Writing the life of the mind

Christina Milletti, associate professor of English.

Christina Milletti, associate professor of English

Seeing the world through language

Christina Milletti runs UB’s creative writing program, co-directs the Exhibit X Fiction Series and recently became the executive director of UB’s Humanities Institute. She is also a prolific writer, whose works—including her latest novel, the award-winning “Choke Box: a Fem-Noir”—straddle the real and the unreal, exploring what happens to and between characters when the impossible becomes everyday experience.

We sat down with Milletti to ask about her own story and the importance of teaching students how to tell theirs.

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?

I grew up outside of Philadelphia, in Lower Bucks County, so it was a tranquil, suburban lifestyle which, ironically, made me desperate at a young age for an arts and culture scene. From early on, I wanted to move to a city. I mean, my upbringing was idyllic, one of those “Stand by Me” childhoods—everyone on bikes riding around the neighborhood, getting lost in the woods, diving into creeks and whatnot—but it did make me hungry for a certain kind of intense arts environment that was absent. Time moved slowly.

My father was a writer, a journalist, who eventually specialized in finance writing, and my mother was a teacher. So on the one hand, there was a drive, an intensity, in terms of textuality, and on the other hand there was the constant buzz of lawn mowers in the air. It was an echo chamber, put it that way. As though the world outside was completely apart from us. This was before the digital age, of course. There was no online community to turn to. Books were the primary source of information—that part had a lasting impact on me—but students today, my own kids, have no sense of what that time was like. For instance, my daughter, at the age of 13, is already “chatting” in online groups with people who share her political persuasions. Whereas for me, back in the ’70s, you had to figure out how to talk about your oddball interests with whoever ended up next to you. Sometimes it worked out. Other times, it was isolating. Times change.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Well, in second grade, I won a young authors contest for a book called “Pepper Goes to School” [laughs]. People who write, I think, often know they have a unique relationship with language, from a young age. It doesn’t make you a writer, but it means you’re more invested than your friends in the ways language shapes how and what you think. I didn’t know I could actually write fiction until much later, until graduate school, in fact.

I tried my hand at writing stories many times before then and, quite frankly, often came up feeling short. I was trying to write that ideal New Yorker story, but in time I learned that just wasn’t a framework I fit into. So I went to grad school, decided that I would become someone who wrote about novels instead of writing them myself, and was lucky I ran into the right professor, novelist Paul West, who was known as a phrase maker, a prose stylist. I still use his definition of style with my students: “the complex juxtaposition of simple words in a sentence.” He was a kind of ventriloquist for eccentric narrators, and he composed sentences in rich, sonic layers. In his classes, I found a mentor, a cohort of people who were there for the same reason, and it was suddenly like, “Oh, OK, what I’m doing makes sense. Here’s how I can shape it.” I applied to one MFA program, and it was Brown, and I was accepted. So I went from an MA to an MFA, and soon realized that while I wanted to write fiction, the fact that I wanted to study fiction too hadn’t left, so I went on for a PhD.

How did you end up at UB?

Well, I earned my PhD at SUNY Albany, which is what I’ll call a writer-friendly doctoral program. Even then, I was very aware of UB’s poetics program, and generally that the SUNY schools, their graduate programs in English, seemed to have an ongoing conversation between the creative writing of books and the critical study of them. Once I arrived in Albany, I began a steady progression west across New York. After Dimitri [Anastasopoulos, Milletti’s husband] was offered a visiting professorship at University of Rochester, we moved there while I finished up my dissertation a year later, and then I took my first job at Eastern Michigan University. He was in Rochester and I was at EMU for three years. And then UB had an opening and I was incredibly fortunate to get the position.  

Being a professor is a full-time job. And you have a family. How do you find time to write?

I don’t sleep very much [laughs]. And there are days when I just lose whatever cool I think I have. But in all seriousness, I’ve learned to compartmentalize projects. When I’m writing fiction, I try to write fiction, and maybe just think about my other projects so that there’s an inner conversation always under way. So when I’m writing fiction, maybe a particular idea I’m mulling reminds me of another writer I’ve worked with, and I’ll write down some notes for an article or some research I’d like to pursue. I also write down titles for stories all the time. I have an entire folder of them. In this business, you need to create very intense mental and digital inboxes, and you keep plugging away until you get some of that work written and published. You never get to all of it. Some you lose interest in. A fair portion you toss before you even start. But the work you do write adds up over time. The key is to make sure you’re present and focused on doing the work, whatever it is, while you’re doing it. When you’re with your family, be present with them. If you’re writing fiction, sink into that. It helps to prevent feeling overwhelmed, or thinking that you could be doing something else all the time. Which, naturally, you could be.

Professors don’t have work hours. Writers don’t have work hours. You never clock in and clock out, and because you’re always thinking about your work … you’re always thinking about your work. The loop is thrilling and exhausting. I drink coffee at night. I don’t drink it during the day, because once all those obligations—students, children, partner—the unstoppable sink full of dishes—are done, I turn to my creative work from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., when there are few interruptions. I don’t write every night, of course, but that tends to be a pretty heavy work period for me.

I think it’s important for all of us—students, workers, citizens—to become aware that we’re not just readers; we’re creators as well." -Christina Milletti

What attracts you to experimental fiction?

Experimental fiction asks the writer to approach a story in a fresh, new way, to look at it through the unique lens that we as individuals use to assemble our lives. We don’t ever move linearly, as most fiction suggests, do we? I go to my kid’s theater showcase or soccer game, and for all of my assertions about being present, inevitably I’ll drift away, listen to the conversations behind me, or begin to think about a specific problem in a story, and a relationship quickly develops between what I’m seeing in person and what’s on my mind. Trying to put that collage of input on the page is a kind of realism. So “experimental” doesn’t mean off-the-wall, out there, unreadable to me. In my work, it means writing ordinary, everyday experiences in a way that’s closer to how we live them. You might say I’m invested in presenting the stratified layers, the rich dimensionality, of daily experience in story form. All that thinking and moving and wondering with quiet intensity. It’s the life of the mind as fiction.

What themes do you wrestle with in your writing?
I write about gender a lot. It’s the prism through which I tend to see the world, all the dynamics of relationships. What it means to be a mother to daughters, what it means for one woman to be able to achieve something in a story that another cannot. I also tend to write in a fabulist vein. For instance, one of my stories that came out recently, “Twelve Inches,” is about a woman whose husband kept shrinking until he was ultimately doll-sized. So is that about gender? Yes. But it’s also about how relationships survive shifts in power dynamics. More than that, it was a puzzle to solve. I mean, how do you cook for a doll-sized partner? What do you do when you might crush him by simply stretching in bed? You could say I’m interested in creating a space on the page where women’s stories can take many different, sometimes impossible, shapes, in order to say something about what is possible for us.

Why is it important to teach creative writing?

I teach several different writing levels: introductory, advanced and graduate workshops. All of these classes have one thing in common, which is that I’m coaching students to see the world through language, as an unfolding narrative, while helping them realize that they have stories to tell themselves. That might mean helping students refocus their personal materials, or it might mean encouraging them to build unusual new worlds from their imaginations. Some students are already focused when they show up the first day. Others show up stunned and then begin to write and surprise themselves. Very few realize the full discipline, the work ethic, they’ll need to make their fiction do what they want.

Whether or not a student decides to dig deeper and pursue creative writing depends upon their passion for the craft, but taking a workshop always benefits my students by making them better readers of books and people alike. In a workshop, for instance, they become more aware of how characters are designed to talk to one another, the choices they can make in writing dialogue, and in turn my students become more creative at communicating with people themselves. So while the course may be creative “writing,” at the end of the day it’s about using language off the page too.

What is your favorite among your books, and why?

Right now, my favorite is the novel I just published, “Choke Box: a Fem-Noir.” It had such a strange path to publication. It used to be a much longer book. Over time I just kept honing it, making it more compact: intense but compressed. It has an unusual movement, relentlessly restarting. And I’m very tied to my ornery female narrator—a wife, mother and ghostwriter—who I personally think is often hilarious, but I guess that’s up to the reader to decide. I don’t sympathize with her at all [laughs]. Early on, I often heard from literary agents that readers would have a hard time appreciating a cranky female lead.

That seems patently untrue. Are they reading what women write online?

I know, right? Still, it took a while to get it published, so when Choke Box won a prize, the process felt life-affirming in so many ways. But it’s an unusual little book and it takes a lot of risks with both form and content, so to see it in print has been, well, incredibly satisfying.

The study of fiction becomes a kind of lightning rod for thinking across ideas, synthesizing them, in one compact space, because that’s what writers do in their stories." -Christina Milletti

What is your writing process?

Well, John Hawkes said he would see a room, and would want to fill it. Joyce Carol Oates has said she gets her best ideas while she’s vacuuming. She’s prolific: She must vacuum a lot. As for me, I tend to devise conflicts, or an unusual problem that I feel compelled to solve. For instance, another story of mine, “Amelia Earhart’s Last Transmission,” is about a mother who disappears while she’s washing dishes at the kitchen sink. Guess where I was when that story occurred to me? A curious idea, though, is just a place to start. You then have to make decisions: Who are the characters? What kind of logic should be in play to make an impossible storyline not just possible, but also probable? What subtexts will enrich and complicate how the plot unfolds? Idea-driven writing is often a derogatory phrase used to describe fiction, but I’ve always liked a good puzzle to intrigue me through a story’s arc.

For me, once I know what the pieces are, I’ll connect the dots. But it’s always an act of discovery. I’ve never believed in outlining a story and then sitting down and following a plan. How boring to know the ending before you even begin! I’m excited by the ongoing self-interrogation that’s happening between what you’re doing and how it’s coming out on the page. Maybe the story is too abstract, you realize as you go forward. Perhaps you need another character. You figure out what you need as you’re writing. If I’m stuck, if I’m having a really hard time, I know I’m doing something wrong. I don’t believe in writer’s block. If the work is unusually difficult, or I’m bored, that often means I need to take a step back and reevaluate, change things up to make sitting at my desk more seductive to me, because if I’m not excited about writing a story, why would a reader want to read it?

At some point, once you’ve finished a story, or gotten most of the architecture of the piece in place, at that point you’ve got to sit down and get a little bit bloodthirsty, carve out the bits that need to go. What’s that phrase? “Kill your darlings.” With practice, you get better and better at identifying what your “darlings” are. You can see more quickly how much you love a certain phrase, and how you’re struggling to massage it into a story when, really, it doesn’t fit. You have to be stern with yourself. Decide what the story needs, not you. You can always save that perfect phrase for another day.

Are you optimistic about the future?

[Laughs] I really should have had coffee this morning.

We always hear the old idiom, “Those who can’t do teach,” which I find is a deep misunderstanding of what educators do. I think at this moment in time in particular, the important work I do is in the classroom, particularly with respect to the two fields I teach: creative writing and contemporary literature. Both courses enable our students to think intensely about topical issues, like politics, the climate, and relationships in terms of issues of race, gender, sexuality. The study of fiction becomes a kind of lightning rod for thinking across ideas, synthesizing them, in one compact space, because that’s what writers do in their stories. My students always end up having incredibly rangy and thoughtful discussions.  

So am I hopeful? Let’s just say: I’m not hopeless. I recently became the executive director of UB’s Humanities Institute, and in that role I hope to not just connect with students on campus by introducing them to texts they can apply to their lives, but to also now pull in the wider Buffalo community, creating a constellation that extends from the campus to the community and on to the lives all around us that are our responsibility to uplift.

Story by Michael Flatt
Photograph by Douglas Levere