After Editing Q-C Anthology, Prolific Author Will Teach Personal Essay Workshop
There are over 475,000 stories in the six-county Quad-City region, but just 45 people will have their reflections of 2020 published in a new anthology – edited by the busy author/editor Misty Urban of Muscatine – called “These Interesting Times: Surviving 2020 in the Quad Cities.” It will be released (full disclosure: I’m one contributor) in late September by the Midwest Writing Center Press.
Urban, a three-year member of the Rock Island-based MWC board, is an award-winning writer who has two new books out (including her first novel), and is teaching a new MWC series, “Crafting the Personal Essay Workshop,” which will meet regularly on Zoom six times – the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of September, October, and November, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. One-on-one meetings with participants will be scheduled separately.
The cost (registration is due by Sept. 4) is $220 for MWC members, $250 for non-members. Scholarships are available for veterans, students, and those will a financial need. Urban said she was inspired to teach the workshop from this year’s experience of reviewing and editing the submissions for what was originally known as “the disaster anthology” – to make sense of and relate what it was like to experience (and survive) the pandemic-plagued year.
“We were really happy with the quality of the submissions. They were terrific,” she said, noting they looked for stories that were both personal and relevant.
“You’ve got a great story to tell – but how do you make that story resonate with readers?” the MWC summary of the essay workshop says. “The answer is a blend of narrative craft and individual voice. You bring the voice, and we’ll talk craft in this six-week workshop that analyzes the structures and techniques that turn your memorable experiences into something a reader experiences, too. By discussing a variety of examples and sharing work of our own, this workshop will help you build and polish a successful essay that you can pitch for publication. Open to writers of all levels of experience.”
“I liked the personal essay and had written a personal essay (for the anthology), and I thought I would like to just sit in a room with people – this is where all my workshop ideas come from: what do I want to learn more about?” Urban said. “I get a bunch of writers in a room to teach me, and maybe I can give something in return. I always hope I can.”
“Finding your voice is THE most important thing you do as a writer,” she said. A native of Wisconsin Rapids, and 1997 graduate of University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Urban has found that voice across a wide variety of literary formats.
Her personal writing has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net Awards and has appeared in 3Elements Review, River Teeth, Sad Girls Club, PAST TEN, Cleaver Magazine, and My Caesarean (The Experiment, 2019).
Urban holds an MFA in fiction and a Ph.D. in Old and Middle English literature from Cornell University. Her short stories have been widely published and have won prizes from Atlantic Monthly, New Letters, Indiana Review, and Writers @ Work. Her debut collection, A Lesson in Manners, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. A second collection, The Necessaries, from Paradisiac Publishing, was a finalist for the 2019 Indie Star Book Award.
Her dissertation, Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance, won the D. Simon Evans Prize for Medieval Studies and was published by Edwin Mellen Press. She is co-editor and contributor to the scholarly collection Melusine’s Footprint: Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth, published by Brill. Her creative nonfiction on the topic of motherhood has appeared in Literary Mama, 3Elements Review, and in the collection My Caesarean: 21 Mothers on the C-Section Experience and After (The Experiment, 2019) as well as other places.
As a college professor, Urban has taught classes in composition, literary analysis, literary theory, British literature, medieval literature, Shakespeare, Renaissance lit, and creative writing in fiction and non-fiction. She has taught composition at Muscatine Community College, where she was responsible for reinstating the Writing Center, now part of the Student Success Center. She is president of the Muscatine writing group Writers on the Avenue, and has experience working with writing students of all ages, regularly visiting middle and high school classes as well as offering workshops for adult writers.
In addition to historical and contemporary fiction and medieval scholarship, Urban writes creative nonfiction, reviews for Publishers Weekly, BlueInk Review, and the Historical Novels Review, and is creative nonfiction editor for the New Flash Fiction Review.
Urban’s first published piece was a poem in a college literary magazine, while she was sophomore at UW-Whitewater, where she majored in business and minored in creative writing. Urban’s first job out of college was a management consultant in Milwaukee, and after four years in the business, she realized she wanted to write full-time. She went for a master’s at Florida State University, and unbeknownst to her, its creative writing faculty was one of the best in the country.
“The teachers were absolutely top-notch – best sellers, Pulitzer Prize winners,” Urban said. “I applied to
Florida colleges because I wanted to be someplace warm. I was completely ignorant.”
She loved fiction and literature, and wanted to get both an MFA in creative writing and Ph.D. in literature – finding just that joint-degree program (of just three in the nation” at Cornell, Ithaca, N.Y., over five years (including a stipend to teach for four years). Urban completed that in 2008. “It was absolutely, utterly perfect for me,” she said. “It was really integrated, it was really accepting. Nobody said, you don’t really write ‘cause you’re a literary person, and nobody said, you’re not really a literary person because you write fiction. I got really lucky.”
Urban wrote her dissertation on “monstrous women” (who broke boundaries) in the medieval period, because she liked “old stuff…I think it was because I got into the Arthurian legends when I was a kid.” Her website (mistyurban.net) tagline is “author of monstrous and misbehaving women.”
“A lot of my characters have had this weird interest in history,” she said. “Then the rigors of research and analytical writing really helped my creative writing as well. It’s nice to be able to go back and forth between both of them, and have them feed each other.”
Urban taught early English classes and creative writing at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, for four years and loved every minute of it. They moved to Muscatine in 2015 for her husband’s job with the Army Corps of Engineers (she and Doug have a 10-year-old daughter, Clio, and 8-year-old son, Vincent), and she taught at Muscatine Community College.
“I really enjoy teaching; I love what you learn from students,” she said. “I feel like writing is a really important skill for anybody; I don’t care what your career is. The ability to critically think, put your thoughts together, craft your thoughts, and communicate to others – anybody can use that.”
Writing and editing full-time
At MCC, Urban taught first-year composition, and restarted a writing center on campus, expanding it. She pulled back from teaching in 2018, started her editing business (Madwriters Editing Services), wanted to write full-time “and become a famous best-selling novelist,” she said. Fiction is her favorite genre to write, and she also likes “creative non-fiction,” which is based in a true story but uses the narrative techniques of fiction.
“People respond to it differently because it actually happened,” Urban said. One example is an essay about her experience with post-partum depression (which first manifested itself as insomnia), after giving birth to her son by C-section.
Her “Married, Living In Italy” is a short story collection published this past April by Muscatine-based Pearl City Press, an imprint of Writers on the Avenue. What unites the protagonists of these very different short stories is their search for refuge. “Some flee the country and some choose an imaginative escape, but all of these characters are crushingly believable with their broken hopes, endearingly real in their defenses, their damage, their sheer will as they turn suffering into salvation,” according to the book summary. “Full of disappearing children and surfacing secrets, fragile triumphs and imminent loss, these eloquent tales laced with hilarity and grief illuminate shared human truths about betrayal, rescue, the places we seek shelter, and the stories we tell ourselves to survive.”
“Married, Living in Italy, Misty Urban’s third short story collection, is about grief, loss, longing, and survival despite it all,” wrote X.H. Collins of Bettendorf, author of “Flowing Water, Falling Flowers.” “Urban demonstrates once again that she is a keen observer of the human condition, a skillful wordsmith who writes with powerful clarity, and an absorbing storyteller who commands your attention. The people and their stories stayed with me long after I finished the last page.
Her first novel, “My Day as Regan Forrester,” was recently self-published through her new imprint, Canty Dames. “I finished a couple historical novels and I just wanted something different,” Urban said. “I went back to this body-swap story. It was funny; I wanted to do something light-hearted and funny.”
In the plot, Beth Barony is content with her middle-class, Middle America life. Really, she is. But she makes a tiny, secret birthday wish for more excitement in her life . . . and wakes up the next morning as Regan Forrester, a troubled young actor known for her rebellious smolder and empty head. What could be more fun than playing a Hollywood princess for a day?
But Regan’s life isn’t at all glamorous. Her boyfriend is controlling and her apartment is a dump. While Beth scrambles to preserve Regan’s shaky career and tenuous relationships, Regan gleefully steals Beth’s husband, students, kids, and friends. And as the spell that switched them starts to unravel, Beth realizes why Regan wanted to escape her life: someone is trying to kill her.
“Who among us hasn’t wished, once in a while, for a little more glamor in their lives?” Urban wrote about the novel. “I had a sense for Beth Barony right away: accomplished Midwest mom, solid citizen, worried she’s in a rut. Then I was browsing celebrity gossip for a mindless escape and Regan Forrester appeared to me. It turned out she — not Beth — was the one begging to escape her life, and she took over the story in exciting ways. I loved discovering these women and watching them learn what the other’s life is really like in a way that both bonds
and terrifies them.”
She’s learned from her Muscatine writers’ group, Writers on the Avenue, how to “write on spec,” based on a theme or topic. “I don’t call it writer’s block; I call it, you have to figure out more about your characters,” Urban tells her students. The key to getting unstuck for “Regan Forrester” was unlocking the title character, and she knew it was a novel (as opposed to a short story) because she had a conflict in the story, about how they would switch back bodies.
“Sometimes the characters walk into your head fully formed, and then sometimes, it’s feeling your way in the dark,” Urban said. “The trick was just giving her more depth.”
“It was opening the closet on her skeletons, that made the book really fun to write,” she said of Regan. “Beth has her own problems, her own things she was confronting…It was also Beth discovering what Regan was hiding from that became the real story question. That’s when that became a novel.”
“Canty Dames” comes from a quote in “Wuthering Heights” where Ellen is talking to Catherine, calling her mother “a canty dame to the last.”
“That’s what I’m writing about, women thumbing their noses at tradition,” Urban said. “I don’t know what’s next that’s gonna come out of that.”
“Historical characters keep taking up space in my brain,” she said. “I just write whatever’s taking space in my brain.”
“The niche I’m trying to carve out in historical fiction is these nerdy girls who are making a difference, but nobody’s taking them seriously because they’re women,” she said, noting a New York publisher who liked her got three historical novels, a contemporary romance and “Regan Forrester” (which she finished about a year ago) from Urban. “While you’re waiting, you have to keep writing, to keep your skills sharp. I had a pile of novels by this time.”
The one the publisher took is about a woman in 1792, a follower of author Mary Wollstonecraft (whose daughter wrote “Frankenstein”), involved in a debate society and who gets thrown in jail. She now has a four-book deal with Scarsdale Publishing (the same one) for three historical romances and a contemporary romance.
“I like my historical fiction to be really rooted in a specific time and place,” Urban said. “But then I make up my own characters – that’s the fun of historical fiction.”
She also ghostwrote someone else’s memoir last year, meeting all on Zoom.
“It was really useful because I could hear my client’s tone of voice, capture his gestures,” Urban said. “It was a great experience; it was the first ghostwriting I’d ever done.” It’s a memoir of an immigrant from a war-torn country, who moved to the Quad-Cities and became a leading heart doctor internationally. It also includes experiencing Sept. 11, 2011 as a new American citizen. “It’s really a fascinating story,” Urban said, noting as a ghostwriter you need to inhabit somebody else’s voice.
“There’s craft to learn, but when they told us at FSU, you are here because you have a writing voice, because we heard your voice. We can teach you the rest, but we cannot teach you voice. It has to be you, your sensibility. When you’re a ghostwriter, you have to step away from this voice you’ve cultivated and you have to have somebody else’s voice. You have to be in somebody else’s head, in their experience. You have to imagine how they would feel.”
She said that was a lot of fun, and the book has been published, for which Urban wrote the foreword. She didn’t have a co-writing credit on the cover.
“For the most part, ghostwriters will use the author’s byline and stay totally out of it,” Urban said. “The goal is to not stand in the way of the author’s story. I learned a lot; it was a great experience.”
If someone thinks they don’t a voice – a “writer’s voice is just the way they process the world around them, and capturing that on paper,” she said. “There are certain exercises as a creative writing teacher we can give our students to hone that voice – language exercises, listening exercises. Listen to other people’s voices – this is my favorite, go eavesdrop.”
At Cornell, they tell creative writing students that Vladimir Nabokov (who taught there 1948-1959) wrote “Lolita” by riding buses around Ithaca, eavesdropping on adolescent girls, Urban said. “I have stolen from that and think of that as one way to exercise voice, to start listening to different pitches and tones of people, how they speak, and then you just have to write a lot, about a lot of different things. You have to get a grasp in all the sensory details, to write with all of the senses – how you perceive that, how you describe something and get it on the page is a manifestation of somebody’s voice.
“In personal writing especially, how have you made meaning out of your experience?” she asked. “Working through that is an exercise in voice too. Some of it is persona; if someone is new as a writer, I ask them, who do you want to be on the page? You’re not your full self on the page. You’re refracted, a piece of yourself. Are you gonna show your silly side? Your reserved, academic side? Are you gonna show your snotty side?”
One thing she’s learned about writing in different forms, no one genre is easier than another, Urban said. “If you have a form that fits the story, that’s when you get something you really want to share with people,” she said, noting she usually knows which ideas fit better for short stories versus novels.
For Pearl City Press, she’s not the only person on the editorial board, but Urban is in control of Canty Dames. She’s always wanted to have her own publishing company.
“It’s not just the writing of the books – it’s sharing them with other people that I love,” she said. “Now that it’s so easy to do that with self-publishing. I need to get a plan in place.” The tag line for Canty Dames is “audacious, ambitious women who meet their match.” “There’s a lot of possibility in there; we’ll see,” Urban said.
Personally reflecting on 2020
In her rich, revealing Editor’s Note for “These Interesting Times,” the thoughtful author/editor wrote:
“I’m a medieval scholar; I’ve studied the Black Death, the virulent contagion and the blistering sores, how between 30 and 50% of European towns and cities were wiped out. The devastation economically and culturally changed the centuries to follow. It was inconceivable that we could be facing a simi-lar epochal upheaval. In our modern world, with its medical apparatus, the teams of global scientists, or ability to
communicate as fast as thought?
“Yet at the same time, as a fan of disaster movies, I wondered if what the increasingly divided U.S. needed was one good existential threat to bring us all together. In Independence Day, one of my favorite apocalyptic action flicks, Will Smith’s hot-shot military pilot and Jeff Goldblum’s nervous environmentalist fly into space together to blow up the mother ship while alcohol-abusing crop duster Randy Quaid brings down the alien aircraft threatening his home. American soldiers telegraph instructions to fighters across the globe, once again saving the world. I wondered if our own cultural and political divisions would collapse in the face of shared danger. We would pull each other into the lifeboat, liberal snowflake next to proud redneck, and crack open a beer.
“As we see in what follows, 2020 was an epochal upheaval, but the stresses of the year fractured us further. We clustered in pandemic pods, but the fissures in our political and cultural beliefs cracked open, hissing with steam.
“2020 would not be the year I got an agent or sold a novel. 2020 would be the year everything was canceled. It would be the year we saw healthy friends and colleagues die with shocking suddenness and our beloved elders barricaded into nursing homes where we couldn’t visit. It would be the year my brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and the year that, on my birthday, I sobbingly asked my husband if he wanted a divorce. (He didn’t, and as it turned out I didn’t, either; I just wanted to stop being unhappy all the time.)
“2020 was a journey to the underworld for all of us. It’s funny to me now to think how completely alone I felt in mine.”
Urban notes that the book is not designed to be a depressing rehash – “We wanted tales of resilience and triumph. We wanted connection in isolation and healing for a broken world,” she wrote. “Through humor, the close observation of the poet, the epiphany of the essayist, or the deep human truth of story, we wanted to let people see into each other’s experiences to discover they were never alone.
“So, here it is: our disastrous liberation, our sufferings and our hope, the debris of 2020 tossed into the air and whipped around and shaped into something revelatory and healing and true. Thanks for living this again with us. I hope you see yourself in these pages. I hope you feel the curtain is pulled back on your experience, at least once. I hope you enjoy, as I did, the distinct voices, the vivid images, the despair and the successes and the absurdity and the joys and the loss.
“I hope we can carry together the grief of what we all survived, flashing our battle scars in solidarity. I hope we all, like people in recovery, can treat each other gently, aware of how delicate are these engines of tissue and cell and neural energy that carry us through our day,” Urban closes. “No matter how it felt at the time, you didn’t go through this alone. You’ll see.”