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 http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com/.