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Author Interview: Michelle Seaton

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Reading is an activity that most people enjoy and there are a large number of individuals who also like to write. Some authors are lucky enough to see their work published and a few even manage to win awards for their literary contributions. Recently, I contacted “The Writers Studio,” a New York based organization that helps writers hone their craft and I have since penned a couple of articles about the group and the people who teach their writing courses. Through one of the professors, Lucinda Holt, I was given the opportunity to interview Michelle Seaton—a student of The Writers Studio who went on to publish award-winning material.

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Noting the importance of encouraging youngsters who show literary prowess, I questioned Michelle Seaton about her experiences as a writer and how taking courses like those offered at The Writers Studio impacted her success. An author of fiction and non-fiction, Michelle is also a journalist and an NPR reporter and, needless to say, she shared some interesting insight into what it means to be a writer:

Q: I heard that you recently won a Pushcart Prize. Can you tell me about the book you won this award for?

The Pushcart Prize is awarded every year to a few short stories, essays and poems that were originally published in literary journals. They are republished in the Pushcart Prize anthology that comes out every year. (http://www.pushcartprize.com) It's a huge honor. The story they selected of mine is called "The Prospects" and it was originally published in One Story, which is a wonderful magazine edited by Hannah Tinti. (http://one-story.com) She was the editor who accepted my story and then guided me through their editorial process.

The story describes the life of a high school football prospect, or rather, the lives of all football prospects. That's one part, and then it also describes the plight of college football recruiters who have to go from school to school to convince good players to play for their football programs. It's also about what it's like to be in intensive competition with a lot of other people who are just like you and who have the same goal, either of going to a good college on an athletic scholarship or of becoming a winning football coach. In that way, it's also a little bit like being a writer who is submitting stories to all the same journals as all the other aspiring writers in the world.

Q: How did you get interested in writing?

I've been a working writer all my life. My first job out of college was as a writer/producer for corporate videos and television ads. I've worked as a radio reporter for an NPR sports show, I've been a magazine editor, and a co-author of several books. I also teach writing at the college level and at a Grub Street, which is a nonprofit writing center in Boston. At Grub Street, I teach various forms of narrative nonfiction to people who are trying to write essays or book-length memoirs. I also teach in a program that is a partnership between Grub Street and the City of Boston, called the Memoir Project. For that, we go into different Boston city neighborhoods and teach memoir to adults over the age of 60. It's a free program, and then we work with participants to produce final essays that we publish in anthologies. There have been four anthologies to come out of that program and a fifth is due at the end of 2015.

I've always loved writing and reporting and teaching. I'm relatively new, though, to fiction writing, which is a completely different from trying to make sense of facts and explain technical details to readers. That's why I wanted to study at The Writers Studio, because I knew I needed grounding in a completely different way of thinking about storytelling. In nonfiction, the voice is often given to you. You are taking on the voice of the radio show you're reporting for, or the voice of the magazine you are writing for. The magazine has a voice and you just copy that. Also, in nonfiction, especially journalism, that voice is devoid of emotion. It's supposed to be neutral and objective. But for fiction, a short story is supposed to be channeling emotion and each short story narrator has to have a distinctive personality. I knew I needed grounding in creating stories that can carry emotion, and stories in which the narrative presence feels alive.

Q: What have been the most interesting and/or rewarding parts of writing?

Being a reporter is just an excuse to talk to anyone about anything. I joke with students that reporters have license to ask the rudest questions. As a sports reporter you really do have to ask professional athletes how they felt when they let the game winning goal go by. How did you feel when you lost the championship? But also you get to ask dumb questions that are really revealing. I once asked a ski jumper what it feels like at the moment when he's propelled off the mountain. He said something about the feeling of having the hand of a giant puppeteer pulling you up by your strings. How else would you ask that question except by being a writer? I've been invited into boardrooms and surgeries and flight simulators simply because I'm the writer who is here to write about it.

In terms of fiction, that has allowed me to write about things that bother me, that keep me up at night. As a reporter you have to write the story that the editor expects to read, so if you have a lot of nagging reservations about football and football recruiting, for example, you can't really talk about that in the context of most sports stories. In fiction, I had free reign in the story to obsess about all the things that bother me about that process and to try and find a way to make it entertaining to a reader. When I was first starting that story, I didn't think I'd ever finish it. But the obsession didn't go away, and I've found that obsession is a good barometer for knowing whether you'll finish a story.

Q: How did The Writers Studio influence your writing?

The Writers Studio provided my first real grounding in writing fiction. I'd taken a couple of other fiction classes and I found those other classes tended to focus on parts of stories. Create a character, or create part of a plot, or create some dialog. And I found that my fellow students and I, even if we could come up with some dialog or a character, couldn't necessarily graft those things together into a story. It was impossible for us to get our minds around everything that a story must do.

In the Writer's Studio method, you are not worrying about making a whole story. You are analyzing a piece of published fiction or poetry and asking questions about what kind of narrator it is and what kinds of sentences the writer used to build this narrator. Then you try to write a page or two of a narrator that's similar. In most cases you aren't really trying to copy Joyce Carol Oates or Truman Capote. Rather, you are intensely studying someone who has great skill at doing this and trying to figure out what they are doing sentence by sentence. By doing this week after week and looking at many different kinds of writers, you begin to build your skills in telling the stories that are important to you.

At this point, I've been working with instructor Lucinda Holt for several years and that's great because she really knows my work. And in several cases, including The Prospects, she saw more potential in that story than I did at first. Every week I'd turn in a couple more pages and be sort of fed up with it, and she'd say, no, keep going. After I had about 6 to 8 pages, I was ready to go on my own with it. That's the other thing I've liked about The Writer's Studio, the fact that you turn in work every week and get feedback every week. Writing fiction--even when it's a good story--can often feel like flailing, but here I'm not flailing on my own.

Q: What are your goals over the next ten years?

I would love to complete a longer work, such as a novella or novel. More though, I want to keep writing both fiction and nonfiction. I think it's essential to have skills in both areas. Learning to write fiction has made me a better nonfiction writer, and co-author. I'm better at understanding the interplay between voice and emotion.

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To find out more about Michelle Seaton and her work visit:
http://www.michelledseaton.com

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