Six Questions with: Cindy Cunningham

Cindy will be teaching “Life in 10 Minutes,” on Tuesday nights, 7-9 PM, from January 8 - February 12. Find out more here.

1. How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

Fear writing less. crave writers’ community.-2.jpg

The highest compliment I ever received came from a student who called me “the most real teacher” he had ever known. We differed greatly on the outside—he was African-American, 16, and not prone to sitting still. I was a white, 40-something female educator, but I sat still and listened. I brought in many varieties of writing to try and discover the ways we were alike rather than different. Finding common ground created a mutual trust and he produced serious and important work in the writing program; he carried those skills with him when he graduated.

No matter what sort of classroom, I try to remain as “real” as possible, to provide clear expectations, and to facilitate a safe classroom environment; nothing is taboo as long as the writers respect one another. The teacher’s role is not to “weed out” or punish; the role is to find common ground and instill a life-long love of learning, of writing. To that end, I provide honest feedback with caring and attention to detail. I want writers to walk away with something to write, something to work on, rather than feeling stifled or squished.

As William Dean Howells promoted in the 19th century, the hope for our nation lies in celebrating “unity in diversity.” There has never been a time more in need of acceptance and love of diversity; what better way to attain this unity than through a powerful writing community.   

2. When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer?

I think I was scratching words on my mother’s womb. I do not recall a time that I did not think of myself as a writer (even before I knew how to make letters or read words.) I took my writing for granted for many years; I never thought it could really be a profession. I turned to writing “officially” when I was applying to grad schools. After earning a Psychology degree from Wake Forest, I was applying to various Masters programs in the field. On a suggestion from my poetry professor, Bert Hedin, I also applied to MFA programs. VCU offered me the best deal, so I began following the path of writing.

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3. What is the last great book you read?

This is a re-read, but Capote’s In Cold Blood is one of the great masterpieces of our time.  No other book makes me cheer so strongly for the wrong person. That shows the power of language, of choosing concrete, significant details, of understanding characters and readers.   Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts also changed the way I look at writing and at the world.  Sharon Olds’ poetry changed my life. I could go on and on; however, the greatest book is the one you are meant to read in that moment. It could be vampire porn, a literary masterpiece, or a spiritual text--words empower in myriad forms.

4. What do you struggle with most as a writer?

Sometimes, when I spend a great deal of time offering feedback on other’s works, I let my own writing practice slip. I am also a “pantser;” I fly by the seat of my pants and don’t know what I am about to write until it appears on the page. This fuels me with excellent material, but when it comes time to revise a large manuscript, I lack a certain eye for the whole at times. I require much feedback and input from trusted readers.

5. What three writers (living or dead) would you take with you on a cross-country road trip? Who would drive? Who would ride shotgun?

This question seems as untenable as asking my favorite book. What a ride it would be with Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, for example!  It would invariably lean toward a Thelma and Louise incident, but just think of the word play and the intensity. Everyone would fight to drive and to ride shotgun simultaneously--they would want control but also to sink to oblivion.  I also would love to ride in a car with the various writers with whom I have studied--Dave Smith, one of the smartest men I have ever known, Margaret Gibson, an inspiring and brilliant poet and thinker, and Valley Haggard, the person who inspired my love of memoir and who would accept me just as I am 100%.

6. In six words or under, what do you hope writers take with them from your classes?

Fear writing less; crave writers’ community.   



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