By Kelly Davis
Photo by Doug Kiklowicz
Name: Emily Vizzo
Courses: Memoir Writing I; Finding Our Voices, Telling Our Stories; Writers Workshop Read & Critique; Literatures of Immigration; Writing Narrative Non-Fiction; Digital Journalism
When Emily Vizzo selects pieces for her students to read, she makes sure to include work by living authors, hoping students who are moved by their work will reach out to thank them. Afterall, it was one of San Diego’s greatest living poets, Rae Armantrout — a 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for her poetry collection. Versed — who inspired Vizzo’s decision to be a writer. Since then, Vizzo’s work has been published in numerous notable publications the North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Best American Essays and Field. She’s back at her alma mater, teaching courses in writing, journalism and literature — and poised to follow in Armantrout’s shoes — Vizzo’s chapbook, Giantess, was recently selected by YesYes Books for publication as part of its Vinyl 45 Chapbook series.
How did you get started as a writer?
Although I’ve always loved to write, I never really took up a regular “creative” writing practice until I enrolled in a poetry course with Rae Armantrout during my last quarter as an undergraduate at UC San Diego. I was studying political science because I wanted to cover government in Washington, D.C., as a newspaper reporter. But when I began to read the poems she assigned, and spend time with my own poems every week, and read the poems my classmates shared during workshop, I started to feel alive in a way I had never experienced before. I had always thought of writing as more of a hobby, but I began to see that it was a way of being in the world and getting to know who I am as a person, trying to understand my life. That was an awakening of sorts.
What do enjoy most about your profession?
Being a teacher and a writer feels like a gift every day, even on challenging days. I work with students from so many different kinds of backgrounds. Many of my younger students — my high school students — are returning to their formal educations after a year or more outside the traditional school system. These young adults may have been in the juvenile system, or in recovery programs, or working, or competing in athletics, or traveling the world with their families. Some of them have partners in the military, and some are young parents.
My UC San Diego Extension students have often established themselves in careers — caretakers, bankers, bartenders, physicists, nurses, psychologists, visual artists, for example — but they’ve arrived at a point in their lives where they want to dedicate time to writing. Many are reluctant to call themselves writers and artists. It’s a real pleasure to watch that perspective shift as they begin to kick away imposter syndrome and put their arms around their creative selves.
I’ve also noticed that many people sign up for a creative writing class when they’re going through a change in their lives — or have recently done so. Having kids go off to college, quitting a job, getting divorced or losing a parent — these types of events seem to trigger a desire for interior exploration, for creative expression. Some students have recently arrived from other countries. Meeting people during these times in their lives can be challenging, but also an opportunity for real, raw, and intimate connection.
That may sound touchy-feely, but the intellectual rigor of the discussions is equally impressive. I’ve read plenty of posts where I’ve encouraged the writer to consider polishing it up for publication in an academic or literary journal. Big, beautiful thinking; precision and specificity; humanity and compassion. I see this all the time. It’s a joy, an adventure, and a privilege to work with my students.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to become a published author or poet?
Publishing your work takes a pretty decent level of organization. You send your work out so many times, and to so many places, and quite often the answer is “no.” Having lists or spreadsheets to track this kind of thing can feel business-like and professional, which is a good thing. It’s not only useful from a practical point of view, but it creates a helpful level of removal from the more artistic, creative process. That can make the “no” a little easier.
Also, I suggest reading as many journals as possible. Try subscribing to a different literary journal every year, for example, or check out a different literary journal online every month, or every week, or every day — whatever makes sense for you. When you read, you get a sense of what’s out there, and the kinds of things that are being published. You’ll probably feel inspired to write more, too!
Tell us about your Extension courses. What are some highlights of the classes?
I’m teaching primarily online right now, about one course each quarter. Each class combines readings, which I carefully select to include not only writers whose work I love, but writers who are alive and active in the literary community. I do this because I encourage my students to reach out to them when they’re moved by what they read, and to thank these authors for their work. I’ve been thrilled for my students when these authors respond. And because I’ve occasionally received such notes from people who have read my work, I know how wonderful it feels to know that someone connected with something I wrote.
Each class also has a discussion component, where students post their thoughts about what they’ve read and respond to colleagues. It’s an opportunity to engage with the text and with one another. And each week there is a writing assignment. The topic and focus depends on the class, but generally speaking, it’s an opportunity for students to develop a short creative piece and then receive feedback from me (and in classes with workshops, feedback from other students.)
For me, the highlight is always the community that evolves as we get to know one another. I love jumping into the discussion board and seeing the energetic, lively and often moving conversations taking place among my students. I always remind my students that we’re teaching each other, and I love to see various writers probing more deeply, praising one another’s thinking and writing, or pushing back against what they read.
I get a little emotional just thinking about it! Our communities are so special and supportive. I’ve heard from students many times that they were not expecting the incredible creative support system they encounter in class. It’s not uncommon for my students to decide to remain in touch after the quarter ends.
What do you like most about teaching for Extension?
Something I love about teaching for Extension is that our classes attract students from so many different paths in life. I’ve had classes that intermingle high school students with retired individuals, writers from different languages and cultural backgrounds and with all sorts of different professional backgrounds.
My students share so generously of themselves — what they’ve learned in life so far, the big questions they’re asking about their lives, their hopes and fears. I feel deep gratitude for the opportunity to work among these writers, and to teach through the same university I attended as an undergraduate. The communities I’ve been part of in each class have provided both “solace and wonder” — a Matthew Zapruder quote I love. What a gift to be here!
Learn more about our Creative Writing program and courses online, or contact the department at firstname.lastname@example.org or (858) 534-5760.