Erin Olilla (née Corriveau) is one of the co-authors of Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA, now available in paperback. Erin is a graduate of Fairfield University’s MFA program and co-founder and editor of Spry Literary Journal. She was kind enough to stop by and chat about her new book, the challenges of starting a literary journal, and just what exactly you can do with that MFA degree.
One thing most writers miss when they graduate is being in a community of writers and one of the themes in the book is how to cultivate writing relationships post-graduation. This book is a collaborative effort of forty-five contributors. What are the advantages and downsides to working with that many writers? How did you find your community of writers?
Great question. Finding the community was the easiest part. Every contributor to the book is a current student, alumnus, or mentor in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program. We are so fortunate to receive so many insightful essays, poems, and lists.
The advantage of working with and including so many writers is that we were able to hear stories or learn from people of all walks of life. Including so many perspectives helped us to create a book that is well-rounded, and one that all different readers could appreciate and relate to.
I’m not sure I can really comment on the “downside” to working with this many writers. From conception until this book was published, we were so fortunate to have so many great people volunteer their time and skills to making this project become a success. Our editorial team is incredible, and I couldn’t have asked for better people to work directly with.
I love this quote from the editor of your book: “There is no single route to success as a writer. There is no app that prompts you start at ‘current location’ and end at ‘success’ with a satellite-guided list of directions in between.” But one of the best things about this book is the practicality of the advice. For example, in Chapter 8 Make Ends Meet (While You Work on Your Masterpiece) the advice isn’t just “Look for freelance jobs” but “These kind of companies often hire freelancers.” How much research went into this book? What is your day job and what is the masterpiece you’re working on?
You’re right! Part of the reason I’m so excited to share this book with the world is because it offers such great real-life advice. If you are looking to start a freelance career, there are articles in here for you. If you’re knocking on higher-ed’s door, you’ll find a few essays about being an adjunct and full-time professor. Maybe you’re lucky enough to be writing full-time, but you don’t have access to health insurance, and you’re concerned. Well, no fear! This book also includes great advice on things such as where to look for health insurance or how to interpret contracts or even how you can build a literary community of your own after graduation.
There was a great amount of research that went into the book, but part of the blessing on having such a diverse community of contributors, is that we had so many experts at our fingers. The contributor who discusses audiobooks has worked in the industry for years, and the same thing goes for the contributor who writes about copyright; he’s a lawyer!
I’ve taken a longer route into the writing world than some of my peers. For the past twelve years, I worked in Human Resources for human service nonprofits. It was a wonderful job that allowed me to get my MFA. I’ve been lucky to create a writing life for myself since then, though it did take some time. I co-founded Spry Literary Journal (http://sprylit.com) with Linsey Jayne, a colleague from my MFA days at Fairfield University, and I love watching our little baby flourish and grow over time. I also recently accepted a Managing Editor position at BuzzFarmers, (http://buzzfarmers.com) an incredible company in Pawtucket, RI. I can’t speak highly enough about my bosses and co-editors at BuzzFarmers. It’s a dream day job. As all the pieces are beginning to fit together; my day job, night job, and writing all influence and really help each other.
Chapter 4 Stay Connected to Your Industry has an essay from you about AWP. A lot of writers are introverts and attending a big conference like AWP seems daunting. What would you tell someone who was on the fence about attending AWP?
Go! Seriously, you must at some point attend AWP or a similar writing conference. I’m a complete extrovert who has serious introvert tendencies. Large groups make me nervous, especially when I don’t know anyone. I felt terribly shy and totally “uncool” at my first AWP. I was worried about everything: what to wear, who to talk to, who not to talk to, how to talk when I found the right person. You name it, and I probably worried about it.
But none of the worrying helped anything. I got there, and guess what? I was still nervous. So I went through the motions: I attended panels. I sauntered though the Bookfair. I tried to start conversations with acquaintances. When push comes to shove, there is one thing you need to remember about huge conferences like AWP. As overwhelming as it may be, there is something so magical about being in the same space with so many like-minded people. Isn’t it similar to what we experienced when we started our MFA programs? It was scary to start. You didn’t know your lefts from your rights, but there’s a sort of chemistry in the air. These people get you. They really understand that thing inside of you that non-writers/readers/editors just don’t understand. These people are your people. Don’t let fear hold you back. Attend, and really connect while you are there.
How would you finish the sentence, If there was one thing I’d tell my younger self about writing, it would be…
Start now! I’m a relatively young creative nonfiction writer, but gosh, I wish I started writing CNF so much sooner.
That, and trust yourself. I was blessed to study under Lary Bloom in my first semester of graduate school, and he gifted me with the belief that no matter what story I tell, I have a different perspective than others, and mine is a story worth sharing. I was so hesitant when I first started writing that I held myself back from telling my story.
And finally, I’d tell myself to find my tribe. One of the chapters I edited in Now What? was Stay Connected to Your People, and it touched on the importance of finding a literary community. I have grown so much as a writer—and as a person—by the wonderful poets and authors in my life. Treasure that if you have it, and if you don’t, search for your community.
Joan Wickersham, author of The News from Spain, said in an interview that what she doesn’t like about MFA programs is that they “professionalize writing” and she went on to say that entering an MFA program because you love writing is great but entering one as preparation for a profession isn’t such a great idea. What are your thoughts on why a writer should (or shouldn’t) purse an MFA?
I’d have to disagree with her. I know that MFAs aren’t for everyone, but I was so lucky to have such a life-changing experience in the Fairfield University MFA program, that I am a huge advocate for the education MFA programs offer. I think no matter what your personal reason for applying to MFA programs happens to be, you’ll get a great deal of preparation if you put in the effort while in school.
But, here’s the thing. MFAs aren’t for everyone. And I know people who entered MFA programs and didn’t put a lot of work into their education. Those people don’t feel as strongly about the benefits of an MFA program as I do. It’s the same thing as in life though: you get out of it what you put into it.
When our book first came out, Stephanie Vanderslice, a Huffington Post contributor, reviewed it and said, “And even if, after reading it, you decide such a program is not for you, you’ll have learned a great deal about building a writing life along the way.”
(Click here to read the entirety of Stephanie’s review: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephanie-vanderslice/the-geeks-guide-to-the-wr_7_b_5064371.htm)
I think it is an ideal book for recent MFA grads, but as she is mentioning, you don’t even need an MFA to read the book. You could be part of the anti-MFA camp and still learn so much from Now What? A Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA.
You’re also the co-founding editor of Spry Literary Journal. There are a lot of literary journals out there. What makes Spry unique? Which is more time-consuming: editing and managing a journal or writing a book?
Oh, goodness. You’ve stumped me. Both are so much work!
We care a lot about our literary community at Spry, so we work hard to promote and publish writing and writers we believe in. We accept the stories and poems that move us; Both Linsey and I agree that we’d much rather publish quality over quantity, so some issues may have fewer pieces or if we are lucky we will be overloaded with beautiful writing and publish it all. But the work that goes in to managing a journal isn’t necessarily as glam and fun as reading and accepting work. There are long hours of web design and editing and contractual agreements and staff-wrangling and contributor-nudging.
I think a lot of that happens when writing and editing a book as well. You have moments of bliss when you read a great submission. “This is beautiful! It needs almost no work!” and then you have more difficult moments, such as suggesting big edits to a peer (or mentor) you really admire. All in all, a lot of it goes back to time management and trusting in yourself and your vision and even the contributors too.
What was your first publication? How do you find journals to submit your work to?
My first acceptance was a piece of flash creative nonfiction. It was called “Biopsy” and published at em: A Review of Text and Image. I think another journal accepted me after em, but published me earlier, though I can’t remember which it was!
I think the best way to submit your work is to really read a lot of journals to see whom they publish. Another thing I like to do is read where Spry’s contributors are being published. I find new journals to submit my writing to when I read other places that publish the writers I adore. I assume that since we have similar taste, maybe they’ll like my writing too
In your bio you describe yourself as “an emotional archaeologist” which sounds like a great trait for a writer of creative nonfiction. What draws you to this particular genre? Any other genres you enjoy writing in?
There is something about the truth that has always guided and grounded me. Also, I’m obsessed with learning about the world and the people around me. I love to hear stories. I love to relate. I love the connection you feel with people based on the stories you know about them. I never knew I was a creative nonfiction writer until all of a sudden, I was one. Fiction and poetry are easier for me to write, but the creative nonfiction is worth all the difficulty. I love it. Creative Nonfiction will always be my main genre, but I hope to be a writer who plays the field.
Have you read A Confederacy of Dunces, our blog’s literary inspiration? And do you have a cheese dip (or other recipe) you’d like to share with our readers?
I haven’t read A Confederacy of Dunces, but I do ironically own it! I have a big problem in which I purchase all the books people recommend. My reading list is about 150 unread, yet purchased books at this point. So one day, I will eventually get to it.
Here is a real “cheesy” recipe.
Step one: Go to amazon.com
Step two: Purchase Now What? A Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA
Step three: Immerse yourself in the book. Soak up all the knowledge.
Step four: Put your pen to the paper (or your finger to the keys)
Step five: Submit your work to Spry Literary Journal
Step six: Repeat steps three and four.
You’ll never be too smart to learn. You’ll always be able to grow.
Thank you so much, Kelly for interviewing me! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book!
Erin Olilla is an emotional archaeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her writing has been published in (em): A Review of Text and Image, Revolution House, Lunch Ticket, Paper Tape, Shoreline Literary Arts Magazine, The Fall River Spirit, and RedFez. She is the co-founder and editor of Spry Literary Journal, and it currently at work on a collection of linked essays. Her blog, Reinventing Erin, is her outlet for ruminating on the minutiae of everyday life.