- This is Poly
Writers’ Block welcomed Evan James, author of I’ve Been Wrong Before: Essays and Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe: a Novel during community time on January 29. James shared a reading and Q&A with students in Grades 7-12.
This was the third masterclass hosted by Writers’ Block, a creative writing program co-founded by Emily Ng ’21 and Kayla Thompson ’21.
“Evan is a really dynamic writer, teacher, and a joy to listen to,” said English teacher Christy Hutchcraft in advance. “He will be reading excerpts from some ‘tales,’ a new fiction project he has just completed.” Hutchcraft welcomed everyone and said she had taken a writing class with Evan James during which she learned about his writing process.
Thompson welcomed the attendees and Ng introduced James.
James’ essays and fiction have been published in Oxford American, Travel + Leisure, and The New York Times. He received an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has received fellowships from Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Carson McCullers Center, The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, The University of Iowa, and the Lambda Literary Writers’ Retreat, where he was a 2017 Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow. He is an editor-at-large for The Iowa Review. James lives in New York and teaches creative writing at Pierrepont School in Westport, Connecticut. He previously taught at The University of Iowa, The Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and Victoria University of Wellington.
James thanked them and said he was happy to be part of Poly’s creative community.
“Lately I have been writing a lot more short fiction,” James said. This is coming together in a new “collection of tales,” he said, which will be published as Strange Tales from a New York Studio and were inspired by Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling.
James read from two of his tales. The first was “Ghost of the Actor,” which tells the story of a young woman who moves from Chicago to a sublet in Brooklyn to pursue an acting career. In the night, she wakes to see a miniature group of people on her coffee table. They turn out to be actors. A “barrel-chested poet” recites a poem, “Ghost of the Actor.” She eventually joins the mini actors, who become her fellow players. In “Snake’s Tale” James weaves a story inspired by an old friend who shed an assigned female gender and took on a new name. This person, who worked as a piano tuner, had a dream about an orange snake, and the next day went to tune a piano for someone with an orange snake named Paprika.
Thompson thanked him for sharing the readings and Ng began the Q&A. “What does your writing process look like?” Ng asked.
“I’ve grown to take more creative risks over time, “ James responded. “Tales started to come together in unexpected ways. I discovered comedy in novels. I became interested in the personal novel.” He added, “I became free to experiment in ways, to mix autobiography.” He added, “I am feeling like I have a lot more techniques and material to draw on and free to take risks.”
James explained that his writing experience began during a series of newspaper internships in San Francisco and Seattle.
James wrote a “Modern Love” article for The New York Times in which he described his “psychotic imagination.” By that, he said, he means a “sense of play, a sense of surprise.”
James went on to say that folk tales are “the type of stories we tell children,” and often they “spring from bizarre primal imagination.” For example, he said, “Something happens that is not explained and he used the example of the Brothers Grimm tale “Seven Ravens,” in which someone loses a key for a lock, uses her finger, and her finger breaks off in the lock. Such things only happen in fairy tales, but are accepted, he said.
Ng asked James, “Your stories have fantastical elements. To what extent are these elements from your real life?”
“Definitely,” James responded. He said his writing is a product of “considering and reconsidering of events,” and noted there is “an emotional mystery in those events.” He continued, “Part of writing is investigation of where a person or event fits into your life.” James told the students this can lead to surprising places.
Thompson took questions from the students. Georgia Horan ’23 asked about James’ writing process. “Should someone sit down with an agenda or let the mind take over?”
“Both, and at different times,” James responded. He said it is helpful to have an outline for a novel, but that the structure “invariably mutates.” For that reason, he said, it is “advisable to cultivate both skills.” For his Tales, he said he might start with an image or an idea in an improvisational process, which “can lead to gratifying surprises.”
“What pushes you to this genre,” asked Kason Sabazan-Chambers ’23. James explained he was reading and looking for a new influence and awareness of how he responded to things. It was during this time he happened upon Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. James advised young writers to read widely and to stay open to “things that get under your skin.”
Jack Slawner ’21 asked, “How did you know you wanted to commit to writing?”
“I liked stories and writing tales,” James said. As a child, he was eager to share these stories with other kids who encouraged him by their interest or laughter. “I found it really rewarding to connect with someone else through this work,” he said.
Hutchcraft thanked everyone for coming to another Writers’ Block event.