Writers

Literary Citizenship Festival: Select Quotes from Jen Knox

“The more I write, the more I’m noticing patterns of connectivity, as though there is a larger landscape I hadn’t planned on.”

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Jen Knox (’07) is a regular contributor to Fiction Southeast and the author of Don’t Tease the Elephants, a fiction chapbook with Monkey Puzzle Press. Her work has been recognized with several awards and published in over sixty print and online journals. Knox visited Otterbein and read her work on Friday, January 30 in Riley Auditorium.

“Animals are a theme that has been appearing in my writing a lot. We writers, we go through phases.”

“Writing from different perspectives, it’s fun–it’s like playing!”

“Otterbein taught me how to connect–that carries over.”

“If you’re called to do it, you really have no choice, because you’ll be miserable if you’re not doing it.”

“The more I write, the more I’m noticing patterns of connectivity, as though there is a larger landscape I hadn’t planned on.”

“Read the [literary] journals. If you know what their style is, you know whether you’ll fit in.”

Literary Citizenship Festival: Select Quotes from Becca J. R. Lachman

“For me there’s just something so distilled about a poem that can’t hide.”

Stafford Event, September 20, 2014, ARTS/Wset, Athens, OH

Becca J. R. Lachman (’04) is author of Other Acreage (forthcoming, Gold Wake, 2015); A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford (ed., Woodley Press, 2013); The Apple Speaks (Cascadia, 2012). She is recipient of a 2011 Otterbein Young Alumni Award. Lachman visited Otterbein and read her work on Friday, January 30 in the Philomathean Room.

“I like to base my writings in research or overheard stories, as many writers do.”

“I had stayed away from William Stafford because I thought he was just another dead white guy I was supposed to be reader, but then I started hearing about his life–he was a conscientious objector during World War II! So was my grandpa! Before I knew it, I fell in love.”

“For me there’s just something so distilled about a poem that can’t hide.”

“Working in writing centers has opened my eyes to my own privilege.”

“I have learned ways to mother in this world.”

“What is our idea of wealth? What is our idea of success? There’s a difference between wealth and being rich. How much money do you really need to make in life?”

Literary Citizenship Festival: Select Quotes from Jennifer Roberts

“Every decision I make is going to affect my creative life.”

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Jennifer Roberts’ (’07) latest play, The Killing Jar, was a Dayton Playhouse FutureFest finalist in 2014. She is also the writer of Beekeeper (Virago Theatre Company, 2011), Factory Farm: A Documentary, which was staged for a Washington, D.C. Planned Parenthood benefit, and numerous short plays staged in the San Francisco Bay area. Roberts visited Otterbein and read her work on Saturday, January 31 in Riley Auditorium.

“Otterbein is where I learned to become…where I found my voice.”

“It’s important to hear women’s voices, to hear women’s stories–often, we’re silent. It’s important that writers show the world we’re living in, a world with strong women.”

“It was the ‘zine and working with Women’s Studies here that led to me working with women’s rights and reproductive rights.”

“Every decision I make is going to affect my creative life.”

“Build your community. You need support and you need to support other people. That is what will bring you success, however you define that.”

Literary Citizenship Festival: Select Quotes from Ladan Osman

“The relationship between light and dark is a philosophical question about truth.”

osman Ladan Osman (’06) is the author of The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony, winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. Her chapbook, Ordinary Heaven, was published by Slapering Hol Press in 2014. Osman has also been awarded several prestigious fellowships in the arts. Osman visited Otterbein and read her work on Saturday, January 31 in Riley Auditorium.

“I find it particularly important to invoke my ancestors–particularly those who are young and gone.”

“I think that each poem has an atmosphere that demands something. I think that a lot about ferns and their relationship with light and darkness. It’s something I take time to meditate on. I myself am very comfortable around plants and seawater. In a way, I am even meditating within the writing.”

“I think the most important truth to consider is inherently inhumane positioning of marginalized people. It’s important for me to assert my authority and to detail the vulnerabilities of occupying that position.”

“I think we have to accommodate the story that demands to be written.”

“The relationship between light and darkness is a philosophical question about truth.”

“In graduate school, I learned not to look at someone’s professional success, but to ask, ‘Are we making a connection?'”

“Be tactical, and be honest with yourself about what you want.”

“It’s okay for it to be lonely. As you get older, it’s harder and harder to find people who care about the work outside of markers of success.”

Claire Winslow and Josh Brandon & Jessica Campbell

“Nonfiction is definitely my home.”

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Quiz & Quill co-editors and Creative Writing majors Josh Brandon and Jessica Campbell interviewed junior Creative Writing major Claire Winslow in January 2015 with the release of Claire’s Quiz & Quill chapbook, To Look Like Something That Can Sting. Look out for Claire’s chapbook–copies will be released this week.

Q: When did you start writing?
A: Most of my childhood was spent writing a lot of bad short stories, filling the first pages of journals with angsty confessions and worrying far too much about sounding inspiring. It really wasn’t until college that I began to allow myself to make mistakes and, thus, to write anything worth reading.

Q: How did you come about writing creative nonfiction? What do you think, if anything, creative nonfiction offers writers that other genres don’t?
A: I have never been a very good storyteller. I remember being about preschool-age and my mother attempting to teach me that a story needs to have a beginning, middle, and end, a concept that I never truly grasped. When I began to work with creative nonfiction in college, I quickly learned that this was what I was looking for. It doesn’t concern itself with the story, but rather the experience, the metaphor, the message of a moment.

Q: Have you experimented with other genres?
A: I’ve attempted poetry and dabbled in playwriting, but nonfiction is definitely my home.

Q: Do you take any creative liberties in your essays or do you try to remain as honest as you can to your own experiences?
A: I’m not sure if I really believe in “reality” when it comes to essay. I choose to focus on the truth of feelings and of my own personal experiences rather than external events. They are always honest, but if you want a historical account on my life, my essays probably aren’t the best place to look.

Q: Do you see nature as an intrinsic part of human connection? How did writing about your relationship to bees produce this exploration in “On Bees?”
A: Bees are an irresistible metaphor for me, both in the way that humans see them and in how they relate to the rest of the hive. So many people view them with fear, rarely appreciating the beauty of this tiny being who lives so thoroughly as a member of a community. A bee will sacrifice its life for the sake of the hive, showing a level of selflessness that is rare in this world. For me, bees represent the empathy that people, myself included, all too often lack.

Q: Your second essay, “Newsprint,” is one of brevity and contains a fascinating take on generational connection. Why was it necessary to take on two different voices to hash out this exploration? Was it difficult to write this way?
A: In this piece there are almost three different viewpoints. There is me, reading a 1919 issue of the New York Times, contrasted with the experience of the person reading that newspaper the morning it was released. Then there is the voice of some future individual, experiencing the same epiphany that I did on that evening in March of 2013. I think this future persona may be the most important, as it hopefully prompts readers to see their own lives as history, and thus view the past with the same complexity that the present contains.

Q: The two columns in your final essay offer the reader a few choices on how to read it, and the reading experience varies depending on this factor. Where did you get the inspiration to write the essay in this two-column style?  How do you think the exploration would have manifested itself if these columns weren’t at play?
A: I’m kind of in love with the ambiguity that the two-column format lends to this third piece. It forces the reader to decide for themselves how to read the essay. Everyone will experience it differently, which does change how the message is perceived. For me this essay is an exploration of perspective, and I think the formatting reflects that.

Q: The epigraph that appears at the beginning of the chapbook is a quote from Vincent Van Gogh, who is also the artist responsible for the painting that appears on the cover. What is the context of the epigraph in relation to this collection of essays, and how do you see Van Gogh relating to your own life and experiences?
A: For over a hundred years it was believed that Vincent Van Gogh had intended to commit suicide when he died 30 hours after receiving a bullet to the chest. However, recent evidence has revealed the likelihood that he was shot accidentally by two young boys playing in the woods. Vincent lied to protect them, taking the blame for his own death. Van Gogh was deeply misunderstood throughout his lifetime, and his death was no reprieve. These misconceptions are a central theme of this collection, and I cannot help but be both captivated and haunted by the artist’s determination to protect those who had hurt him most. The painting on the cover, Van Gogh’s “Vase with Twelve Sunflowers” was part of a study that involved scientists placing a group of bees into a room with different paintings of flowers, and the bees liked this one best. I’m not sure of the scientific value of this experiment, but I appreciate it. And as in everything, I stand with the bees.

Q: How do you see these three personal essays connecting to one another and to yourself?
A: It’s all about perception. For me, all three pieces reflect the ways that we misunderstand each other. It is a collection of misinterpreted complexities, simplified truths, and skewed perspectives.

Q: Is there a certain order in which you want the essays to be read, or do you see them working so that the reader could start at any and pick which one to read next?
A: I think they can be read in any order. They follow similar themes, but in the end, all three pieces are meant to function independently.

Q: What or who has had the greatest impact on your writing style?
A: I have to call out Shannon Lakanen, who allowed me the confidence to make mistakes and gave me a name for the personal essays that I had been writing for years. I think my style is also influenced a lot by the writers that I adore: Paulo Coelho, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, John Keats, and Khaled Hosseini, all fueling my obsession with metaphor and lush descriptions.

Q: How has your writing style developed or changed while you’ve been at Otterbein?
A: I don’t know how much my style has changed, but it is certainly developed enormously. When I first arrived at Otterbein, I would plan every moment of an essay before I wrote it. I have since learned to allow myself to just write. Editing can come later.

Q: How do you plan on incorporating writing into your life after graduation?
A: All I want is to spend my life in a beautiful old farm house, writing essays and keeping bees.

Mat Johnson & Sean Smith

“I like saying stuff that hasn’t been said—that hasn’t been articulated. I like saying stuff that will get me in trouble because it’s exciting.”

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2012 Alum, Sean Smith, interviewed author and James Baldwin Fellow, Mat Johnson, during his visit on October 6, 2014. For more of Mat’s work, visit his website.

On Finding Time to Write: “You’re always stealing time. There’s never a perfect time, and so you have this balance because you can’t just sit down and write. You can sit down and type, but you can’t sit down and write.  You have to get into this mode where you’re going to access something good, but at the same time you can’t be so precious about when you’re going to write that nothing ever happens. You have to write through crap.”

On Getting Into the Writing “Mode”: “It’s tricky finding that mode. I like saying stuff that hasn’t been said—that hasn’t been articulated. I like saying stuff that will get me in trouble because it’s exciting. You put something, like, ‘Oh, shit! I can’t believe I just said that!’ You think, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ And that’s fun.”

On Editing: “Usually, I’ll start [writing] a book and I’ll say, ‘Okay, this book is about revenge,’ and then I’ll start telling the story about this guy whose father was killed, and I’ll get two-thirds to the end and I’m like, ‘Oh, crap,  this book is about this guy looking for his missing father, and it’s about fatherly love.’ The story isn’t what you think it’s about, it’s not what you plan it to be—what it is is a culmination of scenes. A big part of writing is realizing that you don’t have complete control over it; you have to step back and realize what you’ve actually written versus what you actually intended. If you try to change it constantly to be what you intended, you can kill the story.”

On Genre: “We talk about literary versus genre fiction; literary comes out of genre fiction to begin with.  When you’re looking at Gulliver’s Travels, when you’re looking at Frankenstein, when you’re looking at a lot of the most important books in the past, we have this collusion. Genres in part are born from literary fiction.  The idea, now, of speculative fiction, of this kind of hybrid of literary fiction and genre fiction–there’s nothing new about it, it’s kind of this re-awakening…no one thinks of Beloved as this ghost story and literary fiction story. No one thinks of 1984 being between literary fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction. So, when they’re successful, they’re taken out of the genre spectrum altogether.”

On Entertainment and its Value in Writing: “I grew up reading comics…the first thing I actually read by my own volition was The Hulk, and that’s when I got into the joy of actually reading, and I didn’t switch to novels until middle school, and that’s where my roots are and not in literary fiction. I think, in part, we don’t think of literary fiction being class-restrictive but oftentimes it is. The fun part of having monsters or having ghosts and zombies is that it attracts a larger audience to the conversation…I do fear that literary fiction has just gotten too damn boring. There are books that bore 99% of the population that I love; I read literary criticism for fun, you know? I know people are bored by that; there are books I love that people just find so dry and that’s fine, but I think this question of entertainment matters. It matters in part because of that class situation. If we start thinking of literature as something that only people that have degrees have access to, that is scary.  If we’re saying that only boring books–only books where there are extended points that you’re going to be bored–are serious, then that hurts literature.”

Matthew G. Frank & Amelia Gramling

“I’ve been obsessed lately with seeing how much ‘play’ a fact can take before it breaks and becomes something else, before it loses its integrity.”

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Junior Creative Writing major, Amelia Gramling, sent an email to Matthew G. Frank after reading his essay, “The Beginning of the End of Humming Bird Cake,” published in Prairie Schooner. For more of Frank’s work, visit his website

Dear Mr. Frank,

I recently had the distinct pleasure of reading your nonfiction piece The Beginning of The End of Hummingbird Cake, and I felt deeply compelled to write to you upon finishing it, to tell you how seismically it, how you, moved me. Your dripping and disjointed prose seems to encapsulate on a conceptual level the metaphors you invoke throughout the piece which culminate in a composition of beautiful, menacing chaos, the likes of which I have yet to encounter in all of my various exposures to iterations of the essayistic form up till now nor do I imagine I am likely to stumble across again. I wonder how a writer born and raised in Chicago could embody a location like One Mile Creek in all its sugary sweet, contradictory and somehow harmonious decay. In my own writing, I am often plagued by the prospect of planting my voice in a particular soil. I may be writing from my front porch in Westerville, Ohio but what I am attempting to convey belongs along the banks of the Mississippi or in the boughs of James Island’s twisting, ancient trunks. How do you reconcile that distance? Can research ever be sufficient to transplant your reader? I was also struck by the fluidity of the body of this piece. Each paragraph could exist in a vacuum, it seems, which lends your essay the impression of a short series of vignettes, and yet, when read as one, it becomes clear that each consecutive paragraph serves to complicate and interrogate the ones before.

Hummingbird cake neither begins nor ends here, rather, through your richness of language, it combusts. In a synthesis of race, violence, exploitation, nuances of culture, and a retelling of the dirty South which would set my Granddaddy’s ear ablaze in order to dissipate, fizzle, come together and repeat on and on and on. I am wondering how spontaneous or methodical your process has to be in order to produce this effect. I see and appreciate the flavor of Hummingbird cake, but as someone who’d never heard tell of this phenomenon before now, how did you come to combine these specific ingredients in a way that is both satisfying and sickening? How do you embrace that edge of almost too much, almost unreadable, and refrain from going over?

Thank you so much for your time and for your work.

Sincerely,
Amelia Christmas Gramling

 

Amelia,

Thank you so much for your beautiful email, and engaged reading.  I’ve been obsessed lately with pushing against the parameters of the essay; with seeing how much “play” a fact can take before it breaks and becomes something else, before it loses its integrity.  ‘Can research ever be sufficient…?’  That’s such a wonderful question, and I wish I had the answer.  Of course, it’s all situation-specific, but, given the phrasing of the question (the “ever,” especially), I think the answer is Yes (depending on the intention of the research, the necessary surrender to surprise, the willingness to get lost in the research, to fall in love with it, to argue with it– both with and without the aid of other research; to girdle it in places; to allow it to stand alone in other places; to agitate; to allow it to lead you in new unexpected directions; to couple it with generous and good-hearted imaginative alchemy; the willingness to extend the archival research to that of the observational variety– to actually immerse oneself in a specific place, and to listen to people and talk to people, and bird-watch and river-watch.  To meander.  To digress.  To try and find your way back to something that grows ever-hazier).

Thank you again so, so much, Amelia.  You have no idea how much this sort of email message means to me.

All the best,
Matt

Lavonne van der Zwaag & Kari Highman

“Spirituality was always a journey of learning … I knew that when I continued asking the same questions about spirituality, I had a new direction to go in for the project.”

Sophomore Creative Writing major, Kari Highman, interviewed 2012 Alum & Fisher Prize Recipient, Lavonne van der Zwaag, at the Fall 2014 Literary Studies Program event, Don’t Read Alone.

Q: What is your writing genre preference?
A: I like to focus on nonfiction. I like it because you can be more open to being vulnerable.

Q: What was your biggest challenge as a writer and how did you overcome it?
A: My biggest challenge during the senior writing project was learning how to put memories from the past down onto paper and asking the honest questions.  As well as how to find my voice and tell a story that was healing to me.

Q: What was the process of the senior writing project like for you?
A: It was great. My original idea was a general story on spiritual aspects in life … but then it became about my personal journey instead.

Q: How did you decide to change your topic?
A: Spirituality was always very prescribed in my life growing up.  It was always a journey of learning … another step on the spiritual path.  I knew that when I continued asking the same questions about spirituality, I had a new direction to go in for the project.  Writing helped me define some of those things.

Q: How has the experience changed you as a person?
A: Now I’m more able to be comfortable with the differences and how much more of myself I was discovering … how much more “me” it had become.

Q: Any other changes you’re more comfortable with now?
A: I’m OK with the ambiguity of it all.  The whole experience was definitely a monumental moment for me.

Mary Heather Noble & Katelyn Hanzel

“Sometimes the details you want are right there in front of you, and you just need to trim the other stuff to give them room to breathe.”

unnamedSenior Creative Writing minor, Katelyn Hanzel, sent an email to Mary Heather Noble after reading her essay, “Luffing,” published in Literal Latte. For more of Noble’s work, visit her website

Dear Mary,

I am writing to express to you my admiration for your essay “Luffing,” which I stumbled upon while exploring Literary Latte this past week. As a 21-year-old college senior with a family that is comprised of an enthusiastically outdoorsy father, an exceptionally indoorsy mother, and a charismatic younger brother, your essay that ostensibly discusses sailing on Lake Erie is a piece that has wholly captured my interest, in that I can relate pretty well to it.The exploration of the relationship dynamics within your family is fascinating, and you just write it so well. You let readers into the struggle that is present, “half wishing for there to be plenty of wind, the other half wishing for none at all,” and you pulled me in with this feeling of being stuck in the middle. I appreciated the peek into your relationship with each of your parents separately, as well as the lens through which I got to see the relationship your parents seemed to have together.I wondered if you would be willing to give me a bit of advice as to how I can take such simple details in my own writing of my own stories and make them more prominent and more noticeable. Sailing and water and wind were such lovely parts of the metaphor that you were alluding to, and I want to learn how I can take the little things and turn them into more emotionally significant things. I’m also curious about where you go to start – where is your ideal writing environment? Finally, how frequently do you pull pieces from your own memory in order to further explore a story, a relationship, or a moment in time?

“Luffing” was such a lovely piece to experience, and I’d like to learn, from one accomplished writer to an aspiring other.

Genuinely,
Katelyn Hanzel
Otterbein University


 

Dear Katelyn,

Thank you so much for your kind words — I’m so glad that “Luffing” resonated with you.  Writing about family can be so difficult, but I think it’s worth it when you know that the experience about which you’ve written really connects with someone else’s.  Makes us all feel a little less alone in the world, you know?

To your questions (and please forgive the list format, but I want to make sure I’m doing my best to answer them):

– On details: I had a mentor in my MFA program who always said, “Specific writing is good writing” — meaning details are what make a story sing, especially if they are images or themes that can carry double meaning.   I think everyone has their own way of finding details to include and highlight in their prose, whether it be from imagination or real life moments — but for me (because I’m a creative nonfiction writer), everything comes from observation and memory.  So I journal a lot, make lists of things I notice or remember, and do free-writing exercises that excavate details from my memory.  My advice?  Get a lot of books with interesting writing prompts, journal a lot, and be mindful in your revision process.  Sometimes the details you want are right there in front of you, and you just need to trim the other stuff to give them room to breathe.  Also, read other writers who are really good at metaphoric details.  I read a lot of Lia Purpura and Abigail Thomas.  Poetry, too.  I think that’s a really good way to develop an eye for distilled language.

– On starting: For me, inspiration starts with a daydream or an idea sparked by something I’ve seen or read.  I find that I’m really sensitive to contrasting images, or things that are unexpected.  That always seems to make me want to explore.  My ideal writing environment?  Well, it depends on where I am in the writing process.  If I’m just beginning something new, then I must have a journal and I must be in a calm place — either alone on my back porch, or writing anonymously in the din of a crowded coffee shop.  Once I have something good on paper, I’ll type it into my computer and just go from there.  So I spend a lot of late hours in my home office, after the kids have gone to bed!

– On memory: I am always pulling pieces from my own memory to further explore the subject of my work, whether it be my own family relationships or big-picture things like connection to place or social justice issues.  So again, I try to work with a lot of prompts that are specifically designed to open my mind and re-create my experiences so that I can get them down on paper.  Some resources with good writing exercises (and these are mostly for creative nonfiction writing):Now Write! Nonfiction, edited by Sherry Ellis, Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind, Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington, and From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler.

I hope I’ve been able to answer some of your questions. Please feel free to follow-up if you have more. And thanks again for the note — you made my day!

Best,
Mary Heather Noble

Lacy Johnson & Lily Mills

“Here is my advice to you: write what is urgent, what you have never said out loud before, what is, in fact, the most impossible to say.”

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Junior Creative Writing major, Lily Mills, sent an email to Lacy Johnson after reading Johnson’s essay, “The Other Side,” published in Tin House.

Dear Ms. Lacy Johnson,

My name is Lillian Mills and I am a junior studying Creative Writing at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. I am writing to tell you how taken away I am with the excerpts of your memoir, The Other Side. I stumbled upon your writing sifting through literary journals online and found Tin House.  As soon as I found your first excerpt I was taken away and had to find any others. The impulse of emotion and raw intensity in which you write with is something that I strive for. The humility you display in your writing is inspiring and humbling and the way you make everyday details so profound is beautiful. You seem to say so much about the relationship between you and your daughter and you and your boyfriend without saying much at all. This is a trait that I hope I can adopt from you and work on as well. I also like these excerpts because they test the boundaries between human relationships and how these relationships are a mirror of how we treat ourselves, and this is something oftentimes we oversee. The craziness and chaos of life you write about does harden us and it is beautiful when we find ourselves again, and this raw honesty is beautiful. I thank you for this.

You test the boundaries between the stereotypical mother/daughter relationships that is often portrayed in writing. Writing sentimentally and also meaningfully about relationships is so abstract yet the way that you seem to explain something in-explainable seems effortless. This is something I was hoping you could maybe give some advice on. I was also wondering if you could help me dive into how to choose between what topics and ideas to write about now and which to save and put away for later? You could have dove into so many more things in your memoir I’m sure, yet you chose the right things to say to get your point across, and this is something I struggle with. I try to tangle too many life experiences too many memories into one piece of writing that what I want to say oftentimes gets lost.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to indulge me and read this little bit of fan mail! I admire your work and your efforts greatly, hope to hear from you soon!

A world of gratitude,
Lily Mills


Dear Lillian,

Thank you so much for this email. I’m so glad that you found something in my work that speaks to you.

Here is my advice to you: write what is urgent, what you have never said out loud before, what is, in fact, the most impossible to say.

I sincerely wish you the very best, and I hope you’ll keep me updated on how things are going. Big love and good vibes coming at you from Texas.
xoxo,
Lacy