Where Are They Now?: An Interview with Angela Workoff

Posted by Erin Duffy, Public Relations Intern and CNF Reader for Issue 4.2

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Geneseo alum and author of “The Escape Artist,” Angela Workoff

Happy Throwback Thursday! To celebrate, we decided to interview some wonderful writers and artists who contributed to previous issues of Gandy Dancer. We started by chatting with Angela Workoff, author of “The Escape Artist,” our Post Script for Issue 4.1, to learn more about her literary life as a Geneseo alumni.


Gandy Dancer: Can you tell us a little bit about life after Geneseo and your MFA candidacy?

Angela Workoff: I always knew that I wanted to be a writer, but it took a long time, almost all of my twenties, to get out of my own way so that I could just sit down and do the work. I graduated from Geneseo in 2006, moved home to Brooklyn, and got an entry level job at an IT company which did tech support for hedge funds. The tech/finance world was miles away from everything I loved in the liberal arts, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write and was too insecure to commit to the stories I’d started. I found a niche in project management. I worked long hours alongside of my computer engineer coworkers and I learned a lot from them—those techs are likely the hardest working people I’ll ever know and they did their jobs often without recognition or thanks from our demanding clients. I traveled. I worked part time for a concert series in Brooklyn. I made friends. Got my heart broken a couple of times. Insecurity static began to settle when I was twenty-five, but I still didn’t feel great about my writing. Kept working, traveling, dipping in and out of writing workshops in the city.

I needed something to help coalesce a sense of seriousness about writing. At twenty-seven, a conversation with a close friend, one from Geneseo actually, about writing and running really helped to flip a switch in me. I dealt with the fact that it would take some time before I would write anything good so I trained myself to accept small wins, like writing a scene well or nailing a piece of description. Running went alongside of this—as I took my small wins in writing, I began running longer distances, 5k, 10k, and so on. Importantly, I began to study craft and hammered craft elements into my brain so that their utility became second nature. And there was help from the outside too—I had a really great teacher at The Gotham Writers’ Workshop who pushed me until I got a story right, beginning, middle, and end. Around that time, I made the call to apply to MFA programs. It took several years to get into an MFA program with funding and I waited it out until I made it into Rutgers-Newark.

I got home from workshop less than an hour ago, have to do some reading for my Craft of Fiction class tomorrow, have to prep a bit for teaching my undergrad class, and maybe tinker around with a writing prompt too. A year ago, I was still doing the white collar tech job grind. Now, I have this ideal writing life. We have great people at Rutgers, professors and cohort alike. And I love teaching—I’m really crazy about it. While it took me a while, things have shaken out in a great way and the struggling, working, all of the living, I think it was worth it.


GD: In your biography you mentioned a fondness for writing about places like New York and Rochester. What is it about these places, or big city life in general, that intrigues you?

AW: It’s somewhat of a city mouse/country mouse thing. I love both places. For Brooklyn and New York City, it’s the same mix of love and hate which everyone has about their hometown. When I was growing up in Brooklyn I hated the limitations which a big city can impose—I was always jealous of what I saw on TV shows about the suburbs, kids having the freedom to ride their bikes around, not having to live with their heads on a swivel. There’s a lot of anxiety inherent in big city life. Geneseo changed all of that for me. I loved having space and trees and fields. Solitude, quiet, and a night sky filled with stars. (And things like these allowed me to shed parts of the tough-person city thing, infusing a bit of a secret sentimental/romantic thing to m’personage.) Importantly, Geneseo gave me the space to grow, find my people, and I always feel indebted to that place and obviously those people for coming into my life at the right time. I feel that way about Rochester and western New York in general, that there’s a unique kind of openness and big hearted-ness about people from the region. And New York? New York can be a great place because you spend a lot of time getting beaten up and then something remarkably human happens when you’re out in public, surrounded by strangers. So many people have written about that before me, but I hope I can carve out a different kind of slice of Brooklyn and New York City, writing as a woman writer as well, which is important. And Rochester needs to be known. It’s an interesting place and I’ve enjoyed digging around, turning over stones, when I go back to visit friends. I guess really, it’s a case of me selfishly wanting the best of both worlds, city and country, or city and smaller city, complementing one another, inside of my brain at least.


GD: Do you have any special routines with your writing?
AW: Living an MFA life and establishing writing as my priority helped carve a routine. It’s a struggle. It’s hard to sit down with the blank page, especially since life happens all around you every day. This is the way it should go: wake up; feed cats; feed self; coffee self; sit with notebook and do the thing. I have a kitchen timer which I’ll set for an hour, write straight through, take a break to pace around the apartment for a few minutes, and then I’ll set the hour again. I started using sketchbooks, blank pages, no lines, if I just need to spill and write a first draft or I need to get away from my laptop and again, pour a scene onto the page with a pen. I write longhand because I need to—I feel more connected to the words that way, but that’s just me. Every writer is different and every person has their little things. I did buy a goofy app called “Freedom” used when I have to type up work on my laptop. You set a timer on the app and it kills your internet access. (The tech guys from my former life would laugh at me, because I could just disable wireless any other number of ways, but again, timers help.) Sometimes it’s good to write for a day, if you have the luxury of free time, where you just try and deal with a first draft, pour out words, eight hours or something like that. We have a professor who recommends writing longhand so that you just write without thinking, never lifting up the pen. She says if you wear glasses, take them off so that you can’t see what you’re writing and you won’t feel compelled to edit as you go along. Remove all impediments to feeling self-conscious or that other thing, being blocked, which is a whole other conversation.


GD: You also mentioned working on a short story collection. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?

AW: Over the last couple of years I’d been working on a series of stories about people making decisions about love. I am crazy about emotional truth in writing; that’s why I do this thing. Love stories will always be really interesting to me (and as the tiniest pro-tip, they are a great way for beginning writers to create character desire. Love can be a home run sort of character desire because it gives your protag something to want and a good way for readers to align themselves with your protag.) So my angle on the love story had been exploring characters looking over the edge, either getting in or out of relationships—“The Escape Artist”, which appeared in Gandy Dancer’s Post Script, was one of these. Those stories were all written in a close third POV. I’m taking a quiet break from that model and just dipped into a first person narrative, still about love, tinkering around writing about college, but a different kind of voice than what I’d used in those close third stories. It feels like a different kind of project than what I was doing before, maybe something more long form, but since I’ve broken apart or torn down the writing model I was using, I feel a little at sea with the project. We’ll see. Uncertainty can be good. I’m happy that I have the space to experiment and try out a few different things in my program, getting solid feedback for each thing I try.


GD: Do you have any advice for emerging writers?

AW: Step one is to read like crazy and find which authors you really like, the ones who speak to your heart and brain. Step two is really just to try and know that you can get better. See writing as a process of punching up and enjoy the hell out of your small wins. Study craft. Study craft, study craft, and study craft again. If you want to go experimental, that’s awesome, but you have to know the rules before you break them. Listen to your creative writing profs, any teachers who help you with constructive feedback. I feel a huge amount of gratitude for the professors at Geneseo who helped me while I was a student and stuck with me long after I’d graduated. That kind of access, attention, and the kind of bond formed with Geneseo professors, I think it’s a unique and great thing about our school.

Be generous to your peers. You will learn a lot by reading and editing the work of others. And see it this way. You’re in it to help people become better writers and that makes the experience of writing and workshop so much more rewarding. In general, kindness is a huge thing. Step eight (wherever I’m at with these steps) or the way I like to see everything so that I can push on every day, is that the process of becoming a better writer is dependent on the process of your becoming a better person. If you want to write about emotional truth, if you want your readers to experience a sense of empathy for these made up characters you create, your humanity needs to bleed through the page. Build up all of your empathy muscles. And don’t be so hard on yourself. So much of writing (and I’ll be ineloquent as I say this next thing), so much of writing is the process of you being cool with who you are, which is one of the hardest things a thinking human can try and do. Be kind. Always be kind.

I’m sure a lot of undergrads have thought about applying for MFA programs right after college or at least, they’ve asked when a writer should apply to an MFA program. That’s a tough one. It involves a decent amount of self-awareness, both related to your writing and well, yourself. I’ll see if I can frame it a certain way. You need to be secure and self-aware about your work enough to be able to apply advice from others, sift out what kind of advice is useful and which you’d rather not need. That involves a process of building your own personal intuition about your writing, again, another thing which varies from person to person greatly and is a result of knowing yourself.. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that writing is a process of being honest with yourself. You can’t hide from you. Readers will be able to sense that, if you are writing around things that you don’t want to confront about yourself. So for the MFA readiness question, while it might be a twisty kind of answer, your work will benefit most when you as a writer/person are both confident and self-aware about what you’re capable of and at the same time, amenable enough to adapt and accept changing for the better.


GD: What have you been reading lately? Do you have any recommendations?

AW: I’m kinda crazy about this novel I just finished, not a part of MFA reading, but one which was recommended by a professor. Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville. High school awkwardness, family troubles, boys, and Beard is incredibly funny, which is hard to pull off in literary fiction. Really great female protagonist here as well. On the serious craft side of things, I just finished James Wood’s How Fiction Works and am chipping away at The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber, if you want to get knee deep in craft nerdery. I will likely read Pride and Prejudice again this summer because it’s my all-time favorite book. Austen was so smart when it came to reading people that I think everyone should read it.. “The Dead” by James Joyce, one of the most killer short stories ever written. “The Lady and the Little Dog” by Chekov. Re-read The Great Gatsby now that no one is forcing you to read it and get with Fitzgerald the stylist. His sentences were beautiful. I’ll cut myself off here, because I could go on and on about books and stories.

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