Books, Part I
When I was a kid, the library was my favorite place to go. My mother took me every couple of weeks. I remember walking down the aisles, running my fingers along the spines. Cracking open a book, breathing in that mysterious, musty scent or new inky crispness. It’s something I still do, press my nose to the pages. Call me old-fashioned, but when I read, I still need to hold a book in my hands and turn the pages.
Books took me to places far beyond small-town Ohio. It amazed me back then, and still does, that printed words on a page could tell stories that felt as real to me as my own body—words drawing me into strange but familiar worlds, and introducing me to characters who stayed with me all of my life. I read all the time, and wrote stories and poems. But I think it was reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton in the fifth or sixth grade that made me want to become a writer. I too wanted to write about a gang of tough, tender young greasers. And, just like Hinton, I too would publish my first novel at age sixteen. Well, what did I know?
It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized you could even study creative writing. My first creative writing professor was an older woman from the South who held international authors in high esteem and didn’t try to mask her disdain for most contemporary American writing. She exposed me to the work of international authors, including Milan Kundera, Nadine Gordimer, and Gabriel García Márquez, and to under- the-radar American authors, including James Purdy and Gina Berriault. We never workshopped anything. After I turned in my first story, she returned it a few weeks later with just a few checkmarks. I flipped the pages. No comments. Then, at the end of the story, in black ink and neat cursive, I found this: “A fine story.”
It was not a fine story. But at the time I just needed someone to tell me that the bad was okay: the point was to keep writing. And I did: I wrote many bad stories, but I kept writing. That same professor told me to get my MFA, which I knew nothing about. I went to Penn State, and learned from wonderful teachers about craft and dedication and hard work. After three years, I had my degree and no idea what to do for a living, so I moved to New York City. While juggling various jobs, I wrote short stories and a novel that never found a home. These apprentice years were important: I was figuring out who I was as a writer, and developing my practice and my craft. After almost ten years in New York City, I moved to North Carolina to earn an MA in Folklore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A few months before I graduated, my agent called with good news. The Evening Hour, after being rejected twenty-five or thirty times, would be published. Needless to say, I didn’t publish my first novel at age sixteen, or even twenty-six. More like thirty-six.
Although I found first creative writing professor’s spare response inspiring, it’s not a teaching style that works for me – I mark up students’ work, offer generous feedback, and ask questions. I don’t want to “fix” the work, but I try to encourage the writer to listen for the story’s heart and lean into the hotspots. Fiction ensures that stories don’t go untold, I tell my students. I want them to learn to sit deeply with their own work and with the literature we read for class.
Before joining the Bluegrass Writers Workshop, I taught in low-residency programs at West Virginia Wesleyan College and Eastern Oregon University. I’m thrilled to be the Visiting Writer at Eastern Kentucky University. Teaching writing is a gift—I get to spend my time with people who love books and find beauty in words.
As a writer, you spend hours upon hours alone, but you also need to share your work, talk about books, and be engaged in conversation with the literary community. Whether in a brick and mortar or an online classroom, students connect with each other and forge close relationships during the workshops. A successful workshop requires mutual respect for each other and the work. We writers need to lift each other up, and be rigorous, thoughtful, and honest in our feedback. In the best workshops, we grow into a community of writers, a tribe of storytellers.
I tell my students, sometimes you need to give yourself permission to write badly. Take risks and go in new directions, but also hold yourself to the highest standard. Writing is an act of discovery, intimacy, and courage, but without craft, you’ll never get those stories to sing. You have to study the nuts and bolts—the way words work on the page, how characters, setting, and plot build the narrative. It’s a pleasure to watch students, through their practice, hard work, and attentiveness, begin to recognize the potential of their own stories.
Books, Part II
My first love is reading, which carried me into the world of writing. I’m drawn to work that takes risks, that surprises me. I crave stunning language, complicated characters, a strong sense of place, a palpable tension.
I have too many favorites to list, but here are a few that have left impressions on me:
First, Faulkner: for his lyricism, his vision, his beautiful, wounded settings and troubled characters. Absalom, Absalom, Go Down, Moses, The Sound and The Fury, and As I Lay Dying. I find myself turning again and again to the Southern writers. Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty.
Virginia Woolf’s language and brilliance stun me every time, especially To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. For stark Appalachia, I look to the stories of Breece Pancake. Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison are two of my literary heroes. I love Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson—a gritty, lyrical hymn. Also among my favorites: Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and The Known World by Edward Jones. WG Sebald is spellbinding. Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek by Annie Dillard is on my favorite shelf.
Queer authors showed me not to be afraid to tell my truth: James Baldwin, Dorothy Allison, Mark Doty, Adrienne Rich, and many newer voices, including Alexander Chee and Justin Torres. Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley is especially an important book for me – a tender, violent story of love and grace, and the first time I ever read about a queer character living in a rural area. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and White Girls by Hilton Als are brilliant, and made me see the world in new ways.
For most writers, reading is what lead us here. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read closely and deeply, like a writer.
The Evening Hour, a novel. Bloomsbury USA, 2012
Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships, and Identity, Editor, Ooligan Press, 2015
“Wildlife,” Guernica, The Boundaries of Gender Special Issue, March 2015,
“Saving,” The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, Eds. Tom Leger and Riley MacLeod, (Topside Press, 2012)
“Early In My Transition, Two Teenagers Helped Me Embrace My Identity,” BuzzFeed, April 22, 2015, http://www.buzzfeed.com/cartersickels/early-in-my-transition-two-teenagers-helped-me-embrace-my-id#.qgqM3x65Dz
“Bittersweet: On Transitioning and Finding Home,” Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia,Eds. Adrian Blevins and Karen McElmurray, (Ohio University Press, 2015)
“Letter to Self,” The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves, Ed. Sarah Moon, (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012)
“Johnson City,” Appalachian Heritage, Spring 2014
“Photograph, 2007,” Still 9, Summer 2012