As part of our faculty interview series, today we are pleased to feature a Q & A with MFA instructor Kate Whouley, winner of the New England Book Award for her memoir Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words. Kate teaches Mentorship Lab I, II, and III, along with our two-semester professional track course in publishing. Here Sandy Chmiel asks Kate questions about her writing practice, her music, and her philosophy of teaching.
Will you tell us about your path to becoming a writer?
My crooked path runs from reader to writer, with a lot of weird and wonderful attractions along the way. My mother was a high school English teacher, and when I was a kid, I read whatever was around the house—a lot of great literature that was not necessarily age-appropriate. I wanted stories to last indefinitely, and in third grade, I vowed to write sequels to all of Alcott and Dickens. (Note: Steinbeck, Salinger, Joyce Cary and F. Scott Fitzgerald are better saved for later years.) My grandmother, a proud Book-of-the-Month Club member and an executive secretary, wrote poetry on her Selectric typewriter, and my mother was routinely published in educational journals. Still, I grew up with no awareness of writing as a career option. It took me twenty or so years of writing radio ads, catalogue copy, custom song lyrics, greeting cards, feature articles, a magazine column and a handful of professional publications—all, while working in the book business—before I began to see the pattern—and a path to the first book of my own.
Readers learn that you also have a musical life in your second book, Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words. Does playing music inform your creativity as a writer? And what else, besides writing and music, are you passionate about?
In my mind, passion fuels commitment, and I would say I am a committed musician and writer. The musical way is all about practice and showing up, approaching each session with the intention to improve, to move toward mastery. That musician’s capacity to repeat a line or a phrase until the playing becomes effortless is invaluable to me in my writing practice—and I use my musician’s ear to test for pacing and rhythm in my prose. Musical performance, meanwhile, demands a deep immersion in the moment—blocking out past and present in favor of the now. When I am writing, I am happiest when I am a human-zoom: with a close-up focus on the work and a conscious letting-go of the demands of the world beyond the writer’s room.
As for my other passions, I might list curious engagement, cats (excellent models of curious engagement), and Cape Cod in the off-season.
You are currently teaching two courses: Introduction to Publishing and Mentorship Lab. Can you give us an example of an interesting project you are doing in one of these courses?
We’re having a lot of excitement in my Intro to Publishing course, where we have been hosting distinguished guests from the worlds of book and periodical publishing. But I think the most interesting project in that class has been made possible by the gracious participation of Beacon Press. Each student has been assigned a contact at Beacon who plays a particular role in the publication process. After prepping for and conducting one-on-one interviews, students have been sharing their learning in three ways: on blog posts, in 5-10 minute audio/video presentations called Flash Seminars, and finally, in edited Q&A’s that would be suitable for magazine publication.
What do you do to make the online environment more dynamic?
To my mind, the challenge in a “virtual” MFA program is to create and sustain a supportive writing community that feels real, tangible, human.
I have always been tuned into the variety and distinctive cadences of our spoken language, and I love using audio online. (This may also be related to the musical background.) In my Lab courses, I ask my students to read their work—and sometimes, the work of others—aloud, as a way of hearing what they may not see in reading or re-reading silently. I also make a lot of audio announcements, and ask students to submit certain assignments as audio or video presentations. As powerful as I believe the written word to be, I feel that hearing each other’s human voices helps us connect more deeply and to engage more thoroughly in an online classroom setting.
What do you like best about teaching in Bay Path’s MFA program?
I love the students! They are inspiring in their dedication, their enthusiasm, and their readiness to learn and grow as writers.