In the Spotlight
Graduate Assistant, University of Louisiana-Lafayette
Lafayette, Louisiana Member Since: 2016
About: Dan Calhoun has recently published the short story collection Safe Sex and the play Cock. This. Bull. It, both with Lit Riot Press. A creative writing PhD candidate at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Dan has also mentored in several sessions of the AWP Writer to Writer Mentorship Program.
Photo Credit: Alex Manuel
What are you reading right now?
I’m thumbing through Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers (a wonderful, accessible study of American women writers), Robert Lowell’s poetry and Andre Bazin’s writings on film. Though there’s a copy of Don Winslow’s The Cartel staring at me each night, tempting me to crack its spine.
What is the best advice you’ve received since beginning your studies?
It took me years to realize that I didn’t need to write important, dense, serious literature, which often looked like something I had no interest in. For much of my MFA career, my heart wasn’t in what I was writing because I wasn’t being true to myself. Many of the novels and best-of-book lists and criticism I had read implied that only certain stories were worth taking seriously. Oddly enough, watching a lot of films helped get me out of this mode of thinking. I watched Pedro Almodovar, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Douglas Sirk films and realized these directors were forging their own paths, and I could too. One thing I want to impart to my students is the courage to write the stories that matter to them, not the stories they believe will get them published.
What advice would you give to potential students who are looking for an MFA program? What are the most important aspects to consider?
First and foremost, I tell my undergrads to make sure they’re attending MFAs for the right reasons. Of course, there are multiple right reasons that vary from person to person. If fame and fortune is one, maybe hold off a year or two. MFAs are great if you’re self-motivating. I knew a few people in my program who didn’t write all that much and even struggled with the two stories required each semester. After three years, their writing showed no growth and they left with a degree, no publications, and a lot of debt. Challenge yourself to go above and beyond what the program requires of you. I also tell my undergrads that workshops aren’t the end all of writing. Don’t read all the critiques of your story (brutal and confusing). Don’t weigh everyone’s opinions equally (some people are horrible readers and some people are biased against certain genres). And if you experience a workshop from hell (I have), allow yourself a day or two to vent and steam and then brush it off and get back to work. Also, don’t be that person in workshop. The person who dismisses everything, knows everything, and does everything better than everyone else.
When do you find time to write?
When I’m working on a project, I make it a point to write every day. I treat writing like a part-time job. I know not everyone can devote two or three or four hours a day to writing, so I’m lucky. One summer, I worked a boring office job that drained me. I went weeks without writing, and felt so depleted. I started spending twenty minutes a day free writing. Turning off my analytical brain and letting the words spill out felt liberating. After a few weeks, I had the beginning of my thesis.
What is your favorite line from a book?
Since the election, I’ve often thought about where our country is and where our country is heading and how can I make any difference, especially for people who are feeling the psychological crunch inflicted by our current administration. One line continually pops into my head. “We were not made eternally to weep.” The line seems just as crucial and comforting in 2017 as it was in 1927 when poet Countee Cullen wrote it. Many of us are feeling dejected or resistant (which requires a lot of mental energy and strength), but we must remember to breathe and laugh and find joy in the world no matter how dark it seems.
What was the first book that you loved? The first book that you hated?
The first book I read over and over as a child was Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar. I haven’t re-read the book in years, but I still remember the absurd narrative, the wacky characters, and most of all, the elated feeling the book gave me. As a quiet, shy kid constantly out of step with my peers, I felt like I belonged with Sachar’s oddball characters. I try not to mention books I hate because I find my taste changes over the years. When I first read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, I gave up after sixty pages. I told a few people I couldn’t get into the book. About a year later, I randomly picked the book up from my shelf and attempted a second read. Three years and three re-reads later, The Flamethrowers is one of my favorite books.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
Right now, I’m writing a novel about two actresses on two separate planes of existence connected by Joan Crawford. I’ve never felt more exhilarated when writing and hope the feeling lasts into the revision process.
If you could meet any writer, who would it be? What would you say to her or him?
I’d love to meet Fran Lebowitz though I’m not quick enough on my feet to keep up with her barbs. I’d end up looking like a deer in the headlights. I’ve always thought a dinner party with Fran, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde would be an incredible experience. I never imagine any food at the party because there’d be no time to eat. There’s only gossip, wit, and champagne.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
I joined AWP because of all the helpful resources the organization provides writers. The database of grants and conferences is indispensable, and The Writer’s Chronicle is essential reading for anyone in the academic field.
How has AWP helped you in your career/creative endeavors?
AWP gave me a fantastic opportunity through the Writer to Writer Mentorship Program. I had the pleasure of working with two talented writers who were working on challenging, impressive novels about the queer experience in America. I’ve had experience running a workshop, but I had never worked one on one with a student on a long project. The program gave me insight on how to approach a creative writing thesis project. More importantly, the program allowed me a way to give back, especially to the queer writing community. Many writers who are part of marginalized communities have discussed the sometimes-hostile reaction their work receives in workshops. I’ve had a variety of fantastic instructors—men, women, gay, straight—but I do understand the importance of representation. Seeing someone who is similar to you succeed sparks a fire in you and can act as a blueprint to achieving your own goals. Representation shows possibilities. I’m proud to support my fellow queer writers, and I hope one day the two writers I mentored will give back too.