The assistant professor of English shares her journey from student to published author and professor
November 2022 – Drew University’s Courtney Zoffness, assistant professor of English, director of creative writing, and coordinator of Writers@Drew, joined us for our Focus on Faculty series, where we highlight the many accomplishments, research, and scholarship of Drew’s incredible faculty members.
We sat down with Zoffness to discuss her mentorship, her critically acclaimed book Spilt Milk, and her advice for aspiring writers.
You were mentored by National Book Award-winner Alice McDermott while attending the Writing Seminars graduate program at Johns Hopkins University. How did her mentorship inform what you do in the classroom?
I admired Alice McDermott’s fiction long before I met her and I’m so grateful for the role model she became. Alice was the first professor to show me how one can create depth and complexity in a narrative. (My early stories were pretty one-dimensional!) I regularly teach her tips in my creative writing workshops. She was also generous and approachable, qualities I aim to replicate for my students.
Tell us about your inspiration for writing your critically acclaimed book, Spilt Milk.
I cut my literary teeth as a fiction writer and that was my primary focus for years. When I became a mother, however, I found myself overwhelmed by real-time questions whose answers I wanted to chase on the page—questions about anxiety and misogyny and empathy and privilege. This led me to creative nonfiction, a genre that utilizes fictional techniques to tell true stories. Spilt Milk is a series of very personal essays that examine biological, cultural, and spiritual inheritance. I’m interested in what gets assimilated from past generations and what we pass on to our children.
What advice can you give your students aspiring to be professional writers?
My journey from attending graduate school to publishing a book was long—nearly 15 years—but I never stopped writing, which meant I kept improving. I think the experience gives me a unique perspective on the value of practice and revision, and also on patience. If you focus on craft more than publication, you’ll wind up with a more unique and powerful story.
What have been your most memorable experiences when promoting Spilt Milk?
Too many to count! I was fortunate to be in conversation with so many beloved authors including Mary Gaitskill, T Kira Madden, and Lynn Steger Strong. Events were mostly on Zoom due to the pandemic so I’ve taken extra pleasure in the in-person opportunities. I enjoyed visiting Missoula in September for the Montana Book Festival, and was thrilled to launch Spilt Milk‘s paperback publication in October at P&T Knitwear in Manhattan.
Are you working on any writing projects you’d care to share?
I’m back to work on fiction! Per my earlier note about attending to process more than product, I’m not yet sure what shape the book will take, or even what it’s “about,” but I’m excited to find out.