Wednesday, June 21, 2017

MFA faculty: Summer Reading

Summertime, and the reading is easy....or challenging, thrilling, shake-you-up-and-set-you-down someplace new. In today's blog, MFA faculty talk about what they're reading this summer—everything from classic nonfiction works to memoirs to groundbreaking novels by new writers. Whether you're traveling to a distant country or down the block to your local, air-conditioned library, you'll find the world opening up in the pages of these books.

Mel Allen - Creative Nonfiction Form and Theory I and II
I am in the midst of writing a major feature for Yankee on the Making of the Vietnam War. It’s about Ken Burns’ new 18-hour epic to be aired this September. I have read all Vietnam all the time the past month. In particular Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and Going after Cacciato— as well as personal memoirs from unknown soldiers and even one by a mother who lost her son.

Leanna James Blackwell, MFA Director - Mentorship Lab, Field Seminar in Ireland
I just completed Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a richly imagined, stunning meditation on grief, told in the voices of souls who live in the cemetery where Lincoln’s young son, Willie, was buried. In a completely different vein, I’m midway through Norse Mythology, a retelling of Norse legends by Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods. I often turn to mythology and folklore for inspiration –my most recent play, Grimm Women, is a feminist retelling of three classic fairy tales and I’m currently working on an essay collection inspired by Greek myths.

Next on my list are two new memoirs I can’t wait to read: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, about growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation by the brilliant poet, novelist, and short-story writer Sherman Alexie; and Roxane Gay’s newest book, Hunger, which explores the dangerous territory of weight, female bodies, and the way the body responds to trauma.  Last on my list is a book I re-read every summer, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Woolf’s work has served as a lighthouse to me during my entire writing career, and each time I revisit her books I discover something fresh, startling, and unexpected.

Mieke Bomann - Getting Inside Lives: Writing the Personal Profile
I have three books open now. Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate can Transform our Lives, by Thupten Jinpa. The author is the longtime English translator for the Dalai Lama, and a former Buddhist monk himself. Clearly written, moving and practical, Jinpa outlines how compassion is the "best-kept secret of happiness." Re-reading The Endurance, by Caroline Alexander, a terrific take on Shackleton's legendary Antarctic expedition. The writing is great, the photos fantastic, and the journey unmatched in its magnitude of spirit, courage, and mind-boggling fortitude. Plus, the frozen setting brings coolness to a hot day! Finally, The News: A User's Manual, by Alain de Botton. As a news junkie—and who isn't, in these days of presidential disaster-a-minute bulletins?—I'm curious to see what this British "pop philosopher" has to say about our media habits, and to gain further insights into the extraordinary impact the 24/7 news cycle has on our hearts and minds.

Adam Braver - Thesis I and II

Currently, three books in the nightstand rotation, two of which are Norwegian novels: The Unseen by Roy Jacobson (shortlisted for Man Booker Award, which was a draw), and another called The Beatles by Lars Saabye Christensen (a book that came highly recommended by a Norwegian friend). I very much like to read contemporary literature from other countries because I find them to be less constrained, in that they trust the intellect of the reader, and can take chances with form, convention, and the exploration of ideas and consciousness. The third book is a nonfiction essay collection: Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill. I greatly admire her fiction and thinking, and look forward to seeing it in the personal essay form.  

Susie Chang - Eat, Drink, Get Paid
I'm not reading much fiction these days but picked up The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho on my husband's recommendation, mostly for pleasure. It turned out to be not only a good read but also very relevant to the kind of research on spiritual journeys I'm doing right now.  I’m also reading Tarot and the Magus by Paul Hughes Barlow, just one of the two or three dozen Tarot books I'm constantly dipping in and out of right now in the course of writing a book, Tarot Correspondences, for Llewellyn Publications.  In this case I'm specifically looking for some advanced techniques to incorporate both into my divination practice and into my own book.

Anthony D'Aries - Mentorship Lab, Professional Track in Teaching
I'm reading a memoir by Leah Carroll called Down City: Daughter's Story of Love, Memory, and Murder. Set in Rhode Island, it's about the writer's mother, a photographer who was murdered by two drug dealers with Mafia connections when Leah was four years old. The book is not only about that traumatic event but also the mystery of her parents' lives, told through interviews, photos, and police records. It's a wonderful memoir. 

Aine Greaney - Health and Wellness Writing, Mentorship Lab
I just picked up a wonderful memoir, Once We Were Sisters, by Sheila Kohler. It's by a South-African-born author who, following the death of her 39-year-old sister, flies back to her native country to grieve and come to terms with their shared lives and strange childhood. I chose this because the writing is so beautiful, I love transatlantic books and am always fascinated by family relationships and how family history overlaps with a country's history.

Shahnaz Habib - Creative Nonfiction Form and Theory I and II
This month, I have been reading the Qur'an with my daughter. We are in the middle of Ramadan, a sacred month for Muslims. It's the month in which the Qur'an was first revealed to the Prophet. As a reader and writer, I love remembering that the first revealed word of the Qur'an was "Read!" So every day, Sophy and I read a few Qur'an verses in Arabic, then we read their English translation. I love sitting on the prayer mat with my daughter on my lap, reading in two languages. Reading with a six-year-old means stopping to wonder about words, defining concepts I have taken for granted, parsing the difference between literal and metaphoric. The questions she asks are compelling me to think through my own understanding of belief, God's powers, human purpose.

Ramadan has been particularly hard this year in North America in these long summer days. I have been humbled and challenged by the daily 16-hour fasting regimen. For inspiration, I have been reading about fasting. I just finished the gorgeous, lyrical Fasting for Ramadan by Kazim Ali, in which he writes about fasting and writing and doing yoga. I have also been dipping into Ramadan: Motivating Believers to Action, an anthology that collects theological and philosophical writings on Ramadan from the 12th century to our own times.

But there comes a time of the day when my hunger is too distracting for lofty reading. So I have also been cutting the fat with some detective fiction. Right now I am working my way through Susan Hill's Inspector Serailler mysteries. I will admit that I linger a bit too much over the descriptions of police officers discussing the latest murder over pie and peas in a pub. Pie and peas. Mmmm.

I am also prepping for a Study Abroad program I will be leading in India later this summer, so I am rereading some Indian writers I want my students to read. I was awed by Ghachar Ghochar, a novel in translation, in which the author Vivek Shanbagh captures a changing city by focusing on the domestic tensions within one family. I will soon turn to R. K. Narayan who created a fictional small town, Malgudi, the likes of which are fast disappearing in India, and peopled them with characters, each of whose lives he explored through individual books in the Malgudi series.

Karol Jackowski - Women’s Spiritual Writing, Nature Writing
Years ago I started reserving summer as a time to re-read books that changed my life.  I scan my bookshelves waiting for a book to pick me. This summer Jung's Active Imagination was my first pick.  How did it change my life?  In 2001 I finished writing—with a six week deadline—a heart-wrenching book called The Silence We Keep, a nun's view of the pedophile priest scandal.  Feeling like I'd never write another word, I picked up Active Imagination in which Jung speaks in depth about how to keep the writing soul alive. He writes about what to do when you finish writing a book before beginning another one. "Do the opposite of what your craft is,” he said, and used the example of a writer beginning to paint.  Doing the opposite of our craft awakens creative visions in the soul untouched by the mindfulness of writing.  Or as Gertrude Stein reveals..."It takes a heap of doing nothing to write a good book." The mindlessness and playfulness of painting has now become the soulmate to writing life. Thank you, Carl Jung.

Lisa Romeo - Thesis I and II
For part of my spring and summer reading, I decided to catch up with books by some fellow graduates of the MFA program I attended. It's a wildly divergent group of books. I'm currently reading two: The Butcher's Daughter by Florence Grende, a memoir of growing up the child of Holocaust survivors; and A Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol, an unusual novel about plants, eco-terrorism, family, and…(well, I'll find out). And next up are: Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks, in which she interviews writers who tackled difficult memoirs; The Language of Men by fellow MFA instructor Anthony D'Aries, a father-son story of love, travel, discovery; and In the Context of Love by Linda K. Sienkiewicz, a novel of family secrets and the always challenging path of love.

Suzanne Strempek Shea - Writer-in-Residence, Field Seminar in Ireland
I’m reading Ma Speaks Up: And a First-Generation Daughter Talks Back, by Marianne Leone. Leone’s first book, Jesse: A Mother’s Story, is a heart-grabbing tribute to the life of her late son, and the story of how she and husband Chris Cooper became activists for others who, like their Jesse did, struggle with physical and/or mental challenges. In this new book, Leone brings us to the story (both the real one and the fable she delivered over the years) of her mother’s immigration from Italy, and to Marianne’s own journey across the sometimes swirling seas of being that larger-than-life woman’s daughter. Often poignant, and just as often hilarious, the writing shines with spirit and love. Second on the list is the brilliant Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971, by Leigh Montville. I read anything by this perennially best-selling writer, who spoke on interviewing at one of our earlier Writers’ Days. Montville’s prose, research, approach, and his basic ideas (as this look at a very tumultuous time in the life of Ali and this country illustrates) fascinate and inform.

I’m also reading Puppy Bible: The Ultimate Week-by-Week Guide to Raising Your Puppy, by Claire Arrowsmith and Alison Smith. It’s been ten years since I’ve raised a puppy, and this is a solid paw to hold as my husband and I begin anew. I’m happy about the guidance and checklists that start with the decision to adopt a pup, and then go through preparing the home and family and bringing the little one home. The week-by-week setup that brings us to six months has been most helpful. The sections on dog psychology, behavior issues, training and more also have been read more than a few times. I don’t agree with everything (please spay/neuter your critters, don’t waste time pondering) but find this a generally solid resource.

Tommy Shea - Field Seminar in Ireland

Summer reading! What it Used to be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver by Maryann Burk Carver. I’m a reporter, always looking for the other side of the story. I first read Raymond Carver’s short stories in Esquire in the early ‘80s. Then I started buying his books, Cathedral the first. The sentences and paragraphs were short, terse. What wasn’t being said hung there like cigarette smoke, silent, ever present. The characters within seemed straight out of the Bruce Springsteen albums, “Darkness on the Edge of Town’’ and “Nebraska.” Hardscrabble, paycheck-to-paycheck lives. The baby is on the way. The rent is overdue. The phone rings and no one picks it up. The drink is always being poured and drunk too fast. The cup hits the table, signaling “I’m done, hit me with another.” The author always said he drew his stories from his life.

Raymond Carver, who had toiled as a soda jerk, janitor, and farm worker, the guy who graduated Chico State College with a B-minus average, became a literary star. He was reviewed as an “American Chekov,’’ the “most important American short story writer of the second half of the 20th century.’’ He divorced his first wife, married a famous poet, quit drinking, had a lung removed, kept writing. He was dead at 50. Cancer.

Carver’s first wife, Maryann, was a footnote in too many obituaries. She had met him when she was 14, working as a waitress at the Spudnut restaurant in Union Gap, Washington. When they married in 1957, she had just graduated high school, two months short of her 17th birthday and pregnant. Carver was 19. Before Maryann was 18, she was pregnant again. She quit school to support her husband’s writing habit and her daughter and son, working as an encyclopedia saleswoman, a waitress, restaurant hostess, before finishing her schooling and teaching English. Maryann had her book published in 2006. I’m only reading it now. So far it is a love story I don’t think will end. But I know different. I think.

Kate Whouley - Mentorship Lab, Health and Wellness Writing, Professional Track in Publishing
Right now, I am reading Woe is I by Patricia O'Connell, as I am working to develop a foundational refresher course for incoming students. For pleasure, I’m reading The Rebels of Ireland by Edward Rutherfurd. I read his novel Paris earlier this spring, and fell in love with his contemporary approach to historical fiction. (And after you finish one of his sweeping epics, you have a new doorstop!)

And, of course, my summer reading always includes the good writing in The New Yorker, Yankee Magazine, and, yes, Vogue.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Interview with Mieke Bomann

In today’s blog Mieke Bomann, journalist and MFA instructor in profile writing, talks about the role of journalism in civic life, the pleasure of discovering the “meat” of individual lives, and the surprising connection between poetry and narrative nonfiction. Read on to learn how she became a journalist – and what’s next in her writing life.

Can you tell us about your background and your path to becoming a writer?

While I have always written or edited for a living, I have never called myself a writer; mostly, I identify as a journalist. I owe a lot of my motivation and writing skills to great teachers and good editors, an early aversion to authority, and the satisfaction I take in discovering the meat of a person’s work life or lifelong obsession, and then sharing that bit with equally curious readers.

When thinking about a profession after college, I was drawn to both the freedom and privileges that journalism offers. I could make a living by asking interesting people questions about almost anything and, if I did it right, go back to my desk with the ingredients for a story worth reading.

I worked for a couple of newspapers as a city hall and business reporter, and then spent about twenty years going back and forth between freelance writing and editing, and fulltime work for college publications.

What do you see as the role of journalism in today’s society?

There’s a book in that question, but one short answer is that responsible journalism is one of the best tools citizens in a free country have to check the tendency of people in power to seek additional power. The Washington Post puts it even more succinctly on its front page these days: “Democracy dies in darkness.”

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I am most energized by truly motivated students who use the advantage of their affiliation with Bay Path to dig into unknown territory, and write about people who they might otherwise not have a chance to get to know. I am amazed and humbled by the challenging subjects many students choose to write about. I also love watching students make use of the expertise of their academic cohort to expand their worldview and deepen their stories.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

Consider taking a class in poetry writing. No matter the length of your stories, your prose will likely benefit from the intense understanding of the music in language that poets bring to their craft.   

The journalist in me recommends that you write up your notes from an interview as soon as possible because your memory, handwriting, and recording technology are never as reliable as you think.

Finally, taking the time to review the appropriate stylebook and pesky rules of grammar and punctuation will make the journey through your prose much less bumpy for your editor/instructor, who may then reward you with untold riches.

What are you currently at work on?

I am helping to research and write a script for a visitor’s tour of an historic house, owned in the mid-nineteenth century by William Cullen Bryant, a poet and long-time editor of what is now the New York Post.  I am also doing some research on humor writing and satire, and thinking about revitalizing my long-neglected gardening blog, which was never particularly funny but really ought to have been. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Interview with Shahnaz Habib

In today’s blog, we are delighted to feature an interview with Kerala-born, Brooklyn-based writer and MFA instructor Shahnaz Habib. In this interview, Shahnaz talks about the practice of “walking and writing”; about the definition of home and what it means to be a writer who comes not just from one place, but from many; and about the elusive quality of “balance” in a writer’s life.

In your interview with the physician and writer Abraham Verghese, you asked: “Can you begin by telling us a bit about all the different places that are a part of you?” As a writer born and educated in India and now living and writing in New York, how would you answer this same question?  How have these different environments informed your writing? What are the advantages of having more than one language and culture on which to draw for your creative work?

So much of my best writing comes from confusion, and the confusions and contradictions of belonging to more than one place have been a very profitable source of inspiration for me. I grew up in Kochi, a small town in southern India. I moved to Delhi and then New York for grad school, and fell in love with both those big cities, very different from each other. I also lived for several months in Turkey, and Istanbul, to me, is simply the best place on earth. All these places have shaped my writing – I feel perennially an outsider, someone looking in through a window, someone making sense of all these glimpsed lives. I have become both obsessed with place and reconciled to the idea of not having one home. Language is my home.

Something else that happens when you have left pieces of your heart in different places as I have done in Kochi, Delhi, New York, Istanbul, is that it is impossible to be indifferent to the world outside. An earthquake or a bombing somewhere in the world does not seem to be something that happens far away to another place.

You have written fiction, essays, and poetry. Can you tell us about your writing practice? Do you move back and forth between these forms or do you tend to concentrate on one at time?

I don’t write much poetry anymore, so it’s mostly between essays and short fiction. I do feel that fiction takes more time to grow inside me, and I have learned not to rush it. When a story is ready to be written, it’s always such a pleasure to be completely immersed in its fictional world. Just in terms of proportions, I write more nonfiction than fiction. But when I do write fiction, it feels like a deeper dive.

You have talked about the relationship between walking and writing: is this a regular practice for you? Do you “walk and write” daily?

I go through phases. Sometimes walking is a big part of my life. Part of the year, I work full-time at a very intense job, and it’s such a pleasure to escape during my lunch break and take long city walks. But when I am working from home, I often fall prey to the temptation of working in bed. In pajamas.

In the morning I sometimes drop my daughter off at her school bus. And then when I turn homewards, there is always a tug of war. Should I just keep walking? I mean, here I am, all dressed and presentable enough for the world. Sometimes, the walker wins. Sometimes the cocooner wins.

Do you have a dedicated space in which to write?

You mean other than the bed? No.

What are you working on now?

Essays. I am very slowly putting together a collection of essays on not traveling. I am also reading some books as research for a novel I want to write.

At Bay Path, you teach two semesters of Creative Nonfiction Writing: Form and Theory. What do you most enjoy about teaching? What creative possibilities does the online format offer you as a teacher?

I am amazed by the stories my students are telling about their lives. I think Bay Path’s program, by virtue of being online, reaches students who have extremely intense and full lives, students who don’t have the luxury of taking two years out of their lives for a typical offline MFA program. Some of them are primary caregivers, some of them have jobs they can’t afford to leave. And those busy brave lives get reflected in the essays they are writing and the perspectives they are writing from. That’s an honor, to be able to read and respond to such important stories.

I also think the online format and the facelessness it fosters can be a blessing. It gives students the courage to be vulnerable, to tell stories that perhaps wouldn’t come out in a more face-to-face setting. Also vice versa, when students read each other’s work in class, they are responding to the words, not to the personalities.

In addition to teaching and writing, you are also an editor and a parent.  How do you find balance in your life?

I have been thinking about this a lot, especially in the context of the long resistance that is ahead of us in the next four years. How will I find the time to make a living, parent, protest, and write? It takes so much time just to unscramble and understand the political nightmare that we are living through. Balance, at least for me, is a myth. Something in your life will always be wanting attention and not getting it. Right now, since it’s the beginning of the semester, I have been focused mostly on making sure that my students are supported. The writing has taken a back seat. But there’s an ebb and flow to these different roles, and soon I’ll turn to my writing, feeling refreshed by my engagement with my students, and reinvigorated by all the wonderful mobilizing that is happening in our communities.

To learn more about Shahnaz and her work, please visit her website.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Interview with MFA faculty member Karol Jackowski

 On today’s blog, Karol Jackowski, who teaches our MFA courses “Women’s Spiritual Writing through the Ages” and “Nature Writing,” talks with interviewer Sandy Chmiel about writing, spirituality, and the development of a writing voice informed by the deepest part of the self. These words are soul nourishment themselves; give yourself time to savor them.

Do you prefer to be called Sister Karol or Karol?

Karol. “Sister” designates my marital status, like Mrs., Mr., and Ms. Call me Karol and see me as your sister.

How have your spiritual beliefs informed your writing?

I found the spiritual exercises that formed me as a sister—meditation, contemplation, ritual, leisure, “lectio divina” (spiritual reading)—are the same soulful exercises that form us as writers. In meditation we learn to listen to the “angel in our soul,” our writing voice. In contemplation we listen to the voice in nature and the voice in experience, learning to see more clearly. Ritual becomes a powerful way to maintain a connection with the unseen and unspoken, to open the door for the writing voice to speak. Leisure as a spiritual exercise points to the importance of play in the development of a spiritual life and a writing life.  According to Gertrude Stein, “It takes a heap of doing nothing to write a good book." And especially for writers, all reading is “lectio divina,” spiritual reading—soul food, exercising the mind and feeding the soul simultaneously. Reading and writing become soulmates.  The more we read, the clearer our writing voice becomes. While I was not aware of it at the time, I can see clearly now how the more of a nun I became, the more of a writer I became. 

You have taught “Women’s Spiritual Writing through the Ages” and are now teaching “Nature Writing and Narrative Poetry.” What similarities do you find in these two topics? 

In the first course, “Women’s Spiritual Writing through the Ages,” the focus is on the spiritual exercises of meditation, spiritual reading—reading reflectively and meditatively—and ritual. Listening to the writing voices of women through the ages serves the purpose of clarifying our voice, hearing more clearly, writing more artfully. The course in “Nature Writing” focuses on the spiritual exercises of contemplation and leisure, on listening to the voice of nature and seeing in nature the story of our life. The first course focuses on how to listen as a writer. The second course focuses on how to see as a writer. Both focus on exercising the writing voice in soulful ways. 

How does your spiritual practice carry over into your interactions with your students?

In addition to being their teacher, I am their sister. Because readings and assignments in these courses engage students in profoundly personal ways, responses to one another become ‘spiritual direction” for all of us. A strong sense of community develops as students’ comments serve to support, strengthen, and enjoy thoroughly each other’s work. In that way, students also teach the class. The soulful subject matter lends itself to creating a working environment online where I find enormous respect for one another, and the kind of “community” feeling I experience in the sisterhood. Concerns are shared, insights revealed, support offered always…sisterhood at its best. Not only am I their teacher, I am also their sister.

What do you most love about the writing process?

For me, the writing process is nothing short of divine intervention. The inner voice is a holy spirit and words become our “magic wand,” the medium for our soul’s message. The writing life keeps my spiritual life alive and well—that’s what I love most about it. I write at the beginning and end of every day, oftentimes more. I live a solitary life in which my writing voice thrives. The spiritual life and the writing life are my soul sisters, giving me a life I love most. There is nothing I love more than days and nights of writing, days and nights of divine intervention.

What else would you like to share with us?

How grateful I am for the opportunity to work with gifted writers whom I watch grow by leaps and bounds. Seeing the writing voice become clearer and stronger week after week is pure joy for a teacher. Thank you for the pleasure of their company.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Interview with Adam Braver

Today on the Director’s Blog we feature a remarkable interview with prolific writer and MFA faculty member Adam Braver, who teaches Thesis I and II in the program.  Here, Adam talks about his literary activism, the links between literature and intellectual and moral freedom, and his own writing and editing practice.

How do you define “literary citizenship,” and why do you think it is important? How has it informed your writing and teaching?
This is a term that is being used in many contexts. For me, it means remembering that you are a part of a community of artist-writers, and as members of that group we have a responsibility to support one another—especially those around the world who battle censorship, threat to life, and worse in order to be able to make their art and/or express themselves. Because of the process of writing and making art, there is a tendency for writers to become self-involved, and a temptation to see writing solely as a business venture or as a path to recognition. Of course, that is part of the business of being in the arts, although it should not be the reason to be in the arts—that should be about the drive to make art. So imagine you live in a society where the State tells you can’t make art, or at least that kind of art? Imagine you are sent to jail because a censor believes the metaphor in your poem insults the country’s leadership. Or imagine that your family is constantly harassed because you offer a historical narrative that runs counter to the narrative the current government is promoting. Where I am going with this is that for our art I believe we have to find a method to support ways to get that art out all over the world. 

There are numerous things one can do to help support that: read works of people in translation, follow NGOs such as Scholars at Risk, PEN, Amnesty, etc., and sign their petitions regarding writers and intellectuals who are being persecuted, and encourage others to do so. That’s a good start, to my thinking. I don’t know how it informs my writing, per se, other than it reminds me how lucky I am at all times to have the freedom to make art, and that with that luxury I never should take it lightly; it reminds me to work hard, to parse every word, every sentence, every everything—all because I am free to do that, and to take it lightly is to disregard my fellow writers around the world who are being persecuted for doing as much. On a more practical level, I also have been editing a series for the University of New Orleans Press that tells firsthand accounts of some writers/thinkers who have been persecuted for their writings. And in the classroom, I try to encourage and suggest works in translation (even if they are not necessarily from threatened countries, just to remind student-writers that the art form they are aspiring to become part of is part of a worldwide community, and that they should be involved in that conversation, if nothing else than to learn and see how others with different worldviews are approaching their art.) And with students, it is something I can talk about, as I am doing here, encouraging them to find their own ways to create literary citizenship, and as artist-writers to think of themselves as being part of a community beyond one that solely is about monetizing and self-aggrandizement. It’s a big responsibility. One that should never, never be forgotten.

Can you tell us about your path to becoming a writer?

I grew up an only child, and spent a lot of time with my imagination, which, because I loved language, began to manifest itself through the written word. I also was a voracious reader (I don’t know a single writer who wasn’t/isn’t), and eventually that both inspired and intimidated me about writing. I mean, who could even imagine doing what I was reading in these moving and meaningful and artful books? I got a little more serious about the study of it in my mid-twenties, eventually going into an MFA program. A couple of stories were published in literary journals, which then were seen by an agent, eventually leading to my first book. It sounds brief, as I write this, but it was many, many years of day in and day out writing and rewriting and revising. It was years of thinking that nothing would ever come of it—only driven by some small successes and, most importantly and foremost, my love of making art with language. I still feel as though I am always learning and studying my form. I still get excited and inspired to try techniques I see in a book. I’m still willing to fail. And I’m still willing to spend years on something, if it means getting it right.

Nature, art, music, history are just some of the things that inspire and influence writers.  What inspires you?
What most inspires me is trying to understand and engage in the nature of human consciousness. What are those things that make us human? What does it mean to be alive in a certain moment of time, or a certain moment of one’s life? What are the chasms between public personas and private thoughts? What are the moral conflicts between self-interest and the greater good? What are the conflicts between being driven both by hubris and fear? Those kinds of questions that only can be got at through exploring human consciousness. It’s what I like to read, and it’s what I like to explore in my art. 

I think too many young writers (and I don’t mean age here) are driven purely by the plot or events of their narrative. They think that the story or the narrative of the life experience is the only or most important part of their pieces. I see that all as a vehicle to exploring what it means to be human. So, to that end, I have drawn from history, from my own experiences, from stories I’ve heard, etc. But never once has my objective been to use my narrative as a way to retell history or a personal experience—it always has been an in that allows me to explore some level of humanity that I hope extends beyond me or the people/characters in the narrative.

What do you most enjoy about teaching Thesis I and II?
Last year, I most enjoyed watching the narratives become shaped and fully realized. Most of the students came into the year with their stories fairly set, and an idea or notion of how they would tell them. Quite often, once the work began, that planning only got them so far, despite all their focus and dedication. It was quite moving to watch the narratives become more artful, in terms of structure, but also in terms of allowing in more of the moral and emotional complexities that allowed for a reader to become a participant in the narrative, as opposed to having someone tell you her story (see above question). Also, I very much enjoyed the one-to-one engagement, seeing students willing to take risks, fail and succeed, work ridiculously hard, and ultimately allow me a front row seat to watch their theses blossom.

What are you currently at work on?
I am finishing editing a book for the University of New Orleans series. It tells the stories of three Syrian scholars who were persecuted and exiled for their intellectual ideas, writings, and/or art. I am also at work on a new book—but not quite ready to talk about that yet.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Interview with MFA instructor and thesis advisor Lisa Romeo

We hope you enjoy this wide-ranging interview with MFA faculty and thesis advisor Lisa Romeo. Here, Sandy Chmiel speaks with Lisa about her perspective on teaching; her experience entering graduate school as a mature student, and how it helps her work with adult students in the MFA; and her ideas about the ever-elusive concept of “balance.”

How does your work as a creative nonfiction writer inform your daily life? Do you consciously think in terms of paying attention to details, that you might one day write about this experience or event?
I do feel aware, on a daily basis, of a driving need (desire? habit?) to notice details. I’m not sure if that's all about being a CNF writer, or a vestige of early journalism training and experiences. I do often find myself composing sentences in my head that could conceivably work to tell the story of what's unfolding in the moment. Sometimes I even write them down. Funny thing is, only a handful make it into anything I write soon after. Often, events or feelings seem "write-worthy" in the moment, but then later, don't reveal enough of a deeper or larger story. Other times, something I've ignored comes back to me later and insists I write about it. It's hard to predict. I am also aware of not observing so much that it keeps me from having the experience! Still, I keep that tiny notebook in my purse (and in the car, laundry room, etc.). I've found years-old notes that have inspired entire pieces. So you never know.

Not too long ago, you were a student in an MFA program. Does your perspective as a returning student create a common bond with your students? With your MFA fresh in your mind, what lessons that you learned do you try to bring to your students?
I completed my own MFA in 2008; sometimes that feels like a lifetime ago, but more often it still feels fresh enough that I can draw upon my own experiences to counsel students. I was 46 when I started my MFA, so I can also understand the concerns of our students who are tackling this program a bit later in life.

Always, I want to advise every student to savor every moment, to dive in deep to every opportunity the program puts in their path, because any MFA in any form is always over too soon. I also try to impart that the degree is not the (entire) point; the opportunity to have total immersion in writing craft, to eat/sleep/talk writing for a few years, the chance to build a literary community—those are the real treasures of the program. Maybe the most important thing I want to say—which grew directly out of my own MFA experience—is to try new things as a writer, in a way to "forget" what you planned to do and write, and experiment with something outside of your craft comfort zone, something a little intimidating, different. And to not resist that. That's where the real growth is. If you come into an MFA program thinking, "I'm going to write and finish X," and do only that, you've squandered an opportunity.

Is there one experience that stands out from your MFA days?
Developing the ability, as a writer, to figure out how to keep going in the face of life events. During my first semester, my father died and my first assigned faculty mentor sort of disappeared. Over the next two years, my husband's small business lost its anchor client, my mother had several heart attacks, and I had a health scare. It felt like everything in my life was saying NO, you can't finish this program. But I got great advice and support from faculty and classmates, and worked out not only how to meet the deadlines, but how to continue to grow as an artist. I decided the only way forward was to say YES to every MFA challenge, opportunity, and optional activity; I taped a big YES sign over my desk. I still have that ratty old piece of paper.

As a writing teacher, what do you most enjoy about working with MFA students?
Their commitment. Many have waited a long time to pursue their writing goals, and all have had to make mental and temporal room in already full lives to dedicate the time to this program. When I get email or text questions from students over the weekend, or at 2:00 a.m. on a weeknight, or on a holiday, not only do I NOT mind, I appreciate and understand that they are carving out and protecting their writing time and life.

What is your favorite piece of advice for writers who are now seeking publication, whether for an essay or a book?
First: cultivate persistence and resiliency far beyond what you imagine is needed. They are your best assets (assuming the work is sparkling, too). Next: know what publication means to you as a writer. Why do you want to be published? Why now? Why this particular piece of work? What do you hope will come out of it? Do you want/need lines for a CV?  Is it about personal satisfaction? A paycheck? To prove something? Often we expect publication—of any sort, whether in a journal, major magazine, in an anthology, or a single-authored book—to transform us in some way, to radically alter our daily writing lives, to confirm and legitimize us as writers. But we all still need to get up the next morning and face the page. So understand that getting published is great for a lot of reasons, but it isn't everything.

You are a writer, teacher, wife, mother, editor, and writing coach. Are you able to find balance in your life, and if so, how?
I don't think I have ever sought "balance," whatever that means! I just do what is in front of me to do, what I've decided I want to do and need to do. Sometimes that means 150 percent in one area of life, and far less in other areas. That's okay, it all evens out over time. And you know, it's not a terrible thing for children or a spouse to learn they are not the throbbing center of your universe every day! On a practical level, time is more malleable when you don't bother with things you just don't personally care about—for me that's a sparkling clean house and binge-watching the hottest shows. Oh, and yoga.

What are you currently at work on?
On the advice of publishers, agents, and beta readers I respect, I spent the last year revising a memoir-in-essays manuscript, transforming it into a linear narrative, so that's being submitted around. Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, I'm always working on some longish essays and memoir/narrative nonfiction, as well as a bunch of flash pieces, and I always have several short personal essays going, meant for commercial publications and websites (that pay).

Is there anything else you would like to share?
For MFA students (or any writers): from the beginning, double everything. Double the time you think it will take to go from crappy first draft to somewhat decent second draft. The time you'll need to do research, fact-checking, and other non-writing essentials. The amount of reading you must do to be a better writer. The time it will take to go from decent second draft to third to fourth…to polished final draft. And – this might be the most important of all: double the time you spend thinking and not moving your fingers on the keyboard, especially during revision. Thinking is underrated.

To learn more about Lisa, please visit her blog at  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Interview with Irish writer and MFA instructor Aine Greaney

Today on the MFA Director’s Blog we are delighted to feature an interview with Irish memoirist, novelist, and MFA instructor Áine Greaney.  Here, Áine talks with Sandy Chmiel about balancing multiple identities, teaching a summer course in health and wellness writing, and the origins of her passionate love for storytelling.  She also shares her four top tips for writers – one of which just may surprise you.

You’ve mentioned that you keep a personal journal.  How is putting pen to paper in a journal beneficial to you?
I never know what I’m going to write until I write it, so journaling opens up the creative possibilities for me. Journaling also has a great therapeutic benefit in that it lets me put some order on my thoughts and feelings. In times of crisis, when I cannot write anything else, it’s been my solace and way of coping. As a writer, journaling also helps me to stay honest with myself. There really is no pretension, no fooling the blank page.

Can you tell us about your Health and Wellness Writing course?  Why is this topic so important to you?
I’m very drawn to this topic for a number of reasons. First, I’ve always liked biology and have been fascinated by the interplay between our bodies and our minds and, indeed, our individual and collective histories.  Second, I see illness and recovery (or not) as its own perfect narrative. Sometimes there’s a happy ending to the illness tale; sometimes there isn’t.  Finally, I think I came to study and love this field (narrative medicine) because I hate how we in the 21st century have come to devalue the beauty and benefit of narrative. We like bullet points. We love sound bites. We ask people to “bottom-line it for me,” when these approaches can tell us little or nothing about another person’s life or feelings or condition. In some cultures, this approach is also downright insulting.  Happily, healthcare is beginning to re-learn the value of story and to cross-train practitioners in the sciences and humanities.  

Ireland is steeped in great storytelling traditions. How did growing up there inform your writing sensibilities?
I grew up with two live-in grandparents, both of whom were powerful storytellers—as was my father. All three of them loved to tell tales from their own young days, so the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s were constantly playing out as a sort of background music to our own young lives. I think this is why I love to write about the past and why I love to question and examine and argue with memory. It’s also why I struggle with creating a snappy, forward-moving narrative or plot.  I find it hard to ignore what happened off-stage, in the “before.”  Maybe this is an immigrant thing.     

In addition to your writing and teaching, you have a day job in communications. (In fact, you wrote an advice book on the topic, Writer with a Day Job.) How do you find balance between these three identities, as well as in your personal life?
Excuse me while I chuckle here. Oh, you’re asking about balancing identities, not actual time. O.K., I can deal with that one!   Almost everything about our day jobs requires us to keep the “circus animals all on show” (to paraphrase Yeats here).  By contrast, the writing life is all about the personal and the introspective.  So I meditate a few times per week. I also walk a lot—a key way to feel happier and better and reclaim the real self. I also write first thing in the morning—before all that other daytime “stuff” crowds my brain. All these said, I feel lucky to have a day job that I like and enjoy.  There is a great pleasure in having a set of projects to manage and getting those projects advanced or accomplished by the end of the week. There's a business aspect to creative writing, so I’m grateful for the project management and marketing skills I have developed at work. Plus, nobody at work sends me editorial rejection letters!

What advice would you offer to emerging writers?
I have four main pieces of advice:
1.     It takes courage to write. So you better have some or go get some. Push yourself to do one daring thing each week, to write beyond your comfort zone and your fears.
2.     If you’re serious about being a writer, let it take priority in your life. Or at least place it among the top three things that matter. You will never advance your career if you keep letting other things or people eclipse it. 
3.     Write what you can. If you can only manage 400 words before work, then that’s what you do.  The 12-hour writing marathon is great if you can manage it. But most of us can’t. So write what you can—even if it’s just to doodle some ideas. 
4.     Run away from your life.   I go on writers’ retreats a few times per year, and it never fails to jumpstart my love affair with the written word and gives me that courage I need. Away from distractions, I also get a lot done.

What are you currently at work on?
I just became a naturalized U.S. citizen (last week), so I was busy studying presidents and the number of constitutional amendments.  On a related note, I have an immigrant memoir doing the publishing rounds. I tag it as an “immigration memoir” but more important to me, it’s a feminist narrative (it has a health and recovery component, too). So I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that one. Also, I have a number of personal essays in the works—each of them at a different stage of drafting or completion.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I think it’s important for us writers to practice good literary citizenship. The irascible, bad-boy or -girl writer is a cliché at best. At worst, it’s directly antithetical to what art and the act of creating are supposed to be all about. Conduct your writing career with kindness, decency, and professionalism and never compromise these standards for the sake of a byline or a paycheck.

For more about Áine, please enjoy this intimate video interview with her, in which she talks about her philosophy of teaching and her belief in supportive mentors. You can also check out her website for updates about upcoming publications and activities.