• Q&A With WriteByNight Consultant Erin M. Bertram


    Erin M. Bertram, consultant and coachDr. Erin M. Bertram’s (Sycamore, Illinois) cross-genre memoir, It’s Not a Lonely World (Trembling Pillow Press, forthcoming 2020), received the 2016 and 2017 Karen Dunning Creative Activity Awards, and their thirteen chapbooks include Relief Map (winner, 2016 Summer Tide Pool Prize) and Body of Water (2007, Frank O’Hara Award). A published finalist in the 2013 Diagram Hybrid Essay Contest and two-time winner of the Academy of American Poets Prize, they have fifteen-plus years of experience as a writing tutor, college English teacher, individual writing coach, and writing workshop facilitator. They earned their MFA in Creative Writing with a certificate in Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and their PhD in English/Creative Writing with a specialization in Women’s & Gender Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where they were a 2017-18 Maude Hammond Fling Fellow. They have also completed continuing ed coursework in documentary studies and graduate coursework in counseling. Their current project, the cross-genre biography The Vanishing of Camille Claudel, has been a finalist for the [Pank] Book Series. They live with their wife amid field and forest in northern Illinois. Their website is erinmbertram.com.


    Where are you from?

    I grew up in Chicagoland and have lived in the Quad Cities, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Lincoln. I now live with my wife in northern Illinois, closer to family, surrounded by fields and trees. It’s awesome.


    Where did you study?

    After earning my BA in English/Writing with minors in Women’s & Gender Studies and French from Augustana College, I earned my MFA in Creative Writing with a certificate in Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. Then I earned my PhD in English/Creative Writing with a specialization in Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where I was a Maude Hammond Fling Fellow. I’ve also been a John Woods Scholar with Prague Summer Program for Writers, practiced Zen for many years, played drum kit with the band Busted Chandeliers, and completed continuing ed coursework in documentary studies and graduate coursework in counseling. Yes, I’m a nerd.


    How did you get your start as a writer?

    It’s not the most glamorous story, but it is a true one. When I was in junior high, someone very close to me was diagnosed with M.S., and writing, journaling, and early attempts at poetry became my anchor during the rush and blur of the intense emotions. My parents or my aunt must’ve given me a journal for my birthday or a holiday. By giving me a means of focusing my stunned-frenetic energy, and by giving me something, quite literally, to hold onto, writing helped me process. And, looking back, I can now see how it also helped me be more present for my loved one who experienced the diagnosis — the act of writing, not what resulted from it. Eventually I’d learn that, given enough revision, and keeping future readers in mind, I could share my work with others, via publication.


    Who are some of your influences?

    In terms of literature, some of the writers whose work I keep returning to — who’ve shaped, and continue to shape, my life, how I move through the world, the particular angles of my seeing — include: Maggie Nelson, Frank Bidart, Anne Carson, Laurence Gonzales, Charles Jensen, Bhanu Kapil, Alain de Botton, Jennifer S. Cheng, Lao Tzu, George Herbert, Natasha Trethewey, Annie Proulx, Joan Didion, Terry Tempest Williams, Carl Phillips, Stephen Mitchell’s translations of The Book of Job and The Epic of Gilgamesh, and my PhD committee chair Stacey Waite. Some recent non-literary influences: the Midwestern landscape and sky, the sculptures of Camille Claudel, David Milch’s television show Deadwood, the aerial photography of Michael Collier, the atmospheric music of Ólafur Arnalds, my Russian Blue, a deck of archetype cards, the concept of threshold, campfire- and humidor-scented candles, thunderstorms, and petrichor.


    What is your favorite thing about educating writers at WBN?

    I’ve spent the last fifteen-plus years empowering writers of various backgrounds, skill levels, and genres in higher education and community-based settings, because I know that writing can help in navigating the world’s complexities. One of my great joys in life is to help writers do the difficult work of saying something meaningful for themselves and, perhaps, even, for others. And working with WriteByNight allows me to do this in a variety of ways. More specifically, assisting writers as they begin to push, even gently, outside their comfort zone — to explore some of the larger, open-ended questions in their lives — is an incredible thing to get to witness and encourage.


    What is the hardest part of writing for you?

    Is “just about everything” an acceptable answer? Freewriting, brainstorming, and description do tend to come more readily to me than many other elements of writing. And I do often enter a flow state when I write. But writing, for me, is definitely work; it takes a lot out of me mentally, emotionally, physically even. I like to remind myself that writing, itself, isn’t hard — writing well is hard. And it’s in the practice that we become, in the journey that we arrive. But if I zoom way out, I’d say that putting substantial amounts of time and effort into a writing project, yet never quite knowing, for sure, that it’ll amount to something I’ll want to share with others, can be a tricky beast to face. But then I feel compelled to work on a given project again. I’m reminded of a Zen saying here: “Do your work, then step back.”


    What’s the last book you read and what did you think of it?

    I recently re-read Arianne Zwartjes’s Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy for, probably, the fifth time. What draws me to this book is Zwartjes’s measured, yet emotionally resonant, handling of her subject matter: her own fragility, and strength, juxtaposed with the fragility and strength of the human body. Zwartjes has worked as an EMT and is now a creative writing professor, and I imagine that her experience in both of these professions informs her book. I’ve also just started reading Silence by John Biguenet, which is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series. Since I practice Zen, I’m excited to see what Biguenet has to say about a subject that many people consider, simply, the lack of sound.


    Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

    My poetry professor in college once shared a loosely translated line by Antonio Machado, and it’s been a sort of mantra for me: “Walker, there is no path — you make the path by walking.” I take great solace in that. Really, the only way to be a writer (noun) is to write (verb). It’ll be scary at times, and frustrating, and you may even doubt why you’re doing it in the first place. I certainly have been there. But writing will also, likely, be interesting, the good kind of strange, exhilarating, transformative, and maybe even a little healing. And who knows, you might write something that makes a future reader’s life just that much better. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.


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