Welcome new Writers’ Program instructor Ryan Smernoff! Ryan is teaching TWO sections of Copyediting I (Reg# 382370 & 382371) in our Remote Instruction format, with live Zoom class meetings on Tuesdays or Wednesdays at 7pm PT this Fall. He sat down with us to offer some insight into creative life and his upcoming course.
What sparks your creativity?
My daughter (4 years old) is a trove of creative energy. On windy days, she’ll sometimes demand to go outside so she can “eat the wind.” When her little brother (8 months) first started babbling, she very confidently asserted, “I think he’s saying, ‘My lips are made of mold.'” And recently during breakfast, she set her spoon down, leaned over, grabbed my face between her hands, and said in a firm, matter-of-fact voice, “I’m going to need your eyeballs for a craft.” My wife and I started noting her statements and aphorisms in a journal, which has proven to be a great resource when I’m in need of a creative boost.On a practical level, I’d never get anything done if I simply waited for inspiration to strike. I’ve learned that the best way to keep inspired is to seek out that creative spark myself. Doing so has often lead to discoveries far greater than what I find as a passive recipient. I’m also fortunate to still be in touch with three dear, trusted, brilliant friends from my MFA program. We meet up semi-monthly (pandemic-willing) to discuss and read what we’re working on. Seeking out and spending time with these friends always leaves me eager to jump back into the page.
What do you look for in a good story?
I’ve got a soft spot for the weird stuff: narratives that are built upon twisted and absurd characters, events, and circumstances while still wielding prose that has its own life and breath. I have little patience for stories that try to rehash overwrought tropes. But if a work is bold enough to take risks, build complex structures, and challenge long-held conventions and ideologies, my interest is immediately piqued. And a story that can make me legitimately burst into laughter is always welcome in my library.
What’s your favorite book and/or movie?
There are at least 10 to 20 books contained within my top 5. Two that never stay far from my mind are Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. As for movies, some favorites are Waiting for Guffman, The Big Lebowski, and In Bruges.
What’s your favorite quote about writing?
My personal favorite comes from an email exchange with George Saunders shortly after my wife and I learned we were expecting our first child. I had asked him how he managed being an attentive, loving father while maintaining a consistent writing schedule. He responded: “I think the truth is that it’s hard. Hard to get the time, but on the other hand your heart will be full of new love and fear, and you may find you have new and deeper things to say. And any success you have in your work will be good for the baby. As Edwidge Danticat once said to me about this, ‘A miner goes into the coal mine.’ Mostly: enjoy.”
I also love the following quote by Donald Barthelme: “‘The aim of literature,’ Baskerville replied grandly, ‘is the creation of a strange object covered in fur which breaks your heart.'”
What do you find most inspiring about editing as part of the writing/publishing process?
Creativity is messy, and embracing that messiness is an important part of the writing process. Editing, however, is more than simply a refining activity; it gives us tools to interrogate what we’ve written and transform it into something we never could have imagined prior to taking on the difficult task of cleaning, polishing, and sorting out the mess. Many of the works hailed as masterpieces didn’t start that way; the editorial process plays a major role in turning a good text (and sometimes even a mediocre text) into the kind of work that lingers on a reader’s mind long after they’ve set it down.
What excites you most about teaching for the Writers’ Program?
There’s nothing quite like joining a community of writers who are serious about honing their craft. The years I spent as a student in my writing program were some of the most formative, challenging, and enriching years of my life, and I am thrilled by the opportunity of becoming a part of facilitating this kind of experience as a teacher for the Writers’ Program.
What do you hope your students get from your course(s)?
Freedom. Confidence. Growth in expertise as language practitioners. I want my students to become skilled discoverers as they sharpen their understanding and engagement of the written word. And mostly, I hope my students will enjoy our shared challenge of becoming better writers and editors.
Thank you to Ryan for taking time to share with us. Look for more instructor interviews coming soon!