Spalding MFA Alumni Blog, 2017—On this episode of A Day in the Life we meet Summer 2014 graduate Karen (Chronister) Leslie, a fiction and travel writer based in Franklin, Tennessee. When Karen isn’t working on her own writing she’s helping other creatives to market their writing. Karen has a wholistic approach to life and writing and I know I could definitely take a page out of her book to put into my daily routing.
Now, let’s hear from Karen:
When did you graduate?
July 2014 (Berlin/Prague Residency)
What are your favorite books?
Oh, wow. Charlotte’s Web, The Essays of E. B. White, Rebecca, Pride and Prejudice, The Forgotten Garden, Olive Kitteridge. It’s more about authors and stories…Elizabeth Strout, Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, Kate Morton, Jane Austen, Frank O’Connor, my Spalding professors…I read a lot of print travel magazines, too.
Do you hold a full-time job other than writing?
I have a freelance marketing business, The WordShop, with several long-time clients and a few new, revolving ones.
What do you do?
I’m a Marketing Specialist: content creation, branding, WordPress website customization, strategy, editing. Last year I tutored this fabulous young writer, and this fall I’ll teach two sections of English at Western Kentucky University.
What part of writing do you like the most?
Thinking about it and revising, really. I love sliding all the possibilities around in my head. Then, I shake it out in the light. The characters have become so real, and I’m so compelled by their stories. Sometimes they come to my mind and I wonder about them like I do real friends in my life…then, I remind myself they aren’t real…But, they are, right? However, having written—having finished a story or a new scene might thumb wrestle for the win. Notice how I didn’t mention actual writing?
Do you work with an outline or just wing it?
I write the scenes I see in my mind—what I hear—as close to the time as they appear, so they are fresh. With my novel I have an idea where I’m going and generally how I might get there, but I like surprises. My best work and biggest thrills have come from flinging myself at the page and winging it until it feels safe to stop or pause. Something magical happens then.
Do you ever experience writer’s block?
No…I have plenty of long periods when I don’t write on paper. I’m always “writing” in my mind, so it feels like an endless ticker tape. That can be tricky. At times, I am immobilized by the noisiness of life. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t believe in writer’s block, at least, as far as I’m concerned. If I’m not writing, it’s usually a sign of having too much stimulus in my life, or too little life is being lived.
Do you listen to music while writing- if so, what kind?
Not usually. My helpers are candles, different sizes of hour glasses, and my writing chair.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Read. Work. Watch films at The Belcourt, a cool Art House theater in Nashville. Cook. Exercise. Travel, when I have a chance. Hang out with my guy or visit my kids. I love having memorable, compelling conversations over a glass of wine with friends, but they are so scattered around the country now, it’s not as often as I like. I miss my children—as in, an activity. All of these feel like luxuries for some reason. Perhaps, because as much as I enjoy them, I always feel like I should be writing. Always. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
Can you tell us about an upcoming project?
Hmm…I thought I’d come out of my MFA, immediately polish off my collection of linked stories, and then, methodically move through the first draft of my novel River Town. Such a good, solid Type A plan, don’t you think? In reality, I’m not a Type A. The first year, I sorted through and packed my house after 20 years and moved to Nashville. Last year, I focused on submitting and got one of my short stories published (and stacked up a healthy pile of rejections). Somewhere in that time frame, the middle of River Town became clear to me. It was a true epiphany and exciting. This year, I’ve focused my time at writing retreats on fleshing out that epiphany by researching, scribbling character and plot notes, writing new scenes, and rewriting the first 70 pages of River Town. I anticipate another few hundred pages until I reach the end of the first draft. It’s a mystery set in modern day and the 1930s. A story-within-a-story with town life and characters living around the river’s rhythm. I’ve got a fascination with older women…because I imagine becoming one at some point, and I don’t expect to feel life any less than I do now. So, the developing friendship between the younger and older woman as they solve the mystery is prominent.
What does your daily schedule look like?
I wake up around 6:30 in the morning and make a pot of Italian espresso. I read the headlines, check my calendar for work promises, and then, make a healthy breakfast. When I can, I love to eat outside and read something about writing, or the latest “research” novel that might somehow inform my story. This is when I write for an hour or two, or sort out my newest thoughts in the River Town journal, usually in my “writing chair,” which is, indeed, special. I’m not always writing my novel—though, I think I should be. Sometimes it’s an epiphany I want to sort through, sometimes a travel piece, or some nostalgic memory I want to capture in words. When I write, I cast Nostalgia as a big character. I use as many of these snippets as possible in the novel.
Writing River Town is still a scattered process for me at this stage, as if it’s so early I have to keep refocusing the kaleidoscope. And when I do, the pieces fall together in a different pattern. I long to be through this stage and have the first draft finished. Then, I read a little of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard and relax. It’s like I’m raising a child—that’s a long process with short bursts of joyful progress. I try to practice grace on myself.
If I had the luxury to follow this muse all day, I would. However, I must work. I usually put on some workout clothes, if I don’t have a meeting, and start around 9AM. Three days a week, I work until my TRX/bootcamp class around 4PM. I’m toast after that. This fall, I’m teaching two sections of English, so I anticipate Tuesday and Thursday will be filled with lots of nerdy talk about writing…and, time spent responding to students’ writing. I’m looking forward to it…with a little fear and trepidation, though. I enjoy cooking, so half the week, I might try a new recipe. If not, we go to dinner at one of our usual places. Nashville is full of culinary opportunity.
I believe everything I allow into my schedule and mind should positively inform my writing life. I’ve adopted a wholistic approach about my writing life since I’ve moved. Everything—and almost everyone—feeds my writing now. It’s a carefully crafted, unplotted life. Even my love life supports my writing. He’s a professional songwriter. We speak the same language, understand the creative rhythms that ebb and flow, and yet, practice writing whether we “feel” like it or not. That’s my definition of a working creative. As an extra treat, I’ve surrounded myself with people who don’t need an explanation for the whys and hows in my life. That started at Spalding where I found my “Core” people.
What advice would you give someone looking for a more productive routine?
My advice for a productive routine? I’d follow my original plan: block off two hours in the morning, turn off the world, set a timer or turn over your hour glass, and focus on filling up blank pages until your life demands you make an official appearance. I set out with this goal every day. I fall short, but maybe, staying motivated, putting pen to paper, and protecting your writing life is part of the journey? The good news is, no matter how much time you can carve out to dedicate to a project, the words have a lovely way of adding up.
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Mackenzie Jervis is a Summer 2016 Graduate. She lives in Texas with her husband, two cats, puppy, and son. She’s traveled to 65 countries solo, now taking the baby along. She blogs about family travel at A Wandering Scribbler while writing novels and binge-watching British TV.