Faculty Interview: Aaron Hamburger on Writing and Teaching

It’s always fun to sit down and chat with the Stonecoast MFA faculty. So, we were especially excited to have  alumna Linda K. Sienkiewicz S’09 interview fiction faculty member Aaron Hamburger. Not only is Aaron a terrific guy, but he’s a fantastic teacher and writer. We hope you enjoy the interview!

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When and how did you realize you were meant to write?

Aaron: When I was 12 and my English teacher asked us to enter a short story contest. I wrote a story, loved it, but forgot to bring it to school on the day it was due, and so I lost the contest. I decided I wanted to show that teacher I deserved to win. So that’s how I got started, and I just never stopped.

What excites you about teaching?

Aaron: Sharing my love of writing and literature, but also sharing my love of learning and teaching in general. I think whatever subject you’re teaching, you’re actually teaching critical thinking skills that apply in so many areas in life.

You’re big on craft, precision, word choice, grammar–where does that exactitude come from?

Aaron: From my training in my MFA program. Specifically, I had two wonderful classes with a professor, Richard Locke, who taught us the immense power of seemingly tiny choices on the level of language in a variety of masterpieces in Western Literature, including the essays of George Orwell. (If you haven’t read “Politics and the English Language” by Orwell, do so immediately!!!)

Also, I taught freshman comp, and during my training, I realized how little I knew about how words and sentences were put together. It was important to me to learn that, just as a painter learns how to mix colors or a musician practices scales on the piano.

What do you think is your main goal as a writer?

Aaron: To figure out what I think and what I feel. I think E. M. Forster said something to the effect of how do I know what I think until I say it? By trying to express myself in as precise a way as possible, I can better determine what my life is.

What obstacles do you struggle with as a writer, and how do you overcome them?

Aaron: Time, money–but actually these are really a matter of will, more than anything else, of learning to say no when it’s necessary. But the biggest problem for me, which I’ve only recently come to understand, is that my ego and ambition sometimes pushes me to pursue subjects or stories that aren’t really mine to tell. It takes a remarkable fortitude to pursue your own obsessions, even at the expense of finding an audience who’s as interested in what you write as you are. Nevertheless, it’s the only reason to be a writer, I’ve come to understand.

How do I overcome the temptations of ego and ambition? Humility, humility, humility. You put down your head and go to work. You do not compare or envy or resent. You expect nothing in terms of rewards except those that come from the satisfaction of getting your work done on any given day.

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Aaron Hamburger was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his short story collection THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD (Random House, 2004), also nominated for a Violet Quill Award. His next book, a novel titled FAITH FOR BEGINNERS (Random House, 2005), was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Poets and Writers, Tin House, Details, The Village Voice, The Forward, and Out. He has received fellowships from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy, as well as residencies from Yaddo and Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Currently he teaches writing at Columbia University, NYU, and the Stonecoast MFA Program. Visit Aaron online at http://www.aaronhamburger.com/

Linda K. Sienkiewicz earned her MFA from Stonecoast summer ’09. Her fiction and poetry is published in Prairie Schooner, Spoon River Poetry Review, Rattle, Clackamas Literary Review, Bartleby Snopes, A Twist of Noir, and other print and online literary journals. She has a poetry chapbook award from Heartland, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and three other published chapbooks. She’s working on the sale of one novel while writing another. Visit Linda online at http://lksienkiewicz.wordpress.com/

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