Monica West Heads East to Iowa Writer’s Workshop

Monica West, who has taught in the Lick-Wilmerding English Department since 2012, has been accepted. Starting in the Fall of 2015, she will attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Paper Tiger: Describe the program you’re going to—what exactly will you be studying, doing during the day, accomplishing? 

Monica West: It’s an MFA program in Creative Writing. I’m particularly going into the fiction program, and every year I’m supposed to take a series of courses, one of them being a workshop. In a workshop, you have your work critiqued, you critique other people’s work. I’m also going to be responsible for taking other writing-related classes, so in addition to workshop I’ve already registered for two seminars, one on the short story, and then another one on how the Bible is used in literature. In the first year I’m on a fellowship, so I’m not teaching undergraduates; I will be teaching undergraduate creative writing classes my second year… My main work will be working on my own piece… since I’m a novelist it’ll be a novel length work… I have classes three days a week, one class a day, so I’ll have a lot of time to sit and write. That’s kind of the focus of the program.

PT: Why did you decide to go? What do you hope to accomplish during the next two years? 

MW: I found out about years ago, when I first started writing, and [The Iowa Writer’s Workshop] is something that you just hear about; if you look at the back of book covers it always seems to say “Iowa.” In 2005, I think, I went to this writing workshop in New York City where the woman who taught everything went to Iowa and talked a lot about it. The funny thing is that I’ve applied maybe three or four times and I’ve gotten rejected every single time. The first time I applied was in 2003 or 2004, and I’ve gotten rejected, and rejected, and rejected, and this time I got accepted. I’ve been working on my writing in the summers and trying to decide whether this is something I want to do. Besides my novel, one of the things I really hope to find at Iowa is a strong writing community, people who are good readers for my work, and people whose work I can read.

PT: How would you describe your writing style, your favorite forms, some of the themes that recurrently come up in your writing? 

MW: I use a lot of images, and I try to explore the psychology of my characters, the motivation of why people do things and behave certain ways. I also love writing setting––like, I love writing setting. That’s sometimes not a great thing because I have to move the story forward, but I love it, creating mood and tone and tension in the atmosphere…. A lot of mother-daughter and family relationships come up as themes. Both of my longer pieces have been from female narrators… My last novel had three narrators, two young people and a mom, and I found it much easier to write as the young narrator. There’s always some sense of tension that builds up

PT: Who are some of the authors you admire, or that you may imitate their styles in some writing? 

MW: One of my favorite authors is Toni Morrison, for her creation of world and setting. Another is Jhumpa Lahiri; one of her most recent novels is called The Lowland, she also wrote The Namesake. She’s an Indian woman who lives in Rhode Island, she writes mostly about Indian families, issues with generational difference. Her writing is amazing, I really respect her. I like Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, and my first novel was modeled after her use of different voices in The Poisonwood Bible. I recently read and loved Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, it won the Pulitzer prize in 2014. It’s written in a really evocative way, full of description about imagining a world you can only touch. A writer I would love to imitate is Annie Proulx, who wrote The Shipping News, with tons of description. It’s one of those books in which you stop and pause and think, this is amazing. To throw one more in there—Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, she wrote Americanah and Half a Yellow Sun, both of which I loved.

PT: What does your writing process look like? How do you get comfortable and inspired? How will that change when you’re committing full time to it?

MW: When I teach, I have to write in the mornings because the night gets away from me, but I’m not great at it–– I had a ton of papers to grade this weekend, for example, so I did not write at all. The mornings are the most productive because I know nothing from the day has started. I’m most productive in the summers, obviously, because I don’t do anything except write, and take workshops, or go to classes. I like to write a lot of stuff by hand, initially, and then go back and type it up because I feel like there’s some editing that goes on between one and the other, and it makes it feel a lot more polished. Everyone gets inspired by something different, and I get inspired by images that are disconnected initially and then need to be put together. I imagined this image of a crocheted, cross-stitch thing hanging from someone’s rearview mirror, and then I saw boxes jostling around inside the car. I then needed to figure out where that car was going, who’s in the car, what are their relationships to one another, what’s the reason for them leaving, and that’s kind of how I got to this idea of, after the death of one daughter, the other daughter and her mother have to leave. So, for me, ideas usually come from images; that’s how I get inspired. The piece I’m thinking about now has someone on a concrete floor, and I’m thinking, okay, what’s happening from that.

Last summer I put myself on a word count where I had to get a thousand, so I was aiming for around seven thousand words a week. Some days that’s super easy, you can write through anything, but some days you’re stuck and a thousand words is hard.. I just need to sit and write…. I was in New York, and I was an editor, and I had to write at night. I’ve always had to work around a job so it’ll be really cool to not have to do that. All you need is time.

PT: Why Iowa? What makes the Iowa Writer’s Workshop so unique and well-known? 

MW: I think what makes Iowa unique is its reputation of putting out quality writers. So many people who have come out of Iowa have won awards, had really great writing careers, gone on to be bestsellers. Most writing programs can boast really good faculty, and a strong program, but I think Iowa has a reputation of having done this for a long time…

I started writing when I was nine, and I remember when I first went away to college I told my dad—who is very practical—that I wanted to be a writer. He said, “Okay, what else do you want to do?” I said I just want to write. I had this idea that you could just sit and write. But you have to make money somehow. A lot of writers end up writing articles, or doing other things to make money. Up until now I’ve been doing the “else” thing, and now I’m just going to write.

PT: What are your plans after Iowa?

MW: If I could make a living writing, I would. But I also love teaching. In an ideal world, I would write, or I would write and teach. Writing is the thing I am most passionate about, that I love doing, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can make that happen for myself. One of the things about Iowa that stands out, too, is that agents come there looking for writers. Getting an agent is the hardest thing in the world, so to go to a place where agents come and make appointments with writers to sit down and read their work is insane. It’s pretty exciting.

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About Zoe Harris

Zoe Harris, a senior, is celebrating her third year as co-managing editor of the Hyphen and as a reporter for the Paper Tiger. She is a leader of the literary magazine club, Lit Mag, and has written far too many weird poems. Zoe loves writing by Junot Díaz, David Sedaris, Mary Oliver, and Richard Siken, and the Harry Potter character she most closely identifies with is Luna Lovegood. She loves the Hyphen dearly and hopes readers do, too.

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