An Interview with Trent Hergenrader


trenthergenraderTrent Hergenrader is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he teaches creative writing and literature. His research focuses on creative writing studies, digital writing, and game-based learning, which he brings together in courses where students collaboratively build vast fictional worlds using role-playing games as models for their writing. His short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk, Best Horror of the Year #1 and other fine places, and he is co-editor of Creative Writing in the Digital Age: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy.

1. Can you tell us about the writing projects you’re working on right now and (if you are) how do you balance working on more than one writing project at a time?

I spend most of my writing time on academic subjects nowadays, but happily that includes a creative component. My research involves collaborative world building projects based on role-playing games, so I think it’s pretty exciting stuff. My goal is to provide my students with an educational experience that they wouldn’t find outside of a college classroom, so my methods are pretty unorthodox in terms of creative writing pedagogy.

I’m working on two projects/experimental courses right now. The first is called “Steampunk Rochester” and it’s a collaborative effort between my creative writing students in the English Department, students in a Fine Arts class focusing on local history, game design students, and students in 3D digital design. This past semester, my students created an alternate version of Rochester in 1921, where its historical fact blended with steampunk, which is a kind of Victorian-era science fiction. In order to build the world, they needed to learn about the politics and society of the time, including the poor treatment of immigrants, shocking labor conditions, the women’s suffrage movement, prohibition, the Spanish flu pandemic, and other issues such as soldiers returning home after the Great War. They created wiki entries for people, places, and things—both factual and fictional—to establish the setting. I want students to be thinking about how society shapes technology, and how technology shapes the society.

Once they finished with the wiki, they created characters and we played a tabletop role-playing game where I tried to put their characters in situations where they needed to make difficult choices. They then wrote short fiction on the events told from their characters’ perspectives. It’s a chaotic mess, but the course is intended to get students to think deeply about the social forces at play on characters in fictional worlds, and ask critical questions about the shared world we all live in. This spring semester, another group of students will be making sort of playable game inspired from the project. You can check it out at <.”>

These sprawling, messy courses wind up being a huge creative endeavor for me as well, as I work with each student on shaping story arcs for their characters, and adding all kinds of tweaks and wrinkles to their fictional worlds. Even though it won’t result in a creative publication for me, it’s invigorating because neither the students nor I know what’s around the corner all semester long—it all depends on the choices they make, both as students in a classroom and as playable characters in a fictional world. Right now this kind of exploratory collaborative work excites me more than chasing publication for my own traditional fiction, so I’m just seeing where it takes me.

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?

Of course, reading is essential for any writer, including reading across time periods and genres to get some sense of what’s been done. Having said that, you need to have a firm grounding in what’s happening today too. When I first started submitting my short stories to magazines, I had no concept of what was currently being published. I was reading epics, Greek tragedies, Icelandic sagas—hardly anything from the last millennium to be honest. It wasn’t until I started studying the magazines I was hoping to be published in that I started experiencing any success.

I like that you use the word “texts” in the question too because, from a media studies perspective, that opens up possibilities in useful ways, especially in the classroom. Today’s students watch more TV and movies and play more videogames than they read print fiction, and personally I don’t necessarily see this as a problem. When we talk in creative writing classes about “reading like a writer,” we want students to focus on how the writer uses language to manipulate the reader. TV and film use language but also use different techniques such as camera angles, lighting, actors’ expressions, sounds, and more; videogames borrow much from film but also add an interactive element.

In my creative writing classes, we’ll often look at film, television, and even videogames and consider how we “read” those texts and talk about how they might or might not translate into the written word, because in most creative writing all you have is language. Every word has to count. I find that once students better appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each medium, they actually become much more interested in language and the unique imaginative space traditional writing provides.

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

My biggest challenge is finding time to pursue all the kinds of projects I wish to undertake. We only have so many hours for work, family, health, and other pursuits to keep us happy and healthy. I have two kids under the age of six and I just started a tenure-track job with lots of different obligations, so there’s never enough time. I take solace in the fact that writing is a lifelong pursuit and that means you’ve got to be patient. I recently sold a short story, “Thief of Hearts,” to The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. It had been sitting on my hard drive, virtually untouched, for six years. Six years! But when I saw the call for this anthology, something clicked in my head. I dropped everything to revise it before the deadline, and obviously the editor liked it enough to include it in the book. I won’t ever have time to finish everything I’ve started, so whatever elbows its way to the top of the pile is fine by me. I also appreciate the time I set aside for writing that much more.

The other half of this is that I’m really interested in digital storytelling. I find the promise of large scale, collaborative creative projects compelling. No one really knows what digital storytelling will look like in 20 years and I find that exciting. However, the tools change so quickly it seems I can hardly learn a new technology before it’s obsolete. Still, I can’t help fooling around with things like wikis or social media platforms. I’m always hoping to find other writers, artists, and programmers interested in diving into the unknown. Who knows what we might come up with?

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

I didn’t take any creative writing classes as an undergraduate (!) so I can’t speak to that experience, but in my graduate workshops I disliked the lack of investment my peers often showed in each other’s work. To be fair, I could be guilty of it too when I felt someone wasn’t holding up their end of the bargain. The traditional creative writing workshop operates on the Golden Rule to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. This means everyone should show up with a polished draft suitable for critique, and that people give and receive thoughtful commentary. Unfortunately, only a few of my workshops functioned that way. Personally, I had much better success in smaller writing groups outside of class.

When I first started teaching creative writing, I discovered that this lack of investment in each other’s work was far worse in my undergraduate classes. As a result, I now spend a considerable amount of time teaching about the importance of giving and receiving quality critiques. Learning to use the language of critique to identify strengths and weaknesses in a piece of writing is a very valuable skill for students regardless of what careers they pursue after exiting my classroom. And I should mention I developed the collaborative world building courses I mentioned earlier as a way for students to feel invested in each other’s writing. Because their stories contain links to other stories, their work is connected in a very real and intimate sense, which I think is neat.

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

The old Thomas Edison quote that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” is never more true than in a writing career. Movies and TV tend to romanticize the life of the writer and gloss over the grunt work of revising, following guidelines, keeping track of submissions, and all the rest that is far, far away from the heady rush of the creative moment. Once you understand the business of writing and establish your own set of productive habits, these things become no big deal, but they often can be dispiriting for the fresh-faced writer dreaming of instant fame through creative writing.

Also that publishing moves at a glacial pace and the money never comes as quickly or in the quantities that you’d imagined. It’s actual work, and most of it isn’t very glamorous. It can still be hugely satisfying, but probably not in the ways many people imagine when they’re just starting out.

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

  1. Writing is a lifelong pursuit. You will not get famous overnight, nor is it likely that you will ever get famous. Now that the pressure is off, try writing something.
  2. What you want readers to get from your work will often be quite different than what they report back to you. Listen carefully. Try to understand how they came to their conclusions. Sometimes they come up with stuff much better than you intended. Revise with that in mind.
  3. Sitting in coffee shops with your laptop is not (necessarily) writing. Talking about writing or reading writing advice isn’t writing either. These can be worthwhile activities, but they’re not writing. Make sure you set aside time strictly for writing, and then get writing done in that time.
  4. Creative writing can tremendously valuable even if you never submit a single work for publication. No matter what your career path might be, strong writing skills are welcome in every field. This includes the ability to give useful critical feedback on a piece of writing, and incorporating the feedback you receive into a revised piece of writing.
  5. Don’t get hung up trying to craft a work of staggering genius as that’s an invitation to writer’s block. A good rule of thumb is to try and write with the hope of eliciting certain emotions in the reader rather than expounding some universal truth.

7. 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?

If a student-writer has the goal of being published, then that writer needs to start learning about how publishing works immediately. That doesn’t mean submitting immediately, but rather it means reading the magazines and journals the writer is considering submitting his/her work to and deciding if the writing is a good fit for that market’s aesthetic. There’s no point in submitting your trippy surrealist story to a publication that focuses on regionalist themes, or sending a novella to a place known for its flash fiction.

This student will also need to learn that a single revised draft after a critique session probably won’t cut it for publication. As NPR’s Ira Glass once said of creative endeavor, it’s only through hard work over a long period of time that you begin to close the gap between your taste and your talent.

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

For writers serious about improving their craft and their careers, they need to learn the ropes of getting published, and that means developing a strategy for submitting manuscripts. While there’s something to be said for the artistic endeavor of writing whatever you feel like and worrying about publication later, it’s also worthwhile considering writing with certain magazines and journals in mind. It’s useful to read several of the most recent back issues of publications you like to glean if the editors prefer certain themes, or if their stories and poetry share some loose aesthetic. This is mostly guesswork, but you can save yourself some time by submitting to markets that seem like a good fit for your style.

I keep a list of a dozen or so journals and magazines where I would most like to see my work published. When I have something ready to send out, I start by submitting to those places first. I don’t believe in “working your way up” to publishing in well-known magazines; your career will go farther faster if you publish in a few highly competitive markets than regularly publishing in Doug’s LitMag and Blog or a host of other amateur outfits. Developing a strategy takes time and requires you to read a lot of different magazines and think deeply about what it is you’re trying to accomplish with your writing career. Tracking submissions in a spreadsheet feels more like accounting than creative writing, but it reinforces the notion that successful writers need to be methodical and persistent as well as talented.

9. Can you share a favorite writing exercise you assign that students tend to find particularly beneficial?

In my Introduction to Creative Writing course, I always play “exquisite corpse,” a parlor game popularized by surrealist artists in the early part of the twentieth century. All you need is a few friends or classmates, each with a sheet of paper. In the first step, everyone writes down a random adjective and article (e.g. “the exquisite”) and folds the paper over so that line can’t be read. Everyone trades papers and, without looking at the previous line, writes a noun (e.g. “corpse”), and then folds again and passes the paper to someone new. Repeat the process with a verb, another adjective, and a final noun. Then you unfold the paper and read your line, which will be something nonsensical like “the exquisite corpse drinks the young wine,” the line that wound up being the title of the game.

You must then use the line in a poem or as inspiration for a piece of flash fiction. Because the phrase will make no sense, you must think in a more abstract or metaphorical way in order to handle it. For example, how can a corpse, which we normally associate with decay, be “exquisite”? And is there some significance to its drinking “young wine”? Literal interpretations usually fall flat, so you have to let your mind roll with the image as presented.

Having played this many times in classrooms over the years, the lines can be surprisingly rhythmic or even prophetic. Other times they bomb completely and we start over. Regardless, we always get a few good laughs from the exercise, and students enjoy the challenge of making something with their phrase.

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

I’ll cheat: two of the most valuable questions any writer should ask are, “why am I writing this specific thing?” and “what do I hope to get out of it?”

A surface level answer isn’t going to get you very far. Most hard-working writers write for some kind of publication, but the question goes deeper than that: why are you writing this, and why are you writing it now? I already mentioned my struggles with finding time to work on various writing projects, so I am clear with myself as to what I hope to accomplish with each one. Sometimes an opportunity presents itself and I take it because I know I can complete it quickly. Other times I pass on writing projects because I know I can’t, or won’t, make time for it because I’m not interested enough in it. And I’m not afraid to ditch something if I feel like I’m wasting time. I’ve got a twice-revised novel on my computer that I no longer believe in—I’d rather not have it published than trying to get it published with its current deficiencies—and there it sits. Maybe one day I’ll be energized to make the fixes I know it needs. Maybe not. I’m not losing sleep over it.

Having said that, not all writing projects need a well-defined outcome. I do a lot of tinkering with experimental writing that winds up going nowhere. I don’t regard that as a waste of time, however, because I learn something from it, often something I can share with students. This is particularly true when I’m fiddling with various digital projects. Or sometimes I feel like I have to work through a story or essay for no other reason than to satisfy my own curiosity or get something straight in my mind, even if it doesn’t result in a formal publication. Blogging can be good for that kind of writing, for example. But I’m also honest with myself, and I can’t just blog or fool around with stuff and not have my writing career stall out. Vacations and weekends are also refreshing and vital, but at some point you’ve got to back to work.

So my answers to those two questions—why am I writing something, and what do I hope to get out of it—always boil down to making connections with readers. When I’m writing on my academic work bridging games, digital tools, and writing, I’m hoping to excite other educators about the untapped potential of creative writing classrooms and encouraging them to experiment themselves; when I write fiction, I want to make an emotional connection with readers, to have my stories resonate with people in some way. In both my academic and creative work, I’ve had complete strangers contact me, thanking me for something I wrote. Those little moments of human connection makes all the grunt work more than worthwhile.