The Writers’ Program is thrilled to welcome Ryan McIlvain to our corps of onsite creative writing instructors! Ryan is the author of Elders: A Novel and numerous stories and essays. I recently chatted with Ryan about his life as a writer and instructor—here’s what he had to say!
Writers’ Program: Hi Ryan! Welcome to the Writers’ Program and please tell us a little about yourself! What’s your background story and how did you get started as a writer?
Ryan McIlvain: I grew up in Massachusetts in a religious family, which, as a former Jesuit-turned-layman-turned-Stanford-professor told me, is a real boon for a writer. “Now you have something to fight against your whole life!” He said this with a smile, and I’ve since put on the mantle of that benediction-curse with a smile too. My first novel Elders follows two young missionaries in Brazil, limning out their conflicts with the Mormon Church they stint for and, increasingly, their conflicts with each other. I’m at work on my second novel now, due out sometime in late 2016, early 2017.
A complicated hero of mine, Saul Bellow, once said that a writer is basically a reader moved to emulation. That’s a beautiful way to describe my own turn toward writing: a childlike love of books that brimmed over into my own early attempts, first in poetry, then (descending below the angels) in prose. I’ve picked up a lot of moves and tips over the years and I’m excited to share them with new students. And of course I’m excited to learn along with my students.
WP: You’ll be teaching Finding Your Voice for the fall quarter, which is a course you designed for the Writers’ Program. What’s it about?
Ryan: I’m thrilled to be teaching an introductory multi-genre course that takes students through the basics of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. It’s entirely possible that a student who’s never been brave enough to “try” poetry will find that it suits her voice, her experience, and her sensibility to a T. For others (and for myself, certainly), it will be a chance to continue cross-pollinating the literary experience, borrowing tricks and lessons from one genre and imparting them to another. Think of Melville, or Joyce, or Woolf, Thomas Hardy, Saul Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith, all of them excellent, emulation-worthy writers who’ve honed their “main” genre by working in others—novelists putting on short story hats, or essay hats, or poetry hats. (Have you ever read Thomas Hardy’s poetry, by the way? Or Virginia Woolf’s stunning essays? Come to this class and you will, and you won’t regret it.) For my own part, the type of writer I’ve really come to admire is shape-shifting, multi-armed and more interesting because of it. This is a course about multi-ness—its challenges and opportunities. I hope to see some of you there!
WP: Reading over your instructor statement, I see you are a strong advocate of reading. Why is reading so important for a writer?
Ryan: It’s the only way to be a writer, to get that happy cacophony of voices in your head from which your own voice can gradually emerge. This isn’t a process to be agonized over or feared, by the way. It’s a joyous process, something Jonathan Lethem recently rebranded the “ecstasy of influence,” taking off from the critic Harold Bloom’s famous notion of influence as an “anxiety.”
I can put this even simpler, tagging Stephen King into the ring: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” This is from King’s fine memoir, On Writing (King, notice, a prolific and talented fiction writer working very profitably in the nonfiction genre), and it forms just about the only gospel-truth tenet I can think of in writing: you’ve got to read books to make books. It’s also and finally (ascending one of my soapboxes), a question of good citizenship. Do you really want to add more books to the world if you yourself aren’t a reader of books?
WP: What’s the best advice you’ve received along the way that you like to share with your students?
Ryan: Toward the end of every creative writing class I teach I reach back to words from a great friend and mentor, the essayist Pat Madden. “Just keep on keeping on,” he once told me. “That’s the whole game.” He was right.
Ryan’s first Extension class will be offered in fall. For more information, call the Writers’ Program main line at 310-825-9415 to speak with an advisor, or enroll online here!
Carla Janas is the Assistant to the Director. Contact her directly at email@example.com or 310-267-4888.