Erin Jones graduated from the UWyo in the fall of 2015 with a dual MFA in Creative Writing (Non-Fiction) and Environment and Natural Resources. Thankfully for those of us in the program now, she decided to stick around in Laramie and is working at Wyoming Public Media while editing her novel. In this interview, Erin and I talk about her time in the program, how she used her summers here to explore the intersection between science and storytelling, and how wonderful it is to work for Wyoming Public Media. On a totally unrelated not, thank you to Wyoming Public Media for letting us record this in the studio and use WPM editing software to cut down on some of our unnecessary fits of ums and laughter.
The summer of a two-year program is a wonderful thing. As someone who’d been out of school for nearly a decade when I started up at Wyoming, the idea of having a summer vacation was beautiful. And I could plan for mine, unlike the Mooch. (Too soon?) But in addition to taking time to relax and visit family, the summer is pretty crucial for getting your thesis into fighting shape. Today, I’m talking to three recent grads about the work they did over their summers and how it impacted their writing.
Going into his summer, Alex wasn’t entirely sure what his thesis project would be. He’d worked on a number of short stories during his first year, but had a “sort of jumbled” first chapter of a novel as well. He decided to focus on the novel over the summer as he preferred to use workshop time for shorter pieces. Diving deep on the novel solidified his thesis plans, and all but one of the chapters he wrote over the summer made it to the thesis. As much as he wrote during the summer, though, he missed teaching and having the structure of steady non-writing work.
Emily was similarly prolific in her summer work. Last summer, she wrote an entire draft of her thesis project, 300 pages of creative nonfiction focused on the presence, absence, and transformation of bodies. With that head start going into her second year, she was able to finish a full second draft by January, and eventually condensed her thesis into a tighter 140 page project. In the end, she wasn’t sure it the number of drafts she finished mattered so much as the fact that doing so much drafting over the summer left her “energized and excited” for the work to come.
Lilly took a different approach. She used her summer to relax, adventure, and get some mental space from her work. “One of the reasons Laramie has been such a productive writing space for me is the fact that the weather is so cold and forbidding, which makes it easier to stay inside and write all day,” Lilly said. “Laramie summers are beautiful and perfect, which is excellent for living if not for writing.” It’s difficult for self-imposed writing deadlines to compete with the limited window for many of Wyoming’s most stunning hikes. Lilly acknowledged that this lead to a much busier fall semester, but also noted that the distance she’d gotten from writing made her much more excited to edit older stories and draft new ones that had “mysteriously gestated” over the summer. After graduating this May, she decided to get even more distance: she’s up in Alaska, working in a kitchen in Denali National Park and getting inspiration for so many more stories.
As for me, I’m trying to take inspiration from all three as we move into the last month of summer. I’ve kept reasonably steady work going with WPR, I drove around the U.S. and Canada for six weeks to get some distance and get out of my head, and hopefully I’ll be able to use the next four weeks to dig into my thesis and start the fall semester energized and ready to go!
Top Ten Things You’ll Miss About Laramie When You Decide to Prolong Your Summer Research Trip*
- Your bed.
- Saturday night karaoke at the Ruffed Up Duck. You’ll try humming to yourself in your tent after midnight, but it’s just not the same.
- $2.50 beer from the Buckhorn or Crow Bar or just about any place beer is sold in Laramie. When you go out on this trip, still treat your friends, of course–just have fewer friends.
- The complete lack of humidity and its effects on your hair, sweat, and general disposition.
- The Danwich from Prairie Rose, if you’re not your best self any particular morning. You enjoy a strong contender for replacement on the trip, the Potatohead burrito at The Potato in McCarthy (July 4th parade them: Taters, not Dick Taters). But the Danwich, various breakfast proteins and fats gathered up in a big French toast hug, calls to you.
- Not spending ten hours a day staring at a way too obvious metaphor:
“We see the world through a broken window because the world is broken, Chad. Duh.”
- Public art! The murals all over Laramie are gorgeous and intricate and growing daily.
- Reliable WiFi access, so you don’t have to post in a rush whenever you drive through Whitehorse. Hello again, Whitehorse!
- Wyoming mountains and rocks and trails. It’s wonderful to see folks taking full advantage of free national park access in Canada in honor of the sesquicentennial this year, but you’ve been a bit spoiled by the lower density hikes and climbs in Wyoming.
- The amazing friends you’ve made in and out of the program in your eleven months as a Laramie resident so far. Those same ones that keep texting to find out when you’ll be back already. (Soon, promise!)
*Written from a Walmart parking lot in Canada.
We’ve reached the end of another Pride month, which brings with it all sorts of complicated feelings. Happiness at the ground that we’ve covered, devastated by the ground that we’ve lost, and figuring out how to look forward and plan for all the fights and celebrations and living to come.
In Wyoming, especially in Laramie, Pride can be a fraught issue. For many of us in the MFA program who identify as LGBTQIA, choosing the University of Wyoming meant reckoning with moving to a city most known to the outside world as the place Matthew Shepard was killed. A great deal has changed in the last 19 years: the University hosts an annual Shepard Symposium on Social Justice (the flags below are from this year’s symposium in April), Spectrum is a great on-campus resource for queer undergraduate students, and groups like Wyoming Equality provide education, advocacy and support throughout the state.
That said, there’s still a long way to go. Kat, one of our wonderful recent graduates, writes that she “was surprised by what little queer community had been established through the university,” though she found support within the MFA cohort. Sarah, now a second year poet, echoed some of that sentiment. While she wasn’t surprised by the size of the queer community in Laramie, she reports that as her first year went on and she got to know the community more deeply, she’d describe it as “small but mighty!” She’s been impressed by the number of students and locals that “show up for justice” in classrooms and on the streets in protest. The program itself still has some strides to make in how workshops receive and discuss writing about issues of gender and sexuality, but—speaking only for myself here, a queer ciswoman who often appears straight—I believe it’s moving in the right direction. I’ve been heartened to see the number of students, staff and faculty in the Creative Writing and English departments who care deeply about these issues and show up to support and protect our rights. But we need to acknowledge our blindspots, and understand that we can always do better and it’s our job to do better.
This year, Wyoming Equality and other queer-friendly organizations focused on bringing Pride to people throughout the state, rather than gather everyone in the capital. Separate events were held in Casper, Cheyenne, Douglas, Gillette, Jackson Hole, Lander, Laramie and Pinedale. Obviously, there’s tremendous benefit to sending kids the message that Pride doesn’t just exist in one place in your state, that Pride is where you are. But the increasing number of events (or just failures in intersectionality) may also result in diminished turnout for each. According to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, a little over 120 people attended the parade in Cheyenne, which is both wonderful for Pride and yet less than a tenth of the number who attended the Women’s March along the same route in January. That number includes several people from our program, including Kat who went in no small part because she “wanted [her] dogs to get attention from cool queer folks.” (And they did.) It was a beautiful, low-key morning, with some decent chanting and rainbow jackalopes for all.
Laramie’s PrideFest, two weeks later, had between 100 and 300 on hand for each event, along with more MFAers. Still to come this summer is Rendezvous, Wyoming’s biggest queer gathering of the year. In it’s 25th year, this camping event has grown from a handful of attendees to averaging 400-500 folks. So if you’re going to be around August 16-20th, register here and head over to Medicine Bow National Forest for some fantastic company under the stars. And if you’re writing about your identity, if you’re writing to carve out your space in a world that doesn’t want to acknowledge it, keep at it. That’s where the stars burn brightest.
Since the last time I posted about first years (are we second years now?) and our summer plans, I’ve heard back from a few more folks excited to share their goals. Of course, in the same time frame, I’ve also hit the road to Alaska and find myself with rather limited internet access, hence the delay on this week’s post. (That’s my set-up above.) This week’s post is brought to you by the good people of Whitehorse, YT, and their multiple free WiFi hotspots.
Alex, one of our lovely non-fiction folks, is taking the summer to read and re-engage with the subjects (history, philosophy, cultural studies and literary theory) he’s been writing about all year for his thesis. (He’s also staying in slightly warmer climates after his first Laramie winter – he would like the world to know that -20F feels really, really cold.) Alex is about halfway done with the first draft, and hopes to use his downtime to revise and plan out the rest of the project. And because he’s so on top of things, he’s also working on applications for fellowships, grants, residencies, etc. The things you can accomplish when you’re organized…
Emily’s summer plans are a bit broader, as she keeps discovering new passion projects that take her down very different paths. She came into the program with a science background, and received funding from the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources and the International Programs Office to study and write short stories about the ways in which ecotourism is impacting bioluminescence and the communities that serve as the gatekeepers to bioluminescent populations (fireflies, dinoflagellates, etc.). That research will take her to Indonesia, Puerto Rico, and the UCross Ranch in Northern Wyoming. During her downtime in Laramie, however, she’s working on several separate projects inspired in part by a literary portraiture class from spring semester. The latter will likely be the center of her thesis, but I can’t wait till next semesters’ workshops to see how the two projects influence each other!
Kevin, whom I’m lucky enough to work with on the Spoken Words podcast, is also going to be on the road for most of the summer, chasing cyanobacteria blooms. I’ll let him tell it: “Cyanobacteria love to soak up the summer sun while floating on bodies of water all across the country. These toxic and stinky unicellular organisms proliferate with the growing and mowing season by eating away nutrients from fertilizers and livestock manures.” He’s planning on talking to people in communities affected by cyanobacteria, people fighting the problem and those trying to profit off of it. His itinerary will be set by wherever the blooms appear this summer, but will likely include some or all of: the Snake River, Lake Eerie, the Finger Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, the Salton Sea, and Puget Sound. Come August, he and I will likely have added a collective 15,000 miles or more to our poor cars.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll start sharing more dispatches from the road as we see how all these ambitious summer plans start to pan out!
When I was researching MFA programs before application season, I had an Excel spreadsheet comparing key factors for all the schools I was looking at: size, location, duration, faculty, etc. But there was also an “Other” column that I treated as a “What if?” exercise. What if I took up rowing in a cool city? What if I got really good at building snow caves from winter camping in Alaska? My What If for Wyoming was what if I took up podcasting?
It was right there on the website: you could intern with Wyoming Public Radio. It wasn’t a given that I’d go for this. I didn’t listen to the radio often, I didn’t listen to podcasts. The last time I honestly thought about a career in broadcasting, I was seven. I listened to Ernie Harwell call Tigers games on my clock radio turned way down low long after I was supposed to go to sleep. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) In one of the best birthday presents of all time, I called a half-inning in an empty radio booth at Tiger Stadium—of course, it was never actually on air—and got to keep the tape.
[My sister and me at the Baseball Hall of Fame around the same time, celebrating the best in sport and early ‘90s fashion.]
Twenty-some years later, the dream had changed quite a bit. But here I was in Laramie and Wyoming Public Radio was looking for MFA candidates to work on a new podcast, Spoken Words. Micah Schweizer, our host and supervisor, likes having writers work on podcasts because we understand narrative arc—or at least that’s what he says when he’s assigning us new work. The idea behind this podcast is to take a new look at the Mountain West through authors writing from or about the area. The student producers reach out to authors, interview them, and produce the episodes. Producing the episodes involves figuring out what the main arc will be, editing half an hour or more of tape down to twelve minutes or less, writing a script for the host and then editing the whole thing together. I’ve never spent so much time thinking about plosives before.
[Whenever I switch over to spectral frequency display, I worry for a split second that the sound waves are on fire.]
There’s a tremendous flexibility in what we mean when we say “Mountain West” and that works to our benefit putting together the show. Most of us who have produced episodes so far would agree that we’re trying to push back against the standard cowboy narrative of the West and expand how people think about this space. We talk with fiction writers, non-fiction writers, poets, playwrights, historians, ecologists, journalists, athletes, etc. exploring issues of identity in the West. Of course, we’ve also got some authors of more traditional westerns featured on the program. They share great advice on the writing process, but also dig deeper on how newer threads in “western” writing alter our understanding of the history of the genre and the place. With new MFA candidates coming in each semester to work on the podcast, it’ll continue to push in new directions and we’ll promote more and more authors that buck the traditional narratives in so many different ways.
Spoken Words is launching on Tuesday. You can catch the preview here, and subscribe if you feel so moved. I should note that I’ve had so much fun working on Spoken Words, I’m also joining the team for a second Wyoming Public Media podcast, HumaNature. Between these two programs, I’ll be spending almost as much time at the station as I spend writing this summer. (Sorry, thesis committee.) But learning words as sound waves, and writing things to be heard, not read, definitely impacts my personal writing. Jeff Lockwood, our outgoing MFA program director, likes to say that a good podcast has “the arc of a story, the rigor of non-fiction, and the elegance of poetry.” It’s a great trifecta, and a constant goal.
I would have ended this update there, but there’s a little postscript. Micah and I were talking about getting new producers for next semester, and he mentioned that no one responded to his first email about the opportunity last fall. I was indignant! There can’t have been an email before the one I saw and jumped on – this was my What If! But of course he was right, there was a first email. And it looks like it came in when I was stressed about getting a story in for workshop and getting bogged down in all sorts of other minutiae about being in a new town. Thank goodness I got another shot at it. So when you’re looking at programs, go wild imagining your What Ifs. And then, once you go, make sure you take the time to follow through on them. Don’t fall into the grad school rabbit hole. Take time for the What Ifs.
(From the top of Greyrock Trail, a wonderful hike a few folks from the MFA and English MA did to kick off the summer. This is a bit of a cheat, since it’s in Colorado, but its a great hike just an hour south of Laramie.)
In a two-year MFA program, the summer in between the first and second years is incredibly important. While the checks for being graduate assistants also take summer vacation, the program provides a summer stipend and many other departments offer additional grants, depending on the subject matter of your work. Some people write like fiends and finish the first draft of their thesis, others research for their projects all over the world, and some (hopefully all) take the time to catch up on life stuff, like getting married—congratulations, Heather!
Over the course of this summer, I’ll be following folks on their work and their adventures, posting updates from the road, and sharing advice from some of our recent grads on how best to take advantage of the summer in your writing. Today, we’ll hear from some of the first years (including yours truly) on what’s in store for the next few months, and what they hope to achieve.
Bryce is a non-fiction writer and wanderer. True to form, he blew out of town almost as soon as classes were finished, and sent in this update from Greece: “My plans are to spend time in Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine doing primary research into the physical and imaginary borders being created and recreated in the past couple years to the east, as a way into thinking about nationalism and neoliberalism. I got some cash from Dick and Lynne Cheney, and that, with my summer stipend and some money from selling a car is gonna get me there and back.” He’s planning on keeping a diary of his travels, writing as he goes, rather than waiting till the end of the trip and reflecting back from a distance.
Sarah came into the program as a poet, but has also done a tremendous amount of academic work and organizing in Laramie. She’s constantly balancing her work and advocacy on so many fronts, it’s not surprising that she’s working on a number of projects this summer. First on the list is a chapbook dealing with queer isolation and communities, something that’s been on her mind a great deal having moved from New York City to Laramie. With funding from American Studies, English, and the Social Justice Research Center, she’s also headed to Ireland to study the impact of Irish immigration to the U.S. on the concept of whiteness here. Her research is heavily influenced by the critical race theory work of David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev, as well as others. She noted that, over the last year, she’s been “surprised by how interested in hybrid genres and creative non-fiction [she] became.” I may not be as surprised as Sarah, given the diversity of her interests and passions, but I’m grateful for the chance to read her work in so many forms!
As for me, in two weeks I’ll be loading up the Subaru (I’m nothing if stereotypical) and heading north to old mining towns in Canada and Alaska. My current thesis plan is to do a collection of short stories about women’s lives in these remote areas. Thanks to a generous Cheney grant for international studies, I’ll be able to spend lots of time interviewing folks in the backcountry, wandering about on glaciers and trying to get a better sense of the past as well as the future out there. I’ve worked up in Alaska the last four summers, so I know some of the area quite well, but this is a great chance to see it from some entirely different perspectives.
Next week, we’ll hear from some more first years about their plans, and then pretty soon we’ll be getting in dispatches from the road as more and more people embark on their summer adventures.
(Jake, majestic trail dog.)
Wednesday was not only our final night of thesis readings, but also the English Department’s end of the year celebration. We’re not technically part of the same department anymore, but what other grad students spend as much time as we do geeking out over the latest Maggie Nelson? Just try keeping us apart.
Emily, one of our graduating non-fiction writers, was recognized at the dinner for having won a teaching award for her work with English 1010 students. Well done, Emily!
Over at Night Heron, Kristi kicked off the next event with a reading from her forwundian forestry (in which the bark of my brain remembers, even if i’ve lost you long before). Her poetry elegantly intertwines Shakespeare and the electric impulses that travel the branches of trees and of neurons.
Kristine, fighting off a nasty virus, joined us to read selections from One Hundred Islands, poems of identity and of resistance that never shy away from indicting the complicit.
Alec closed the thesis series with two excerpts from his novel-in-progress, Saw Tooths. These pieces complicate the narrator’s relationships with God and the missing girl, and warn the reader that there’s no good way out of this.
The readings continued Monday with three wonderful fiction (fiction-ish) writers sharing excerpts from their recently defended theses. Unlike our dear friends in the English MA cohort, our thesis defenses aren’t open to the public: it’s just you and your readers discussing the work you’ve done, two hours to cover two years of effort. And while some of the rules may be in flux as Creative Writing official joins the Art Department next year, each current graduate has two CW faculty members on their panel and at least one outside reader chosen for the insight they can bring to a writer’s subject matter or style. This year, folks had outside readers from English, Gender and Women’s Studies, Psychology, and American Studies rounding out their thesis committees.
Ammon read haunting selections from the first half of his Border Sketches: A Between Place Diptych, telling—through poetry and prose—the story of Rosario heading north to the U.S. border and finding his ancestors and Billy the Kid waiting for him in the desert.
Liz read “Parasol,” a new story from her collection Decent People, and the only one to come in at the perfect reading length of 13 pages. “Parasol” follows an unnamed mother to an unnamed infant through her fraught interactions with the world shortly after giving birth.
Lilly read from the title piece of her collection, The Edge of Town, reminding us all of the complex relationship we have with Laramie, and how difficult it will be to see these graduates go.
Post-reading, we celebrated Ammon’s birthday with first years, second years, last year’s grads, MAs and friends new and old. We’re grateful for the graduates who stick around Laramie for a few months or a few years after the program, continually expanding this fantastic community of writers we’ve found ourselves in. (Low housing prices probably factor in, too.) Chunkler, pictured above, was the star of the show. Sorry, Ammon.
The birds are chirping, Tuesday’s hail has totally melted and yesterday was the last day of classes for Spring 2017. Our students have just turned in their final portfolios, so there’s a bit of grading left to do (along with a few term papers / final projects due next week), but this is a time of celebration. The school put on Union Fest yesterday, which meant free food, live music and sunburns on Prexy’s Pasture all afternoon. At night, they had a hypnotist perform just before a screening of “Get Out,” which I’m going to believe is intentionally ironic.
But while the rest of the student body was getting a taste of the horrors Catherine Keener can perpetuate with a teacup, the MFA program kicked off its first night of thesis readings, celebrating the amazing soon-to-be graduates and the great work they’ve done over the past two years. Bethann Merkle, Emily Pifer and Kat Williams read from their work at Night Heron, a local bookstore / former brothel (they’re all former brothels in Laramie), current home to backlit photos and Waldo.
Bethann read a passage from “Naming the Bones” that drew a brilliant portrait of the magpie and the varied ways we’ve tried to catch her, to contain her, over the years.
Emily’s introduction to “The Distance Between Bodies” haunted us with its description of forms, corporeal and otherwise, and the fires that transform one into the other.
Kat finished the night with an excerpt from “Treatment” that sharply examines grief and identity with equal parts humor, empathy and regret.
Two turn tables and a microphone (or, if you want to compete with the hats of Brad and Nat, you’d best be as tall as Ammon).