An Interview With Timons Esaias

Interview Conducted by Tamara Girardi

timons esaiasTimons Esaias is a satirist, poet, and writer of short fiction, living in Pittsburgh.  His work, ranging from literary to genre, has appeared in fifteen languages.  He won an Asimov's Readers' Award and was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award.  He has had over one hundred poems in print, including Spanish, Swedish and Chinese translations, in markets ranging from Asimov’s Science Fiction to 5AM and Elysian Fields Quarterly: The Literary Journal of Baseball.  His poetry chapbook, The Influence of Pigeons on Architecture, sold out two editions. He is adjunct faculty at Seton Hill University in the Writing Popular Fiction M.F.A. Program. He also teaches undergrads in four programs: Creative Writing, Literature, History, and Western Cultures.


1. Can you tell us about the writing projects you’re working on right now and where you are in your process for each one?

  • Warfare for Writers (working title), which is a non-fiction book on military science for writers, especially those who've never really paid attention to military matters. I'm about halfway done with this.
  • "Hollywood After 10" (working title) is a science fiction short story, time-travel, involving the McCarthy Era. I have about one day's worth of editing to go; which includes deciding what the title will be.
  • Why Elephants No Longer Communicate in Greek is a literary poetry chapbook I'm putting together. I'm still struggling to improve the title poem (which is a problem for completing a collection!) and haven't made much progress deciding what will go in it. I hope to do a lot of that work later this month.
  • I'm also working on a chapbook of science fiction poems, and part of the selection process for the other chapbook is deciding whether some poems go in this one or that one. I don't have a title for it yet, and I'll be doing both chapbooks in tandem.
  • I'm sorry to admit that I have about a dozen short stories that are drafted, but which I've never quite finished, which means I'm still a little dissatisfied with them. It would be nice if I got them all in the mail in the next six months, but we'll see.
  • Finally, I've got a completed satire, The Gospel of Elvis according to Timons, which I wrote a long time ago, and then pulled when I quit doing newspaper satire. I really ought to update the book proposal and send it to agents. If I could find the time.

2. How important is reading for a writer? How much or how often do you read, and what kinds of texts do you choose to read?

Reading is very important for a writer.

Unless I'm completely buried in student manuscripts, I read every day. To keep up with what's current in the field, I try to read all of the relevant "Best of" annual collections. That's the most efficient way to stay aware of a wide variety of writers and styles. In my case this means reading The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Essays, sometimes The Best American Nonrequired Reading and both the Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer Year's Best SF collections.

I also read novels, both literary and genre, and some single-author collections. I'm usually years behind the curve on those. And I read non-fiction for research and for teaching (and general interest). Too often, I'm afraid, those choices are dictated by the needs of my current projects, rather than what I'd most like to read next.

I read a good deal of poetry, since I'm a publishing poet. Not nearly as much as I probably should, but it ends up low on the list.

For relaxation I read mystery novels (usually set in a different time or culture), and literary novels. In total, I finish between 70-80 books a year. I also try to squeeze in the reading of several issues of McSweeney's.

3. Looking at your own writing, what challenges do you face when writing, and how do you overcome them?

My first challenge is keeping up a regular writing schedule. My wife's job has a different schedule almost every day, which makes it hard for me to keep a regular schedule myself. I also teach undergraduate college courses, with the usual some days on, some days off schedule. I've adapted by becoming flexible, and learning to write in coffee shops, libraries, lobbies, etc. But I've never beaten the regular-schedule part of the problem, and that has been a barrier.

Another challenge I face as a writing teacher is that I have to choose between working on my own writing and working on that of my students. All too often for the good of my own career, that decision falls on the side of the student work.

As to writing itself, I learned a trick long ago that keeps me from having too many "great challenges" in the composition part. If I feel that I've got a weakness, I write some pieces that focus on just that issue. (For instance, when my dialog was feeling flabby, I wrote an all-dialog short story as an exercise. No speech tags, no description, everything was between quotes. And that became a published story, now translated into several languages.) If I can't make a decision on how to write a piece or a scene, I write it both ways. In other words I work around any issue that comes up, and turn any problem into an exercise.

My other solution to problems is to take long walks. Give yourself one issue to mull over during the walk, and have your notebook and pen in a pocket. 

4. What did you dislike about your experiences as a student in creative writing classrooms, and how have those experiences influenced the way you teach?

I dislike any class in which critique is emphasized over actual writing. Critique is important, but you can trap students in abusive critique relationships (which means you need to monitor the critiques, which takes up time you could be monitoring the actual writing), and too often small critique groups don't contain the person who understands what kind of writing the student is trying to do. So I'm afraid I minimize peer critique.

I dislike being overloaded with theory, rather than practical advice. In our MFA program they have me give three-hour lectures (we're limited residency, so this only happens two weeks per year) that have to be loaded with theory, and you can sense the irony here. So, I try to intersperse quick exercises that make it clear how the theory applies to the page in front of you.

I especially dislike theory that's based on critical analysis (the kind that academics do in their dissertations) rather than on the methods a writer actually employs. I've seen too many students trip over all the critical analysis they've been showered with in the past. Students hate metaphor because they were taught it as some holy relic, or a dry-as-dust test subject. I try to teach students that metaphor is a powerful tool, one of our best, and that the reader doesn't need to know that you're using it.

In poetry classes, I despise, actually despise, instructors who try to make students into Elizabethan poets, or Romantic poets, by making them write form poems primarily. Contemporary poetry is not like that, and forcing students to imitate it is a disservice. Likewise ignoring the truth that popular music is the biggest venue for form poetry today, and not embracing it as a form of creative writing, is a sin. In teaching poetry, I do form at the end of the semester, after the students have been writing free verse most of the term, to introduce the technical material that might interest them. But I do it at the end, so they don't choke on scansion before they get the confidence to address a blank page.

5. “Field Recon” is a term I have heard you use often and an exercise you often assign to students. Can you talk a little about the concept, its purpose, and its influence on your student-writers’ work?

I'll attach my general instructions for a Field Recon, and a specific example as well.

Basically, I think of this method as the most important thing I can teach a creative writing student, because it teaches them how to teach themselves in the future. Writers often struggle with very specific issues that aren't usefully addressed in the how-to literature. Issues like: How do you introduce a character in a third-person narration, that's different from how you would do it in first person? When a character steps into a new room, what do you describe? How is the pacing of dialog in a thriller different from dialog in a mystery? How long should paragraphs be?

My suggestion is that you find the answer in books you admire (and recently published books are best), by posing a specific question. Then you take a variety of authors (who are relevant to the question) and look for exactly the places in a book where they do that same thing; then write down what you find.

In my experience, when a student undertakes a Field Recon, there is almost immediately an across-the-board improvement in their style. Something about the nuts-and-bolts issue of seeing how different writers do some simple thing seems to make students approach the whole craft with a more professional (and confident) attitude.

6. What do you wish student-writers did or knew before they enrolled in creative writing courses or programs?

    • I wish they knew what "usage" is, and how to use Fowler's or Garner's, preferably the latter.
    • I wish they knew that creative writing involves doing everything, including formatting and editing.
    • I wish they knew the basics of grammar, and owned a simple grammar.
    • I wish they knew that bigger words don't mean better writing.
    • I really wish they had some concept of proper manuscript format, but it's not logical to expect that. (I spend enormous amounts of effort getting students to comply with this baseline requirement.)

7. What are the top five lessons you hope your student-writers learn from you?

    • No page is wasted.
    • You need to behave in a professional manner at all times. Treat fellow writers as colleagues; be courteous, generous, and thoughtful. The critique partner of today may be the anthology editor, or book editor, or agent of tomorrow. Follow the behavior of the friendliest, kindest people in the industry, not the most self-indulgent.
    • One should never stop learning. Improvement of craft is an endless task. Try to make this month's pages better than last month's pages. Better is the way forward.
    • In every piece you write, try to have a sentence or two--better yet, a paragraph or two--that will make a reader want to recite it to someone else.
    • If there is no conflict on the page, the page has no reason to exist. (The solution is often to inject conflict rather than to delete the page.) This is true of non-fiction, as well, with the possible exception of cookbooks.

8. When is it important for student-writers to start thinking about publishing their work, and how do you advise them to go about doing so?

    • I teach classes that are geared toward publication, so I may be inclined to preach publication earlier than many instructors. (Though, in my current undergrad Writing of Poetry class I'm only discussing it briefly, because many of the students don't intend to publish poetry. There are several who just want to improve their writing in general, for instance, and it would be counterproductive to bring up the scary issue of submission when they're not interested.)
    • Frankly, if a student wants to be published, I tell them that anything they finish that they're not ashamed of should go in the mail. Submission is a learning process, and there's no convincing reason to put the learning off.
    • I guide them to (though that is now problematical) and and other sites that offer market listings and market advice. I have a number of mini-lecture documents that I give them, clarifying specific issues they might need to face. I teach an entire undergraduate class (Publication Workshop) on the elements of freelancing, so this is a topic I regularly address. The MFA program I teach in is all about getting published, so I give my mentees rather specific advice on this.

9. Other than enrolling in creative writing classes or programs, what should student-writers be doing to advance their craft and/or careers?

    • Networking: going to writing conferences if they can afford it (Pennwriters, SFWA, genre conventions that have writing tracks) or joining online writing communities if they can't go in person.
    • Actually writing pages. It's the next page that will teach you the most, but too many people think they have to endlessly prepare before they can write. Wrong. Write. No page is wasted, even though most pages don't see print.
    • Do some things that give you some experiences to write about, and a sense of how the world actually works. As an example, I frequently have students trying to write fantasy or historical fiction set in the past, but the only thing they know about the past is what they've seen on TV and read in other novels. I tell them they should put the following on their To Do Soonish Lists:
      • Learn to lay paper
      • Ride a horse, including learning how to saddle the thing. Bonus points for driving a team. Double bonus for driving a team of oxen.
      • Learn to blow glass
      • Do some blacksmithing, or other work with heated iron and steel, like working a bloomery (which is darn rare in the world these days)
      • Fire bricks and/or clay, with bonus for learning how to lay bricks

10. What is the most valuable question a writer can ask himself or herself? And can you answer that question here?

The most important question a writer can ask of themselves is: Why do I want to write; why should I spend thousands of hours of my life trying to master this craft?

In my case, writing is really an excuse to think about the world and then to share what I discover with others. I set up my writing projects to follow my interests, to chase down my own questions, to figure out what's going on here. In college I took philosophy, and rather than become an academic philosopher (or a lawyer) I turned to writing. Now I'm a covert philosophical operative.


Timons Esaias's Procedure for Field Reconnaissance

This is really the most important thing I can teach you, because it will allow you to teach yourself. There is no need to send a royalty payment each time you conduct a Recon Patrol.

1. Write down the specific craft item you need to address. Your question.

2. Go to your own bookshelves, or those of a library (don’t spend money), or wherever works of the type you write are to be found and take down ten recent novels (or picture books, or biographies, or whatever you’re writing). By “recent”, I mean first published in the last five years. This is where you'll look for some answers.

3. Open each one to the very first place that the thing you're looking for occurs. I'll use the example of someone wondering how to establish Point of View at the beginning of a chapter.

4. So take the, in this case, ten novels. Turn to the very first chapter of one of them. Read the first paragraph or two, and see what POV is used, and how it is established.

5. This is very important. Write down the devices that are used. Observe techniques; name them for yourself. If you see something you feel is a mistake, make note of that, too. If you write down what you find, you will end this exercise with a nice list of tricks you can use yourself. Which you will understand, because you discerned them yourself.

6. Now go to the next chapter, or scene break, and see what the author does there. New POV? Same POV? How is it established? Write down what you find.

7. Now flip to much later in the book, and repeat #6 one more time.

8. Now go take a look at your own work in the same way. You’ll probably have some new ideas to try.

9. Do this periodically for the rest of your life.

Trust me, if you do this with the ten books, reading just 30 paragraphs minimum, or 60 at max, you’ll learn more that you can actually use than any course will ever teach you. You'll have a tool chest drawer packed with named tools of your own discovery. You'll probably have all you need for a Teaching Module, too.

But, let me remind you, it's essential to write it down.