Denise Frame Harlan MFA ’09 graduated with the first cohort of SPU MFA pioneers. She currently teaches as an adjunct for Gordon College and coaches international teens through the US college application process.
Q: What cohort(s) would you say you are a-part of?
Denise Frame Harlan: I graduated TEN years ago in 2009— Cohort 1 (aka The Guinea Pigs) graduated during my first Summer Residency in Santa Fe, in 2007, so I overlapped with many of the great SPU MFA pioneers like Mary Van Denend, Nancy Nordenson, Brian Volck, and Chad Gusler. I graduated alongside Allison Backous Troy, Beth Myhr, and Matthew Henry.
Q: What is a couple sentence summary of your post-MFA life?
Denise Frame Harlan: I want to be a better, more attentive writer, but I still keep a collection of jobs and responsibilities that sometimes feel like they get in the way of writing. I’m still figuring out schedule, solitude, and discipline. I need to submit work more consistently, like it’s my job.
I teach as an adjunct for Gordon College. I managed an SAT prep center for my Episcopal diocese. I coach international teens through the US college application process through a school in Lexington.
My children were ages 10 and 12 when I graduated. My husband Scott teaches middle school reading to kids with severe language-learning disabilities. Between parenting, house-hunting, and adjunct teaching, it’s a little shocking that I wrote anything during those immediate post-MFA years. My essay And She Took Flour was included in Wipf & Stock’s 2010 anthology The Spirit of Food (you can see a sample on GoogleBooks). In 2013 I earned an honorable mention in the VanderMey Nonfiction Prize for Ruminate Magazine (judged by the inimitable Brian Doyle).
In 2018, I was accepted into the year-long Memoir Incubator class at Grub Street Literary Center in Boston, and it’s been amazing to be back in the classroom with writers from a broader variety of backgrounds. It was also my kids’ first year of college.
I’ll be adding a section of first-year writing at MassArt this fall. I’m writing a memoir-in-essays about my family’s experience of un-affordable housing north of Boston. And my side-hustle is knitting washable wool socks for Stockingfoot Knits, so hit me up for some great socks in your size!
Q: What is one of your favorite memories from the SPU MFA program?
Denise Frame Harlan: At my first Whidbey residency, an Alaskan poet brought Crab Artichoke Dip, which turns out to be a perfect line for haiku. Thus began the famed Poetry Contest at each residency. As a CNF writer, I thought who even ARE these people? With plenty of advance notice, I prepped for the form of the 2009 contest, which was a southwestern “lullaby.” I defined “lullaby” loosely and made people sing along to a Johnny Cash chorus to the tune of “Ring of Fire,” and it won me a second prize in a frickin’ poetry contest—totally out of my genre. I’ve never been prouder.
Q: How has your participation in the program changed you?
Denise Frame Harlan: It’s fun to think about how fiercely I wanted to be a real writer, before I began the MFA, and how much I felt like I was making up this whole writing enterprise. I began the program as an avid reader and a blogger who penned short articles for online magazines and craft magazines. I struggled with basic literary definitions like “couplet” and “quatrain” and “stanza,” since I hadn’t taken formal literature courses for twenty years.
I gained confidence that my creative nonfiction is real, and it can become an important part of a larger conversation on writing, art, faith. I fell in love with my own work. My work is worth pursuing. Something broke, and now it’s hard to write anything shorter than a dozen pages.
Q: What are you reading right now?
Denise Frame Harlan: In the past year, I’ve read nine memoirs-in-progress in various stages of development, and I’m eager to get back to reading finished work! I just read The Overstory, which is breathtaking and I might need to read it again. Hidden Tapestry tells the family story of my son’s unusual 1st-4th grade teacher, a member of the tapestry-weaving Yoors family in New York. My next choices will be fiction, fiction, fiction: Octavia Butler, the next Sara Zarr book. I have a copy of The Best We Could Do, and I’m really intrigued by graphic nonfiction.
Q: Do you have any hidden talents? If so, what are they?
Denise Frame Harlan: It would be embarrassing to list all of my fiber arts skills. I spin yarn, weave, make paper, design toys. I can teach anybody anything I know how to do.
Q: If you had to write one more annotation, which book would you annotate and what would you write about?
Denise Frame Harlan: I would like to read everything Brian Doyle ever wrote. I might like to get past the glossy adoration and go deeper into the structure of his seemingly structureless odysseys of run-on sentences. I’d like to feel like I could confidently get away with his fabulous madness on the page.
Q: If you could give advice to the newest cohort of SPU MFA graduates, what would you tell them?
Denise Frame Harlan: Read like you are still in the program, for as long as you can keep up that pace. I worked with Robert Clark, who began by saying you should read 10 pages for every page you write, and then he upped it to 100 pages. (I suspect he now says "read 10 thousand pages for every page you write...") While I was mighty cranky about the required pace of reading, the sheer quantity of reading forces your brain to create a new map of literary timelines, with the ability to compare and contrast nuances. This comes in handy in the geography of Emerson, Thoreau, Frederic Douglass, Phyllis Wheatley, and Louisa May Alcott.
If I were developing more advice, I'd say make yourself accountable to a "submission buddy" or some sort of group. It's the toughest part of the discipline-- the selling part. Bret Lott says he keeps one day a week as his business day, managing submissions, preventing essays from languishing on the desk. I would like to do better.
Q: Any residency secrets you think everyone should know about x years later?
Denise Frame Harlan: Dan Bowman and I got REALLY sick during one Whidbey residency, and it turned out okay. I hated missing things—but I had snagged a 2nd floor bedroom in Alumni House, with a view of the mountains, and it was still good, good, good. Dan and I bonded over Kleenex boxes. Also, one morning Luci Shaw showed up in the line for the shower, and I thought I was dreaming.