Pitt State featured fiction writer and poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg as the 2018 fall semester’s first distinguished visiting writer.
Mirriam-Goldberg, author of 23 published books, read excerpts from her most recent novel “Mirriam’s Well: A Modern Day Exodus” as part of the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series. Students, staff, and faculty gathered in the Governor’s Room of the Overman Student Center to hear the reading; a reception followed with light refreshments and a bookselling.
“I really enjoyed it,” said Baylee Forcum, senior in creative writing. “Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is like the person to meet to listen to in the writing world, especially in Kansas, if you want to kind of get your toes in the water there. So I really enjoyed listening to her read her own work because I’ve read some of the work that she’s done already and listening to her kind of interpret it herself was a whole other experience that I enjoyed.”
Mirriam-Goldberg fell into writing at a young age, picking it up further as she grew older.
“As a kid growing up, I was very hyperactive … and I would draw and paint all the time—everything was about art—and when I was 14, my parents had a really horrendous divorce and nobody would move out of the house and it was over-the-top insane and I needed words and so I just switched to poetry on the dime and then there was no going back,” Mirriam-Goldberg said. “I always knew I would be a fiction writer eventually, I focused on poetry for many, many years, then into my 40s, I started writing ‘The Divorce Girl,’ my first novel, and I’ve written … three memoirs. ‘The Sky Begins at Your Feet’ is about living through cancer, so basically I’m all over the place with genres.”
Of the genres, Mirriam-Goldberg is especially interested in mythology, as her recent book “Mirriam’s Well: A Modern Day Exodus” is based on a Bible excerpt, though she is also influenced by much more in her day-to-day life.
“I find my inspiration by just putting my hands on the keyboard or my hand around a pen and doing it,” Mirriam-Goldberg said. “Sometimes I feel really inspired and I want to write, but you can’t rely on that as a writer. I just love writing, when I sit down and I start doing it, even if I think, ‘well, I’ll just revise this or I’ll try something new, I’ll try this piece,’ the writing itself is what shows me the inspiration. But there’s this other angle that when you’re a writer, you have to keep opening up your peripheral vision and taking in all these details around you of the world and starting to look at the stories inside the stories, and I love stories and I love being able to see and hear and smell and experience the world. So I get a lot of inspiration from all those directions.”
Mirriam-Goldberg also held position as Kansas Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2013.
“Well, I’m very inspired living in Kansas, although I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in New Jersey,” she said. “I’ve been in Kansas for over two-thirds of my life and the weather and the land and the spirit of the people here really lifts me up and gives me a lot to write about.”
Mirriam-Goldberg’s excerpt from “Mirriam’s Well: A Modern Day Exodus” brought a mix of history and the modern for a mythological twist, which caught the attention of Megan Munger, junior in English education.
“I really liked her settings within her excerpts that she chose to read tonight, especially about the train,” Munger said. “I think that they were really powerful and it really gave a wonderful example of good fiction writing for us to attend. … I really enjoyed it. I really liked how she went back into the history and it was a really interesting story that she chose to write.”
Reading a story and hearing it read aloud create two different experiences, as Forcum explained.
“Like I said, hearing her interpretation of it … the thing I really love about these readings is hearing what the author really wants their readers to interpret their text as, so the certain voice that you have for different characters, the certain kind of maybe reverence that you have for certain passages, or if a story needs to pick up then you get a whole different world with reading.”
This opportunity to create an entire new world is what draws Mirriam-Goldberg to writing.
“My short answer is that it’s just a lot of fun to sit down and invent stuff on the page,” Mirriam-Goldberg said. “There’s satisfaction that, you know, thinking you’re writing one thing and then, poof something else comes through and I love the surprises that come. Even writing ‘Mirriam’s Well,’ my first draft was 600, 700 pages, I had to cut out a lot of pages over time. You know, just in the writing I would get to travel to all these different places and be with the characters. And in fiction especially I find that I just fall in love with the characters and where they are and I want to be with them, it’s a little sad to get to finish, although I get to read to you guys that brings it to me. So, you know, that’s really what keeps me writing, the relationships I have with images and rhythms and characters and places and how much I get to experience of the world through making stuff up about the world.”
When she’s not writing, Mirriam-Goldberg teaches at Goddard College in Vermont to students from all over the country and fills the rest of her time with various other project.
“… I coach writers and, you know, do one-on-one coaching,” she said. “I do readings, I do workshops, and teach classes here and there, and it’s kind of always changing—a lot of freelance work, involving helping other people find their words and their stories, but I love witnessing other people’s discoveries.”
Various audience members experienced their first fiction reading this evening, such as for Munger, though she was glad she attended and felt that it was a valuable experience.
“… I come to (the readings) because as an English education major I think they will be beneficial for teaching but also … I came to tonight’s reading because I’d never been to a fiction reading before, I’d been to a few poetry ones, not for fiction, and I kind of wanted that change of pace and I think that it was interesting to hear the excerpts from the fiction.”
For Forcum, she felt that Mirriam-Goldberg’s reading applied directly to her, providing a window into her profession.
“I think it’s amazing to really get to see people doing this and people acting in their profession because writing is a little bit different than job shadowing in like a hospital or something like that where you get to see people’s actions in day-to-day lives and stuff like that,” Forcum said. “But whenever you are a writer it’s a little bit different, so hearing somebody, coming to see them speak in front of a room of people and read their own work and kind of answer questions afterward and you kind of get to pick their brain a little bit is a whole different experience and I think that as a writer it makes me look forward to ‘hey, one day that could be me down the line.’ It’s something to work toward.”