Relieved to Learn That I Could Still Learn: An Interview With Catherine Brady

I wanted to have an interview with Kate Brady as soon as the notions for this site hit my brain. Known in print as Catherine Brady, Kate was the instructor for one of my favorite classes in my last year at USF–a course on the teaching of writing.

Kate’s enthusiasm for and seriousness about the teaching of writing made an irreversible impression on me. In her own words from later in this interview, while taking Kate’s course I found “I was relieved to learn that I could still learn.”

Kate’s work outside the classroom includes a Flannery O’Connor Award, appearances in editions of “Best American Short Stories,” and publication in Zyzzyva, The Kenyon Review, and Other Voices. So, luckily for me this was a case of a teacher and a doer.

As with all subjects of my interviews, I’m thankful she took the time to converse with me. I always learn something in the process of asking the questions, reading or listening to the responses, and even the final formatting for the web site. My conversation with Kate was no different. Hope you all enjoy…

You once said “rejection is the rule of the day” for writers. Do you think rejection is a good thing for the art or the business of writing? Or is it just something that you have to accept?

It’s probably a good idea that there is some selectivity—that not everyone who writes can readily publish the work—but rejection also takes a real toll on writers.

The reasons for rejection are increasingly difficult to decipher when publishing has shifted to a mass-market mentality. In the “good old days,??? editors were proud to have “mid-list??? books on their list, books that didn’t necessarily sell very well but that made the publisher proud because of their perceived literary value.

What has been harder, as the market for books has shrunk and as editors have had to consider more intently the marketing potential of the book, is that good writers are receiving rejections more often, and the reason may be that the work fails in some significant way but the reason may also be that the editor can’t sell the marketing department on the idea or the manuscript didn’t suit the taste of a young editorial assistant who happened to be its first reader, and so on. So it’s harder to learn from rejection, and you face rejection more often, both of which make it difficult for a writer to persist.

When did writing become an important thing for you?

Let me see… this is a bit like answering the question, “When did breathing first become important to you???? I know that once I learned to read, I began to write.

I recall my father giving me a binder from his workplace so that I could write stories in it, and I must have been about seven at the time. I started to think of myself as a writer, sort of, in high school, and in college, I thought of myself as someone who wanted to write. Thanks to some great teachers, I began to see that I could actually be a writer.

Elliot Anderson, then the editor of Triquarterly, was a teacher of mine at Northwestern University, and in my senior year he drew me aside and asked me what I would do next. Um… be a secretary? I just didn’t feel I had the personal authority to declare myself a writer, and I grew up in an immigrant Irish Catholic family, where the only respectable work for a woman was to be a secretary or a school teacher, of course just temporarily until she got married and had babies. Which made me very ready to be told by someone else what to do. Elliot Anderson told me to apply to several specific writing programs, and I got in to one of them.

I first went to graduate school at Hollins College, which is a wonderfully weird place to earn a degree in writing, and then I spent three years getting an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. I think I really became a serious writer at UMass. My first semester there, I was living on almost no income, and I had to choose between buying a winter coat or buying a typewriter. I bought the typewriter.

There is some mysterious point at which you transition from being someone who writes because you need to unburden yourself or indulge yourself or earn praise and become someone who (while maybe still needing all those things) writes for a reader, is conscious of the work as artifact that will be in someone else’s hands and must be crafted carefully, carefully, into something beautiful and sound. Or as close as you’re capable of coming to that.

I was especially inspired by two very different teachers: George Cuomo helped me to see writing as a job, a set of tasks you worked to become competent at, and the late Tamas Aczel taught by example and his own gentleness what it meant to have art as one’s vocation.From George I learned that a fiction writer has to take care of the business of narrative: Where’s the plot? What’s the arc of change? George was bluntly literal minded about this and had little patience for airy experimentalism, and at the time, about all I knew how to do was write sentences I thought were pretty. This will date me, but at the time, there was a commercial for a fast-food burger chain, in which a tiny little old lady inspects a huge hamburger bun that hides a burger the size of a quarter and complains, “Where’s the beef???? George was always complaining in this way about student manuscripts: Where’s the beef? And I remember that as I was completing my thesis, Tamas pointed to a page on which I’d broken out an important sentence as a paragraph on its own, and he said, Now you are writing. He helped me to pay acute attention to all the ways in which language supports plot and characterization.

When and how did you get into teaching?

As a graduate student at UMass, I was a TA, teaching freshman composition courses. I’d always been interested in teaching, aside from any Irish assumptions about the job. Much later, I began to work again as a teacher; like many MFA grads today, I couldn’t find full time work after I first graduated, at least not in the urban areas where I wanted to live. I started out as a volunteer, teaching creative writing to school kids and to pregnant teens and teens in group foster care. Then I taught adults who’d gone back to college to earn a bachelor’s degree, which led to my being offered more traditional undergraduate courses, in composition and in creative writing. I also ran a writing center and tutored students. I began teaching in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco about thirteen years ago. For many years, I worked part-time at two or more different universities.

The variety of my teaching experiences taught me a great deal. Whether I was working with a student in the writing center or advising a graduate student on a thesis, the problems of composition existed along a continuum, and they are very much grounded in psychology—what motivates people, what enables them to judge their own work more objectively, what helps them to become revisers? A good teacher has to be receptive, not prescriptive: rather than impose a certain process on a student, you have to “listen??? to what her process actually is and value it before you can help her to build on that in ways that will bring her closer to a successful piece of writing. And then, of course, how do you teach people to think? That’s a fascinating mystery. But not much intellectual transmission will take place unless teaching accounts for the psychological and social dimensions of learning.

One of the dilemmas of being able to teach writing seems to be that you need to be able to conquer two battles: getting published and the age-old dichotomy of needing to have experience as a teacher and not being able to get experience because you can’t get a job. Do you have advice or wisdom in working through this dilemma?

It’s just a very hard academic job market for people graduating with an MFA degree. Roughly several thousand people graduate from these programs every year, and about three hundred full-time jobs are advertised every year. It’s very important to publish your work in order to get a full-time job, or even a part-time job teaching creative writing, at least in an urban area.

I think that my advice is borne out by my own job trajectory. Be willing to volunteer to gain experience—and there are so many places, such as schools and prisons, where your presence will be greatly valued. People often overlook the many nonacademic settings in which you can teach writing, such as the Writing Salon in the Bay Area, and gain valuable experience. If you really want to teach, you’ll hunt out opportunities like these. You should also be willing to work at any part-time teaching job even ultimately related to your goal of teaching creative writing. If you really like teaching and you really like people, you’ll find a lot of satisfaction in teaching writing in any setting. Of course, all this presumes you will be able to live on next to nothing as you acquire the experience you need in order to qualify for a full-time job.

The question is, why do this at all? It’s a privilege to teach creative writing. Teaching forces me to keep being a student, to keep reading carefully and thoughtfully, and it imposes the task of imparting love for this task to my students. Teaching is like writing in that you have to do it for love, not money. And I get excited about going to class, excited about what the students are going to say about this story or that, about how beautiful the form of the short story is, about what I might try out on the students and whether it will fly.

I tend to organize and organize, but I also try to counter that. On the day of class, I spend a few hours coming up with a new idea, something spontaneous but also something that I hope will be inventive, not just the standard, “Can you identify the significant images in this work???? Teaching is an art form, and any art form is fundamentally about serious play, so I try to think about that when I’m planning for class. I also feel that teaching grants me a chance to share in a community that is at heart idealistic: whatever hardships there are in publishing one’s work, the experience of reading literature and writing honestly and as well as one can is idealistic, and it’s a very fortunate thing to have a job where this is so.

There’s a crotchety truism floating around that says you can’t teach people to write. What’s your response to that?

This criticism is often leveled at MFA programs, with the further criticism that whatever it is they DO teach their students, the outcome is a conformist, homogeneous product. I think that’s a lot of hooey. No one expects artists in any form to be able to become competent practitioners without many years of training and persistent effort, so why should writers be any different? Does anyone really believe that so many individuals can be formed so forcefully by graduate school that they convert to writing that fits a preshaped mold? I think the issue is simply that more people are pursuing a degree and then attempting to publish their work—so there may be more manuscripts on the market, but probably the same small proportion of them are truly exceptional.

I’d also have to say that my direct personal experience of how much people can learn in a writing program not only counters this notion but does so in a moving, even an awe-inspiring way. Having watched many classes of students spend about three years in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco, I can attest to how much they’ve grown as writers in their time as students. Partly, one grows as a writer simply from the chance to participate in a community that values the endeavor–planting a seed in fertile soil rather than on barren rock. And partly, one grows as a writer because serious close reading of literature and consistent, committed feedback on one’s own evolving manuscripts does lead to improvement.

You can’t teach a person to have a singular vision of any depth–you can’t make an artist from a do-it-yourself kit. But you can teach the tools of the craft to someone with artistic potential, who will devour whatever you have to offer. You can also help students to understand how technique is intimately bound up with vision. The visual artist Sue Coe once said, “Technique is the test of sincerity.???

You’ve mentioned in a prior interview that you’ve unsuccessfully attempted to quit writing a few times in the past. What keeps you coming back to writing?

Necessity. I think Robert Hass once spoke of the image as a means to capture experience and hold it still, when otherwise time just flows without stopping, washing away memories and sensations. Fundamentally for me, writing is about the image, and writing is about that effort to hold on to experience—to make it mean something, to defy time and forgetfulness. I don’t quite know how else to feel that I’m actually alive, in the world, trying to make meaning. Though I’m sure there are alternatives, I just never took to them. Writing is also such a satisfyingly demanding intellectual task–it requires all you understand theoretically about your art form, a cultivated receptiveness to your own subconscious, the capacity to feel as well as to imagine. Even compared to other kinds of writing, creative writing uses far more of your whole self and your whole mind.

I’ve wanted to quit a number of times, mostly because for years I kept meeting with failure when I tried to publish my work, and I was tired of not being successful at something. Here are your peers from college, getting jobs and getting promotions and gaining credibility in their field, and here you are, holing up in your room and hunching over your desk when you could be making some kind of gain in the world instead. There’s the feeling too that it’s just not useful to be doing this.

When my kids were little, I took a course or two in a graduate program in psychology, thinking I might become a therapist. Then I got an idea for a novel and remembered how wonderfully, fully consuming writing was for me. Another time I tried to quit just because I couldn’t take more rejection and it had really become painful to write. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I wrote a book for my daughter, thinking that didn’t count. But it kept me writing, and I eventually started back up with my own work.

I still think about quitting. One of the hardest things about writing, for me, is that you’re always haunted by disappointment. I’ve never written anything as well as I’ve intended to write it, and ironically, the impulse to quit stems from the same place as the impulse to persist—the feeling of having failed at a piece, and being tormented by that, so that you either have to throw in the towel or try again, in case you can get any closer to that beautiful thing you’ve envisioned.

For those of us who would love to teach but don’t—or can’t—do you recommend any ways to keep our minds strong and prepared for the main event when we do get up behind the podium?

Finding classes to take, or forming writing groups or book groups, is one way to sustain the discipline of seriously thinking about your craft. It really matters to continue in some way to have a world in which reading and writing continue to feel central.

Though I wrote nearly every day for my job, I didn’t write a word of fiction for about eight months after completing the program at USF. Is there a typical after-the-MFA experience that you’ve encountered?

I think the let-down after you earn the degree is very common. You’ve achieved something when you complete a thesis, yet it’s probably not yet a publishable work, and it’s almost certainly not yet published. And now you are alone in the cold, hard world, absent the support you get from a community of people who think it matters that you write. It’s really helpful to sustain a writing group with your cohorts from your graduate experience, if you can, but it’s also important to be patient about fallow periods. Probably all writers have them. And the writers who sit down at their desk anyway, gnashing their teeth, insane with boredom and frustration, are the writers who’ll write something again.

You usually work in short fiction, but you’re currently writing a biography. How has working in nonfiction changed the way you write?

The biography is about molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, and it’s also an attempt to describe the intellectual life of a research scientist and the social environment of a research lab. I brought a lot of ignorance to the project, and I was relieved to learn that I could still learn, trying to understand rudimentary concepts of molecular biology in order not just to describe experiments but to write them in a way that would convey the flavor of scientific opportunism and adventure.

A biography is a novel-like narrative: it requires a dramatic arc. One of the intriguing aspects of writing nonfiction was learning how to discern from a welter of facts what that dramatic arc might be and then how to write the book so it possessed this shapeliness. Fictional impulses take over, and you’re constantly being tugged back by the immovability of the actual facts. Often, I’d think I saw a particular narrative arc or conflict and have to revise my notion in the face of the facts (and the living subject of the biography, who could contradict me). But the facts would, if given their due, lead me to a different or more complex notion of conflict and change than the one I had started out with. It’s just like writing fiction in that way—you learn from the writing itself and revising is analogous to digging down through layer after layer of subtext and nuance. With revision, you become more able to suggest that richness beneath the surface. I think writing the biography taught me something about how to approach novel writing. It also left me ravenous for the freedom of fiction writing, and I began a novel soon after I finished the biography with a stronger sense of the through-line of plot than I think I’ve had before.

Comments 8

  1. Armand wrote:

    Great interview! Thanks for sharing this Gordon. The part that made me think the most was when Ms. Brady discussed the question of: Why should writers teach?

    Armand

    Posted 26 Jan 2007 at 1:43 pm
  2. Gabrielle wrote:

    This interiew is very helpful and validating. I finished my MFA last summer and although I have been lucky to get a few paid teaching opportunities in NYC, I still cannot stop beating myself up about not making any money and not having a full-time job, but simulatanrously being too distracted by these truths to really write as much as I could be– considering the free time i have. I also miss the MFA community, or even the community you gain at a workplace. I know I am on the right track but its hard to see the big picture. There is no guarentee that my fiction will get published, even though its bound to get better. I have become open to volunteering in literary ventures that interest me more and that is a good piece of advice. I think the isolation is the hardest part of the writer’s life. Also the idea that you have to create work even when no one wants it or is asking for it, so when someone finally does, you have work to show them.

    Posted 27 Jan 2007 at 10:56 am
  3. gordon wrote:

    Thanks for the comments, Gabrielle.

    Where did you get your MFA? And where have you had the opportunity to teach?

    Best,
    Gordon

    Posted 27 Jan 2007 at 11:04 am
  4. Armand wrote:

    >>I think the isolation is the hardest part of the writer’s life.

    Posted 28 Jan 2007 at 5:05 pm
  5. Chellis wrote:

    I also took a class with Kate Brady at USF and I didn’t think I could possibly be a bigger fan, but it happened. She is a sincere and hard working teacher and every day working with her I had a mini-epiphany. I am so thankful that she loves to teach, because that is what makes her a great teacher. Thanks, Gordon, for letting us hear her story. And for being a rock star interviewer. I love the blog.

    Posted 08 Feb 2007 at 2:05 pm
  6. gordon wrote:

    Chellis — thanks for the comments. Thanks for reading. Keep in touch, yo.

    -gkh

    Posted 09 Feb 2007 at 11:10 am
  7. Armand wrote:

    >>I think the isolation is the hardest part of the writer’s life.>>

    err- sorry part of my last comment somehow never made it to the board- What I had meant to write was that I couldn’t agree more with this statement.

    Posted 09 Feb 2007 at 10:14 pm
  8. aspeth wrote:

    OK, I’m officially in love with this woman, sight unseen. “…ironically, the impulse to quit stems from the same place as the impulse to persist—the feeling of having failed at a piece, and being tormented by that, so that you either have to throw in the towel or try again, in case you can get any closer to that beautiful thing you’ve envisioned.” So true (and reassuring)!

    Posted 13 Feb 2007 at 1:58 pm

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