Interview with Shannon Reed: “I don’t lack for inspiration, just for time.”

Shannon Reed is a writer and professor living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A native of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, she began her teaching career at a preschool there. 

She’s gone on to teach at a fancy preschool in Manhattan; at a private Catholic girls’ high school in Rockaway Beach, Queens; at a theater-themed public high school in South Brooklyn; and is now a Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh. There, she teaches Introduction to Creative Writing, Introduction to Writing Fiction, Intermediate Fiction, Readings in Contemporary Fiction, Senior Seminar in Fiction, Readings in Contemporary European Novels, and Humor Writing, among others.

Shannon’s work has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (where one of her pieces was the most-read article in 2018), The Paris Review, The Washington Post, Slate, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Her first book, Why Did I Get a B?: And Other Mysteries We’re Discussing in the Faculty Lounge, was released by Atria in hardback in June of 2020, and in paperback in June of 2021. She is also a fiction writer and playwright.

Shannon holds a B.F.A. in Theater: Acting and Directing from Otterbein College; an M.A. in Educational Theater/Teaching Secondary English from NYU; and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing: Fiction from the University of Pittsburgh.

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Hi Shannon, thank you so much for taking the time out today to talk to us. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’m delighted to be here! Perhaps the most important aspect of my life to know when considering my writing routine is that I have two career paths, which intersect. I’m a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where I teach undergraduate classes in writing and reading fiction and humor.

When I’m teaching, generally from late August through late April — although summer, I’m teaching a course that wraps up at the end of June, as well — I have to budget a significant amount of my daily work time to lesson planning, commuting to campus, teaching and holding office hours, and reading and responding to students’ work.

My other career is writing, of course! I’m best known as a humorist, writing for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The New Yorker. My first book, a memoir of essays and humor about my teaching career, came out in 2020. It’s called Why Did I Get a B? And Other Mysteries We’re Discussing in the Faculty Lounge, and it was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize in American Humor this year.

We just announced my second book, Why We Read, which will be out in 2023. I live in a small town outside Pittsburgh, and I have far too many hobbies, including taking care of my 1925 cottage, knitting, sewing, reading, finding reasons to visit Brooklyn (where I lived for 14 years) and wishing that the Pittsburgh Pirates would get just a little bit better. So, I’m busy! 

I’m curious to know whether being a creative writing teacher fuels or inspires your own writing in any way? 

I’m really lucky to get to teach creative writing. I’ve always thrived when I could teach in ways that follow the needs and wants of the students, which is very much the case with creative writing. Sometimes I have a huge swath of students who understand how plot works but need help with characterization, sometimes it’s the opposite.

Being able to work through the basic concepts of writing over and over but in slightly different ways is incredibly helpful to me as a writer. Not a week goes by when I don’t mention some writing idea to the class — “Ask yourself, why does this story happen today?” for example — that I don’t simultaneously think, oh, wow, I need to think about that for my own novel/story/whatever.

So, yes, teaching creative writing is very much fuel for my work. I tell my class that I am learning with them, and I mean it. There’s always more to learn. And my students are very smart, very insightful. They genuinely see things in our work that I do not, and I feel very lucky to get to listen to what they have sensed or seen. 

As for inspiration, probably less so. I don’t lack for inspiration, just for time! However, I will say that when I’m spending a good chunk of my afternoon reading and responding to a story by a student who very clearly doesn’t care, who, despite what I’ve said, thinks that the class should be easy and has therefore not put a lot of time into his work, I do get angry because I could be writing myself. And I invariably do work on my own writing after I finish the response. So, is that inspiring? Kinda! 

Can you take us through the creative process behind your 2020 book, Why Did I Get a B?

I’d been kicking around the idea of a humorous book about teaching for a few years, and had even worked on a proposal for it with a former agent, who ultimately decided that she couldn’t sell it. I ended up shelving that proposal. In 2018, much to my shock, a humor piece I had written about teaching called If People Talked to Other Professionals the Way They Talked to Teachers ended up being McSweeney’s Internet Tendency’s most popular article that year. That led to my signing with a different agent, who loved the idea of a humorous book about teaching.

By then, three or so years after I first put the project together, I knew I wanted to do more than just tell jokes about teaching — I wanted to include essays about what I’ve learned and seen and thought about teaching, about my difficult students and trying days, as well as about the many wonderful aspects of the job. So that’s what we ended up proposing: not just a funny book, but one that was sad, and sweet, and (hopefully) a little wise, too. And that’s what my editor bought! We had feedback from other editors who wanted a more straight-forwardly funny book, so I’m really grateful she was interested in a more complex piece. 

After I sold the book, I spent a lot of time thinking about the varieties of the essay form, and trying to find ways to use them to tell the stories I wanted to include. In the end, I think the essays are as varied as the humor pieces. There are several letters, an essay in the form of an alphabet, and other structuring techniques that vary the book and keep it from going stagnant (again, I hope!). I like how the book feels like a real day in the life of a teacher — highs, lows, boring bits, laughs. 

I worked on this book mostly in sequential order. My brain is very linear and it made the most sense for me to write it that way. This style also allowed me to see more clearly when I was repeating myself (or about to) and to think about how each piece juxtaposed with the next one. When I got to a piece I was dreading writing, I felt like, welp, no choice, gotta do it, which strangely made it much easier. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

Usually I write at home (I live alone) but sometimes I go to my office on campus or write at my mom’s house. If I’m visiting friends, I write at their house too. When I am not writing on deadline, I try to have a minimum set of words or amount of time I intend to put in on a longer work.

Recently, I’ve been working on a novel, so my goal was 1000 words a day (about 45 to 75 minutes of work). As the novel took shape, I saw that I needed to focus less on pounding out words and more on shaping the draft, so I changed my goal to be spending an hour a day on the novel. Now that my second book is on deadline, I will need to change my focus to working on it. I’ll set myself the goal of two hours of work a day, which is just about all I can do before my mind starts to go slack. 

I also want to continue to work on my novel, so an example day would be: get up around 6:30 – 7:30 and go through my morning routine (shower, breakfast, short walk around my neighborhood, puttering in my garden, my daily French lesson) and then I try to be writing by 10. (If I get to the desk before then, I’ll deal with correspondence and other desultory tasks).

I’ll do 15 minutes to a half-hour on the novel, which I’m writing in Scrivener so I can jump around in the manuscript and move scenes to different places. After that, it’s on to the WWR manuscript, which I’ll probably write in Word to keep it separate in my mind. I always write with a large glass of ice water and I try to take little breaks to fold some laundry or do a little yoga. Generally, I’ll write until 12:30 or until I’m hungry. 

In the school year, I can’t spend 2 – 2 1/2 a day on writing, of course. Then, it’s more like an hour, most days. But still the first thing is if I can swing it. My schedule at Pitt usually gives me a couple of full or partial days at home a week, and I try to keep writing despite the siren cry of grading and student emails. 

If the morning requires something else of me — mowing the lawn, going to the doctor — I try to write immediately after lunch as I hit the sleep doldrums around 3. Occasionally, I will return to writing again after dinner. But honestly, not that often! I’m a daylight writer, for sure. 

How did the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns affect your routine? 

My pandemic was/is thankfully very safe and undramatic — I have not yet had COVID that I know of, and my family and close friends were all vaccinated pretty early on. I have a couple of autoimmune issues that also qualified me for vaccination in March of 2021. So I cannot complain and try not to. 

However, I did have an incredibly upsetting and long-running health issue from March of 2020 to July of 2021 which was affected by not being able to have the care I needed because of the lockdown. That was grueling and isolating, as is being a hearing-impaired person who reads lips. I strongly supported the mask mandates, but they kept me from being able to easily talk to people for a long time, including in my classroom.

I generally enjoy people and like being around them, but the pandemic nudged me more to the introvert side of myself. I found myself really looking forward to the time I could spend writing my novel. It’s set in 1997 and I just really enjoyed returning to that highly non-pandemic time for a few brief minutes every day. It was hard to write humor, but I managed that, too, from time to time. And I appreciated the extra time to work on my book proposal for Why We Read, which would have been hard to find during the school year if I hadn’t been teaching remotely. 

But I think the biggest thing the pandemic taught me in my writing practice was flexibility. Instead of feeling panicky about not getting to write at my preferred (morning) time, I learned to be more like, well, I will write at some point today. Even if it’s at night. Even if I am tired. That’s really my routine at this point: I will write at some point today. 

What does your writing workspace look like?

I like tables over desks (or a really big desk, that’s okay too). Glass of water nearby. A stack of books inevitably close at hand. My reading glasses and blue light blocking glasses, which I find I need these days. Inexplicably three tubes of hand cream. Plants. An inspirational quote on an index card. A stack of boring things I can do — bills to pay, things I intend to shop for online — if I need to kill a few minutes while I think. Notepads (any old thing that comes in the mail). Notebooks (slightly pickier about those). A glass heart my mom gave me.

A coaster my dear friends Jen and Vic gave me (it has an old photo of flight stewardesses on it, which reminds me that women have always wanted to go places, too). Pens. My To Do List on a yellow legal pad. A window out onto my front porch, where I can see the weather (and across to my neighbors’ house, which they may or may not like, I’m not sure). Wall decor celebrating my years in New York. Family photos. More plants. Very, very good light. Behind me, the kitchen, with all of its distractions, should I need them. In front of me, the laptop and the blinking cursor. Still can’t believe I own all of this. Bliss. 

Photo of Shannon’s writing space (courtesy of the author).

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