Colleen Pickett Oakley ’96 has been writing continuously since her time at Wesleyan, where her senior thesis in English and Women’s Studies took the form of a play about Marie Laurencin, an often-overlooked artist in Picasso’s circle. A poet, playwright, and professor, Colleen most recently became the Poetry Editor of an online magazine that was honored this year by the National Book Foundation. Read on for advice and inspiration from a Wesleyan writer who, 15 years later, is continuing to pursue the craft.
What was your first job immediately out of college?
I returned to my hometown in California, where I found a job teaching at a tiny Orthodox Jewish school. I had six 5th- and 6th-grade students in my class. I taught their secular lessons in the afternoons after they had finished their Hebrew studies in the mornings. I was able to use my free mornings to do my own writing. It was the best “day job” I’ve ever had.
Tell us a bit about being a playwright- how does it feel to see your work come to life on stage?
Seeing my words move from the page to the stage is the best part of being a playwright. Writing can be a lonely sport, so it’s always a relief to get into rehearsal and hear the actors read the script. In fact, I like that a play simply isn’t complete until I find artistic collaborators. I’ve written some of my favorite lines while sitting in the rehearsal hall, listening to the actors work on the lines — or even stumble over them.
How did you get involved with YARN?
The Founding Editor of YARN, Kerri Majors, was a colleague of mine at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where we taught together in the Writing Program. Kerri was writing a Young Adult short story and discovered there weren’t any venues where adults could publish short-form YA, and teens had only a handful of options. A digital magazine seemed the perfect fit for the YA demographic, so Kerri founded YARN. She invited me to join YARN as the Poetry Editor because she knew poetry was one of my secret indulgences. In fact, while I was getting my MFA in Playwriting at Yale, Suzan-Lori Parks, of all people, told me that I needed to stop cramming my poetry into my plays. After that, my poems became poems and I let my plays get on with their business of being plays.
What’s YARN all about–what is it trying to accomplish?
YARN is the “Young Adult Review Network,” (YAReview.net), an online literary journal. YARN aims to publish the short fiction, poetry, and essays of aspiring teens and adults alongside established writers like Alisa Libby, Mitali Perkins, and Tomas Mournian. We also interview luminaries like Barry Lyga and Meg Cabot about their approaches to the writing process. The founders of YARN are all writing teachers, so we offer classroom lesson plans and cultivate a reading and writing community through our editors’ blogs and readers’ forums. We’re very excited that YARN was recently honored for these efforts with an Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation.
What does your typical working day look like?
I’ve got two little kids, so if I want any quiet time at home, I have to write early in the morning or late at night. When I’m teaching college courses, I drag my laptop everywhere and spend far too much time working in Starbucks. Last semester, I got to teach both on campus and online so my workdays alternated between the classroom and the computer, which was the perfect balance for me. With YARN and my freelance editing gigs, I’m spending more and more time these days finding and encouraging new writers. We do all of our work online, so poetry punctuates my day as I read drafts and revisions during every stolen email moment.
You teach writing- what’s the best advice you can give to students?
At Wesleyan, I took Anne Greene’s “Finding a Voice” writing class and then was lucky enough to be a TA. I’ve still got my handwritten class notes from 15 years ago and I dig them out every time I start teaching a new semester. The best thing students can do for their writing is to find their own voice, and that means, ironically, that they should spend oodles of time carefully studying and even mimicking great voices, whether it be Annie Dillard or Dostoevsky. How fun is that, to read and read and read?
Where is your favorite place to write?
After living in the NYC area for a decade — with a laptop on my kitchen counter — I just moved to Maine and finally have my dream “room of one’s own.” My office is a tiny closet of a space, but it has a door I can shut and a view of the forest. The peace and quiet is heaven.
Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions?
I often remind my students of the old saying that the Muse of inspiration doesn’t come unless you invite her regularly to sit down at your table. I don’t always live up to this advice, but I do find that the more ritualized my writing routine becomes, the more spontaneous my ideas can be.
If you could start over and be fresh out of college again, ready to embark on a writing career, would you do anything differently?
If I could have done things differently right out of college, I would have spent more time developing my business savvy. So much of writing involves freelancing and being self-employed, which means pounding the pavement, finding publishing or performance venues, and negotiating your own contracts (often while juggling a day job). When I was in grad school, I took a course in contract and copyright law. It was eye-opening. I suppose I have a typical writer’s personality, meaning I prefer to be behind the scenes; I would have loved to take a course at Wesleyan called something like “Sales, Economics and Marketing for Artists.” Building a writing career is like building a start-up business. The good news, as I’ve found with YARN, is that it’s easier to do today with the Web and online media than when I first graduated!