This Is Who We Are: Wendy Walters

Carlos Barragán
April 03, 2024

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making. Here, we talk with Associate Professor Wendy Walters about the interplay between poetry and nonfiction, the art of concealing knee-deep research within a good memoir, and the crucial role of sleep in a writer’s daily routine. 

Associate Professor Wendy Walters harbors the hope that someday, one of her students will come up with a better word for ‘nonfiction,’ a negative way to describe “a wonderful world of possibilities.” Both in her writing and in her class, she jumps between nonfiction and poetry, encouraging her students to explore beyond traditional creative writing boundaries. She believes, as Associate Professor Hilton Als has said, that there must be words other than 'fiction' and 'nonfiction.' 

“Nonfiction encompasses everything from the sustained lyric to the polemic,” Walters said. “In between, there is the reported work, where the self vanishes, and then the work of opinion where the self reemerges. I think nonfiction is a strange word, because it starts out as a negation. It is not fiction. I wish there was a word for nonfiction that was actually an affirmation.”

Walters is the author of Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal (Sarabande Books, 2015), named a best book of the year by Buzzfeed, Flavorwire, Literary Hub, The Root, Huffington Post, and others. She also published two books of poems, Troy, Michigan (Futurepoem, 2014) and Longer I Wait, More You Love Me (Palm Press, 2009). Her work has been published in BOMB, The Yale Review, The Iowa Review, Lapham’s Quarterly, Full Bleed, and Harper’s, among many others.  

From a very early age, Walters was interested in poetry, believing it stemmed from her musical interests. “I don't have any discernible musical talent, but I have always been drawn to music,” she said. She was also interested in abstract thinking, jumping from thought to thought. “Poetry allowed space for strange juxtapositions." Walters went on to pursue a joint MFA/PHD in Poetry and Literature from Cornell University. Her PhD informed her later work in ways she would not expect. “The academic part of the PhD was difficult for me. I felt I was interrupting my own ideas to cite others'. By the end of my dissertation, I was writing about site-specific art spaces and political geography. I was much more interested in using the skills that I had learned from studying and reading to apply them to spaces, social dynamics, and object histories."

After her academic studies, she began writing about her home. Walters, who grew up on the outskirts of Detroit, saw the auto industry's collapse firsthand. Her entire family worked in the industry. It was then that she developed her idea of what nonfiction writing represents for her. “I became very invested in reading that historical moment as an intersection between political forces and the nuanced details of people's emotional lives, which is where nonfiction lives for me.”

This interplay of the personal and the political featured heavily in one of Walters's most recent projects, Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast, an exhibition that she co-curated at The Met. The exhibition examined Western sculpture in relation to the histories of transatlantic slavery, colonialism, and empire, with an interactive twist. At a special station just outside the gallery, viewers were invited to reflect on their personal connections to these historical narratives by filling out cards in response to questions like “How is this history relevant today?” “What does emancipation mean to you?” 

Walters often tells her students that nonfiction offers a lot of room to explore and experiment before jumping into the publishing world. One of her recurring comments is that markets are too volatile. “I tell them: don’t try to make yourself small to fit into what has already been done. You’re in school, let yourself grow, and then you can start to shape your projects and move into the market. I don't want students to only be thinking about translating every single skill into a market because cultural markets are very volatile and subject to all kinds of political influences.”

In her classes, Walters encourages students to explore beyond their favorite genres, believing that great writing comes from trying new things. Walters also emphasizes the importance of research, whether her students are crafting a poem, a lyric essay, or their own narrative. "Even if you’re writing a memoir, your work has to be research-based,” she said. “Good memoirs hide the reportorial work; they create a voice that is artistically clean and lovely to engage with, but that’s really hard work to do. The strong memoirs for me, like Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ The Man Who Could Move Clouds, come from a point of view that is earned from really understanding the story she wants to tell.”

Walters's writing is also deeply informed by her research. In Lonely in America, one of the essays in her acclaimed collection, Multiply and Divide, Walters talks about slavery through a combination of the personal and an exquisite sense for reporting, exploring questions of the self and how it relates to the country. She traveled to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where “eight coffins and the remains of thirteen people were removed” from beneath the city streets. “At least four of the remains in question were of African ancestry, most likely slaves buried there in the 1700s,” she wrote. That paradox—the fact that people were living on top of this cemetery without knowing it, the fact that people lived without seeing—brightens the essay and resonates through her work.

Still, Walters’s voice is also deeply influenced by poetry. Her writing has a strong sense of the lyric. "I've absorbed it into the same place where my voice originates," she explained. “I’m most attracted to poetry when it is about the sound coming out of the body, like Whitman’s 'Song of Myself'. It's like an exhortation or a kind of song, right? And so what comes out in the voice, in a poem, is a version of the self that wants to be seen."

Walters was recently awarded the prestigious Creative Capital award for her long-term book project, a nonfiction work investigating “white paint in aesthetic contexts [that] explore the social and cultural implications of its use.” She started the project when she walked into her son’s school, recently repainted completely white. “There was something strange about that choice, especially in a school of small children who are a delightful mess. It felt like a non-choice to me. Then, I realized how many institutions chose that aesthetic.” 

Before we wrapped up the interview, I asked Walters about writing advice that's too overrated. For her, it is the belief that a single decision can definitively shape one's career. Contrary to popular belief, she argues that careers are built through persistence. "The notion that one move, positive or negative, will make or break your career is very rarely true," she said. Then, curious about advice she thinks isn't shared enough, I asked for her take on underrated tips for writers. She shared a simple and overlooked truth: get enough sleep.

“You can read and read, you can write and write, but if you don't let your brain absorb all of that material you're taking in, then it's harder for your imagination to get fired up,” she said. “Imagination is a big part of stories. So if you need to write something important, take a nap.”