Alumni Profile: Emily Wortman-Wunder

Portrait of Emily Wortman-Wunder

Emily Wortman-Wunder
MFA: Creative Writing/Fiction, 2003

How did your major prepare you for the job, the life you have now?

I teach writing, which I wouldn’t be doing if I hadn’t gotten the MFA. More complicatedly, I teach scientific writing, which I also wouldn’t be doing if it wasn’t for my specific CSU experience: I had a little science background when I went back to graduate school, which meant that I was the resident “expert” in all matters scientific. This led to regular work with a professor in the Horticulture department, which led to a full-time job after graduation as a writer and editor of grants, which led to a stint as the managing editor of technical publications at a professional society. This experience, combined with my teaching and writing experience from the MFA, led me to be recruited to CU Denver as a teacher of scientific writing (which I love). Teaching has also made it possible for me to write, and my writing career, on hiatus during my managing editor job, has begun to flower again.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments (both personally and professionally)? How did your experience in the English Department help you with these achievements?

I am proud of the writing work I am doing right now – I have a book of short stories coming out in the fall, and two essays forthcoming from the Kenyon Review and Creative Nonfiction this spring. These definitely would not have happened without the MFA. I’m also kind of proud of the fact that I’ve made something resembling an actual career – there was a long time there when this seemed pretty unlikely. I credit the atmosphere at the English Department for fostering the confidence that made that possible.

What did you like about the English program? Why did you choose to study here?

I chose CSU for logistical reasons (I was already living in Fort Collins), but I came to really value the size of the program. I don’t think I would have grown as much in a bigger program. I also had the luck to have a fantastic group of fellow students, who were both brilliant and supportive (and still are supportive). Likewise, the faculty was terrific and has continued to support me decades (!) later.

Do you have a favorite or funny story from your time with the English Department?

I was always inspired by Judy Doenges calling herself “the poster child for persistence” – I have definitely felt the same as I’ve been chipping my way along, year after year, writing as I’ve held down a range of full-time jobs and raised a family. But her words made the struggle seem legitimate, like there are so many more ways to be successful than the Big Break.

Was there a specific class, professor, advisor, or fellow student who made an impression on you, helped you, or inspired you when you were at CSU in the English Department? Do you still keep in contact with your classmates or professors?

Too many to count, really. John Calderazzo and Steven Schwartz were and are the professors whose teaching still inspires me, and my teaching, today, but all of my professors were good. As to my fellow students – all of them, really. There was a terrific energy in the program while I was there. Steven Church, Justin Hocking, and Sophie Beck have really been amazingly generous, particularly recently. Cathy Bendl and Oz Spies and I are still an active writing group and they’ve been incredibly supportive, as has Jill Salahub.

You recently won the 2019 Iowa Short Fiction Award for your short story collection Not a Thing to Comfort You. Can you tell us a bit more about the book? What was your writing process like for the book?

I’ve been trying to publish a version of this book for fifteen years – since just after I graduated from CSU, in fact. I’ve been adding stories to it steadily, but it seemed to really gel just in the past year, when some key stories finally came together. I’ve always had a science & nature element to my work, but there were several stories that didn’t fit that theme, which made it seem a little uneven. Then in the past few years I’ve been writing stories that bridge the gap – one is about a biologist struggling to process the death of her adult son, and another is about a suburban mom who falls in love with the local creek – these two in particular connected my stories about fraught family relationships with my stories about bears and otters and so on. With this additional work I was also able to take out a story that was strong but just didn’t fit.

Overall, this work spans twenty years. The oldest story, interestingly, I wrote for an undergraduate class I took with Leslee Becker. About half the stories I wrote during or just after my time in the MFA. The most recent story I completed just last spring.

What are you currently working on?

A novel! Also essays. I find as I get older that I am more engaged with nonfiction, both as a reader and a writer.

What would you like to tell prospective CSU English Department students?

For prospective MFA students: the more you can bring to your writing from outside, the richer the whole MFA experience will be. I was a relatively old MFA student, and I always felt that having a decade of adult experience was really valuable, both for my stories and for keeping my perspective in balance. Also: avoid student debt like the plague.

What advice do you have for current CSU English Department students?

Be persistent! It can take a while to find your groove after graduating from the program. I think that floundering is part of the process. It helps to come up with a creative discipline that is a mix of setting aside time to work, submitting to journals and residencies, and interacting with other writers.

What are your hobbies or special interests, what do you enjoy doing with your free time?

Driving kids to sporting events! Just kidding. That is the biggest use of my free time, though. I try to get out camping and hiking as much as I can.

The one other thing I think is important to share: there was an unspoken assumption when I was in the MFA program that students were being prepared for earning a living as professors. I hope that this is no longer true, and that there have been serious efforts to discuss the non-tenure-track life and how to combine that with an active creative practice. I think it is worth emphasizing that many of the most exciting things happening in the literary world today, from events like the Morning News’ Tournament of Books, to publications like the late lamented The Toast, to a million and one things I am not even aware of, are happening totally outside of the university. Publishing a book and going the tenure-track professor route is one path to creative success, and can be a rewarding and supportive one. But many, many people are doing interesting and important work outside of that path.