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Meet the Teaching Artist: Storytelling in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction with Leslie Contreras Schwartz

by Writing Workshops Staff

10 months ago

Meet the Teaching Artist: Storytelling in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction with Leslie Contreras Schwartz

by Writing Workshops Staff

10 months ago

We're excited to introduce you to Leslie Contreras Schwartz, a multi-genre writer and educator with a solid background in the literary field. As a faculty member at Alma College’s MFA low-residency program in creative writing, she brings both poetry and nonfiction expertise to her teaching role. Her achievements include being named a 2021 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow, serving as the Houston Poet Laureate from 2019 to 2021, and winning the 2022 C&R Press Nonfiction Prize for her lyrical memoir, From the Womb of Sky and Earth. Leveraging her experience in both writing and teaching, Leslie is well-equipped to guide writers of various experience levels in developing their skills.

If you are looking to develop your narrative skills, Leslie's upcoming 6-week Zoom class, Storytelling in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction, might be what you need. The course aims to guide students in using poetic tools to add depth and imagery to nonfiction writing, drawing from works of notable authors such as Jesmyn Ward and Ross Gay for examples and inspiration. The class structure, which includes weekly exercises and discussions, is designed to foster creativity and help students explore different ways to approach nonfiction writing, with a focus on lyrical language. Whether you are just starting out or looking to add new techniques to your writing toolbox, this class offers a supportive environment for learning and experimentation.

Hi, Leslie. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

Hi there, I'm a multi-genre writer and Houston Poet Laureate Emeritus with a newly released memoir, From the Womb of Sky and Earth and five collections of poetry, most recently Black Dove / Paloma Negra. I currently teach at Alma College's MFA Program in Writing and Rice University, and teach workshops in poetry and nonfiction. I live on the surface of the sun known as Houston (although I do love this multicultural, gritty city with all of my tiny heart) and am of Mexican American descent. I'm the mother of three children and a furry child named Coco.

What made you want to teach this specific class? Is it something you are focusing on in your own writing practice? Have you noticed a need to focus on this element of craft?

I love teaching about embracing lyricism and the lyric poem because of my background as a poet who loves playing with language and the intensity of imagery. I fell in love with the power of imagery (that fly in Emily Dickinson's poem hit me hard as a 6th grader!) and it's something I constantly find myself using to get over the hurdle of a blank page. It's my home as a writer. As a writer, I love being able to invite writers to embrace the rich inner images stored in their personal narrative and imagination through creative writing prompts and forming an intimate connection in the group. It's something I thrive on as a practicing writer who has a tight-knit group of writing peers.

Give us a breakdown of how the course is going to go. What can the students expect? What is your favorite part about this class you've dreamed up?

Students can expect to be pushed to experiment creatively through writing prompts and through being inspired by powerhouse writers such as Jesmyn Ward, Louise Erdrich, Matthew Gavin Frank, and Ross Gay. Students can expect to be challenged, as well as to practice examining texts from a writerly point of view to put our fingers on what makes the pieces powerful. My favorite part of this class is the writing exercises and seeing how wildly creative my students can be in their work.

What was your first literary crush?

I hard-core crushed over Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Franz Kafka.

What are you currently reading?

I'm re-reading The Grapes of Wrath (since I'm working on historical fiction from that time period), and just finished I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins and Eat the Mouth that Feeds You by Caribbean Fragoza.

How do you choose what you're working on? When do you know it is the next thing you want to write all the way to THE END?

I'm prompted to write when I'm daydreaming during walks, while I'm reading, making art, or going about my day; I rush back to the page with a snippet of an idea and let it flourish and thrive on the page. It takes a lot of writing to get to the core of what I want to keep. I know I'm starting to form a finished piece when I hone in on my voice (and am honest with myself about what is strongest by using my internal workshop eye) and I know I'm finished when I've exhausted all I've got to say and it feels like a complete lyric moment or narrative.

Where do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration through reading widely, through nature, while walking or daydreaming waiting in lines, sitting in carpool, or people watching.

What is the best piece of writing wisdom you've received that you can pass along to our readers? How did it impact your work? Why has this advice stuck with you?

I don't think I've ever been explicitly told this but it's something I learned as a student and through cultivating my own practice and that is to attack the page. Write as much as you can expecting that 90% is not going to be used but that you have to write it to get to your best thoughts. This concept makes up the bulk of my writing practice. I learned this through getting rung out as a graduate student and by being honest with myself as a writer, and learning to be my own critic while embracing a wildness in my writing practice.

What is your favorite book to recommend on the craft of writing? Why this book?

A great primer that I assign to beginning students, or students who want to brush up on craft terminology and great examples is Poetry: A Writer's Guide and Anthology by Amorak Huey and W. Todd Kaneko. I also love Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison.

Bonus question: What’s your teaching vibe?

I've been told that I am both gentle and create a kind but rigorous writing community in a class. I'm excited and get worked up talking about writing and hearing writers' work in class!

Learn More About Working with Leslie:

You can learn more about Leslie's upcoming 6-Week Zoom class, Storytelling in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction, and sign up now!

Join Leslie in this journey to explore new dimensions in writing and enhance your craft!

Instructor Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a multi-genre writer, a 2021 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow, and the 2019-2021 Houston Poet Laureate. She is the winner of the 2022 C&R Press Nonfiction Prize for the lyrical memoir, From the Womb of Sky and Earth.

She is the author of five collections of poetry, including The Body Cosmos (Mouthfeel Press, 2023); Black Dove / Paloma Negra (FlowerSong Press, 2020), a finalist for 2020 Best Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters; Fuego (St. Julian Press, 2016); and Nightbloom & Cenote (SJP, 2018), a semi-finalist for the 2017 Tupelo Press Dorset Prize, judged by Ilya Kaminsky.

Her work has appeared in AGNI, Missouri Review, Iowa Review, [PANK], Verse Daily, Pleiades, Zocalo Public Square, Gulf Coast, and the anthologies Houston Noir (Akashic Books, 2019), and 2019 Best Small Fiction. Recent work has been featured with the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day.

She has collaborated or been commissioned for poetic projects with the City of Houston, the Houston Grand Opera, and The Moody Center of the Arts at Rice University. Contreras Schwartz is currently a poetry and nonfiction faculty member at Alma College’s MFA low-residency program in creative writing, and a lecturer in creative writing at Rice University. Contreras Schwartz was born in Houston, Texas, with Mexican American and Mexican roots going back several generations in Houston and Texas. She is a graduate of The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and earned a bachelor’s at Rice University.

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