Leslie Pietrzyk on How to Build a Writing Life

Leslie Pietrrzyk and I met at the wonderful Virginia Center for the Creative Arts years ago and really hit if off. I enjoyed her first two novels and waited eagerly for the next. But as she describes in this interview, sometimes writing takes longer than we hope—and publishing even more so! But her experience shows there are ways to build a writing life, even when you’re not publishing. Her advice here is spot on and so important. Luckily for us all, she kept writing and her moving short story collection, This Angel on My Chest, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published last year. As she describes, she wrote it pretty much on her own. But Leslie is not an isolated writer. Her work is known and much admired. She’s a bright and generous star in the constellation of writers out there today.

Leslie Pietrzyk

Leslie Pietrzyk

 VP: Your two wonderful novels—Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day—came out some years ago. I read them and admired them both. And for many years, you published short stories in top notch literary magazines. But if I remember correctly, you had a hard time placing a third novel. But then, something miraculous happened: you won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and your stunning collection, This Angel on my Chest, was published this year. That prize is lucrative, well-publicized, and confirms the winner with a good degree of literary respect. So the sudden success of your short story collection must have given your career a great second wind. Can you talk about the fallow periods and the successes in a writer’s life? Is there something that you’ve learned from your experience that would be helpful to other writers about the ups and downs of what we do?

LP: A second wind, indeed! After publishing A Year and a Day, I wrote two novels that weren’t published. I was placing short stories and essays in literary journals, but I wanted another book. It’s tough to work so hard and not feel rewarded, especially when surrounded by accomplished, amazing writer friends. And on Facebook, all we see are the successes, so it feels as though “everyone else” is publishing a book and “everyone else” is having such an easy time of it—even as we understand this is not logical or even true. It can be really tough when you’re in those trenches…tough to get out, tough to keep going.

I’m not sure what helpful advice I have, ultimately, beyond keep at it. Identify the people who believe in your writing and don’t dismiss their kindnesses. Stay part of the writing community; don’t run away in shame or terror. Start new projects: I worked on my literary blog; I started an online journal for previously published work (Redux); I started a neighborhood prompt writing group. Change up your writing—your style, your content; push some boundaries and go for broke. Read excellent books.

Or not. Do none of those things.

I wish there was a clear path through those tough times. I only know what I did, and I’m not sure if what I did was helpful or was just what I did. “Write” is, I think, the answer to any question I face, so in retrospect, I’m most proud of myself for continuing to write.

VP: The impetus to write the stories in This Angel on My Chest seems particularly personal. All stories are somewhat autobiographical, if not in subject matter, than in feeling or thought. But your stories cut close to the bone of your own experience. Can you describe how you came to write them, or what the process of writing them meant to you?

LP: I didn’t really think I would write overtly about Robb’s death; I had written one story shortly after he died (“Ten Things”), and I had written about the grieving process in my novel A Year and a Day, which is set in Iowa and is about a 15-year-old girl whose mother committed suicide and the year that follows that tragedy. So I pretty much thought I was done…until a breakfast conversation at VCCA (where you and I met!!). I was chatting with a poet who was teaching a class about the literature of subcultures, and I thought it would be an interesting writing assignment to try writing about a subculture. In my studio, I scribbled out some ideas and once I saw “young widow support group,” I knew that would be hard for me to write about, and that I must. That story became “The Circle,” and as I was working at it while on the residency, I started keeping a long list of other memories and incidents from that time in my life that I wanted to write about. At the heart of each story was “one true and hard thing” from my experience, so yes, this is a highly personal book.

VP: Writing seems to have been a part of your recovery from loss. And winning the award for this third book must have felt like a great affirmation of your efforts as a writer, but also as a confirmation that when we write from the heart we’re more apt to deeply connect with readers. Your book certainly does that, and has been successful as a result. Does success change how you think about your work? Was there freedom in writing those stories when you weren’t sure they would be widely read? Have your ambitions changed over this period—can you take a breather now, or do you feel more pressure to capitalize on your recent success?

LP: I mostly wrote this book in secret, which I think was immensely freeing. My long-time writing group was dissolving, so they read only a couple of the stories. I felt that what I was trying to do—link a collection of stories through incident, with each story about a young husband who has died—was kind of an insane project. Who would do this? How could I make such a book work? Because it was such an unconventional approach, I didn’t want to hear voices in my head asking why I was doing this or how it wouldn’t work—or offering their solutions. I guess I sensed that the only way to figure out the puzzle of the book was to write it. That was scary, though, because for much of the time I had no idea what I was doing.

It’s hard for me to speak of “success.” To my mind, the book was a success without the external validation: it was the book I wanted to read after Robb died. Obviously, no book is perfect, but I found my way through the writing and emerged with the book I would have wanted to read after Robb died. But…I loved winning that big prize!

I’m just thinking now that the content of the book is very personal, as I noted, but also because the press takes the book as the judge has selected it, there’s no further editing. So the book is also personal in that it truly is a book written by ME, with very little outside input.

I’m not sure I would ever take a breather as a writer—there’s always another story to explore. And in our secret hearts, don’t we all dream of a shelf of books with our name on the spines? In the beginning, when I was growing up, I couldn’t imagine anything more remarkable than having a book I’d written in a library.

VP: How has being a teacher of writing helped you with your own writing? You have many dedicated students whose work you’ve helped shape. What does it feel like for you when they succeed?

LP: What I love most about teaching is being surrounded by smart people who want to talk about writing. My favorite kind of class is the kind where there are lots of questions, especially the sort of questions that make me think hard and run off to go research the answer for them. I love when I feel challenged by a class that wants to know more and to understand the craft more deeply. (I’m a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and I teach fiction in the MA in writing program at Johns Hopkins University.)

VP: What are you working on now? And any other advice for aspiring writers?

LP: I have a new novel that I need to re-re-revise for my agent; it’s set in 1980s Chicago, about a complicated female friendship between two college girls. And beyond that, there’s another novel dancing in my head, and I hope to get to that one this fall, when I’ll be in Scotland at a writing residency. (I can hardly believe that’s for real!!)

I love to give advice and could offer aspiring writers a million thoughts. But I’ll keep it simple here and quote one of my favorite writers and writing teachers, Richard Bausch: Write until something surprises you. That’s when you know it’s good.