Important Dialogue through Wit
Carolyn Byrne is a third year graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota. Her writing interest lies in critiquing the power structures and hierarchies our societies abide by. Byrne is a former Department of Defense employee, and her stories draw from this experience, as well as from the work of various other writers. Most recently, Byrne has been reading and admiring the work of Jhumpa Lahiri.
Tell me about your current subject matter.
I’m working on a collection of stories and a novella that I’m beginning to suspect wants to be a novel. I’m interested in hierarchies: the rules we fabricate to elevate or subordinate people, and the dehumanizing systems that grow from those rules. The collection braids stories of “regular” people with stories dealing with the US defense and nuclear complexes, and many of those are based on real events or settings. I worked in that world for a few years, and there’s a grotesque, comic tension between its day-to-day operations (cubicle spats, hygiene problems) and what it’s ultimately designed to do (kill millions of people).
Where does your passion for creative writing originate?
Growing up, I was very shy and I remember being overwhelmed by other people’s feelings—expressions, tones of voice—and getting them mixed up in my own. Writing became a way to see and be seen, to say everything I wanted as well as I could. I was lucky to have English teachers who encouraged my writing. There were three in high school in particular who could tell when I wasn’t trying and wouldn’t let me get away with it. They told me when they were bored or confused, or where the prose felt snobbish or imitative or dead. That’s when I began to think about voice and style, and realized I could sound like myself in whatever I wrote, but cooler and smarter.
I’m completely faithless when it comes to literary heroes. Partly because I have a terrible memory, and partly because the kind of help I need changes daily, if not hourly. Where am I struggling? Who can I look to as a model? Sometimes I need to get away from fiction altogether; I go for walks, draw pictures, read poetry or essays or listen to music while I work. If there’s a song that captures the mood or rhythm of a story or section I’m working on, I’ll often play it on repeat until I get to the end.
Stephanie Vaughn’s “Dog Heaven” was the first short story I fell in love with for its wit, its audacious scope, and its tender characterizations. It has this tremendous, moving crescendo of an ending. Whenever anyone says they were “moved” by a piece of art or literature, I wonder “from where to where?” The word “moved” feels right to me—there’s this sense of nostalgia and arrival, a sharpness and an ache, compressed into a moment. In the case of “Dog Heaven,” I moved into the story, so that when I hit that final line, where the narrator proclaims “It was a good day, it was a good day, it was a good day,” it felt like I had lived that day, and only in that moment understood how good and fleeting it was. It still amazes me how much emotional territory Vaughn covers in such a short piece.
Lately I’ve been swooning over Jhumpa Lahiri’s prose. It’s clean and spacious; she doesn’t rush and you don’t want her to. I’m still reeling from Evan Connell’s ending to Mrs. Bridge, which I read for class in April. I love the zip in Tobias Wolff’s and Danielle Evans’s short pieces. I went bonkers over Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels this summer. I’ll cut it off there. There’s a lot to admire.
Did you always intend to write this particular book?
It was only about this time last year that I realized that I was, in fact, writing a book. Before that, there were certain stories I had avoided writing, but once I let them in, the pattern I was making with my work became clear. And once I saw the pattern, I was able to start writing in the service of completing it. It’s as if you were knitting and watching TV, and when the show was over you looked down to find your hands had made most of a scarf without you.
What are some challenges or successes you have experienced during the process of completing your manuscript?
Writing is hard. Fiction is hard. It doesn’t seem like it should be, from far away. When you write, you have to trust the words as they arise, but once they’re on the page you need to be suspicious of them. It’s tempting to believe there’s something melodious and holy about a writer’s experience of the world. But really, we’re people who can’t leave “well-enough” alone. We put words down and then nudge them closer and closer to felt experience, all the while knowing we’ll never quite reach it. That said, it’s wonderful, to take someone by the hand and lead them through this thing you’ve constructed, and to sense that at the end you both might be feeling the same thing, even if you can’t name it.
But any time someone tells me they enjoyed a piece, or a piece of a piece, or if they were moved or disturbed, or felt it had spoken something they never knew they wanted to say, I’m thrilled. The big successes are rare in writing, but you can have lots of little ones. Dialogue is my absolute favorite thing to write and I’m a sucker for laughs. If I write in a joke and it lands, I am so very pleased. It’s the seat of my vanity; I have to put something funny into every piece, or it doesn’t feel like mine.
Describe your experience working on a book in the company of other emerging writers who are doing the same.
I have a deep and abiding love for my cohort. Our personalities and interests combine into a productive, happy energy. Within and outside my cohort, there are many writers who have given me the professional and personal support I needed to get this far. They’re some of the funniest, most empathetic people I’ve had the pleasure to know, and because of them I’ve gotten much better at asking for help when I feel lost in what I’m doing, or suddenly lack the confidence to do it. I hope I’ve gotten better at giving help as well.
The caliber of the work everyone else is doing is both validating and motivating: validating in the sense that the admissions team (Charles Baxter and Julie Schumacher) placed me in league with these writers who I so admire; motivating, in the sense that my colleagues’ work gives me something to live up to. I often tell my undergraduate students that there’s no such thing as a good writer, only people capable of writing well. I don’t think that ever stops being true.
How has the creative writing program helped you in your work?
This program has let me take my writing seriously for the first time in my life. I’m so grateful for that. My writing has become more confident. Beyond giving me a community to lean on and the time and space I needed to write, I think I’m a better critic than I was two years ago, thanks to the keen eyes of fiction faculty Julie Schumacher, Charles Baxter, and Sugi Ganeshananthan. Each faculty member offers a distinctive approach to critiques, and their combined knowledge and attention is a huge advantage. They are also kind, present humans who know when you need a push, and when you need a compliment. Holly Vanderhaar, an alumna of the graduate program, runs the creative writing office and somehow manages to keep us all organized and sane. We also have an incredible visiting writers series that gives us access to even more feedback and perspectives on writing.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
I would love to support myself by my writing. Barring that, I would love any kind of life where writing can be at the center. In a total dream scenario, I’d also like to one day pull a Jhumpa Lahiri and abandon the English language for a little while. Jhumpa Lahiri is a theme with me these days.