PEN In The Classroom Community Interview with Danielle Moody

Since the spring of 2011, Danielle Moody has taught four PEN In The Classroom (PITC) creative writing residencies. This coming fall, she will teach another residency at John Marshall High School in Los Feliz. In addition to her exceptional work with PITC, Danielle is a dedicated supporter of PEN Center USA—if you have attended a PEN event in recent years, you’ve likely crossed paths with Danielle. She is a huge asset to our organization and a dear friend, which is why we’ve interviewed her here. Read on to learn about Danielle’s most successful writing exercises and her own path to writing, despite an early lack of mentors.

What led you to PEN In The Classroom?
I’ve known for many years about PEN Center USA and the important work the organization does in support of writers around the world. After I became a member, I learned about the PEN In The Classroom program and I knew I wanted to be part of this effort to build and strengthen literary culture in an educational capacity.

What motivates you to teach creative writing to high school students?
I never imagined that I would enjoy teaching of any kind, let alone teaching writing to high school students. Then, I designed and led a creative writing residency for high-school aged incarcerated youth as a field study in partial fulfillment of the requirements for an MFA in Creative Writing. Despite the considerable personal challenges those young men were facing—and the many ways in which they’d been hurt and disappointed by life—they demonstrated a generosity of spirit in their writing that took my breath away. The experience showed me that teachers could learn as much from students as the students can from the teacher.

Did you have any creative writing mentors when you were in high school?
No. In fact, I don’t remember being encouraged to write, though I read voraciously and wrote scads of letters (before the internet) to friends and family. I thought the only way to make a living as a writer was to become a reporter or a best-selling novelist. It wasn’t until I had graduated college and began working in a corporate environment that I saw other possibilities and met my first mentors. The most influential of these, Cecilia Woloch, was such a gifted poet and teacher. She had taught with the California Poets in the Schools program and I credit her with making me the teacher I am today.

What is your most successful writing exercise?
One of my favorite writing exercises is based on a section of Walt Whitman’s "Song of Myself" in which the poet imagines all kinds of people and what each is doing at a particular moment in time. It is so rich in detail and images and never fails to inspire students to describe their own journeys into the real world and the world of their imaginations. What a delight to experience the world through their eyes!

What is your favorite memory from a PITC workshop?
My favorite memory of my work with PITC is the success of the final reading by students from John Marshall High School. It was a well-attended reading at the Silver Lake library with excellent student participation. However, I feel this question has more to do with a teaching memory and here is a favorite: I once asked students in a poetry workshop (at Animo Locke 1) to read Ruth Forman’s “poetry should ride the bus” out loud, with each student reading one line. One girl read her line so softly I could barely hear her, so I asked her to read it again louder. When it was still inaudible, I asked her to say it a third time. Frustrated, she read it louder and with a bit of exasperated sarcasm, to which I responded, “Excellent use of attitude!” She smiled and I never had to ask her to speak up again.

Can you describe your personal writing process?
I always start with a goal in mind, but the process I use to get there is one of meandering, rather than taking a direct approach. Sometimes I literally meander by taking a long walk or bicycle ride, which frees my mind and helps me not to anticipate too much where I’m going with a piece of writing. I use structured writing exercises (sometimes the very same ones I use with students) to guide this meandering. Sometimes I will draft work on the computer, but often I like to begin drafting a poem or essay with pen and paper. I do keep a lot of handwritten journals, but no one can accuse me of being a Luddite, because I’ve started a series of online blogs, too.

Who are some of your favorite authors?
Langston Hughes and Sharon Olds for poetry; William Gass, Tim O’Brien, Zora Neale Hurston, and Laszlo Krasznahorkai for prose.

If you could offer one piece of advice to young writers today, what would it be?
Spend some time each day writing and don’t worry if nothing at all comes out at first, because the imagination works slowly and quietly; but if you are devoting time to it each day, when your imagination is ready to speak, you will be in a position to listen to it.