The new year brings with it a brand new instructor to the Writers’ Program. Liz Stephens is the author of the memoir The Days Are Gods (University of Nebraska Press). She was a managing editor and contributor to Brevity: A Journal of Concise Nonfiction, and has been nominated for both the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award and the Duke University Documentary Essay prize. We are incredibly fortunate to have her with us at the Writers’ Program.
Read our fun interview below to learn more about Liz and her upcoming winter course.
WP: Describe your typical day as a writer. Do you have any writing-related rituals or quirks?
LS: A lucky day is one-quarter writing, three-quarters taking care of life in general. A lucky day. I have about one week’s worth of these a month unless I really put my foot down. I’m sitting here writing this with earplugs in, so that probably counts as a quirk. I can’t listen to music while I write or the work sounds like a teenage fever dream. There’s a lot of walking in circles. I love when writers say, you know, write on the back of an envelope, in five minute bursts. Because no. I need a block of hours, though I am not indulgent of that. I don’t wait on a muse; I insist she arrive relatively on time. I do know I’ve had a great writing day when by the end I realize I’m sitting on my chair like Matthew Modine perched on the end of his bed in the movie Birdy, knees up.
WP: What drew you to Creative Nonfiction? What do you love about it?
LS: Well, the world is already a strange and wonderful place, isn’t it? And I haven’t figured out one single answer to anything in it. Creative nonfiction allows me to bring a reader into that, without pretending I know anything about anything but storytelling. Creative nonfiction snatches an actual moment out of the air and slows it down to a manageable pace so we can look at it more slowly than at the light-speed with which life happens.
Also, writing and reading nonfiction does no less than heal us, I think. You can hold the moment that confused you or that you hated or longed for, and talk to it and work on it a little more, think it through, look at it with other people.
WP: I’m sure there are things you wish someone had told you about the publishing industry before you got started. What counsel would you give to writers who are just starting out on their journey?
LS: Don’t hurry but don’t wait. And aim high but work low. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with the industry and marketing of your work; I asked a mentor of mine early in my doctoral work, 1) how to get included in anthologies, and 2) how to get a Pushcart. He said — with great self-restraint– first write more stuff. I think I huffed at him. The fact is you can do your research about where to submit wisely, and keep your eyes out for people you should talk to, but you must do the work. Having said that, you cannot do all the work at once. Personal essay without substance is a waste of everyone’s time. You gotta live that stuff before you write about it. And then: put your butt in the chair. Write.
WP: This winter, you’ll be teaching The Art of Creative Nonfiction. The workshop experience can be nerve-wracking for writers sharing their work with others for the first time. What advice can you give them?
LS: If they are a little nervous, they are in the sweet spot. You should be writing in a zone, or working in a setting, that makes you a bit nervous. That makes your time worth it. You should be stretching. And then know this: those readers in your room who are really confident, where they read and you feel like they just see the ball hitting the bat, that awesome smacking sound of success….they are going to get advice and changes too, and it’s possibly harder for them. Pride goeth before the fall, etc.
And on a practical level, you should – and you almost always will – have a workshop instructor who will hold back the maddening crowds for you, but it’s always okay to say, give me a minute, or, I’m nervous. We’ve all been there.
You’re giving a gift to the room, really. The confident, well-oiled writing machines that are some participants around us in these workshop settings are an absolute pleasure, but it’s the new voices, the cautious beginning, and the deep breaths of relief that give us all, everyone there, the go-team love in the room. Really. That’s what we’re there for.
WP: What wonderful advice, Liz! Thank you so much for sharing your time and your words of wisdom with us!
After this interview, I’m sure you all are dying to take Liz’s Art of Creative Nonfiction course this winter. So click on this link and register for her course now!
Nutschell Windsor is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (online) and Events. Contact her at (310) 794-1846 or email@example.com.