We at Cambridge Common Writers love to celebrate the diversity of our community, which is why we’re thrilled to be continuing our Spotlight series for Pride Month! Come and get to know some of our LGBTIQA+ alums as we ask them about their writing lives and the many wonderful projects they’re working on.
COURTNEY GILLETTE — NONFICTION, JUNE 2013
Courtney Gillette is a writer and teacher whose essays and book reviews have appeared in BuzzFeed, Tin House, Electric Literature (x , x), Lit Hub, Lambda Literary and Medium, among others. She serves as Director of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College which offers virtual and in person writing workshops for all writers. In 2013, her work was chosen by A.M. Homes for The Masters Review and in 2015 she won Gertrude Press’ Prose Contest. Courtney was named an Emerging Writer Fellow at Aspen Words Summer Words in 2017 and serves on the Aspen Words Creative Council. An adjunct professor of creative writing at Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program, she lives in the Hudson Valley with one librarian and three cats.
What is the driving factor that gets you out of bed to write?
Like many writers, I’m a sucker for a good deadline. Without deadlines, I’ll whittle my time away baking and reading and working and watching The Great Pottery Throw Down.
What do you enjoy most about your writing?
I’ve never thought about this! I like when my writing makes someone laugh – I always feel more at ease in the world if I can make another person laugh. I’m also humbled that my writing can help other people feel less alone, or understand themselves in a new way. That connection is something I’ll never take for granted.
Do you have any bad writing habits you’ve picked up over the years?
Not writing. For years I had a quote tacked above my desk: “Do you know how old you’ll be when you finish writing your novel? The same age you’ll be if you don’t write it.” I thought I could propel myself forward on that energy alone, but it hasn’t always worked out that way. I’ve gone through periods of not writing, but without any grace or forgiveness for myself. I think the myth of writing every day is one that’s done some damage – it’s hard to work a 9-5 job and take care of yourself and write every day. Now I’m focused more on having a forgiving writing practice. It makes a difference.
What or who were some of your earliest inspirations in writing?
When I was seventeen, Seal Press published Michelle Tea’s memoir “Valencia.” I only found it because the Borders an hour from my house had a small LGBT Books section. Her bio said she was the dyke poet laureate of San Francisco, and it cracked me wide open. I remember thinking, holy shit, dykes can write memoirs. That’s a real touchstone of mine. I’m inspired by so many writers who practice such generosity and genius in their work: Melissa Febos, Ashley C. Ford, Saeed Jones, Alexander Chee, Jami Attenberg, Emma Straub, Roxane Gay, Malinda Lo. The list goes on and on.
What is something that tends to get in the way of your writing and how do you overcome it?
Self-doubt. It takes so much audacity to be a writer, and my self-doubt will often manifest as an anchor pulling me down, telling me it’s too late, I haven’t worked hard enough, I don’t deserve it. This voice, I know, is bullshit. I can only overcome it by cracking myself open and asking for help. I’m lucky to have so many abundant, creative folks in my life who will bear witness to my process, who will remind me that the self-doubt isn’t true, who will hold me accountable to showing up at the page. The antidote to self-doubt, for me, is community.
For you, what was the most valuable part of the Lesley MFA program that helped shape your writing career?
Every single writer I crossed paths with at Lesley was so wonderful. There was such a genuine sense of camaraderie, of care and curiosity about our own writing and each other’s writing. One valuable thing (and there were many) was that I left with a clear sense of what direction I could go in to write a memoir. I did write that memoir, and I worked with an agent for a bit, but it didn’t pan out. I’ve learned that some books you write to get published, and some books you write in order to write your next book. I’m working on that next book now, and never would’ve gotten this far – to be still writing – without all the beautiful support I had from the Lesley MFA community.
What is a piece of writing or publishing advice you’ve learned since graduation that you think others should know?
Ask for more money! I know it can be uncouth to talk about money, but this is so important. In freelance writing, if a publication offers a rate and you want to ask for more, simply write back: “Can you do X?” R.O Kwon generously shared this in a class I took with her, and the writer Jeanna Kadlec has also shared widely about it on Twitter. The answer is often yes! The money is out there. Writers deserve to get paid what they are worth.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that doesn’t have to do with writing.
Every year I hold an annual waffle birthday party. I make five or six different kinds of waffle batter and invite everyone I know. It’s an open house kind of party, with folks coming and going throughout the day, and the house smells like waffles and is full of people I love. It’s bliss. Last year, with Covid-19 and safety precautions, I was able to have a very small backyard waffle party. It was good to keep the tradition alive.
What are you working on now?
I want to give a shout out to Jami Attenberg’s newsletter CRAFT TALK and her #1000wordsofsummer challenge, which is saving my butt right now. I’m working on writing a few new essays to round out an essay collection, and I’m also working on something I’m calling Secret Project because I’ve found that if I talk about what I’m writing, I tend not to finish it. Right now I’m devoted to maintaining a regular writing practice while also showing up for my dream job as Director of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. It’s virtual and in person writing workshops, open to all – the community is just incredible. I’d love to see some Lesley alums in the virtual classroom!
Listen to Courtney read “Otherwise.”