In the Spotlight
Erika T. Wurth
Professor, Western Illinois University
Illinois/Colorado Member Since: 2012
About: Erika T. Wurth’s publications include a novel,two collections of poetry and a collection of short stories. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University, has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Boulevard, Drunken Boat, The Writer’s Chronicle, Waxwing and The Kenyon Review. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.
Photo credit: Erika T. Wurth
If you could require all of your students to read only one book, which would it be?
As problematic as this answer is, I have to answer The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Sure, there are some duds, but there are stories, such as “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” which are truly miracles. Beautifully written, experimental in form and not recognized as such, it’s one of those stories—in this collection and anywhere—that doesn’t shy away from darkness and strangeness.
What is the best writing advice that you dispense to your students?
Although the first thing is to read a ridiculous amount—and widely, and write for years to hone that craft—even if you’re a straight white dude you’d better be a bulldog, you’d better be able to take a lot of rejection. And if you’re not, you have to be even more and more of one the further you get away from that writing establishment paradigm. I feel like this is probably a toxic thing to say, but though I think living a beautiful life to the best of your ability is also fuel for a good writing life, what it requires can take things from you, and you have to be built to allow that. And especially with the proliferation of MFA programs now, there are perfectly talented folks who eventually say, no. This isn’t for me. I want another life. And that’s OK. You have to be incapable of that.
What is the best career advice that you dispense to your students (information about the query process, publishing, finding an agent, etc.)?
Ultimately, I think you have to be very pragmatic. I tell them to start with getting a publication in a student magazine, and I send them a little sample query letter, so that they can know what the proper format is—and at least have one publication to list. Then I tell them to work with New Pages. It’s a gigantic, comprehensive and most importantly free website. I made it my goal to go through it alphabetically and to send to three magazines a day—to ones my poems or stories would qualify for. I also found my agent through agent query. I’d had a few through referrals beforehand—but they were never quite a match. Although the system is biased toward those born with professors as parents, toward those whose grandparents founded literary communities—who were then funneled into great MFAs, etc., etc.,—you can beat that system by rolling the dice again and again and again—as long as your prose has game, that is. I love how I sound like a class warrior. Giddy-up!
Can writing be taught? Why does creative writing belong in the academy?
Vonnegut said a lot of things about his students at Iowa, but the nicest thing—or at least the most poetic to me—was that he felt like he was pulling his students’ destinies out of their mouths like ticker-tape. There’s some truth to that. As someone who has worked at a university with a large percentage of working class white, black, and Latino/Indigenous students, I can say that some of them come ready-made, and all they need is for me to pull them in the right direction, show them there is one. Others, there’s a glimmer, but what they’ve needed all of their lives was a toolbox. I hand it to them, show them how to work on the car—and my god, if they don’t often blossom in ways that shock me. It’s the sustaining it after—after me, and/or after an MFA—that’s the test. But I can give them the toolbox.
What are you reading right now?
Two books: Holly Goddard Jones’ Girl Trouble, because that has become the standard for me for teaching Intermediate Fiction, as she is a master of all—but especially structure, and Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others (which became the movie Arrival),because I’m writing a literary science-fiction novel. Though I’m suspicious of the word “speculative” – I’ve begun returning to that magic that was the original reason I began writing in the first place.
If you could meet any writer, who would it be? What would you say to her or him?
Without any question, Langston Hughes. I was able to push the agent in charge of his estate to re-publish, after 80 years of it being out of print, The Weary Blues. He is a lovely, troubled, Peter-Pan man of a writer, and his poems mean everything to me. I have a picture of my grandmother and of him on my writing desk.
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them? Do they have broken spines and dog-eared pages? Notes in the margins? Or do they still look brand new?
I’ve decided to do what I’m doing with music: everything is digital unless it’s a favorite, then I get the vinyl. I travel back and forth from my home in Colorado to my full-time job in Illinois every few weeks, I tour, and between my boyfriend and I—another writer—there is no more space. So I love and treasure my Nook. And then I’m slowly buying hardbacks of my favorites.
When do you find time to write?
I steal time. So what that means, is that if I only have twenty minutes, I take it. I’m trying to write as much as I can in the mornings these days—a bi-product of living life as an adult I guess—and because I’m either teaching in person or online mainly in the afternoons or evenings, which is when my boyfriend and his step-children are home too, I try to make those hours count. I also write on planes, in airports, and whenever I can. I also taught an overload of classes last semester so that I’d have less this semester—and I’m going to make that count.
Do you feel influenced by your peers to produce a certain type of creative work, or do you feel free to follow your own interests and passions?
I’m deeply stubborn. I did the PhD instead of the MFA—and almost went that route after—but, I like isolation. Eventually I tire of being alone, but reading widely—and being part of a tiny minority group (Native American) widely—means that you have a peer group. But I fight trends—and I simply don’t work that way. Why do this incredibly hard thing that speaks to every part of you, only to turn to something that might not be the thing in two years? For example, the big, turgid novel is the thing in literary fiction right now—but I still like the long-form short story collection—with that lovely balance of dialogue/action/description that’s led by strong characterization. And though I’ve come back around to science-fiction, I’ve read and made friends with people—from Lev Grossman to Rebecca Roanhorse—from as wide an aesthetic as possible, so that I’m influenced as widely as possible—so as to continue to cultivate my own unique voice and style.
What do you do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
I’m pretty good at self-discipline. I can write for 20 minutes, then read an article, check out social media and go back to it. But there are times when the writing isn’t coming, and even though Facebook is there—accessible by clicking another icon in front of me—I can either do that, or accept defeat and do a more productive thing, like read.
Where do you get your best reading recommendations?
I’ve thought about this a lot, because there are so many small presses, and so many folks doing so much to get you to BUY THEIR BOOK PLZ. I’ve noticed that the big mags only push (prose) books from big presses—and that indicates to me an insider kind of culture that I don’t trust. I know enough about that culture to know how pipelined it all is. So for me, it’s word of mouth—and again, I make very wide, very diverse writer friend choices (who are also real friends), and I listen to what they say on social media and in person. Lists from smaller magazines like Ten Black Women in Science-Fiction (or straight post-modern or realism for that matter) will get me though. But Natives, outside of the one famous guy, rarely get that kind of love, and so I look long and hard to find new writers—and old that I’ve missed—in the Native book world.
Describe your writing process. Do you write every day? For how long? Do you listen to music as you write? Do you type at a computer or write in longhand?
I do try to write every day, but when my agent has forwarded a year’s worth of “your book is really excellent but too unrelentingly dark” emails from major publishers (when my white male peers are lauded for the same), I can get depressed and not write for a month or so. But like I said, if I can steal twenty minutes—ten—I’ll take it. But I LIKE to write, on and off, all day given the choice. And though there’s something a little lovely and old-fashioned (and there’s evidence that the brain likes it, so I have my students do it) about writing long-hand, I already type so much that I’ve had to resort to using the microphone (to stop cysts in my wrists) unless I’m writing something creative—or something like this. Which is why a lot of people have gotten, “Yes I agree about the unicorn pony pants!” I’ve also always typed really fast, because I half-plan and half-allow the mystery in writing, so my thoughts run too quickly to use long-hand, especially for prose.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
I’m always going to be a language whore, because for me, no matter how silly I find that as the ultimate goal and answer to why someone writes—that, and style, are the unique markers of art, literary art. However, I believe in story, and I deeply believe in character. So when someone is moved by a character—that makes me feel like I’ve done my job. I admire structure because it took me ten years to get right at it, and to understand the difference between action and plot concretely. And because I’ve come to write science fiction, compliments on world-building matter to me. We can make fun of people writing about planet Zorborganon and the Zoobinots who live there, but truly engaging in the imagination enough to cull from what you know and build what looks to be alien world—that’s something.
What is the best lesson that you have learned from a book?
You know, this is a tough one, because though I’ll argue that when something is too concept-driven, it should be an essay, in truth—there’s so much that I’ve learned from books, mainly about the ways that people are breaking inside, the way that they break others, their regrets, the things they cannot help but do—for every stupid reason. The way they tear their lives apart.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
I’m about half-way through a literary science-fiction book. I think the term speculative applies broadly to anything that brings in a world that doesn’t literally exist—but, the reason I’m hesitant is that most of what folks are writing along those lines are like Black Mirror—which I love, but that’s not what I’m doing. My character is an Apache/Mayan woman who works for SETI—and who has made contact with an alien world—and a woman also named Xochi, whose planet is under attack from silent, silver ships. Though this other planet is far more advanced than we are, their spirit people are telling them that it is earth, and specifically Xochi that holds the key to defeating the silver ships. But their government begins to splinter, and the adventures begin.
Who/what do you follow online?
I’m a terrible internet shopper and give all my money to Bethany Yellowtail, a native clothing designer—and her collective (jewelers). BUT—in terms of literary folks, I really love what Chuck Wendig has to say about writing. He’s funny and pragmatic and forthright. I’m often looking at what VIDA is doing—which is the hard work. I’m also a big fan of Debbie Reese—a Native critic who works her ass off to make sure that Native writers are given a fair shot, and Alicia Elliot, a Canadian Native writer who has a strong (especially Twitter) presence and who says a lot of the things that need to be said.
What is your favorite line from a book?
Oh man—I know he’s problematic too, but I’ve always loved Salinger’s “She was a girl for whom a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.” It’s a perfect line.
What was the first book that you loved? The first book that you hated?
I don’t know about the first book (though my parents had a recording of me making up a song based on Cookie Monster and the Cookie Tree), but it was Piers Anthony that ate my childhood up in a good way. I loved everything he wrote—and he gave me access to escape, and simultaneously a way to look at your world imaginatively.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
It’s the international organization for writers—the best resources are here, the writing community gathers via your online presence—and through the conference, and I’ve published in The Writer’s Chronicle because some of the best writing advice and discussion comes from that magazine. I think if you’re serious about writing, you join. There are those who don’t want to—and cool—but I’ve found this organization to be central.
What would be your advice to new AWP members on how to make the most of their membership?
Go to those lists online, read the magazine—and I understand it’s a chunk of change but, if you can afford the conference (stay with folks, etc.), it’s a way to see writers read and talk with one another who you might not otherwise see read and interact.
Would you share an AWP Conference memory?
A few years ago, my first novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, had come out and my publisher wanted me to read at AWP in conjunction with another press. As the night rolled on, let’s just say I was exposed to booze-fueled writer-antics on the level of all the pathological writing stereotypes. I’ve had plenty of adventures, good and bad, at AWP, but ultimately, though you have to live to learn and to write, there comes a point where I am like, put the bottle—and the ideas about being a writer down—and just write.