Meet the First Years: Part 2

Our first-year cohort has survived their first semester and are diving in to their second, kicking off the spring semester with first-year MFA readings on February 6 and 27th. Second-year nonfiction MFA Caroline Miller interviewed Dana Liebelson, Winona León, Maggie Smith, and Nell Smith about writing, MFA life, and the weird and wonderful parts of living in Wyoming.

Winona León is a writer and artist originally from West Texas. She holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Southern California and comes to Laramie from Los Angeles, where she worked in book publishing and nonprofit development. In her free time, she enjoys drawing and hiking with her corgi, Winston.

Dana Liebelson is a writer and journalist from Bozeman, Montana. She has worked as a staff reporter for Mother Jones and HuffPost, where she was a two-time Livingston Awards finalist for her investigative work on prisons and jails. She previously played bass in a feminist punk band in Washington, D.C.

Maggie Smith is a nonfiction writer from Mississippi. She attended undergrad at the University of Mississippi, where she learned a lot about writing, music, the complexities of the Old and New South, and indie band boys. She has a three-legged cat named after Mississippi writer Barry Hannah, so named because he has a big personality and kind of walks like a drunk.

Nell Smith is a writer and field biologist originally from Maine who has lived in Arizona for the better part of the last decade. She earned a BA from Prescott College, where she double majored in Arts & Letters and Environmental Studies. She writes about the interplay between people and place, unorthodox community, birds, and tall ships.

Caroline Miller: Do you think your writing or writing process has changed as a result of the MFA community and the people you’ve worked with?

Dana Liebelson: Yes, definitely. On a very practical level, I’m writing the first draft of a novel without painstakingly editing along the way, which is new for me. On a more nebulous level, I feel as though I saw writing as this linear path towards completion—probably due to journalism—and now I feel as if I’ve just discovered how to go…sideways? I’m working on a two-narrator photography project, I don’t even know what’s going on.

Nell Smith: The first semester I was really focused on teaching and serving my students well, and although the teaching load here is incredibly reasonable, I didn’t write as much as I would have liked. I’m still working on figuring out a process that works for me, but I will say it’s been great to feel like I have space to go down rabbit holes. I spent several days immersed in researching geology and fossilized birds for an essay last fall, and I’ve begun dabbling in fiction again, something I haven’t done in years.

Maggie Smith: I think since moving here I’m more concerned with actually having process! Before I moved here I was working two jobs and almost never had a day off. I would scribble things down in between shifts or when things were quiet. Now I know my writing time is sacred and try to set aside quiet time for it every day even if I’m feeling stuck. I’m able to make writing my priority now without feeling guilty or exhausted.

Winona León: I’m excited to see all these new projects. I agree—I’ve been discovering totally new things to write about. Now that I left L.A., I’ve started to write more about living there. I also feel like now that we have so much time to write, I can confront some of my own weaknesses—plot, conflict, revision, bleh!

DL: I’m glad Nell brought up teaching—I want to add that I’m really grateful for the teaching support here and find it actually supplements my writing too, by getting myself out of my own head.

NS: Yes, I would agree with Dana that teaching does help my writing. Clarifying writing concepts and processes for my students often helps me consider those things more deeply for myself.

CM: Could you talk a bit more about what you’re working on right now? A current piece or project or idea?

DL: I’m pretty focused on a novel, but I’ve been dabbling with short stories as well. To that end, I feel like I’m one of those people who came in thinking “MUST WRITE NOVEL,” but I’m definitely drifting towards a more open-ended creative exploration.

WL: I’ve been revising a few short stories from last semester and also working on a secret novel that no one will see for a very long time. This semester, though, I’ll be workshopping a couple of essays. I’m kind of all over the place.

DL: Let us read your novel, Nona!

MS: Right now, especially after a Science & Letters course yesterday, I’m really interested in writing about place that is more science focused. I’m also playing with a few ideas that involve some archival research and playing around in the university’s special collections.

CM: I think one of the great things about being in a university setting is the opportunities it offers for research, whether that’s funding for travel or access to collections and archives. Okay, last question! Any great book recommendations you’ve received since starting the program that you’d like to share?

NS: Someone in my workshop last fall recommended Rachel Caron’s “Under the Sea Wind” to me. I’d read it many years ago, but I had forgotten just how good it is, and what a great model it might be for my own writing.

DL: I’m really finding Anna Kavan’s Ice useful to my writing, and I’m enjoying The Descent of Alette, which we are reading for class.

NS: The Descent of Alette is incredible.

MS: Both Nell and Sally recommended UW MFA grad Chelsea Biondolillo’s book The Skinned Bird, which I snatched up immediately after she read at Night Heron last semester. It is absolutely excellent.

WL: Both Joy Williams’s literature seminar and our lyric workshop this semester assigned W.G. Sebald, and I’m now a total fan. The Rings of Saturn feels like walking through the Museum of Jurassic Technology stoned.

CM: That description makes me very excited to read that book and also has given me a great idea for what to do next time I’m in L.A.

NS: Oh man, I want to go to that museum so bad.

WL: It’s so good, and don’t you dare Google it before you go.

Come here Nell Smith and Nona León read their work this Thursday, February 27 at 7 PM at Night Heron Books and Coffeehouse!

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