Dispatches | June 07, 2013

Welcome back to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com.

Today’s Interview is with Darci Schummer.

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Tell us a little about yourself.

I fit the description of a working writer who hasn’t yet published a book or published widely.  I have completed a short story collection, which I am trying to publish, and am currently at work on a novel.  I also teach developmental writing and college-level writing full-time at a technical college. Trying to balance teaching and writing has been a continual struggle for me, although I do feel that two feed each other.  There is something important about being an artist who teaches:  the passion for teaching grows directly from being a writer and teaching writing drives me to continually practice what I preach.  Nearly everyday I learn something new about writing because of teaching it.  Further, all day I collect stories from the people around me. I teach many immigrant and non-traditional students, which is fascinating because my students bring experiences into my classroom so vastly different from my own.  They bring stories of war, stories of cultural tradition, stories of obstacles overcome.  Absorbing their stories helps me shape plots and characters and also allow me to look at the world through different lenses, which I may have never found had I not heard them.

I am a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA program, and my fiction has appeared in places such as Bartleby Snopes, Paper Darts, Conclave:  A Journal of Character, Feile Festa, The Diverse Arts Project, and Open to Interpretation:  Intimate Landscape.  I live, write, and teach in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the winters stretch longer than is good for anyone.  But we tighten our jackets and shoulder forth, doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

What do you feel is the importance of being a writer who teaches? There is that romantic image of the writer who writes all by himself, and there’s the belief rolling around that writing, especially creative, cannot be taught. What are your feelings on this?

My students also benefit from the fact that I’m a teaching artist.  Because I’m teaching required classes and none of my students are English majors, I’m always selling writing to my students.  One way to get them interested is to show them I practice what I teach.   For example, an editor recently asked me to make some changes to a story before it was published.  I brought in the draft with all the editor’s comments on it and showed it to my students.  Seeing that even the person teaching the class is subject to criticism encouraged them not to feel as much anxiety about getting feedback from their classmates and me.  It also allowed me to talk more in-depth about my own process.  I told them how long I spend writing stories and just how many revisions I make.  Whenever we have peer workshops, I share bad experiences I’ve had in workshops so that students know what type of feedback not to give.  In one workshop I had during my undergraduate program, a guy just wrote “Is there a plot to this damn thing?” on my story.  Everyone gets a laugh, but they also see the difference between what is helpful and what isn’t.  Next semester, I’m planning to include a visiting writers’ series in my classroom where I’ll ask writers I know to come in, share their work, and talk about the writing process.  Many of these people write creatively and professionally, which is important given that I teach at a technical college.  If I were not a writer who teaches, I wouldn’t be able to create these types of experiences for my students.  I’m best at teaching when my own creative life is active and rich.

To answer the second part of the question, there is of course something lonely about being a writer:  in a sense you’re always on the outside observing and making notes about the world around you.  However, being engaged with the world around you is also a large part of where inspiration comes from.  Teaching is one way that I engage with the world.  As far as whether or not writing can be taught, as a teacher, I read writing coming from people working at all levels and all abilities.  There is a certain spark I see in some people’s writing that can’t be taught.  Some people have it; some people don’t.  The people who have it will go on to write stories and poems or great essays.  But that doesn’t mean the people who don’t have it can’t learn to write proficiently enough to communicate clearly if they have enough practice.  One of the biggest obstacles I face as a teacher is students who think they can’t write or who have been made to believe they are awful writers.  Once their confidence is built, and they are given some encouragement, they can go on to write some pretty great pieces.

Have you had the experience when you’re workshopping a student piece and the class is hostile to them? How do you negotiate letting the class have their say while also keeping it civil and helpful to the writer?

I really haven’t had a situation where the class was hostile to a student piece.  One of the things I stress before we do any workshops is that we are all learners who are in the class to help each other.  I also have a PowerPoint that I show sometimes where two people are in a workshop, and each thinks something horrible about the other’s piece but finds a way to state the opinion in a constructive way.  So, instead of saying “This is boring,” I encourage them to say things like “Could you add more descriptive detail here to make this more engaging?”

When you say that you collect stories from the people around you – do you use those in your own work?

There are times when I use bits and pieces of what students tell me in my own writing. A few semesters ago, a student talked a lot about having been in the military when he was a young man.  The way that he described his experiences and his voice really stuck with me.  That voice ended up coming out in a story I wrote awhile after I had him.  It was a voice that my protagonist, who had suffered a mental breakdown, heard while he was lost– physically and psychologically.  It was a voice that seemed to guide him.  Another student wrote about experiences in Afghanistan, which were vivid and affecting, and some of what he said helped me develop a character in the novel I’m working on right now.

How do you balance the time/energy it takes to teach full-time while also continuously writing? Even as a grad student, I scoff on the myth that teachers have so much free time to run wild through the streets.

Although I love teaching, balancing writing and teaching can be very difficult.  I am constantly reading and writing, but often times I’m reading student papers and writing feedback on them.  It can be pretty draining, and after I finish reading a set of essays, I am pretty exhausted.  I also put a lot of creative energy into preparing my classes.  While I love being creative at work, the energy I put into making class enjoyable for my students comes from the same well as the energy I use for writing.  So, I have to find ways to refill the creative well:  I take walks, I read poems, I meet with my writing group.  Aside from working to recharge myself creatively, I have to work hard to carve out time to write, to revise, and to submit stories.  Trying to stick to some type of writing routine has been the most helpful way I’ve found to do this.  But, I also have to give myself permission to break that routine when need be.  Feeling like a terrible person when I get too busy working to write isn’t helpful; in fact, it’s harmful.  I have to remind myself that I will have extra time in the summer, on other breaks from school, and at the beginning of the semesters and that I will be diligent about getting as much done as possible during those times.

How do you handle the inevitable rejection of the business?

This past winter was the winter of rejection.  I went six months without any acceptances.  During that time I had several personal rejections, which was encouraging, but a personal rejection still isn’t an acceptance.  Also, when time is limited, as it always is, I sometimes have to either write or submit because I didn’t have time to do both.  Oddly enough, writing always makes me feel better.  Creating something imbues me with a sense of confidence, and I feel like I can face rejection again.  Sometimes I need to take a break from submitting and just write.  Also, talking to other writers–especially those more experienced than me–really helps.  I have a friend, Richard Carr, who is a wonderful poet and has several books of poetry published.  He just published a book that was a finalist in 14 different competitions before it finally won one.  I don’t know how many times he submitted it even to become a finalist 14 times.  Seeing that type of hard work and dedication is inspiring and also helps me get through.


Can you talk a little bit about the themes/inspirations for your work?

My writing is character driven, place driven and focuses on the connection and disconnection in human relationships, and all the joy, anxiety, and loneliness that result from those states.  I have a reputation for writing sad stories.  And it’s true:  rarely does anything I write have a happy ending.  But, as Charles Baxter said, “Hell is story-friendly.”  I think the existence of sad stories is crucial.   Sad stories prepare us for futures we are too brittle to imagine or too ignorant to recognize as possible. They allow us to experience death and loss and desperation with only a modicum of real pain. They are precursors to experiences we have not yet lived.

I recently finished a book of short stories called Six Months in the Midwest.  All of the stories are set in Minneapolis in the winter, and some have been published in magazines and journals such as Paper Darts, Revolver, Conclave: A Journal of Character, and Bartleby Snopes. I have been entering the manuscript in contests and sending it out to various small presses in hopes of finding it a good home.  Currently, I am working on a novel called The Ballad of Two Sisters.  As a short story writer, I never really pictured myself writing a novel, but I started writing short stories focused on two sisters—Helen and Stella, who die on the same day—and soon I was writing about their mother, their grandmother, Stella’s husband and son, and the mortician who prepares them for their joint funeral.  The project became too big in scope not to be a novel, but it is told in stories and in different points of view.  Spending so much time with the same characters has been both challenging and fascinating.  I’ve grown quite attached to the sisters and the people in their periphery; I know I’ll miss them when I’m done with the project.

That form – the novel in stories – were you attracted to it because of how concise the pieces are – and that they can be broken up and published separately – or do you feel that it allows you a certain freedom or constraint that you find appealing?

Since I do consider myself primarily a short story writer, writing a novel in stories seems more manageable to me.  Also, I think it does allow a great deal of freedom.  It doesn’t need to have the same relationship to time as many conventional novels do.  (And when I say “conventional” here, I’m thinking of a novel with one protagonist that progresses linearly.)   I can focus in on pivotal moments of the characters’ lives and then jump forward in time or back in time as I want to, while not jarring readers based on expectations they might have of a conventional novel. I also like the idea that readers will be putting together a whole picture based on glimpses into these people’s lives.  The relationship its given me with my characters is also beneficial. Since they’re all stars of their own stories, I never view them solely in relation to each other.

You can follow Darci Schummer at her blog: http://darcidawn.blogspot.com/