Heather Lanier is the author of Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach For America, and two award-winning poetry chapbooks: Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima (Standing Rock, 2015), and The Story You Tell Yourself (Kent State U, 2012), winner of the Wick Poetry Open Chapbook Competition. Her work has been noted in The Best American Essays Series and The Pushcart Anthology Series. She has published poems and essays in many places, including Salon, The Sun, Vela Magazine, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and more. She has a forthcoming book about raising her daughter with a rare chromosomal syndrome, and she is a new teacher here for the Rowan University Writing Department.
In this podcast, we talked about her approach to teaching and writing, her publishing journey, and her future plans at Rowan University. Below is a transcript taken from parts of the podcast.
Connor: Did you always know you wanted to be a teacher, or was that a later stage? (2:14)
Lanier: I was probably a writer before I was a teacher, but I was a writer early. I was writing in high school, kind of seriously. I was taking seriously the writing of poems and studying poems. So I knew that I loved writing as a way to make sense of the world, and that writing was a big part of my being in the world. Then I went through college and was a serious writer in college. I went to the University of Delaware and there wasn’t a creative writing major at the time. So I studied english literature and I took all the creative writing classes I could take. Back then a lot of universities didn’t have creative nonfiction at all. So I was studying poetry and fiction, and also writing memoir on the side. [...] I was always writing as an undergraduate. When I was twenty two and graduating I didn’t know what to do, because I loved writing and I really loved learning. So I thought, what if I stood on the other side of the classroom, would I like that too? And I did! I really loved teaching. I like fostering curiosity and exploration in the classroom, whether that’s as a student or as a teacher. I’ve been doing it on the other side for a while, but I consider myself a “co-conspirator” in exploration and curiosity for my students.
Connor: What are you teaching here at Rowan University? (5:38)
Lanier: I have been hired to teach creative nonfiction of all kinds, and multi-genre creative writing. I’m also a poet, so I’ll probably teach poetry at some point. Right now I’m teaching Special Topics in Nonfiction, which is focused on explorations of experiments and innovations in the contemporary essay, the weird things that people are doing in the essay in the last few decades. I also teach Creative Writing I, which is multi-genre, poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, for undergraduates.
Connor: Do you want to expand upon the special topics class into another semester, or would you like to do something different? (6:26)
Lanier: Next semester, they’ve signed me up already for Writing the Memoir, which I’m excited about. I write memoir, and there’s lots of interest around memoir. In that class we’ll look at more traditional nonfiction approaches, not that memoir always has to be traditional, but we’ll talk about traditional narrative arch, storytelling, point of view, characterization.
Connor: Talking about this story stuff, I’d like to get into your new book that’s coming out. Can you tell me a little bit about that? (7:01)
Lanier: The book is called Raising a Rare Girl, and it is a memoir about my first child. Eight years ago I had my first child, and she was born very tiny. The doctors were really concerned that something was wrong. We found out that she has this very rare chromosomal syndrome called Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, which is the name that they’ve given because the scientist Wolf and Hirschhorn found that this particular syndrome corresponds to a certain kind of deletion in certain chromosomes. She has different chromosomes; her fourth chromosome is different than most other people’s. That manifests in a lot of different differences but also challenges, developmental delays, and a lot of uncertainty in her developmental trajectory.
And so this book is about what it means to parent a person who is so different from what people expect, who culturally and historically has been dehumanized—it wasn’t until 1975 that children with disabilities were guaranteed a right to education—but also what it means to parent at all, how hard it is, how much surrender and letting go you have to do, and opening yourself up to the unexpected.
Connor: I read a little bit of your book Teaching in the Terrordome, and that also deals with cultural biases. It also deals with the hardships that minorities and people that are considered “the other” face. It’s a similar thing that you’re touching on in your new book, these cultural pressures and stories that we tell. I’m wondering how you came to these topics and how you try to tackle them in your writing. (8:52)
Lanier: I think I’ve always been interested in the way that ableism expresses itself in our culture, I studied under disability scholars as a graduate student, and certainly writing about a primarily black school in the city and also writing about racism. I guess I am a little interested in systemic oppression of marginalized groups, but my child sort of found me. So it ended up being that I was writing about ableism from this very deep, heartfelt place.
There’s a quote, and I forget who says it, which says “having a child is like your heart walking around outside of you”, because you love this person so much. It was shocking to have people comment, really early on, about my daughter, and her life, and her worth when she was just a few days old, because she had this syndrome. Saying things about her they would never think to say about a child who didn’t present as having potential intellectual disabilities.So that subject kind of just landed in my lap, I suppose.
Connor: I watched your TED talk, and in it you go into detail about those beginning phases of raising your daughter and the stories that you heard from other people. I was wondering if you still think of that phrase, “good or bad, hard to say.” It’s an interesting topic to think of in terms of writing, but also in life, the stories we are telling ourselves, and how we are trying to put together our narrative—if that phrase was something you thought of writing this new book? (10:11)
Lanier: Any time I write something that’s partly what I’m thinking about, asking “what is the story here?” And any writer has to think about that. Joan Didian’s line from The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” is famous because every writer has to contend with the fact that we desire to make meaning of our lives, but the meaning that we make often falls flat, or is cliché, or is unfair to others, or is not the whole picture.
And so I am really interested in the stories that are told, and sort of flipping them around, in investigating our modern mythology. Often my work will do that. I think with both books I’m attempting to question some of the stories we tell.
Connor: Speaking of your works, I wanted to talk a little bit about your publishing journey. When did you first try to get into publishing? As you were starting, what’s something you wished you knew? (12:09)
Lanier: I started trying to publish after I graduated as an undergraduate, and I tried to publish poems. And, you know, poetry is really hard to place too—acceptance rates are often like one percent. So mostly I didn't publish any poems, but I would send them out. I was told by a professor of poetry to make it just a thing that you do and to be proud of the rejections that you receive, because the rejections are proof that you are in some ways making public your work; you finished something, your sharing something with an editor, and that editor read it! Even if the answer is no, good work!
This was a poetry professor, Jeanne Murray Walker, who said, “Do something funny with your rejection letters, like cover your kitty litter box with them.” And I always took that as more of a metaphor than anything, the idea being, “don't weep over your rejections too much.” That was really good advice.
Connor: Where were you primarily trying to submit to? (13:39)
Lanier: Literary journals! And this was my thinking: I’ll just submit to prestigious literary journals. The Southern Review was my first publication, they Published two of my poems. My first creative nonfiction, I can't quite remember, maybe Colorado Review. These prestigious literary journals is where I started publishing.
My publishing life has changed quite a bit, though. When I had my daughter and wanted to write essays to parents who were in similar situations, or wanted to write essays about the strange stories that people put would put on top of my life or my daughter’s life because of her syndrome, I just felt like I wasn't going to reach my audience through tiny literary journals, as prestigious as they were in the graduate creative writing world. So I started a blog! Which was unprestigious in some ways—anybody can start a blog. But it ended up being some of the most rewarding writing because I just reached anybody I wanted, and anybody who could find me could find me, I could reach them quickly. It was really fun. And some of the blog writing created attention for the book, so self-publishing can then lead to a good book deal.
Connor: And one final question, as you're new here at Rowan, and we’re really excited to have you, what are you looking forward to accomplishing here at Rowan? (22:12)
Lanier: The one thing I'm really excited about is building energy and interest in creative nonfiction, which already is here; writers are already coming in with that interest. But also creating a space for people to find a home in a genre that I think everybody can find a home in. Everybody has some nonfiction that they want to write, whether it's personal or researched. Every writer I know eventually starts dipping their toes into nonfiction. So I want to create that space for people to find a home in a genre that I love so much, and then be a support person for them. In some ways, being a writing professor is a bit like being a coach or a midwife, helping people give birth to something rather than being strict about how they should write. I really see my role as helping people foster people's own projects. So that involves listening closely to what the graduate students are interested in and supporting the projects that they are drawn to—and at the undergraduate level, building interest in the genre.
Being a member of this amazing faculty, which is filled with all kinds of writers, is so exciting! This is the department that I would have loved as an undergraduate student. I think studying literature was great for me, but I would have been excited to be a Writing Arts major as an undergrad.
Connor: Well we are excited to have you here, thank you so much for having this conversation with me!
Lanier: Thank you! Thanks for having me!