In January 2012, I sat in a second-floor classroom that rounded into a castle-like turret: Graves Hall at Hope College. It was my first creative writing class. Outside, snow was falling and inside my peers and I leaned forward in our rolly chairs. Dr. Heather Sellers stood in front of the whiteboard. She put her hands together in a bowl. She extended her arms toward my peers and me. “You’ve got to offer your readers your best whiskey.” She walked around the room, dark hair flying behind her neck. She offered her hands to us as she walked. “You invite them in, sit them in a chair, and pour them your best whiskey.” And so began my first experience with an inspiring creative writer and educator.
Heather Sellers offers her best whiskey in both her writing and her teaching. Her many publications include Georgia Under Water, a short story collection; Spike & Cubby’s Ice Cream Island Adventure, a children’s book; The Boys I Borrow and Drinking Girls and Their Dresses, poetry collections; You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, a memoir; The Practice of Creative Writing: A Guide for Students, a textbook now in its third edition; as well as essays in The New York Times, Tin House, and The Sun. She has previously taught at the University of Texas—San Antonio, St. Lawrence University, and at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where we first met. It is a great privilege to be her student again as an MFA candidate at the University of South Florida, where Dr. Sellers currently teaches poetry and nonfiction.
This interview was conducted in September, 2016.
Allyson Hoffman: The third edition of your textbook, The Practice of Creative Writing: A Guide for Students,is now available from Bedford/St. Martins/Macmillan. What are some of the challenges you’ve found when writing about the craft of creative writing, and what are some of the thrills you’ve had?
Heather Sellers: The best part about writing the textbook is it’s like my learning lab. I take classes every year, and I am able to update and refine the teachings in the book based on the new things I learn about how do creative writing. I’m super interested in creative process and strategies for helping students who don’t read widely figure out a way to give language to complex thoughts and feelings.
The other great thing about revising the textbook is choosing new authors, young contemporary writers from all over, and incorporating their work into the book. It’s a delicate surgery, though, getting it all to fit together, lifting out the older pieces and suturing in the fresh ones. The hardest part is the permissions process—making sure every author is fairly compensated for his or her work. It is expensive and labor-intensive and deeply gratifying.
AH: What is one of your favorite lessons that you teach students?
HS: My students love a lesson I learned from Dylan Landis who learned it from Tony Earley, going cold, though I think I teach it differently from what they have in mind. Going cold means that when you are writing something with high emotion, you pull way back on the feeling on the page, so as to engage the reader more fully. The lesson comes with a handy graph, and allows students to more finely calibrate how they balance action, emotion, and opinion.
And, I’m a structure hound, always interested in how to make the structure of a piece more interesting, more compelling, more un-put-down-able, more meaningful, and so we spend a lot time in class taking things apart and putting them back together.
AH: What is one of your favorite writing exercises that you assign to students?
HS: I don’t have a favorite writing exercise—I don’t know about writing exercises. I wouldn’t assign writing just for practicing a skill, I don’t think. Maybe? Do I do that?
In the introductory course, I see the students as writers and my job is to set up deadlines and guide them—we tackle form, working in a poetic tradition where you try out all these different recipes for poems. I see us making art, and I will offer suggestions on what they might try when they choose their subjects, but the artist gets to pick what she wants to work on.
Some students like a lot of direction; some want to be free to rove off in their own field. Yes, I say. Yes and yes. Do that. Do what you want to do. When I was a student, I despised exercises. I rebelled against it; I’m not sure artists work that way. Maybe they do. I always wanted to make pieces of writing, finish, learn from the failure, and move on to the next piece, fail better.
AH: You write in many genres—nonfiction, poetry, fiction—so how do you find which genre to tell a story in? Do you begin the piece with the genre in mind, or does that come later?
HS: Genres are these categories for shapes. Literary terms. I like all the categories, and I am interested in the play of all the shapes. The genre of the thing doesn’t matter, so I’m not really thinking about the genre when I am working. I’m interested in structure—how to make a thing with words that absorbs a reader, and moves her deeply, connects her somehow to a part of herself that was there all along, but she hadn’t noticed that exact aspect before. Again, I’m back to that lab or workshop image. We go to the creative process in order to tease out what’s there that hasn’t been brought into consciousness. That’s what creativity is, right?
AH: In composition, we often talk about the value of peer review or workshop. How does this translate into your creative writing practices? What do those processes look like for you?
HS: I love my readers and have very close, long term non-monogamous relationships with several stunning readers, and I’d be lost without them. Part of the value is just having someone seeing the work, and knowing it—it helps you see it better.
Reading aloud is a vital part of my practice. It’s great to have someone who can listen—they don’t really even have to say anything; you can feel what’s horrid, just being there, reading.
I also have a writing group, and those discussions—these really smart wonderful people who read so carefully, so closely, so deeply—what a rare and lucky thing it is to spend Sunday evening in a living room, with the work. It’s like church is for me—a sacred space where we are listening to each other so attentively and revering our shared experience. Lucky. I’m lucky.
In the classroom, I worry. It’s hard for the students to find true peers sometimes. And, I hear students maybe not quite certain how to know and put into words commentary that will be helpful. But, the social aspect, having people respond to your work with joy and pleasure, laughter and attentiveness—it’s a place in the university where we are with each other in a very meaningful way, I think.
AH: What writing projects are you working on right now? How do you balance more than one project at a time?
HS: The projects are all at various stages of completion. So it’s like parenting a herd of small children. Some can’t walk at all, so they need to be carried—you can’t ever really set this one down. Others are coming and going—off to a reader, back from an editor—and they need a very different kind of attention. My work is just trying to move everyone through the process, and not rush, but there’s always some rushing. I never feel I’m working enough, or learning enough, or reading enough. A thousand ways of being far behind.
I don’t like to talk about the work—forgive me for dodging your question. I don’t like to talk about the specific pieces before, during, or after. I’m, at my core, a shy person. It makes me sometimes a difficult person. I don’t love the talking aspects of our work. I struggle with parties and gatheringish things. I’d rather be working. Sullen. Sorry.
AH: Who are you reading right now? Who do you want to read more of, and why?
HS: Much of my time is spent reading the works of my students. Then, I’m reading literary magazines, manuscripts for friends and colleagues. Then, I’m reading for the textbook—always trolling for the pieces that will teach the strategies best. My passionate reading varies widely. I’m devoted to The New York Times and The New Yorker. I read a lot about Florida history, the natural world, and art. I read a lot of text and image works. I read a lot of biography, especially of artists. I like books about creative process and philosophy of pedagogy. Poetry.
AH: What suggestions do you have for writers who are trying to develop a writing routine?
HS: Develop a routine.
AH: What questions should writers ask themselves throughout the writing process?
HS: No questions during the process.
After, when reading, from a hard copy, with a pencil, aloud: am I telling the truth? Am I telling the truth? Am I telling the truth?