Interview by Jessica Guzman
Since graduating from WVU’s MFA program in 2011, Sarah Einstein has been busy making a name for herself in the literary world. Her book, Mot, A Memoir, won the 2014 AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction, and it is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. She has published in numerous journals, including PANK, Ninth Letter, and The Sun, as well as the anthologies Southern Sin and Writing Into the Forbidden. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She serves on the editorial staff of multiple literary journals and co-runs the blog Writers for Dinner. All this while studying creative nonfiction in the PhD program at Ohio University.
Despite her busy schedule, Sarah generously agreed to answer questions about her new book, her experiences in the literary world, and her plans for the future. Thanks to Sarah for her time, and congratulations for all her success! Please enjoy the interview below, and be on the lookout for Mot, A Memoir in 2015.
JG: What has your writing life been like after graduating from WVU? Tell me about your experiences in the PhD program at Ohio U. How do these experiences differ from your time working on your MFA? What struggles or pleasant surprises?
SE: The MFA program at WVU was wonderful in that it allowed me to focus completely on my writing and work with mentors who really took the time to focus on my work on the level of the line. Every time I write a sentence that isn’t hideous, I have Kevin Oderman to thank. In the PhD program at Ohio University, I also get to work with wonderful mentors, such as Dinty W. Moore, but the work is more focused on larger issues: how to build a collection of essays, how to teach creative writing, how to be a good literary citizen. It’s been the perfect path toward developing a writing practice: first, at WVU, with a focus on the writing itself and then, at Ohio University, a focus on how to publish that writing and how to become a working writer in academia.
JG: I know you’ve worked on Brevity. Have you also worked on other literary journals at OU? You also teach. How do these experiences influence your writing? How do they affect your writing life?
SE: I had a great three years at Brevity, and am really excited that fellow WVU MFA alum Kelly Sundberg has now stepped in to be the Managing Editor. What it taught me is that I need to do editorial work as part of my writing practice. I’m envious of those writers who really and truly can write every day; I am not one of them. With an editorial position, though, I can be disciplined about doing something related to writing every daywhether it’s reading submissions, sending out rejection (sorry!) and acceptance letters, or just attending to paperworkand that’s become very important to me. Now that my term at Brevity is up, I’ve moved on to working as the Graduate Student Advisor to Sphere, Ohio’s undergraduate literary journal, and the fiction editor at Stirring, the literary journal of Sundress Academy for the Arts. I really feel that, for me, having editorial work is key to continuing to write. The inspiration I draw from reading the submissions, the way in which it allows me a break from struggling with my own work while still letting me keep to my writing schedule, has become very important to me.
Teaching creative writing has also become essential to my writing practice, mostly because my students are so good, and so enthusiastic, and so interested. I leave workshop with so much energy and enthusiasm! It’s like a battery I go and plug myself into, and I’m really grateful for that.
JG: Tell me about Mot. For how long were you working on this memoir? What was your writing process? Did you have any particular difficulties? When did you know the book was ready for publication?
SE: Mot was my MFA thesis before it was a book, and every good thing about it I owe to my mentors, particularly Kevin Oderman, Sara Pritchard, Ethel Morgan Smith, and Dinty W. Moore. This is the great joy of being a creative writing graduate student: people who are better, more accomplished writers than you are will spend a great deal of time helping you make your own work better, and the end result will be a collaborative effort that’s much better than anything you could ever have written on your own. I wish this could be my writing practice for ever: I write some flawed thing, and then I have coffee with Kevin in his office or take a section of the book to Dinty’s workshop, and by the time that hour or two is over, the flawed thing is less flawed, and I see how to make the next part less flawed as well. As I understand it, pretty soon I’m going to be expected to be able to do this work largely on my own. I’m not at all happy about that.
JG: Despite your many projects, you blog with your husband at Writers for Dinner, which also contains posts from various other contributors. Why did you decide to start this blog? What is the blog’s purpose?
SE: We started WFD because we wanted a project we can work on together. Although we’re both writers, we work in very different parts of the literary world. Dominik writes urban fantasy and translates popular novels for the German publisher Feder & Schwert, while I write memoir and literary nonfiction, so it was hard to find much common ground. We realized we both love to cook, and we are surrounded by writers who are also graduate students and so could use a free dinner now and then, and so WFD seemed the perfect way to work together.
I have been really overwhelmed by the success of the blog. It was named a “favorite” by the journal Alimentum: The Literature of Food, has more than three thousand followers, and we have published some amazing writers including David Lazar, Jill Talbot, Kelly Sundberg and Kevin Oderman. (Go, WVU folk!) We are really grateful for the reception the blog has gotten from the writing community. It’s been a lot of fun, and we have had a lot of great dinner table conversations with other writers as a result.
JG: What are your plans for the future? What other writing projects are you working on?
SE: Right now, I’m at work on an essay collection tentatively entitled Noun: Person, Place, and Thing. Since I took a theory class from Donald Hall in my first year in the WVU MFA program, I’ve been fascinated by the ideas put forth by Paul Ricouer in Oneself as Another. Without walking too far down the rabbit hole, Ricouer posits that the self is really broken down into two parts: the what and the who. These are connected by a narrative self, the self that posits “what if” and tells itself a very edit version of what has happened thus far. The collection explores this complicated construction through lyric, collage, braided, and narrative essays. That sounds overly thinky, probably because it’s also my dissertation project. Hopefully, the collection will be more compelling than I’ve been able to make it sound here.
JG: What advice would you give current students in the MFA program here at WVU (or anywhere)?
SE: Write! Get involved in literary journals and help to stage readings and read everything you can get your hands on, but most of all, write and listen to what your mentors say about what you have written.
Thank you, Sarah!