Ed Robson is a retired clinical psychologist from Winston-Salem, NC. His poetry has recently appeared in The Hungry Chimera, Right Hand Pointing, Failed Haiku, and Perfume River Poetry Review. His current works in progress include novels, short fiction, and creative non-fiction. Between writing assignments he enjoys cycling and cooking. Past pursuits he hopes he’ll someday have time to reactivate include camping, mineral collecting, gardening, woodworking, and silversmithing. His role models are mostly teenagers, especially Emma Gonzales and Malala Yousafzai, and he secretly suspects the Hokey Pokey may in fact be what it’s all about.
Gabrielle Lawrence: As a first year candidate, why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What do you hope to gain after three years with the Arkansas Writers Program?
Ed Robson: My life went through a time of transformation after my 50th birthday, something more involved than just a mid-life crisis, or maybe an unusually devastating one. I eventually recovered much of what I thought I’d lost, including my career as a psychologist, but I’d realized that writing was my passion, my vocation. I wrote steadily from that point, just poetry at first, then adding drama, novels, and short fiction as the years went by. At 62, I left psychology behind to write full-time, focusing primarily on novels. But the more I learned of writing craft, the more I was aware of how much more there is to master, and I realized I needed mentors and to be immersed in a community of stimulation and support.
Long story short, I want to be a better writer. But writing is much more than craft. It’s an ethos both artistic and political, and I need to find my place in it. It’s an industry as well, with trends and norms and rules (mostly unwritten) I need to understand. And it’s a solitary job, but one requiring allies for success, so I hope the program will enable me to make those key connections.
GL: Tell us about your creative work and writing process—do you have a preferred genre or aesthetic?
ER: Most of what I’ve published so far has been poetry. I’ve always written CNF, though I didn’t know to call it that before;for a couple of years I even had a weekly column with a byline in the Kernersville (NC) News. My prime obsession lately has been fiction, including speculative and historical, but genre-wise I see myself as strictly literary. Honestly, I get a kick from any kind of writing—any chance to play with sound, syntax, symbolism, sentence structure, and of course alliteration—but my choice of when to write a play, a poem, or whatever, is determined by the nature of the message. Some ideas call for journalistic presentation; others need a playwright or a poet.
My pet project is a vision of a pathway for humanity to weather the looming social and environmental apocalypse. I could lay it all out in a detailed monograph, and I might even get someone to publish it. (I might also win the lottery, if I ever buy a ticket.) But the only way I’ll persuade a wider audience to pay attention to what I’m proposing is to show it to them in a story. I must construct a world that readers will believe in so completely that they’ll want to build and live in it for real.
GL: What goals do you hope to accomplish during your time here? How do you hope your writing will be developed and challenged by our students and faculty?
ER: What I hope to gain here is first, a much more comprehensive skillset. I think I’m pretty good at certain things, like dialog and voice and POV, but I’m weak on setting, physical description, and especially plot. I’m daunted by short fiction. In poetry, I want to learn to loosen the syntactic strings and let the message come out in the music. And there are other genres to explore—I’m still pretty much a novice writing for the stage, and I’ve barely started dabbling in screenplay.
I need guidance, frankly. I have talents, but I must develop discipline and focus, learn to pace myself and be productive every day, and make the painful choices of which projects to pursue, which to write off, and which to plant and fertilize until they’re ready to produce good fruit.
GL: You have an interesting educational background. Do you mind talking a little bit about that transition and how it influences your writing?
ER: As a child, I read insatiably and wrote for fun, just for the joy of putting my ideas into words, but since I was determined to become a scientist like my father, I never thought of writing as anything but a diversion. I don’t know what might have happened if my high school had been challenging enough to teach me how to study, but 3½ semesters at Rice convinced me that my place was nowhere close to math or engineering. A few adventures later, I enrolled at LSU as a Philosophy major, but the questions I found most compelling in that field regarded human consciousness, so I graduated with a BS in Psychology.
I went to Chapel Hill intending to pursue research in personality at the doctoral program in Clinical Psychology, but I turned away from science once again and spent the next three decades working in public schools, private practice, juvenile court, hospitals, nursing facilities, and finally a neurology clinic. That was my real education: 30 years of listening to people’s pain, diagnosing what had gone wrong in their lives, helping them find new perspectives from which they could see a possibility for change, and telling all their stories—thousands of them—in reports that never were as quick and dry as my administrators might have wished.
That’s the education that informs my writing now. What every person taught me when they opened up their heart was that there are no simple characters, no simple motivations or emotions, no simple stories. Their beautiful complexity is our humanity.
GL: What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
ER: Ernest Hemingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Visit our blog again soon to meet another graduate student from the Arkansas Writers Program.