Trevor Lisa MFA Fiction ’22 Wins 2019 Writer’s Studio Student Prize and Shares his Experiences at Columbia
Trevor Lisa MFA Fiction ’22 always knew he wanted to be a writer. It started in second grade when Lisa wrote a comic book, much to the dismay of the nuns at his Catholic school. In high school, Lisa took the initiative and sought out teachers to find out what he would need to do to become a novelist. After attending the University of Georgia with a B.A. in English, Lisa wasn’t sure if he was ready to go to school for his MFA, until he took a class at the Writer’s Studio, which was taught by Associate Professor Alexis Pride. After that experience, Lisa knew he was ready to pursue his MFA in Fiction.
Here, Lisa shares his insights on his background and Columbia’s Fiction MFA program:
I’d like to characterize you in this story, can you give me background on you, your story and what drove you to this point in your life? When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
When I was in second grade, I wrote a comic book called Robot Guy on white legal paper. It was a flagrant rip-off of Captain Underpants, which was pretty much the only thing I had willingly read at that point in my life. My parents drove me to our local print-and-copy store and helped me make a dozen or so black-and-white copies, and I brought these to school with me the next day to sell on the playground of my catholic elementary school during recess. One of the nuns caught me and dragged me by the earlobe to the front office; I tried to tell her that my parents were okay with it, but she didn’t listen; she told me that what I was doing was reprehensible and selfish and made me give her all of the money I had earned and gave me a half weeks’ worth of lunch detention. I like to think of this as the beginning of my being a writer.
I didn’t grow up in an especially literary household. We were a family of bonafide jocks. But both of my parents are exceptional storytellers, and I think this left an impression on me. I remember growing up and being enamored by the way that my dad was able to hold court over our holiday dinners, with all of us gathered around him, listening to him spin these vibrant yarns. They were usually silly and kind of inconsequential (“anybody remember when Tommy fired a roman candle at grandma!?”), but my dad is a really spirited speaker, and he was able to give these things a gravity that transcended the actual event he was describing. Writers are storytellers, above all things, and I guess my upbringing gave me models to emulate.
When you put my siblings and I in a room together now, I’m possibly the least talented in this regard. My brother Collin has a way with words that I can only describe as lethally accurate; and if someone ever gave him a pen, he’d probably be a way better writer than me. Luckily, he coaches college football instead.
Learning about literature and art was definitely a solo journey for me. Since it wasn't something native to my home life, I had to find it elsewhere. I sought out my teachers as confidants, especially in high school. I’d go into their classes before school, or during lunch, and tell them with a lot of confidence but very little finesse that I wanted to be a novelist. I was lucky enough to have them take me seriously. They loaned me books and let me eat lunch with them and took me jogging on the cross country trail behind the school, where they told me things like, “if you’re serious, you’re going to have to read Ulysses! Even if it kills you!” They made me feel exceptional for just wanting to be something, which is maybe the most important kind of support a budding writer can get.
I had an AP Government teacher my junior year of high school who gave me an old Best American Essays anthology as a present after I finished his class. The content of the essays went way over my head, but I remember laying on my bed having this quiet epiphany one summer night, being moved by these electrifying voices, writing urgent things in language that was sexy and profound. This probably sounds like hyperbole, but I don’t think I could have done anything else after that.
How did it feel to be the winner of the 2019 Writer’s Studio Student Prize? Can you tell me a little bit about your submission?
I submitted a personal essay about a traumatic period of my family life in my early teens, so winning the prize was kind of like slaying a dragon. I worked on the piece with Alexis Pride in a Writer’s Studio workshop I was taking at the time, before Columbia. Other than publication in a couple of college literary magazines, I had never been recognized for my writing. It was a huge leap for me.
I gave a reading at the Book Cellar last winter as part of winning the prize. It was right at the end of the school semester, so it was the perfect send-off for the holiday. Megan Stielstra, a Columbia alumni, said some of the nicest and most incisive things about my writing in her introduction that anyone has ever said to me, and I was very deeply humbled by it. Afterward, her and I talked over the free cookies that they’d laid out for the event; she had even more kind words, and suggestions, and some thoughts that had nothing to do with writing at all. She made me feel full and welcome.
How did you get involved with the Writer’s Studio?
I was a few years out of college and working a corporate video writing job at an insurance company. I was looking for a way back into the classroom, toying with the idea of getting an MFA, but not ready to commit. I found the Graham School’s Writer’s Studio kind of incidentally on the internet. Their whole mission is that they offer liberal arts classes for working professionals, which is what I was, more or less, so I jumped on it. I found a couple of one-off writing classes that I convinced my job to pay for as “professional development.” After those, I took a legitimate four-week workshop, which was taught by Columbia's own Alexis Pride. It was sort of like taking Columbia for a test drive. The positive experience locked me in, let me know I was ready for an MFA.
Since then, I’ve gone to a few readings, and did a four-hour “write-in” one very cold winter morning just before the pandemic, where they set up tables and food for us in a library-silent yoga studio, encouraging us to write freely the whole time.
Places like the Writers Studio are beyond important. We need more community writing centers, more continuing ed for liberal arts.
Have you been awarded any other scholarships or awards for your writing?
I was the runner-up in Hypertext Magazine’s 2020 short story contest, for a piece titled “Tallahassee.” Otherwise, I wrote a poetry zine that I’ve been peddling around different zine fests in the midwest, called Make The Purest Products Of America Go Crazy Again. I haven’t won any awards for it, but I’m proud of how I managed to discreetly print and bind 150 copies at my old office job without getting reprimanded.
I saw that you’re a Writing and Rhetoric Instructor as well as an MFA student. How do you like teaching? What is one takeaway you want your students to leave your class with?
On the first day of class, I give all of my students a piece of paper and ask them to draw a picture explaining why they were taking my class. Last semester, one student put it really aptly: she drew a picture of herself shrugging, with a word bubble saying “...because it’s a requirement...?”
I think it’s important to remember that at a school like Columbia, a class like Writing and Rhetoric is probably taking the students away from their music, or their art, or their fashion design, or whatever it is that they came to school to study. For this reason, I encourage my students to work inside of their discipline as much as the class allows for it. In almost all of the assignments I give my students, I offer them a “hybrid” option; where, for example, instead of writing a paper, they can draw a picture, or record a song, or make a film, and give me a short write-up explaining what the piece is arguing and how it accomplishes its aims in a way that a paper couldn’t. My best students are usually the ones who run with the hybrid option and see this as an opportunity to add something unexpected to their portfolio.
The cool thing about Writing and Rhetoric is that the topics are so universal that you can assign pretty much any sort of text and find ways to relate a core subject to it. I like to assign episodes of Hasan Minhaj’s show Patriot Act because the way he engages with his audience through humor puts a lot of our concepts into play. Stuff like that keeps the students excited for class.
I run my classes mostly as an open forum. Guiding an effective discussion is a bit like walking a dog--you have to know when to pull the leash back a bit, when to let them run with a point, and when it’s time to move on. I usually sit down in a chair with them, because I want them to know that our learning is a shared effort.
I try to emphasize the not-so-fun, “real world” stuff, too--last semester, we took a field trip to the career center and sat through a presentation with a career counselor. Of course, I think you have to be careful with that sort of thing, because you don’t want to put it in your student’s head that they’re only worth their job; but I think there’s something to be said about knowing how to present yourself for the kinds of jobs you’re looking for after graduating, and where to look for them. Columbia has a lot of great resources, and a lot of successful alumni. I really loathe the term “network” to describe a group of interconnected people, but I think Columbia has an eager and supportive community that wants to see the students do cool things with their lives. I try to show my students that.
How has your time at Columbia College help you become a better writer?
I think any institution in this country that harbors writers ought to recognize itself as a place of refuge. The poet Mary Oliver said that “the most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work[...] and gave to it neither power nor time.” In our culture, there are a lot of insidious and predatory things designed to rob a person--writer or otherwise--of both their power and their time. Columbia is the protection from the storm; it gives me the space to think and to live freely.
I think writers live and die by their community, and Columbia offers something really special. My professors are generous readers and their connection to the city’s writerly ecosystem gives me an avenue for sharing my work publicly, whether that’s at readings or through indie publishing. I’m also lucky to be studying with some truly amazing people. In an MFA program, you run the risk of people getting competitive and trying to out-write each other; but my fiction cohort couldn’t be more supportive of each other’s work. It’s like we’re all each other’s biggest fans.
Read Lisa’s short story “Tallahassee” here, from Hypertext Magazine.
Would you advise a prospective student to attend Columbia College, and if so, why?
I can only speak confidently about the writing program. Columbia is a special place for fiction writers. A lot of the fiction faculty are trained in an experimental(-ish?) teaching style called “story workshop” which is designed to strip down the craft and bring writers together naturally as storytellers. In our workshops, we usually sit around in a semicircle and read our work aloud to each other. It’s a bit like sitting around a campfire with your friends, telling stories in the dark. It’s a really wonderful way of encountering people and apprehending their work.
Columbia is committed to diversity, too. It’s the kind of place where everyone is welcome, and every type of story is taken seriously. Most other MFA programs make a distinction between serious, so-called “literary fiction,” and “genre fiction,” which includes things like science fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc. I hear from my friends in other graduate writing programs that if you work in a “genre,” the professors usually don’t know what to do with you. The tacit assumption in a lot of parts of the literary establishment is that “genre fiction” is a commercial enterprise, like writing blockbusters or soap operas.
Columbia isn’t like that, though. In my fiction cohort, we have people writing all kinds of things--Ancient American high fantasy, swashbuckling pirate stories, reimaginings of Greek mythology, Queer mobster romances, Afrofuturism, surrealism, humorism, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t think I could rightly give a name. The fiction faculty trusts us to tell our stories in the way that occurs naturally to us, and they meet our work on its own terms without imposing rules or structures overtop it.
What advice do you have for other graduate students, for undergraduate students?
Be open and vulnerable with people. Make friends in your program. Buy them coffee and candy and call them regularly. Go gossip jogging with them, weather and public health crises permitting.
Act boldly into your interests. At a semantic level, never sterilize your identity--don’t refer to your writing as “content.” If a pastry chef referred to themselves as a “Calorie Creator,” their work would probably end up in a dumpster. Pastries and literature are wonderful and important things, and they deserve proper names and that aren’t banal or confusing.
You’re a writer and an artist. And you need to identify yourself as such (if only in your own head), because there is almost nothing in our culture encouraging you and your fellow writers to do what you do. There’s no entrance criteria, either. Even if you’ve published nothing and work a borderline telemarketing job to support yourself (like yours truly not so long ago), you need to call yourself a writer if you’re serious about your craft.
I think one of the dangers with the way that the bookish world has had to retreat into the academy is that it can give us this idea that when we’re in school, what we’re working on is school work. It isn’t. If you think of yourself as only a student, and you think about your craft as a matter of turning in assignments, you run the risk of burning out once you have no more assignments to turn in.
Your professors are writers and you’re a writer, too. Work your ass off for them and be proud to be in their company.
Is there anything else you’d like for us to include?
I’m currently writing an epistolary novel loosely based on two real (but unrelated) events: the 2014 shutdown of the UAB football program, and the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation and shutdown of a multi-level marketing company called Vemma. I’m reimagining them as the same event.
Outside of Columbia, I’m part of a spoken word/keyboard collaboration. We call ourselves “TRiO.” What’s TRiO? It’s two guys and an uncooperative cleaning lady. But we're more than that. TRiO is Ginsberg's rendition of your power bill. TRiO is a soundtrack for a movie never made. But we're more than that. TRiO is Trevor Lisa/spoken word and Michael Glascott/keyboards. Listen to TRiO here on soundcloud.
Lisa's illustration was created by Mike Petrik (Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mikepetrik/?hl=en)