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Dear Writer,

Persistence is all.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more by and about Katie:

Story: “Flight Plan” at Talking Writing

Story: “Lemonade” at Chagrin Review

Story: “Gentleman’s Game” at Sequestrum

Story: “Wakulla Springs” at Baltimore Review

How Katie Cortese Became a Writer

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

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

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

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

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Writer,

Persistence is all.

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

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

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

And thank god for that.

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This is the first stop of Lynn Kanter’s virtual book tour celebrating her new novel. Be sure to click the banner to see the full tour schedule and follow along for new content each day!

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Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels Her Own Vietnam (2014, Shade Mountain Press), The Mayor of Heaven (1997) and On Lill Street (1992), both published by Third Side Press. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Lost Orchard (SUNY Press), Breaking Up is Hard to Do, and The Time of Our Lives: Women Write on Sex After 40 (both Crossing Press), and the literary journal Verbsap. Her nonfiction has appeared in Referential Magazine and the anthologies Coming Out of Cancer (Seal Press), Testimonies (Alyson Publications) and Confronting Cancer, Constructing Change (Third Side Press).

Lynn is a lifelong activist for feminist and other progressive causes, and has the T-shirts to prove it. Since 1992 Lynn has worked as a writer for the Center for Community Change, a national social justice organization. She lives with her wife in Washington, DC.

lill streetRead More By And About Lynn:

Novel: The Mayor of Heaven

Novel: On Lill Street

Essay: “What Did I Have”

How Lynn Kanter 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 Lynn for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I’ve always loved words. The printed word, the spoken word, stories told in books or movies, as slogans or jests. I was the girl who studied the lyrics of the Top 40 songs and was drawn to the message more than the melody. I think becoming a writer was a natural outgrowth of my interests and enthusiasms.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I started writing stories when I was a little girl, sitting behind my father’s upright black manual typewriter, a beautiful machine that was old even then. Some of the metal keys had cushioned rubber caps that you could, with difficulty, slide on and off. The rubber had turned hard and cracked like an old pencil eraser that now can only rub holes in the paper.

I can distinctly remember as a child typing the words, “This is a story about a boy and his” – and then hesitating. Should it be his dog? His horse? I wasn’t sure. But I had no doubt the story had to be about a boy, because no one would be interested in a girl’s adventures. Now, of course, I find it sad that a young girl had already absorbed such a clear message about the value of her own stories.

The Mayor of HeavenAs a teenager, I stayed up late filling notebook after notebook with handwritten tales never meant to be shared, losing hours to the sheer exhilaration of writing. I often wish I could reclaim that unselfconscious energy and creativity. I still find joy and deep satisfaction in writing – otherwise no one would do it – but it’s much more effortful now and more burdened with self-criticism. That, I think, is the downside of getting published or working toward publication.

And I did aim for publication. In college, I papered the walls of my dorm room with rejection letters from magazines and journals. Later I stuffed a file cabinet with them. For my current novel, Her Own Vietnam, I probably could have filled another file drawer with rejections from agents, except they were all emails.

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that my first story was published. By then I had found my subject, and it turned out to be the theme I had rejected as a child: the adventure of women’s lives.

I’ve heard of writers, like the late J. California Cooper, who said that stories and characters’ voices just came to them. I’ve never met any writers that lucky. Nor do I believe that Cooper – a hard-working writer who wrote more than a dozen plays before her fiction was finally published when she was in her 50s – meant that she literally sat around waiting for inspiration to strike.

I became a writer in the only way I think it’s possible to do so: by continually writing, continually reading, and trusting, despite sometimes overwhelming evidence, that somewhere a reader is yearning for exactly the stories you want to tell.

"I'm inspired by the work of Rachel Carson."

“I’m inspired by the life and work of Rachel Carson.”

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

I had a teacher in high school who took me aside after I’d turned in a routine class writing assignment and told me I could become a writer if that’s what I wanted. Over the years I’ve had numerous teachers who helped in various ways, particularly by equipping me to read and appreciate other people’s writing.

But the people who helped me the most are other writers, both aspiring and accomplished. They read my unfinished, unpolished work and allowed me to read theirs, so together we could lay bare the structure of a story and find its weak spots. Other writers have been astonishingly generous with their time, their support, and their insights about the craft of writing and the perils and satisfactions of publishing. I hope I have opportunities to pass on some of the wisdom and kindness I’ve received.

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

I’m inspired by the life and work of Rachel Carson. She wrote books that were both lovely and compelling, and through them she launched a movement to save the earth. She did this while hiding the fact that she was dying of cancer, because she thought that knowledge might undermine her credibility, which was already under attack simply because she was female.

I’m also inspired by Edwidge Danticat. Like so many immigrant children, she had a difficult and painful childhood, emigrating from Haiti to Brooklyn when she was 12 to follow her parents. English was her third language. Yet she turned the unfamiliar English words into beauty and power, using them to open the eyes of the world to the Haitian experience and to advocate for change to alleviate the suffering of immigrants.

"I'm also inspired by Edwidge Danticat."

“I’m also inspired by Edwidge Danticat.”

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

Read everything you can. Enjoy the suspense of “what will happen next?” and study how the author created that feeling. If you find books you love, reread them. You’ll notice and appreciate more each time.

Create a writing community for yourself. The support of other writers is invaluable – both to give and to receive. Plus, no one else wants to want to hear shop talk about the actual work of writing.

If you can, participate in workshops. You’ll learn how to give and take criticism and, most importantly, how to discern unhelpful criticism from the kind of instructive, insightful criticism that you should act on immediately.

Writers write. They don’t plan to write or intend to write; they sit down and write. Of course, the act of writing requires a good deal of researching, reading, and staring out the window – behaviors that other people might confuse with procrastination. Sometimes it is just avoidance – writing is work, after all – but I do believe some amount of daydreaming is intrinsic to the writing process.

You are a writer because you write. It is not dependent on whether anyone will publish what you write.

Protect your writing time. Consider yourself unavailable during that time, and insist that others do so as well. Many people in your life won’t equate writing with work, and will think you’re free to chat or have lunch or run out for milk. It doesn’t matter if they think writing is just a casual hobby for you. What matters is that they leave you alone to write. Making this happen is up to you.

Face the fact that you will almost certainly have to do something else for a living. If you can get a job that uses your writing skills, great – but be sure the kind of writing you do for work does not come from the same place within you as the writing you do for life.

All of this sounds very somber, but the big secret about writing is that it’s difficult, sometimes tedious, often frustrating – and profoundly fun. Enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

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

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

Read more by and about Jen:

Short Story: “Human Movements

Short Story: “Lillian in White

Interview: Talking about The Tide King

Novella Collection: Could You Be With Her Now

Fiction Collection: Close Encounters

How Jen Michalski Became a Writer

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

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

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

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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  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!

Publishing is just like dating.
Just because one editor doesn’t like it, or even hates it,
doesn’t mean another won’t fall in love with it.

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Jessica Tyner, born and raised in Oregon, is a member of the Cherokee Nation, a Pushcart Prize nominee and a graduate of the Ooligan Press program. She received her master’s degree in Writing from Portland State University, having completed the second year of the program as an intern with the Fulbright Commission in London, England. An extensive traveler, she has lived in England, South Korea and Costa Rica and has had her poetry published around the world. She’s the founder of The Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund, an annual gift for graduate students with a Native American connection who are pursuing an advanced degree in writing or a related field.

Read more by and about Jessica:

Book of Poems: The Last Exotic Petting Zoo

Poems: “The Carving Station” and “Bronco Bustling”

Poem: “Love You More”

Poems: “Two Days Prior to the Burial” and “How to Oil an Indian Man’s Hair”

How Jessica Tyner 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 Jessica for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

Writing has always come naturally to me, but I grew up in the era where those with an English degree could “only” be teachers. This was right before the boom of SEO, web content writing, monetized blogging and other potentially lucrative writing careers. I pursued an undergrad degree in English followed by a master’s in writing based on pure passion. Throughout my academic career, I worked for non-profits writing grant proposals and marketing materials—always publishing my own poetry on the side. However, it took my department being shut down and a fluke of a segue into freelancing to discover that writing really can be a “real” career. The simple answer is “always,” though. I’ve always known I’m a writer, but I don’t think it’s something you become. You can definitely, constantly improve your writing skills, but I think for most writers it’s something we’re born with.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I got into the non-profit field via a work-study position. My university placed me with Oregon Literacy, a local non-profit, simply because they thought the words “English major” and “Literacy” went hand in hand. I had a knack for grant writing, and it was the first time I was paid for writing so I stuck with this industry probably longer than I should. Honestly, my first freelance gig came about when I was perusing Craigslist after my department got laid off. One ad was for a writer for a short-term project, and was rich with arrogance and elitism. I just had to write to the poster to let him know my thoughts on such a haughty ad. He ended up being my first project manager—we worked together for years.

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

In terms of becoming a successful professional writer, that Craigslist poster was the biggest boost. From a poetic standpoint, my undergraduate poetry professor, Michele Glazer, was hugely inspirational. I’m sending her a copy of my book with a note of thanks. I still remember the best (I think) piece of advice she gave us: “You should memorize poems because if you’re ever put into solitary confinement, you need beautiful words besides your own in your head.” I actually wrote a poem about that advice, and still remember many of the poems I memorized for her classes, particularly Kim Addonizio’s “What Do Women Want?”.

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

I’m a big fan of Li-Young Lee. He was born into a family that was literally exiled, and into a country that wasn’t his own. His history is steeped in political strife, yet his work centers on the self and love, much like my own. He also married into a different culture. I greatly admire what he’s achieved, and even after years of reading and re-reading his work, he continues to have the ability to manipulate my emotions with ease.

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

Grow a tough, thick skin and don’t let anyone tell you that a creative degree is useless—but don’t be passive either. As a writer, you need to forge your own path and work much harder than many in other industries. I had an editor of a journal write a nasty personal letter to me once calling a particular poem clichéd. That same poem was nominated for a Pushcart. Publishing is just like dating. Just because one editor doesn’t like it, or even hates it, doesn’t mean another won’t fall in love with it. Believe in yourself and your work, but write every single day (even when it hurts) and look for new publishing opportunities relentlessly. Unfortunately, many writers fall into the stereotype of being flaky and missing deadlines. I know because I’ve hired quite a few. Be the exception, blend business savviness with your writing skills, and you’ll have an edge.

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This is one stop on Zarina’s virtual book tour.
Keep up with the rest of the tour here!

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I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

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Zarina Zabrisky is the author of two short story collections IRON and A CUTE TOMBSTONE (Epic Rites Press) and a novel WE, MONSTERS (Numina Press). Zabrisky’s work appeared in over thirty literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong and Nepal. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of 2013 Acker Award. Read more about the author at zarinazabrisky.com. You can purchase A CUTE TOMBSTONE here.

IronRead more by and about Zarina:

Story: “The Twilight of Liberty

Video: Zarina reading “Pig Legs.”

Short Story Collection: Iron

Novel: We, Monsters

Interview:The Nervous Breakdown

How Zarina Zabrisky 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 Zarina for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I wrote my first poem at six.  My first novel at eleven. There was no “why.” But if I have to rationalize, I would love to quote Josef Brodsky: “I’ll just say that I believe – not empirically, alas, but only theoretically – that, for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens.” So, I figure, if I write anything anywhere close to Dickens… at least, I can try.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

It is not becoming a writer for me. It is being a writer.
I was in Queretaro at a writing workshop last summer. I wrote a poem there:

There is a knitting shop
On the corner
And three old women are knitting,
Needles dancing.
Their faces are still, bronze,
Their eyes fixed on the wall,
Not on the knitting.
Their fingers know
How to weave.
Their hands remember everything.
Their patterns come from their hearts
Or, maybe, from the spirits that live on that big invisible mountain.

They don’t knit,
They became the knitting.
Same for me:
I don’t write–
I became the writing,
And my fingers dance blindly
Across the page.

As for becoming oneself, I am still working on it… I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

We Monsters

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

My father liked my writing before he passed away. He didn’t do or say anything that stuck in my memory but I remember his face softening and the expression of pride or happiness in his usually sad or withdrawn eyes. Then I became a closet writer and no one had an opportunity to help me–they did not know I needed help.  I didn’t know that myself.

I found a whole new dimension of helping each other in the creative process through literary collaboration with my writing and life partner, Simon Rogghe.  Through listening to each other, and hearing, we write and discover. Being heard is the most important–and almost impossible–type of help that a writer can use, I think.  Together, we have gone on many adventures: performing our poetry to music and even dancing it and taking it around the country–from Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Seattle and Portland; writing poetry duets on an imaginary journey in Mexico and creating visual concepts for it.  This went so well that the book of collaborative poetry is forthcoming from amazing Numina Press, in November 2014.  The book is called Green Lions and in it I will debut with my illustrations–the visual concepts found together with Simon.

I was also very lucky to have my publishers, Epic Rites Press (Canada), Numina Press (SF) and Nostrovia Press (mobile and everywhere) work with me and support my books.  The independent publishers are passionate, powerful and insanely talented people, of a rare kind.

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Vaslav Nijinsky

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

So many… From Salinger who managed to run away from it all to just write, to Vaslav Nijinsky, a legendary ballet dance, whose diary was the book that impressed me the most, perhaps. Nijinsky is the dancer who became the dance.  The diary was written in Switzerland in a short spurt, and in a matter of weeks schizophrenia won over one of the most unusual and creative minds of the last century.  But before he sank into decades of mental non-being, Nijinsky pulled up the curtain of the theater which only can be called Universe.  There is no bullshit in that book.  He even says that it should be read the way he wrote it: in his rushed cursive, in French and Russian. I did that: went to the NYC Performing Arts Library and ordered the microflims.  Read them in the dark room for hours…  Also, Jim Morrison.  William Blake.  I am inspired by people who stayed true to their core and vision despite of any circumstances.

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

“You must become who you are.” Also, write and read. In particular, read Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. The only good book on writing I have found.  The book cuts into the bone marrow of language, brain work and the intangible realm called poetry. No frills and no politically correct New Agey nonsense. He can be blunt and rude, but if you read his ABC you might end up with better 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.

RUStache

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.”

 

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

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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.

Mazza new cover -FrontBack

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.

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

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

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

Kingcvrfrntlo-res_000Read more by and about Patricia:

Story: “Rooster Hour” in Narrative

Chapbook: The Death of Carrie Bradshaw (Kore Press)

Review of The Death of Carrie Bradshaw

Excerpt: from “Dogs in Guatemala” in Nimrod

How Patricia Grace King Became a Writer

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

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

The short answer is: It took a life crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from albavolunteer.org; click for link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At 28, I was working fulltime as the PR director for an art museum and completing my thesis when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A scare like that has a way of focusing your priorities.

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Janna McMahan is the national bestselling author of the novels Anonymity, Calling Home and The Ocean Inside. She has won numerous literary awards for her short fiction including being named a finalist for the 2010 Flannery O’Connor Awards. Follow her on Twitter @JannaMc or on Facebook at Janna McMahan Fan Page. Watch the book trailer of her new novel at www.JannaMcMahan.com.

Anonymity cover 1-2Read more by and about Janna:

Novel: Anonymity

Novel: Calling Home

Novel: The Ocean Inside

How Janna McMahan 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 Janna for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I grew up in a very small town in Central Kentucky and I always had a keen curiosity about the rest of the world. I desperately wanted to travel and reading was the only way I could visit other places. I quickly grew bored with the children’s books in our school library, so I was overjoyed when we finally got a community library. I was there to volunteer the day the doors opened. I was only eleven when I started reading adult literature. As I returned books to the shelves, I would fantasize about having my name on the spine of a novel. I have friends who say they still have short stories I wrote in grammar school. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. It just seems innate to my nature.

the_ocean_inside2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

At 28, I was working fulltime as the PR director for an art museum and completing my thesis when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A scare like that has a way of focusing your priorities. Once I was emotionally stable enough to look to the future again, I decided to work on that novel I had always wanted to write.

I am a type-A personality, always juggling multiple projects, which I’m sure contributed to my diagnosis. I decided to lower my stress level and concentrate only on writing. My husband was super supportive of my dream, so I finished grad school, quit my job and started to write. I attended a number of writing conferences. I took a fiction class at a community college and formed a serious writing group with some of my fellow students. Everyone brought a chapter each week and within a year, I had a respectable manuscript.

Then reality set in. How did one find representation and a publisher? I won a number of short fiction awards during that time, so it seemed I had the creative ability, but those short, pleasant rejection letters kept coming from agents. Even though I’m generally a tenacious sort, I became frustrated with the process. Thank goodness for author friends who insisted I stick with it. Like many people, I think I wanted the romanticized life of being a writer without slogging through the work it takes.

calling_home3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

I met Silas House on his first stop for his first novel. He encouraged me to come to the Appalachian Writers Workshop where he had found the support he needed to write and sell Clay’s Quilt. I’d been to a few of the larger writing conferences so I was dubious that such a small workshop would be beneficial, but when I walked into that settlement school in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky I suddenly felt at home. It was a supportive atmosphere and the instructors sincerely wanted to help the students become good, successfully published writers. I went for seven years and I formed relationships with Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Ron Rash and a number of other writers from the region. Over the years these lovely people have recommended agents, provided introductions to editors, wrote quotes for my books and lent general emotional support.

This can be a brutal industry. If it were not for the kindness and encouragement of established writers, I think I would have given up. I now feel an obligation to lend a hand to talented people I meet, but far too often eager writers ask for help before they are ready. My advice to aspiring writers is to finish that manuscript, rewrite until it is perfection, then workshop it at a conference with authors you respect. Never approach an author and ask them to read your manuscript unsolicited. It isn’t that we don’t want to be helpful, but truthfully, for legal reasons we can’t read a manuscript unless it is under contract or done through a workshop setting.

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

Ron Rash is someone I’ve always admired. Ron is a good soul. My impression is that he writes without regard to what may or may not be commercially successful. It took him a long time to become the hot writer he is now. I remember his first novel winning the Novello Literary Award, which broke him out on a national level. He is a poet first, so his language is lyrical and his stories reveal themselves like flowers opening. I admire Ron most for his level-headed approach to success. His books are now reviewed by the New York Times and his novel Serena is soon to be a major motion picture, but Ron is still the same affable, calm, lovely person. He doesn’t appear caught up in the hype. Ron just writes because he loves to write.

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

You are not as good as you think you are. Period. Talent is important, without it you’ll go nowhere, but talent is not enough. You have to study and write and read and write and go to conferences and write. Read books on writing. Join a writing group. Be open to criticism. Criticism is very important to the creative process. You don’t have to act on all criticism, but be open and really hear what others have to say. Study authors you admire and try to figure why their stories work. The most important thing is rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. A first draft should be followed by two dozen more drafts. Be hard on yourself. There is always room for improvement. Always.