Hometown: Brooklyn, Ohio
Upcoming Publications: RUST, Flatiron Books, 2020
Ideal Last Meal: Mashed potatoes.
What are you reading right now: The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wan
The elevator pitch for your book?
At the age of nine, I was a budding Republican with dreams of becoming a nun. Twenty years later, I was a college-educated liberal who found herself making steel inside a Cleveland mill just as Donald Trump was making his 2016 bid for the presidency. The trajectory of my life—and my country—had gone haywire, and RUST is the memoir that was born as a result. Framed by my first year inside the steel mill, RUST chronicles my personal journey from the religious life to the industrial life in the context of a nation in crisis. The book is about finding a way forward in country wracked by division. It’s about redefining your voice in the midst of life’s unexpected turns. It’s about finding warmth and camaraderie in the most unlikely and hellish of places, and it’s about the hope that begins to grow as a result.
Your advice to an incoming MFA student?
Everything you’ve heard is true: You will write hundreds—perhaps thousands—of pages before you find a few good ones. Don’t let that intimidate you. Just keep working. Learn to love the delete button. Be a passionate writer and a dispassionate editor. Put yourself in situations where you feel like a very small fish in a very big pond. Apply for residencies, send your pieces to the best magazines, submit your writing to the best and biggest contests (agents ARE paying attention!), attend every conference humanly possible. Find a way to conquer the rejection letters. Cry into your pillow if you must, but then pick yourself up and show that rejection who’s boss. Let the failure drive you, and get excited about the next revision. After all, it just might be the one that gets published.
What else (besides writing) have you been doing since graduation?
Riding horses, hiking through the woods, making steel (yes, I still work in the mill!), and doing paint-by-numbers to relieve my stress (as it turns out, paint-by-numbers are actually pretty stressful). I recently married a fellow English nerd. We like long walks on the beach, dogs and Star Trek.
Your favorite place to write while in the NEOMFA?
Common Grounds Coffee Shop in Kamm’s Corners at 2 in the morning.
Do you have any eccentric habits/strategies to get you started writing?
Nothing eccentric. Just the usual. Coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
What is your favorite word or words?
Cacophony. It’s just so much fun to say.
What the highest number of revisions you’ve done on a single piece of your writing?
I’ve never been one to keep track of my revisions, but I call myself a Serial Reviser. It’s not unusual for something to go through 5–7 drafts. One of my first major publications probably went through about 15 complete rewrites in three different genres before it was complete. It started out as nonfiction, but I couldn’t get it right. Every draft failed, so I tried to write it as fiction. More failure. I tried to write it as a play. No good. When I finally went back to nonfiction, I knocked out the published version in two weeks. So, don’t be afraid to really experiment with things that aren’t working.
What was your best/funniest rejection letter?
I sent my essay “White Horse” out to a handful of really awesome journals, one of which was The Paris Review. The essay quickly got accepted by another journal, so I formally withdrew it from the other venues. A few months later, however, I received a form rejection for the essay from The Paris Review. No note. No comments. No invitation to submit other work. Just a sad slip of paper informing me that I hadn’t made the cut. “White Horse” later appeared in The Best American Essays. So, here’s the lesson: Nine-and-a-half times out of ten, rejections are an awesome way to gauge a piece. If you get a form rejection (or any rejection, really), you probably need to revise/rewrite. But there are those rare occasions when you have to take a rejection with a grain of salt. In all honesty, “White Horse” had an experimental structure, and the journal that published it (Alaska Quarterly Review—check them out!) is very enthusiastic about experimental writing. The Paris Review probably wasn’t the best venue for the piece, and I already knew it was a long shot. So, here’s the second lesson: Get familiar with a wide variety of literary journals, and learn what they publish. It really does matter.