I’ve sometimes heard Lesley MFA graduates talk about “the one that got away,” a mentor they hoped to work with but never got the chance. What they may not realize is that we faculty can feel the same way about students—which is why I was especially happy when Hurley Winkler, a 2017 Lesley alum whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of mentoring, got in touch after graduation and asked if we could work together on her new writing projects. Hurley’s writing, which is as intriguing and memorable as her name, has appeared in Hobart, The Millions, and other publications. But just as impressive as her writing is her dynamic engagement in the literary community. From her home base of Jacksonville, Florida, she works as a copywriter, editor, and teacher of writing workshops, and as the creator and curator (a term I feel bound to use, given her status as a millennial) of the Substack newsletter Lonely Victories. I was honored to be her first interviewee when the newsletter debuted, and now I’m tickled to turn the tables and ask Hurley some questions.— Michael Lowenthal
Your wonderful newsletter about the writing life is called Lonely Victories. I’d love to talk with you about both the lonely and the victorious aspects of being a writer—particularly a writer who has flown away from (or been pushed out of) the nest of an MFA program. What’s been your loneliest moment, writing-wise, since you left Lesley?
Writing is so, so lonely. Especially post-MFA. *humongous sigh*
My loneliest moment since I left Lesley was realizing that I can’t write by myself. I tried so incredibly hard—I really and truly forced myself—to finish things on my own, but I couldn’t do it, at least not in a way that felt meaningful. It was like I needed another person to please in my writing life. Eventually, I learned that I don’t have to do this by myself, and that most writers are also lonely, which means they are happy to listen to me gripe about my work in exchange for a listening ear to receive their own griping.
From one people-pleaser to another, I can totally relate! But it’s funny to me to hear there was ever a time when you thought you could do everything on your own, because one of your superpowers—which anyone who knows you will understand right away—is building community. You’ve stayed in touch with mentors and peers from residencies you’ve been to, classes you’ve taken, etc., and then worked consciously to deepen the relationships. Can you talk about this as a strategy for sustaining your writing life? What advice do you have for other writers, especially MFA graduates who no longer have the scaffolding of the program to support them, about how to build and sustain your own literary community?
Oh, the “community building” thing is pure selfishness. I truly hate doing this writing business by myself. Believe me, I really did try going at it alone. It didn’t work. The fear, the self-doubt, the imposter syndrome—none of it ever goes away entirely, but I found that all that negativity was severely heightened when I was trying to be both my biggest cheerleader and my worst critic simultaneously. I saw it as a weakness that I couldn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps and tackle writing projects on my own, and I drowned in that feeling of weakness for a while.
But then, a few years ago, I was reading the rather long acknowledgments section of a Celeste Ng novel and realized, “Oh, wow, she had a lot of help writing this book.” She listed editors, folks from her writing group, other writer friends, family support, and it was clear that loads and loads of people had touched her book in some way. In a way, her acknowledgments gave me permission to reach out to other writers and ask for help more often. After all, that’s a huge advantage of studying within an MFA program—you have an infrastructure of people who hold you accountable and cheer you on. Why should that support end once we graduate? I’m severely extroverted and get very depressed when I’m alone, so I have bothered the other writers in my life to keep in touch with me.
And that’s exactly what I recommend other writers do when they’re feeling lonely. Bother people. Check in with fellow writers about how their writing is going, even if you haven’t talked to them in a while. If it sounds like they’re in a similar place as you, try swapping work, or just daydream aloud with them. Talk to them on the phone! No one talks on the PHONE anymore, and my god, nothing is better than checking in with your distant writer friends and having their voices in your ear, hearing them smile when they talk about their work. Those voices have sustained my writing life.
It occurs to me that your Lonely Victories newsletter, as an act of community building, is itself very much a victory. By reaching out to and interviewing other artists, you’re building and sustaining your own community, but you’re also offering the newsletter as a gift to other lonely writers. One of the things I love most about the newsletter is how practical it is. You’re great at demystifying the writing process: offering tips about routines, goals, concrete ways of practicing the craft. But I wonder: even with this smart attention to the pragmatic aspects of the writer’s practice, do you also still feel the magic of writing? The ineffable buzz of the creative act?
That’s so nice of you to say! Thank you. The newsletter has been a bright spot in my life. I’m a big process nerd—I love reading and thinking about creativity and productivity—and after some trial and error in my own writing life, I felt I had some things to offer other writers. It’s gotten a great response from both seasoned and aspiring writers, which I’m so grateful for.
But oh my gosh, yes, writing is still immensely magical for me! When I get in that flow state with writing, I feel like I could spontaneously combust at any moment—it makes me feel so fiery and alive. But a lot of that sensation has to do with craft and practice. I read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work last year, which taught me the importance of blocking off chunks of uninterrupted time for writing. That approach to my work has made writing even more magical. The flow state used to be some mystical thing that’d only happen once in a blue moon. Now, I fall into it regularly because I’ve methodically practiced getting to that state. And when I’m there, scribbling furiously with a racing mind, I feel more capable and clever than I’ve ever felt. And sometimes, I’ll write something that makes me smile or laugh or cry, even, which makes me wonder if I could make someone else smile or laugh or cry or feel literally anything when they read my work. And that? Well, that’s just the best thing in the world.
You’ve invested significant time—and money?—in continuing your writing education since getting your MFA. Workshops, accountability programs, mentorship. Your boldness in seeking out these opportunities is inspiring. Many folks (myself included) have trouble allowing themselves to believe they are “worth” these investments. Can you talk about your strategy for continuing education, and why it’s important to you?
I was the youngest person in my MFA cohort. Many of my classmates came into the program with completed novel/memoir/short story collection drafts and very concrete goals for their works-in-progress. I had none of those things. In fact, it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college at the University of North Florida that I started writing fiction—up until that point, I was mostly just jotting down angsty things in my journal. At Lesley, my only goal was to learn as much about writing as I could. During my time in the program, I experimented a ton and started figuring out what kinds of things were important to me as a writer. And when I graduated, I felt like I had a lot more learning left to do. I don’t mean that to be a negative reflection on Lesley; in fact, I don’t mean it negatively at all. Writing is just like that—there’s always more to learn because it’s REALLY really hard!
I’ve been lucky to continue my education as a writer in different programs. I’ve attended a few workshops and residencies—Lit Camp in California, Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, Mors Tua Vita Mea in Italy (swoon!), and the Shantyboat Writers Workshop in Jacksonville, FL, where I live—and I’ve enrolled in Chelsea Hodson’s Finish What You Start accountability program twice now. I’ve continued working with the One and Only Michael Lowenthal—because of you, sir, I’ve made significant strides in finishing pieces of my writing and learning how to stand on my own two feet much more! I’ve also found mentorship here in Northeast Florida with the novelist Laura Lee Smith, whose presence in my life reminds me that I can live where I live and still do this whole writing thing. Role models aren’t just important for us to have when we’re children. When we see someone doing the things we want to do, and doing them in the place where we live—well, there are few things more inspiring and empowering than that.
You write nonfiction as well as fiction—which I know, in part, because I was lucky enough to see a draft-in-progress of your essay about being married to someone with Type 1 Diabetes. Do you approach the genres differently? Do you have different voices? Do you think of nonfiction—like the diabetes essay—as having more of a message/purpose? Or is it all just about storytelling?
Nonfiction is the first writing I fell in love with that made me want to try writing myself. I remember sitting on my bed in my parents’ house when I was fifteen, reading David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames, laughing harder than I’d ever laughed before and thinking, “A book can be this funny?!” But when I tried writing nonfiction for the first time, specifically personal essays, I hated sticking to the facts. I wanted to exaggerate. That was the lightbulb moment that fiction might be the answer for me.
Still, when I went looking for an MFA program, I was eager to find a program that’d allow me to dabble in areas outside of fiction. I was drawn to Lesley for its interdisciplinary studies component, which allows students to work in other genres alongside their main genre of focus. On top of writing short stories for my thesis, I wrote tons of nonfiction during my time at Lesley.
Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or something else entirely, the best writing makes people feel less alone. I felt like I had to write an essay about falling in love with a diabetic after Googling things about being the spouse of someone with Type 1 Diabetes and finding no answers. And when you’re a writer, you have to answer your own questions yourself sometimes, right? That essay also came from my eagerness to educate others on T1D and the life-altering daily processes and expenses of living with the disease—despite what our president may say, no, insulin does not cost the same as water, and most people don’t seem to realize that. In that way, nonfiction feels like it has more of a direct purpose, educating and informing its reader with hints of empathy. But the best fiction does the exact same thing, right?
When I’m deep in a fiction project, I feel myself yearning for the constraints of nonfiction. But when I attempt nonfiction, I’m back to craving exaggeration. Clearly, I just get very bored very easily and like to hop around from genre to genre.
Speaking of exaggeration…or, I mean, speaking of exploring other genres…a little birdie (I think it was a roasted Cornish game hen with port wine sauce) told me that you have been writing Ina Garten fanfic! And that it’s a collaboration with a Lesley classmate (and beloved former student of mine!), the aptly named Rebecca Joy. Tell us about why you’re doing this and what it’s been like. Does dreaming up this kind of stuff with a close friend help to combat the writerly loneliness?
Rebecca Joy is a funnier and more talented writer than I am. So when she floated the idea of working on a ridiculous and silly project together, I was obviously sold. We bonded over our shared love for Ina on our first day as Lesley students—the Gartens first came up in conversation while we were chewing on crab cakes at the welcoming reception during our first night of residency. We’re both borderline obsessed with Ina and Jeffrey’s tender and romantic partnership, and when the pandemic hit, we were both looking for a new writing project to lighten the 2020 mood. Who knew that Food Network-inspired fanfiction would be just what the doctor ordered?
I happen to know that what you’ve been working on even harder than Barefoot Contessa fantasies is your first novel, which examines the life of a woman who desperately wants children of her own and winds up making it big on YouTube as a “Plant Mom,” treating her houseplants as her children on camera. What’s it been like to take the leap of faith to working on a project of that scope? Do you feel like you’re able to apply the craft you honed when you were working on stories at Lesley, or is there a new skill set involved? What are the best/worst aspects, so far, of working on a 100,000-plus-word narrative?
I was preparing a handful of short stories for submission last year, thinking that if I finished enough of them, I might wind up with a collection on my hands. Then, as I was revising one of the stories, it kept growing and growing, and I had the wild thought that what I was working on might be a novel rather than a story. As the thought crossed my mind, the biggest, dopiest smile spread across my face. And I couldn’t ignore that stupid smile! Even though the whole thing I was writing was a gigantic mess, I realized I wanted to be writing a novel. I wanted that challenge of taking on a big, sprawling, baggy form.
That was back in January of this year. I showed a few pages of what I’d been working on to my mentor, Laura, and asked, “Hey, you’ve written two novels—does this mess I’ve made look anything remotely like a novel to you?” And she nodded with a sort of “I don’t think you’re in Kansas anymore” look in her eyes, and all that validation was so overwhelming that I burst into tears, which was embarrassing but also… nice? I guess hearing a person I look up to tell me that what I was working on looked like the form I wanted to be writing was a gigantic permission slip to actually do it.
That couldn’t have happened at a better time. I committed to this project at the end of January, and suddenly, a pandemic broke out, and suddenly, I had all this extra time on my hands. I haven’t baked any banana bread, but I have been writing a novel. I wrote a draft, then rewrote it, then rewrote it a third time. And moving into the fourth round, it’s still a horrific mess, but it’s starting to make more sense.
I ended up winning a grant from the very nice people at the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, which has helped me work with none other than the marvelous Michael Lowenthal (whose name I say in full, “Michael Lowenthal,” everytime I speak of thee). And since you’re one of the smartest writers I know, and since your understanding of the complexities of fiction is a level of understanding I can only aspire to, the best aspect of this project has been receiving your scrupulous notes and feeling like the challenges I’m facing in this project are worthy of at least attempting to overcome.
The worst aspect? Writing a book is literally the least efficient thing a human being could ever possibly take on! But like I said, I’m lucky enough to have lots of writers in my life (such as yourself) who listen to me gripe and groan and help me get back on the horse whenever I fall off.
And as far as how the short story and novel skillsets intertwine and differ, I’m still figuring that out. Still learning. See? The learning we can do as writers is truly bottomless, which is arguably the best part of writing.
Agreed! And I’ve learned so much from all of our interactions, including this chat. Thanks so much for your insights and your openness!
Thank you, Michael Lowenthal! Now go write another book that we can all read and adore!
HURLEY WINKLER was born and raised in Northeast Florida, where she still lives and will always live (and where she will most certainly be buried in the swampy ground someday). Since graduating from Lesley, she’s had the marvelous opportunity to attend juried workshops and residencies at Lit Camp, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Mors Tua Vita Mea. Her work has been published in The Millions and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @hurleywink.