An Interview with Award-Winning Actor and Recent MFA Alumnus Tim Cummings
Tim Cummings is a recent graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program. For his field study, a required part of the MFA program which asks students to put their knowledge and skills as writers to work in service of something they personally value in their local communities, Tim edited, compiled, and published an Anthology of teen writing from students of the Ojai Playwrights Conference. As an actor, he recently received his third LA Drama Critics Circle Award for actor in a leading role for his performance in the play The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage. His work has previously been published in F(r)iction, Meow Meow Pow Pow, Lunch Ticket, and Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), where he is a regular contributor.
How did you go about preparing for your readings?
I contemplated several 15-minute passages from my middle-grade novel…and decided on a passage toward the end, the climax of the book. The Electric Lodge is less intimate than Room 1001 on campus. There’s just something more presentational about the Lodge, so I chose a passage that was more prismatic, that encompassed more of the book’s spirit: its sadness, its humor, its kookiness. The section I chose contains more locations and more characters. It was just more layered. Then I practiced and practiced. On my way to the Lodge, I composed in my head a little melody for the little song that appears in the passage. The ‘pizzacat’ song. I pulled that one out of a hat like a rabbit!
Compared to when you first started the program and now, how did you feel confidence-wise on sharing your work with the public? What have you noticed about your work?
During the reading I found myself in my head at first: I had never voiced my protagonist in a room full of listeners. “Oh dear,” I thought. “My protagonist is a 12-year-old girl. And I’m a 45-year-old man with a deep voice and built like a football player. Will they buy this? Does it sound authentic? Are people perplexed? Help.” But ultimately, Tess is my heroine, my heart, and no matter who voices her, I think her spirit is equine and will thunder across the plains.
What I’ve noticed about my work is that even though I have been suffused with self-doubt and self-criticism (I’m one of those perfectionist types) all the way through the process, so many people responded in an overwhelmingly positive way, not only to the reading but in the writing workshops as well. So I breathed a sigh of relief. If I move out of the way, the book will forge its own path.
Now that you’ve graduated, what would you say is the biggest takeaway from the program?
Community: Making lifelong friends; meeting and collaborating with mentors who are working authors; having an Antiochian runway to land on again and again.
Craft: Improving the technical aspects of my writing; embracing my voice; reading like a writer and understanding what is happening on the page, and why.
What plans/goals do you have now that you’ve graduated?
To get my books published, teach, coach, start a lit journal, start an LA-based reading series, join a book club or writer’s group. Attend conferences, and submit my Graduate Student Presentation so that I can lecture.
What advice would you give to new students and those planning on applying to the MFA program?
For those planning to apply: Read the books that have been published by the faculty. It is a sure-fire way of deciding whether the program is right for you. As I said at my Electric Lodge reading: any mecca of higher learning (or any writer program anywhere) is defined not by its name or its reputation. It is defined by the faculty, staff, students/writers that populate the program. Antioch is wondrously unique in that way.
For new students: You’ll extract from the program what you put into it. If you want to coast through with the primary goal of earning an MFA for whatever reason, then you can probably do that and be lazy and blasé and whatever. If your goal is to become a writer, strong and agile and smart, then roll up your sleeves and take advantage of Antioch’s many offerings. It’s a rigorous program if you let it in.
I wanted to be a writer when I was a child before I veered off onto an acting path. I was eleven years old when I did my first play and for the last 34 years, I have lived in that mercurial thespian life to the maximum. But I never stopped writing, never stopped reading, never stopped dreaming that I will be a published author. That is why I headed back to grad school. It was not easy. It was hard work. But I had a vision of growing into a super-author, one with gentle authority; one who has something to say, who moves and changes people and makes them laugh and cry and inspires them.
I want to be an author whose books helps kids grow up and adults grow back down.
By MFA Student Lily Caraballo