applied to grad school and ended up getting a Doctor of Arts from SUNY Albany. The community of writers and teacher I met there finally made me a writer. We formed each other.

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

Wow. So, so many. I could go on forever. I’ll focus on a few.

Writers whose work I’ve read and studied, whose words now live in me and helped shape me. I’ll name some, but there are many more: Flannery O’Connor, Rick Bass, Jeanette Winterson, Donald Barthelme, Gertrude Stein, Marilynne Robinson. Four books that literally changed my life: Robinson’s Housekeeping, Stein’s Tender Buttons, Barthelme’s 40 Stories, and O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.

Teachers and mentors who not only taught me aspects of the craft, but taught me through their commitment to the work (the joy of it, the value of it) and to their fellow writers: Gene Garber, Judy Johnson, Don Schatz.

cover-long-face_largeMaybe most significantly for me were my fellow writers in the SUNY Albany writing program, where we learned, and taught each other, that we are part of the same tribe, and that we each only thrive as we help each other thrive. They gave me permission to stop trying to hew to a “classic” short story style that didn’t match the stories I wanted to tell. Another way to put it was they pushed me over the ledge into a free fall where I found my voice, which involves treating every new story as a brand new thing which deserves its own brand new way of being told. I’ll always be grateful for the community that held me safe as I explored that new territory (especially Lori Anderson Moseman and Jan Ramjerdi), and for the learning that we are each other’s best resource. That’s something I try to live everywhere I go; it’s part of what I value now at Boston’s Grub Street.

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

Absolutely. While it’s a tossup between O’Connor and Stein, I’ll go with Flannery. Writing did not come easily to her. It mattered enough to her to persist through physical (as well as emotional) pain and illness. And it was, for her, a means to grope toward an understanding of the mystery that lies beyond daily life. She always sought to convey an experience of mystery in her stories, and at the same time was ruthless about the necessity of representing life in honest and real physical detail. That desire, that commitment, has been a major inspiration for me. She and I work differently in many ways, but we share a desire to get beyond the daily to explore what we would both define as the mystery at the heart of human experience.

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

Love what you do. Delight in the work, and let that be your primary joy. Don’t let the business side of it discourage you. If writing matters to you, do it with everything you’ve got, and don’t worry about how many people read it.