The Hottest Faculty: Mary Otis On How She Teaches

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Sometimes, we forget that becoming a writer is as much a choice as not becoming a writer. Here, core faculty member Mary Otis, the author of the acclaimed story collection Yes, Yes, Cherries, talks about the path she can guide you through in your time in the Hottest MFA…the Low Residency MFA at UCR Palm Desert:

A writing teacher is a word mechanic, an intuitionist, an inciter of change.  For me, teaching is a kind of alchemical process that harnesses passion and empathy to craft, not unlike the process of writing itself, or as Borges once wrote:  Art is fire plus algebra.

In the first writing class I ever taught, I had a student, an astute reader of literature and intelligent critic, say to me, “Writers come from the island of writers,” as if nothing in his own experience, perception, or imagination could possibly be the source of a story—as if he never received the secret invitation, and if you didn’t get that, you were out of luck.  There was this idea that real writers are over there, and I’m over here.  So, how does a writer become real?

One way is to study in an MFA program.  Our program is a thriving, dynamic, and unique community of writers.  I value the wide range of talented students we attract, the premium we place on the individual writer, and that we tailor each student’s course of study to the specific needs of their creative writing, including personalized reading lists.  It’s a thrill to put a particular book into a student’s hands and witness new narrative possibilities appear in their fiction.  It’s even better to see someone get something about their work and know that things will never be the same in terms of how they approach their writing.  Students sometimes arrive in the program with limited ideas of what a story can be, or the form it must take, and I enjoy banishing those notions.

I have been a fiction professor in the program since its inception, and some of my most remarkable teaching experiences have involved working with students who appeared to be writing one story, beneath which a kind of shadow story lurked.  And this is where claiming your talent, your life, and your imagination comes in.  The word claim comes from the French clamer, meaning to cry out, and sometimes the story that actually wants to be told appears to be silenced.  But it only seems that way, and a writing teacher can be very useful in helping a student bring it forth.

I love this quote from the wonderful writer, George Saunders:

 We all try to skip around the heart of the story.  It is a form of avoidance that all of us do.  I don’t know quite why, but I see it all the time – in my work and in the work of my students.  It’s very odd, and very universal.  Maybe it’s scary to really confront the heart of the story, because some part of us knows that if we blow that, we’ve blown the whole deal.  It’s like having a huge crush on someone and never telling them because you’re afraid you’ll be rejected.  Something like that.

Writing is a high stakes business.  It demands risk and faith, and when we seem most lost, we might actually be the closest we’ve ever come to writing what is real and matters, the heart of the story.

If you’d like to have a part in this high stakes business, applications for fall are due August 1st. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our office at 760-834-0926 or via email at


By | 2017-05-18T16:48:20-07:00 July 23rd, 2013|Categories: Faculty News, Program News, Residency, Student News|Comments Off on The Hottest Faculty: Mary Otis On How She Teaches

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