A Brief Conversation with This Project

This is the second in a series for the Writing Blog written by Ryan Sheldon ’13.

I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t submit to my own examination. In this post, I’ll be playing the role of a guinea pig. Here’s hoping I don’t come out looking too bad…

Name: Ryan Sheldon

Class year: 2013

Major: English

Favorite book: My favorite read of this past semester would have to be either Kobo Abe’s The Box Man or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime.  In the interest of brevity, I won’t attempt to compile an exhaustive list of those books which are most dear to me; instead, I’ll name a few more of my favorite works of fiction: Correction (Thomas Bernhard), The Boat (Nam Le), In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (Tobias Wolff), The Ask (Sam Lipsyte), A Heart So White (Javier Marias), Come Back, Dr. Caligari (Donald Barthelme).

How do you identify as a writer? Do you think of yourself as particular kind of writer, and does that identification extend beyond your conception of yourself as a student?

At this point, I’d place myself firmly within the creative camp. I’ve been writing fiction since high school, and my first explorations of fiction writing (abysmal though they were) forced me to engage with literature in a deeply personal way. My interest in criticism and literary analysis developed out of a love of books, but I didn’t truly understand or experience the depth of that relationship until I decided that writing was something I might like to do myself. In that regard, my affinities for writing and reading have grown and dovetailed with each other.

How would you describe your writing style? What, if anything, has influenced the way you’ve learned to write? What if anything, has influenced the way you like to write?

I found myself much more initially limited as an aspiring writer of fiction than as a practitioner of literary analysis. I had to overcome an early impulse to write in florid, affected prose, and I became extremely disciplined in my fiction writing. Unfortunately, this abetted a perverse rationalization of careless essay writing on my part: I figured that I was entitled to let loose in analytical venues because I’d restricted myself in their creative counterparts. But the process of confronting and curbing that tendency made me a much stronger writer in the end; on the whole, I feel that I owe a huge debt to the craft of fiction writing. It taught me how to write all over again.

What is your preferred medium of literary expression (analytical writing, fiction, verse, creative nonfiction, blogging, tweeting, some admixture thereof…)? Describe the kind of writing you find yourself doing most frequently.

As an English major, I do a good deal of analysis and criticism in addition to fiction writing. I’m shamefully unschooled in creative nonfiction, and poorly versed in the formal mechanics of poetry as well. I do a bit of blogging for Wesleying, though I consider myself no expert in its practice—in no small way, this project has been and continues to be a learning process as far as web-based writing is concerned…

What is your background in reading? What sort of books, if any, do you read on a regular basis? Can you identify one or two books that loom large in the history of your personal development as a reader and/or a writer?

I read a great volume of fiction (novels and stories alike), and I also try to keep pace with contemporary periodicals that feature fiction, poetry, journalism, and cultural criticism in relatively balanced measures—my favorites are The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, and n+1. If I had to select one book that has influenced my ideas about fiction more than any other, it’d have to be Raymond Carver’s Cathedral (if not that, then Madame Bovary); as far as literary criticism goes, I don’t think I’ll ever shake the weight of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis from my shoulders, and that’s not something I lament.

Has any particular kind of literature had a profound effect on the way you interpret the world? Have your academic interests or goals changed at all during the course of your undergraduate education as a result of something you’ve read (or written)?

I placed immense value in the study of fiction when I first came to Wesleyan, and my confidence in its powers of comprehension and representation of the world have only grown stronger over the course of my undergraduate career. That said, I’ve become much more fond of criticism and theory during my time in college, and I’ve grown particularly interested in the analytical study of history through literature over the past few semesters.

What, if anything, do you hope to do with writing in the future?

I’d love to pursue an MFA and/or a PhD in English, but I’m in no position to speculate about the viability of those aspirations. In any case, I know I’ll be writing fiction regardless of the academic or professional setting in which I find myself.

Julian Barnes (© Paul Stuart)

What’s on your pleasure reading list this semester? Are you looking forward to any book releases? If you feel the inclination, recommend a title that you’ve found particularly enjoyable or meaningful. What do you think we ought to be reading today?

When I find the time, I plan on reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. He’s one of the original founders of n+1, which has emerged as one of the smartest and most socially engaged publications circulating today, and I trust that anything he’s been working on for over a decade is worth investigating. I’ve encountered a few excerpts of Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending, and to say that I’m intrigued would be a massive understatement. I’d like to get into some Murakami, too, and I’m also hoping to read Don Quixote in its entirety.

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