–by Chelsea Kindred, for The Fourth River
Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published in 2012. She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton.
Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The 2013 Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards.
She is Professor of English at UC Davis, directs the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world.
She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
Writer, teacher, and traveler Pam Houston joined Chatham University’s Summer Community of Writers in 2014 as the featured fiction writer. Here she explores the idea of community and how writers create, hold, and experience a safe place to enhance their writing.
The Fourth River: How did you find community as an emerging writer?
Pam Houston: I found my first writing community as an undergrad at Denison University. Getting out of my angry, violent, tiny and isolated household to Denison was like literally coming out of the darkness into the light. My professors were aging hippies who wore ceramic peace signs around their neck and told us all of our dreams could come true as long as we worked hard and kept the greater good in mind. I majored in English and concentrated in Creative Writing. We had a group that went over to the professor’s house to meet and it was heaven. Literally heaven. I didn’t even [study] abroad, even though I’m a traveler, because I couldn’t bear to leave for one semester.
Then I was a ski bum for three years. I went to graduate school [at the University of Utah] and I went thinking it would be the same as Denison, but it wasn’t. It was much more competitive and more dysfunctional- yet we had a community. There were many good writers who were my colleagues in the program and we taught each other a lot. Deborah Monroe and I were there together; the wonderful poet Christopher Merrill was also a student at that time. We really helped and taught each other. Those were valuable years, even though I walked out on my Ph.D. a few hours short because I was tired of the faculty and administration treating creative writers like second-class citizens.
It was the best decision I ever made. I didn’t know it at the time. I literally walked out of the building and I didn’t go back to get my coat or my books. I learned a ton at Utah and I became a writer at Utah and I wrote my first book in that program, the book that gave me my whole career so I don’t regret anything. It was just that one day I had to go. And of course everyone said “You’ve thrown your whole life away” and that wasn’t true at all. I’m a full professor. I directed a program for twelve years in one of the most famous institutions of higher learning in the country (The University of California at Davis.) It didn’t turn out to be the big mistake that everyone thought it was. It showed me that I didn’t have to be pushed around.
Since [the success of Cowboys Are My Weakness], I have tried to pay it back. I was embraced by the literary community when my first book came out. It was sort of unexpectedly and stupidly successful. All the other good things of my career have come out of it and people were so kind to me that since then I really have committed to building a healthy community for young writers.
I also started a nonprofit because I believe in making community. Writing By Writers has three conferences a year that bring writers together. I am an only child from an isolating family so it matters to me to bring writers together and have them know they’re not alone. [I want them to] learn from each other and share ideas.
TFR: How would you define a healthy community?
PH:Where people feel supported, where people feel free to expand themselves creatively, aesthetically, emotionally. My job as a teacher and as a community maker is to create and hold a space where people feel like taking risks. Aesthetic risks, emotional risks, artistic risks, even personal risks.
A lot of people [at Summer Community of Writers] wrote things they said they’d never thought they could write. That’s the best news to me. That’s the best thing I could hear. As it happens that is often the best writing they’ve done, too, which is also very gratifying.
TFR:What is your approach to leading a workshop?
PH: Everyone introduces themselves and I ask some funky questions, like what song would you take with you to a desert island. I want people to be people in the workshop first. I usually confess a thing or two to say we’re all safe here; we can all talk about our mistakes or our flaws.
I have writing exercises that are really good for getting people out of their fear. I have certain passages from Wallace Stegner, Steve Almond, David Mamet, Margaret Atwood. I always think its good to say the big important things to students in a couple of different ways at once, so I bring their voices in.
What is most important is making and holding a space where people feel safe- the critiquers as well as the critiqued. It’s awesome if the level of the conversation is intelligent; it’s awesome if people bring their compassion. A lot of it is encouraging the good things that are happening naturally in the room and being a bit of a watchdog against things turning sour.
TFR:What makes a good workshop participant?
PH: I think everyone has to bring their attention and their good will. I ask that the students take each other seriously and take their work seriously.
Participants must understand that [a ten day intensive workshop] is exhausting, but this is the time when you don’t feel isolated. Everyone around you understands what you go through with this thing that matters. You’ve got to store that in yourselves for when you part and you are alone or with your family or with people who don’t get it. You’ve got to store it up and use it later when you feel like you’re the only person in the world who ever wanted to write a sentence.
When I’m teaching I know I’m being useful. So many people read things [this week] that were meaningful to them and I just made the space for it to happen.
TFR: I heard there were a lot of tears in workshop today.
PH: I always say it’s not a workshop til somebody cries.
TFR: With this balance that you’re striving for- the give and take and giving back to writers- how do you nourish your creative self? Is it through travel?
PH: Yes, travel is a big one. There’s nothing like a new place- even if that place is Pittsburgh, it doesn’t have to be Mongolia. Nothing gets me wanting to write more than a new place.
I read my very favorite authors. I read a lot of poetry. I read Carl Phillips’ poems and that makes me want to write. His poems make me think that writing is the most important thing anyone could ever do. Nature and hiking- when I’m home and I have some extended time it’s about getting out with the dogs and moving my body and then coming home and writing.
TFR: How did you achieve the balance of intake vs. output, prioritizing thesis and publishing and life, as a new writer?
PH: In my late 20s and early 30s all I wanted was to be outside in nature and I think that helped me to not obsess. I wrote from a very early age just to be sane. So I never thought I wasn’t going to write.
I didn’t really know what happened to me until years after Cowboys happened. It was dizzying. I certainly never thought I’d get published while I was in graduate school and I certainly never thought my book would become a best seller. I had one goal and that was to get one story in Best American Short Stories, and then I did and I was out of goals. Not to say I was goalless, but I didn’t know what to make my goals. My real goals were to run a river I’d never run or to get a dog.
And maybe that’s good. I knew very early on that nothing that happens to you as a writer will feel better than when you nail a paragraph. There’s nothing that feels as good as having something to write and getting up from the computer thinking you nailed it. No matter what happens to you in the publishing world, there’s no feeling that you could ever have that equals that. That’s the reason to do it. And that’s really the only reason to do it.
Now if it works out that you can make your living this way, and you don’t have to have your crappy job, that’s fantastic, that’s a bonus. But there’s nothing that feels better than nailing that paragraph.
TFR:Who are your desert island authors?
PH: Toni Morrison
TFR:What is your desert island playlist?
The Beatles “Hey Jude”
Mavis Staples “I’ll Take You There”
Wilco “Via Chicago”
Pam Houston’s Workshop Reading List
Atwood Negotiating with the Dead
Wallace Stegner Angle of Repose
Steve Almond This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey
David Mamet Writing In Restaurants
Chelsea Kindred is a fiction writer living in Austin, TX, evangelizing for international education by day and pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing by night. She keeps watch for life’s glimmers.