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Jill McCorkle: How I Write

"There’s no better teacher than reading and reading and reading. Find a story you love, take it apart, reassemble, and look at the way it’s put together."

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Jill McCorkle
Photo: Tom Rankin

Jill McCorkle has spent over 30 years teaching the craft of writing. Her work has taken her to some of the finest institutions of learning. She’s taught at Harvard, Brandeis, and Tufts, among others. After spending many years in the Boston area, she returned to her home state of North Carolina and taught at North Carolina State University until last year. McCorkle now teaches in Bennington College’s low-residency MFA program, which she was part of when it first started. “I love it, and I get a little bit of New England, which is nice,” she says of the Vermont-based program.

She finds that teaching has been essential to her as a writer. “I think a classroom or workshop of interested students keeps you on your toes,” she says. “The ongoing discussion about craft and­ technique is invaluable.”

An author of six novels and four short story collections, she’s currently at work on a new novel, which will include some familiar characters from her last book, Life After Life.



I really do like to get characters in a scene where that dialogue is happening naturally, the same way you would imagine a conversation between two people you know very well. Then I like to read it aloud because you can hear what’s unnecessary. You want dialogue to be doing more than one thing. You might want it be entertaining but also showing something about that character or revealing something about the plot.

With revision, I’m looking for ways to pare it down, to make it sharper or cleaner – but to have it seem like two people are just talking. I want it to seem organic.



Short story or novel?

My pattern from the beginning was to have the idea and see where it went. I had a lot of stories that never became stories but I used the character later in a novel and it took off. It’s an ongoing process. I have an idea, but until I get in there and work, I never know for sure.



What I’m most informed by as a writer is my childhood. There are so many touchstones that I go back to again and again that inspire me. I spent the first 28 years of my life in the south. I have all those memories of summer, humidity, and the desire for the snow that never came. The food, the foliage, and of course, the language. I think those earliest experiences are what shape us. I always encourage my students to look back on those early emotions of grief, joy, or excitement, and translate it to whatever your characters are experiencing.



Teaching versus natural talent

There is a lot that can be taught, structurally. There’s no better teacher than reading and reading and reading. Find a story you love, take it apart, reassemble, and look at the way it’s put together. You study the nuts and bolts. But it’s like any other artistic pursuit. You can learn the basics and rules, but when it’s time to swing the bat, you’re all by yourself. Something else has to kick in, too.  I’ve seen many students sprout wings and fly in a third or fourth workshop when you couldn’t imagine that happening.



It varies. After my daughter was born, I became totally fragmented, and I’ve been fragmented ever since. But I’m a compulsive note taker, and I store them up for those blocks of time where I can spread them all out. It’s almost like dealing cards. I’m taking notes every day.


I have my quiet time first thing in the morning and at the end of the day, and I look over my notes.



Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.





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Originally Published