Past Instructors

Mariflo StephensWhen did you first feel like a writer?

I began writing plays when I was 8 or 9 but seriously considered myself a writer when I was 10 and kept an almost-daily diary. My first publication was an essay about my teacher (which was not complimentary but was accurate) when I was 14 and our hometown newspaper held an essay contest. I won $7.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Mariflo Stephens

Cortney PhillipsWhen did you first feel like a writer?

Calling myself a writer is something I still struggle with, to be honest. As a small child, I'd tell people, "I want to be a writer." I always thought of "writer" as more of a profession someone else had to allow me to do for a living, rather than something I could just be. Now, I think of writer as more of an action. I am someone who writes. I am a writer because I write.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Cortney Phillips

BettyJoyce NashWhen did you first feel like a writer?

The day I stopped relying on facts and literal-minded interpretation to tell a story. For a long time, I called myself a reporter, a witness who investigates and reports in service to a greater good. I still love reporting, but I eventually found even the most accurate, detailed eyewitness accounts and interviews don't always reveal the deeper truths that interest me. When I started including motivations and undercurrents, I felt like a writer.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: BettyJoyce Nash

Roselyn Elliott SQWhen did you first feel like a writer?

At 12 years of age when I won an essay contest in 7th grade. I might have felt like a writer prior to that, but that is when I knew I was a writer.

What's your philosophy about teaching a writing class?

I believe in meeting the student at the level at which he or she presents and working to assist them forward from there. In a class, members come together all at different levels of skill and understanding. This can be challenging for teachers, but also wonderfully helpful to the writers. And, of course, it helps when the teacher has a passion for the subject and is willing to share it with students.

If you could meet any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Catherine of Wuthering Heights, so I could tell her to grow up and listen to her heart.

Robert Wray SQIs there a particular book or essay (or screenplay) that made you want to write?

Actually, watching The Waltons as a kid inspired me to—albeit vaguely at the time—be a writer as I wanted to be John Boy! Also, reading The Princess Bride at an early age helped, and then Pride and Prejudice and Catcher in the Ryesoon followed. The rest is history.

What's the number one thing that distracts you when you're trying to write?

The phone! And when my coffee machine beeps that it's off. Ugh.

If you could write from any location, where would it be?

Wherever inspiration strikes: A mountainside, my room, a cafe. The main thing is: Someplace quiet.

Jonathan RintelsWhen did you first feel like a writer?

On the set of my first produced film, the producer, director, and I were struggling over something I'd put in the script that for some long-forgotten reason couldn't be shot the way I'd written it. After each of us came up with one or two not very good fixes, the producer finally threw up his hands, turned to me, and said, "You're the writer, you figure it out." I walked away thinking, "I guess I am now officially a writer."

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Jonathan Rintels

Bethany Carlson SQWhen did you first feel like a writer?

In 8th grade my parody of my bow-tie wearing, Binaca-addicted, self-proclaimed "Mr. Administrivia" Washington State History teacher put my chain-smoking English instructor on probation – for passing it around to the other teachers. Four years later this English teacher told my sister's class, "Any student writing a story about teachers at this school, or that appears to be about teachers at this school, will be immediately suspended."

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Bethany Joy Carlson

Jennifer Niesslein SQWhen did you first feel like a writer?

Since I learned to write and could string together a narrative. It's always helped me make sense of the world.

What's your philosophy about teaching a writing class?

For most of my career I've been an editor, and my editorial philosophy has always been that the editor and the writer are partners, working together to make the essay the very best it can be. I think we all have different strengths in our writing, and my hope is that the workshop helps everyone in it hone his or her own particular strengths.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Jennifer Niesslein

Mary Kay ZuravleffWhen did you first feel like a writer?

Early on, I felt like a writer, and then I misplaced that feeling because people required publication as proof. Years later, I went to an artist colony and was relieved to feel like a writer again.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Mary Kay Zuravleff


When did you first feel like a writer?

I began writing poetry and stories as a young child—I never wanted to be anything other than a writer. So I think that I have personally identified as a writer my whole life. But when did I feel like this was something I could actually do with my life? That moment came when I received a phone call from Jeanne Leiby, who was the editor of the Southern Review, telling me that she wanted to publish an essay of mine. It wasn’t my first acceptance, but that is the only time an editor has called me, instead of e-mailed, to accept a piece. Hearing a real human voice talking to me about something I had written was incredibly affirming for me. Jeanne Leiby has since passed away, but I will always remember the time she took to do this very special thing for her contributors.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Alexis Schaitkin

John CasteenPhoto taken by Anna Williams

When did you first feel like a writer?

I first felt like a writer when I was a kid, and wanted to use language to replicate the rhythms of what I saw and heard growing up in Charlottesville: people talking on the street, basketball in the park, the Dogwood parade.

What's your philosophy about teaching a writing class?

A good writing course needs to offer a genuine challenge to the student, balanced with genuine support. No one learns anything when they're completely comfortable, because comfort comes out of what we already know well. But we need to have a guide to show us the narrow way.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: John Casteen

Edward M. LernerWhen did you first feel like a writer?

Approaching the completion of my first novel. I couldn't bear to wait any longer to see how the book would turn out. I burned a week of (very precious) vacation time from the day job to speed the novel to its end. Every night that week I stayed up -- however late it took -- to finish a chapter. Every morning that week -- often only a few hours after I'd turned in -- I woke to the clatter of the dot-matrix printer, as my wife wouldn't wait to read what I'd just finished.

And then there was the day an editor called to make an offer on that book ...

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Edward M. Lerner

Carolyn CreedonWhen did you first feel like a writer?

I was a latecomer to college. My best guess is when my teacher said, "You have something to say." Isn't that what we all want? I didn't have much of a voice in childhood, and that's what shapes me—and many writers as we grow older.

What's your philosophy about teaching a writing class?

I shy away from the word "teach;" I'd like to be a co-pilot. The best thing I can do is open up a respectful dialogue so that we ALL can get to the strengths and the problems of the writing.

If you could meet any fictional character, who would it be and why?

At first I thought I'd like to lift a glass of mead with Falstaff. On second thought, I'd love to meet Medusa and tell her she looks great to me!

Lisa DordalWhen did you first feel like a writer?

It took me a long time to really feel like a writer. Even though I had written poetry in high school and college, and sporadically in my twenties and thirties, it had never occurred to me to think of writing poetry as anything more than a hobby. Having grown up in a family in which math and science were embraced as the most legitimate forms of knowledge, it simply never occurred to me to think of writing poetry – or reading poetry, for that matter – as a legitimate vocation.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Lisa Dordal

Rebecca MakkaiWhen did you first feel like a writer?

I took myself far too seriously far too young. I was one of those eight-year-olds who was never honest in my own diary because I always assumed someone would publish it someday. Then I grew up and got some perspective, and was very quiet and even a bit pessimistic about my writing . It wasn't until my first inclusion in Best American Short Stories that I ever would have dreamed of introducing myself as a writer.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Rebecca Makkai

Sharon_LeiterWhen did you first feel like a writer?

The first time was at age 7, when I published my first poem in School Bank News.  It was called "My Magic Carpet," and the final line revealed that my magic carpet was my geography book.  Years later, I read Emily Dickinson's "There is no frigate like a book / To take us Lands away" and was thrilled to discover that the Mystery of Amherst and I had a metaphor n common, though her development of it was, shall we say, more substantive than mine!

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Sharon Leiter

Nell Boeschenstein SQWhen did you first feel like a writer?

I don't know if I have ever felt like a writer, but I have felt like an aspiring writer for about as long as I can remember. There was a story I wrote in the first grade in which the dynamic protagonist was an egg that refused to hatch. The big mystery was: Why won't this egg hatch? What is wrong with this egg? I eventually decided that the solution to this big mystery was [the hard scientific reason] that the egg was simply not fertilized. For some reason, I thought this was brilliant, and feeling that feeling of having solved that problem - a writing problem - was a feeling I knew then, as a six-year-old, I wanted to experience over and over and over again. So, here I am. Still trying to solve some of the same problems I was trying to solve in the first grade: the problems of endings.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Nell Boeschenstein

JJCromerWhen did you first feel like a writer?

When I graduated from college, I worked various jobs to pay the rent, but I didn't have a sense of vocation. I started writing all kinds of letters, cards, and poems for friends and family. When I knew my audience, the act of writing was intensely liberating and rewarding. This was also a time of dramatic intellectual and personal growth, so I experimented constantly. Ever since that time, even when I don't know where the writing will end up, I know why I'm writing and what it means for me.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: J.J. Cromer

Jay Kauffmann SQWhen did you first feel like a writer?

I think the first inkling that I might be a writer came in my sophomore year of college. I had just won an award for my poetry chapbook (I wanted to be a poet then) and people started to think and speak of me as a writer. And yet, despite all the positive feedback, I remained unconvinced, because I knew I had no idea what I was doing. Then, after graduate school, when my stuff started appearing in magazines, I thought, Okay, now I’m a writer. But whenever people asked me what I did, I was still reluctant to call myself a writer. It was only after a long stretch on my own, without any support or encouragement, when I was left to the daily practice of facing myself and the page, and feeling drunk with discovery, that I finally began to feel like a writer.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Jay Kauffmann

Hilary Jerrill SteinitzIs there a particular book or essay that made you want to write?

When I was a teenager, I wanted to write like Jane Austen. I loved (still love) the mellifluous rhythm of her sentences and her crisp, funny dialog. Later it was Alice Munro, The Beggar Maid in particular. I'm enthralled by her ability to turn a moment over and over, showing new layers, as well as the organic complexity of her narratives.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Hilary Steinitz

Steven_CramerWhen did you first feel like a writer?

I'm not sure I've ever felt like a writer—as opposed to, say, feeling "like" I'm writing. I prefer "writing" the verb to "writer" the noun. I feel most like a writer when I'm rewriting, because the labor of shaping raw (very raw) material feels more like art. No writer is a writer unless he or she is writing.

What's your philosophy about teaching a writing class?

Good teachers encourage. But they also say when a poem relies on cliché, hokey sentiment, platitudes, melodrama, or writing that lacks formal virtue. They don't mean that the student is a cliché, hokey, melodramatic, or lacking in formal virtue. They mean that the student's poem is not (yet) an event of language. Your writing, when you complete it, no longer belongs to you.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Steven Cramer

Avery ChenowethWhen did you first feel like a writer?

If I'm sure of one thing, it's that I never felt like a writer while I was growing up--observant, yes; articulate, yes. Teachers would submit my compositions to the school magazine, but "a writer" was someone, mostly dead, with a name on a book. If anything, I was a story teller--about incidents that were scandalous; the adults would listen and laugh, and then tell me to not repeat that. Having a by-line in college and at newspapers later on was great, but it was only when an editor at Harper's called about publishing a piece of mine that I dared try on the title--and quickly put it back. Today, with a few books in print, I see it less as a matter of professional validation than as an intuitive response to life and language--to capture and shape experience, make others feel as you felt, and create a world that others can share.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Avery Chenoweth

Russell GriegerWhen did you first feel like a writer?

This simple question requires a complex answer. By day, I work as a clinical psychologist. In that role, I have written (and published) five books and some 75 articles, all directed toward a professional audience. You could say I thrived as writer; but my writing, though non-fiction, was wholly expositional and hardly creative.

Late in 2011, I discovered WriterHouse and the two Jays – Kauffman and Varner. They introduced me to the creative side of writing – sensory description, scene building, character development, dialogue, sentence rhythm, and above all, seeking to convey truth and passion. I heard and understood – conceptually – all they taught, but only very recently have begun to absorb and use their wisdom. I guess you could say I feel I am a newborn writer – wobbly on my feet and awkward in my gait, still working to get my balance, but exited to be alive and eager to grow.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Russell Grieger

Catherine Blackbird1When did you first feel like a writer?

I think it was in the 4th grade when my teacher praised an anti-war poem I'd written. In it I expressed lofty thoughts in rhyme about missing my father who was serving in Vietnam.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Catherine MacDonald

Paul ReislerWhen did you first feel like a writer?

In the mid 80's I gave myself a challenge--to write a song a day for a week and finish it. It didn't have to be a long song, or a good one, I just had to finish it. I also decided I wouldn't look at what I'd written for 6 months. Well, that week grew into a month, and another, and then another and pretty soon 6 months came and went and I was still writing almost every day. By the time I went back and looked at all those songs (over 300 of them) a couple of years later, it was if someone else had written them. That's when I finally felt like a writer. I was no longer about writing, I was writing. I'd written for the love of the writing.

Read more: Meet the Instructor: Paul Reisler

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