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I liked the way in writing I also felt like I was doing something magical. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I went chasing after that feeling ever since.

 

Douglas Cole has had work in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Red Rock Review, and Midwest Quarterly. He has published two poetry collections—Interstate (Night Ballet Press) and Western Dream (Finishing Line Press)—as well as a novella called Ghost with Blue Cubicle Press. He is currently on the faculty at Seattle Central College in Seattle, Washington.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is the beginngin of Douglas’s story “Wanderers” published at Talking Writing:

Out in the dark field, Ronnie was running. I was running, but my gut was too full of beer to keep it up. She came back with a few deep breaths and hands on hips. John wasn’t even trying. I love that guy, but he’s soft in the middle—a soft, Connecticut, slow-moving mescaline freak.

Read more by and about Douglas:

Story: “Wanderers” at Talking Writing

Story: “Standing In Hawaii” at Baltimore Review

Poem: “Counsel” at Eckleberg Review

Three Poems at Black Heart Magazine

How Douglas Cole Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series at Ph.D. in Creative Writing. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Douglas for his answers!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was a kid in school, one of my English teachers assigned Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. It was the first book I ever read all the way through. I was hooked, you know? I couldn’t put it down and just became completely absorbed in it. It was very addictive and set me on a voracious reading journey. I think that was when I first caught a glimpse of the magic of words and stories. Later, in another English class, my teacher, Mrs. Sheridan, had us write a descriptive piece. We were sitting in class, so I decided to just describe what I saw around me in the room. I don’t remember it, except I remember that I ended it with a description of a poster on the wall of a ballet dancer and the words at the bottom of the poster: Twyla Tharp. I was just fooling around, but she liked it and ended up reading it to the class. I liked that feeling. I liked feeling good at something. And I liked the way in writing I also felt like I was doing something magical. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I went chasing after that feeling ever since.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I read everything I could, everything that I thought would teach me something, even if I didn’t think I liked it at the time, like if I had heard it was an important work. If a teacher assigned a story or a poem and I liked it, I’d go find that writer’s books. I’d go to Moe’s Bookstore and in a groping way just scan other books and read the first paragraph if a title caught my eye, give it that test and see if it grabbed me. And once I started something I would never put it down without finishing it. I felt almost a moral obligation to go all the way. And if I found writers I liked, I would absorb everything I could. I’d read everything they had written, even biographies and critical stuff on them and their work. I realize I was listening like a safe-cracker. And I treated everything as somehow connected, or I’d look for a connection. Movies, for example, and how a filmmaker tells a story and sets a pace and a mood and works an image. Music, the same thing. How does a song work like a poem or a story, or what does it do differently that can be converted, and what does it do that I want to do? All my classes in college: philosophy, history, science, weight training, tennis! What could they contribute? How did they relate? What could they teach me that would work for writing? I was that conscious about it. Friends? Any moment? I always thought in terms of creating. Not to sound pretentious, but I remember reading Joyce say that he wanted to convert the bread of everyday to the holy host. I took it that seriously.

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

Charlie, Chris and Mike Steele. I met them when I was sixteen. Chris was going to PSR, the Pacific School of Religion, where my mother was a student. She and my mother were friends. And Chris brought her brother Charlie down to stay, there in Berkeley, right after he had finished college, and he and I became friends. On my seventeenth birthday, he gave me a copy of A Hundred Years of Solitude with a big fat joint taped to the inside cover. Then their brother Mike came down a little while later. He was an actor and a musician and a writer. They were all talented musicians and writers and scholars, just beautiful people, physically, energetically. And they had such a rich vocabulary for the world and love for art and music and literature. Charlie turned me on to Richard Hugo and Joni Mitchel and Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. They were intellectuals, poets, people who lived with passion and never said a dull thing or yawned. And I connected with them right away. They inspired me to love even more deeply what I already loved, and they helped make my love of the arts cool. They’re still my family. I love them dearly and feel I owe them a great deal in terms of finding what would be the only real community I ever wanted in connection to writing. I’ve always been pretty private about it.

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

Reading Douglas Day’s biography of Malcolm Lowery was almost as harrowing as reading Under the Volcano. I knew I was reading a genius, though, when I read Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce. I couldn’t finish The World as a Lie, though, the biography of James Dickey. And that’s unusual for me. I love Dickey’s work, of course, but I was going through some rough time, to be honest, and I just couldn’t handle it. I still intend to go back and read it. I think that’s one of the only times I can remember not finishing something I started. But as I get older, I’ve come to let go of that imperative a little. When you have less time, you treat it more dearly. I love biographies, though. When I’m in a good one, it’s like time travel or shape-shifting. A crazy leap into another world. Negative capability. Cold but intimate friends.

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

Read. Read everything you can. Study the world and write all the time in all forms and no form at all. Just write. Don’t even think about publishing or money or fame. Just write and reach for that illusive image in your mind. I love what William Faulkner said when he received the National book award. He said “I accept this on behalf of all, who like me, failed. Failed to create what we imagined in our minds, but in failing set out to get closer the next time.” Keep your crap detector on, especially with yourself. But also have compassion. We’re all struggling. So be open. Think. Look for the connections. Experiment and be joyous. Like John Gardner said, “Write what you’d like to read.” Write and write and write freely without concern for punctuation or intellectual coherence. Follow music, like Hugo said. Meaning will come. And when you revise, revise ruthlessly. But always save a holy space for the private prayer of writing with no intention for public consumption. That’s your gold. That’s your soul. Never sign anything in blood except for love. Dive into the dream and the unconscious ocean. Steal without guilt. See through the eye that’s seeing and record your vision in whatever languages you know or create. Have no fear. You’re always all right.

Dear Writer,

Persistence is all.

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

 

Katie-Cortese-Headshot

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

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

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Katie’s story “Flight Plan” published at Talking Writing:

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

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

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

Read more by and about Katie:

Story: “Flight Plan” at Talking Writing

Story: “Lemonade” at Chagrin Review

Story: “Gentleman’s Game” at Sequestrum

Story: “Wakulla Springs” at Baltimore Review

How Katie Cortese Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series at Ph.D. in Creative Writing. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Katie for her awesome answers!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

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

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

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Writer,

Persistence is all.

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

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

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

And thank god for that.

“…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.

Sentences and stories are malleable. This was counterintuitive to me at first because when you read a great book, it doesn’t seem as if had ever been a malleable thing. Every word and phrase seems destined, inevitable – how could it ever have been otherwise?

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Nicole Simonsen teaches English at an urban public high school in Sacramento and lives nearby in Davis, California, with her husband and children. Some years ago, before starting a family, she received an MA in writing from UC Davis. “Her Third Baby” is her first published story.

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 fiction writers.

Read Nicole Simonsen’s story, “Her Third Baby” at Talking Writing. Excerpt:

Something was wrong with our mother. This I had pieced together from bits of whispered conversation. Like the baby, she cried too much, but unlike the baby, her crying was inconsolable. I didn’t know what that word meant, so I looked it up in the dictionary. To be heartsick, heartsore, wretched. Something was wrong with my mother’s heart.

How Nicole Simonsen 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 Nicole for saying yes! And thanks to Talking Writing magazine for sharing their writers!  ‪

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was 11 years old, I came across a copy of Where the Red Fern Grows.  I was a girl in love with animals, and so Billy Coleman’s relationship with his dogs was one that I understood.  Every time I opened that book, I stepped into a dream world full of courage and loyalty and what seemed like the best love of all – the love of a good dog.  When Old Dan and Little Ann died, I was devastated.  I could not believe it.  I came home from school every day for two weeks and read and reread the ending and cried until my eyes swelled.  One day, spent from crying, I looked at an open page, at all the hundreds of letters and words.  They were nothing more than little black scratch marks and yet there I was crying again.  How did Wilson Rawls do that?  How did any writer arrange words and sentences in such a way that they could reach across time and space and grab me by the throat? It seemed a form of magic.  It’s a question I still wonder when I read something amazing.  How on earth did the writer do it?  For the last twenty years, I’ve tried wielding that magic myself.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I went to journalism school is the short answer.  By high school I knew I wanted to be a writer, and getting a degree in journalism seemed like the best way to become one.  Actually what I wanted was to become a “foreign correspondent.”  In my fantasy, I would work for a newspaper, travel the world, and have all sorts of adventures.  Mostly I just wanted to say I was a foreign correspondent, sort of like George Costanza on Seinfeld telling attractive women he was an “architect”.  Foreign correspondent… who wouldn’t be impressed?

But then a funny thing happened in journalism school.  As I was learning to write stories for the school newspaper and for my classes, I was often tempted to make things up… quotes, facts, details, it was so much easier to make it up.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I crossed a few ethical boundaries.  In a history of journalism class, we learned about Janet Cooke, the writer who won the Pulitzer for a made-up the story about a little boy addicted to heroin.  It ruined her career, of course.  Her story scared me – I understood that impulse so well.  I realized that I would probably get into enormous trouble one day and bring shame upon my family if I pursued a career in journalism.

It took me awhile to figure out that the impulse to make things up wasn’t the problem.  The problem was the medium.  It was bad for journalism, but it was great for creative writing.  I took classes with Susan Taylor Cheehak and T.C. Boyle and double majored in English. Boyle introduced me to literary writers like Louise Erdrich and Richard Ford.  Love Medicine and Rock Springs still astonish me.  So it wasn’t until in my junior year of college, that I realized what kind of writer I really wanted to be, a story teller.

3. Who helped you along the way and how?

Though I never became a journalist, the classes I took at USC were formative.  Most of my teachers were working writers.  They edited all their students’ work.  I’m so grateful to them now, though at the time I was often dismayed to get my story back covered in their vicious red pen.  They would cross off whole sentences, combine sentences, rearrange paragraphs; it was like butchery.  But because I wanted to be a better writer, I spent a lot of time analyzing the changes they made.  I began to see redundancies, wordiness, or even just lazy thinking.  I didn’t want to be a lazy thinker or writer.  And so I worked really hard to write better sentences, to find the most compelling image, to say what I needed to say in the least amount of words.

Anne Lamott’s essay on “shitty first drafts” has given me enormous comfort and courage over the years, too.  The blank page is not as scary if you accept its inevitable shittiness, and move on from there.  Sentences and stories are malleable.  This was counterintuitive to me at first because when you read a great book, it doesn’t seem as if had ever been a malleable thing.  Every word and phrase seems destined, inevitable – how could it ever have been otherwise?  And yet the writer, like all writers, had to wrestle and sweat and hack a path through the forest.

I had great teachers – Cheehak and Boyle, Lynn Freed, Max Byrd, Pam Houston.  I have a friend from graduate school who still reads my work. I have another friend who is a dedicated reader.  She’s always honest with me.  I also go to a writers’ group.  I give stories to my husband, too, but I cannot be in the house while he reads them.  I value his opinion; he has good instincts.

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

Flannery O’Connor inspires me.  She suffered from Lupus for years and died young.  She managed to write despite – or through – her physical ailments.  I find that admirable.  Actually I don’t read too much about the authors themselves.  I want to read their work.  I do like to read author interviews, mostly because I want to know how they do it and am hoping they’ll reveal all their secrets.

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

Has anyone ever given better advice to a young writer than Rilke?  When I’ve been disappointed in my own work, when I lack inspiration, when I’ve had a terrible day in which the work I’ve produced does not rise above the level of chicken scratch, I pull out Letters to a Young Poet.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

This is good advice for how to live.

On a more nuts and bolts level, I would tell an aspiring writer to develop a disciplined practice, whatever that may look like.  The only way I can get any writing done is if I get up at 4:30 and write while my kids are asleep.  That gives me an hour and a half to work, or two if the kids sleep in.  Though I often wish I had more time, I’ve gotten a surprising amount of work done that way.  After that, it’s off to work and school and the rest of my day is a blur.  That time frame works for me because I’m the daughter of a farmer who claims that people who get up after five have wasted half the day.  But if you’re the type of person who can’t imagine getting up before eight, find the time of the day when you are more likely to be creative.  Protect that time, build a fortress around it.  Guard it like the dragon guards his pearl.  Breathe fire if you have to.

I think my biggest epiphany about writing was fairly recent: it happened when I remembered how much fun writing was when I was a child.

photo_theresa_williams

Theresa Williams is a University Lecturer and author of The Secret of Hurricanes (MacAdam/Cage 2002). Her short stories have appeared in The Sun, Hunger Mountain, and other magazines, and poems in a number of magazines, including Gargoyle, DMQ Review, Paterson Literary Review, Lilliput Review, Barnwood International Poetry Magazine, Apple Valley Review. Her chapbook, The Galaxy to Ourselves, was published in 2012. She is the creator of The Letter Project, an online repository for actual letters–written and sent.

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.

4142JPXV0ZL._AA160_Read more by and about Theresa:

Essay at Talking Writing: I Hear the Woods Beating

Novel: The Secret of Hurricanes

Chapbook: The Galaxy to Ourselves

How Theresa Williams 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 Theresa for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but the desire to be a writer evolved much more slowly. The first step was when I took my first fiction workshop at East Carolina University. I took it on a lark. That’s what started my adult writing life. But I think my biggest epiphany about writing was fairly recent: it happened when I remembered how much fun writing was when I was a child. I used to make newsletters to entertain my friends. I’m back to that concept now: writing for fun. It’s glorious!

278Williams T cov2. How did you go about becoming a writer?


University classes got me started. But it was hard to maintain the writing life after graduation. After I finished the MFA, I didn’t write for five years. When I started writing again, it was like starting all over. It took a lot of soul searching. I had to force myself to go into my writing room and slave away. It was like digging holes in hard dirt. Now my writing life isn’t separate from the rest of my life, and, as I said earlier, I’m having fun.

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

Without a doubt, the editors who published my early work. They gave me hope, and without hope, all is pretty much lost. I still credit editors of magazines, big and small, with keeping writing alive, not just for me, but for many people.


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

I’m inspired by writers and artists who overcame great obstacles to keep writing and making art. I look to writers like James Wright and Theodore Roethke who had mental conditions that affected their ability to write. James Wright wrote a lot of tortured poetry, but he also wrote things like:

Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
Crying
This is what I wanted.

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

Actually, I write lots of letters to aspiring writers. I believe in letters and encourage people to write letters. In my letters, I remind aspiring writers to read a lot and to write a lot. I remind them that they are unique and have things to say. I tell them that if they write with honesty, people will want to read what they write.

I also try to answer their questions about writing honestly and to give them the sense they have truly been “heard.” Despite all the connections we make on social media, I think a lot of people suffer from the condition of not being heard, so they learn to hide their innermost desires as a form of self-protection. It’s like putting their diamonds in a lock box where they will be safe. The problem with a lock box is that the beauty isn’t accessible. Eventually, one even forgets it’s there. The diamonds are our imagination, our art, our spirit–what keeps us truly alive.

Joseph Cornell, Taglioni’s Jewel Casket (Image from MOMA)

You could call me a late bloomer.
I was forty-three before I had a poem accepted for publication,
sixty-two before one of my short stories made it out into the world.

David Meischen’s stories and poems have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Talking Writing, Prime Number, Bellingham Review, The Southern Review, Southern Poetry Review, Borderlands, Cider Press Review, and elsewhere. As a founder of Dos Gatos Press, he is co-editor of Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry. Meischen has an MFA in fiction from Texas State, San Marcos.‪ Winner of the Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest in Mainstream Fiction, 2011, and the Talking Writing Fiction Contest, 2012, he is currently serving as a juror for the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.‬

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 fiction writers.

Read more by and about David:

Story: Agua Dulce, winner of the Talking Writing Fiction Contest

Story: Yellow Jackets at Talking Writing

Story: In the Garden at Superstition Review

Edited book: Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry

Interview: Blood Jet Radio

How David Meischen 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 David for saying yes! And thanks to Talking Writing magazine for sharing their writers!  ‪

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?
I’ve been in  love with stories for as long as I can remember. Two of my grandparents were storytellers—Lillie Bruns Meischen and Edmund Frank Henry Morgenroth. As a child I loved listening to them; I loved weaving stories of my own. I wanted to be a writer because for me there is no magic more powerful than the magic of stories.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?
You could call me a late bloomer. I was forty-three before I had a poem accepted for publication, sixty-two before one of my short stories made it out into the world. My apprentice ship in poetry occurred quite by accident when I decided that I was going to teach my ninth-grade students about poetry by having them write poems. Frequently, during a writing exercise, I sat down to write with my students. I learned with them. My apprenticeship in fiction was more intentional. Seven years ago, I enrolled in an MFA program. I put short stories front and center, reading as many of them as I could and channeling my energy into the writing. I love revision. With rare exception, my poems and stories go through draft after draft after draft before I send them out.
 
3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?
I’m indebted to dozens of fine teachers I’ve known dating all the way back to the fall of 1955, when I entered first grade. More recently, I’ve been able to study with some remarkable teaching writers. For poetry, I’d have to name Laurie Kutchins, author of Slope of the Child Everlasting. Laurie helped me open up when I write poetry. Thanks to her encouragement, I have a poem in The Southern Review. For fiction, I’ve learned much from Debra Monroe, Tim O’Brien, and Daniel Mueller. They’re remarkable writers. If you’ve not read On the Outskirts of Normal or The Things They Carried or How Animals Mate, get yourself to a bookstore. Debra, Tim, and Daniel are much more than really fine writers, though. They are remarkable teachers. They know so much about the how of good writing—and even more about encouraging the best from their students.
 
As a practicing writer, I owe much to monthly meetings with two remarkable writing groups, one focused on poetry and the other on fiction. Fellow fiction writer Twister Marquiss has been generous with his time and insights. Finally, I have the incredible good fortune of sharing my life with a writer, the poet Scott Wiggerman, who inspires me by example and, when he reads my work, holds me to a high standard.

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

More than thirty years ago, I wrote a Master’s thesis on the style of Ernest Hemingway’s early fiction. I read as much of the available biographical and critical material as I could get my hands on. What struck me then—what continues to inspire me about Hemingway—was the remarkable intersection between the events of the life and the stunning sentences a young man carved out of them. Hemingway’s brief but profoundly affecting experience in the First World War might have disappeared into a minor footnote somewhere about what was then called shell shock. Except for Paris. His early years in the French capitol, the people he knew there—Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Scott Fitzgerald, to name only three—these might have fueled nothing more than drink and revelry. Except for the discipline a fledgling writer somehow brought to the page.
 

Hemingway in Milan 1918 // Image courtesy Wikimedia

Ernest Hemingway was a profoundly damaged man. Psychic trauma exacted its toll, as did fame and its siren song. Between them, they destroyed his talent. In the meantime, what he was able to accomplish with words! I am inspired every time I read the first short chapter of A Farewell to Arms. Every phrase, every word, every comma counts. At his best, Hemingway turned sentences into poetry. That’s what every practicing writer should aspire to.
 
5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Carve out time and space. Sit down. Let the words come. Practice the art of tinkering. Find at least one other writer with whom you can share your work and your passion for writing. Revise. Then revise some more. And read, read, read.

I am still becoming a writer. I teach full time; I parent full time.
But these aspects of my life offer me an awareness of existence
that fuels my writing.

Ann Lightcap Bruno is an English teacher at the Wheeler School in Providence and lives in nearby Cranston, Rhode Island, with her husband and children. Her essays and stories have appeared in such publications as Memoir (and), Painted Bride Quarterly, Mississippi Review Online, Talking Writing, and Alimentum.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is the second in a new 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 fiction writers.

Read Ann Lightcap Bruno’s story, “Open Bar” at Talking Writing. Excerpt:

I want her to say something to make me feel connected to then, to now, to her, to anything. All she can do is fake smile. “See you out there?”

The ladies’ room empties of nearly everyone. I feel like I am in the safe pouch of some animal, its pounding heart beating just outside the door. I rip off the old Bandaid fast and apply the new one. There is a spot of blood on the satin strap of my dyed-to-match sandal, so I blot at it with a wet paper towel. The stain spreads and turns orange. But the dress is long, and the pictures have been taken. It won’t matter.

Read more by and about Ann:

Story: Open Bar at Talking Writing

Essay: Notes on Hunger at Painted Bride Quarterly

Story: Graveside at Elimae

Essay: Defining Gluten at Alimentum

Essay: The Ache of Writing at Talking Writing

How Ann Lightcap Bruno 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 Ann for saying yes! And thanks to Talking Writing magazine for sharing their writers!  ‪

*     *     *

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I remember going, as a child, to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and watching the art students sitting cross-legged in front of the glass cases, sketchbooks on their laps, drawing antelopes and mountain laurel. On my next trip, I took a pad and pencil but was too overwhelmed by my limited artistic ability to try my hand. So instead I jotted down the names of things: fennecs, desert biomes, wapiti, Ursus americanus. Back home in my room, I tried writing poems using the words I had found. I also might have tried to rhyme. The poems were worse than anything I might have drawn, but I liked the secrecy of scribbling lines and shoving them in my desk drawer where no one could see.  Later, during my freshman year of college, I saw a handsome boy from my acting class hunched over his journal, writing intently. So I started writing every day too because I wanted him to notice. He didn’t, but the writing became a habit I couldn’t shake.  I suppose my desire to be a writer was originally just a desire to look cool. But eventually it turned into a real love of words and sentences and stories. It turned into a compulsion to notice the crazy human dramas all around me.

“I love Virginia Hamilton Adair’s story of gaining notoriety in her eighties.”

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

First of all, I’m not a writer so much as I am a teacher. Teaching is what pays the bills, fills my hours, keeps me honest. I make myself do what I ask of them: take notebooks everywhere, write in small bursts, tackle ridiculous prompts. My great fortune is the opportunity to get paid to read and talk about The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Hamlet, you name it.  “Delicious books,” as my daughter calls her favorites, are really what drive me to write. I want to make something this good. As a kid, I knew that my copy of Little Women was what I would save first in the event of a fire.  In high school Invisible Man rocked my small town sense of self, and in college I disobeyed my father and took two courses where Ulysses was required reading (he had told me to avoid the goddamned book at all costs). In grad school I became enamored of Dickens and his fat, sprawling plots. My own novel is still waiting to be born. In the meantime, I hack away at it and send out little things, stories and essays, during my summers when I have precious stretches of time. I set myself deadlines and make myself submit. I am still becoming a writer. I teach full time; I parent full time. But these aspects of my life offer me an awareness of existence that fuels my writing.

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

The poet Michael Harper inspired me in ways he will never know. I took an African-American literature class with him at Brown, and he made each of us visit him in his office. When I entered, he was hunting through towers of books for a copy of Huck Finn (one of his children needed it for English class at the high school where I now work). After telling me I should start coming to class on time, he asked me to give him my impressions of the course so far. I babbled some things about Morrison’s use of circle imagery in Beloved, about how much I loved Ralph Ellison. Later, when he wrote me a recommendation for grad school, Harper was so pleased with the eloquence of his letter that he called me to read it to me over the phone and to tell me he had sent a copy to Ellison (who figured in it prominently). I was giddy for weeks. I am also indebted to the poet Catherine Imbriglio whose class on lyric essays broke my work wide open, rattling my tired tendencies in really helpful ways. My husband also deserves a shout-out, as he is my go-to editor.

“I harbor a secret yearning to be Patti Smith.”

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

I am inspired by any writer who held a day job (William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, Wallace Stevens). I love Virginia Hamilton Adair’s story of gaining notoriety in her eighties. I also tend to be drawn to the stories of writers with lives far more reckless, colorful, and drunken than mine. Mostly. I harbor a secret yearning to be Patti Smith. In the same acting class with the cute journal-writing boy, I encountered the early rock-and-roll plays of Sam Shepherd – Tooth of Crime, Cowboy Mouth. My favorite acting experiences were playing parts he had written for her. I wore tattered black clothes and dropped my voice a register or two. It was the same kind of identity shape-shifting I enjoy now when I write fiction.  My own life and aesthetic don’t resemble Smith’s in the slightest, but a girl can fantasize. I love her Keith Richard’s hair, her love affair with Robert Mapplethorpe, her far-reaching talent. When I read Just Kids, I appreciated the humor and earnestness with which she wrote about her desire to be an artist. Patti Smith embodies the prototypical American notion of self-reinvention in a way that doesn’t seem obnoxious to me in the slightest.

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

On the last day of my creative writing elective, I always read my students two passages.

The first is a section from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction where he says,” …in order to achieve mastery [a writer] must read widely and deeply, and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.”

The second is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Lurids Brigge, the famous description of the task of a writer that begins, “For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning.” Rilke closes by telling us that it is not enough just to have these experiences or even memories of them; we must allow them to  change “into our very  blood” before we can write the first word.

My point in pairing these passages  is to send them off with the two-fold task of sitting in the chair, and of participating in the world.

As Gardner tells us, we have to read in order to grow as writers. We need to pay attention to the talents of others and read things that unsettle us and inspire us. Furthermore, we must cultivate a practice that forces us to write every day, in whatever stolen chunks of time we have, and to make ourselves work hard at the parts of writing that don’t come easily.

And as Rilke says, we also have to live our lives. We have to wander and observe and argue and love and mourn. And we have to let it all sink into our flesh until we have no other choice but to write about it. If we’re doing it right, the act of writing is also a process of discovery. Looking for the right words, putting the words together to make meaning, can allow us to better understand the whole business of being human.