Congratulations to Courtney Harler and Divorce Ranch and all the winners of our 2021 Quarter 1 Creative Non-Fiction Essay Contest!
Courtney Harler is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Las Vegas, Nevada. She holds an MFA from Sierra Nevada University (2017) and an MA from Eastern Washington University (2013). Courtney has been honored by fellowships from Writing By Writers, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Nevada Arts Council. Courtney’s creative work—which includes poems, flash fictions, short stories, literary analyses, craft essays, book and film reviews, author interviews, personal essays, and hybrid pieces—has been published worldwide. Links to her publications and other related awards can be found at https://harlerliterary.llc.
If you haven’t done so already, check out Courtney’s talent in writing with the moving story Divorce Ranch and then return here for a chat with this delightful author.
WOW: Thank you for writing this essay – what is the take-away you’d like readers to gain from Divorce Ranch?
Courtney: As you might guess, I don’t generally have any kind of specific takeaway in mind when I set out to write a new creative piece, whether it be essay, story, or poem. The act of writing may be deliberate, if I’m working from a particular prompt or other impetus, but the central message, for me, must arise organically from my subconscious. It can’t be fully known, or forced, lest it sound like a sermon, or otherwise devoid of discovery. And it can’t be too on-the-nose, even after revision, lest the writing itself fall flat; but I agree, we need some significance, in the end. I wrote “Divorce Ranch” some years ago, and had set it aside, almost forgotten it. The curious circumstances of the pandemic had me mining my files, looking for “old” work to revise and submit, some of it for the very first time, like “Divorce Ranch.” I must admit that I skipped over this question at first, justifying my avoidance by telling a good friend over the phone that “the reader must draw their own conclusions,” but in rereading the essay, and revisiting this question, I see now, that back then, I was writing about voice. About reclaiming agency as a woman, married or not, divorced or not. I remember how difficult it was for me to find the “right” words about the divorce, and I first conceived of this piece as a short story, one in which I’d only just begun to get at something worthwhile, as I hadn’t departed from my lived experience yet. However, these years later, with (somewhat) clearer eyes, I saw the truth and potential of the piece in a new light. Your question has asked me to look anew, once again, and now I do recognize my own (lost?) voice on the page, and through that honesty, something significant has been accessed. Even the profanity was put to that purpose.
WOW: Thank you for your honesty and I’m so glad you came back to the question. I definitely agree a reader must draw their own conclusions and yet I always question as a reader if I’m understanding the intent of the writer. You’re answer is brilliant and insightful. Thank you!
Where do you write? What does your space look like?
Courtney: I have always liked writing best at the kitchen table. I was a stay-at-home mom for about a decade, and I am generally a contented homebody, so I guess that common space feels comfortable or safe to me. However, sometimes writing at home doesn’t work because there are too many distractions (people, pets, laundry, dishes, etcetera). Before the pandemic, when I needed to get out of the house to focus better, I would often go to a nearby café called Divine Eatery, which has a similar kitchenlike feel. They decorate with artwork for sale by local artists, like Mandy Joy, and all their tables are mismatched, repurposed kitchen or dining sets. Plus, they make great breakfasts and brunches, so it was a nice treat to just write, be well fed, and not worry about other chores for a certain period of time.
When I need a more intense kickstart, I also like, ironically, to travel to write, if possible, even if only locally. I find that travel, or at least a kind of sense of travel, to a local park or lake, helps me break out of my daily routines, as well. Now that I think about it, I actually wrote the first draft of “Divorce Ranch” in Floyd Lamb Park itself, under a sprawling shade tree. I generally compose at the keyboard, and I distinctly remember repeatedly maneuvering my laptop that day to avoid the desert sun’s glare. Thanks for this question too, Crystal—I’d almost forgotten how good it felt to write “in place” about a place very dear to me.
WOW: Those are lovely images and ideas you just shared – thank you! Isn’t it fun to write about things we know so well – kind of offers a new look at things. So - What’s next for you? What are your writing goals for the rest of 2021 and beyond?
Courtney: I’m currently revising my novel-in-stories. Each story needs to stand alone, but also contribute critically to the overall arc of the novel. It’s tricky to do, and I’m still working on that element in particular. The core story, called “Rats,” recently won an Honorable Mention from Zoetrope. As part of the contest, the editors at Zoetrope are in the process of sending the story to a handpicked selection of literary agencies. Ideally, 2021 would be my year to find a trusted agent for my work. In the meantime, however, I will continue to revise and refine to the best of my ability, seeking help when I get stuck. Lately, I’m also feeling a stronger pull toward poetry, which will likely result in more prose poems or even shorter flash fictions. Traditional poetic forms used to frighten me, make me freeze up as a writer, but now they are starting to intrigue and entice me. I think that growing interest stems from my daily practice, from my slow, gradual (yet always incomplete) maturation as a reader and a writer. I still know next to nothing about poetry, of course, but the urge to learn is guiding me. I think the most “formal” poetic form I’ve tried thus far is an abecedarian, which offers a simple alphabetical structure for “young” poets like me. I did once publish a hybrid piece called “Abecedarian Baby Cry” with Tiferet back in 2017, so I suppose this “new” interest has been growing within me all along. I’ve published a couple more poems since, but again, I’m just now beginning to intently explore that genre.
WOW: This is absolutely fascinating and I’m sure you have plenty of tips to share after so much experience.
Do you have other published pieces (long or short) or books?
Courtney: Yes, I’ve published lots of individual pieces, but no, no books yet. The novel-in-stories would be my first book, but I am also revising a collection of short stories. I may even have a chapbook of flash fiction in the works. For the past decade, however, I’ve been publishing a variety of short work, both online and in print. My list includes mostly flash, but also: poems, short stories, academic essays, reviews, and interviews. I hold an MA and an MFA, so I enjoy the critical work as a nice counterpoint to the creative work. I especially love writing projects that meld the two—such as craft essays and talks, as well as book reviews and author interviews.
My work has been featured around the world, and readers can find links to my publications on my webpage
. The work of submitting and publishing has its own kind of character, and I’ve learned a lot, especially since around 2015 when I started writing and submitting in earnest. Based on those (hard) lessons learned (the hard way, aka rejection), I’ve started teaching workshops on the topic for Project Write Now’s Writers Institute
. It feels great to share the accumulated knowledge, to maybe help others avoid pitfalls in the submission process, and I look forward to celebrating the future publishing successes of my students.
WOW: Sure sounds like you have plenty of exciting things in the works! You’re so motivated!
What role has journaling and/or writer’s groups played in your writing life?
Courtney: I’m trying to make journaling about my writing more of a daily practice—in fact, I journaled today to warm up for these interview questions—but writer’s groups have always been key for my writing practice. After grad school, a few of us in our cohort felt a little lost without regular workshops and craft classes. We started our own closed workshop, which we failed to name, and thus we became known (if only to ourselves) as the “No-Name Workshop.” Scattered across North America, we met online every few weeks for a few years, but slacked off last year during the upheaval of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the No-Name Workshop has recently gotten some wonderful news. One of our own, Brandon Dudley, has just won the 2020 Maine Chapbook Series, chosen by Sigrid Nunez. I’m a huge Sigrid Nunez fan, and a huge Brandon Dudley fan, so I couldn’t be more pleased for my friend and fellow writer. The workshop as a whole is pretty thrilled too, as we’re told we’ll appear in the acknowledgements.
Last year, as you know, was weird, but I did also branch out and try new forums online, to find more connection and inspiration. Encouraged by these experiences, I started a Weekly Write-In at Harler Literary LLC
. The class is open to all creatives of all skill levels. I design the prompts and lead the sessions, but I also write along with my group. It’s a beautiful, supportive space, and I am grateful for that dedicated time to write with others. I felt compelled during the pandemic to help ease the collective sense of isolation. I’m glad to say, based on the early reviews, the write-in is meeting its goals.
WOW: How exciting for your group – I hope our readers take an opportunity to check out your lovely website as well. Thank you ever so much for sharing your essay and your thoughts today – we look forward to reading more of your work! Congratulations on your many accomplishments and we hope the remainder of 2021 is as amazing as you are!
Interviewed by Crystal Otto who just keeps on keeping on!
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