The Writers’ Program has an incredibly accomplished roster of instructors teaching in our creative writing department, and our new instructors are no exception. We’re lucky to have Victoria Patterson lending her expertise beginning this summer quarter. Victoria is an award winning fiction writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Santa Monica Review, Florida Review, The Sun, Crate, Literary Mama, and Quality Women’s Fiction. She’ll be teaching The Essential Beginnings: An Introductory Creative Writing Workshop on the Occidental College campus.
Victoria took some time to speak with us about her writing, her teaching, and a few of her inspirations.
What first drew you to writing? How did you get started as a writer?
I started as a journal writer. When I was in the 2nd grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and I can still remember begging my dad to go to the local pharmacy to buy me my first “diary.” I named my diary “Joanie” after a favorite camp counselor. I still have that diary; I keep it in my bedside dresser—it’s mainly a chronicle of my food consumption, i.e. Dear Joanie, This morning I had French Toast for breakfast!!! It was so good! I played hide and seek and I was it most of the time. For lunch it was grilled cheese. Dinner was tacos with shredded lettuce.
I was hooked and have been writing in journals ever since. I felt compelled to write. I have stacks of journals in my room from over the years and they’re a great resource. If I want details from the 1990s, I can pluck out some of my journals from the 90s.
So I definitely didn’t start out thinking in terms of “narrative” and “craft.” The impetus was to try to make sense of my emotional life, to try to make sense of my world—really, to try to make sense of things that didn’t make sense. I wrote about strange things that happened, anecdotes I’d heard. And I became an observer—I noticed how people talked, I wrote down what they said. It was how I managed my world.
By the time I shifted to telling stories, I’d developed a comfort on the page that for me could only come from years of journaling. And that crossed over to voice, as well as to a natural rhythm with language.
You’re teaching the Essential Beginnings: An Introductory Creative Writing Workshop this summer, which explores the nuts and bolts of fiction writing. You have said about your course that you encourage students to develop the habit of writing in a way that is not intimidating. What are some of the things that you practice in your own writing to feel less intimidated by the blank page?
Journaling gives me the freedom to write about anything—to not censor myself. I encourage my students to keep a journal and to write every day. I want them to experience that freedom.
For years, I knew that I was a writer, simply because I wrote, not because I was published. And I took pride in my writing, long before I was published. I was disciplined. When my kids were still in diapers, I took them to church for the free childcare. During the service, I went where no one would find me or bother me, and I wrote. I started to feel guilty, especially when other church members picking up their children would turn to me and say, “That was a great sermon!” And I’d nod and say, “Oh yeah, fantastic.” When I confessed to a friend what I was up to, she said, “Don’t worry about it—you’re having your own kind of spiritual experience.” And she was right: I needed to write. I did this for probably two or three years, so that I could continue writing.
The blank page is open to me, signifying possibilities. Some days I’m more productive, but each day I’m at it, and it takes away some of the mystery; and if I’m going to get struck by inspiration, at least I know I’ll probably be writing when it happens. For me, it’s about writing each day.
When you first started studying the craft of writing, was there anything that surprised you about the writing process?
What surprised me was that stories are connected to me—to all that journaling and seemingly trivial stuff. That one comes from the other. That instead of adding to the mystique of what it meant to be an artist, I needed to concentrate on who I was and what I wanted and needed to write.
I had this notion that writers and artists were superior. I would read the book reviews and imagine that there was no way that I could join their ranks. And coming from Orange County and a family that didn’t necessarily encourage the artistic, I didn’t think it was possible. But I realized that I was doing the work. That many, many people like to put on the hat of artist or writer, but when it comes to the reality, the work and sacrifice involved, that’s something entirely different. It’s an internal reality; it has nothing to do with the outside: book reviews, parties, recognition. And it can be lonely and scary and alienating. That’s the way it is.
Your short story collection is coming out in 2009 with Houghton Mifflin. Can you tell us a little more about the book, and maybe a little more about your process in writing that collection?
It’s a collection of interrelated short stories that take place in Newport Beach, California. I lived in Newport Beach for seven years, through junior high and high school, and my grandparents’ had a home in Newport ever since I was born (only recently sold and then destroyed, torn down).
I always knew that I would write about the area. Whether I like it or not, Newport is a part of who I am. The stories are told from those on the periphery, the outcasts. I would say it’s a dark vision of a superficial and materialistic environment, focused on those that have been overlooked by the community.
I’ve been at work on these stories for years and they’ve taken many forms. By the time I entered the UC Riverside MFA program, I had a vast amount of material and I was able to hone it into a collection for my thesis. I spent two more years after grad school on the collection, working with my editor.
As someone with an MFA, you are pretty familiar with the environment of a writing class. What’s your advice to new writers in how to make the most out of taking a course for the first time?
Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. Ask questions. There are no stupid questions—well, maybe there are a few, but ask them anyway. Keep writing, no matter what.
The “workshopping” process can also sometimes be intimidating for newer writers. What do you think is important for students to keep in mind during workshop?
Sort out what’s true and what isn’t that people say about your work and try to keep an open mind. Stand by your work, even if you have doubts. I took a writing class and the instructor had a rule that he called “no disclaimers,” and that one rule made it worth my time.
No disclaimers means you don’t get to preface your work or end your workshop with, “Sorry; this isn’t any good; I wrote this right after my divorce and I was very emotional; I’m just a beginner; I wrote this when I was tired; I didn’t know what I was doing,” etc, etc. No disclaimers gives you and your work respect, even if you don’t necessarily feel confident. I don’t want to make generalizations about writers, but I know for myself, I have self-doubt, insecurity, and a sprinkling of self-loathing. So it’s a great exercise in not letting it show, in standing by my work in a professional way.
Try not to take workshops too personally. It’s important to dismantle the personal from criticism. And it’s important when you’re doing the critiquing to look at the work from the vantage of what the author’s aim is, not from your own likes and dislikes, and to try to help the author fulfill his or her aim. The professor has a huge amount of influence on a workshop, and I’ve had both bad and good experiences.
But even the negative workshops were helpful, forcing me to define myself, to become more assured about my work and what I was trying to accomplish. When people disliked my work, it furthered my resolve about what I was doing. I became better at filtering the criticism. Out of a class of fifteen, there were perhaps two, maybe three, whose suggestions I valued.
If you were stuck on a rocket ship that was floating in outer space, and you were tired of looking at outer space and just wanted to read instead, what 3 books would you want to have with you?
Well, I’d like to point out that if I had some blank journals, I could write about what I saw looking out that window, or what I thought I saw, or what I wanted to see, or what I imagined I saw, or what I remembered I saw.
As far as books, the list is too numerous. I couldn’t cull it down to 3, but on the list might be: William Trevor, Edith Wharton, Richard Yates, Andre Dubos, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Antonya Nelson, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, Madame Bovary, Lolita, Light in August, Anna Karenina….
What do you want students to come away with from your class?
I want my students to come away trusting their own voices, trusting their own stories. I want them to have a confidence in their writing and an enthusiasm for the process. I want them to write about what is really important to them, not what might be appropriate or timely or easy. I would hope that my love and passion for writing has helped them.
Hey Writers’ Program, What’s New?!
We welcome Victoria Patterson to the Writers’ Program! Be sure to also check out our other new instructors in creative writing and screenwriting this summer quarter:
David Corbett – Who’s in Charge Here: Building Vivid Characters Who Serve the Story
Michelle Markel – Writing the Picture Book
Beth Lapides and Greg Miller – Free-Range Comedy Workshop
Victoria Patterson – The Essential Beginnings: An Introductory Creative Writing Workshop
William Boyle – Introduction to Screenwriting I (Online)
Kristine Johnson – Introduction to Screenwriting I (Online)
Vince McKewin – Write What You Know: Turning Your Personal Story into a Feature-Length Screenplay
Larry Wilson – Horror and Fantasy Screenwriting Workshop