A creative writing master class with Marya Hornbacher

March 14, 2016

Sprawled on the knotty-pine furniture and seated cross-legged on the floor of The Writing House's great hall, 28 creative writing students listened to author Marya Hornbacher discuss the writing process that lead her to create her novels, including the New York Times best-seller Madness: A Bipolar Life.

An Interlochen alumna (IAA 89-90), Hornbacher now teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Northwestern University and lives in Chicago. This was her first trip back to Interlochen, where she was to give a presentation on her work and life on Feb. 25.

"This is a little odd," she told the room. "Because the last time I was here I was 16. And a lot has changed!"

Hornbacher is familiar with change. As a teen, she was battling bipolar disorder, a struggle that she would later pour into her hauntingly personal memoirs of addiction and recovery that include Madness as well as Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps; Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power; and her first book, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, which she published at the age of 23.

Now a Pulitzer-nominated author, Hornbacher talked energetically to the students about her own trials and transformations, she is humble about her success. "I'm a very small drop in the bucket," she says. "The bucket is what's fascinating. I'm not."

She answered questions with detailed personal stories, and discussed with them how to get their personal stories to connect with readers, an important but elusive literary element—but one which she has managed successfully in her own writing.

Walking the students through a variety of writing exercises, she shared tips on self-editing. Her advice is brief: "Cross out all the clichés." "Lose all the ‘feeling' words." "Integrate what you don't know into what you have authority on." "Always consider your relationship to your topic." "Context is everything!" Her explanations on each, however, were richly layered, detailing examples from her own life and her books and her time as a struggling writer.

She fielded question after question from the young writers, and their enthusiasm reminded her of her own youth. "You can write about that. You're young. You will write about teenage angst and gloom and heartache and uncertainty because that's what you do at 16, 17, 18. But you'll find your voice here, and you have to go through all that to do it," she told them.

Remembering her own teenage years, she credited her attendance at Interlochen with helping her form the basis for her career as a writer. The amount of knowledge she said she'd gained while at Interlochen is summed up in one word: "Tons!"

"I learned so much about who I am as a writer here, especially from Jack Driscoll (IAA creative writing instructor, 1975-2008)," Hornbacher said. "I remember he returned one of my poems, and it was just shredded; just torn apart and covered in red ink. And at the bottom, he had written ‘Good Poem.' And that really changed me. It really taught me how to edit my work. That was probably the most salient piece of instruction I received."

After more than an hour of speaking, Hornbacher signed autographs in copies of her books for the students. They each shared a personal insight or question with her; she told one student not to be afraid of being brutally honest in the self-editing of her work. So perhaps not much has changed after all.