Eric Charles May is the author of the novel Bedrock Faith, which was named a Notable African-American Title by Publisher’s Weekly, and a Top Ten Debut Novel for 2014 by Booklist magazine. An associate professor in the Fiction Writing program at Columbia College Chicago and a former reporter for The Washington Post, Eric is the 2015 recipient of the 21st Century Award by the Chicago Public Library Foundation. He will be on our panel “Late Bloomers: Publishing Later in Life” at CWC 2015.
What does a day of work look like for you? What’s your process?
It depends on the time of year. During the summer months when I’m not teaching, I can get in nearly daily sets of four-hour writing sessions. Occasionally I might have a six or seven-hour stretch of writing. But that’s rare. More often than not, after about four hours my mind is fried. However, if for some reason I don’t get my writing done on a particular day, I don’t beat myself up about it. Missing a day of writing is like a baseball pitcher giving up a homerun. Once it’s gone its gone and there’s no use dwelling on it. There are enough things in life that cause us anxiety; I see no point in adding creative efforts to that pile.
Once the school year is going, I have to scale back on what I can expect to get done. On days that I teach, or hold conferences with students, or read student work, I keep my creative focus on the teaching. Sometimes when I come home and the teaching day is done, I might get in 30 minutes or so.
What has been the biggest help (a piece of advice, a mentor, a particular residency) for your career?
By far and away it has been the Story Workshop Method of the teaching of writing invented by John Schultz. I first encountered the method at Columbia College in 1971 as a first-year student fresh out of high school. SW’s emphasis on trusting what is most strongly taking your attention, seeing in the mind, and finding your own voice to use on the page, is the foundation of my writing life. I thank my lucky stars that SW was the first creative writing pedagogy I was exposed to, as opposed to the “let’s sit around and critique each other’s work till we’re blue in the face” approach that’s in use at so many other places.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in writing?
Because writing makes me happier than any other endeavor I’ve ever tried—radio broadcasting, filmmaking, office work, factory work, etc. While writing is at times difficult, for me it’s never been the sort of turmoil I’ve heard some writers speak of. I love spending numerous solitary hours focusing on plot and character problems. After doing this for so long (I’m 62) I know that no matter what story issue I may be tussling with, the solution is somewhere in my imagination, I just have to find it.