Wellesley Writes It Interview
by E.B. Bartels
Post originally appeared on Wellesley Underground on August 8, 2015.
It is an honor to converse with E.B. Bartels whose work appears extensively in close to two dozen publications. Most recently, she graduated with an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, where she founded Catch & Release, the literary blog and online magazine of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. At Wellesley, she won the Jacqueline Award in English Composition for her essay “Russian Face,” which you can now read in the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. In addition to being a prolific writer, E.B. is a teacher, a photographer, and was also an alumna editor for our very own Wellesley Underground.
WU: You were a Russian Language and Literature major and Studio Art minor at Wellesley, though you also wrote extensively for the college’s student life magazine, Counterpoint. What were your biggest influences from Wellesley on your writing? Did you know you wanted a career as a writer back at Wellesley? How did you find yourself in your major and minor?
EB: My falling-in-love-with-writing story is pretty boring––it’s the same old thing that so many writers tell: I loved books as a kid, I started reading at a super young age, I wrote extensively in journals throughout my adolescence, I did independent writing projects in high school, blah, blah, blah, you know how it goes. I was so smitten with writing that I actually enrolled in a class at Wellesley in summer 2005––the summer after my junior year of high school. It was Writing 225 with Marilyn Sides, and it took place in a very warm room in the back of Clapp Library with a mix of students ranging from current Wellesley students to adults from the town to other precocious high schoolers such as myself. I loved that class and Professor Sides, and when I got into Wellesley, there was no question in my mind that I was going to be an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing, with maybe a Studio Art minor because I’d always loved photography too. I was even all set to ask Professor Sides to be my advisor. Done and done.
But then, at the end of my senior year of high school, I went to hear one of my favorite writers ever––the playwright Tony Kushner––speak at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. Afterwards there was a book-signing, and I went up to Tony Kushner and gushed all over him about how much I love his plays and how much I also love writing and I just wrote a play that my friend directed at our school and I was starting college in the fall and I was definitely going to study creative writing––and he interrupted me. Don’t major in creative writing, he said. I thought I heard him wrong. He went on to tell me to study anything else, to study everything besides writing, or I would be mechanically good at writing with nothing interesting to say. I took this advice very seriously, and when I arrived at Wellesley, I enrolled in Russian 101 to fulfill my language requirement. I immediately fell in love with the language––puzzling out Cyrillic, fantasizing that one day I would be able to read Anna Karenina in the original (LOL)––and I realized that majoring in Russian would give me the excuse to travel abroad and travel abroad far away, which was something I desperately wanted to do since I grew up in a town not even twenty minutes away from Wellesley. I thought that studying Russian would give me plenty of material to write about, which it did.
I started writing for Counterpoint while I was living in St. Petersburg my junior year. Some of my good friends from ‘09 were on the Counterpoint editorial staff and gave me a monthly column which basically was “E.B. Rambles On About Something Relating To Russian Culture For A Couple Hundred Words” and I loved it. I enjoyed feeling that I was still part of the Wellesley community while so far away, but I also loved the deadlines and trying to come up with a new, exciting topic each month, and I enjoyed getting to develop my own voice and sense of style. When I came back to Wellesley my senior year, I took the only creative writing class I ever took in college––Travel Writing with Professor Sides, in the same hot room at the back of Clapp as that summer class––and it blew my brain. Before that I had thought oh, I’ll do the Russian Literature PhD route which most Russian majors seem to pursue, or I thought I would go into translation, or maybe get an MFA in photography, but Professor Sides’s travel writing class made me remember how badly I had wanted to be a writer before I got to Wellesley. So as I panicked about what to do next, I applied to be an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow at a school in Dorchester. I worked at Mother Caroline Academy for two years, teaching fifth and sixth grade girls English, Literature, Social Studies, and Art, and that sealed the deal. Seeing eleven-year-olds freak out with excitement about writing spoken word poems or coming up with their first-ever short story made me remember my own love of writing, and so that was that. I applied to get an MFA.
WU: Did you notice a difference in the community between Wellesley and Columbia? What was it like being in a co-ed writing environment as opposed to a women’s college?
EB: Columbia is known for having one of the largest MFA writing programs, which is part of why I chose it. I knew that if I ended up at a place like Brown, where you have all your workshops with the same four other people for the two or three years of your MFA, I thought I would lose my mind. And, though I didn’t realize it going into getting my MFA––I thought I was getting the degree just to become a better writer––the whole point of going to graduate school for art is to develop an artistic community. An MFA degree is no guarantee of employment, and a lot of artists out there are very anti-MFA––feeling it’s a waste of money and time and that you can be a perfectly successful artist without one, which is true––but in getting my MFA I met a whole lot of amazingly wonderful fellow writer friends, and it was as if this big hole I had in my heart that I hadn’t realized existed was suddenly full. Suddenly having this gang of friends who just got it when I didn’t want to go out for drinks because I was finishing an essay, or who would want to sit at a bar all night and talk about their favorite memoirists or how they were having a moral dilemma writing about their family or ex-boyfriend or whatever, it was incredible. I say get an MFA just to find those people. They’ll let you bounce ideas off of them, they’ll listen to you cry about getting rejected from McSweeney’s again, and they’ll edit your writing forever.
At Columbia, the writing program is divided into three genres––Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction––and while some people complained that such a large MFA program gets very competitive, I found that seemed to apply to some genres more than others (cough, Fiction). Nonfiction was this big, emotional family––maybe because right away in workshop we were sharing some of our darkest secrets and feelings in our pieces and it was like Group Therapy Lite––and there were thirty-five of us, so there were enough people to mix up who was in your workshop and classes each semester, but few enough that we knew each other all pretty well by the end. Also Nonfiction felt a lot like Wellesley, because, more so than the other genres, Nonfiction was mostly women––I think it was something like thirty women and five guys in my year. My thesis workshop with Lis Harris was all women, and it was awesome.
Though something I did notice about being in a co-ed environment––and I’m talking about all the genres here, not just Nonfiction––was a divide in the confidence between the men and women writers. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all of the men or all of the women, but I noticed that often the men were much more confident about their writing, with no doubt they were on their way to being the next Jack Kerouac or David Foster Wallace, while many more of the women seemed to suffer from Impostor Syndrome––feeling they didn’t deserve to be in the program, not sure how they got in, totally unsure if they would ever make a career of this whole writing thing. I definitely fell in the latter category. I have my MFA, and I still feel like a total fake. I feel like a fraud being featured in this series on Wellesley Underground––I have been forcing myself to say “I’m a writer” when people ask what I do, as opposed to defaulting to whatever my paying day job is at the time: “I’m a babysitter” or “I’m a teacher” or “I’m an intern at a literary agency.” But fake it ‘til you make it, right?
WU: Your focus at Columbia was creative nonfiction. Can you explain a little what this is and what inspired you to pursue this track?
EB: I chose nonfiction because I realized I needed to stop lying to myself. In high school I would sometimes write “short stories” which were stories inspired by my own family’s lore, and then I wrote this play about a grandmother, mother, and daughter who have coffee together once a week and talk a lot and occasionally get into big blow out fights, weirdly just like me and my mother and grandmother, and I realized that fiction isn’t my thing. I think every writer starts off thinking that to be a Real Writer you have to write The Next Great American Novel, but then as you get older, you start to notice all these other amazing types of books out there, and you start to think, hey, maybe I can write The Next Great American Biography or The Next Great American Collection of Essays. All the writing I did at Wellesley for Counterpoint was all in the personal essay and travel writing camp, so when it came time to apply for my MFA, I only looked at programs that offered nonfiction, and Columbia has one of the oldest and established creative nonfiction programs, which is another reason why I chose to go to school there.
Now, to clarify creative nonfiction: no, I did not go to Columbia Journalism School. (The number of times I have to tell people this over and over blows my mind.) And, no, I am not working on a “novel.” But I understand why it’s confusing, because what I do falls somewhere in between––not that I make things up, no, none of that James Frey garbage, but that I take real information, real stories, real people, real things from the real world, and write about them in a way that reads much like a short story or a novel. You find a way to take the events of an ordinary life and order them and structure them in a way so they build on each other to make a plot that is exciting to read––just like in a novel. I like to think about it like this: fiction writers are composing music in a room that is silent––making up everything as they go, while nonfiction writers are composing music on a very noisy, crowded, loud street––filtering the din to hear only the sounds they want for their piece. A way I like to try to explain the difference between journalism and creative nonfiction is that journalism is like the video footage they show on the local news to get the information across, while creative nonfiction is like a Ken Burns documentary. Though I think a lot of journalists would have beef with that statement, and, to be truthful, there is a lot of overlap––I’ve read articles in The New York Times, which would probably be called journalism just because they’re in a newspaper, that are as gorgeous and artful as any memoir or personal essay.
WU: You write a column Non-Fiction by Non-Men for The Fiction Advocate. Can you tell us a little about the writers you have interviewed and this experience?
EB: Why, yes! Thank you for asking about my Non-Fiction by Non-Men column. Ahem. (Yes, that’s a link. Click it. Thanks.) I began the column because a personal mission of mine is trying to read more books by underrepresented groups of writers––women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. I am continually horrified by the statistics that VIDA puts together each year––in so many major publications, male writers continue to outnumber women by vast proportions, not to mention how many more books by men get reviewed than books by women, let alone books by white people than books by people of color, let alone books by straight people than books by LGBTQ people. It’s depressing. And at one point in grad school someone asked me to name my favorite writers, and I realized that the group I had quickly rattled off (Nabokov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy, Chekhov) were all white men. So I thought to try to do my own little part by showcasing some really incredible women writers of nonfiction in this column. So far I’ve interviewed biographer Patricia O’Toole, historian Andie Tucher, former New Yorker staff writer Lis Harris, and Cris Beam, who has written about queer/trans issues and also the American foster care system. Upcoming I have an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson whose book Negroland: A Memoir comes out in September, and also one with Jennifer Finney Boylan, whose memoir She’s Not There was the first bestselling book by a transgender American. I’m constantly in awe by these women––by the work they’ve created, the junk they’ve had to put up with as women in a male-dominated field––and I love that this column gives me an excuse to ask them a million questions about their lives and careers. It’s very comforting for me, personally, to hear their stories and advice because it quells my own anxieties about trying to make it as a writer.
WU: You are currently working on two books, one based on your MFA. thesis. Can you tell us a little about these projects?
EB: My MFA thesis was a memoir and historical narrative about my family’s small business––an insurance agency in Somerville, Massachusetts that has been in our family now for almost a hundred years. While the business has barely changed, our family––and the city of Somerville––has evolved significantly around it, and my thesis was about how a family can evolve from factory-working, fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, into privileged, upper class, Ivy-League-attending artist types through this one, tiny, prosperous business. The book is about how hard people work to protect themselves from all kinds of loss––saving up money, obsessively going to doctors, buying expensive insurance policies, checking and double-checking and worrying about every possible worst case scenario and thinking you’ve got it all covered––but how, in the end, you can’t protect yourself from everything. Loss, and death, are inevitable.
My other project is actually about loss too. This book project is a collection of linked essays about all the pets I’ve had, and all of the unfortunate ways they’ve died. Three of these essays have already been published on The Toast under the series Dead Pet Chronicles. But in addition to my own personal stories, I’ve been researching all the varied and wild ways that people mourn their animals––pet cemeteries, taxidermy, mummification, artificial diamonds made from cremated ashes. It’s amazing what people do for their pets. Though, I think the thing I like the most about working on this project is that as soon as I tell anyone about it, it’s like being the priest at confession––people open up to me about hamsters trapped in walls and puppies they ran over with cars and fish they replaced without kids knowing.
WU: Is there a particular essay that you have written that has the most significance to you?
EB: “Freedom, My Dear” was published on The Butter. The fact that it was published on The Butter alone is hugely significant to me––The Butter is the sister site to The Toast, run by amazing essayist Roxane Gay. The fact that Roxane Gay, whom I worship, read my essay, and, not only that, liked it enough to publish it––I died a little with joy when that happened. But more so than that, writing “Freedom, My Dear” was a really important experience for me. The essay started out as a total mess––all these different ideas stemming from an experience at the Russian Baths in New York––and I was really lucky to have one of my best writer friends and editors-for-life, Ariel Garfinkel, go through at least half-a-dozen drafts as I tried to figure out what I was saying. I would like to point out that several other writer friends also read drafts of this essay, and for them, I am forever grateful as well, but Ariel not only helped me figure out structure––she also patiently pointed out flaws in my logic and thinking and gently helped me see when I was actually making some unintentional but extremely transphobic comments about women’s spaces. Writing that essay made me examine my way of thinking, and my own inner prejudices and biases, and try to understand how to fix them. And even so, the end result wasn’t perfect––one commenter on the essay pointed out that I had made some assumptions about trans women’s genitalia, which I hadn’t intended to do, but I had nonetheless. That essay, to me, is the perfect example of how writing can help you figure out not just how to say something, but how to think and what you think, and how we are all always growing and learning as people, no matter how old we are. Also, writing that essay made me really appreciate having honest and kind friends/editors like Ariel who are willing to provide a safe space for me to try out ideas and call me out on things.
(And now go read Ariel’s essay on Salon. It’s incredible.)
WU: Do you participate in visual art projects as well?
EB: Alas, since college, not so much. While teaching at Mother Caroline Academy, I did do a photography project of my students’ accessories, but besides that, I’ve really been focusing on writing exclusively for the past three years. I’m still a visual learner––I will forget something entirely unless I see it written down, and I draw these crazy charts to try to figure out the structure of my essays and writing projects––and even while I’m writing, I’m always thinking of visual components to complement the work. My thesis was full of photographs and scanned letters and doodles and artifacts, and it’s very hard for me to separate words from visual components. Similarly, most of my photography, painting, and printmaking projects in high school and college involved words. For example, I took a lot of photographs of graffiti around my high school and then did double-exposure prints of the words overlapping with other images I had taken. Words and images go together for me. My dream is to find an agent/editor one day who supports my visual art drive and will allow me some say in illustrations/photographs in my book. But that might be a pipe dream. Publishing houses have whole art departments for that stuff.
WU: What is the most important message you try to communicate through your writing?
EB: One of my professors at Columbia said that every writer has a theme or subject that they just can’t shake, and that every one of a writer’s works can be traced back to scratching at one idea. I guess, at least with my two book projects, I am trying to understand how people try to protect themselves from––and later cope with––loss and death. I also want to understand and show the role that humor plays in the darkest times. I love a good black comedy. As my grandfather says: what’s the difference between a Russian tragedy and a Russian comedy? In a Russian tragedy, everyone dies. In a Russian comedy, everyone dies happy.
WU: You are also an extensive reader. Any recommendations for WU readers?
EB: Yes! I have so many recommendations! I set a goal for myself that in 2015 I am trying to read fifty books by women, with a majority of those books by women of color. You can check out my blog for updates on the challenge and to see the twenty-seven books that I have read so far in my 1st Quarter Check-In and 2nd Quarter Check-In posts. Also, follow me on GoodReads to see what I am reading in real time!
WU: What plans do you have for your writing future?
EB: Short-term––I will be teaching middle school again this fall, so I hope to learn how to balance the demands of working full-time in a school with making space for my own writing and reading because, to be honest, I think making time for my own writing and reading makes me a better teacher––what example are we setting for students if teachers are not continually in the process of learning themselves as well? I also am applying to writing residency programs for school vacations and next summer. Long-term––I want to finish one of my book projects so it feels strong enough to begin to query agents, so then I can obtain an agent, create a book proposal, find an editor, get a book deal, the whole glamorous thing. And, eventually, one day, I hope to be able to teach writing at the college or graduate school level, because I find, selfishly, that I am a better writer when I am also teaching. Students give me creative energy and drive, plus they hold me accountable––I can’t go around telling them to write if I am not writing anything myself.