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  


  1. Lisa, I really value your take on this transition from MFA student to advisor. I too moved into teaching in the wake of my MFA experience and share your respect for student commitment--to their work, to its challenges and to the opportunity to immerse. I also despise yoga but have to admit to a little Batchelorette binde-watching. I guess we all have our achiles heel!

    1. Thanks, Bunny, for reading, and for your thoughts here. (Okay, I did watch most of the new season of Grace and Frankie one long stormy weekend day with my husband; that qualifies as "date night" around here. Yoga triggers my positional vertigo. And I'm just not that calm, ever.)

  2. You have no idea how I "needed" to read this today as I embark on my "new" life in Oregon and of course still also missing the San Francisco Bay Area. My heart is in two different places right now. Every day I think of things to write, it's always on my mind. The biggest challenge has been etching out enough time, and "No you can't finish the Program has reared its head so many times. I'm so excited (and just a little nervous) to embark on beginning my thesis at Bay Path in the Fall. I've been thinking about it all the time and already planning on how to set my life up around it. I don't think I was initially "prepared" for the time needed for this program, so learning how to make the time for writing is a huge gift. You are such an inspiration and if I can get through this next year alive (which I have faith and hope that I will of course), I know that I will have succeeded in what I've wanted practically my entire life since I started writing stories as a kid. (I don't like Yoga either, especially "hot Yoga" which my coworkers in California would attempt to invite me too...that sounds like torture!). It's amazing you've done so much in spite of all the challenges. As you know, I too lost my Dad during my first semester. Last night while driving down Shady Lane around the corner from my place, I saw a light Oak desk on the side of the road with "Free!" on it. I immediately got a hold of my son and said, "Get the truck! I found a desk!" Of course he groaned that it was probably junk, but he drove over there and we loaded it on the back of his truck. Turns out it's super heavy, sold wood, you know. And we managed to get into my spare bedroom. I now have an actual "office' with bookshelves and a cool desk and a window that looks out on to the yard and the trees beyond. It's the first time in my life I've had my own space to write. Usually it's on a kitchen table or sitting on the couch in the living room or something. I'd been looking for the "right" desk and I found it on Shady Lane for free! This is "claiming" my space which is part of what we've discussed in various classes since I've been in this MFA Program.

    1. How great about the desk and "room of your own," Mary! It's wonderful that you are thinking about how to set up your life around the thesis year; I'm betting on you!

      As for "hot yoga" -- I'm hot every day, all day, and am the poster child for air conditioning, so the idea of making myself hot on purpose isn't for me. Years ago, when I was many pounds lighter, I did like a short yoga class once a week but I think it was more because it was a free class and it got me away from two young kids...

  3. Great interview - good luck on your subs!