The New York Times, Vogue and Poets & Writers have all given her collection of short stories, Battleborn, rave reviews. She's even been compared to Annie Proulx and Joan Didion. But despite that praise, Claire Vaye Watkins is freaking out.

"I'd say I'm appropriately freaked out," the assistant professor of English says of her reaction to her next project, her first novel. She considers jangly nerves a normal part of venturing into uncharted territory — which is also where she encourages her creative writing students to go.

"I ask my students: If you could say anything to the world, what would you say?" she says. "You can make up anything. That's the magic of storytelling."

Watkins' own stories typically originate with a setting, which in turn inspires her to wonder what sort of people live in that place. From there, she begins to write. As she writes, she makes subconscious technical decisions about diction, point-of-view, rhythm and psychic distance.

Then it's time for the interrogation.

Watkins goes back through her first draft, questioning her original decisions and "sculpting" until she gets the words right. "I start at the top and work all the way down, smoothing as I go," she says.

Sometimes it can take her three or four years to polish the language, but for Watkins, every sentence matters. "Even on my worst writing days, if I at least write a sentence I can know that I made something," she says. "I hope I'm making a contribution that says something important or urgent about the human condition."

Watkins encourages her students to do the same. "I make the classroom as free as possible," she says. "I want them to pay attention to imagination and research and discipline and empathy. I want them to see the world as a possibility."


Related reading: Reviews of Battleborn in:

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