Fellow Feature: Whitney Otto

Meet Whitney Otto

Whitney Otto, long-time Attic Fellow and renown writer, talks generously about her writing, reading, reading as writers, and her newest book Art for the Ladylike: An Autobiography Through Other Lives that came out this year.

Order Art for the Ladylike: An Autobiography Through Other Lives here

Want to learn more about Whitney? Check out her website to keep up to date.


Q: What book or article have you read recently that you really enjoyed?

A: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado and The Big Book of the Dead by Marion Winick really stand out for me. Also, Good Talk by Mira Jacob, which is a graphic memoir.  I’ve also re-read a couple of books: Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. I ended up re-reading the Stein book because it has a new illustrated edition by one of my all-time favorite illustrators, Maira Kalman, and because it’s comfort food.

Q: What was your favorite workshop to teach at the Attic? 

A: I have really enjoyed all the workshops, and all the students, but I’m partial to Workshop 8, which was a pet project of mine.

Q: How do you approach the teaching of writing as opposed to the “writing” of writing? Are both processes one and the same or do they differ substantially? Has teaching writing informed your own writing process? 

A: There is an aspect of teaching writing that draws from the same well as writing, so you have to kind of find a way to not allow one to drain the other. Talking about writing—which is essentially what a workshop does, one way or another—can be beneficial to my own writing because I might stumble upon something that can relate to my own writing. I tell the students that even when someone else’s pages are being discussed, there is usually something that you can use in your own writing.

Q: How do you establish a sense of community in the class you teach as well as a critical lens?

A: One of the professors who ran the writing program where I earned my MFA said that he thought, ideally, a writing workshop should be along the lines of some sort of café model, where writers would write all day in their garrets (or wherever), then meet up at the end of their work day in a local café to talk about writing. In a workshop (well, my workshops, I guess), you are really just carrying on a conversation that mostly centers on writing, or books, or whatever relates to your work. I like a more conversational, less formal situation where we still get our work done and, in the process, the participants become a writing group that will continue once the workshop has ended.

Q: What is one quality or expectation of writing that you have of or wish for your students when they enter into or leave a workshop with you?

A: I would hope they would look at writing (fiction or nonfiction) as writers and not just as readers. That they would think about craft as well as content and feeling. Most of all, I really try to get them to have work that they can continue to work on once the workshop is over—which is one of the reasons I often push first drafts.

Q: Is there any writing prompt you use to get yourself out of a rut with a project?

A: Unfortunately, no.  I usually just go for a long walk.

Q: Can you tell us about your newest book, Art for the Ladylike: An Autobiography Through Other Lives?

A: There are a few things to say about it, but the very short answer is that it’s my autobiography because the book is about artists and things I love; the idea being we can be known by what we love. Or what influences us. These women were women I have loved since I was quite young. It is also a companion piece to my novel, Eight Girls Taking PicturesBoth books draw on the same source material—one is a fictional treatment, the other nonfiction—a kind of literary diptych. That said, each book definitely stands alone.

Q: As a prolific fiction and nonfiction writer, what was it like to write Art for the Ladylike: An Autobiography Through Other Lives? As a blend of biography and memoir, what was the most challenging, interesting, or surprising thing you learned while writing the book in regard to its genre expectations?

A: I can’t say that I learned anything, exactly. Mostly, I just wrote about things that I find interesting. I wrote the first draft in the early 2000s. At that time, I didn’t think about publishing it (or for many years after it was finished) because I wasn’t sure that it would find an audience, since it was a combination of biography, art, memoir, and feminism written as if I were talking to a friend—I guess you could call it. I like to think (I hope, that is) that this book will fall into a category of less traditional autobiographies/memoirs.

Q: How does research influence your writing? What is one tactic/tool that you would recommend to writers who want to write about an object, person, or event that is not directly tied to them?

A: I didn’t do much research for this book—I mean, I definitely did some—but these photographers were my “heroes” from my youth. I didn’t decide to write about photographers and then look for ones to write about; the selection was purely personal and related to those photographers I had been following forever already. I wanted to look at their lives through the lens, so to speak, of my own life, as a woman working in a creative field.  However, the professor I mentioned earlier said that when he wrote fiction using research, he never wrote with the research on his desk. He put it all in another room, believing that what he remembered will be the things that belong in his novel. He felt it made the novel feel more alive than researched.

Q: What did it feel like to be a question on Jeopardy! and an answer on the New York Times Crossword Puzzle?

A: It was exciting! I had watched Jeopardy! Since I was a kid, pre-Alex Trebek (whom I love). I’ve also had my name in the New York Times Crossword, which is the perk of having a palindromic name. More often they use, Preminger or Beetle Baily’s dog for Otto—my competition and Otto compatriots. Again, exciting because I always do that particular puzzle. And I had a book that was used as a prop for a season of Sex and the City. It sat on Carrie’s headboard. That’s all the trivia I got here. 

Q: Do you have any particular writing process? If not, do you have any tips or tricks for producing new work for emerging writers? Alternatively, do you have any advice for balancing multiple writing projects and deadlines at once?

A: I like the Hemingway method where you end each writing session by not writing yourself out. In this way, you are ready to go as soon as you sit down to work the next day.

Q: Are you working on any new projects that excite you?

A: They always excite me before I start writing because the imagined book is still perfect. Once you begin writing, perfection becomes a goal, not a fact. I’m working on a novel I began nearly five years ago—embarrassing but true. You can set up a time frame for your book, but it will take what it takes.