Continuing excellence: 2020 class of ASU creative writers moves forward
Graduation ceremonies recognize years of hard work, dedication, and often, no small amount of sacrifice on the part of students. For three ASU creative writing students, it was also a time of academic transition, when they moved from the familiarity of their undergraduate programs to the new rigors and opportunities of graduate education.
Megan Bromley will stay in Arizona to start a PhD in geological sciences at ASU. As an undergrad with an array of interests, Bromley was incredibly active in both academic and artistic pursuits. She spent four years performing with the Sun Devil Marching Band and served as an intern for The Superstition Review, a literary magazine produced by creative writing and web design students at ASU. Professor Sally Ball praised Bromley as “a truly interdisciplinary explorer, uniting many territories of rumination and academic experience in her poems.” Bromley, who studied for a BA and BS concurrently, and who has an interest in writing about environmental, biological, and physical subjects, hopes to maintain the momentum of her dual undergraduate degrees. Describing herself as “a big believer in the social context of art and science,” Bromley will apply to low residency MFA programs in creative writing, continuing her study of poetry while working toward her PhD. Professor Ball predicts that Bromley’s work, which uses a multidisciplinary approach informed by artistic and scientific training, “will build bridges between the arts and the sciences, bringing people together…with a sense of mutual openness and value.”
Brenna Camping is a writer deeply invested in the environment. A native Arizonan, Camping’s emotionally complex, imagistic fiction captures life in working class Sonoran communities. Changes to the natural world—whether it be a displaced bird of prey forced to hunt house pets, or rising temperatures altering the growth patterns of cacti—reverberate through Camping’s characters. With an investment in the landscape as a character of equal importance to the people populating it, Camping illustrates how disruptions to the desert spaces central to her work create real and far-reaching impact in the lives of its inhabitants. She describes her fiction as, “about the parallels between a rich environment, a hostile land, and the way people’s pasts influence their present actions.” Her short stories have already been recognized with awards and publication. In addition to writing fiction, Camping is a poet who has been involved with Arizona’s vibrant slam community. She will be leaving her beloved desert to pursue an MFA in fiction and poetry at Virginia Commonwealth University.
While Rachel Donalson was finishing her final semester at ASU, she was applying to MFA programs and interviewing with companies on both coasts. Donalson started her career at ASU as a sustainability major, then switched to supply chain management, later adding an English literature degree. Though she could have taken a position in associated with her business degree following graduation, Donalson decided to commit to the continued study of what truly fulfills her: writing. “The moment I stepped foot into my supply chain summer internship was the same moment I decided I wanted to pursue an MFA. I couldn’t see myself going straight into a warehouse job without trying to follow my passion for writing first.” Donalson’s fiction is influenced by recognizable tropes smartly subverted. Through a queer lens, she merges folklore, mythology, and biblical narratives with events from contemporary culture. In one stunningly dark and laugh-out-loud funny short story, Donalson combined aspects of Slavic folklore’s Baba Yaga with the parental hysteria behind the Satanic Panic of the 1980s to explore the myriad dangers—physical and emotional—of a secret relationship. She will be attending the MFA at Texas State University in San Marcos to study fiction.
Bromley, Camping and Donalson each shared more about their ASU journeys, their writing motivations, and why they believe it’s more important than ever to study the arts.
Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Can you share an interesting moment, story, or accomplishment from your ASU career?
Bromley: Some of my best memories from school are from my four years in the Sun Devil Marching Band. It's been a great privilege to perform and travel with them all this time, and our trips to various basketball tournaments always stick out as very positive memories. One year, I got to travel to the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament in Seattle, WA. I remember my sleep schedule being absolutely out of whack, but getting to spend the days bonding with my hotel roommates and, for maybe a few minutes here and there, getting to meet members of our team. We would spend the days exploring Seattle, and the nights at tournament games. I was especially fond of this sandwich/coffee shop called Biscuit Bitch that we visited on a free afternoon (I still have their sticker on my laptop as I type this!).
Camping: Winning the ASU Homecoming Writing Competition in the short story category was a pretty big moment for me. It was really validating for my writing, and the prize money allowed me to fund my applications to grad school. But I think the coolest part about being recognized with this award was that the particular story that won had been through two different workshops at ASU. It was a story that started at ASU, went through several drafts with several peers and mentors, and went on to be recognized by the English department. It’s also a story that I included in most of my grad applications, including the one to VCU, so I really owe a lot to my workshop experiences at ASU when I think of the success I’ve seen because of this story. Now the story, “Amber Eyed Raptors” will be published in Blue Earth Review and should be released in June.
Donalson: In the summer of 2018, I traveled abroad with an ASU program to study at the University of Economics in Prague. This trip changed my life for the better, because it forced me to take charge and define myself as an individual.
I like to laugh, and it shows in my writing. I enjoy exploring the ways that humor can shift the weight of a story.
I went into the program with a safety net of friends and left with a whole network of new people and places under my belt. My fascination with local folklore, urban legends, and mythic monsters was able to blossom in these culturally rich places. (During my travels, I found that some of the best storytellers come out of the woodwork when plied with a free drink at any local bar.)
What was the moment when you realized you wanted to study creative writing?
Bromley: I consider myself very lucky to have had an early exposure to creative writing in high school. I joined the creative writing club at the time that our teacher was studying for his MFA, so I got to have a lot of inside knowledge about what creative writing was really like as a career and an academic subject in the twenty-first century. Of course, I had to learn about poetry in the past tense the same way that everyone has to in high school, but I got to supplement that experience with contemporary poetry readings and insights provided by my teacher.
When you start writing, it's incredibly hard to stop. This is especially true when you start in such an encouraging environment. I think that from the time I started writing, I couldn't see myself stopping, so it only made sense to challenge myself with a major in creative writing.
Camping: I started my undergraduate degree as an English major at Northern Arizona University with interest in business writing because I was worried about my job prospects after graduation. During that time, I was taking a business writing class and a creative writing fiction course. I would doodle and lull through my business writing class and then go immediately to my fiction workshop where my teacher was this old, tatted up, ex-biker character. It was two different worlds and I knew which one I wanted to be a part of, job prospects or not. At that same time, I was going through a rough patch in my personal life so I decided that I was going to move closer to family in Phoenix and study the arts at ASU
How would you describe your writing?
Bromley: I'm primarily a poet. I tend to enjoy formal experimentation (or maybe spatial experimentation, specifically). I do some research in complex systems, which has been a huge influence on my work.
Sharing my work is one of the ways in which I can be vulnerable to people. ... Where we share vulnerability, we can also share solidarity.
When I write, I tend to be especially conscious of placing personal narrative within the context of different “complexities”—natural and social. I'm very interested in variation of scale and tone, and I tend to place a lot of weight on the flow of writing.
Camping: My writing is about the desert and the people in the desert. I frequently tell stories about people living in rural areas of the Sonoran, and I like to anchor my readers in stories and ideas they already know (a first kiss, a divorce, the feeling of being stuck) and mix these all too familiar experiences with the character of the desert to create something new. I like these familiar stories, these familiar truths, to be reflected on the hostility and the beauty of the landscape I explore in my work. I love the desert, and even though I’m leaving, I will not stop writing about it or its inhabitants.
Donalson: I like to laugh, and it shows in my writing. I enjoy exploring the ways that humor can shift the weight of a story. The tension between dark humor and psychological horror is where I have found my biggest spark. In my writing I delve into the dangers of intimacy, betrayals of the body, and liminal spaces that are both physical and conceptual. I like to toy with the contrast between secrecy as a form of protection and secrecy as a form of danger, as well as how all of these concepts impact women and their place in society.
Why is it important for you to share your work?
Bromley: We're shaped by everyone we're around, and thus what we do has a sort of networked meaning. Same thing with language in general. Sharing work, in my opinion, is a way of announcing these connections. It feels natural and necessary for language to be shared, even when the language is written.
More personally, sharing my work is one of the ways in which I can be vulnerable to people. It's rare to have these opportunities in the society we share, where we tend to project strength and smarts, and achievements above anything else. It's hard to communicate weakness or doubt, even if they are near un-avoidable as we go through life. But where we share vulnerability, we can also share solidarity. That's how I'm trying to re-frame art in my mind, especially in the sort of competitive environment that the academic system fosters.
Camping: I don’t write about perfect people or perfect places. Everything has its good, everything has its bad, and everything has its just-okays. And it’s hard not to think in binaries. I believe people want to think in a right and wrong, hot and cold type of way—and I, too, am one of those people. But when you write humans on paper, when you read stories about the human soul, you can get a glimpse of this imperfection without judgement, but with understanding.
College is not there to prime me to be a better worker, although it may do that; we seek education to cultivate better people, smarter people, people with the ability to think creatively and expansively.
I guess I write so that I can understand those around me and understand my own views on the beautiful imperfections of people. I share my work because I want this understanding to be extended to my little corner of the world. I want my readers to relate to the people living in the middle of the desert, because we all share human truths and human pain.
Donalson: I think it is important to share my work because I write stories through the lens of my experience as a queer woman of color. Not every one of my pieces have these direct themes, but my perspective and the way that I approach it provides stories that I know other people can relate to. When I was younger, I looked for stories that reflected me and my experience, but I never found any that ended well or had enough adventure for my taste. I write stories that I enjoy, and that I hope others can find joy in as well.
Why do you think it is important to study the arts?
Bromley: I gave it away a bit in the question before, but I think the arts are critical for anyone! They're how we build connections, or even how we build new ways to communicate.
The way we live now, we're often forced to communicate in certain ways. Our bodies are restricted—we do only what is necessary to press this button, or fix that nail to that piece of wood, or travel to and from home. Every body is treated differently, but every body is restricted in its own way. Maybe we exercise off the clock, but even that (sometimes) is in the effort of efficiency. It feels indulgent to do anything else sometimes!
Camping: I entered college pretty convinced that the purpose of higher education is to prepare me to be a better worker for the job market. I was this little artist/musician/writer uncertain of what I could provide the corporate world ahead of me. And then I got to college and I took some courses in fiction, poetry, drawing, ceramics, and I realized that I had been missing the point of education altogether. We should study the arts because when you create art, you think creatively, and creative thinking leads to critical thinking and a better society as a whole. College is not there to prime me to be a better worker, although it may do that; we seek education to cultivate better people, smarter people, people with the ability to think creatively and expansively. Humans create art—it’s what we do—and if we don’t cultivate that, I think we risk losing our cultures and our identities.
Donalson: I think it’s important to study the arts because art is what provides the masses with comfort in times of distress. During the pandemic, art was the balm that soothed house-bound people all over the world. Reading, writing, watching films—creating art and taking-in art—became the best way to nourish the restless soul. I think studying the arts is important because it allows us to contribute to the world in a way that connects people, creating something that allows for a shared experience.
Image at top, from left to right: Courtesy photos of Megan Bromley, Brenna Camping and Rachel Donalson