Geneseo’s director of creative writing Kristen Gentry on writing — and revising — what you know.
by Robyn Rime
Even back in grade school, Kristen Gentry wrote stories. “I always loved writing because I always loved reading,” she says. “But it never crossed my mind to think it was something I could actually do. My family is not particularly artistic. My mother was a nurse, my aunt works in a hospital — no one was sitting there saying, ‘Let’s write a poem’.”
Gentry is still writing stories. Now an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at SUNY Geneseo, her debut story collection “Mama Said” will be published by West Virginia University Press in October 2023. The linked short stories spotlight three daughters, all cousins, all coming of age, and all struggling against their mothers’ drug addictions. Focused not on the addicts but on the girls and those who satellite them, the stories trace the ripple effects of addiction on families.
“The children take center stage,” says Gentry. “They’re not just plot points to push the addict to sobriety. You get to see what it’s like — the responsibility, the burden, the embarrassment of having an addict as a parent.”
Although all the stories in “Mama Said” are rooted in the truth of Gentry’s own family’s struggles, writing about them was not her original intention. “I myself had to grow,” she says. “I had to realize that my mother’s addiction is also part of my story, for better or for worse.”
Learning to tell your own story is one of the lessons Gentry teaches her creative writing students.
The first step, she says, is to trust yourself. Writing what you know may sound like trite advice, but students find it difficult to follow. “I try to get them to mine their own material,” she says, “but they either think their lives are normal and basic and not worth writing about, or they think their lives have so much drama that they’re embarrassed and afraid to write about it. I try to get them to realize their stories are important.”
Trust yourself, then trust the process, says Gentry. Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts, but students are often dismayed to discover that a first draft doesn’t mean a finished draft. “So many students want me to tell them their story is great, and I’m not going to lie,” she says. “Writing is so much about revision. If you keep going at it, it will get better.”
Gentry is adding new dimensions to her own writing experience. She was recently selected as one of ten debut fiction writers for Poets and Writers magazine’s publicity incubator, a series of workshops that provide practical guidance on the business of writing. She works at keeping writing time sacred for herself, participating in a group that helps hold her accountable for making progress. It’s a challenge, she admits, when teaching can suck up time she’d like to devote to writing.
But there are days when the words are flowing, when she almost forgets that she’s writing. The best part, says Gentry, is getting lost, following a character so deep into a story that you surprise even yourself.
“It feels like you’re watching a movie that you’re creating in real time,” she says. “And it doesn’t happen all the time. Even if I write every day in a week, it might happen just one day. The rest is a struggle, right? But that one day — that one day, you’re on a high.”