By LOIS KEANEY SMITH, student in the Writing and Consciousness MFA program and intern in the CIIS Communications Department.
The more I learn about careers, the more I wonder to myself: Who do I know who is actually doing these things? Do I know anyone who is actually managing to create their own work life, or developing a portfolio career? Instantly I thought of someone—Katie McCleary.
I first met Katie when she was working as the writing coach at Susurrus, Sacramento City College’s literary journal. Katie is a graduate of the CIIS Writing and Consciousness MFA program, and the person who brought me to CIIS. I caught up with Katie to talk about her book, her new nonprofit, and her work life before and after CIIS.
What were you doing in terms of your creative writing practice/career before you got to CIIS?
Before I entered the Writing and Consciousness program, I was writing very little, helping out a local literary journal, and working 60 hours a week at a nonprofit that mentored at-risk youth. Needless to say, I was completely burnt out. I remember calling in sick to work to have entire days at home to write. I spent a lot of time daydreaming about a writing life and being in the world of books, but was failing miserably at producing one.
What tools did you learn at CIIS that have helped you to develop your career?
Well, I learned how to cultivate a writing life—everything from creating a writing practice, learning craft, and integrating myself into a community of passionate writers. The consciousness piece fit well with learning how theory can be bridged into action. I was already “in action” prior to entering the Writing and Consciousness program, but now I had theory to back up what I already knew in my gut. This may sound silly, but in a way I was able to not feel so guilty about leaving my nonprofit job to pursue a “selfish, ridiculous dream.” I felt that I had walked out on teens and parents and teachers who needed me. I was able to actualize that writing has a place in social action and movements, particularly storytelling.
How has your career path changed since CIIS?
Since CIIS, I’ve had two children—that’s taken up a lot of time. However, I’ve been able to balance a writing life with work and parenting. I’ve taught at various community colleges, edited a literary journal, published in my community, and spearheaded The Writing Table, a collective of writing teachers who offer workshops around Sacramento. My latest project, 916 Ink, has bridged my past with my education at CIIS.
What career goals do you have that you didn't before CIIS?
Well, I had dreams of writing a novel, but without CIIS I wouldn’t have actually completed one! I wrote a collection of short stories and the first draft of a novel at CIIS. Since then, my novel has been re-drafted at least 13 times. Excerpts have been published and one awarded me a fellowship at the Tomales Bay Workshops, where I personally worked with Dorothy Allison for a week. Beyond publication, I’d love to teach in an MFA low-residency program in the future—but that’s pretty far off, I think.
What teaching/writing jobs are you currently doing/have you done recently?
I am revising my literary young adult novel, "The Chandelier Forest," with agent Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency. I’ve just finished a draft of my second novel, which is about a group of orphans who inherit a zoo for injured creatures.
I am actively teaching creative writing through The Writing Table, and at UC Davis Extension. I also coach beginner writers on their manuscripts, which is rewarding.
But my biggest project is starting 916 Ink. We are dedicated to promoting literacy by empowering youth in the Sacramento region to engage in literary arts. 916 Ink seeks to excite young people with language, particularly written language; to instill in children a sense of joy, wisdom, whimsy, and wonder with words; to celebrate syntax; and to support teachers, schools, and libraries in their efforts to share the benefits of reading and writing with all area youth.
Currently, I am the executive director, and in spring our organization will be inspiring 70 students (ages 8–18) to write. Once our programming is complete we will publish their creative writing in real, beautiful books in partnership with the Sacramento Public Library.
What wisdom can you take away after your time at CIIS? Anything that directly applies to career/making a living?
My writing life didn’t really take off until I immersed myself with other writers. At CIIS I had a writing life in San Francisco, but not in my hometown of Sacramento. Once I learned to reach out to other writers and literary organizations, my career exploded. Through partnerships and collaborations, beta-reading other writers’ work, and sharing my own work any chance I got, I was able to create a pretty nice career. Albeit it’s freelance most of the time, and I never know how many students will sign up for my classes, but I’ve been able to make a decent living.
What motivates you to continue trying in a vocation that is difficult to make a living in?
Nothing spiritually and emotionally feeds me better than creating. Whether it’s creating new characters and stories, or creating partnerships and organizations…I can’t imagine going back to a typical 9–5 existence that doesn’t work with the goals I have for my life.
Define what success looks like for you.
Success is doing what you love.
What’s on the horizon?
In spring, 916 Ink launches its programming for young people. But—I’ll be living in Florence, Italy, for three months. How so? Well, 916 Ink has many backers and they are picking up the reigns while my family and I eat pasta, explore the Tuscan countryside, and witness a lot of art. I’ll, of course, be writing lots of notes for my third book.