Writing Our Family: an Interview with Kate Hill Cantrill
by Writing Workshops Staff
2 months ago
We are delighted to have Kate Hill Cantrill on staff, author of the short story collection Walk Back From Monkey School. Kate holds an MFA from The Michener Center For Writers, and her work has been published by Story Quarterly, The Believer, Mississippi Review. Fellowships from Yaddo, The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Jentel Artists’ Residency, and The James A. Michener Fund have sharpened her craft. And, with literary luminaries like Elizabeth Bishop and Jamaica Kincaid guiding her, Kate brings a unique perspective to the art of storytelling.
Kate's upcoming 6-week Zoom workshop, Writing Our Family, offers a captivating opportunity for writers of all levels to embark on a profound exploration of their writing subject and voice.
In this instructor-facilitated, peer-driven class, participants will delve into the complexities of writing about family, navigating the intricate web of benefits, hindrances, and difficulties that arise when we attempt to capture the essence of those closest to us. Across various genres, including flash memoir, fiction, poetry, and epistolary stories, Kate will guide students through craft techniques such as voice, tone, point of view, and metaphor, encouraging them to shed preconceived notions about storytelling. With a focus on fostering a safe and supportive space for creativity, this workshop will challenge writers to ask questions and find answers through their own creations and interactions with peers.
By the end of the six weeks, participants can expect to have crafted 5-6 drafts across diverse genres, providing a solid foundation for future writing endeavors. If you're ready to embark on a transformative journey into the world of family narratives, Kate Hill Cantrill's workshop promises to be an enriching experience.
WW: Kate, can you talk about what inspired you to design this workshop focused on family? How have your personal experiences and writing practice informed the creation of this unique course?
KHC: Many if not most of the stories in my own collection center around growing up with divorce and dysfunction and all the pains that that come with that. I found that by re-visiting scenes and situations from a more removed, often fictive eye, I was able to transmute the pains into lessons of growth using all the good stuff we miss when we are in the middle of a crisis--the humor, the music playing in the background, the joy emanating from the photos resting on the mantel.
WW: The course description mentions that the class will cover craft concepts and not the basic mechanics of writing. Can you elaborate on the distinction and why you felt it was essential to emphasize craft in this particular workshop?
KHC: The basic mechanics of writing are the rules (punctuation usage, sentence structure, tenses, etc.), things you need in order for the reader to understand what you're saying; the craft of writing is when you take those basic rules and you use them consciously to create art. I felt it was important to emphasize craft because I was interested in creating a space where participants can experiment with the different tools available to us to tell our stories, tools beyond just straight-forward non-fiction. (I’ll touch on this more in later questions).
WW: Students will be dabbling in varied genres such as flash memoir, fiction, poetry, and epistolary stories. Why did you choose to blend these genres in one workshop, and how do you believe it can benefit writers exploring family themes?
KHC: I modeled my class after a self portrait sculpture class that my mother taught at The University of The Arts many years ago, except that instead of different mirror angles I’m suggesting different ways to tell a story, which might find writers writing a first person story from the perspective of the person who hurt them, or from the perspective of a parental or grandparental figure they never physically met. It can be pretty powerful. It also very often allows writers to tap into their subconscious more when they are less sure of the genre they are writing in, which can bring realizations to the story that wouldn't appear had they only been writing from their intellectual mind.
WW: The list of authors you've chosen to discuss during the workshop is diverse and impressive. How do these specific authors and their works serve as a foundation for the course's objectives?
KHC: The authors I've chosen are known as artful, literary writers, writers who might write about intensely heavy subjects but are not known in any way as trauma writers or any other genre really because it’s their art, their craft, that evokes emotion in the reader. I wanted to choose completed short works that can capture family migration, family loss, family joys and traumas indirectly at times, showing the class participants how they have options in how they approach their topics. (I touch on this a bit more in the following answer, too).
WW: Writing about family can be both deeply personal and complex. How do you plan on guiding your students through the intricacies of writing about those they are closely tied to, especially when delving into potentially painful or controversial topics?
KHC: I’m interested in expanding our ideas of how we can tackle some subjects that are extremely heavy to revisit. I don’t think it’s healthy for the writer or the reader for painful events to simply be regurgitated in words and shared for others to absorb, I also think it’s important to get those words out in order for healing to occur (for the individual and the human collective). This is where craft comes in to transmute those pains into something higher—realizations, deeper understandings, sometimes even forgiveness, but in the very least a personal power over the pain. The art of the memories can then be shared with the world in a way that helps to heal and connect others. If the cracks are where the light shines in, I think it’s the writer’s responsibility to make use of that light.
That being said, I don't recommend folks take this class unless they are at a place within themselves that is ready to revisit some of their past or, if in doubt, that they have a psychological or spiritual guide to assist them if the memories get to be too much too soon. Generally, if someone is feeling the urge to write about something, it’s coming to the surface anyway and they want to keep that momentum going to move it through them.
WW: You describe this class as instructor-facilitated but peer-driven. How does this dynamic work in practice, and why is it the right approach for this workshop?
KHC: The participants create the themes and energies exchanged between them and I'm there to find teaching moments in these exchanges mostly by pointing out how someone used a craft technique to elicit such and such an emotion or discussion. I also step in if I feel something is going in a hurtful direction, but honestly, this is very rare. People are generally kind beings. In a healthy community if someone needs a little extra support, everyone steps into some roll of kindness, and my greatest task is to create a healthy community setting from the get go-- the community naturally forms from there. Honestly, I’m not sure if my description is totally accurate—I’m trying to convey the importance of the community in this class. It’s not so much a top-down teaching situation; everyone learns from everyone, and it’s definitely not like a lot of online courses out there now in which everyone is isolated as they learn.
WW: By the end of the 6-week course, students are expected to have 4-5 drafts ready. What advice would you give students about making the most of the time in the workshop and achieving this outcome?
KHC: I always recommend that students use this class as the excuse they may have been looking for in life to claim their 'Me Time.' I recommend that they keep a notebook with them during the whole six weeks and ‘walk like a writer, shop like a writer, etc.,’ in that they observe conversations, body language, other peoples’ family systems, really immerse themselves in the course as much as they can. I also recommend attending any family functions as the ‘character’ of themselves and then write notes later. I really do hope that this class will encourage a lasting writing practice for many.
WW: For someone on the fence about joining the workshop, could you share a bit about what they can uniquely gain from this experience, especially in relation to other writing workshops they might have attended or are considering?
KHC: In my 20 years or so of teaching I have always told students to learn under a really diverse group of instructors and I’m a good example of a very particular instructor as I’ve never been interested in following handbooks on writing or teaching anything as an absolute. I am simply jazzed by the importance—the historical, the psychological and the spiritual--importance and power of art, and I pull from every form of it to get a concept across. Non-linear, non-traditional, more conceptual brains seem to resonate with my style, if that helps. And perspective participants are always welcomed to send me a note.
You can learn more about Kate's upcoming Writing Our Family 6-Week Zoom Workshop and enroll if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you this year! So, what are you waiting for?
Instructor Kate Hill Cantrill is the author of the short story collection, Walk Back From Monkey School. She holds an MFA from The Michener Center For Writers, and her stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in literary journals such as: Story Quarterly, The Believer, Mississippi Review, Texas Observer, Blackbird, Salt Hill, Del Sol Review, The Short Story Project, and others. She has received fellowships from The Corporation of Yaddo, The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Jentel Artists’ Residency, and The James A. Michener Fund. She is presently writing both a novel and an epistolary novella.