Be Nosy, Advises an Award-winning Writer

Feb. 26, 2019 — Amina Gautier ’95 is, in a way, a literary juggler. When she visited NMH in February to talk with students about writing and to give a reading of her award-winning short fiction, Gautier reported that she writes multiple stories at the same time — and that each one can take as much as five years to complete. 

“I don’t like to force anything,” she told the crowd that squeezed into the Rhodes Room for the reading. “I have no problem letting a draft lay fallow for a couple of months until I can see what adjustments it needs.” She advised aspiring writers in the audience not to dwell on a project if they get stuck; instead, move on to another and then go back to the first one at a later date. “Your craft will improve and you’ll be able to solve the problem. A lot of times, one story helps you write the next one.”

Gautier should know. She has written more than 100 short stories, and published most of them in literary journals across the country. Her three collections — The Loss of All Lost Things, Now We Will Be Happy, and At-Risk — have been honored with multiple awards, including the Prairie/Schooner Book Prize and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Last fall, she won the big one in the short-story universe: the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. 

During her visit to campus, she praised NMH: her English teachers helped her “beat the adverbs” out of her writing; and the first story she ever published was begun in a creative-writing class her senior year. Gautier also described her methods for approaching fiction: “Plot is the last thing I think about. It’s always characters and imagery first,” she said. The story she read at NMH, “Dance for Me,” focused on a black girl attending a private school in New York and what she put herself through to survive socially. Gautier said, “I think about what’s going to happen to the characters, and what kind of danger they need in order to have some kind of turning point or resolution.”

Yes, Gautier admitted, her stories tend to be tense and troubled; she’s not a fan of the neat, happy ending. “I’m interested in writing literature that’s realistic,” she explained. “As positive as I am as a person, I’m not blind to the challenges and complications we all face, and I think it’s my responsibility as an artist to depict those things and bring them to light.”

A student asked where Gautier found her inspiration. “It’s nothing fancy,” she assured the audience. “The short answer is, be nosy.” And be open-minded about what you see. “We all observe things all the time,” she said, “but you keep these from being a writer’s observations when you look at something and you fill it in — you make assumptions. As soon as you think that way, you cut off the chance to ask questions and make a connection.”