by Nicole Lyssy
The November-December Kenyon Review features a short story penned by University of North Texas English professor and alum, Hillary Stringer. A 2014 graduate of UNT’s doctoral Creative Writing program, Stringer has been writing all her life and now teaches undergraduate students in literature and creative writing. The story, “Pillars of Creation,” is described by the author in the following way: “a woman attends a dinner party thrown by her architect ex-boyfriend and his new wife, and whose newly remodeled house turns out to be a poor container for secrets past and present.”
Stringer was first drawn to writing as a child and continued to expand her craft as an undergraduate at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
“My whole life I’ve been composing these small narratives, and I started writing seriously in late high school, early college,” Stringer said. “I started taking classes and focusing in on it as something more.”
Stringer’s resolve to pursue writing continued to grow as she learned more about the process.
“I really enjoyed writing and I also really enjoyed reading, so I read voraciously and was drawn to the idea of contributing to literature in that way. [I was] thinking, ‘all these people are writing these great books and I want to participate in that process in some way’ I realized if I wanted to do that, I had to put in a fair amount of effort and time.”
Stringer began to understand that there was more to the writing process than the effort and time she was dedicating.
“When I was in college is when I realized there was a certain professionalization process I had to go through. I think I also just really liked learning more about the process of writing. It became more about perfecting and honing the skill than thinking about the bigger picture, which is necessary when you’re a young writer.”
Stringer began to figure out exactly what her voice sounded like when she began studying at the University of Cincinnati. She decided to pursue graduate school because she had a desire to learn more about the technicalities of the writing process in a way she says she did not during undergrad.
“I feel like most literature courses are not as focused on the mechanics [of writing],” Stringer explained. “They’re more focused on the content. You’re using this invention to comment on something in society that is happening. You’re not necessarily saying, ‘how did the writer come up with this idea and then execute it through a certain structure?’ You’re talking about that a little bit, but it’s not the focus of the class. I feel like I didn’t really start studying writing that way until I got to graduate school.”
She also realized she wanted to gain a specific kind of knowledge only graduate school could provide in writing.
“I felt like there was more that I could learn how to do. I was writing on my own and wasn’t making as much progress as I wanted, so it seemed that if there was a way to facilitate faster and better work, to use techniques I wasn’t figuring out on my own, graduate school might help with that.”
She began to see the benefits as she engaged with other students who were able to look at their own stories on a craft-based level, and, after a few years, decided it was time to obtain her doctorate. UNT offered an opportunity for her to teach and to obtain funding.
“I knew I wanted to go on to get a PhD or MFA, and I wanted to be able to teach and have a stipend so I wouldn’t have to work during my PhD. There was one other program that offered me funding, but I liked this one better, so I came down here.”
Upon entering the program, she was able to dive fully into studying writing without other distractions present. This, she said, was one of the benefits of the PhD program.
“Having the time to spend years reading and working and teaching, because before I got into this program, I was in the masters program but still working as a waitress. Having the financial support and being able to teach literature and creative writing classes, and to take classes with people who were experts in things I wouldn’t have necessarily gotten into on my own.”
Stringer also met her husband, English professor Matt Davis, during her time in the program, and credits him, as well as her tenure teaching, for helping her perfect the skill of deconstructing and reconstructing a story on the basis of craft.
“Intense dedication to my own process and my own work, and also working with Matt, and going through stories and ideas with him and talking about them. Teaching helped because I had to go into students’ stories and gather possibilities from their work, so when you’re doing that all the time, you are training your brain to think about things and developing that neuroplasticity to develop different outcomes.”
Writing requires research, and this is something Stringer got to experience firsthand during the process of preparing for her comprehensive exams throughout the program.
“The comps process helped me become a good researcher, which is important when you’re a writer, being able to find information and understand how things fit together in a chain of cause-and-effect. Because the comps experience was so intense, it forced me to really quickly learn how to make and articulate those connections, and also think about how theory impacts reality and vise versa.”
In “Pillars of Creation,” in particular, Stringer was interested in exploring the idea of how conflicts within relationships work.
“I think that it’s not necessarily bad to have stories with happy endings in the cannon, but to my mind, it’s more interesting if the story pushes at something and asks the question, ‘what does it mean to be in a good relationship? What do you have to do in order to to make that happen? How much compromise should you engage in to make a relationship work?’”
Stringer wants her students to understand the process behind writing early so that they may find their own voices.
“I hope to impart to them that it’s not just some magical process that is out of reach. I think there is a role intuition plays, but if you can learn to come up with this way of thinking that allows you to imagine scenarios that could happen, and if you can teach yourself how to use cause-and-effect and to practice that, you can learn how to write stories.”