Writers Institute

Jay Varner '03

You are best known for your memoir Nothing Left to Burn, but is there another story or piece of writing you like more?
Honestly, I’m never more excited than when I’m writing a personal essay. It strips you down, forces you to seek truth, and arrive at some sort of epiphany. My favorite piece of writing was partly about my time at Susquehanna. It connected a summer working at Walmart in 2001, a meteor that blazed across an evening sky, and my initial insecurities as a college student. Right now, my favorite is a novel I’m plugging away at about a Confederate guerilla in 1864 Northern Virginia.

Was it difficult to write Nothing Left to Burn from a child’s perspective, and could you have imagined writing it from any other point of view?
I wanted a reader to be with the narrator during those moments of childhood confusion. But, I also wanted to include the young adult point of view immediately after college. There was the idea of boyhood merging into manhood, and that often happens after some distance has passed. You start to see things differently. The metaphor I use with students is the microscope—different lenses give us glimpses of different details in our life.

Do you have any advice for aspiring creative nonfiction writers?
Say yes to everything and talk to strangers. The person that made me feel comfortable doing this (at least, after I initially felt very uncomfortable) was Tom Bailey. I was working an essay about Gettysburg and this massive tower they had in the military park. I hated that tower. Tom told me to get on the phone and call people. So I spent a summer bugging the superintendent of Gettysburg Military Park for an interview. She never called me back. But it forced me outside my comfort zone, which was a wonderful thing.

How has the creative writing program at SU influenced or helped with you writing?
Without SU, I cannot possibly imagine where my life would have gone. I knew that I wanted to write, but I was never aware that what seemed like a teenage fantasy was something achievable. And that there was an entire community of writers just like me—focused, serious writers who were hungry and pushed each other. The supportive environment was something I could have never imagined. And the one-on-one interaction with mentors was invaluable. After a workshop of a story I had spent weeks laboring over, Tom circled the first line and said, “Keep this line, but rewrite the rest.” I was mortified, but he had the insight to know that he could push me. Over a four-year span, I rewrote that story upwards of thirty times—and he must have read every draft. I learned a determination and patience that’s needed to get the story right. And I still stay true to that.

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