Meg Files: PCC instructor creates safe place to take writing risks

2012-09-02T00:00:00Z 2012-09-02T08:21:01Z Meg Files: PCC instructor creates safe place to take writing risksJane See White Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 02, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Try this experiment: Go to the "Arizona Authors" section of the bookstore. Pick up a few novels and short story collections, a volume of poetry or two, and flip to the "Acknowledgements" page in each.

You'll begin to notice one name that pops up over and over again.

Meg Files.

What's up with that? More than you'd ever guess, unless you happen to be among Tucson's aspiring writers. If you are, you've heard the name often, usually in a sentence that begins "Meg says …"

Files, a wisp of a woman who's been teaching creative writing at Pima Community College since 1987, has been quietly, gently, deliberately cooking up an enormous stew of creativity for 25 years.

"I've got a lot simmering," she says, laughing.

Files began in 1988 by launching the Pima Writer's Workshop, luring three authors and enrolling 40 attendees for a weekend of seminars and discussions that first year. Since then, the annual event - which still is mounted singlehandedly by Files - has grown to a four-day feast that draws scores of writers, agents and authors.

Files also won Pima's support to add more writing classes to its curriculum - partly because workshop participants were asking for them. And she was cooking.

Files teaches two advanced writing classes: a short-story class and "special projects in fiction," which draws aspiring novelists and a few memoirists. Many students - they range in age from 17 to 80 - take one or the other class over and over again. (See related items, right)

The poet Gina Franco, says her life was "transformed" by Files, who plucked her from a pharmacy tech program at Pima, helped her gain admission to Smith College and cheered her as Franco went on to earn a master's degree and a doctorate in language and literature at Cornell University.

"Meg grew Pima's program from the ground up," says Franco, who teaches at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. "She had help, but … she developed more advanced courses in fiction and if it didn't work, she changed it. These are home-grown courses designed for students who are writing in earnest. It's a community, and she's grown that community through the classroom, but also through the writing conference, which she's done single handedly."

The advanced classes are small, "like graduate seminars," Files says, and students must audition to be admitted by submitting writing samples.

Her students read and discuss stories and novels, but Files' larger focus is on workshopping their original writing. Students must submit a story or a chapter three times during each term; and every week they critique work by their classmates.

"I have a high standard of critiquing so that writers are supported, but never trashed," Files says. She wants to create "a safe place to take risks … with voice, technique, the material they're writing about."

To that end, each class gets a handout that spells out "Meg's rules," which lay out the boundaries for criticizing and analyzing the work of others.

"It's possible to be critically rigorous but supportive at the same time," Files says. "I try to establish an atmosphere of success. The writers take each other seriously."

Files' goals for her writing students are complex. It's not just about publishing, though, yes, she does try to help them be published - and scores have succeeded, either with books or in collections of stories or poetry, or in literary magazines.

But "whether they go on to publish or not, I think their lives are richer for the writing," Files says.

Franco believes Pima's respectful, supportive culture is Files' greatest legacy.

"I've been in a lot of writing communities and a lot of them are cutthroat, competitive, self-interested … wrapped up in publishing and job making and selling and marketing the book," Franco says.

"But if you go to a poetry reading at Pima, you will sometimes hear people gasp. It's so generous. That doesn't happen in other places.

"It would be a shame to measure her achievement only by published writers, because what Meg has done is build a a community. It's a a kind and generous community of peers, a community of people who admire each other - and they love poems, they love fiction and they love writing - which is why people go back again and again."

Nancy E. Turner

Author of five novels, including the best-selling "These Is My Words."

"When I took classes from Meg, the work was 100 percent about critiquing each others' writing. Learning to read critically is the best instruction for writing clear, moving prose. … No writing was to be ridiculed or brushed aside with 'this doesn't work for me' comments.

"In addition, her constant encouragement (she calls it nagging) to send out work to magazines, publishers and literary agents, instills in students the idea that anyone can succeed, that writing is not a winner-take-all sport for some elite few."

Naomi Benaron

Author of a short-story collection, "Love Letters from a Fat Man," and a novel, "Running the Rift," which won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Fiction. She took Files' classes four times before moving on to earn an MFA.

"I think Meg's most important lesson to me was her challenge to take risks in writing. I heard that over and over in her classes, and now I say the same thing to my students. She is quiet, gentle and supportive, but she has a way of turning perspective on its head.

"She forced me to look at both life and writing from a fresh perspective, and this, I think, led me to a more edgy, unique voice. When I write, Meg is often in the room with me. When I am stuck, I go back to her words."

Marge Pellegrino

Pellegrino's "Journey of Dreams" won the 2010 Judy Goddard Award for young adult literature.

"In 2009, Meg spearheaded the effort to finish a book for a dying writer, Lynne Weinberg. … She galvanized a group of writers who worked together to make Lynne's book happen in a way that first and foremost honored the writing. It wasn't a pity book - it was helping a colleague complete her life's work.

"I know that Journey of Dreams wouldn't be the book it is had I not workshopped the manuscript in her class."

Gina Franco

Author of the poetry collection "The Keepsake Storm."

"Meg transformed my life. When I met Meg, I don't think I even had my GED yet. I had decided to get a pharmacy tech degree at Pima - something practical because I needed a job.

"I took a poetry class and chickened out - I dropped it. I didn't understand it, and I was very afraid. When I told Meg … she asked me to show her some poems. She came back with a letter that said I should probably consider being a poet, that I might be a contender in the writing world, but I needed to get an education."

(Files and others at Pima helped Franco win a scholarship to Smith College; she has a master's and doctorate from Cornell University, is a published poet and teaches at Knox College.)

Andy Hogan

Retired, Hogan may hold the record for enrolling most often in Files' writing classes.

"I began taking Meg's class in the fall of 2004. … I have attended every fall and spring semester since then, as well as the Pima Writer's Workshops beginning in May 2005.

"As a former academic, I had published a number of scholarly articles in my field with plenty of rejections along the way. … For every Naomi Benaron, there are a dozen students like me with very modest literary accomplishments. …

"What Meg's classes and the Writer's Workshop contribute to the Tucson literary scene is a critical mass of people who are serious about writing fiction."

Meg Files' Books

Among the published books by Meg Files are:

"The Third Law of Motion," a novel.

"Meridian 144," a novel.

"Home is the Hunter," stories.

"Galapagos Triptych," poems.

"The Love Hunter and Other Poems."

"Write From Life: Turning Your Personal Experiences into Compelling Stories."

Other alums

This is just a sampling of other published Tucson writers who've studied in Meg File's Pima Community College classes:

Linda Brewer

Shannon Cain

Mel Carlson

Matt Dinniman

Laura Fitzgerald

Estella Gonzalez

Gwen Harvey

Cheryl Kidder

Katherine Larson

Ellen Mering

Jane See White is an editor at the Star. She has taken Meg Files' advanced writing classes three times. So far.

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