Interview With University of Houston
Author: Jameelah Lang
Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?
Houston isn’t what I expected at all. I thought it would be a cold, urban monster of a city, but it’s nothing like that. Most of the students I know live in two neighborhoods: Montrose or the Heights. The neighborhoods are pretty and friendly, and they provide us with a lot of places to go. The writers I know like to go to Black Hole Coffee, Poison Girl Bar (where a fantastic monthly reading series is held), Café Brazil, the Ice House. I love to go to a restaurant called the Down House. We like the taco trucks, too. All the food trucks, really.
Tell us about your experience in class. What’s the focus of your workshops? What parts of your writing have you put the most focus on?
I’m always happy that I chose to come here, mostly because of the faculty and other students. It’s a truly supportive place, and the other writers here—both faculty and students—are so talented and still so kind to one another. Our workshops focus on so many different facets of the writing process: drafting and revision, local and global concerns, reading and writing in a wide variety of aesthetics. I think that for me, personally, I’ve given the greatest amount of attention to honing my revision process, because that’s where the real magic happens. Antonya Nelson once said to me something like, “Revise this six or seven times, or more. Save all the drafts, and then pick which one is best.” I like that workhorse attitude toward writing in general and revision in particular, because it’s the place where we get to be surgical and precise about what we’re trying to accomplish.
What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
Almost everyone I can think of here has a teaching fellowship, which is a great thing, since in programs where only some people have teaching, it seems to breed resentment. That doesn’t exist here. I’m currently teaching composition, and I’ll be teaching creative writing in the Spring. I find it relatively easy to balance teaching and writing, but it’s a skill that took a little bit of time to learn, especially because if you want to be a really good teacher—which I do—teaching can consume a good deal of your time. It was useful for me to set limits on time spent preparing, and to remember that I’m here, first and foremost, to write, and I need to save energy for that.
What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
Mat Johnson is one of my professors here. During a class when I was being workshopped he graphed out a story I had written on the board and pointed to the end, explaining how it didn’t hold up the story’s other sections. Then, he looked at me and said, “You know this part is lazy.” It’s a moment that sticks with me because it’s true, I was being lazy, and it shows how well our faculty in general, and Mat in particular, know our writing and our abilities. And it shows the extent to which they’re willing to push us into doing what we can do in the best way it can possibly be done. That kind of student-teacher relationship is totally invaluable. They always treat us like the writers we can be.
What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?
My greatest struggle in my years of graduate school has been learning how to make writing a consistent part of my life—something I do every day, regardless of whether or not I “feel” like it. It helps to be here, where my professors are working writers who I can see, in their offices, working on novels and stories. It seems much more difficult not to work hard when our teachers are working harder.
What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?
I want to finish the book I’ve been working on and start applying for teaching positions. I love teaching, and I love writing and school, and I want to do those three things for the rest of my life. The University offers professional development lectures to help us with getting our materials together and applying to tenure-track positions once we’re done. And our faculty is really great about making time to talk to and help us. I would feel comfortable talking to any of them about that—or anything else, really.
What tips would you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?
I would say: the University of Houston will give you plenty of time and support for writing, but you’re the only person who can make that your priority. Don’t take on too much, and make sure you remember that you’re here—above all—to be a writer. No one can do that for you other than yourself. It’s easy to get distracted anywhere you are.
That’s something I have to remember to tell myself, too.