PERSISTENCE AND PURPOSE: AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES CONLEY
By Erika Dreifus
One July day back in 2004, I arrived at the Prague Airport to begin two weeks participating in Western Michigan University’s Prague Summer Program (PSP). Among the first people I met as the PSP contingent gathered to board a bus to the city was Charles (“Charlie”) Conley. It turned out that Charlie and I had been assigned to the same fiction workshop. Back then, Charlie was an MFA student in the program at the University of Minnesota. I’ve followed his progress post-Prague, and since there has been so much to follow – including multiple fellowship and residency awards – I asked Charlie if he’d be willing to be interviewed for the newsletter.
Charles Conley, born and raised on Long Island, is currently a fellow with Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York and was a 2008-2009 fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Harvard Review, and Canadian Notes and Queries. He is the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant in 2010 and a SASE/Jerome Grant for Emerging Writers in 2007. In May, he will be attending the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria.
Please welcome Charlie Conley.
ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Charlie, please tell us what a typical day is like for you as a Teachers & Writers Collaborative Fellow.
CHARLIE CONLEY (CC): I do most of my best work when I have a well-established routine, and I’ve been lucky recently to have fellowships that allow me to do that. The day I’m going to describe to you is representative of probably 80 to 90 percent of my days at Teachers & Writers. I get into the office between 7:30 and 8:30 (how close that is to 7:30 is almost a direct correlation to how my writing is going-the better, the earlier) and drink tea or coffee while I go through my emails and read the Times online. Once my brain is awake, I start writing-for almost all of this fellowship period I’ve been revising short stories, though I participated with a couple of friends in National Novel-Writing Month in November (I was getting to the office really early that month). I write until about 11:00 and switch over to my fellowship responsibilities.
Teachers & Writers Collaborative is a teaching-artist organization that’s been around since 1967. We also publish Teachers & Writers magazine and books about teaching creative writing and literature. My work here has involved researching and writing grant proposals to fund next year’s fellowship; working on the “resources” section of our website, primarily the lesson plans; writing for the magazine; observing teaching artists in the classroom; and co-curating (with Carla Ching, this year’s other fellow) the 2020 Visions Reading Series. Additionally, I just started co-teaching with David Stoler, an experienced teaching artist, which is just a great experience (as well as being great experience for future work in the schools I might do), and I’ve had the opportunity to sit in on the planning meetings T&W has been conducting this year in response to the changing Department of Education and funding environments.
ED: For contrast (I suspect!), please tell us about a typical workday at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., where you were a fellow in 2008-09.
CC: Actually, the contrast is not as stark as you’d expect. At Provincetown, I was waking up probably between 8:30 and 9:30, drinking coffee while I read emails and the Times. I’d start and finish my writing later, and the writing day was probably longer in Provincetown (though I suspect I’m just as productive now, despite-or maybe even because of-my fellowship responsibilities). By lunch on most days I’m done with my writing, and if I haven’t started by about noon I’m not going to write that day. I’ve tried, but something essential about the way my mind works just seems to change in the afternoon and anything but the most basic editing makes me feel like I’m working in an unfamiliar language (and not in a good way).
I’ve never been the kind of writer who can work for eight hours in a row. I try to make up for that with diligence, which is pretty unromantic, and I don’t think what anyone pictures when they imagine “the writing life.” It certainly wasn’t what I imagined.
ED: What changes have you noticed in your writing (and/or writing habits) since you began your journey through residencies and fellowships?
CC: That journey began shortly after I got my MFA from the University of Minnesota in 2006. If I remember correctly, I taught that first semester after graduate school. In what would have been the spring semester, I had two residencies-two months at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center in Nebraska (which I believe you’ve also been to) and a month at Can Serrat, near Barcelona, Spain-and I’ve been alternating semesters of teaching, periods of travel and residencies, and fellowships ever since (which I see as three distinct phases).
Even when I’m teaching, it’s not a full course-load, so whatever phase I’m in, I tend to have long days with a lot of space in them. In this situation, writing is what grounds me. Getting that day’s writing done earns me the rest of the day for myself (teaching a class only earns me money). In grad school-and before grad school, when I had a career-writing was something I squeezed into the free time I found. Now, the day is built around it.
ED: What advice do you have for writers who may just be starting to approach fellowships and residencies?
CC: To find out about these things, Poets & Writers is a great resource, as is The Practicing Writer e-newsletter, where I found out about a couple of things I eventually got. Being friends with other writers and sharing information with them is also helpful (a recent grant and my current fellowship were both word-of-mouth discoveries). Deadlines come year-round, so it’s important to keep track of everything in one place-I have a single spreadsheet where I keep track of everything, especially when I’ve applied in the past and what stories I’ve sent (so I don’t resend work they didn’t respond to the first time).
I rarely get something the first time I try, so in my case diligence has paid off. The Fine Arts Work Center fellowship came on the third try. The first year I was a finalist, but the second year I wasn’t even a finalist, which was disheartening. Actually, I half-jokingly consider all the applications and story submissions I do as opportunities to practice being rejected. It’s one of the essential facts of the writing life-at least mine-and I’m getting better at accepting it.
When I get to a new residency, the first thing I do is figure out what my writing routine will look like in this new place. Where will I actually write? What desk or table is the most comfortable, has the best lighting, has the fewest distractions? How will I get breakfast? Is it provided? If so, at what times? Is Internet available? If not, how will I replace that waking-up part of the routine? (Usually by reading a book about writing before I start writing.) The answering of these basic questions tells me how my routine will go.
Then I try to be friendly. Residencies are a great opportunity to meet artists working in different disciplines from all over the country and the world. There’s a real chance to meet people I’d never get to meet otherwise, and I try not to waste it.
ED: Besides your upcoming reading in New York City (on Monday, May 10), is there any other news you’d like to share?
CC: Thanks for mentioning the reading, which is something I’m really looking forward to. [Co-reader] Steven Polansky was a professor of mine at the University of Minnesota, and he taught a class called “English Prose Style” that profoundly affected the way I think about my writing. The reading is a celebration of his newest book, a novel called The Bradbury Report. I just found out I will be one of ten fiction writers attending the Sozopol Fiction Seminar in Bulgaria at the end of May. I’ve been applying since the first time the seminar was offered, three years ago, and was a semi-finalist both times. So once again, persistence proves my greatest virtue.
At the end of June, I have a two-week residency up in Pocantico [site of the Rockefeller family estate] as a part of my T&W Fellowship. The Rockefeller Brothers funded this year’s fellowship, and this is an additional benefit they’ve generously offered. Then in early August I’ll be heading to South America to (re-)learn Spanish, travel, write, and research, particularly a story set in La Paz, Bolivia. The Elizabeth George Foundation was kind enough to provide the funds for me to stay through the end of the year.
In all this, it’s sometimes easy to mix up the ends with the means. I pursue these opportunities because they fuel my writing (with time and ideas and interactions with new people), not the other way around. I just finished a story I’m very excited about and feel pretty near the finish line on another. Making each story as good as I can and then doing my best to find readers for it is why I do all the rest.
ED: Wise words to end with, Charlie. Thank you so much, and safe travels to you!
A version of this interview was published in The Practicing Writer.