I am delighted to introduce you to writer, recent MFA graduate, and my dear friend, Taylor Flory Ogletree. Taylor and I met on a diary website over ten years ago; she was actually the first person I agreed to travel to meet in person who I knew solely from the internet. At the time we were both in undergrad programs, she in Atlanta and me in Delaware, and it seemed both insane and completely normal that I should go to meet her after drunkenly purchasing plane tickets late one night. But that’s ancient history. Today, Taylor is the reason this blog even exists, for it was her Thirty is the New Thirty that inspired me to begin writing publicly again. So you can thank her for this beautiful mess, but either way read on to learn more about an amazingly smart, stylish, and witty lady.
Which writers (artists, musicians, humans) inspire you?
This might sound corny, but honestly I feel most inspired by the community of writers I have around me, both in Austin where I live and elsewhere. My peers and my (now former) instructors work so hard and in so many varied and interesting ways. They’re ambitious and passionate. They support their fellow writers. That’s what makes me want to keep writing, too.
I’m also totally obsessed with Rihanna, which is well-documented. She does not give a fuck what people think about her, and I try to channel that when I can.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working mainly on a collection of short stories, but there’s also a longer nonfiction project I started in a class with the amazing poet Lisa Olstein that I imagine I’ll keep working on for years to come. The [short story] collection is something I’m eager to put out into the world as soon as possible, but the nonfiction project is very weird and personal and it might just remain a creepy secret thing forever. In the money-making sense of work, I’m hanging out with two bright, funny little girls after school on weekdays. Taking care of children has been my profession for a lot of years now, and although I don’t plan on doing it forever, it’s definitely a large and meaningful part of my identity.
When did you decide to become a writer?
This question is tricky, because I don’t necessarily feel that there was any decision-making involved. I don’t mean that in the sense of writing being My Destiny or anything romantic like that (and in fact typing “My Destiny” made me giggle), but rather in the sense that writing is something I always did, so getting my undergraduate degree in creative writing seemed like an obvious thing to do. But then I graduated and didn’t write a thing (other than angsty journal entries) for a few years after that. It actually surprised me to realize that I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue an MFA, mostly because it required taking myself seriously in a way I hadn’t before–and I think that lack of seriousness was a big part of why I quite writing in my early twenties.
But although I would never have said it out loud, I thought of myself as a writer even when I wasn’t writing. I wouldn’t say I was correct in that assessment. It seems fundamentally necessary that a writer…. well, write. By the same token, “being a writer” is difficult, and the rewards are often small and long in coming, so at the end of the day the only thing you really have is your belief in the work and in yourself. I would say I didn’t truly have that until probably my second year of grad school, which was 2012. So I guess I did make a decision at that point: that I was going to take the risk of calling myself a writer and backing it up with my actions.
Who was your favorite fictional character(s) growing up? Is it different from age nine, to thirteen, to nineteen? (I should hope so.)
If I’m remembering the age correctly, at nine my favorite fictional character was Jo from Little Women. I read that book, without exaggeration, probably fifteen or twenty times that year. I’d get to the last page and open it right back up to the beginning. At thirteen I was reading a lot of fantasy, and I was obsessed with one series in particular called The Darkangel Trilogy. The main character’s name was Aeriel, and she was very brave and suffered very nobly, which was, of course, exactly how I felt about myself at the time. At nineteen it’s harder to recall. I started reading literary fiction at sixteen or seventeen, so all those formative books of my late teens sort of blend together. I think my favorite novels at nineteen were The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan. I envied Phoebe, the main character in the Egan novel, her trip to Europe and the illicit sexual relationship she embarked upon there.
What were you like as a child? Do you see her in yourself today?
Well, for one thing, I look exactly the same. (I have photographic proof, if you’re interested.) I was often anxious and very particular, which are both still true. Like now, I had friends, but I spent a lot of time alone. I wrote then, too; my mom likes to tell people that my version of “drawing” was sketching a few perfunctory stick figures and then writing out the story of what they were doing in the rest of the white space. But I’ve also changed a lot. I was a very serious kid–most people would probably say I’m a serious adult, too, but I have a much better sense of humor now, and I’m better able to take a joke. I like to think I’m pretty funny. I went through an extreme girly phase followed by an extreme tomboy phase and have now settled somewhere in the middle. I’m a lot less sensitive than I used to be–although, given what a sensitive kid I was, this might not be saying much.
How much research do you do for your writing? What kind of research have you done in the past for your work? What was the best rabbit hole you fell into?
Until recently, I had never done more research than your basic Wikipedia search, but the aforementioned nonfiction project started with Lisa asking her students to engage meaningfully with an obsession and see if it generated anything. In my case, it definitely did. I started with the photography of Nan Goldin and of my friend Janna Ireland, both of whom make work that elicits strong feelings in me and which I wasn’t sure how to unpack. That led me into notions of privacy and the different ways in which the art I was looking at negotiated that concept. Then that led to interrogating my own relationship with privacy and disclosure, and I’m still in that rabbit hole. Most recently, I read a great essay by Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker about Virginia Woolf’s idea of privacy. It’s fascinating stuff, how we classify what belongs only to us and what belongs to the world, and the different shapes vulnerability takes in each of us.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you? Both? Neither? How do you start building a story?
Writers who outline are basically mythical creatures to me. I can’t work that way. Most of my stories could more accurately be described as having a “situation” rather than a “plot.” I’m mostly interested in character, and what people do when they’re backed into a corner, so that’s usually where a story begins for me. Because of that, I don’t really have a choice other than to get to know the characters as I go and see where they take me. Whenever I try to exercise my will too much, I end up with a lifeless draft. It’s better, in my experience, to submit to the unknown and treat writing as a process of discovery.
What are your ambitions for your writing career? For five years from now? Ten?
I dearly hope that in five years this collection will be a real book and I will have at least started a novel. Novel writing is a task that daunts me. I don’t understand the way novels work, but I do want to tackle that challenge at some point. I have an idea that I think is the right size for a novel, which is maybe something. I also hope to be teaching creative writing for a living in some capacity. I love to teach and feel as passionately about it as I do about writing itself. In ten years, my hopes would be much the same–that I’m still writing, that I have a teaching job, that maybe some of the books I write will sell a few copies. That I’ll be supporting myself with my degree.
What was the impetus for beginning your blog Thirty is the New Thirty? Has the experience been what you expected? What are your goals for TitNT?
A lot of converging things served as an impetus for Thirty is the New Thirty. The first was wanting to celebrate the process of aging; by and large, I’ve enjoyed getting older, and you couldn’t pay me to go back to my early twenties. I wanted to mark the positive feelings I had about entering my thirties. They (the thirties) are a really interesting span of ages, because you’re no longer a young adult, but you’re still young. That’s a good place to be. It feels like a luxury in a lot of ways. The second–and perhaps contradictory–impulse was to talk back to the part of myself that was constantly telling me my interest in fashion wasn’t valid because I’m not thin or rich. I wear a size 12-14 and I can’t afford designer clothing, but I still love clothes, and I think I have a good eye. The blog was a way of being kind to myself and saying, “Maybe no one will read this, but you’re allowed to write it.” I hoped it would interest other people, of course, but the main goal was really to inch me closer to accepting myself for the way I do look and not the way I wish I did. There were other factors–like wanting to have something Googleable associated with my name, and the basic desire to try something new–but I think those first two were the big ones.
What book/s are you reading at present?
I just finished three books that I was reading concurrently: In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larsen, The Other Language, by Francesca Marciano, and the collected stories of Mercé Rodoreda. I think I’ll start Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands next.
What is your measure of success as a writer for yourself?
That I’m writing. That I’m putting in the work. I want publication, certainly, and recognition, and a job. But in the meantime I have to take myself seriously without all that. So as long as I’m generating words, I try to tell myself I’m successful.
What kind of job are you looking to have in the future? (Asking this one so that I can find it for you in Philadelphia and we can live in the same city.)
Ha! I would totally move to Philadelphia! Or to anywhere the Northeast, for that matter. I would love to be teaching creative writing at the graduate or undergraduate level at a progressive university. Other than that, I’m not picky. (That’s a joke, by the way–creative writing jobs of any kind seem to be the holy grail.)
Do you have thoughts on the Amazon vs. Hachette modern dilemma of publishing?
I do, but they’re inextricably tied to my concerns about the squeeze corporations put on the little guys in all sorts of instances. This applies to artists and writers, certainly, but also to workers and small business owners in general. The Hachette debacle is a symptom of a much larger ill, in my opinion.
You’ve just finished a MFA program. Congrats. What is your perspective on the grad school experience currently? Other than graduation, no small feat, what are you most proud of from that time?
My writing improved immensely over the three years I was in graduate school. Much of this was due to my peers, but the bulk of the credit goes to my adviser, Elizabeth McCracken, who is the most insightful reader I have ever encountered. From her invaluable advice, I culled an essential list of questions to ask of any first draft; she taught me that it’s tempting to think we create new and exciting problems in every draft, but in fact it’s more likely that we make the same mistakes over and over. Which makes the process of revision less daunting, at least for me. Even though I had so much help, though, I still think the progress I made in my work is the thing I’m most proud of. That I was able to put my head down and hear the criticism that was useful to me and to take it seriously. That’s something I wasn’t always able to do. I also want to say that I don’t think every writer needs an MFA, but I really did. The experience was absolutely essential for me, and I’m grateful for it. That said, I’d rather gouge my own eyes out than get a PhD.
We met via something akin to a blog website. What effect do you think your online writing had — or did it affect — your decision to pursue writing? How did it influence your style? Your subject matter?
My fiction is completely separate from my personal life, so I don’t know if the semi-private internet journal writing had anything to do with my choice to write stories. My journal entries tended to be short, and there was a lot of hyperbole and melodrama there, because even though I treated those entries as writing, they were also an expression of deep, unfiltered feeling. My short stories are pretty traditional in form, and I try to be very strict with myself about excess of language (although I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as an excess of feeling). I read old journal entries and cringe at a lot of them, which is also something that happens when I read my early fiction, but it’s a very different kind of cringe. On the other hand, maybe the public diary-keeping did have one important effect: hearing from virtual strangers that I could put together a good sentence helped me to believe it over time. My fiction also privileges women and their experiences, and it seems unlikely that the years I spent reading the innermost thoughts of a bunch of different women on that journal site don’t have anything to do with my choice of subject matter. I’m still in touch with a lot of those women and am grateful to them for all kinds of reasons.
You can find more from Taylor on her blog, Thirty is the New Thirty.
Women’s Work is a series of interviews with women who are redefining success as they navigate the modern world. No longer “young,” but far from old, the years following formal studies have exploded into a time more complex than simply settling down and beginning a family. Touching on work, love, art, music, child-rearing, our bodies, ambition, achievement and more, Women’s Work explores how we find the energy to do the things we love while we also do the things we need to do to pay our bills.