Q&A with Alumni Award Recipient Dan Musgrave

Q&A with Alumni Award Recipient Dan Musgrave

This year is the fourth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 3 to 7, 2019 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 600 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, starting with Dan Musgrave!

Dan Musgrave was raised by animals in rural Kansas. Currently, he is one of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship’s initial cohort of Literary Fellows. He is a writer and photographer whose work most commonly focuses on the intersections of the human and animal world and his work has appeared in The Missouri Review, The Sun, and Electric Literature. He is a registered member of the Osage Nation, and he holds an MFA from the University of Missouri- St Louis and an MA in Biological Anthropology from Iowa State University. For nearly seven years, he did linguistic, cognitive, and behavioral research with captive bonobos while they trained him in the art of being a better person. Dan can be found online at danmusgrave.com

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I’m a part of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, which has a message board where often we share grant or fellowship opportunities or news (or requests rides). Last year, one of my friends posted something to the effect of “OMG Write in Iceland y’all.” That was the initial draw, but once I got on the website and saw the incredible writers IWR brings in each year, I knew this was a special opportunity to learn and be inspired. It was obvious that this experience would be of great benefit to my practice.

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

Two things: connecting with and learning from the remarkable faculty and being inspired by the landscape. My own writing often questions or investigates boundaries, be they between cultures, experiences, philosophies, or species. I see many of IWR’s 2019 writers as fellow explorers of margins, with many debunking traditional categories simply through their lived experiences. That speaks directly to my work and my upbringing as a member of a multiracial family in the rural heart of the United States. I have no doubt that every one of the guided workshops will be informative and bring expanded clarity and insight to my own process. I fully expect to leave each session energized and inspired by the instructors and my fellow attendees. As for Iceland itself, I’m particularly attuned to place and the interplay between environment and thought. Much of my work is developed out of these interactions between humanity (usually mine) and the natural world. I would be remiss, especially considering my interests and commonly explored themes, not to acknowledge Iceland’s natural wonders as something I look forward to.

How has writing influenced your life?

My father is a Vietnam Veteran who used poetry to deal with his PTSD and so writing has been something I’ve always been immersed in at a deeply personal level. However, I didn’t intend to become a writer. I had this idea that if I wanted to do it as much as I did, that it would be a selfish path to take. I completed a total of two English classes in College. Instead, I started out as an anthropologist and spent seven years doing cognitive and linguistic research with great apes. I loved the apes I collaborated with but grew dissatisfied with my situation— every day, the apes exposed me to truths that I could not sufficiently explore or convey through purely scientific means. I needed the freedom of creative writing to more effectively explore the things I was learning from the apes but couldn’t express in a purely quantitative way. Now, especially, I see the need for good writing in our world. When done well, writing is anything but selfish and performs an essential public service of increasing and developing our empathy.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

There’s a new one every week, it feels like, because I’m never satisfied and always seeking challenges to further my growth as a writer. The base economics of it can be a consistent drag, as that paying-the-bills thing often gets in the way of the creative process. At the moment, a big challenge has been corralling and reining in my fiction in particular. I found myself getting into a pattern where I was letting a little too much Id into my work and one of two things were happening: either I was mixing any and every idea into one frenetic pile (the writing equivalent of the first five minutes of my dog at a dog park) or I was highly focused but was emotionally purging onto the page. This was effective for me, the writer, in the moment of creation, but did not necessarily serve my readers and, in fact, may have caused some discomfort or pain without earning it. So I want to become a little more Hippocratic with my fiction (my nonfiction doesn’t suffer the same issue). I acknowledge that, once the story is out there, it isn’t exactly mine anymore and is, instead, something my reader and I share. Most of my effort now is toward becoming a more intentional and measured fiction writer so as to ensure it serves more than just me.

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

I have applied to IWR in the past and not been selected, so I would encourage everyone who applies for an Alumni Award to not lose heart and keep trying. In my experience, I found that IWR makes applying as painless and widely accessible as possible.


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