On today’s blog, we are delighted to feature an interview with MFA faculty member and YankeeMagazine editor Mel Allen. Here, Mel talks with Sandy Chmiel about his teaching philosophy; his 35-plus years editing, writing, and assigning stories; and his habit of cultivating promising new writers.
Can you tell us about the perspective you bring to teaching creative nonfiction?
I may bring a somewhat different perspective to my classes because while I have written many narrative features, my primary job here at Yankee is working with writers on their own stories, so I try to bring that perspective to the Bay Path experience. I love talking about their work and also sending them the work of wonderful writers, and I’d say I lean more to the practical application than the theoretical. I want to give them the best possible chance of publishing their work if and when they are ready to. When I give feedback on their work I will usually say something like, “Well, if this had come to me at Yankee this is what I’d say…” and so I am evaluating on a curve of professional writing. I think that is helpful.
Is there a particular work of creative nonfiction you recommend to your students, and, if so, what makes it particularly effective?
The foundation of all my courses has been that a student’s lifetime mentors will be reading the best writers, whether it be creative nonfiction, fiction, poets, dramatists. That’s where all writers from students to professionals go to be repeatedly nourished and inspired. I am a judge in the National Magazine Awards and for many years an anthology titled The Best Magazine Stories of the Year comes from the winners in essays, profiles, feature writing, reporting etc. I always look to the book to find contemporary works to show students. At the same time I know my debt to the writers who made creative narratives part of the literary world long before we even had a word for the genre: Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, James Baldwin, John Hersey, W.C. Heinz, Truman Capote, Richard Wright, Jane Kramer, John McPhee, Maya Angelou, etc. I try to send links to their works throughout the course just to keep the fires burning and to show how we are all part of the continuum. Most importantly I find that students have been great sources for embedding links to writers who inspire them. Just this past week, several students showed me works of writers whose names I did not know, but whose work I will certainly include in classes yet to be taught.
Many online classes have students log in on their own time and post written responses to assignments. You and a few other MFA instructors use a weekly Google Hangout, which allows you to see and hear all of your students at the same time. How has this worked for you? For your students?
I look forward to Hangouts. It connects me to the people behind the words I see in discussions. Most importantly I believe it creates a writing community, not that much different from a weekly writing group held in rotating houses. We have a set time, we have an agenda, and we see each other and become real to each other. I did not know how this would work before starting here, I had always taught in a classroom setting or a work shop setting, but now I cannot imagine not doing it. I think the students have enjoyed the Hangouts. I keep them to an hour and fifteen minutes—an hour and a half tops. The connection makes all the difference to me.
In interviews and in your personal essays, you have spoken of the power of your own curiosity and how it informs you as a writer. Tell us more about that. Why do you consider curiosity one of the most important attributes for a writer?
It all begins with curiosity. Think of the small child crawling around in the backyard picking up grass, poking in the dirt, looking at the sky, trying to figure out the world through taste and sound and touch. The writer keeps that sensibility and makes sense of his/her life, or the lives of others by wondering why did this happen and not that. Why am I this person with this set of experiences and beliefs and not someone else? If you don’t have curiosity I cannot imagine the next step—crafting an essay or short story, or memoir, or whatever it is that will urge you to the desk to figure things out. I am sure that curiosity will be at the top or near the top of every writer’s list of why they chose this work. There are a lot of mysteries about our lives. The writer tries to figure them out.
You are known for cultivating writing talent and providing opportunities for publication when you can. Tell us more about how you have opened doors for new writers.
I am probably more proud of the writers I have brought to Yankee than I am of my own work. I have a shelf of books where writers have acknowledged my help and that means the world to me. I know how hard the work is, I know how important it is to see your work in print and finding readers. I can often tell from the first few paragraphs of a query or a letter that accompanies a submission if the writer has the voice and gift of storytelling and if she is serious about the work. Especially when I see new writers go from a Yankee feature to books. Like most things in life, success breeds confidence and the ripples keep going.
You have been with Yankee Magazine for over three decades. What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced as an editor?
My first story for Yankee was published in 1977 so I’m looking at four decades now. The biggest challenge is simple: time. I came to Yankee basically as a staff writer and ideas person. I could go pretty much anywhere to follow a story and create new sections for the magazine. My title was senior editor, but my daily life was to come up with stories. What could be more fun? Now as the editor, my time is divided into many slots: reading manuscripts, meetings about digital initiatives, meetings about staffing, meetings about budget, working with an art director on covers and layouts, working with interns…..and yes, preparing Bay Path classes. The days I once spent on narratives are now precious few. As I write this I am working on one right now, but the only time I have for it is weekends.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Teaching creative nonfiction keeps me grounded in what matters most. I am working with students who love writing and are about to discover how far they can go with their work. I am working with students who are pursuing this MFA even as they juggle work and life responsibilities. They inspire me to keep reading the best writers, to follow writers they know and I do not. And to remember why I started in this work long ago. It was always about telling the stories. Always the stories. And the emotions they can stir.
Mel Allen has been a finalist twice in the City and Regional Magazine Awards for Best Column, judged by the University of Missouri as well as several dozen magazine editors. Here are links to three of his columns as well as a long form profile.