An Interview with LRCW student Rachel Keller

October 06, 2021

What led you here—to PNCA’s Low Residency Creative Writing program, and to writing itself?

It’s been a long, roundabout, and deeply personal journey that brought me to this program, but the basics of it is that writing stories has always been what I have wanted to do. Picture, if you will, a kid who carried around beat-up spiral notebooks filled with crude prose (in terrible handwriting) like other kids carry their favorite toys or blankets. I never went anywhere without a notebook and a ballpoint pen, scribbling down great adventures and flowering emotions alike. Eventually, as I grew, I moved to Moleskine journals and Google docs; but when it came time in my undergraduate studies to pick a path, I was both gently and not-so-gently encouraged to decide on a direction that was considered more successful in terms of a traditional career. Fast-forward several years later, and I was deeply entrenched in ventures only tangentially related to creative writing. At my core, I felt a vague sense of misery. It wasn’t as if I had a terrible life or anything like that, but I knew that I wasn’t pursuing what was most important to me, or using what I felt were my gifts. I hadn’t touched a notebook or attempted to write anything for years, citing busyness and fatigue of other events of the day whenever it crossed my mind. Then, some major life events reset pretty much everything for me, and I found myself with very little except the opportunity to start everything fresh. There was no one telling me to be smart and find the job that made the most money, or focus on pursuing traditional success, or follow familial expectations. I had thrown all of that out the window. It was painful, terrifying, and uncomfortable being in that position, but the silver lining was that it was all only up to me. I knew I couldn’t let the chance go to waste. I knew that I had to write. So I applied to the PNCA graduate program for creative writing with a story that I wrote during that fraught, transitional period. And miracle of miracles, I was accepted! Being here has been challenging, in the best way. The program has helped me heal through a lot of personal difficulties, challenge myself to grow through discomfort, and connect with other storytellers with the same love of language. I am immensely grateful to be where I am now.

How have you seen yourself grow as an artist in the past year? What lessons or practices that you’ve picked do you want to integrate more permanently into your writing practice?

Diving back into creative writing after a more corporate background was more arduous than I thought it would be. Not only have I had to find a way to make time for myself to write, but I have also had to do some serious rewiring in my brain. One part of that was to kick that more creative component back into gear, to take from my experiences, whether profound or mundane, and translate them in my writing. From encouragement with my mentors and teachers, I also have rediscovered grace for myself that certainly hasn’t been fostered in my corporate background and felt limited for me growing up. The common mindset in most other environments has been to equate performance with your worth; if you aren’t contributing enough, if your metrics aren’t high enough, it’s not-so-subtly hinted that your value is, in fact, quite low. In this program, however, I have learned that there is no One Right Way to create. As long as I keep moving forward, jotting down what I can, or even thinking about my writing, that is creating.

Tell me about your experience with your mentors! What’s been rewarding about those relationships? What’s been challenging?

My time with my mentors has been my most treasured experience of the PNCA program. So far, I have had the privilege of being mentored by the incredibly gifted and lovely Vi Khi Nao, Poupeh Missaghi, and Sara Jaffe. Call it fate, or serendipity, or someone out there looking out for me, but the time I have been able to share with each one has been invaluable and life-changing for me, both creatively and personally.

My time with Vi was, in a way, a dive into the deep end of the pool for me, as I was dealing more closely with emotionally-turbulent situations at the time. She responded with so much kindness and understanding, and rather than steering me past and working despite it, Vi also taught me how to embrace it. She helped me take all of the blood, sweat, and tears that I faced daily and transform them into powerful writing. We experimented with form, themes, methods, and length, until ultimately, Vi also gave me the gift of the direction I have been working since. I am so grateful for Vi's patience and creative wisdom during our time together.

With Poupeh, it was also a very impactful experience, as we worked together on the story that I started with Vi. Poupeh's notes were incredibly insightful and impactful; Poupeh took a loose bundle of feathers and helped me turn them into full-fledged wings. Her enthusiasm for my project and topic encouraged me so much to throw myself into it and really dig into the meat of it all, and I am also so thankful for my time with her.

Sara and I have been working together for only a few months so far; she has been with me during perhaps my most challenging academic project at PNCA, which is the critical essay component of the MFA program. Sara is so thorough, gives astute notes, and is also at the same time so kind and encouraging. It’s been a pleasure working with her, and I’m excited to tackle my thesis with Sara’s contributions as well. All in all, the only challenging components of working with my mentors has been getting on the same page of understanding and expectations on both ends; since they are all so different, there is sometimes a bit of a learning curve and time of adjustment. But I cherish my time with each of these different, brilliant minds.

Who/what are you reading?

Currently I have been making my way through Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I have found I have a love/hate relationship with both. Cloud Atlas switches through loosely-connected stories and dives in and out of differing language, themes, and tones like crazy, which takes mental adjustment. But once I became more acclimated to it, the subtleties and hidden connections are immensely impressive. With the second book, Audrey Niffenegger is the author of one of my favorite books, The Time Traveler’s Wife. However, Her Fearful Symmetry is very different in pace, narrative direction, and characterization, so I have had to dredge up a little discipline to get myself through it. That’s another discovery I made about myself when returning to academic pursuits and writing in general; it wasn’t only my writing muscles, but also my reading muscles that had really atrophied! So even making my way through books that I found enjoyable and getting all the way to the end had to be a disciplined task in the beginning, whereas once upon a time, I could fly through entire books in a matter of hours. At this point, I don’t think I am quite back to that point, but like any physical exercise, the practice of reading has gotten easier and more familiar, and it certainly feels much more rewarding to say that I finished the books I picked up.

Rachel Keller has been on a walkabout through the left half of the United States: the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, Colorado, now here in the Pacific Northwest. As an undergrad, she has a background in literary journalism and telling the true stories of others, but now in her third semester at PNCA, Rachel delves into the expansive world of realistic fantasy. As a disciple of Francesca Lia Block and Neil Gaiman, she explores the intersection of the fantastical within the everyday, modern setting, usually in the short story genre, but now also in the mighty realm of the First Novel. Rachel is very interested in avian life, rich emotional journeys, and unexpected descriptions.