Geri Ulrey is a writer, filmmaker, and educator living in Los Angeles. She has also been published in Gulf Coast, was a finalist for the 2016 Gulf Coast Prize in Nonfiction, and shortlisted as a finalist for the 2015 Disquiet International Literature Award in nonfiction. Both of Geri’s narrative short films, “The Break” and “Pink no.22,” have screened at numerous film festivals worldwide, each winning awards along the way. Her essay, “13th & B,” was featured in Carolina Quarterly 65.1, and was recently selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016.
CQ: What’s your academic background? Do you have an MFA? If so, from where? Did you find it useful professionally and creatively? What has the effect on the field of creative writing been from the proliferation of these programs?
GU: I don’t have an MFA in Creative Writing but I do hold an MFA in Film Directing from UCLA School of Film and Television. I found my degree very helpful, as I was able to write, direct, edit and produce my own short films and develop as a filmmaker and storyteller. Additionally, I became part of an amazing community of filmmakers, which fed me in lots of ways and was probably the most important part of the experience.
I love school and would go back for creative writing if I could. I started writing prose five years ago and became very drawn to writers’ workshops. Eventually I found myself in 30B, Jim Krusoe’s Creative Writing Workshop at Santa Monica College. I think, when you are learning how to do anything new, seeking out teachers, finding mentors, and surrounding yourself with peers is important. I’ve been attending Krusoe’s workshops consistently for two years, every Wednesday night, and consider it my own version of getting an MFA in creative writing; Krusoe is not only an incredible writer and teacher but he has created an amazing space that attracts top-notch talented writers who give astute critique. Many in the workshop are published and/or have MFA’s from programs all around the country. My Wednesday nights are sacred to me. I can’t think of anything better than sitting in a room with writers talking about what it means to be human; I’m lucky I get to do it every week.
CQ: Do you have a day job? If so what? How if at all does this work affect your writing?
GU: Yes, I teach film and television at Glendale Community College. I’ve been teaching in the classroom for over eleven years and have also worked as a private tutor. I love teaching because of the ways I’m challenged. It’s never routine, there are always surprises and I particularly love teaching film production courses because it’s a group of people making something together. It’s about communication, collaboration, and process, and it’s pretty intense, which makes me feel very alive and connected to others. I don’t know how teaching directly impacts my writing but I work full time and sometimes it tires me out; somehow, I always find a way to carve out space and time in my week to write.
CQ: A related question: what is your writing process like? Do you commit to writing a certain number of day per week? At a particular time of day? Or are you more sporadic?
I learned a long time ago (during film school) to make taking time to write as necessary as doing exercise, or eating well or brushing my teeth. I think once I started thinking about writing that way, it became an essential part of my life. I don’t write every day, or even every week, but I do make substantial time to write. It helps that I’m pretty flexible and can work my way into writing mode just about anywhere, on a computer or long hand, in noisy or quiet spaces. I’m definitely a sporadic writer and I don’t have a daily routine, yet I relish writing first thing in the morning, half awake, half asleep, drinking my coffee.
CQ: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers in terms of the technical methods you employ? Ways of finding inspiration and managing the effects of writer’s block, for example?
GU: I’m a beginner and still discovering my methods and mode, but I suspect that there are no rules to writing – which is really exciting to me. Writing is also really hard but there is pleasure in it. And at its best it can feel like play – it’s fun. So I guess I’d say, because it is so hard – and most people I know don’t make much money doing it – I’d say if you are going to write, it’s because you have to. I don’t think anyone can encourage anyone to write, not really, and perhaps you can’t really discourage writers either. I think people who write will write because something inside compels them to do so. And the writing, for its own sake, must give you something back – that’s why you push through the painful parts. And when it feels like you can’t do it or it isn’t doing anything for you, I’d say: Don’t beat yourself up. I often give myself permission not to write – when I have a lot going on at work or in my personal life.
CQ: What writers are you reading lately? Who are your all-time favorites?
GU: I experience reading now quite differently than I did before I started writing. When I first started reading – as a writer – it was the essays of Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss and Joan Didion that really hit me and made me think, wow, that’s what an essay can do – I want to try that. A recent book I read and loved (and didn’t want it to end) was “The Summer Book,” a novel by Tov Jansson. The language is beautiful yet simple and I had to force myself to put it down so I wouldn’t finish it in one sitting. Some of my all time favorites include ee cummings, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Michael Ondaatje.
CQ: Essentially the same question for film and TV: what are you watching? What do you like about these films and shows?
GU: My all time favorite filmmaker is Ingmar Bergman. Bergman is also the filmmaker who I watched the most and studied the most during an important time in my life – when I was young and just beginning to make films; I was just starting to think critically about filmmaking. His themes, his emotional intensity, and his passion for asking questions – without offering answers – are what drew me to his work.
A more recent film that I loved and watched over and over again (last year, as I was gearing up to shoot a short film) is Force Majeure. I appreciated that Ruben Östlund kept his camera static and used a lot of wide shots with very, very long takes, without cutting, which allowed the audience to observe the nuances of how a couple responds to an event that shakes their marriage. Östlund gave the viewers space to look, feel, think and judge. It’s very interesting to me when filmmakers makes space for each person in the audience to have their own unique experience, when the filmmaker is restrained enough that they don’t force a particular experience or point of view onto the viewer.
CQ: Do you align yourself with any literary genres in particular or do you not see any value in such categorizations? What do you make of the divide—in publishing at least—between genre and “literary” fiction? Is it helpful or detrimental?
GU: I have a lot to learn about the different delineations and categories in and out of publishing; it can be pretty confusing. I don’t align myself with any one genre and so far haven’t found the categories helpful or detrimental. Maybe as I gain experience, I’ll have more of an opinion. When I start writing something new, I don’t have a strong sense of what I’m going to write, the shape or the form it might take, nor do I have an idea of where it might fit in terms of getting it published.