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Making the Writing Life a Reality: Richard Holinger on Balancing Teaching, Writing, and Life

Updated: Mar 8

with Assistant Editor Caroline Beuley



I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Holinger, an author featured in Chautauqua’s most recent digital issue. A long-time native of Illinois, Richard speaks about his Creative Writing Ph.D. from University of Illinois, Chicago, his forty-year teaching career, and how to make the writing life a reality. Richard has taught at secondary schools, community colleges, and universities. He recently retired from a forty-year English instructor position at Marmion Academy, but continues to write a column for the Kane County Chronicle, and to facilitate Geneva Public Library’s Night Writers Workshop. Richard has been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, The Iowa Review, Cream City Review, Cimarron Review and many more.

 

You published a non-fiction piece, “Wet and Dry in the Driftless” in Chautauqua’s most recent digital issue. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write that piece and your process?

            The Driftless is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive northwest from where we live in the Fox River Valley west of Chicago. My son had been there fishing for a couple of days, and my friend Jim wanted to go, so I agreed to tag along. I was prepared for a pretty cool day - chest-high rubber waders and about twenty layers of clothing.

Once we got there and got into fishing and hiking for a few hours, I realized I was getting tired and dehydrated, so I started back early, and Jim and Jay continued on. The waders kept dragging me down. And it got me thinking about how vulnerable I was seventy-three, how quickly circumstances can change, how my body is no longer able to adapt so easily, and how tenuous life can be.

I made it back to the car, and I lay down on the ground and looked up at the sky and the beautiful turning leaves above me and started thinking what kind of an elemental, monumental moment in my life this had been. I wanted to remember it. I thought this day would be worth exploring. I thought about Joan Didion saying, “If I want to know what I think about something, I’ll write about it.” Once I started writing about it, I thought others might be able to identify with the same feelings, especially those my age. It was not that I thought I was going to die, but more that I realized it was possible, and that put things into a very different perspective. You’re sixteen in your head, but not in your body.

 

You’ve recently retired from a forty-year teaching career. With all your experience, do you have any advice for prospective (or current) teacher-writers on how to balance the two?

            I think you have to realize that to call it a balance between writing and teaching, you have to know it’s not going to be a perfect balance - unless you’re an established writer with a reputation who can teach one or two grad classes with seven or eight students a semester – like George Saunders at Syracuse.

            Teaching high school offers little time between answering emails, preparing for classes, subbing for absent teachers, grading papers, and spending your afternoons on extra-curriculars like coaching or yearbook moderator. So you really do need to have a passion to write, and if you don’t, you’re not going to.

            Also you need to be a reader. How many professional, established authors, when asked, say their three most important rules are either, Read, Read, Read, or Write, Write, Write. I’ve had writers in my writing workshops who don’t read, and you can absolutely tell from the quality of their writing. You need to be aware of what others are writing, the cultural zeitgeist. You don’t need to be chained to what’s out there in your literary genre, but you have to be aware of it.

            You also have to feel like you absolutely need to write. It has to be a physical and emotional need. The feeling of not writing has to be as real as if you skipped breakfast and you’re starving for dinner. When my children were very young, I would go to sleep as soon as they got to sleep and try to wake up around 4:00 or 4:30am, go into the basement where my “office” was, and start writing for an hour or two before school.

It was the best time of day. I was absolutely in the flow. My mind was entirely in that creative realm, and then I would hear a little squeak on the stairs, and the patter of feet coming down, and a voice saying, “Dad, can we play Chutes and Ladders?” and I would swear in my head and then say, “Sure!” and come back to it the next morning.

            I was recently having lunch with another writer, and he said, “I look at everything I’m doing as pebbles or rocks in a jar.” If all the things in the jar are pebbles, you’re not really committed to any of them. You have to make your writing rock bigger than most others if you really want to get something worthwhile written.

 

Do you think your teaching career has impacted or influenced the content of your writing? If so, how?

            At first, not at all. Your first two years of teaching high school are so full! And I was much too close to the events that were unfolding at school for me to write about any of it. I took a class at Washington University (when I was getting my M.A. there) with Stanley Elkin, the novelist, and he said that he usually writes about events that occur approximately three to five years previous to his present age.

That was about right, because I started to record the daily events of teaching after about four or five years. I recently went back and wrote about some of those events in an essay I titled, “The Chronicle of Lower Education.” I also wrote a story called, “Bleeding Light,” a speculative fiction about a boy who falls out of his chair and starts bleeding light. And my first (unpublished) novel was actually a rewriting of Huck Finn about two kids who skip out of school and hitchhike down to St. Louis.     

When I first started teaching junior year American literature, all my sections read The Scarlet Letter. A few years later, only English honors read it. The last year I taught it, the kids were so frustrated and bored with it, that for the final exam I asked them to argue whether The Scarlet Letter should or should not remain on the syllabus. Their answers were hilarious. They were also erudite and insightful, so I turned the experience—and their answers—into an essay.  I also turned an outdoor class into a poem ultimately published as a micro fiction.

 

How do you think retirement will impact your writing life? Do you have any new projects in the works since your departure from high school teaching?

            I facilitate a workshop once a month, and I’m writing a column for a local newspaper, but right now that’s all I’m doing for a paycheck, so it really is wonderful. The thing that I’m appreciating most is that I have more time to submit my work.

            Also, now, in the morning, I have time to meditate and allow the writing to come to me, to unfold.

            Finally, retirement has given me the opportunity of meeting with fellow writers and do more reading. I read a few essays in a Thoreau anthology called, “Now Comes Good Sailing,” which apparently were Thoreau's final words on his deathbed. One essay describes Thoreau’s skating skills, which were impressive, Nathanael Hawthorne’s wife recording Henry doing pirouettes! Reading that miniscule but wonderful part of history led to a short fiction on Thoreau deciding whether to take a mirror with him to Walden.

 

You also earned a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois, Chicago. Can you tell us a little bit about what that experience was like and offer some advice to writers trying to decide whether to pursue a Ph.D. in Creative Writing?

            For me, it worked because I already had my M.A. from Washington University. When I was twenty-five, in 1975, I think Iowa was virtually the only M.F.A. program. Because an M.A. was not a terminal degree, in my early forties, I still wanted to teach junior college or college, and the Ph.D. was the credential I needed.

            So, despite a colleague at Marmion (whose PhD thesis was on Philip Roth) insisting the degree’s initials stood for “Pile it Higher and Deeper,” I took a leave of absence - a year off teaching without pay - to take my required classes that year; the other classes I took at night. I commuted into Chicago from our suburb an hour west of the city. Apart from the year’s leave of absence, I worked full-time at Marmion while getting my Ph.D., including preparing for the Graduate Record Exam (by reading the Norton American and English Literature anthologies virtually cover to cover); reviewing for a language exam; reading for the prelims and oral exam; writing a dissertation in fiction; teaching UIC undergraduate classes; and writing stories for the program’s creative writing workshops.  

So, with time, tuition, and a laser focus on your writing taken into consideration, I would advise getting a terminal M.F.A. rather than a Ph.D. However, the Ph.D. worked for me, and it really did open doors to freelance writing positions and facilitating writing workshops. I guess the question is, does it open more doors than an M.F.A? I don’t know.

           

Finally, what is one important lesson you’ve learned as a writer that you wish you’d known earlier?

            In my early twenties, I would get so excited about a piece that once I finished it, I would immediately send it off with little or no revision or reflection.“The Observer” was the first mature story I wrote after college. I grew up in Chicago on Lake Shore Drive on the twelfth floor of a luxury apartment building, its west-facing windows looking into other apartments. At nine or ten years old, curious to find out how others lived, I, along with my older brother, would peer with our father’s binoculars into people’s windows. The story I wrote fifteen years later was about a “professional observer” who lives vicariously with those he spies on, and for whom his activity is an art, becoming in the story a symbol of the detached artist who doesn’t partake in life, but instead observes and records it. I sent this story first to Esquire, and the rejection slip came back - about the size of a playing card - with the usual “We’re sorry we can’t accept this,” along with a handwritten note that said, “I love the plot, but the telling leaves me cold.” And that told me everything I needed to know about my writing; I was too focused on the what, and not the how. I needed to revise, to focus on the language, the rhythms of the sentences, and change from a 19th century Lovecraft style to a 20th century modernist style. Poet Donald Finkel, at Washington University, suggested I read Hemingway to help simplify my archaic, ostentatious language and syntax. From there, it was on to Kafka, Borges, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Day, et al.

            The second thing I learned was the importance of networking. Mostly, I’m an introvert, so I rarely took advantage of getting to know my teachers and professors. Like most jobs in the real world, however, knowing the right people helps in academia and the literary universe of journals and presses.

The first time I took advantage of advice from those in a more powerful position than I was listening to UIC writer and professor Michael Anania. He said, “I give this advice to all my grad students. Start writing book reviews for good literary journals. They’ll take them. They’ll get to know your name. And then you can start sending them your more creative work.”

I did. The Iowa Review took a bunch of my book reviews, and, soon after,  they started taking my fiction. That led to being at the AWP convention and meeting David Hamilton, who was the editor at that time. When I won the Split Oak Press Flash Prose contest, David Hamilton wrote this gorgeous blurb for me. And it all started with just writing book reviews.

Another time I reached out began with Howard Nemerov’s course “Modern British and American Poets.” I took copious notes, because I was a very green graduate student. Later, I wrote these notes up as an essay, and then sent a copy to Howard. One morning I got a phone call from Howard. “I think we have to have this essay published,” he said, and a couple months later it was in The Southern Review. So, again, if I hadn’t reached out, that never would have happened.

            Going back to revision quickly. The more you read, the more mature your creative process becomes, and the more interesting your writing becomes in terms of structure, form, and vocabulary. So, in my own writing, in revision, I started paying more attention to rhythm, sound, and word choice. Punctuation no longer became an instrument of torture, but flags to signal nuances of thought and pacing. I fell in love with the whole process of listening to my writing and trying to discover its true nature.

 

To read Richard’s piece, “Wet and Dry in the Driftless,” click here.

To learn more about Richard, you can visit his author site here: https://www.richardholinger.net/

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