Nancy McKinley, Ph.D., can make a claim few faculty in the Maslow Family Graduate Creative Writing Program can match: She has taught every student in every cohort who has entered the program since its second residency. McKinley co-teaches “The Professional Writer,” the first class taken by all creative writing students at their first residency. Team teaching with J. Michael Lennon, the program’s co-founder, and now with Taylor Polites as part of the team, McKinley has the opportunity to know every student.
“I have a unique position: I have the students at the entry level class and I also work with the MFAs in the final class,” McKinley says. McKinley teaches “Writing in Education” with Lenore Hart, which is required of all students who go on to receive the MFA.
Long known among her students for her advice to court the muse by establishing a regular writing routine, McKinley recently was rewarded for tenaciously following her own advice: Her first book, “St. Christopher on Pluto,” was published by West Virginia University Press in January 2020. The novel in stories recounts the adventures of two friends, MK and Colleen, as they make their way across the northeastern Pennsylvania landscape – often traveling in Big Blue, MK’s decrepit Buick. In addition to the novel, McKinley has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous journals and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has won the Creative Writer Thayer Fellowship in the Arts and the John Gardner Newhouse Award. To see a complete list of McKinley’s publications, please visit her website, www.mckinleywrite.com.
McKinley, who now lives in Fort Collins, Colo., says she found inspiration for the stories during more than 20 years that she lived in northeastern Pennsylvania. After earning her bachelor’s degree at College of the Holy Cross and a master’s degree at Colorado State, McKinley lived in North Carolina for time while her spouse completed his master’s degree in forestry at Duke University. Over the years, she taught writing on the high school and college levels, often working with underserved populations. But a move to Pennsylvania for her spouse’s first job after graduate school would set her on the path to her current work at Wilkes.
After moving to Pennsylvania, she taught for a year as an adjunct English faculty member at Wilkes, earned her doctorate at Binghamton University and gave birth to two of her three daughters. While at Wilkes, she helped to establish the Women’s and Gender Studies program. Another move to central Pennsylvania brought a hiatus from teaching at the University when the commute from the Harrisburg area became challenging. But she eagerly returned to Wilkes as one of the founding faculty of the creative writing program. The low-residency format has enabled her to teach in person at its two annual residencies, mentor student writers online in between and maintain her own writing life.
News@Wilkes sat down with McKinley to learn about her life as writer and teacher.
Do you have a writing routine?
I wake up before dawn each day, grab coffee and write my way into the day. There’s something self-affirming about doing that and a sense of ownership when I can claim the day. It gives hope. It really became a pattern for me when I had young children and it was the one time that I could claim to myself before anyone talked to me — before anyone jarred my psyche with “I can’t find my other shoe…”
I keep a journal and write in it every morning. I know some writers keep a personal journal, an idea journal and a draft journal. I merge it all together in one. It’s what works for me. There’s no one magic method. You design what works for you. I may write about my writing, what’s going well, what’s going on with my writing. Sometimes I will write about something that I saw or an idea that I have. It’s a dialogue with self and soul in many ways.
How long did you work on “St. Christopher on Pluto?”
It seems like forever. Quite a while. I lived in Pennsylvania for 25 years. I think I planted a lot of seeds in various ways for these stories all the way back when I started my master’s degree.
People who have attended the faculty readings at the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing have been hearing the stories about “Big Blue,” and MJ and Colleen at various stages. Has that been helpful to you?
Our ethos (in the program) is writers helping writers and it’s for all of the writers, not just the students. We as faculty encourage one another and we are continually bringing new work and getting feedback and we’re raising the bar for one another in a really healthy and supportive way.
That really helped with this book. It’s a novel in stories, so they can be read individually, or you can read them and get the novel experience in sequence. I read very early stages of this at Wilkes. Sometimes it was well-received and other times it was – I’ve got to go back and do some revising. Then, when I would read a revised version, faculty who had been here a while would say “That’s really changed.” They listened and really heard and that’s been great for me too.
How did you choose a linked story collection – or “a novel in stories” — as the form for your book?
I didn’t know I was choosing that when I started. I was working on a novel that wasn’t really coming together and I love the story form….I needed to get back in the story form with these characters…. I read a story almost every night before I go to bed – story is a nice form for me.
Do you have other hobbies and interests besides writing?
I’m an avid outdoor enthusiast. As I leave my writing, I need big space, for I’ve been staring at a screen or working with words on a page. I walk at least five to seven miles every day. I live near the foothills of Colorado, so I’m up and out to the foothills. I love working with my observations of the natural world. I’m a backpacker and a hiker. I grew up at a little lake. I still have the sailboat that my brothers and I bought as pre-teens and it’s on a little lake out there (in Colorado) that doesn’t allow motorboats. I have the oldest boat on the lake. It’s the Big Blue of the sailing world! And from there, I have an amazing view of Rocky Mountain National Park. These activities settle me. I get balance by spending time in the outdoor world.
And I also do volunteer work with underserved populations. That’s also a balance, because I started my career teaching underserved populations. That’s a mission: I’ve challenged my creative writing students to bring creative writing to underserved populations because those are the groups hardest hit in economic downtimes.
Wilkes creative writing alum Marlon James, who won the Booker Prize for his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” and a National Book Award nomination for “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” has cited advice he received from you while he was a student in the program. He frequently quotes your advice to “write every day and the muse will show up.” He mentioned you in Vanity Fair – what was your reaction that?
I was really thrilled and honored by that. And not only in Vanity Fair — but in the same paragraph with Beyoncé. My children never in their lives thought I’d be mentioned in the same paragraph with Beyoncé!
What is it like to see someone like Marlon James – or any of your students – have success? You are in a unique position in the program: You and Mike Lennon (and more recently Taylor Polites) work with every student who comes through the program.
Just as a parent takes great pride when a child has an accomplishment, it’s similar for a teacher. I’m thrilled with the publications of the students I work with. I run around and tell everyone when a student has some measure of success. It validates what we’re doing. It’s thrilling and affirming because it shows that our process does work.