How does being an educational writer by day impact, for the better or worse, your creative endeavors?
I think doing anything during the day that isn’t poring over your creative project is hard. But a girl’s gotta eat.
I am so grateful and fortunate that I can make a living as a writer and as an editor, but it is difficult to find the energy to get up early and write before work or to come home after a long day and sit down to my computer. Again, I feel fortunate because the topics that I write about in my professional career (education, social justice issues, and art) support my personal beliefs, my commitment to giving back to the community, and my desire to create opportunities for disadvantaged people so I think this all feeds into both my personal happiness and the themes and issues I obsess over in my creative writing. So, I don’t see a downside to the work that I am doing. In reality, I would still be fighting with myself to get that creative work done even without a day job.
One of the things that I admire about you is your hustling spirit. You are the first writer that I personally know that has secured several grants and residencies. No starving artist for you. Tell us about this process.
Thanks! First, I don’t like to starve (see above). I had thought that after college I would move to NYC and be hungry and hustle until I really “made it.” The truth is, I’m not that artist. So, I needed to figure out how to get a job, pay my mortgage, and eat but not allow my desire to write a novel or be an arts writer die.
I come from a rich tradition of professional pioneers and entrepreneurs–my mom was an early computer programmer, and being one of the few black females in the field she had to work hard to be successful. My dad owns his own business. My brother is always giving me a kick in the pants to seek out new opportunities and to promote myself and to network. Those things are hard for me but I take his advice because it does get me where I want to be and I have been so inspired by the people I have met when I have put myself out there.
I applied to my first writing workshop in 2010. It was Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) workshop, which is a cross-genre writing workshop for writers of color. It was there that I learned that I could and should be applying for grants and artist residencies not just because I needed and wanted them but because there were yet another way of gaining a name for myself as an artist and also learning about how the business works.
My ratio of success is about 1 in 3 or so, meaning that I am starting to get a some of the things that I apply to (not all) and I am seeing success. It also means I am getting a lot of rejections but I learn from each application and process that I go through. I was told once to apply to things in threes so that you always had something floating out in the universe and you don’t focus on one particular opportunity.
A friend recently told me that we have to listen to when the universe is saying “yes.” I can get really focused on wanting a particular thing, but if I don’t get it I might feel like a failure. But then when I get something else that thing could be exactly what I needed but I didn’t even know it. I think there’s no wrong way to play this game (life/writing/business) as long as you keep your eyes and heart open for the next opportunity.
Almost a year ago I started the Writing with Willona series of writing workshops and networking events to meet other writers, offer advice and instruction and host the type of literary events that I was seeking in the D.C. area. It’s a lot of work but I have met great writers and they continue to inspire and encourage me.
What was one or THE defining moment in your life that let you know that you were a writer?
When I was in the 12th grade I thought I was pretty good at writing and very interested in reading. In my English class we had to write a story about ourselves and I liked it and thought it was pretty good. I was proud of it. My teacher, though, wanted to enter it into a county-wide writing contest. I begged her not to do it. I remember how embarrassed I was when she told me. I thought she’d be upset when I didn’t win because she might realize that she had misjudged my talent. She ignored me and entered it anyway and explained to me why I should put myself out there. I won. I read the story at the awards banquet and even though I was so nervous I loved that feeling of hearing people’s reactions as I was reading my work. After that (based on the advice of my teacher) I decided to major in English in college, with a goal of becoming a mythical “writer”.
What story (ies) are you trying to tell in your body of work?
Women are strong and they can overcome any obstacle put in front of them and even make the world around them more loving.
Tell us about your upcoming workshops. What do you hope to accomplish?
Thanks for asking! I have two upcoming workshops in the Washington, D.C. area.
It Could Have Happened: Telling (Almost) True Stories: April 20th
This is a class in which I will lead exercises designed to help writers develop fiction that begins from a real-life experience. I think as writers we are often searching for a story idea so why not draw from our own experiences? There’s two sides to every argument or a different choice that we could have made. I want to explore what could have happened and see what stories emerge.
Crafting Your Identity: May 4th
This class is for participants who are exploring issues of their cultural heritage, racial identity, or ancestry in their non-fiction essays or memoirs.I am teaching this class because I am interested in fostering and participating in a discussion about these topics. For many writers cultural heritage is such a central part of their work and so I want to encourage people to talk about it in an open and honest way and to really delve into some complicated issues about how we represent and talk about our identities.
What do you know for sure?
I know my family supports me even when they don’t know what I’m talking about. My first publication was fanzine about punk rock, race and feminism. Even when my parents didn’t like or understand what I’d written or discussed they would send me related articles or tell me about something they had heard related to those things. I appreciated that and it helped me to continue to do what I needed to do to develop my art and my creative voice.
I know that writing is and should be difficult, time-consuming and exhausting. And that I was meant to do it.
Thank you for the interview. If people want to know more about my classes or about me they can go to willonasloan.wordpress.com.
Bio: Willona Sloan has taught writing classes in some unusual places –– a bar, an art gallery, a girls’ rock camp. She has published articles about art, culture and education in magazines including Publishers Weekly, Northern Virginia and the University of Virginia. She received a 2013 Artist Fellowship award from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.