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Teacher Spotlight: Erica Berry

A Portland native, Erica Berry was most recently the 2019-2020 Writer-in-Residence and Teaching Fellow with the National Writers Series in Traverse City, MI. She has also taught writing workshops with the New York Times Student Journeys, the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, the Craigardan Residency and Education Center in New York, and the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicily. Her writing has been supported by the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Tin House, and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and named notable in 2019 Best American Essays. Her essays are published or forthcoming with The Yale ReviewThe New York Times MagazineLiterary HubGulf CoastGastronomicaColorado ReviewGuernicaThe Atlantic, and others.

This fall, Erica is teaching Dear Liary and Kindling the Story. Here is what Erica has to say about her teaching style, writing practice, and interests.

Why do you enjoy teaching classes like this?  
Though I really enjoy parts of traditional writing workshops, lately I love teaching classes that focus on creative generation, inquiry and experimentation, using readings and low-stakes writing prompts to help participants stretch new creative muscles and just write in a year that feels as challenging as this one. 

Why this genre? 
I am drawn to nonfiction in my own writing because I find it helps me renew my awe in the world—it keeps me curious, child-like in my hunger for new facts. This is why I’m teaching the “Kindling Research” class: because I think so often research is taught as something needed to scaffold an argument, not something that can launch a lyrical inquiry or a build a metaphor. We must reclaim research! Secondly, truth is very often stranger than fiction, and nonfiction writers can often get away with telling just the sort of stories that a fiction reader might doubt. That said, I am teaching the “Liary” class because I am intrigued by the borders of the genre as both a reader and a writer—in nonfiction that might be self-consciously speculative or revisionist, in fiction that borrows and collages real-life.

 How would you describe your teaching style (in five words)?
Supportive, enthusiastic, curious, adaptive, only occasionally plagued by bad puns.

How is each session structured? 
Sort of an oscillating buffet of things: discussing short readings, doing writing prompts inspired by the texts, informally sharing work, always time for general Q+As about craft and the writing world. I’ll have readings and some prompts posted online in a Google Classroom so students can refer back to them, too. The “Research” class will have two weeks of asynchronous learning, where students will work on longer writing exercises in their own time and have more individual feedback from me.

Where do you draw inspiration from (in your own writing or in your pedagogy)?
Besides going for hikes and falling into the rabbitholes of the internet? Interdisciplinary conversation. My sister is a video artist who often uses words in her projects, and I am always energized after talking with her about how she thinks about narrative, or incorporating interviews, or the poetry of subtitles. Similarly, I learned a lot about improvisation and collaborative experimentation from a friend who is a modern dancer. I’ve adapted some of his exercises into my teaching.

What would you want each person to leave with from taking these courses?
Some students may leave with a draft of a longer story, but my goal is that all students will leave with a bunch of starts that they can then cultivate and grow into bigger projects in the weeks and months that follow. I am a firm believer in the writer-as-beachcomber approach. I am always beachcombing old notebooks, looking for a sentence or an observation that I can scavenge and carry into a new project. I also want individuals to leave my courses with new approaches to brainstorming, to organizing a  project, to combating writer’s block. 

What is keeping you going while sheltering in place?
Eating little handfuls of things! What is it about the interminable stretch of afternoon between 1 and 4pm that means I exclusively crave handfuls of bite-size things?! Not just crave, but find salvation in: chocolate chips, frozen peas, popcorn, peanut-butter pretzels. I just caved and bought one of those silicon microwave popcorn-poppers and it’s a game changer. Also, going for long walks while talking to long-distance friends. We end phone calls by sharing the things that have recently brought us joy, and it’s very restorative. They are hand-dying fabrics with onions, I am dumping nutritional yeast on popcorn. Same, same. 

Where will you be teaching/telecommunicating from?
I’ve just moved back to my hometown (of Portland) so i’ll be here, drinking seltzer and showing off the houseplants I am desperately coaxing to grow in a basement apartment.

Favorite books? Writers? Literary pieces?
I bought Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body last summer while I was teaching in Oxford and I’m still thinking about it a year later, especially as floods and fires continue to enter our communities. Hildyard defines our “‘first body” as the flesh-and-blood one, and our “second body” as its more diffuse global presence (the resources we use, the waste we make). It totally redefined how I think about our bodies as participants in this world. 
I’ll read anything Carmen Maria-Machado writes—I’m finally reading her memoir, Welcome to the Dream House, and it’s a genre-bending wonder. Also, a must-read for folks in Portland would be Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math.

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