The Unconventional Path to Publishing Success: an Interview with Chloe Caldwell
by Writing Workshops Staff
A month ago
When we imagine the journey to literary success, many picture a straight road paved with formal education and academic accolades. Yet, Chloe Caldwell's trailblazing path defies these conventions. Lacking a college degree or an MFA, Chloe stands as a shining example of raw talent, determination, and genuine passion for the craft. With five published books under her belt, she has redefined success in the literary world. Chloe's next book, TRYING, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2025. Her novella WOMEN will be reissued by Harper Perennial in June 2024. But her commitment to the community doesn't stop there.
In our forthcoming interview, Chloe not only delves into her unique career trajectory but also discusses her latest endeavor: a transformative year-long program titled 12 Months To A Full Memoir or Essay Collection: A Generative Workshop.
Chloe’s year-long program underscores her dedication to fostering a community of writers, especially those seeking an alternative to traditional MFA programs. Whether you're an aspiring writer or a seasoned one seeking a fresh perspective, Chloe's story and her new workshop offer a wealth of inspiration. Join us as we journey through the chapters of her inspiring narrative.
WW: What inspired you to create a year-long program instead of a shorter format?
CC: I noticed in my six week classes that after six weeks was when we really found our groove as a class and people were connecting with one another, feeling productive about their writing, and then it was over. So many students told me they wished the class was longer.
The trajectory of my own writing career as been unconventional. I never went to college and I don’t have an MFA. However, I’ve sold five books and created a path for myself. Since I’ve been writing seriously for fifteen years, I have so many resources I want to share with others who either can’t afford an MFA program or don’t want to attend one, but are looking for support and education and community.
WW: In Section 1 of the course, you mention craft lectures, readings, and exercises. Could you give us an example of a craft exercise that participants can expect during this section and how it can help them in their memoir writing process?
CC: Yes, each week a reading and generative exercise is given. One that has been a bit hit is the concept of “Perhapsing: The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction”. The concept of “perhapsing” is quite liberating for anyone working in the memoir / nonfiction realm as it allows you permission to write about the things your memory is shaky on. I’ve seen writers be incredibly generative when they learn about this technique.
WW: The guest speakers you mentioned will talk about how established writers launched their careers. Can you share some of the topics these guest authors might touch upon and how they can benefit aspiring writers?
CC: Over the years I’ve brought in some incredible writers to talk to my students: Michelle Tea, Samantha Irby, Elissa Bassist, Jen Winston, Isaac Fitzgerald, and so many more. The guests talk about everything and anything: self-doubt, agents, revisions, writing process.
WW: Peer workshops in Section 2 sound like an essential part of the program. How does the Critical Response Process work, and how does it foster meaningful feedback and growth for the participants?
CC: The Critical Response Process has low-key changed my life. What I love about it too is how it can be applied to anything creative in your life, not only writing. In many writing classes and schools of thought, the person receiving feedback is silenced and must squirm listening to everyone discuss what they consider to be the negatives and positives of the person’s writing. With the Critical Response Process, the person being workshopped isn’t silenced; they have a voice, they can ask questions and answer questions. Overall, this makes for a much more productive and positive workshop experience.
WW: Section 3 focuses on professionalization and understanding the literary world. What are some common misconceptions or challenges that aspiring writers often face in the publishing industry, and how will this section help them navigate these issues?
CC: Getting into the literary world and publishing can feel so mystifying for writers and I love being the person to demystify the process. Oftentimes writers finish a manuscript — and then what? Section 3 will show the different paths there are to publishing a book. There isn’t just one way! We also discuss the pros and cons of agents, indie presses versus major publishers and how to talk about your book. Agents and editors will visit us weekly so students can ask their own questions directly, which is really exciting for them.
WW: The opportunity for students to meet with agents, editors, and published authors is exciting. Can you give us a glimpse of the kind of insights these professionals might share with the participants during their sessions?
CC: Agents will visit and talk about what gets their attention in a query letter and what the agent/author relationship will look like. Editors (In the past we’ve had editors visit from Riverhead and Graywolf) will get into the nitty gritty of the editor/writer relationship and what to expect. Agents and editors alike will tell us the biggest mistakes writers make and how to avoid them.
WW: As a teacher and mentor, what are some key qualities or skills you hope participants will develop throughout the year-long workshop, aside from completing their manuscripts?
CC: My hope is participants will experience the challenging but ultimately rewarding process of writing a book. Instead of rushing toward the goal of publication I want to support them in enjoying the creative process. In section 2 we work on revising, so students come away with knowing how to self-edit, which is important. They’ll also learn how to use the resources they have to create a life of writing. Writing a book is a spiritual practice; you learn so much about yourself and the world around you. It’s an honor to witness it.
WW: Writing a full memoir or essay collection can be an emotionally intense and sometimes challenging journey. How will you support students in dealing with potential creative blocks or self-doubt they may encounter during the process?
CC: Ah yes, this is important! The students have one on one meetings with me throughout the program. There’s four available to each student. We talk on the phone and brainstorm, work through blocks, conflicts in the book, and whatever comes up. A lot happens in a year so I support the students wherever they are in the process and meet them where they’re at. I also give a lot of tailored reading suggestions to each person. I’m always available on email for any questions/concerts/rants/epiphanies, too.
WW: The program emphasizes building a sense of community and accountability among participants. How will you foster this supportive environment, especially considering that this is an online program with students from different time zones (and locations around the world)?
CC: I love that the program is available to anyone, anywhere. In the past we’ve had holiday parties over Zoom and even a cookie exchange. We also have an email thread and a lively discussion board. Many of the students have ended up meeting in person — in Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York, Wisconsin and so on!
WW: What are some of the success stories or highlights from past workshops you've led that showcase the positive impact this kind of year-long generative workshop can have on aspiring writers?
CC: Two of my students from year-long courses have their books releasing this winter! Alex Alberto’s Entwined: Essays on Polyamory and Creating Home and Caroline Shannon’s Mother-Eaten are both releasing from Quilted Press next year. My student Courtney Kocak (who has done the generator twice!) recently landed an agent and has a book on submission. She also just published this piece “Restless In Minnesota” in the New York Times. I’ve seen people go from 1 page to 175 pages in less than a year — it’s awe inspiring and a magical process to be in together.
You can learn more about Chloe's Year Long Program and apply if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you in 2024!
Chloe Caldwell is the author of five books: the essay collections I’ll Tell You in Person and Legs Get Led Astray, and The Red Zone: A Love Story. Chloe's next book, TRYING, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2025. Her novella WOMEN will be reissued by Harper Perennial in June 2024.
Chloe’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, New York Magazine’s The Cut, The Strategist, Buzzfeed, Longreads, Vice, Nylon, Salon, Romper, The Rumpus, The Sun, Men’s Health, and half a dozen anthologies including Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NYC and Without A Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class. Her essay “Hungry Ghost” was listed as Notable in 2018 Best American Non Required Reading.