Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Today’s Working Writer is Hillary Leftwich
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I was born and raised in the Christian dominated town of Colorado Springs, headquarters of the one and only James Dobson and Focus on the Family. It was a little surreal growing up in an environment where there really is a church on every corner. As a young child, I was diagnosed with Dyslexia and was held back in kindergarten. I secretly hated the idea of being behind all my other classmates. As a result I began to read books in an attempt to improve my reading. I read a lot of books, sometimes two or three at a time. I read my mom’s hardback collection of Stephen King and Douglas Adams novels because they were easily accessible on her bookshelf, and when I ran out of those I moved on to Edgar Allan Poe and O. Henry. Not sure how I got into Poe and O. Henry, but I remember reading “The Cask of Amontillado” and being completely captivated. Reading was a natural progression into writing short stories at the wee age of 8 (I still have the original copy of the first short story I ever wrote on my first electric typewriter), and from there I would churn out various silly short stories, more as entertainment for myself. It was a way of connecting reading into writing for me, and the urge to write just continued and never stopped. I also have a strange situation of being able to taste certain words. Some words have always been connected with certain tastes, and as a kid not knowing what was happening it would drive me crazy. I found out a few years ago this is known as Synesthesia, which is a perception of two senses being crossed, like colors and sound. I still can’t say the word picnic without getting sick. Some words are tastier than others.
As a teenager I attended a private Christian school in junior high and was harassed and bullied for three years. I was unanimously voted to play Satan in the school play. No joke. We were not allowed to dance, that was against the Bible. One teacher even strongly suggested that the girls not wear jewelry because when the rapture inevitably arrived it would all be a useless pile left on the carpet. I felt very alienated, so during this time I would focus a lot on writing as a form of expressing myself and escaping the situation I was in. It also gave me great writing material. After transferring to a public high school, my senior year English teacher convinced me to submit one of my stories to a state competition for young writers, which I did, with much hesitation. This was the first time I would be putting myself out there to everyone. I won first place. After graduating I remember being either unaware or not informed, or more than likely both, that someone could actually pursue a degree in writing, so I decided to get my degree in Cultural Anthropology, which did not work out at all. I wound up partying too hard and was put on academic suspension. I returned home with my tail between my legs, started attending a community college, and took about a ten year hiatus from writing. I had a baby and had to untangle myself from a very horrific and messy domestic violence situation with his father. I realized the only way I could better my life and my son’s life would be to go back to school, so I moved to Denver to pursue my degree in English from CU Denver. During the last semester of classes before I graduated, my son had a terrifying series of seizures and almost died, really should have died, according to the neurology staff at the hospital. I spent a week sitting next to his hospital bed while he recovered with a laptop computer, determined to finish off the semester and graduate. It took my mind off of things happening around me, things I didn’t necessarily want to absorb at that time. But my son is an unstoppable force in a small package, one that I admire and look up to because of his tenacity. He is what pushes me forward and keeps me moving, a reason to not give up. You can read more about my experience dealing and learning about his Epilepsy in my blog here.
Currently I am finishing up my MA in Creative Writing at Regis University and have been fortunate enough to work with my favorite professor Dr. Marty McGovern and other amazing writers like Harrison Fletcher . I co-organize a writing workshop through my school, The Mozaic Writing Community, and also am co-founder of a local writers group here in Denver called Denver Shitty Writers along with a wonderful writing friend of mine. My best friend is also a novelist and we support each other as well. During this creative writing program, I started writing again for the first time in over ten years. The best way to describe stepping back into writing after a long hiatus is what it felt like when I accidentally gave away my childhood security blanket. As a kid, I never went anywhere without it. There are photos of me with that blanket in almost every one of my childhood pictures. In my twenties I mistakenly donated it to a second-hand store, not realizing I had stored it inside of a decorative pillow sham so it wouldn’t continue to unravel and deteriorate. I was trying to protect it. I had hidden it away. The terror I felt after realizing I had given away my security blanket, yet the freedom of being released from that attachment, is exactly what it felt like to start writing again.
It sounds like you use your writing as a means of persevering when reality is, for lack of a better term, incredibly trying. Is this a theme throughout your work that you explore?
I would say that persevering is a theme I touch upon, but I also like to explore themes that have almost nothing to do with my own personal experiences. More often than not I use writing as a form of stepping into someone else’s shoes. I feel like my own are too familiar, or maybe I just like to explore what other people have to live through. I like to write about characters that are very different than me, to be able to share a perspective that is oftentimes completely opposite from my own. Having Dyslexia has always been a huge challenge for me, but it has allowed me to always look at everything in a different way than a lot of people. Having different perspectives in writing is always advantageous, and as an adult I have been able to turn what was once a major obstruction into something that actually works in my favor.
Can you give us an example of how you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone in your writing?
I am familiarizing myself and doing a lot of writing with micro fiction and memoir. Both of these genres fascinate me to no end. They are incredibly difficult and challenging to be successful at, and it is something I want to be able to publish in the near future. I am almost obsessed by the brevity of flash fiction and the honesty behind memoir. As a fiction writer, it took me a while to even understand the difference between memoir and fiction, how they differ, and how to write memoir successfully. Micro and memoir are interesting but elusive. They are the random strangers you see across the room and are scared to death to talk to. But they are worth approaching, worth taking the chance of falling in love with. But If I had to pick just one style of fiction, flash fiction would be my secret lover.
Was blogging also a step outside of your comfort zone, or is this a space that comes more naturally?
Blogging was definitely a step outside my comfort zone. I am naturally a private person, so allowing people in on my thoughts publicly was a little unnerving at first. Then you begin to wonder if anyone is even reading it, and after awhile you’re really just writing for you, not necessarily for an audience. That’s when writing gets real. I recently started a new blog for my writing where I combined the word limit rule of Twitter and the writing format of a typical blog. This came about after much investigation into which format for a writer is best. I could not decide if I wanted to start a Twitter account, because I personally hate the way it looks, but I also did not like how some blogs had novel length posts, so I created my own blog and I call it Nanotwit. It is brief and to the point. We get along fantastic as a result. It’s basically a blog about what I think about writing, thoughts on stories I am reading and other random things that may come to mind. For the blog about my son’s Epilepsy struggles, that actually started as a class project for my undergraduate degree. By the time I was done with it, I felt it was a pretty honest and straight-up look into the hell I had to go through as a parent dealing with a monster of a brain disorder that no one is ever prepared for as a parent. Blogging is basically an online journal, and you have to decide if you are comfortable having people you don’t know stepping into your private thoughts and feelings, taking their shoes off and making themselves at home in your head and emotions. That blog, even almost five years after the fact, is testimony of what I had to go through, and what my son managed to survive. I go back and read it, and I’ll admit it, I cry every single time, because it was such a dark time for me. I did not make all the right decisions, I messed things up. I was uneducated and not informed about Epilepsy. It was, in my own mind, my fault. I think a good parent always defaults to blaming it on themselves, I suppose it’s the curse of parenthood. It’s funny, because I think that’s what drew people to that blog, because I admitted to being in the dark about a lot of things. I think people like that, the honesty of everything. People can sense if you’re being phony in writing. It is intimidating to try to be real and honest in anything, but in writing sometimes it’s the only time you can be.
There’s that idea that writing is the solitary, somewhat lonely profession, but you’re very active in forming writing communities. Is this helpful for your process?
I think writing can be a secluded act, and this just may be a necessary aspect of writing, but it is also crucial to seek out critique from other writers and resources, whatever those might be. We all have different backgrounds in writing, so feedback can come in many different forms. I’m not the only writer out there who doesn’t have the lifestyle that allows me to be able to attend an MFA. It is a huge commitment. My chief commitment today is to take care of my son. I am lucky enough to have the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop here in Denver and my other two writing groups as well. It is also my goal to get into the Tin House Writers Workshop because there are some really amazing writers facilitating the 2014 session. If I lived anywhere near Julia Fierro it would be incredible to attend the Sackett Street Writers Workshop. But since I don’t, I had to find local resources for writing, and when I couldn’t always find them, I helped create them. I can’t say at this point in time I regret not pursing an MFA when I first graduated high school, you know, before the real world every adult warns you about actually happens to you. I wasn’t mature enough for college at that point, let alone the demands of an MFA program. If savory writing is about being honest and real, then I will take ownership of all my experiences, experiences not forged within the college setting womb. I think the important thing is to just write, not for any publications, not for anyone else, just write. Besides, I honestly don’t think editor’s have any way of knowing the difference between a piece written by someone who works full time and has kids or an MFA student at a full residency program, nor do they care, as long as the piece itself is polished and written well.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I mainly find my inspiration from people watching. This sounds old school, but trust me, it’s great for ideas. The best place to people watch is Colfax Avenue, which is notorious for prostitutes, homeless people, and anything in-between, like scary clown pimps. According to Playboy Magazine, it is “the longest, wickedest street in America“, and there is definitely a lot of truth in that statement. Never a dull moment. I also love airports, bus stations, or train depots. I can leach off other people’s anticipation they radiate when traveling. All these types of places, if you pay attention, are filled with anxious, kinetic people who wear their stories on their sleeves. It’s great to think up what they are all about, where they were coming from and where they are going.
As far as reading, I can tell you I am nerding out pretty bad reading the classics to my son like Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It’s great to see the excitement on his face, the anticipation. It makes me think of my dad and how he would read to my brother and me Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh every night before bed, regardless of whether he was exhausted or not. He knew how much we looked forward to being read to. This brings back vivid, warm memories for me, and I cannot express how important I feel reading is for a writer, or a child. In my free time I am gobbling up issues of Tin House, Colorado Review Glimmer Train, Nano Fiction, and Brevity, just to name a few, all of which are fantastic resources to discover new writers. I am also reading Abby Geni’s The Last Animal, Claire Vaye Watkins Battleborn, Ann Hood’s The Knitting Circle and Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. I am also enjoying a copy of Roy Rogers and the Ghost of Mystery Rancho my mom sent me, probably as a joke, but who knew Roy Rogers could be such a badass? Meanwhile, I am anxiously awaiting the new Haruki Murakami novel to hurry up and be translated into English already so I can read it. Contemplating learning Japanese so I don’t have to wait.