“When we talk about the literary community, it’s tempting to think only in terms of ‘what can the community do for me?’ But this is the wrong way to think.”
There’s lots going on here at the Writers’ League as we look ahead to another month of terrific weekend classes (before we take some time off for the summer), gear up for the big Agents & Editors Conference in June and the Summer Writing Retreat in July (hence the time off from weekend classes), and (drum roll, please) prepare to launch our Third Thursday podcast so that our monthly panel discussions can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere.
The classes, the conference, the panel discussions, and more—all are important pieces that contribute to the year-round programming we offer here at the Writers’ League, to members and nonmembers alike, and none of it would be possible without a top notch Program Director at the reins. This month, we officially welcome Michael Noll as the Writers’ League’s new Program Director and we couldn’t be more excited to have him join our staff. Michael is no stranger to the WLT, having taught classes and participated in event programming for some time now. He’ll make his public debut as Program Director this Thursday when he moderates our panel discussion on writing and publishing short fiction (7 pm at BookPeople; details here). If you’re in the Austin area, we hope you’ll come by to say hello in person. In the meantime, we asked him to answer a few questions for us here and he was kind enough to oblige.
Michael Noll: I always wanted to be a writer—the fire was always lit, I guess, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I began by imitating writers and stories I loved. In 6th grade, all the way back at Robinson Middle School, I won a class contest with a story that basically ripped off a John Bellairs novel. When I got to college, I imitated Hemingway, and in my first attempts as a MFA student, I found myself copying Tim O’Brien and Sherman Alexie. I didn’t publish any of this work, and I’d likely be embarrassed for anyone to see it now–but it did perform an important function in my development as a writer. I couldn’t match any of the writers who inspired me, but I began to get a feel for how their work was put together, and, occasionally, I’d write a scene or paragraph that I liked. If we’re sticking with the fire metaphor, you could say that these inspirations and imitations were the bellows that kept it lit.
Scribe: You wear many hats—”writer,” “teacher,” “blogger extraordinaire,” and now, we’re happy to say “Program Director”—how do you balance them all and, most important, when do you sleep?
MN: First, I want to say that Program Director feels like a position that involves all of the hats you mention. I’m grateful to be combining them in this way for the Writers’ League of Texas. In my own life, I balance them by (and I’m serious about this) working hard not to freak out. It’s a situation most writers will be familiar with. I’ve got a job, a family, and several different writing projects going at once. I tackle each as I’m able and as each demands. Sometimes it means not much writing gets done for a few days or that my kids eat fish sticks for dinner or get to watch an extra show on TV that day—and that’s okay. It’s tempting to create false deadlines and ultimatums for ourselves: if we don’t finish this book by this date, we’re a fraud, or if our kids don’t get the very best, healthiest, most enriching experience every minute of their lives, they’re doomed for failure. So, I try to give myself reasonable goals and manage my expectations in a way that doesn’t feel like throwing in the towel but also doesn’t lead to a freak out (How can I possibly do everything!). As we all know, freak-outs shut everything down. Staying calm is good. I mostly succeed at this.
As for sleep, hmm, I’ll get back to you on that one!
Scribe: Can you tell us a bit about your first introduction to the Writers’ League?
MN: I learned of the Writers’ League through Jodi Egerton. I’ve long admired her as a teacher, and I saw her post on Facebook about a class she was teaching through WLT. I wondered, “Hmm, what is that?” So I wrote to (former Program Director) Jennifer Ziegler, and pretty soon I was teaching a class myself. So, that was my introduction. The thing that most impressed me—and continues to impress—was the level of talent and enthusiasm I encountered in that first class. The members are passionate about developing their craft and supporting each other. The Third Thursday events are packed. It’s an energizing, positive environment, and I’m grateful to be part of it.
Scribe: We’re all about community and the many opportunities we see in Texas and beyond to bring writers together to support each other. What are some of the ways being a part of the larger literary community has impacted you as a writer?
MN: Without the literary community, there would be no Michael Noll, Writer. When I was attending the MFA program at Texas State years ago, I started teaching after-school writing classes through Badgerdog (whose educational programming was, at the time, run by this smart, awesome woman named Stephanie, who I’m now married to!). Through Badgerdog, I met Jill Meyers, who worked with American Short Fiction, which was also run by Badgerdog. Jill published my first story, which led to an editor at another journal requesting work. Jill gave me the opportunity to teach classes to adults. When ASF briefly went defunct and those adult classes vanished, I took the teaching philosophy I’d developed in them and started a blog, Read to Write Stories, where I post writing exercises based on published fiction and nonfiction. Through my blog Read to Write Stories, I’ve discovered so many writers whose work I admire. I’ve interviewed them about their work and met them when they came to town for readings or at conferences around the country.
When we talk about the literary community, it’s tempting to think only in terms of “what can the community do for me?” But this is the wrong way to think. Writers must give to their community—by teaching or helping with programs and reading series. We ought to participate in communities because we’re excited about the writers involved in them. People pretty quickly suss out if someone is simply trying to climb some imaginary literary ladder. Everyone wants to succeed—that’s a given. Being a writer, however, and being part of a literary community means hoping that others succeed and appreciating their success when it comes.
Scribe: You’re turning your attention to the upcoming Agents & Editors Conference program and the full schedule of panels, presentations, genre meet-ups, and more. What can you tell us about your plans for June 24-26? What are you most excited about sharing with the attendees?
MN: I grew up on a hog farm in rural Kansas, so my understanding of the publishing industry was limited to the knowledge that books existed. There wasn’t a bookstore for sixty miles. I didn’t personally know a single writer. As a result, I’ve had to learn how publishing works—the process that takes manuscripts on someone’s computer and turns them into commodities for sale in stores and available in libraries. But this has been difficult because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. For a long time, I thought that you simply wrote a book, sent it out, and got published. If you step back far enough, that’s what happens, but it leaves out a lot of the sausage making.
The great thing about the Agents & Editors Conference is that it brings the industry—writers, agents, editors, marketers, booksellers—to Austin. It’s an opportunity to see the industry firsthand and learn how it works. If you have a manuscript, it’s a chance to pitch it to an actual agent—a real, living person rather than the larger-than-life figures we sometimes imagine from our desks and tables. There really isn’t any substitute for sitting in a room with the people who make up the publishing industry. You get a feel for what they want, what they hope for, what they dislike. You begin to learn how you fit into the industry. It’s a necessary step for any writer.
Scribe: Finally, tell us about a book by a Texas author that you read recently that you can recommend to our readers—we love hearing what writers we admire are reading and admiring themselves.
MN: I can’t pick just one, so I’m going to cheat. Benjamin Alire Sáenz has a new Young Adult novel, Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe, that is set in El Paso, where Sáenz lives and teaches and has the most charming characters you’ll read this year. (Heads up: Sáenz is speaking at the Agents & Editors Conference Keynote Luncheon. He’s also the author of Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, which won the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Fiction Prize.)
Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” is in the most recent issue of Virginia Quarterly Review and can be read online here. Kelli was a Dobie Paisano fellow a couple of years ago. Her story is set in North Texas, with references to the Red River, Bob Wills, and Dairy Queen.
One of my former students in a writing class in Austin—Alejandro Puyana—has a story forthcoming in Huizache, the literary journal published by CentroVictoria at the University of Houston-Victoria. The journal is dedicated to publishing writing by and about Latinos and regularly puts out great work.
Native Austin-ites should read Scott Blackwood’s novel See How Small, Mary Helen Specht’s novel Migratory Animals, and Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky, all of which capture the city at different moments and show how differently it can be experienced.
Michael Rosenbaum had a story, “Daily Double” in the fall issue of North American Review. Michael grew up in El Paso, and this story is set there, at a horse track.
Antonio-Ruiz Camacho’s story collection, Barefoot Dogs, imagines a very different outcome for the wildfires of 2011.
Before joining the Writers’ League as Program Director, Michael Noll taught writing at Texas State University. He created and edits Read to Write Stories, a site that offers writing exercises based on published stories, novel excerpts, and essays. His work has been published atAmerican Short Fiction, Chattahoochee Review, Narrative Magazine, Huffington Post, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and The Good Men Project. He was formerly the writer in residence at the Katherine Anne Porter House in Kyle, TX. He’s currently at work on a story collection set in rural Kansas and a novel, Seven Attacks of the Dead.
Join us at our next Third Thursday on April 21st, where Michael will be in conversation with Michael Barrett, Jill Meyers, Chaitali Sen, and Kirk Wilson for a panel on “Keeping it Brief: Writing and Publishing Short Stories.” More details and RSVP on our Facebook event page.