Katherine Van Dis: Writer, Author of Palmetto Blog, Co-Founder of Art Party
Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity.
Katherine Van Dis is the author of Palmetto Blog, a site-specific collection of flash fiction and original photography set in Durham, North Carolina. Katherine’s short fiction has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly and The Los Angeles Review, and she just completed her first novel. Katherine holds a BA from the University of Michigan and a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of North Carolina. She taught English and creative writing for ten years at Durham School of the Arts, where she served as advisor to the school’s literary magazine and annual Poetry Out Loud competition. When she quit teaching to freelance, she became a coworking enthusiast and fell in love with The Mothership, where she co-founded Art Party with Julia Green and Megan Bowser. When she’s not writing, she’s likely spending time with her two boys (ages 5 and almost 9), taking long walks in the North Carolina heat while dreaming of Michigan, or burrowing under her covers with a novel and a flashlight to hide from the news.
How did you come to writing and what function does it serve in your life?
I sometimes joke that I know I’m a fiction writer because when I go back and read old journals, I realize I was making most of it up (laughs). I’ve always leaned towards imaginary spaces and filling in the blanks of real life.
It sounds a little cliché to say I’ve always been writing... but I have been, ever since I was pretty young. I wrote stories in middle school, I wrote a lot of bad poetry in highschool. And I don’t think I had a lot of confidence around it, but it was always a part of me. I always journaled.
Then I went to University of Michigan for undergrad and was accepted into their undergraduate creative writing program, which is sort of like preparation for an MFA. It was actually a really destructive experience for me in a lot of ways. It felt very male-centric, sort of a boy’s club. There was definitely support, so I had some good experiences, but mostly the workshop environment at that age was crushing.
At the end of the program I won a Hopwood Award but only told a few people that I’d won it. I thought winning the award was a fluke and I wasn’t able to honor it. I couldn’t see the value yet in the stories I was telling. I didn’t trust myself. So I think the program wasn’t a good fit for what I needed at the time. Some of that was the nature of the program, and some of it was about my own self confidence.
I didn’t write seriously for many years after. Then I had kids, and for whatever reason that opened up the floodgates for me. When my oldest child was a baby I wrote the first complete short story I’d written since college. Of course, kids are also a barrier to writing. So that’s the challenge I face these days.
What does living a creative life mean to you?
To me it means owning my role as a creative person. For many years I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a writer. It felt ridiculous. I felt like in order to introduce myself as a writer I had to have an MFA or a certain number of publications or something with my name on it. And with the exception of a few published stories, I didn’t have that. Once I started writing again after I had kids, I met a dear friend who would always introduce me at parties as a writer. And at first I’d be like, stop it! But the more I heard myself say it out loud, the more permission I was giving myself to own it. I am a writer. Writers are people who write. It helps that I now work as a copywriter, so I'm a writer in a professional sense as well. But when I say, "I'm a writer," it's really my creative work I'm speaking about.
To me, living a creative life means owning the fact that I am a creative person and then honoring that by making space for writing, even when it’s really challenging, even when it means having less of other things I want, like friends or more money or time to chill out and do nothing. Writing has to matter more, because it fuels a part of me that fuels everything else. It centers me.
What are some creative challenges you’ve come across during your artistic journey and how have you moved through them – or have you?
One of the biggest challenges has been time. When I taught high school I did a unit on poetic meter and form – villanelles, sonnets, all that fun stuff. But the kids never wanted to write in poetic form because it has so many rules. So I would share with them the Robert Frost quote where he says that writing in free-verse is like playing tennis without a net. Constraint can spur creativity, both in form and in our day-to-day lives. Having two kids and a full-time job has created an urgency to write in my life. I try not to fixate on the time I don’t have because then I get panicked.
But I think another creative challenge has been working with form and playing with voice. I’m a transplant to the South. My roots are in Michigan, and for a long time, everything I wrote took place there. My influences were – and still are, largely – Midwestern voices and Midwestern authors. Southern writers always seemed mysterious to me, to the point of being inaccessible. But I’ve lived in the South for twenty years, and those voices make more sense to me now. So I’ve come to take on voices that are rooted here as well. All the stories in Palmetto Blog are set in the South, primarily in Durham. That was a big creative shift.
I also recently finished a novel I’d been working on for more than four years. Finishing a book was a tremendous creative challenge, but a welcome one. I always thought that short stories were my form, and now I know that isn’t exclusively true. I loved working with that longer form – carrying characters through to the end was so satisfying.
What do you think the role of the artist is within their community?
Part of the reason I started Palmetto Blog speaks to that. I wanted to reach out to other artists and connect through my work. I think part of the reason the undergraduate writing program was such a negative experience for me is because there was a focus on competition instead of collaboration. I think there’s a place for ego in writing in terms of believing in yourself, but it can so easily go beyond that with writers. I think it’s important to think of other artists and writers as allies, not as people to compete with.
Palmetto Blog is a public project, and since it began I have felt inspired to find out who else is writing and creating art in the community, which is why I started the Mothership’s Art Party with Julia Green and Megan Bowser. There’s something so powerful about being in a room with other artists to celebrate each other and listen to each other. It’s really important to me to be an audience as well as a voice. The Mothership has been a really important venue for that, and for Durham in general. Durham is changing and losing some of the arts focus that has made it such a unique and inspiring place to live, so I think contributing now is more important than ever.
How do you think we can get this country in particular and the world in general to value art and creativity more highly and what do you think it would look like if we did?
It’s important to me that my kids know I’m a writer. That matters to me. Teaching kids to value art at a young age is important – not even being an artist, but just appreciating the arts. If you’re an artist, engaging kids and talking to them about what you do is so important.
America has become so individualistic and divided. Everything feels like it’s going in the wrong direction. But we can’t let that scare us away. Creating art is an act of resistance. You don’t have to write about the political climate or reference it in what you’re doing – you’re resisting just by creating. We talk about this a lot in Art Party, about the value of bringing people together to create a dialogue around art. It engages people in something positive in the midst of so much negativity in the world.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be more creative?
Create community around your work as much as you can and don’t be afraid to send your voice out into the world. There are always people that are going to seem better or worse to you in their work, but it’s not about that – it’s about getting out there with all the others. Try to trust your own voice.
And if you feel stuck, give some structure to your work in the form of a project with some specific parameters – whether its writing one sonnet a day for ten days or recording a certain part of your day, every day. This is what Palmetto Blog has been for me, a container for my work, one that pushes me and creates some elbow room for me to create. And truthfully, you probably have more time than you think you do! Once you get started on a project, the work creates its own momentum. Just get started.
This interview has been edited and condensed.