Dr. Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman is the most recent addition to the creative writing faculty. Her writing has recently appeared in Hippocampus and Brevity. She has worked as a freelance researcher for various media organizations including MTV, where she was the first person to compile research on the show that would later become the nationwide hit Teen Mom. Her teaching and writing interests include memoir, the personal essay, cultural criticism, and Narrative Medicine.
JT: When did you start teaching at NKU? How has your experience been so far at NKU?
JCH: I started at NKU in August 2014, and it’s been amazing. I have never had more enthusiastic students, and my colleagues go out of their way to be supportive of me. Everyone has been very welcoming as I find my place here.
JT: I remember the first time I really fell in love with creative writing and why. What sparked your passion for creative writing?
JCH: Like most writers, I fell in love with reading first. I grew up in two very small, mountainous towns–one in WV that was under 2,000 people, and one in VA that was under 3,000. Reading was my primary way of learning about different people and places. And it was by reading that I knew I wanted to write. I remember being a freshman in college and reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed. What I loved about that book is that it translated the realities of the working poor to a wealthy, elite readership. The translation wasn’t perfect, but it was the first time I’d ever read anything that even attempted to do that. As someone who had grown up in Appalachia and moved to uber-wealthy Manhattan, I knew I wanted to write literary nonfiction that bridged the divide between those two cultures, which is something that I struggled to do in my daily life. And I knew I wanted to write in a way that promoted social justice.
JT: How did that passion for creative writing transfer to a passion for teaching?
JCH: I never set out to teach, and yet, learning how to teach (it’s a constant learning process) has been the most meaningful intellectual and artistic experience of my life. Writing, particularly memoir writing, requires me to search inward. Like most memoirists, I don’t always like what I find there! Teaching is the opposite; all of my attention is focused on other people. It’s a much more comfortable stance. All that said, teaching is by no means some selfless act. I learned more about writing during my first semester of teaching writing (during the second year of my MFA program) than I had in K-12, college, and the first year of my MFA combined. I am constantly learning how to write by teaching others how to write.
JT: I know a number of students plan on being writers and professors after they graduate, myself included. What advice would you give to those students?
JCH: I think flexibility is key. I majored in Middle Eastern Studies in college. When September 11th happened I was actually in Cairo, Egypt on my junior year abroad. I interned at several newspapers and thought that with my knowledge of the Middle East and newspaper reporting experience, I’d have no problem getting a journalism job, especially with all the chaos in the region. But then, within a span of a few years that happened to coincide with my college years, the internet decimated the entire field of journalism. Newspapers folded, thousands of people were laid off, and the remaining news organizations closed most of their foreign bureaus. I had planned very carefully how to get a job after college, and it didn’t matter at all because the entire world had turned upside down. You just can’t plan for that; what you can do is be flexible. Think about what skills you have. Think about what the world needs. If there is anything that you know would make you absolutely miserable, cross that off your list, but be open to everything else. Be especially open to career paths you’ve never even considered. I never in a million years thought I’d be a college professor because, well, I really didn’t like college that much, and I was very happy to graduate and get the heck out of there. I never thought I’d go to graduate school. It was only years later that I opened my mind to it, and now I consider academia a place where I can contribute and a place where I feel at home. My point is that the world is going to change in extreme ways that we have no ability to predict. The “practical” major of today can easily become the major of the unemployed tomorrow, and vice-versa. The great thing about becoming an expert in the English language, and learning how to think critically and creatively, is that these are extremely flexible, transferable, and durable skills.
JT: I know you have work that is in the process of being published. Tell us about that.
JCH: Yes, I have a memoir that is currently with an agent in NYC. We are in the final stages before shopping it to publishers. Because it’s still in that stage I can’t say much more than that, but what I can say is that I wholeheartedly agree with George Orwell, who said that writing a book is like having some horrible, exhausting illness. It has been worth it, because one’s first book is, of course, where one learns how to write a book, but I will be very glad when the process is over and I can move on.
JT: Any other advice, thoughts, etc.?
JCH: One thing that sustains me through long workdays is knowing I will get to encounter my students’ lives on the page, in all of their glorious complexity, diversity, hilarity, and tragedy. I feel so privileged to help people write about their lives, and I learn so much about the world through what my students write. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’ve ever thought you have a true story to tell, I hope you’ll consider taking a Creative Nonfiction workshop!
Jacqui Tackett is currently the Graduate Assistant for the Master’s in English Program at NKU, and she will be conducting the interviews this semester.
She’s getting her Master’s in English with a concentration in Creative Writing. She loves writing poetry, memoir, and fiction. She has a passion for fitness, especially running, and this year she is going to run The Flying Pig Half Marathon for the second time. She also has a slight obsession with Tim Burton and The Nightmare Before Christmas. She treats her three dogs as her children.
NKU English graduates, Christen Leppla (MA, 2011) and Ryan Kauffman (MA, 2011), discuss their graduate studies at Northern Michigan University, including their summer grants and recent publications.
What are you doing now? Tell us about your MFA program, especially.
CL: I was lucky enough to get a fellowship in poetry to Northern Michigan University’s MFA program. It’s a teaching fellowship, so I teach one course a semester that will range from Composition to Creative Writing. In the fall, I will also be an associate fiction editor for Passages North. Since I’ve begun the MFA program, I’ve become the first person at NMU to duel track, so I’m now getting a MFA in poetry and fiction. It’s a lot of work, but I’m having a blast. The program is 3 years, so as of right now my thesis will entail a novel and a book length poetry collection. Needless to say, with that amount of work I’m glad the program is 3 years instead of 2!
RK: I’m a creative nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University. At first, I was considering dual tracking in nonfiction and fiction, but I’ve decided to concentrate solely on nonfiction for my coursework. The fiction faculty members, despite not having me as a student in their classes, have all been very helpful and encouraging of any works of fiction I’m working on outside of my nonfiction classes. Like Christen, I’ve been awarded funding for the program – mine in the form of a teaching assistantship – in which I teach one course a semester. So far, I’ve taught EN 111 Composition 1 and EN 211B Narrative and Descriptive Writing, and I’ll be teaching EN 211D Technical Writing in the fall. Also in the fall, I will be an associate nonfiction editor for Passages North.
Tell us about your summer grants.
CL: I received the Excellence in Education Grant to work on my novel over the summer. Basically, it covers some of my living expenses so that I can focus on finishing the first draft of my novel. The novel is centered on characters within diasporic Appalachian communities on the outskirts of what is considered the traditional Appalachian region, and the grant also paid for research materials to help me with authentic representation. I hope to have the first draft finished by September 1st.
RK: I received the Excellence in Education Grant to write a series of essays (that will hopefully become the centerpiece for a book-length work) interrogating memory through the lens of whale watching and the history of whaling in New England. With the grant, I travelled to Portland, Maine for archival research at the Maine Historical Society Library and the Portland Observatory, as well as two whale-watching tours in the North Atlantic for experiential research – in which I saw several Fin Whales (the second largest animal in the world) and Humpback Whales. My goal is to have written through at least three drafts of four essays by September 1st.
What have you recently published?
CL: I recently had two poems accepted in East Coast Literary Review. They were both poems that I’d workshopped at NKU and were part of the writing samples I sent with my MFA applications. It was great to see them find a home! I’ve actually published quite a few of the poems I wrote during my time at NKU, and I’m so grateful to the people in those workshops who challenged me as a writer.
RK: I’ve recently had several acceptances: One poem was accepted in Jellyfish Whispers, another poem was accepted in Poetry Quarterly, and a nonfiction piece was accepted in Punchnel’s. I worked on all three of these pieces, in earlier forms, during my time at NKU. The poem in Jellyfish Whispers has since been anthologized in the journal’s “Best of 2013” publication. I also have several pieces hanging out there in the ether between submission and rejection/acceptance, so my fingers are crossed for some more good news in the coming months.
Any current projects?
CL: Of course, my novel is the top priority this summer. To fulfill my grant proposal, I will need to complete at least twenty thousand words by the end of August. I’m also working on the beginnings of the poetry portion of my thesis, as well as trying to write a few nonfiction pieces that have been keeping me up at night. I will be presenting at the Writing Across the Peninsula Conference in the fall, so I will be polishing that presentation towards the end of the summer, as well.
RK: Along with the “whale” essays, I’m working on several other things this summer. I’ve been toying with a few flash fiction pieces, a novelette, and some ideas for a couple poetry/essay hybrid pieces that I’d like to get down on paper and start polishing. Another major project for this summer is centered on my reading list. Right now I have quite the stack to get through!
Any advice for current students?
CL: My advice is really for creative writing students. I think the most important thing current students can do is take advantage of every opportunity, whether that be working on Licking River Review, attending the readings the department organizes, or joining a workshop outside the classroom. The people I met when I got involved have continued to challenge and support me, and every experience helped my writing. I always wish I had done more. Also, commit to, and be present for, every workshop you take. Take risks. Experiment. Accept what is working and what isn’t. If you do that, the writing that will come from those workshops will be stronger and your ability to revise your work will be greater. Lastly, enjoy every minute! We are all so fortunate to go into a classroom that is devoted to what we love. I often can’t believe how lucky I am when I remember that my homework is to read a good book and write a few poems. I know I will look back someday and think how great this experience was and how I would do it all again if I could.
RK: Christen said it pretty well. In addition to her comments, I would encourage current students to take advantage of the wonderful creative writing classes and faculty at NKU. When you edit another student’s manuscript, take it seriously. By being a good editor/critic, you help yourself establish the literary moves you want to make in your own writing. Ask questions, and pay close attention to the faculty’s answers/suggestions. They know what they’re doing!