Carter’s Credo: Meet the Bluegrass Writers’ Studio Newest Faculty Member
(by Leslie Scheuler)
Anyone who has been in a graduate program knows that some professors are outstanding in terms of their accomplishments and contributions to the field while others are particularly memorable for the amount of time and energy they invest in their teaching.
Carter Sickles, the newest faculty member of the Bluegrass Writers Studio (BGWS), is one of those instructors who embodies both aspects—writer and teacher—with thoughtfulness and a quiet intensity.
Being new to the BGWS myself, I was fortunate to take Carter’s class this past semester, "Topics in Creative Writing: Introduction to MFA Graduate Studies." We had the opportunity to talk about his teaching as well as his creative work during a recent interview.
Carter moved to Kentucky about two years ago from Portland, Oregon. He is the award-winning author of the novel The Evening Hour and the editor of Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships and Identity, a noted collection of essays from various contributors on marriage equality in the U.S.
I asked Carter about his approach to teaching. He noted that creative writers (including MFA students) gain important insights on craft by reading and discussing other writers’ work, in addition to the learning that occurs through workshop.
Carter honed his teaching philosophy through his own learning experiences as well as through teaching in low residency programs at Eastern Oregon University and West Virginia Wesleyan College and with the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, the Loft Literary Center, the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), and the Hugo House in Seattle (among others).
"[Classes like the Introduction to MFA Graduate Studies] can be intimidating for new students because we delve into literary theory even though the main emphasis is on craft and learning to write about literature . . . I try to pick diverse readings. My hope is that the class will make students more comfortable when they get to their other [non-workshop] classes and then when they’re writing their own critical introductions for their theses."
Carter’s diverse and invigorating readings for this past semester included Drown by Junot Diaz, The Warrior Woman by Maxine Hong Kingston, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and the poetry collection Atlantis by Mark Doty.
"I think theory can be intimidating—it can intimidate me too—but there are these moments when you’re reading a theoretical essay about literature and it lets you see a piece of literature in a different way. Theory can open up new areas of thinking, new questions, and new ideas for yourself and your own writing."
The class includes a series of short, critical essays, both formatted and free-form online discussions of texts, craft and theory, and a final paper incorporating critical sources on one or more of the works selected for the course.
In response to what he enjoys teaching the most, Carter said:
"Workshops are my favorite classes to teach. It’s exciting to read the students’ work, and to be a part of the conversation that happens—seeing students develop their work, grow as writers and engage as a community. . . Usually the students really love the workshops, because that’s what they are here to do."
Carter talked about a memorable workshop he took with American writer and literary critic Stacy D’Erasmo at the Breadloaf Writers Conference which Carter attended in 2008. She demonstrated, in part, how to make the kind of impact Carter was interested in creating through his own workshops.
"It was a fairly large class with many different levels of writers participating—from those at the beginning level to the very advanced. I love how she took each story and met the writer where he or she was coming from, while also holding the writer to a high standard. She encouraged the class to give feedback, and provided questions to get us thinking and talking about the story in a different way."
In teaching his own workshops, Carter says, he believes when feedback (from other students as well as from an instructor) gets overly critical, the experience “is not good for anyone. That’s not what students are here for – you’re not here to get ripped apart. I want my students to respect each other, to have a mutual respect for the work and for one another.”
When asked to expand on what makes a class rewarding for the instructor as well as students, Carter said:
"Mutual respect is number one, and providing each other with rigorous, honest and very thoughtful feedback, especially in a graduate class. [As an educator], I consider myself more of a mentor. I hope that students are learning from me, and I’m also learning from them. I think if we can have this dynamic dialogue between us, the workshop will be a powerful experience."
Next semester, Carter is teaching a creative nonfiction workshop, which a six-credit course at BGWS, and will also teach a multi-genre workshop for the 2017 summer residency in Lisbon, Portugal. “It’s exciting to be a part of the process. The opportunity to see students realize the potential of their stories or poems is empowering for me as well as for the students.”
Through this interview and my experience in his class, I would say that “Carter’s credo” for his role at BGWS focuses on the importance of building respect, rigor, and community, no matter where students are in their particular creative journeys. Through his work, Carter exhibits a practice of mindfulness, of paying attention in a particular way—with clarity of purpose and an openness to the diversity of those around him, a characteristic of his writing as well as his teaching.
Carter’s books, in addition to his published essays and short stories, explore social issues, gender identity and sexuality, economic stratification, family, and community with thoughtfulness, clarity and respect for his subjects.
Come back for a future blog to learn more about his books—not just The Evening Hour and Untangling the Knot, but also the new novel he’s nearly finished. Its working title is “The Prettiest Star,” from a song released in 1970 by David Bowie, one of the great poet-artists the world lost in 2016.
Published on January 09, 2017