A non-fiction writer living in Minneapolis by way of New York, Emily Strasser will complete her MFA in non-fiction in May 2016 at the University of Minnesota. Her work rests at the intersection of the personal, the researched, and the literary, and has been featured in Ploughshares, Guernica, Tricycle, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and Nowhere Magazine. Currently, Strasser is working on “Half Life of a Secret,” a book that doubles as her thesis and which she describes as “tracing the toxic legacy of secrecy individually and globally through the person of her grandfather, a nuclear scientist who worked as a chemist enriching the uranium bound for the Hiroshima bomb, and the place of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city built in secret for that purpose.”
The Wake: Can you give a history of your path from first wanting to become a writer to becoming an MFA candidate?
Emily Strasser: I think I always loved reading and writing as a kid, but I think there was a part of me that was afraid to really commit to creative writing. I was an English major and I studied abroad in India my junior year. I did a month-long independent research project there that everyone in the program had to do. When it came time to sitting down and writing in an academic way about this experience, that felt really kind of false because I was like: “Who am I to sort of write about these peoples’ identities and draw academic conclusions and say something about this experience, when it feels like it has changed me so much, and what I have are more questions than answers?” It just feels sort of messier. When I got back from that experience I had this strong urge to write in a different way and I really didn’t know what that looked like. I starting writing creative non-fiction before I knew what that was, just sort of pulling the images and research and memories together and writing it. Even as I was doing it I kept being like, “Is this allowed, though? What am I doing? What is this?” It felt so freeing and so exciting that I just kind of kept going with it. After that one semester that I spent doing a creative thesis, I knew that I wanted to keep writing. I took a few years between college and grad school. I lived in New York City. I went back to India for a few months. I worked a bunch of different weird jobs writing the whole time and collecting a bunch of weird experiences.
What influenced your decision specifically to enter the MFA program after taking a few years off?
Strasser: I think it was about really wanting to buckle down and get serious. I was writing during that whole time that I took time off, but I also felt like I was getting really easily distracted, especially living in New York City. I thought, “Okay, I know what I want to do. I know what project I want to work on. How can I carve away that time and space?” So it was a form of self-discipline to give myself that focus time.
Looking specifically at your thesis, how were you able to personally process this part of your family history?
Strasser: A little context of my thesis: My grandfather was a nuclear scientist who worked starting during World War II in a city that was built very quickly in complete secrecy in east Tennessee by the Manhattan Project. Oak Ridge was one of three secret cities built by the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. My grandfather was a scientist in this city that was built overnight. Gated, nobody in the city knew the whole story of what they were doing. I started just vaguely knowing that my grandfather had something to do with the bomb and feeling kind of haunted about that. This place in east Tennessee is a place I had grown up visiting as a kid during summers. It’s where my grandmother lived. I loved this landscape, and I loved this part of the country, so to try to square my family that I love and this place that I love with something that feels dark and kind of scary—it felt important for myself to try to understand what that meant.
“These are [going to] be the people who will continue to read my work my whole life.”
What is the unique benefit to doing an MFA program?
Strasser: For me, the biggest thing about the MFA is the time and support to write without the pressure to hold another job, which artists need. The MFA community itself has also been really important to me. We are always celebrating each other’s publications and awards and everything, and these are [going to] be the people who will continue to read my work my whole life. I think the debates about MFAs get kind of silly because they leave out some of those issues. You don’t need an MFA to be a good writer or to be a successful writer, but it can be nice to have time set aside specifically for writing.
What advice would you have for writers that are trying to get their work published?
Strasser: First, write a ton and read a ton and revise a ton. Find people who you trust to read your work and give you feedback. Go into it expecting rejection and knowing that it’s not personal. I once submitted one essay to like 15 different journals. I got rejected from all of them. One of them got stuck in the system so for about a year, every two months I got a rejection for the same piece from the same journal and I was like, “I know already, though. Stop it!” So many people are publishing, and the editors have their own tastes. Getting rejected doesn’t necessarily reflect on your own work. You have to be baptized by rejection. You have to learn to be okay with that.