Monday, October 11, 2010

Woman Blazing: Q & A with Want Chyi, a Fiction Reader here at Our Stories

Want Chyi fell in love with the written word when her older sister read her A Wrinkle in Time when she was sick, doing all the voices. She received her MFA in fiction from Arizona State University, and has taught composition and creative writing in Indiana, Arizona, Illinois, and Singapore. In the spring of 2008, her students nominated her for a teaching award. They continue to send her philosophical musings, to which she eagerly replies. In the summer of 2008, she received an international teaching fellowship, and has been the international fiction editor of Hayden's Ferry Review. She currently resides in Chicago, IL, where she mentors adolescents in professional and creative writing. She is at work on her first novel, and her favorite character from A Wrinkle in Time is still Charles Wallace.

Here's a short Q & A we had recently with Want about her teaching and her own writing process.

Could you tell us something about your creative writing teaching? What have you found most enriching about it? 
Teaching's just a beautiful way of locating yourself as a writer--of understanding and reinforcing what you love most. When I'm in the classroom, I'm reminded that we could all be watching television or checking Facebook-- (and I get plenty of students who write with that level of inattention and frivolity)-- but instead we're determined to create a whole new world. And we're doing it together, which is truly the best part. Even the students who write like they're surfing the 'net (just looking to share an anecdote, some titillating piece of gossip to pass the time) have something to offer: the self that isn't about impressing someone. And I love that. I love coaxing that out in the form of a story, with plot and character. And I love when they offer it on their own. There's nothing like seeing the truest part of someone emerge in their writing, with encouragement from people they most likely didn't already know. You can see how they change once they hear someone talk about their work. 
For me, it's a way to fill in the blanks of writing itself, which is ultimately a solitary activity--wonderous and private, but also lonely and claustrophobic. It's a beautiful way of getting to know someone. When I'm with my students I feel young and old at the same time, like I'm hearing a song from when I was a teenager. It can be difficult and disconcerting, but I love it. It's my favorite form of nostalgia because it puts my memories, my past to good work. I meet them on the first day and certain impressions form. I take in their hair, their clothes, where they sit, how they speak, and I think I know them. But then they start to become more than names, faces, postures and outfits, and my idea of them changes. Then changes even more when they turn in their writing, start commenting on each other's work. And I get to learn what they're like: what they fear, what they rebel against, who they want to impress, what they believe in. I try to understand the whys of all that through their work.
And I am reminded of how I began, what I'm still struggling with. I'm always stunned at the stories I get. Teaching marries writing with people, two of the things I love and struggle with the most. That's what is most enriching to me. I have to face myself over and over. I get to learn more about wirting, about people. It's the best character study in the world.
Could you tell our readers and writers a little something about your own writing process? When is a draft "done" (if ever) for you?
It's hard to say if I have one! It's so fraught with hair and madness. In an interview I did with Alison Bechdel, she put it best: When setting out to make a chair, say...she will carve out one leg and start putting gold leaf on it before she's even put the other pieces together to make it into a chair. And that is totally how I write. I will compose one sentence and then quibble over one or two words for hours, and then stress out about the fact that I've only written one sentence out of the whole frickin' story. Granted, it worked for Alison: her graphic memoir Fun Home is in the top two nonfiction pieces I have ever read, and has won innuerable awards. Sadly, I don't think it will pay off quite the same for me, but I don't know how to write any other way. So no: a draft is never done for me.


margosita said...

This was one of the most beautiful descriptions of teaching I have ever come across. Really excellent little Q & A!

Want Chyi said...

Thank you, margosita!

Teaching has been one of the great privileges of my life. I wonder if you've done any yourself?

Jen Knox said...

Very inspirational interview, Want. I'm teaching at a community college here in Texas, and I have to say it is by far the most rewarding and demanding job I've ever had.

What's unfortunate is that not all teachers are as excited about what they do. From a person whose education truly transformed her life, I want to thank you for your passion!