November 5, 2019
Behind the Pen: Meet CWA Board Member Shawn Shiflett
Interview by Jessica Mack
As a writer, Shawn Shiflett knows you have to keep moving and putting in the work in order to find success. With a couple of published books under his belt, he is currently working on a few projects while juggling a career of teaching future writers about their value in the writing community.
Q: What is your role within the Chicago Writers Association?
A: I help plan and organize the CWA’s educational program events along with board member Marcie Hill. Past events have included author panel discussions on writing memoirs and personal essays, as well as a panel discussion concerning how writers find literary agents and publishers.
Q: What accomplishment in your writing life/career has had the most impact on you as a writer? What have you learned from it?
A: Getting my first novel, Hidden Place (Akashic Books, 2004) published comes to mind. Before that there was this constant, nagging whisper in my ear that kept asking, “Are you any good as a writer?” So that moment when I got the acceptance email from Johnny Temple at Akashic Books was huge for me, as was the publication of my second novel, Hey, Liberal! (Chicago Review Press). What you learn with each success is that there’s no standing still in your writing career. You either keep pushing forward with your next project or your career begins to stall and slide backward. Right now I’m working on two books: One is a collection of dreams titled My Secret Lives, and the other is an oral story collection on the subject of race in America. I’m enjoying both projects.
Q: What made you personally decide to become involved in the writing community?
A: When Randy Richardson phoned me and invited me to become a CWA board member, I was really honored and said, “Sure!” To be honest, I had also just had my knee replaced, was on three different types of painkillers, and had been saying “sure” to every request coming my way for the last month. I’m pretty sure it was the honored part and not the drugs that led me to accept Randy’s offer. I’ve been a board member going on two years now and it’s been a pleasure to work with Randy and the other board members. Believe me when I say that they are dedicated folks who are working to build a Chicago Writers Association we can all use as a resource, count on, and be proud of.
Q: What advice would you give to any new aspiring writer?
A: I believe that it was Ted Solotaroff, a New York City literary editor, who once told me that some aspiring writers are so talented, it’s as if they can shake spare talent out of their shirt sleeve. Things just come easier for them on the page than they do for other writers. At some point all writers face difficulties in developing their craft, and if he or she isn’t used to facing the kind of complexity that’s hard to solve, they often give up and call it quits. My basic advice for aspiring writers is to always be dogged in developing your craft, no matter what your supposed level of talent. It’s writers who put in the work day after day, week after week, and year after year who finally succeed.
Q: What special projects have you worked on and what is your favorite moment of being a CWA board member so far?
A: I’ve enjoyed all of the educational events I’ve helped to plan, but sometimes it’s the small moments that stay with you the most. At the last CWA writers conference which was held at the Allerton Hotel, the board was having its group picture taken in the room just off the elevators. As the photographer was arranging us to snap the picture, I paused, had one of those moments where the world seems to stop for a few seconds, and thought, “This is really nice. I’m with my tribe: The writers tribe.” Believe it or not, that was my favorite moment.
Bio: Shawn Shiflett is an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. His debut novel, Hidden Place (Akashic Books, 2004), and his more recent novel, Hey, Liberal! (Chicago Review Press, 2016), received rave reviews. New City Newspaper elected Shiflett to their Chicago Lit 50 list, an annual ranking of top figures in the Chicago Literary scene. He is on the Chicago Writers Association Board of Directors and is also working on a non-fiction, multicultural project. He lives with his wife, a couple of step-cats, and an English setter named Higgins.
Interview conducted by CWA intern Jessica Mack
Jessica Mack was previously Editor-in-Chief for the Joliet Junior College Blazer, editing and preparing articles for publication and managing a general staff. Under her leadership, the Blazer was 2018 Best-In-Show at the Illinois Community College Journalism Association annual fall contest and received 2018 Awards for Excellence. She is currently working on her Masters of English at DePaul University with a focus on creative writing and hopes to become a book editor.
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