Next week on October 2nd at 7:30 p.m. in BC 163 creative writer Anna Keesey will be reading and lecturing on her newest book Little Century. Anna Keesey graduated from Stanford University and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She has multiple publications in journals and anthologies and is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts of Creative Writing Fellowship. Currently Keesey teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. In preparation for her visit we have asked her some questions about her past and her writing process. Here’s what she said:
Q: When did your interest in creative writing begin? How did you cultivate it throughout your life?
A: I was always interested in words, language, and reading, which might as well be an interest in writing. I mean, I read like crazy. Anything, everything. We lived in the country, near Dallas, Oregon, and we had this very tiny black and white television that got maybe three channels, and so—though I sometimes got to watch Star Trek or The Man from U.N.C.LE–I had usually had only two choices of activities—bum around outside with my little brother, or read. I did both, a lot. I read all the OZ books, and every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and Cherry Ames, and all the books by Zilpha Snyder and Lloyd Alexander and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Marguerite Henry and Frances Hodgson Burnett and Elizabeth George Speare, and on and on.
I didn’t really write anything that I can remember until the sixth grade. My girlfriends and I decided to have a story contest. We each entered a story. Then we judged them. I wrote a very long one about a pioneer girl with a dog called Hambone. Since my story was the longest, we all decided it was the best. So basically I wrote a story, entered it in a contest I had started, and selected my own story to win. It was all very convenient.
Later, when I was in college, I majored in English with an emphasis in creative writing, and I had the luck of having a very good teacher, Katharine Andres, who was very young and smart and sort of shy, but who recognized in me—though I was sloppy and distracted most of the time—the kind of mind a writer has. She encouraged me in the gentlest of ways. After college I taught high school English for a while, then went to a master’s program in writing, where I was again taught by great people. It speaks to your third question—can writing be taught? I wasn’t exactly taught—one has to teach oneself—but I was encouraged, and the kind of teaching I received cultivated in me the capacity to teach myself.
Q: What is your typical writing process?
A: Circular! That is, I’m a trial and error writer. I plan a little, then write a little, then see what I’ve done, then plan a little and write a little, then go back and rewrite everything from a different point of view and set on a different continent, for good measure. Well, that’s overstating it, but it’s not an efficient process, for me.
Q: Is creative writing a talent that can be taught and honed?
A: I started to address this question above, but I’d say this—in any discipline, one can’t actually be taught to do the thing. The student has to want to do it, has to want to solve a problem using the tools of the discipline. If the student has that curiosity and that desire, then the teacher can introduce the student to more and more sophisticated tools of the discipline, by showing the student how excellent practitioners have solved problems, and having the student practice the skills. But to put it all together, and connect it to the heart, is the student writer’s job. I try to teach students everything that I’ve figured out myself, mostly by reading great work with them and dancing around going “Can you believe it? Can you believe how crazy awesome this is?” and to save them time, yet stand back enough to let them grow at their own rate and in their own way. Every writer is different, and since the subject matter is, really, the writer’s own mind, only she or he knows how to best to explore it.
Q: What kinds of classes do you teach at Linfield and what do you enjoy most about teaching them?
A: I teach a variety of creative writing and literature courses, including Introduction to Creative Writing, Fiction Writing, Multi-Genre Workshop, The Coming of Age Novel, Contemporary Drama, and Alternate Realities in the Short Story. In the writing classes, it’s just exciting and fun to see what student writers are inventing—it’s often really surprising, and constantly refreshing—and in the courses more focused on detailed analysis of literature, and critical writing, I enjoy listening to students discuss and make sense of the work they’re reading. Again, it’s fresh, it’s vigorous. Students haven’t read the novel ten times—they are coming to it new, and that renews it for me.
Q: Why is English a discipline worth studying in college and graduate school?
A: I have two answers for that, one passionate and one completely practical. The first is while all the fine arts are phenomenal articulations of human experience, literature has a unique ability to record and imagine experience the way live it—that is, narratively, in time, moving forward through event but looping backward into memory. We are all always and simultaneously living our physical, emotional, mental, psychological and spiritual lives, and literature uses our greatest human tool, language, to capture—or at least suggest—the complexity of human life over time. The second reason English is worth studying is that no matter what else one does in life, the capacity to present one’s ideas clearly, and to understand the communication of others, is crucial. And good readers are critical thinkers. Employers love critical thinkers (well, employers above a certain paygrade). They want to hire and train people who can carry a mission forward, who are inventive, thoughtful and precise, capable of subtle distinctions. And that describes an English major.
Q: What can students attending your lecture at UP next week expect to hear?
A: I’ll be reading from my recently published novel, Little Century, and talking a bit about the writing and publication processes. Bring your questions!
Q: What is your favorite work that you have written?
A: This book. I’m proud of it.
Q: What is one book recommendation you have for students?
A: A book that many of my students have really loved is This Boy’s Life, the classic memoir of childhood and adolescence by Tobias Wolff. It’s beautifully written, but harrowing and funny. I’d recommend it to everybody.
For more information about Anna Keesey’s latest book, please see below:
Orphaned after the death of her mother, eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers heads west in search of her only living relative. In the lawless town of Century, Oregon, she’s met by her distant cousin, a laconic cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. Pick leads her to a tiny cabin by a small lake called “Half-a-Mind”, and there she begins her new life as a homesteader. If she can hold out for five years, the land will join Pick’s already impressive spread.
But Esther discovers that this town on the edge of civilization is in the midst of a range war. There’s plenty of land, but somehow it is not enough for the ranchers—it’s cattle against sheep, with water at a premium. In this charged climate, small incidents of violence swiftly escalate, and the bloodshed gets noticed by the railroad planners. Century will die without a railroad, a fate Pick and his men will go to any lengths to prevent. Meanwhile Esther finds her sympathies divided between her cousin and a sheepherder named Ben Cruff, a sworn enemy of the cattle ranchers. As her passion for Ben and her land grows, she begins to see she can’t be loyal to both.