Do, Don’t Complain: An Interview with Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone’s novella, This Darksome Burn, is forthcoming from firthFORTH Books, and his short story collection, Good People, will be published by Foxhead Books in 2014. His fiction has received honors from Esquire, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, and ESPN: The Magazine. He lives with his wife and twin daughters in New Jersey.

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Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

I began the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark in 2009, a few years after completing an MA in English Literature there. The MFA program was relatively new, so I attended based on the excellent faculty: studying fiction with Jayne Anne Phillips, Alice Elliott Dark, and Tayari Jones (as well as Paul Lisicky, a visiting professor) was a unique opportunity. I had submitted both critical and creative theses toward my MA, but I wanted to really engage my creative work during this second round of graduate study.

When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind?

Besides sleep, not much: I began the program while teaching high school full time, and was very lucky that my wife was so supportive (including picking me up at the train station late at night, and basically rearranging her after-work schedule around my travel and schooling). I did not move to pursue the degree; I had kept my applications in the NYC/NJ area, and Rutgers-Newark was my first choice by design.

When you started your program, what did you envision happening afterward?

My immediate goal was to become a better line-editor of my own writing, and I knew that Jayne Anne (from her own tightly constructed fiction, as well as hearing about her instruction) was one of the best teaching-editors around. Alice and Tayari were known as teachers who could see through a draft to find the heart of a story, and keep the needs of readers in mind; Alice had actually been my thesis advisor in the MA program, but I knew that this arts degree had more latitude for close mentoring. Paul Lisicky’s focus on flash fiction and prose poetry helped refine my understanding of those forms. In short, they were all writers who actually taught.

Also, I knew that I wanted to be involved in the local community, and was offered a fiction fellowship to help curate a reading group at the Newark Public LIbrary. It was an incredible experience, and rejuvenated my love for using literature to make cultural connections. Overall, I envisioned the degree as the opportunity to become a more self-aware writer, discover new ways of reading and creating narratives, and meet a diverse group of writers.

What kind of work, other than writing, are you doing now?

I have taught public-school English for the past decade. I started in the midst of my MA degree, and have continued to the present at the same high school. I also adjunct at Rutgers-Newark, particularly in the summers. Although I had variety of jobs while completing graduate study (including garbage man and groundskeeper), I’ve stayed in the classroom for a while.

Do you like your work? Why or why not?

I love it. High school teaching is an incredibly misunderstood profession. The ubiquity of education – we all go through the system, one that results in quantifiable results (grades) and strong emotional responses to those experiences (one’s teenage years) – makes everyone think they are an expert in the field, especially politicians. While it has not been easy to identify myself as a teacher in New Jersey since Chris Christie has become governor, I welcome the opportunity to address misconceptions. High school teaching requires patience, empathy, and humility; writing requires all three, but also a strong dose of confidence. The profession is a good fit for me because I want to help kids recognize their talents but be honest about their abilities; they know I don’t take myself too seriously, but I take the idea of education seriously. I’m very honest about the business of writing, not to mention the transition from secondary to higher education (and since they know from former students that I also teach college, they tend to believe me).

Teaching high school, do you find ways to bring your own writing practice into the classroom? How do your students respond?

I discuss my own writing practice, as in the idea of drafting and revising and being disciplined, to show them that writing is a humble process, not a finished result. They are used to engaging texts that, as published documents, are deemed complete; I show them the edited draft of an essay I published in The Mississippi Review, and how I decimated the page, leaving no word unturned. I show them the editing notes from Aethlon on an essay with a weak structure. I want them to recognize that even people who publish often need to work incredibly hard to do so. Toward that end, I stress the need for emotional and mental distance between drafts. Students like knowing that their teachers are writing along with them, even struggling with them. Now, of course, we are struggling in different ways, but teachers need to learn from students in order to teach them. I think it leaves students with more practical know-how regarding the submission process. It’s one thing to lead students to Duotrope and have them search markets; it’s another thing to prepare them for the inevitable first rejections, to discern between types of rejection letters, to recognize good editing advice versus superficial, form reactions; to know when a piece might never be published. I’m impressed at how talented and hard-working my high school writers are: they’ve been published in journals like The Florida Review, Flyway, Hobart, The Review Review, Louisville Review, and two of my students were in the Hint Fiction anthology (one twice).

How did you get involved with the field/ skill set that your current job requires?

I never took an education course in college, instead opting for the state alternate route program. I’m not devaluing such college studies, but they weren’t for me. The absolute most important skill of teaching English is clarity of communication: your expectations of students, the parameters of assignments, how to address and respond to questions, how to unpack difficult narratives and abstract concepts. It often all has to happen on the fly, and be delivered in a tone that makes the student a partner, not a wall to talk at. A teacher who communicates well and consistently earns the trust of his or her students; I’m not a fan of the authoritarian approach (which, unfortunately, is how many poorly-trained educators approach the secondary classroom).

Are you writing? Publishing?

Yes. My first book, a collection of prose poems, Oblations, was published by Gold Wake Press in the final months of my MFA degree. Since then, I’ve had another book of poems released by Gold Wake Press, as well as a book of literary criticism published. This fall my debut novella, This Darksome Burn, is coming out from firthFORTH Books; another novella, We Will Listen For You, will be released by CCM Press in 2015. And next year Foxhead Books is publishing my collection of short fiction, Good People, which is actually my MFA thesis from Rutgers-Newark.

I’m a regular contributor to HTMLGIANT, Colorado Review, Iowa Review, The Rumpus, The Millions, and conduct weekly interviews at my Catholic literature site, The Fine Delight. It only feels natural to interview and review writers as a way of supporting the community that has accepted my own work. I’ve always been attracted to the publishing end of writing, and even as an undergraduate I began learning the world of literary magazines. It felt like a natural extension of the art. In fact, I would recommend that absolutely every MFA applicant and candidate become acquainted with the reality of publication (research, submitting, editing) before making concrete career goals as a writer. My work on literary magazines as an undergraduate taught me the system, but even sites like Duotrope and Poets and Writers are good introductions.

Do you feel that with your job, you’ve been able to structure your time to privilege your writing? How do you do that?

My life is not simply my own: I’m married and my twin daughters were born in April, so they are the focus of my life. But my wife has always, since we met as undergraduates, seen my writing as an extension of my self, and has supported my art more than I could ever dream a partner doing. I write whenever possible, wherever possible: on the train, during lunch, in my shed, while one of the twins is resting on my stomach. There are always other things to be done instead of writing, but I’ve learned to prioritize it, within reason. I love that you use the word “privilege,” by the way; being a writer must be a conscious decision. I’ve tried to do everything possible to make writing an important part of my life.

In a practical sense, it takes a lot of planning, and being extremely efficient with the time I have. For example, my publisher (Cascade Books) accepted my non-fiction proposal in February of 2012. I had a year to write a 200-page book of literary criticism about Catholic literature since Vatican II (early 1960s). The book was an offshoot of my interview series, but required an immense amount of reading and re-reading of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, Biblical scholarship, theology, and cultural commentaries. Then came the writing, revising, reflecting, more revising, and communication with editors. I’ve never had a residency, been to a writer’s colony, or taken a sabbatical (they’ve done wonders for my friends, but just don’t conform with my life now). I hope that my involvement in the publishing community and passion for writing convinces my students that they can do the same.

Did you have the opportunity to work in academia after you graduated? How did you respond to that opportunity?

I love adjuncting. The system is absolutely imperfect, but I have thrived because it is not my main source of income. I would absolutely not recommend MFA graduates adjunct in the sole hope of becoming tenure track professors based on the teaching experience of adjuncting. Publication remains key, followed by degree, and then teaching experience –this might be different at particular schools, but seems to be the collective truth. Adjuncting is a way for me to continually become a better teacher, and to recognize the different styles of delivery needed for undergraduate and graduate audiences. I teach End Zone to both AP Literature students at my undergraduate/graduate students at Rutgers-Newark, but our contextual considerations differ tremendously (with older students I can discuss the Freeh report in response to the Penn State abuse scandal, and consider whether such secrecy is endemic to college football as a sport). The shift between levels forces me to constantly reconsider what works, and what does not.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?

None, for three reasons: I found the program that was the perfect fit for me, I left with no debt, and had reasonable and realistic goals as a student. Seth Abramson has done invaluable work in getting the conversation going about being a responsible MFA applicant. The world owes artists nothing. We need to earn the attention of our communities. We need to contribute to them. Writing is an inherently selfish act — the presumption that my words matter more than anyone else’s — so I hope MFA students avoid allowing themselves to become caricatures. In fact, I think the caricature occurs from the outside: the MFA students I know are talented writers, readers, people who love literature and want to share that love with others. People who enjoy their MFA experiences should articulate why, and inform rising students on how to succeed.

Do you think that more MFA programs should draw students’ attention to pre-college education as a possible career path? How could programs accomplish this?

Absolutely, but this will be a gradual process. Right now, teaching high school is seen as second-class to teaching at the university level: it is less prestigious, the students are (assumedly) less driven and capable, the schedule is overbearing, and so on. I do teach in an affluent district where education is important, but I also know that affluence does not immediately equal aptitude. My kids work hard.

The writers I publish with, those with whom I read and edit and discuss literature, nearly all teach in undergraduate and graduate programs. They seem intrigued by the fact that I teach high school, that this is part of some great penance or martyrdom (I am Catholic, so maybe), that I’m secretly doing this to craft a memoir, etc. This is my path. I don’t think it’s perfect for everyone, but I consider myself lucky to teach high school. My students are passionate and talented; good kids who want to learn. I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as a bad kid: simply a person who has not yet found his or her way in life. Isn’t the point of study in the Humanities, to recognize what makes us human? Each student is a possibility. High school is the right time to engage them, and, in a humble manner, hopefully help them.

MFA graduates could make fantastic high school teachers: they read widely, and in a very practical, writer-minded mode; they understand the positives and negatives of the workshop system (and therefore conceptions of audience, bias, assumption, writing as process, drafting, editing, revising, conferencing, and reading work aloud); they recognize the importance of an educational community, and they recognize the value of close mentoring. Sure, receipt of an MFA degree does not make one automatically a great teacher, but what does? Devotion, reflection, honesty, and optimism. And if writers would focus on the world outside of themselves, they can pull the emotions that enable them to craft beautiful art and articulate those visions to a new generation of students.

Do you have any other words of advice for recent or soon-to-be graduates of MFA programs? For writers just entering those programs?

For writers entering and applying: don’t even bother unless you know what you want out of a program, and to be certain your goals are achievable. That means talking with graduates of programs, asking for alumni accomplishments, and asking for alumni employment outside of academia. Research the funding of where you want to apply, and do not go into massive debt for this degree (the “truth” that it is the terminal degree in creative writing is in a, well, terminal state). Get in touch with the faculty at places you want to study. Learn from people who love the writing you do, as well as writing different from yours. Go to a place where competition is valued, but competition that results in everyone improving, not petty digs in workshop.

To graduates: the world is difficult for everyone. Don’t complain; the people who are publishing are not complaining, they are doing. If you have completed an MFA degree, you are likely a talented reader and writer. Now be proactive and determined, if publishing is your goal. But it should never be the only goal. As John Gardner has said, there are more people who fail at being successful businessmen than being successful writers. I’ll change his dictum a bit: you can only be a failure as a writer if you mistake external goals for internal realities. Writing is a gift: to yourself, and to your readers. No one can stop you from writing (save for them tackling you in the act).  And if you ever feel like writing is a selfish pursuit, recognize that you can help others with this degree–even if it means helping them put into words the world that resides within them.

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