The Writing Disorder





An interview with EMILY KIERNAN,
Graduate of the MFA Writing Program at CalArts


Emily Kiernan is one of our favorite new writers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, both online and in print (including our summer 2010 issue). She recently completed the MFA Writing Program at CalArts. We thought it would be interesting to talk with her about her life and experiences there, and about her expectations now that she’s finished. Although the program can be both challenging and difficult, we think Emily will turn out just fine.

THE WRITING DISORDER: How does it feel, now that you’ve completed your MFA in Writing at CalArts?

EMILY KIERNAN: The usual mix of emotions I think: excited, proud, terrified, and nostalgic in about equal measure. I really enjoyed my time in the program, and I already miss having constant access to such great readers and writers, but I’m happy with the work I did there.

TWD: What were you expectations going in?

EMILY: I’m not sure I really knew what to expect; I was so caught up in moving across the country and having Los Angeles culture shock that I’m not sure I remembered to expect at all. I was afraid of all the MFA stereotypes: cutthroat competition, cookie-cutter short stories, professors trying to turn everyone into copies of themselves. Luckily, none of those worries were justified.

TWD: Where were other students in the program from? Was it an international group?

EMILY: With the exception of a woman from Vienna, we were mostly American. There was a lot of great international experience in the group though. As I write this my very good friend Amanda Montei is presenting an installation in Essen, Germany based on her extensive travels and research into the lives of East African women. We also had a student from Detroit, which I hear is like a different country.

TWD: What was it like working with the faculty there?

EMILY: Always exciting! The faculty of CalArts is extremely diverse in approach, personality, and artistic background. They are all very much working artists as well, so there’s always a lot of ideas and perspectives flying around in a chaotic, dynamic mess.

TWD: How much were you expected to write — each week, month, semester?

EMILY: The soft answer here is as much as you needed to, or as much as you could, and this definitely varied based on individuals’ style and process (i.e, someone who produced a lot of drafts might end the semester with fewer complete pages than someone who took a more seat-of-the-pants approach, but wouldn’t, necessarily, have done any less work). On average, I took three to four classes a semester that had a workshop component. In those workshops, I’d be submitting from 2-4 times, usually between ten and thirty pages at once. Some of these submissions would be revisions, and sometimes, if a piece really needed help, I’d submit it in more than one class, but I think a hundred pages per semester is a fair ballpark figure for me. That said, there was a lot of wiggle-room and individualization, so this would certainly be different for, say, a poet or a flash-fiction writer.

TWD: How is Cal Arts different from other writing programs?

EMILY: One of the most important differences, I think, is that there is no segregation between genres. Poets take prose classes, screenwriters workshop poetry, memoirists work with playwrights, and everyone is expected to be willing and able to comment on work of any (or no) known form. This led to a lot of boundary pushing and assumption rethinking, and I believe that most of us came away with a more complete and holistic sense ourselves as writers.

TWD: What was the most challenging part of the program?

EMILY: Maybe too obvious an answer, but: finishing the thesis. Writing a large-scale piece on that kind of deadline can be nerve-wracking, especially when you are slow to find the form, as I was, and open to re-envisioning, as I think workshops (and maybe CalArts workshops in particular) encourage you to be. It wasn’t until the second half of my last semester that I really knew what the piece was going to look like. I was committed to finishing it one way or another, but for an uncomfortably long time that felt more like a mantra than a feasible reality.

TWD: Describe your experience working on the publication Black Clock?

EMILY: I may be the first editorial intern in history to say this, but I really loved reading the slush pile. The quality of submissions was, of course, a wide range, but it was really amazing to be exposed to so many different writers, with different backgrounds and kinds of careers, who I would probably never have been exposed to otherwise.
      Overall, working with Black Clock was an expansion of horizons; it was great getting a taste of the entire production process, from submissions, to copy-editing, to mailing out the finished issue. Interns also wrote most of the blog content, which was a pretty useful set of skills to pick up, and a nice way to get some writing out into the world.

TWD: Tell us about your writing during your first year?
What changed, improved during your second year?

EMILY: My first year was far less structured than my second, which was actually a really nice break as I’d been working on big, complicated projects for most of my writing life, and very much appreciated the time to experiment, write one-off short pieces, and even (gasp!) throw whole stories away if I didn’t like them. My second year was back to the big-project grindstone, but I think I learned a lot in the interim. My style evolved a lot, with the prose becoming more poetic, sentence-focused, and grammatically challenging. My writing takes me continually further and further from anything marketable.

TWD: What happens during a critique? How much time is spent on each student’s work?
Does it ever get too personal or uncomfortable?

EMILY: Critiques varied a little from professor to professor, but most took between thirty and forty-five minutes and involved a more-or-less free form discussion of the submission. Often the writer being critiqued would provide a cover letter with specific questions or concerns, and those usually helped to keep the class a bit more focused.
      As for uncomfortable critiques, I think they come with the territory whenever you are dealing with a group of artists who are deeply involved in and committed to their work. We all, to a greater or lesser extent, have to learn how to take criticism, and it is always frustrating to know your piece is not working the way you want it to work. That being said, I found CalArts to be a really supportive and kind atmosphere, and I did not encounter any of the competitiveness and aggressiveness that MFAs have (rightly or wrongly) developed a reputation for. Critiques on the whole were constructive, thoughtful, and professional, but that didn’t always make them easy.

TWD: What types of writers are in the program — poetry, fiction, nonfiction, experimental? Did you write any poetry, nonfiction, experimental work?

EMILY: The range is really about as wide as it can be, and almost everyone did some amount of interdisciplinary work. In addition to poets, novelists, short story writers, memoirists, and essayists, there were quite a few of us combining writing with other kinds of work altogether: installation artists, performance artists, filmmakers, art reviewers, and playwrights were all well represented.
      For my own part, I tried a bit of everything, from sonnets to autobiography to neo-benshi film narration. The main body of my work has remained prose-centered, but I’ve come to an increasingly poetic style (and, unfortunately, a more poetic speed of composition). I came to CalArts with the hope of doing more experimental work, and that has certainly happened. The piece I wrote for my thesis Great Divide, is an online, interactive, multi-media novel. It can be found here:

TWD: Has any of the work you wrote at Cal Arts been published? What, when and where?

EMILY: Yes! Quite a few of these pieces actually began their life as homework assignments, and I was as surprised as anyone when they turned into real stories. Others I wrote with an eye towards sending out, but they all went through a few rounds of workshopping before they saw daylight.

Hector at the Gates—The Collagist Issue 10

The Inland Seas—Amor Fati Issue 2. Print.

Last Dance at Poplar Ridge—Pank Issue 5. Print
Available at:

Tabula Rasa—Cobalt Issue 1

(and let’s not forget) An Evening with Dirty Job’s Mike Rowe—The Writing Disorder

Most recently, and quite excitingly for me, my thesis novel, Great Divide is being featured in the multi-media section of the Atticus Review.

TWD: What kind of novel would you like to write?

EMILY: I’m not sure how accurately I can answer this question, or, more importantly, whether my answer will map very well to the reality of my writing. I think listing the qualities of the novel I’d like to write may be very much like listing the qualities of one’s ideal mate, only to find those specifications blown away by actual, specific attraction. The novels will be what they will be, and I won’t really know until I get there. That being said, I am very much interested in the limits of the novel, and get a kind of weird satisfaction of pushing at the edges of the form. That was a big part of what Great Divide was about, with its shifting, interactive form, but I don’t know if it’s all out of my system yet. Maybe I’ll write a book that pushes in some other way, or from some other direction, or maybe I’ll just write a real old-fashioned classic tale, just to prove to myself that I can.

TWD: How do you begin a story?

EMILY: Usually they begin as a kind of featureless feeling miasma and slowly accrue images and characters and situations to express that original tone. Tone is the word I usually use, and I mean it in a kind of musical sense. I hope this isn’t too offensive to the William Carlos Williams school, but for me ideas do seem to proceed things. That said, the things are good and necessary homes for the ideas, and I don’t know how I would write without them.

TWD: What are your goals, expectations, aspirations, now that you’ve completed your MFA in writing?

EMILY: I recently discovered that I am only a rather than the master of the fine arts, so I suppose I will be tracking down all the other masters and dueling them for the title. Besides that, I’d like to just keep writing and keep getting work out. I’m teaching, which I’m excited to do, and eyeing up PhD programs, so the beat goes on…

TWD: Was there any collaboration at CalArts?

EMILY: There certainly were collaborations, though I wasn’t, honestly, very much a part of them. This feels odd, as my classmates were a huge and influential part of my work; though they were editors and compatriots rather than co-creators, I think there was a kind of collaboration going on. Great Divide also included a collaboration with my brother, Kevin, who wrote the score, and with my boyfriend, Ryan, who engineered the website. Neither of them are Calartians, though, except in the big CalArts of my heart.

TWD: Name some writers you admire that are up and coming?

EMILY: Well, I definitely expect some great things out of my classmates within the next few years, and I know there are some just-completed and nearly-completed manuscripts that are going to be amazing. As for books you can go out and buy this instant, I suggest How They Were Found, which is a collection of eerie, intensely human, and really beautiful short stories by Matt Bell, who edits The Collagist. I know he has a novel on the way as well, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. I also get excited every single time Roxane Gay has an article or short story published—she’s a wonderfully engaged and incredibly smart writer and she makes me feel better able to be a part of the world. She also edits Pank, which is one of my absolute favorite magazines. I still get a little stomach-flutter every time I see the issue my story appeared in. Finally, I’d have to include Ali Liebegott, who is actually pretty well-established, but worthy of far more fame and fortune than she probably receives—just a kind, honest, and completely hilarious writer.

TWD: Which writers did you read growing up?

EMILY: I was a really pretentious child. I definitely read a lot of classic literature before the age of ten, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean I understood much of it. This hasn’t entirely abated: I’m still embarrassed to be caught in a waiting room without a book, and I have carried Ulysses onto both planes and beaches. I was a huge fantasy reader as a child though, which has not continued into my adult life: I loved C.S Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and Tolkien. I definitely believed in hobbits for an embarrassingly long time.

TWD: Is anyone else in your family a writer?

EMILY: My father is a writer and a professional storyteller. He’s actually become more serious in both of these fields since I’ve been an adult, but I grew up with him as a model for what a literary person was like. He’s currently working on a middle-grades novel based loosely on the stories he made up to amuse my brother and me on long car rides. They were fantastic stories, and I really love the novel as well.

TWD: What made you want to become a writer?

EMILY: I don’t remember there being a specific moment of resolution. I was raised with a real reverence for books and for writers; I was read to every night from the time I could sit up on my own until well past the age when I could read for myself, and I began composing stories for my mother to transcribe when I was perhaps three or four. I illustrated these by tracing the outlines of our refrigerator magnets, which limited my character choices to rabbits, ducks, and squares.

TWD: Name some of your favorite books?

EMILY: I always feel a little silly when this question comes up, because if I’m honest about the books I really love the most it’s pretty much an English 101 curriculum: Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, Sons and Lovers, a couple of Emerson essays and Leaves of Grass. Luckily, while I doubt I will ever stop returning to these as touchstones, CalArts did expand my reading list considerably, and I would now add Anne Carson (all of it, but especially The Glass Essay), anything by Eileen Myles, Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper, and, at risk of fawning too much over my professors, Steve Erickson’s novels (especially Days Between Stations, and Our Ecstatic Days) as well as Maggie Nelson’s work (especially Bluets). I wonder if writers always give such long-winded answers to this question.

TWD: What are you reading now?

EMILY: Well, right now I’m studying for the GRE Literature Subject Test, so I’ve been reading the entire English corpus via the fifty-some Wikipedia tabs that constantly threaten to crash my browser. Beyond that, I’ve been reading The Art of Cruelty by CalArts’ faculty member Maggie Nelson. It’s been getting a lot of attention and great reviews—very much deserved, in my opinion. I’m also about halfway through Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam, and it’s lovely.

TWD: Do you write every day?

EMILY: I don’t. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, since everyone seems to think it is important and possibly necessary for “real” writers, but there’s hardly anything I do every day. I do writing much as I do laundry—when it needs to be done—though with considerably more joy. And that “need” can be internal, of course, and as pressing as a dearth of clean socks. Writing has never ceased to be a part of my life, and I don’t worry that it will, even when it is not pressing for a time.

TWD: What is a typical writing day like for you?

EMILY: There is an Edward Gorey story about a writer, The Unstring Harp, which I’ve forgotten everything about except for a line in which he describes the writer’s process. It consists mostly of picking up and putting down small objects and humming. That pretty much sums it up for me.

TWD: Who reads your work first? Do you know someone you trust as an editor?

EMILY: This is something that has changed a lot since graduation. I was a writing major as an undergrad as well, so for the past six years I’ve been lucky to have regular workshops. I’m definitely attached to the model now—not only for the feedback but for deadlines and for the patina of professionalism it lends to the whole thing. My boyfriend is usually my first editor these days, and though he is a great reader this setup highlights the egoism, conflict, and emotional blackmail that are present, but subdued, in your average workshop.

TWD: What is your workspace like?

EMILY: Coffeeshops work well for me. They provide a (likely delusional) sense of peer pressure that keeps me from getting distracted and checking google+ every time a sentence gets a little thorny. I don’t have one in easy walking distance now though, and I got a dog over the summer who I feel bad leaving alone all day, so now I work on my couch, in my pajamas, covered in fur and drool (mostly his). I moved to L.A. for the glamor.

TWD: Do you have any other talents — music, art, etc.?

EMILY: Honestly, no, though I think I have been uniquely successful in the realm of stick-figure portraiture. I’ve always admired my brother, who is far more multi-talented than I am, and much more mechanically able. He can draw, build things, fix things, write, make movies, and play multiple instruments. He composed the music for Great Divide, which was a really fun collaboration. I’ve pretty much got this one thing that I’m flogging as long as I can.

TWD: How much of what you write do you throw away?

EMILY: Actually very little, which is another way in which I sense my process is different from that of a lot of other writers. I work very slowly and somewhat intermittently, so it is important that I get things right the first time, if I’m going to get them at all. I do make changes, and I think important ones, but they tend to be on the level of sentences rather than pages or chapters. In Great Divide, my last novel, I’d estimate there were less than ten pages that were entirely discarded. I’m not sure whether this is bragging or an admission of guilt; readers will come to their own conclusions on that, I suppose.

TWD: What projects are you currently working on?

EMILY: Right now I’m in the early stages of a project that I’ve been thinking about for some time, but feel I am finally (fingers crossed!) getting right. It is a history of my grandparents’ involvement with the Manhattan Project, and a bit of a broader family history/memoir, told through a self-conscious mishmash of styles and forms and all around craziness. It’s quite different from anything I’ve done before, and, more importantly, quite different from filling out PhD applications and writing grammar quizzes for my students, which are my other main pursuits.

TWD: Do you have any advice for someone going into an MFA writing program?

EMILY: Make sure you like writing a lot. Make sure, as well, that you like talking about your and other people’s writing a lot. Be ready to do little else for two years. I am always surprised to meet people in or planning to attend MFAs who don’t like workshops; it must be torturous.

TWD: Is Cal Arts the happiest place on Earth?

EMILY: Sure. That’s why everyone yells “I’m going to CalArts” after they win the Superbowl.

TWD: Thank you for your time, and best of luck in 2012.

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