There Is No Typical Day: An Interview with Rosalie Knecht

rosalie-knecht

You’ve been writing for quite a while – congratulations on Relief Map, which looks wonderful – but did not go for an MFA. Did you have a conversation with yourself at some point about whether or not to get the degree? What was that conversation like?

I definitely did have that conversation with myself, and I more or less concluded that if I was going to try for a funded MFA, I would have to leave New York, and I didn’t want to leave New York. Of course, there are some great low-cost MFA programs in the city, but I think I felt really cautious about committing resources to an MFA because I had this vague feeling that having low overhead was my main advantage at that point, as a writer. I was anxious about getting into debt. Of course I ended up getting into debt anyway when I got my MSW.

You’re also a social worker. What does a typical workday look like for you, and where/how often does your writing fit in?

I am just at this moment transitioning from working in residential foster care to working at a mental health clinic. So I’m in my last weeks in foster care. There kind of is no typical day. I see my residents, we talk about what’s going on with them – family, girls, school. I try to write service plans and reports, and get interrupted a thousand times. I go to the kitchen for mac and cheese. I’m getting nostalgic now.

When I get home at night I’m really not fit for anything but heating up dinner with my fiance and watching TV. I write on the weekends. Once in a while I give myself a treat and use a free morning (I sometimes work a late schedule) to write instead of going to the gym. That’s the best.

How has that balance changed for you since graduating from college? Can you give me a snapshot of a time when writing + making a living looked very different than it does now?

For a few years I was mostly working part-time, and for a lovely period I was working M-F 2-8 pm at a ballet studio and I wrote every single morning for two hours. I got a lot done then. I lived in very cheap housing because I was sharing with a dozen people, and I had the advantage of having gotten through undergrad without loans– I want to be clear that some of this was facilitated by that kind of dumb luck– so my overhead was low and I could pay my bills without working full-time. Eventually I moved out of that shared living situation and couldn’t make it work anymore financially, which is when my shift to social work started.

You live in New York, a place that retains some of the allure of being a great place to make art without always acknowledging how difficult it is to keep a roof over one’s head while doing so. Did New York ever hold that kind of attraction for you? If so, how has your view of the city as a home for artists or a place friendly to art-making changed over your time there?

New York is a bind. It is a good place to make connections – maybe for writers, the best place to make connections. But you’re right, the cost of living is hostile to artists. This issue was the primary problem in my mind for a period of about three years. I was keeping a roof over my head and writing, but it all felt very precarious. I didn’t have health insurance a lot of that time, and I felt like my skills were not specialized enough to be safe from losing a job, and I didn’t think I was getting anywhere.

But it’s a place where there are lots of other people doing the kind of work you’re doing, and having friends and support networks of like-minded people is such a huge help. So sure, if you’re an artist, move to New York. But you are going to have to have a whole functioning career aside from your art if you want to stay here. But that can be really good for you, I think!

Do your social work colleagues know about your writing? Do you prefer to keep those parts of your life totally separate, or is it preferable to have permeable borders?

Some of them didn’t know until last week when I explained that I needed Tuesday off because I was going to be reading in Philadelphia on Monday night. I was uncomfortable at first bringing it into my work life, but then one of my colleagues said, “Well, you want to be seen.” And I did. I kind of did want to be seen. My first book was published while I was in this job. Again, I had to take a day off work to prepare for the launch! That would feel weird to keep entirely to myself. It would be like getting married and not telling anyone. It’s a big part of my life.

If you didn’t need your day job to pay the bills, would you still want to do it?

Yes. I would just want to do less of it. From experience, I can tell you that the ideal balance of work and life is to be working 20-30 hours a week. You get plenty of sleep. You exercise regularly. You cook. Your skin clears up. Your apartment is clean. It’s the best.

Elsewhere, you’ve written: “I’ve always been a writer and I’ve always found this fact embarrassing. Writing fiction is a suspiciously childlike activity. If I meet you at a party I will tell you I’m a social worker, which is also true, and then try to get you to talk about yourself instead.” Have conversations with strangers about your profession changed for you at all since publishing Relief Map? Has having a novel in the world seemed to legitimize saying “I’m a writer”?

Yeah, a little bit. I still find that it doesn’t come up organically very much. But when I was a kid, I was really secretive about being a writer, and for years I had a rule in my head that I couldn’t say “I’m a writer” to people until I had published a book. So by my own standard I should be saying it now. But I still feel a little inhibited.

You’re part of a long-standing writers group in New York – what’s been the role of a regular writers’ community for you in being able to write while working full time?

They are the best, and they are really understanding about long periods of time when I haven’t been able to contribute much. They’re great writers and great editors and they’ve been as flexible as possible about scheduling when I’m too swamped to do much of anything. Agents, hit them up! Helen Terndrup– writing a brilliantly constructed detective novel set in ‘50s New York; Tom Cook, working on adapting a screenplay about the AIDS crisis and the decolonization period in Botswana into a novel; Bonnie Altucher, writing a novel about the real-life Sorenson therapy sex cult; and Jenna Evans, who published Prosperity, a satire about a near future where debt is criminalized, with Dog Ear, and is now working on a novel about a climate-change-related weather catastrophe hitting hipster Brooklyn.

What advice would you give to someone who’s struggling to both keep a roof over their head and write every day? Someone who wants to quit their day job to write?

I don’t write every day. So first I would say: cut yourself some slack. The beautiful thing about writing is that you can do it a little bit at a time. All you have to do is not stop, and eventually you will be finished.

Also, don’t quit your day job. I mean, quit if it makes you miserable, but don’t quit to write. Looking back, I can see that the primary problem I actually had during the time when I was completely hung up on the idea that my job was keeping me from writing was that I was bored and miserable in the field I was in (nonprofit administration). I was constantly wishing I could go home and write all day because I thought my job was pointless. If you like your job and derive meaning from it, you won’t be staring at the wall all afternoon thinking about the things you could be writing instead. The day will move quickly and you’ll feel like you accomplished something that mattered and you’ll get a paycheck and you’ll write when you can and after a while, you’ll have a book in your hands, and you will also be able to go to the doctor when you have a rash.

Rosalie Knecht is a writer, social worker, and translator in New York. She was born and raised in Pennsylvania and is the translator of Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind. Her first novel, Relief Map, was published in March 2016 by Tin House.

Advertisements

Landscape with Broken Fire Hydrant: An Interview with Jamie Zvirzdin

jamie-zvirzdin

You did a low-residency MFA at Bennington College, starting five years after completing undergrad and with lots of experience under your belt as a science editor. Tell me a little bit about why you decided to pursue the degree.  

From 2011 to 2013, when my family was living in the Marshall Islands—a very isolated string of atolls in the Northern Pacific Ocean—my days were devoid of television, billboard ads, and people telling me what kind of woman I should be. With such freedom from cultural constraints, this incredible wave of words was released. It was like a broken fire hydrant blasting pressurized water everywhere. With hermit crabs crawling over my toes as I typed furiously on the edge of Majuro Lagoon, I wrote several essays and poems, finished a novel, and created the Unbound Bookmaker Project, in which 300 Marshallese students from all over the Marshall Islands wrote and illustrated 15 Marshallese-English children’s books. I feel like remarkable things happen when we take time to shut out opinions of the world and think our own thoughts.

Continue reading

How Will You Keep Yourself?

I’ve spent the past week immersed in Prizes, the selected short stories of Janet Frame. I was introduced to Frame, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers, through Jane Campion’s adaptation of Frame’s autobiography, An Angel At My Table. I watched this film in a deep, lightless Michigan winter, during a time when I lived alone; huddled on a loveseat with sinking cushions, I let the washed blue light of Campion’s filming and the harsh, scrubbed look of the rural New Zealand landscape open up before me.

janet frame

Frame’s stories, like some of my favorite poems, are invested in occupying a slightly absurd space between reality and fantasy (“’The Sun,’ they said, ‘is unmentionable. You must never refer to it.” But that ruse did not work. People referred to the sun…” begins one story.) When she was in her early twenties, Frame had a breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital, where she narrowly escaped a lobotomy operation because her first book of stories won a major prize. (Literary prizes appear in Prizes, but like most triumphs in Frame’s work, they are double-edged.)

As someone who tried and gave up on teaching when she was young, Frame must have thought once in a while about how to contend with those who believed writing, particularly poetry and fiction writing, was not work, and how others holding this view could corner a writer into becoming something else, while believing he was doing so in the service of writing. In “The Triumph of Poetry,” a young man named Alan (“…meaning that in the future the area of himself would be known as Alan”) wishes to become a poet. The expected tension surfaces: not a suitable career. Other people tell him this. “But how will you keep yourself?” they say. Frame offers commentary:

One must be kept, swept, turned inside out, shaken free of insects, polished, pleated, trimmed, preserved in brine which is collected in opaque green bottles from the sea or from tears which fall in the intervals between each death.

The self, in the hands of Frame-impersonating-Alan’s-elders, is a household object, subject to entropy: to dust, to wrinkling, to overgrowth. The self is also a liquid that takes the shape of its container. There are all sorts of containers. The question “what do you want to be?” (or “what will you do with that degree?” or “but how do you make your money?” or, as I heard this weekend, “Creative writing. So, do you work for a newspaper?”), reflects a fear about what that shape will turn out to be. A lawyer is a familiar shape, as is a nurse. A poet – what shape is that? Alan’s nameless, faceless elders seem to say to him: we’ve done you the favor of giving the amorphous blob of you a name; now what will you do with it, where will you put it?

But if Frame had kept on in the “squares go home” mode, her story might have turned out much more adolescent. Alan doesn’t quite rage against the machine. He tries on a few shapes: he writes poems, does it well enough, earns praise for it. He goes to university, and to the beach, and to meet girls. He takes pride in his success at school. It’s important to feel you do well at something. But Alan’s time for writing seems scarce, and that’s when the story begins to hinge on the idea of a day job. Alan “found a job as porter in a hospital morgue, attaching tickets and tying toes together, and looking for vacant spaces on the shelves of the refrigerator in order to keep a state of efficiency. He found that the atmosphere stimulated his thinking, but only while he was among the corpses, for as soon as he went to his digs to carry out his plan of writing at night, his thoughts seemed to vanish.”

Among the corpses! As I type this, I am carrying out my plan of writing at night, and I can second Alan (can you?) in the sentiment that as long as you are somewhere you’d rather not be, the ideas come easily. At my first job out of college, indignant at being bored in the office when I would have rather gone home and written, I drew elaborate cartoons that I hung on my cubicle walls. I know a poet who wrote her first book while in law school. Legend has it that at least one well-known novelist has finished a draft while locked in his white-collar office.

“It’s the revenge of the dead,” Alan hypothesizes, but at that point he is beginning to be fatigued. The world’s reluctance to let him be a poet – without thought to how he will ‘keep himself’ – is becoming evident. “But he knew it was not the revenge of the dead. Their toes were tied with pink tape, in bows, as for a festive occasion. Their faces were in unsealed envelopes, forwarded at half-rates with five conventional words of greeting. All was in order. The dead did not need revenge.” The dead, too, have their shape; in their way, are kept.

I won’t give away the end of the story, but you’ve probably guessed it: poetry does not quite triumph. (“The Triumph of Poetry,” as it turns out, is the name of a little magazine that heralds Alan’s early work long after he can reasonably be called “a promising young poet.”) In the end, what we all fear happens to Alan: a youthful attempt to build room for poetry into one’s life is overtaken by the act of building a room (from bricks of employment, family, trappings of middle-class life).

This is something I wrestle with, when I sit through a long staff meeting and can’t quite focus my eyes; when I come home and open up a Word document and can’t make any image come clear; when I sit across a bar from a friend and explain to her that my 9-5 job is, actually, the best way I can “make room” in my life for writing. Day job, sometimes I have my doubts. Not because I want to be a destitute elderly person one day, or because I still think wistfully about academia (although I sometimes do), but because I wonder if trying to give our writing a room of its own sometimes means that we’re cordoning it off, organizing it out of the rest of our lives.

I’d like to end on a more hopeful note, so I’ll make a recommendation, for myself, and for anyone who feels like taking it. I prescribe letting the work – the real work, the honest work, work that you would not disown even if fifty magazines rejected it – spill over once in a while. Let the liquid get out of its container. Write at your day job: a few sentences at lunch, a line scribbled on the last page of your legal pad at an endless meeting. Take notes when you’re on the phone or when your students are working quietly, on how people interrupt or repeat themselves when they talk, how the fluorescent light looks on everyone’s skin. Once in a while, for the sake of the work you love, let everything in your life run together, and wrinkle, and rust.

 

Our Accomplished Contributors.

This week in the skillz and accomplishments of MFA Day Job featured writers and contributors:

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teethis out from St. Martin’s Press.

Sarah Scoles has a story up at The Adirondack Review.

Nick Ripatrazone’s essay on sentiment in fiction is a great read over at The Millions.

And Wendy Fox’s story collection won the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. (Her byline and mine also appear side-by-side in The Tusculum Review this spring.)

Not bad, you lot.

MFA vs. NYC vs. DAY JOB

Image

I’ve hesitated to add my two cents to the MFA v. NYC…(er, debate? Is that what we’re calling it?) reignited by the publication of this anthology edited by Chad Harbach. I’ve hesitated because a) for a long time, I’ve been unsure that describing “two literary cultures” in America is useful at a time when new literature, it seems to me, has rarely been more diverse, genre-bending, and formally challenging, and b) I’m not sure whether I, as a poet, and therefore heir apparent to the tradition of being economically bound to the academy (HA HA) have a dog in a fight that claims to be about fiction writers, and finally c) I’ve been patently ignoring the discussion, because it makes me tired. But here we go.

Starting with 2009’s The Program Era, the large-scale discussion of the worth of an MFA, or its impact on the economics and aesthetics of the literary landscape, has focused on fiction. And not just Fiction writ large—which would have to include all kinds of storytelling, some of which, like comics, are just beginning to have a place in the academy—but namely novels and short stories. The justification for this, it seems, is that unlike poets, who have “traditionally” relied on the academy, not book sales, for their paychecks, fiction writers treating their publications like “credentials” rather than a way to buy groceries is sort of new.

“The NYC writer has to earn money by writing,” writes Harbach in the 2010 essay that kicked off this year’s anthology. Whereas the MFA writer earns money by teaching, making his writing, according to Harbach, strain or bloat with a lack of urgency or readability. Say what you want about that—anyone who reads feverishly knows that there are complex, timely, readable writers who teach in MFA programs just as there are duds who miss the mark. If the market “takes care” of crummy novelists in NYC (as it will, in time, take care of all of us, *evil laugh*), we can probably just let time take care of the fiction that comes out of creative writing departments, rather than being irritated that a more uneven array of it seems to be published each year.

But what about the writer who earns money a different way? Who waitresses, or teaches high school, or builds houses or iPhone apps. Who isn’t “immediately championed” by a university and perhaps never by New York critics, who doesn’t have teaching to lean on as a way to feel “professional” as a writer when her ideas dry up, and who also hasn’t made it in the “blockbuster-or-bust” world of New York publishing, threatened as it is by the looming specter of Amazon? Isn’t this a writer who, between the supply and demand problems of creative writing jobs and the frightened scurry of Random-Penguin-House, is destined to emerge as a “third culture” of American letters?

Does this writer—who could have, pre-program-era, been Muriel Rukeyser, or Amy Clampitt, or Richard Hugo—count in the MFA/ NYC tally? Does her slow, steady work in the hours when she comes home from the office or before she gets on the bus in the morning matter to the people who must divide America into literary Communism and capitalism? When I think of these writers, they are mostly poets: publishing in Poetry and The Missouri Review and Conjunctions, celebrating their new books after they sign out for the day or in between grading high school essays. If they are poets, they will always be more or less ignored by the market, and thus by the public. But it doesn’t make their innovations in language, in form, and in collaboration any less valuable. Think of Miranda Priestly’s speech in The Devil Wears Prada to a humbled Anne Hathaway–the art that everyone pretends not to care about, and that no one can afford to buy makes its way eventually into the clothes on your back. So, I hope, it is for America’s best poetry.

Some of these writers-with-day-jobs have MFAs, and some do not. Writers who manage to survive outside of both the New York-driven publishing world and the academic world are a special breed, and their work often—not always—reflects it. These are writers who may be more likely to work with artists from other disciplines, and to research and write on subjects that are new to them. They are documentary theater artists and documentary poets; they don’t shy away from performance; they write hybrid texts and libretti. They read everything they can get their hands on. They listen and watch. (Of course, I hasten to add, there are writers in both the NYC and MFA orbits who do these things too—that is the point, that a strong will and an imagination can always do something surprising to an institution.)

It’s possible that of this type of writer-with-day-job, many or most will remain unknown all their lives; some will eventually bemoan the loss of their chance to be the next Jonathan Safran Foer or to judge a contest or to have a stool named after them in Iowa City. But underneath their creative struggles and juggling of professional goals, these writers—those featured on this blog, and others—also comprise something surprising, something that in America we thought we had lost: a group of people who don’t just go to work every day, but who intentionally move in multiple spheres; who think, read, write, and live the liberal arts.

Like An Overgrown English Garden: An Interview with Ester Bloom

Relax (1)

Tell me a little bit about the kinds of writing you do on a regular basis. 

Right now I’m responding to my agent’s edits on my novel manuscript, so that’s my main focus. I’m the new advice columnist (“Aunt Acid”) for Lilith Magazine, which is a hoot, and I write regularly for the Hairpin, mostly about literature from a feminist perspective. My latest “Read This with That” piece for the Toast is coming out soon, as is my first book review for the KGB Bar Literary Magazine. Is that it?

Somehow it always feels like I can and should be doing more. Like a weedy, overgrown English garden, my ambition will feed on anything and wants to go in all directions at once.

Continue reading

Time Carved and Stolen: Curtis Smith on Writing and Work

IMG_0760 

For the past thirty-one years, I’ve worked with special learning students in a public high school in Pennsylvania. My day job precedes my first short story by six years and my MFA by over a dozen. My job has its rewards—and its frustrations and heartbreaks. Still, I don’t mind getting up every day and going to work, and in the end, I understand I can’t ask for much more. Writing has been the complement to my work, a place all my own, time carved and stolen from each day’s beginning and end, bookends of quiet and reflection in an otherwise hectic ride. Writing has given me the gift of engagement and creation—and sometimes, of sanity.

My late twenties found me in a good place. I’d landed my teaching job a month before my graduation, and after six years, I felt established, no longer the new guy. I was in love and recently married. Yet part of me was restless. Many of my friends were artists and musicians, and I yearned to be creative. I’d made a few 8mm films, and I’d refinished some old furniture procured from basements and auctions. I’d enjoyed these ventures, their hands-on processes, their tangible results. Yet I wanted something more. Or something different.

So I started writing. I had no English background; in fact, I’d always been more of a science-and-math person. In college, I’d struggled with my comp and lit classes. Why, I wondered, did Madame Bovary’s bouquet have to be anything more than a bunch of flowers? Part of my attraction to writing was due to stubbornness, one of my less admirable traits. Not being good—or at least passable—at something bothers me. Vain, I know, but I accept it as part of my makeup—and sometimes, the results of this shortcoming have left me a better person. Finishing in the stragglers’ pack of a seventh-grade race has led me to be a life-long runner. Madame Bovary’s wilted flowers goaded me to a second career of trying to explain my heart with pen and paper.

So I wrote. Every day, every evening. I read voraciously. I began submitting, and within a few years, I started to publish, not much but enough to earn my entry into Vermont College’s low-residency MFA program. I was fortunate—in Pennsylvania, school teachers needed at least 24 graduate credits to attain their permanent certification, and many districts, including mine, offered tuition reimbursements. Vermont was my first choice—I was already familiar with the work of a few of their teachers. I couldn’t attend the winter residencies, so it took me twice as long as most to graduate, but this turned into a blessing that allowed me to stretch my legs, to digest what I’d learned and use it to develop new material.

In the past few years, I’ve been invited to talk to students at different MFA programs. I tell them that my MFA studies were a valuable part of my maturation as an artist. I learned and read things I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. I developed friendships and connections I still cherish almost twenty years later. Most importantly, I came to understand that the people I met, all smart and motivated and creative, were also my competitors—and if I my work was going to find a place in the tight market of lit journals and small presses, then I needed to hold my writing to a higher standard. This scrutiny has become the most integral part of my writing routine, the continual asking if this story, this paragraph, this sentence is the best I can do.

Next year I’ll retire. I’ve had a good run with my crew, 33 years, and I’ve no doubt learned as much from them as they have from me. I’m already testing the waters of my next phase—I’ve been fortunate to have landed a number of visiting writer gigs at local colleges, and I’ve started some adjunct work, my MFA finally of use in an official manner to justify my employment. I don’t know what awaits—but I’m curious. And curious, I believe, is good.

Curtis Smith’s most recent books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside). His next book will be a novel, Lovepain, from Aqueous Books

A Day Job More Distant: An Interview with Paul Kerschen

kerschen

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

All sorts of reasons, the worst of which was thinking that the credential in itself would lead straight to literary success. The day my acceptance letter came from Iowa, I went bouncing around my dorm room with the Pixies blasting; I thought I was made as a writer. It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t written anything yet.

Continue reading

Another Side of Higher Ed: Chris L. Terry

ChrisAuthorPhotoA (1)

I am the Coordinator of Student Engagement and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. It’s a broad title because I do a variety of things, and love it. Last week, I saw scholarship students’ faces as they read about Fred Hampton’s murder for the first time in my Chicago African-American History discussion group; trained a group of peer mentors; and was in Grant Park at 4 a.m. on Friday, supervising the set up of tents and stages for the New Student Convocation.

There’s something different to do every day and it keeps me from being bored. The more that I see and do, the more that I can write about.

This position is the culmination of four years of work. I entered Columbia’s Fiction Writing MFA program in 2008, wanting to become a better writer and to find work that was more fulfilling than my old career editing make-up catalogues. I wasn’t sure what that work would be, but I wanted to use grad school to make my world bigger, to say “yes” to everything. I figured that the answers would present themselves. They did.

I posted a resume to Columbia’s campus job site, hoping to get work in the Fiction Writing office. Instead, Student Engagement contacted me about working as an assistant to the Director of African-American Cultural Affairs. It was perfect. I’d been writing a lot about my black/white mixed race identity and wanted to get to know myself better as a black man. Surely, this job would enrich me far more than checking the spelling of lipstick shades ever did.

Immediately, working in Student Engagement made me feel tapped into the world. I met a variety of students and participated in a million discussions about race, masculinity and relationships – all topics that helped my writing as I sorted out my own identity through stories.

At first I was scared. I’m pale, and was worried that people wondered why a white guy worked in the black office. My first week, my boss’s boss asked me if I was Greek, and I said, “No. I’m black and Irish.” Imagine my embarrassment when she said, “Chris, we know that. I meant, like, are you in a fraternity?”

That was my welcome. I was there. I was accepted.

I graduated in 2012, after spreading my thesis hours out over an extra year to keep my campus job. Shortly after, I was hired as staff. My first full-time job with benefits.

This job is in conversation with my writing, instead of making it feel like an after-hours secret life. That first year in Student Engagement quieted the internal voices that tell me I’m not black enough. It shook loose the thirty years of significant moments where I had to consider my identity, that became turning points in the stories that I write before work, after work, and that I can mull over out loud while on the clock.

Chris L. Terry has a Fiction Writing MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His debut novel Zero Fade will be released by Curbside Splendor on September 16, 2013. Visit www.chrislterry.com for more of his writing.

The Lack of “Real” Work has Given Me the Freedom to Write: An Interview with A.K. Thompson

author

Why did you decide to get your first M.F.A.? And then what prompted the second?

Well, my first go-around was never actually completed. I ended up with only a “Masters” – no of the “Fine Arts” attached. Really, I guess after finishing my Bachelor’s in journalism I decided I wanted to be a “real writer.” In fact, I remember telling friends that exact thing – like being a journalist was some sort of joke. I was obsessed with Hunter Thompson, and understanding that living life was the real substance that made good writing great, I wanted to embark on some strange adventure. It ended up being San Francisco – a now defunct hippy college called “New College of California” that was started by a Jesuit Priest in his living room in the seventies. It was a nightmare – jail, married and divorced, but I did end up with a great dog named Joe, a degree and a passion for writing that kept me going. Continue reading