Aspiring novelist and screenwriter Ben Hess explores the life of professional writers and how they balance their own writing with income pursuits, primarily teaching. Writers and teachers Interviewed include Pam Houston, Gary Ferguson, and Alan Heathcock.
Story Geometry Ep2 - The Writing & Teaching Life
Ben Hess: Welcome to Story Geometry, the podcast where I snatch words of wisdom on the craft and community of writing from leading published authors of our day and plot them out meticulously on graph paper. I’m your host Ben Hess, today’s theme is The Writing & Teaching Life.
Pam Houston: For me, stories are really physical things, you know, they have a shape, they have a depth, they are really 3D in my mind when I’m writing them.
BH: That’s award winning writer and teacher, Pam Houston. She’s also co-founder of the literary nonprofit Writing by Writers which I am thrilled to have as my partner in examining the shape, craft, and community of writing throughout all of Season One. Visit Writing x Writers dot org for all the details and reserve your spot today.
PH: I think of geometric figures in relation to the story to help me understand the story structure. Sometimes the structures are more complicated; [INT page 13] and sometimes it’s quite simple like I think about stories as like two intersecting triangles or a rhombus or a parallelogram.
BH: And yes, Pam’s literature as 3D led to the Story Geometry name. Pam’s written two linked story collections, Cowboys are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat and the novels Sight Hound and, her latest, Contents May Have Shifted. They are not to be missed! Pam’s a Professor of English at the University of California, Davis and also teaches in The Institute of American Indian Arts low residency MFA program. As an aspiring novelist and screenwriter, I sat down with Pam in Davis, California for a candid talk about several of her passions: writing, teaching, travel, the outdoors and big dogs.
Do you consider yourself a writer or a teacher or both, and what’s the mix there?
PH: Definitely both and unquestionably both, you know I used to say like if someone put a gun to my head and asked me to choose one, you know, which luckily won’t happen, I think I would choose teaching, you know, which is shocking to a lot of my writer friends though they definitely have a symbiotic relationship. You know I can’t imagine choosing one, but if I had to give one up you know I think it would be the writing. For me it works very, very well together. ... I hate/love writing and it – I don’t know how to be in the world without that way to process the world, I’ve been doing it since before I can remember and I’m proud of the books I have written and I definitely think of other authors, authors I love, let’s just say Toni Morrison for instance that I know that the world would be radically impoverished if she had only been a teacher and not a writer too.
BH: Let’s pause there for a second. Think about your favorite author. Now POOF, let’s imagine they never wrote. The book you’ve loved so much all these years vanished into the ether. Imagine your world without their work, their art. Without its power and impact on you and thousands or millions of readers. Yeah it’s a dark, discouraging place.
PH: I do think writing is a sort of strange, self-obsessed way to spend your life, and very insular and insulating and, you know, the books have a life in the world but you have a life in your head, you know, and between you and the page and that can be beautiful and powerful but I’m a person who wants to engage with other people and other landscapes and other – I don’t, I’m not happy sitting in my room, I’m not Emily Dickinson you know I’m not.
BH: I think we all agree: writing is a lonely, solitary exercise. But any writing is infused with life, vitality, and connection. A protagonist propelled into action, managing obstacles large and small, on a quest for something or someone.
Gary Ferguson’s written 23 creative non-fiction books and his latest is a personal memoir, The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness, where he suddenly, unexpectedly found himself on an incredibly personal, cathartic quest. We chatted on a spring morning in stunning Boulder, Colorado.
I’m wondering, do you consider yourself first and foremost an environmentalist, or an activist, or a writer, a teacher?
Gary Ferguson: I spent the first half of my writing career writing about the tracks that humans have left in nature. And so from an environmental perspective it was a string of eulogies for lost places. I found that necessary work but ultimately I was doing so much of it that it was leading to burn out and so now I’m much more interested in writing about the tracks that nature leaves in us. And so if that makes me a conservationist, environmentalist, fine, I’m afraid to go too deep into labels of any kind. But I do believe that our relationship with the natural world is part and parcel of our relationship to each other, you know, and I look forward to the day when we continue to move toward seeing ourselves as a part of nature instead of apart from it.
BH: Writing By Writers: a relatively new conference here on the circuit there’s so many aspiring writers out there and so many folks who are desperate to learn more about the craft, and just curious what you see for this kind of conference moving forward.
GF: Well, Writing By Writers is one of the very best experiences I’ve had as an instructor because of the quality of fellow instructors but mostly because of the quality and enthusiasm of the students as well. Pam puts a level of rigor in how she creates the learning opportunities for her students that doesn’t exists in too many places. So if you are a writer looking for a quality experience this is one of them, Writing By Writers … and beyond that if you are really serious as a writer I’m also on the faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop, which is an MFA program in Tacoma, Washington through Pacific Lutheran.
BH: Gary’s work with Rainier reminded me of something else Pam and I talked about:
PH: There are some amazing writers who don’t teach well and so it’s an interesting challenge to find the faculty and you seemed to have done – you and Karen have done an amazing job of pulling together time and time again this great mix of faculty, and I assume that’s through your relationships over the years?
PH: Yeah, I have had the fortune to be invited to so many, you know, writers conferences because I do have a reputation as someone who’ll show up someone who will engage, someone who won’t hide in a room, someone who is a good teacher, who is a you know a caring teacher like and a sensitive teacher, I’m sensitive to the manuscript, to what the manuscript wants to be. So as a result of that through the years, though the last 25 years I have been invited to no shortage of writers conferences, basically you name it, you know Squaw Valley, Aspen, Bread Loaf, Port Townsend, you know I’ve been to basically all of them, and because of that, because of my years of doing that I have a very good sense of which writers are the best teachers, which writers will truly engage with the students, which writers will hold up in their room, which writers are as you say breathtaking writers who don’t know how to translate that into the classroom.
BH: Just to be clear, in addition to Gary, we’re talking about some incredible literary talent: Dorothy Allison, Robert Boswell, Ron Carlson, Kwame Dawes, Andre Dubus, Alan Heathcock, Fenton Johnson, BK Loren, Antonia Nelson, Ben Percy, and Carl Phillips. This group’s equivalent to the starting lineup of an All-Star game.
PH: We’re always trying to balance our faculty in terms of course a genre, first and foremost, getting a good mix,. a mixture of a aesthetics, mixture of a cultural background, mixture of male and female, you know all that different things we try to juggle, and also you know when I put a conference together we’re looking at chemistry, chemistry between writers, and between their works, sometimes because I’ve seen them together somewhere before but more often because I just think, wow, you know, he should really meet her because their work is.
BH: Brief aside for a share - back in 2003 I’d just met Writing By Writers co-founder and non-profit executive Karen Nelson through a cycling event. We accidentally, fortuitously discovered a mutual love for fiction and story. Which led to my reluctant share several weeks later of some short fiction I’d written. And Karen was honest and constructive - “You can clearly write. But you need to work on structure, on the craft.”
Despite initial impatience, I’ve found this pursuit to be a lifelong journey … and another reason why I wanted to create this Story Geometry podcast. Here’s more from Pam Houston:
PH: So, that’s a lot of the fun of this for us is creating mini communities of published writers who are going to be willing to have a conversation because these workshops turn out to be a three or four or five day conversation that the students get to participate and that is more or less driven by the faculty, and we never know what that conversations is going to be but it’s probably one of the great joys of doing this work is seeing what that conversation is each time.
BH: The award winning author of Volt: A Collection of Stories, Alan Heathcock also teaches, he’s in the Creative Writing program at Boise State. We also chatted in Boulder, Colorado, in the Spring of 2015.
I wanted to ask you about teaching. Many of your colleagues teach. Many writers teach. What is it about the teaching craft that you enjoy or is it the steady income and logistics that come with teaching that you prefer, or a combination of the two?
Alan Heathcock: it’s not the money; there are lots of different ways to make money and the money is not a big factor in, at least for me.
BH: As Alan I continued to talk several Writing By Writers students filed past on their way to more words of wisdom.
AH: I mean I suppose there is two things, one is, the dollar being a rider itself is very lonesome, you sit by yourself all day and that’s just the nature of the job. And finding other people to engage with is important just for one’s sanity.
BH: Most of us are not funded writers. We’re attempting to scratch and steal time from day jobs, from family, from our social life. All to sit in a quiet place and create. And if we’re diligent and persistent over weeks and months, we just might create several drafts of a story or a poem or manuscript that we feel is ready for another set of eyes, like I’d shared with Karen. How powerful if those belong to Pam or Gary or Alan.
AH: I love the engagement of talking about stories with somebody else, I love the challenge of meeting somebody and trying to help enable depending on the student sometimes it’s instruct, sometimes it’s just enabling giving them permission to find their way into their own story the most potent way … I get something from that, there is a great reward in seeing that happen because it’s you’re liberating people and that feels wonderful and powerful. And I also just believe passionately in the power of story, and there is something evangelical about it too and like spreading the good news about the power of story and having people hold that in their lives in a particular way that I believe.
BH: Brief pause to say, hallelujah! “I also just believe in the power of story.” YES!
Every year, approximately 3500 of us pursue further study of the craft through traditional and low residency MFA programs. And then there’s thousands more of us - slaving away diligently on our own, with friends at writing meetups, or through private workshops like Writing By Writers. So I asked Pam … For a 20 something aspiring writer or someone in their 60s or whatever, is the MFA necessary, do you recommended an MFA or does it really depend on the individual?
PH: I think it really depends on the individual. There are many, many writers who write wonderful books, who have not gotten an MFA.
BH: These include Jonathan Franzen, Susan Orlean, Emily St. John Mandel, and Kurt Vonnegut, to name a few.
PH: The MFA works very well for people who don’t have a lot self discipline, people who need deadlines. Another really good thing about an MFA is the community that it builds, you know, if you go to a high residency MFA program you know a regular old fashion MFA program, you and your cohort, your 12 other writers basically eat, sleep, breath, talk, writing for two years and you will never have that situation again in your life. You’ll never have that opportunity where writing becomes the whole world.
BH: But for working adults who’ve decided at mid-career to build more foundation for their creative pursuits, a full-time MFA just isn’t feasible.
PH: Of course what’s quite popular these days are low residency MFAs that don’t have the same sense of community though I teach in one of those too and I have to say there is community built even though a lot of it happens at long distances over the Internet, but when those people get together once or twice a year they really do from a different kind of community then the high res program, but in certain ways I think the low residency programs tend to be even more about writing you know than the high residency programs where University politics get involved and the lead department agenda gets involved, you know, so I think there is really positive things about both.
BH: You’ll hear in the background Pam’s two gigantic Irish Wolfhounds for the first time. They’ve been so good during our chat.
PH: Could you cobble together a great education in writing going to conferences and residencies and other kinds of situations? Of course you could. And could you become a forest ranger and take seven great novels up to the top of the mountain with you and write a book while you’re there? Of course you could. You know there is no formula. And everyone is different, you know, depending on what they need.
BH: Which reminds me of Alan’s short stories in Volt:
Over what period of time were all those stories written? Is it a few year period or a decade, or somewhere in between?
AH: I started my first MFA program in 1995 and the book came out in 2011, so over that entire period of time I was writing stories and pushing into all this material, so a significant amount of time.
BH: And that 16 year stretch represents an amazing dedication to craft, the pursuit of impact, the power of storytelling that I’m working toward. … Alan Heathcock, thanks so much.
Thanks again to Gary Ferguson and Alan Heathcock for taking time away from their writing and teaching to reflect about their work.
Episode Two was produced and edited by yours truly, Ben Hess. Original music from a Manchester United fan, Mark Hodgkin, but don’t hold that against him. You can visit his audio magic at Mark - markhodgkin dot com. And our logo was designed by Thatcher Warrick Hess.
As always, thanks to Pam Houston & Karen Nelson of Writing by Writers, that’s writing x writers dot org where you can explore a myriad of workshop opportunities to further your own craft.
Like an author desperate for feedback, I’d love constructive or positive thoughts on what you’ve heard so far with Story Geometry. The best way to do this is an iTunes rating -- 5 stars is fantastic of course -- and also a brief Tweet size review along with your rating is even better.
You can also visit Facebook dot com slash Story Geometry, send your “To MFA or not to MFA” thoughts via email - hello AT story geometry dot org, and hit me up @BenHess on Twitter. We’re also using the hashtag StoryGeo for all of your social media channels.
Episode Three’s a doozy: you’ll hear from real, live Writing by Writers students in addition to more from Pam, Alan, and Gary. And set a calendar reminder for future episodes with secrets from a rock star line-up including: New York Times bestselling author Tom Barbash, GrubStreet National Book Prize winner Josh Weil, National Book Award Winner Mark Doty, National Book Award finalist Dorothy Allison, and award-winning writer and teacher Lydia Yuknavitch, among several others.
Until then, may smoke billow from your tired keyboard as you create the intersecting parallograms of your story. Thanks for listening.