As we approach week seven of the semester, I can honestly say that it has only been the last two or even three weeks that I’ve started to feel more confident navigating Zoom. And that’s been particularly hard for me to accept because, I’m a perfectionist, and for me personally, this has sometimes meant being too hard on myself when learning something new or making mistakes. Since the beginning of the semester, I would say being a perfectionist combined with being fairly new to Zoom, then, has meant that I’ve been harder on myself than what I should have been on those days where a Zoom session didn’t go as expected—particularly during those instances where I’m talking and it takes me an extra few seconds to realize that I haven’t selected the unmute button. I think I began the semester with the expectation that I would be able to figure out how to use Zoom right away, as both a student and a teacher. But what I wasn’t reminding myself, and what I’ve only been able to discover now that we’re several weeks into the semester, is that Zoom, like everything else, is a learning process—there are going to be days that don’t go smoothly and I may even feel a little awkward, but there will be moments where everything is going well too, and that’s just the learning process. So as we make our way towards midterms, I know that for the second half of the semester, it’s going to be important for me to become more aware of those moments when I want everything to work perfectly, and similarly (and as my dad keeps reminding me), to remember that I’m still learning, too.
Ever since the pandemic began, I’ve learned how to become more aware of, and embrace, the small parts of my day that help me feel more present and connected. As a PhD student, I sometimes find my days blending together as I navigate homework, reading, teaching, and trying to stay connected with friends and family both near and afar. But after an evening walk and watching the sun set over Pocatello one night, I was reminded of all the summer evenings spent back home in Wales, walking alongside the sea and feeling the cool breeze as the sun was beginning to set. I’d spent so much of my childhood and teenage years by the sea, and watched so many sunsets after a day spent on the beach. Even though the beach and sea are far from Pocatello, watching the sun set over the mountains here in Idaho and feeling the warm air of the day exchange with the cold air of the night, still brought a kind of familiarity, peace, and even comfort to me as I was reminded of my summer evenings in Wales—it made me feel both connected to my home country and yet present in the moment. And that’s also why now, more than ever, it has been important for me to take time out of my busy schedule to catch the daily sunset—it’s one of the few moments during my day where I get to reflect, be present, and feel connected.
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We had a great time hosting Stephen Tuttle’s reading on campus, so Black Rock & Sage reached out with a few more questions for our visiting author.
Black Rock & Sage (BRS): What does your creative process look like?
Stephen Tuttle (ST): Creativity is a hard thing to pin down, which is why we sometimes describe it in almost mystical terms. But I tend to agree with thinkers like Kirby Ferguson who argue that genius is not a matter of creating entirely new things but of finding new combinations of familiar elements. So, for me the process is about allowing a lot of different, seemingly incompatible, elements into my brain at the same time and then sitting with them long enough to see if connections start to emerge. The real trick, though, is being ready to capture those connections when they show up, and that’s where a daily writing routine becomes so valuable.
BRS: Your piece “Leah, Unloved”, recently published in The Baltimore Review, is particularly compelling as a retelling of a familiar narrative which seems to be part of a larger project; what is the benefit of returning to stories and engaging with them in such a critical way?
ST: “Leah, Unloved” comes from an ongoing project in which I retell or reimagine well-known stories from the Old Testament. The goal for me has been to take a familiar starting point and play with it or stretch it and maybe find something new in it. It’s a project I came to sideways, thinking at first that it was just a way to clear my head as I worked on longer projects, but I soon found it dominating my attention. The project has allowed me to see just how complex and narratively rich the Old Testament is and to appreciate the way stories inform other stories. The name for this kind of writing is “midrash,” which is a scholarly tradition dating back to the second century. The hope, always, is to better appreciate or understand a text that might otherwise seem to have been exhausted. What I’m learning is that nothing is truly exhaustible.
BRS: Are there specific works or writers that have had an impact on your own creative style?
ST: Steven Millhauser is probably the writer who has influenced me more than any other living writer. Aimee Bender is a close second. Both mix the ordinary and the magical in ways I find captivating. I love everything Amy Hempel has written (I’ll go out on a limb and pre-love anything she’s going to write in the future). Kelly Link is a national treasure. Tom McCarthy (particularly his novel Remainder) is the kind of weird I can’t stop reading. I wish I could do what Lydia Davis does. Yoko Ogawa takes more risks than any writer I know, and I have so much respect for that.
BRS: How do you balance your roles as both professional writer and educator?
ST: It’s never easy to balance roles that could each, if we let them, take all of our time, and I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I get the balance wrong. But when I’m most successful, it’s the result of scheduling very specific times for my writing and not letting anything else steal that time (once I open my email, I’m a goner). If I make the writing a priority, I usually find plenty of time for the rest.
BRS: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
ST: Having an active, enthusiastic writing group has helped my writing more than anything. The goal is to find two or three other writers who will agree to share work slightly more often than feels comfortable (I like deadlines that force me into truly rough drafts). A good writing group doesn’t need to include other writers with your same interests (you might all be working on very different things), but it should include people who are willing to take your work seriously without pulling their punches. Also, read until your eyes burn. Writers can never read too much. You should read things you love, things you want to emulate, things that are nothing like what you want to write, things you feel guilty for never having read, things that other people won’t shut up about, and things that will make you dangerously smart.
We hope to see you at our upcoming event!
On Thursday, February 6, Creative Writing at ISU will host fiction writer Stephen Tuttle. Tuttle will give a reading and then take questions at 5:30 p.m. in Idaho State University’s Bengal Café, inside of the Pond Student Union Building. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.
Stephen Tuttle’s fiction and prose poetry have appeared in such national literary magazines as The Threepenny Review, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Normal School. His fabulist short stories combine tremendous appeal with exciting approaches to form.
Tuttle received his PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah and teaches courses in fiction writing and American Literature at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he is an associate professor.