Marginalia, Graduate Blog

Chris Terry Fiction Ambassdor

Tell us a little bit about what you were doing before you came to Columbia.

Words are a big deal in my family. My mother was a children’s librarian who always encouraged me to read, which backfired when I would spell things out while speaking (“C-a-n w-e g-o t-o t-h-e p-o-o-l-question mark?”). Yes, it was obnoxious.

English was the easy A in high school, so that’s what I studied in college. I got a BA from Virginia Commonwealth University, then left Richmond for New York so that I could use my degree for something besides making lattes. In New York, I did Production and Editorial work for a couple of publishing houses, and also worked as a corporate Proofreader for advertisers, websites, translation firms and banks. My longest-term job was fifteen months spent editing catalogs for a makeup company. It wasn’t bad, but as a lover of creative writing, proofreading felt like looking through the window at an awesome party. I’d been doing some music writing and publishing zines, and started taking continuing education writing workshops at night to get a portfolio together so I could apply to grad school and follow my dream of becoming a published author. I also hoped for more career options than just makeup catalogs and am now feeling good about my future.

Why did you choose Columbia for your graduate study?

In The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, Tom Kealey says that location should be your first concern when looking into schools. I agree. I liked the idea of moving somewhere with the specific intention of going to school. In a new city, I would be free of distractions, and be able to focus on writing. I’m originally from Boston, and like big, cold cities. There is no doubt that Chicago is a big cold city, and my girlfriend agreed to move here with me if I got into school.

I first heard of Columbia College while interning for Akashic Books in Brooklyn. They’d just published a novel by Joe Meno, and in his bio it said that he taught at Columbia. I already thought of Chicago as a cosmopolitan hub for independent arts, so I looked into Columbia when I started researching schools.

Columbia College’s site emphasizes diversity, which is important for me, a half black/half white guy. I also got the feeling that Columbia is a very down to earth place. That appealed to me, because I come from a humbler background than your average art student, and was intimidated by the idea of being in workshops with a bunch of snobs. My gut told me that wouldn’t be the case at Columbia. I’m usually a logical dude, so on the rare occasion that my gut tells me something, I listen.

Finally, I liked that Columbia College’s Fiction Writing program encourages writers to draw from their own experiences for stories. I tend to write realistic, autobiographical material, so I hoped that my writing would be a good fit.

Tell us about a project you’re working on that you’re excited about.

I’m in thesis. We have to write a book-length manuscript. I am trying to maximize my time by working on two projects.

The first is a fictional young adult novel. The adolescent protagonist is dealing with a bully at school and watching his relationship change with his favorite uncle, as that uncle is coming out of the closet. There’s an excerpt called “Watering Tyrell” up on TrillingMagazine.com. I’m working on the second draft of that book right now.

The other project is a collection of short stories and essays about my own biracial identity. I’ve got over a hundred pages of this material, and am submitting them places with some luck. My story “The Greek” was in Columbia College’s 2011 Story Week Reader. I suggest going to the Story Week Reader site (http://www.colum.edu/Academics/fiction_Writing/Publishing_Lab/SWR/SWR2011.php) for brief examples of writing by Columbia College Fiction Writing grad students Kevin Kane, Derek Johnson. Patrick Andrews, Cyn Vargas, Wyatt Roediger-Robinette, Patrick Salem and Eliza Fogel. The other pieces are by undergrads, and their writing is no joke either.

Also, I got my wish for a career change! I am beginning my third year as Graduate Assistant to the Director of African-American Cultural Affairs in Columbia College’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. And, I do a variety of teaching artist work on my own and through Columbia’s teaching outreach programs. Sometimes I sleep.