Melissa Gutierrez is an artist and writer living and working in Northern California. Find her on Twitter @mmgutz and Instagram @mmgutz.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Melissa Gutierrez
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
I started reading at a really early age, and I think developed an ear for the way words fall that has given me what a lot of people call “natural talent”. However, I think that really just equates to a lot of time nerding out over books, magazines, newspapers, advertisements, real estate brochures—whatever I could get my hands on. After that, I had a string of individuals—everyone from elementary school teachers all the way up to college professors—who called me aside at some point and specifically encouraged or challenged my writing abilities. I particularly credit my college Advanced Comp professor for telling me to apply to MFA programs, as well as another honors college professor for pushing me to choose Arizona. I’m not someone who ever sat around writing stories or novels so the impulse of others on me in this field has been the most initiating force of all. I thrive on feeling honored/taking responsibility for things, so once I get a little momentum from people like that, I can run with it from there—but I wouldn’t have done it without them.
You’ve published both essays and short stories in several different magazines, including [PANK] and Iron Horse Literary Review — what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?
The publication process is SLOW! A piece you write in one day will take you months or years to submit, get rejected, resubmit, get rejected again, and so on and so on and so on, before you finally find a home for it. This is something that is frustrating to me about the literary world in comparison to say journalism or other tech communications roles writers can play in the 21st century. However, I’ve really enjoyed seeing lit mags get online and make things happen fast and start overlapping with mainstream news sources more and more. It’s more important to me that people I know and care about read a piece I wrote—that something I write contributes to some public dialogue–than if I get paid for it. I always submit to top tier lit mags, just in the hope that someone at say The Atlantic might see my name for a second before tossing my work into the slush pile. Additionally, I have a handful of middle-tier lit mags that I’ve followed, read, and developed relationships with that I keep aiming to get my work in just because it’s become a community thing for me. Currently—and especially given the political climate—I’ve been wondering if I should be writing more editorial or creative nonfiction type freelance work, rather than working on a novel or something long on my own on the side. That way I can aim for big mass-market publishing houses in the long-term, while still keeping my name/craft up in a more public writing sphere. But we’ll see!
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?
I’ve always been interested in family, close friendships, and my home state of California. Those are all things that I live, so it’s what I know and what comes easy to me. People are complex and multifaceted and you can write about them forever; likewise, my home state. I don’t think it matters what you are exploring in your writing so much that it matters that you are exploring — I like writing and reading as acts of exploration, discovery, learning, uncovering, understanding. I’d say the writings I have made that I’ve liked best have consistently been of that quality. I’ve “tried on” other ways or forms — in particular we did a lot of form work in the UA MFA — which is always fun and interesting, but I think I’m arriving at that I like being straightforward best. There are so many mixed messages in the world already and I’d like to contribute to some greater sense of clarity or understanding rather than forge a new or esoteric path.
What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?
I got into “literary world” by picking up a Chris Bachelder book at a library, then reading one of his author bios and tracking down his influences: David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson, Padgett Powell. Around the same time I also read Steve Almond’s Candyfreak; Chris & Steve’s voices & patterns are probably most ingrained in my writer DNA than anyone else’s. I listened to a talk about writing by Chigozie Obioma and it made everything make sense to me, plus his work is incredible, so him too. I also love Kurt Vonnegut (for his straightforwardness), Don DeLillo (for his Americanness), and John Steinbeck (for his Californianess), but I’m constantly searching for female authors I love… short stories by Cathy Day and Judy Budnitz were my fiction foundation. I wish there were more female fiction authors I loved fiercely that I could name off the top of my head.
What would you say is the most important element for crafting a short story, or for discovering a new mode of creativity, such as your artwork that is also displayed on your website?
Tough question! I’ve always been both a visual artist and a writer largely because I was lucky enough to have parents who let me do those kinds of things, ask questions, and explore. At the core —I can get all hippie dippie when talking about this so I try to watch it—I believe that almost everything is an act of creativity. It bothers me that there’s a divide between the “creative” world and the rest of things we do. I think making your bed, brushing your teeth, making breakfast, getting to work, doing your bills, planning your week—these are all creative acts. Math is creative. Science is creative. Sports are creative. Video games. Fishing. Sitting in traffic. You name it, I’ll write you a two-thousand word argument for why it’s creative. I think creativity is a way you can learn to see the world. It’s all building and taking apart and reconfiguring and remaking. I think if you learn to see things like that, then boring things too become beautiful. You inject life into things by the way you interact with them — that’s creativity. That’s what I try to do with a story or a painting. Culturally, we have these traditions and systems—I learned English, I know basic grammar, someone somewhere along the line invented poems and essays and stories and articles— you take that and work with it and you make it something special or you make it something different. I like to have reasons for doing that, though… I never just want to write a story just to write a story. I wish it were that magical. To me it’s all a tool: I’m going to write this story because it’s on the syllabus and I need to get a grade. I’m going to write this story because I’m mad at my ex and this will be a good way to deal with it. I’m going to write this story because I miss my friend. I’m going to write this story to impress my mom and her buddies. I’m going to paint this painting to decorate my friend’s new house and she likes wolves and sunrises so there you go. That was a lot of blabbing to get at a point I’m comfortable articulating shortly and clearly: the most important element for crafting something is to have a good reason or two to do it. And by “good reason” I think I mean, cheesily but honestly, “a reason from a place of truth and love.”
In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with presses.
Personally, I like presses that are engaged and responsive. I have yet to have a piece published in Tahoma Literary Review, but I love the way they keep a running and expanding dialogue with the greater literary community, the world at large, and their readers/submitters. I am a huge fan of So Say We All—San Diego’s big literary nonprofit—because they’re super socially involved, and also they’re hilarious. I also look for places that are asking big cultural questions—Boston Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Atlantic. Sometimes I can’t get behind places that just seem to look pretty even if they look really pretty… it isn’t enough for me, or it’s too much, too much stateliness or pressure or something. I like presses like I like my friends—smart, interesting, fast, thoughtful, and funny.
Many new writers consider enrolling in an MFA program, what can you tell us about your experiences as an MFA student?
I loved my MFA more than anything and I will forever be working to prove that I deserved that degree. You get to write and talk about writing and read for two straight years! I feel really lucky to have gotten into a top tier program—and funded!—by the skin of my teeth. I tell people I’m a second string college soccer player and a second string grad school writer—both true facts. I had no idea what I was doing when I went there and I can’t believe they let me in and I can’t believe how much I learned. It made a difference. Part of me wants to say I’d never pay for an MFA if I had to on my own; part of me says I’d pay anything for the education I got for free. So who knows. I think if you’re dedicated enough you can become an incredible writer without an MFA. You can get involved with writers online and/or locally and really make something happen. Not me though— I’m lucky to have gotten to participate in an MFA program because I’m too easily distracted and peer-impressionable to have done the writing thing on my own; I think I’d have become like a physical therapist or organizational psychologist or something. No one outside MFA world cares that you got an MFA, but it does make a difference to have one in terms of networking and leverage inside the MFA world. Plus, I feel invested in it, so that’s why I’m still working at it—I forever have something to prove. I’ll also say: I’m a reader for The Master’s Review, which supports new and emerging writers, so I see a lot of work from MFA grads that isn’t impressive, and a lot of work from people without MFA’s that is truly something else (and vice versa of course, but you get the point). You’re either doing it or you’re not; no one cares how you got there.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
This might answer the previous question better: definitely the MFA. If I hadn’t done the MFA I don’t know that I’d be pursuing writing in the way(s) I am now. I never really got into the journalism scene, which I sort of regret, but which I have some access to through my MFA network and credentials. I didn’t really know about lit mags before the MFA. I didn’t know about all the corners and angles and pockets of the literary world—all the different ways and places you can choose to use your words. As a kid I used to write this newspaper on Print Shop Deluxe, print it out on 8 1/2 x 11s, and march it down the street to give to all my neighbors. I still think writers should do things like that, but there’s also a lot of other ways to connect, too, and the MFA really opens all those up for you. Or at least it did for me.
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
Make really good friends with writers, readers, and artists, and make really good friends with other people who don’t read or write or do art per say. Be yourself 100% and straddle both worlds. It was, is always so hard for me to feel split — being a writer simply means you’re more observant and aloof than most people, I think, so if you can figure out why you can stand behind it and talk about it and make it a part of your reality that you can explain well to any and all social spheres you fall into, and everybody learns more. Don’t get sucked too far into the writing world because the rest of the world needs your voice. As a writer and artist you are inherently a teacher and culture-shaper — your words and images change people, affect people. Be conscious of it and do it for others as much as you do it for yourself. Don’t be afraid to forget about other people sometimes, and don’t be afraid to forget about yourself sometimes, because too much of either will get in the way of the ultimate point: making something outside ourselves to remind us that there’s more.
After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
How flattering to call what I’ve done “so much”—I feel like it’s just the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg for me! I think I’m interested in, as I mentioned earlier, separating private and public work a bit more. I’ve been writing stories ad hoc / on occasion like I wrote in my MFA workshops and submitting to lit mags—I’m curious what will happen if I write more socially engaged, editorial-type work, and place that in more news-y sources, and keep this fiction business as my own secret book project. At present, the goal is just to be able to spend 4 hours a week on strictly writing—not an easy thing to happen when you work full-time and want to have healthy fun friendships and a full community life. I am going to conquer being an extrovert and a writer/artist and not an alcoholic—sounds ridiculous, but if I can pull that off, I’ll have met my mark of success.
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