Valerie Fioravanti Interviews SoS September Featured Writer & Master Teacher Kevin McIlvoy

Kevin (Mc) McIlvoy will be in town next month to participate in Stories on Stage and facilitate a weekend workshop. He has taught creative writing for over twenty-five years, and recently served as Interim Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College. He was Editor in Chief of the national literary magazine Puerto del Sol at New Mexico State University, and has served on the Board of Directors of two national writing organizations, Council for Literary Magazines & Presses and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. His published works include A Waltz, The Fifth Station, Little Peg, Hyssop, and The Complete History of New Mexico. He works with students privately via his website mcthebookmechanic.

You will be in Sacramento to participate in Stories on Stage (9/30) and conduct a weekend workshop (10/1&10/2).Will you discuss your approach as a reader/teacher of writing?

My goal is to meet the work on its own terms, and to respond to it in such a way that I am doing my best to speak for the work, specifically for the full set of possibilities already evident in the draft. If I effectively facilitate a more intense conversation between the author and her/his work, then the work will improve because the author will envision its possibilities more comprehensively. The author who can do this will naturally welcome the boldness the work asks of her/him.

When I studied with you and Robert Boswell at NMSU, I was told by each of you, in slightly different language, that a good writer serves the story she is telling, rather than the opposite. I can remember finding this idea astonishing, although I no longer do. Why is this an important distinction for developing writers?

Ah, Boz! How lucky I was to be his colleague and to have the opportunity to learn from him for so many years! We writers train ourselves to combine our intuitive skills and our conscious mastery of technique in order to discern the will of the work, not in order to exercise our willfulness. We seek “the stance of wonder” (John Berryman), not the posture of control. In our own lives as artists and in our personal lives, we soon enough learn that willfulness is emptying and exhausting, that willingness is fulfilling and exhilarating. I think Boz and I have always agreed that we wish for writers’ lives to be satisfying page by page and book by book, right from the start.

Whenever I hear theories of visual arts, I think of you, particularly the advice regarding teaching artists how to see rather than how to paint. I had read and understood writing theory before I began my MFA candidacy, but I feel I was taught to see the larger picture of storytelling and narrative choices. Is this why you eschew more traditional writing-craft theory?

During all of my life as a writer, I have found it’s a good thing to welcome the study of conventional and unconventional methods. I admit that I get restless with some creative writing instruction that is so intent on confirming established assumptions—about such things as point of view treatment, plot, story structure, etc.—that it does not invite questioning. Worse yet, some instruction proposes that writers set certain rigid rules and apply them to everything they write. That’s foolishness. Each piece we write has something to teach us about its wild nature. If we unwisely tame ourselves, we tame the work.

You’ve mentioned that you favor disequilibrium, or writing that throws the reader off balance in some way. Why?

Musicians, dancers, painters, and writers spend their lives contemplating beauty. A story, like a deteriorating rose, like a fading song note, is a manifestation of dark and luminous beauty. As I said above, with each piece we write, we should find ways to feel more fully and intensely the unique nature of the beauty in that particular piece. And we should question any assumption that the most profound nature of beauty resides in symmetry, proportion, equilibrium. The fading song note is in dynamic balance since it is about to achieve its last fullness and about to fall away in the same moment; were it merely balanced, it would only sustain its fullness.

I spend a lot of time discussing the concept of many many drafts with my writing students. Will you discuss your writing/revision process and/or a writer’s need for patience?

Willingness is pleasurable. In my own work I seek pleasure in the processes of composing and revising. I believe that in each stage of letting go of willful control, writers give themselves pleasure (I like the sound of that! And I like the image of writers reporting to their loved ones that they have spent their writing sessions pleasuring themselves!). I sincerely wish for my fellow writers to prolong their pleasure—patient composing, patient revising. At its best, I believe the process of composing is an act of generosity: here, reader, is the cause of wonder (this image, this character gesture, etc.) and engagement (this perspective, this setting, etc.), and here is another cause of wonder and engagement. The process of revising should be an act of greater generosity: here, reader, is the cause of wonder and terrible awe and engagement and estrangement, and here is another, and here is another.

We are both essentially going rogue by offering our own writing workshops, mentoring, and other forms of literary advocacy. Why do you think it’s important to offer an alternative to the university writing experience?

I’ve only been “rogue” for a short period of time; this new life as an entity called “mcthebookmechanic” is challenging me to improve my teaching methods and to question all my own first principles. I’ve always sought those terms, and I feel lucky to find them at this moment of my life. I believe I’m in readiness for this because I taught in a great place (New Mexico State University) for almost thirty years. I still miss the students there, the colleagues, the writers in the community. I continue to teach in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College, and my colleagues there and my students help me grow as a writer and teacher.

For more information about the Master Teachers Weekend Workshop series or Stories on Stage, contact valfiora at yahoo or visit http://valeriefioravanti.com/MTWW.aspx.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Valerie Fioravanti Interviews SoS September Featured Writer & Master Teacher Kevin McIlvoy

  1. Looking forward to meeting Mc at Stories on Stage, Valerie — you’ve said so many nice things about him; he sounds like one good (and very smart) egg!

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