Love of Reading
When I was a kid, the library was my favorite place to go. My mother took me every couple of weeks, instilling in me a life-long love of reading. Running my fingers along the spines of books, cracking one open, breathing in the antique musty scent or new inky crispness—it still a soothing habit to press my nose to the pages and inhale: words, mystery, magic.
Books took me to places far beyond small-town Ohio, transporting me to other lands and eras, introducing me to characters I still haven’t forgotten. Through reading, I learned about the intimacy and power of language. Reading offered an intense connection, both a yearning and settling into a place, like finally coming home when you didn’t even realize you were missing it.
I wanted to be a writer, but had no idea one could study writing until I landed in a creative writing course in college. My 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 widened my reading list to include international authors, including Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Nadine Gordimer, and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as a few American authors she liked: James Purdy, Eudora Welty, Fred Chapell, and Gina Berriault. We didn’t workshop our stories; we read and read and read.
I went on to earn my MFA at Penn State University, where I had the chance to participate in workshops and become part of a writing community, and commit myself to the craft of writing. I continued to read widely and deeply. Grad school is where I first encountered Beloved by Toni Morrison and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, both epic, brilliant novels that left me stunned by their beauty and ambition and truth-telling. While in grad school, I wrote a novel that I never published, and many wildly experimental short stories. I was still learning what I wanted to write, and trying to hear my own voice. Then, after graduation, like so many young writers, I moved to New York City. While juggling various jobs, I kept writing. These apprentice years were important; I was learning to commit myself to the hours writing demanded, sharpening my craft, and discovering my voice. I started writing novel number three. After The Evening Hour was rejected around twenty-five times, one day my agent called with good news.
We All Have Stories To Tell
I don’t think you need to get an MFA to write, but I do think they can be a very good path. You get to step right into a community of writers who are devoted to becoming better writers, who will read your work closely and carefully, and give you thoughtful feedback. As a writer, you spend hours upon hours alone, but you also need to share your work, talk about writing and literature, and engage with a literary community. And, while you’re earning your MFA, you’ll be doing a lot of reading: you’ll be introduced to new authors and books, and you’ll read from a writer’s point of view, paying close attention to literary techniques and strategies. You’ll receive extensive feedback on your work, and advice and encouragement from the faculty. You’ll commit yourself to a regular writing practice, one that you can continue after you graduate, and you’ll develop relationships with your peers—the hope is that you continue to read each other’s work and stay in touch after graduation. You’ll begin to understand more about your own work: what kind of writer you are or could be, and the literature your work is in conversation with, where you belong on the literary tree.
It’s such a privilege to teach—to be working with students, and discussing great literature and the writing process and the mysteries of the imagination. In my workshop, we’re a community of writers, showing mutual respect for each other and the work. We writers need to lift each other up, and be rigorous, truthful, and thoughtful in our feedback. We will examine the nuts and bolts of craft—character development, setting, tension, plot—as well as the artistry and vision of the work. I will give you specific feedback. I want to help students shape their early raw pieces into something meaningful. 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. I’ll stress the importance of revision. The pages you may end up throwing out are not a waste of time; you needed to write those pages so that you can become a better writer. I encourage students to take risks, and let themselves get lost while holding your writing to the highest standard. Writers almost always experience a moment of getting lost—an uneasy but dynamic place, a moment of important creative discovery. And, usually, craft will help you find your way out of the woods.
All of us have stories to tell. Fiction ensures that stories don’t go untold. As a queer trans man, I never saw myself reflected in the books I read, and I write, in part, to tell not just my stories, but the stories of the people I know. The stories of underrepresented and marginalized perspectives. I assign literature from diverse voices, as well as a variety of styles and forms, so that you’ll sometimes see yourself represented, but often be challenged to look outside your own lives. I believe literature can make the world a better place, build empathy, and expand our sense of what humans can create. One of my literary heroes, Dorothy Allison, says, “I believe the secret in writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage. The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides, the edge of our worst stuff. I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough.” Writing is an act of discovery, intimacy, and courage, but you also need craft in order to get those stories to sing, to transform.
Favorites and Influences
For most writers, reading is what lead us here. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read closely and deeply. Some authors and books that have influenced me over the years include:
Southern and Appalachian writers, who have been important to me for the way they write sense of place and family. William Faulkner’s work and his obsession with the past and sins of the father. Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which is in part a coming-of-age story, but it’s so much more than that, branching out into multiple lives, and engaging both political-social issues and issues of the heart. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Breece DJ Pancake.
Queer writers showed me about bravery and telling one’s story. Audre Lorde, Dorothy Allison, Jim Grimsley, Jeannette Winterson, Ocean Vuong, Garth Greenwell, Alexander Chee, Lidia Yuknavitch, Sarah Schulman, Michael Cunningham, Paul Lisicky, Carmen Maria Machado, Maggie Nelson, Hilton Als, Thomas Page McBee, Carole Maso, Melissa Febos, Scott Heim, Tennessee Jones.
The heavy-hitters, who left me shook: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of the great American novels, about the sin of America’s racism and the scars and ghosts. Virginia Woolf’s stunning, breathtaking prose. James Baldwin had one of our greatest minds, and I turn to his nonfiction for insight into racism in America, as well as to his fiction, especially “Sonny’s Blues,” a beautiful, stunning, complicated story about racism and generational pain, about brothers, about addiction and artistry. I came to Moby-Dick by Herman Melville around twelve years ago, and was floored; I had no idea the masterpiece would be so irreverent and funny, and break narrative conventions—Melville gives us whale anatomy lessons while spinning this old tale of obsession and desire. Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek by Annie Dillard sits on my top shelf—what a gift to get to spend several hours in the brilliance of Dillard’s mind.
And, there are many more authors who have influenced me, touched me, made me see the world in a different way: Louise Erdrich, WB Sebald, Italo Calvino, Denis Johnson, Anne Pancake, Edward Jones, Silas House, Robert Gipe, Crystal Wilkinson, Jennifer Egan, Kent Haruf, Jayne Anne Phillips, along with the beautiful poets: Jericho Brown, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Mary Oliver, Saaed Jones, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Richard Hugo, Mark Doty, Ada Límon, Sharon Olds, Claudia Rankine.
Some recent favorites: Women Talking by Miriam Towes; There There by Tommy Orange; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong; The Friend by Sigrid Nunez; The Overstory by Richard Powers
Author Website: www.cartersickels.com
The Prettiest Star, forthcoming, Hub City Press Spring 2020
The Evening Hour, a novel. Bloomsbury USA, 2012
Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships, and Identity, Editor, Ooligan Press, 2015
“Repairs,” Green Mountains Review, forthcoming
“This Be Madness,” Bellevue Literary Review, Issue 3: Dis/Placement, Fall 2018
Nominated for Pushcart Prize
“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