Low-Res, High Motivation: an interview with Jill Christman (Part Two) By Cathy Day

Read part one of the interview.

Just ten or fifteen years ago, there were hardly any low-res programs, but they’ve grown exponentially. 

Not just low-residency programs. According to AWP’s statistics, in 1975, there were 24 undergraduate minors, 3 undergraduate majors, and 15 MFA programs nationally, now those numbers are 347, 157, and 184, respectively. It’s staggering, and only the numbers b/w 2009-2010 begin to indicate that we might be reaching saturation, leveling off.

Okay, this is something I think about a lot: Do you think there are more writers today because there are more programs? Or do you think that there are just as many people who want to be writers, but they are simply more visible now, because there are more programs?

That’s a terrific question, Cathy. Ever since we scratched on cave walls, we humans have had the desire to tell our stories. The narrative drive is strong in most of us. Think about it.  How many times—say, at the summer wedding of a friend—have you revealed that you are a writer by profession to another veggie-skewer-nibbling guest who is something else by profession—let’s say he’s a surgeon. How many times have you heard, “Oh! I have a story to tell! I want to write a book, too!”

Once I had a surgeon tell me this during a procedure.

Well, maybe that surgeon at the appetizer table or in the procedure room does have a book in him. But the transition and translation between a book-in-the-head to a book-on-the-page is not a simple task. Turns out, writing is not so easy. Writing takes training (which is not to say MFA necessarily—this can be done on one’s own with great big stack of books), practice, and a whole heck of a lot of work. I have a writer friend who tells these non-writer writers: “That’s great!  Write a draft of your book and I will look at it.”

Wow. That’s a great idea—and awfully generous, too. Do you have any snappy responses of your own?

I have only on one occasion had the opportunity and accompanying chutzpah to reply to a doctor who informed me—at a book reception in Minnesota—that he was “thinking about taking a summer off soon” so that he could write that book he had in him. My reply? “Wonderful! I was thinking of taking a summer off soon to do some surgeries.”

[Cathy laughs ruefully.]

I’m sure this sounds way too flip, but my point is this: For people with lives in full-swing who feel that need to tell their stories, that requirement to write and be heard, low-residency programs are a terrific way to become part of a vibrant writing community.

Okay, here’s my last question. Why do this? Why teach in a low-res program? You already have two jobs: one, being a professor, mentor, and colleague, an employee of Ball State University, and two, being a writer, the self-employed proprietor of your own writing “business.” What are the advantages of taking on another job? Mind you, I’m asking because it seems like almost every writer-teacher I know teaches in a low-res program, and I’m considering doing it myself!

When you lay out all my jobs here in a single sentence, Cathy, it makes me want to lie down and cry—or, at least, rest, but seriously, I ask myself this same question frequently. So why don’t I quit? Those two weeks every summer are vital to my engagement in the art and profession of creative nonfiction writing. My colleagues in the program inspire me, and we spend those weeks in close proximity: if I didn’t see them every summer, I’d miss them terribly. A typical day at Ashland consists of a morning run with one of my colleagues, a 3-hour workshop with fantastic students, a community lunch (where the topics range from manipulating multiple points of view in an essay to whether it’s a good idea to have key lime pie for dessert at lunchtime), afternoon craft seminars (hosted by faculty as well as visiting writers—again, on topics ranging from dealing with difficult material to syntax and setting, always with an eye toward the relationship between poetry, creative nonfiction, and truth), some afternoon writing and rest, dinner together, and an evening reading. It’s summer camp designed exactly for people like us.

It’s good and important to recharge your batteries.

I’m fortunate to teach at Ball State where I also enjoy a community of dynamic, hard-working, innovative writers who take their teaching and writing seriously, but I think it’s important to stretch myself as a teacher and a writer by getting this injection of new ideas and pedagogies every summer.  In the past few years, the Ashland program has hosted writers such as Nathasha Tretheway, Floyd Skloot, Debra Marquart, Brenda Miller, Tobias Wolff, Scott Russell Sanders, Patricia Hampl, Richard Jackson, C.K. Williams, and Bill Kittredge—to name a few—and this means I’ve had the opportunity to introduce Trish Hampl’s reading from The Florist’s Daughter, I’ve eaten dinner with Floyd Skloot as he shared the impetus and structure for one of my favorite essays, and I’ve sat weeping in the audience as Richard Jackson read a new poem that blew my sandals off.  It’s just an amazing experience, and as long as my family can swing it, I’ll do what I can to remain in this generative, supportive, inspiring writing community.  I guess the advice for students and faculty alike here is:  find a program with people you want to spend time with.

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