I first met Rita Dragonette, author of The Fourteenth of September, in the early 2000s when she took several memoir writing classes with me at the University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. I could tell from the beginning that Rita was in it for the long haul. When she finished the memoir writing sequence, I often ran into her in the hallways of the Gleacher Center where she went on to study fiction writing. We often chatted about the unexpected turns her writing was taking, with the support of the Writer’s Studio. As we eagerly awaited the fruits of her labor, the publication of her first novel in September 2018, I had the opportunity to discuss her writing journey via email.
Dina Elenbogen: You have taken classes at the Writer’s Studio for close to two decades. You took memoir writing classes in the open program and you were in the novel writing cohort of the certificate program.  If I remember correctly, during the first memoir writing class you were working on material about your mother. During the second one you began to move into the material that ultimately became your novel. Can you talk about what inspired you to move into fiction and how the different genres helped you grow as a writer?
Rita Dragonette: Yes, as you’ll remember, my memoir was to be about my mother’s experiences as an army nurse in the European theater during World War II. I was in the process of interviewing her when I came to the Graham School.
In the memoir sequence I took with you, I learned a great deal about how to “tell” someone else’s story, but how it actually had to be my story—and about shaping a narrative by musing about and interpreting what “really” happened. It made me hungry for a deep, introspective mother/daughter journey. However, my mother was reluctant, and though the information she would share was intriguing and helped a great deal in understanding her better, it was so thin and spotty that I had to keep imagining how to connect the dots. At one point I realized the story would not only be much easier if told as fiction, but necessary if there was to be any narrative arc at all.
At the same time, my mother put her foot down and refused to cooperate. I had to accept the fact that some people simply don’t want to have their stories told.
Given these two developments, I needed a different track. I had always planned a novel about my own experiences with war (Vietnam) and the military, and I began to see how I could use the material I did glean from my mother to freely create a character in her image to significantly enhance my story. Though in early drafts she was pretty one-dimensional—based almost totally on actual incidents recorded in the memoir—by spending so much time in her head in the process, I was able to bring more motivation and compassion to her backstory, which highly informed how the mother deals with the daughter in my novel.
It turned out that though my mother was a dry “actual” character, she was easy to make real and rich as a fictional character.
" . . . we all grappled with getting to the heart of what we were trying to say." —Rita Dragonette
DE: Our memoir writing workshop grew into a close cohort. You stayed in touch with a few of the students. How did this group of writers help you once you left the program, and were they influential in your journey towards publication?
RD: Three of us from the class bonded closely because—though our stories were very different (from Mao’s China, to the Ivory Coast and WWII/Vietnam)—we were equally intrigued about each as important, compelling, and necessary to be told.
We formed a writing group and met together for over a year, until one of us moved away, and yet we stayed very close. The trust and intimacy we developed around our stories was exceptional as we all grappled with getting to the heart of what we were trying to say. We also balanced each other out—stronger editors helping weaker writers, those with great discipline egging on the ones who had trouble moving forward.
With the publication of my novel, The Fourteenth of September, we have now all published either what we were originally working on in memoir class or a work inspired by it.
DE: After taking classes in the open program for many years, you moved into the novel writing cohort of the certificate program. I believe you wrote a draft of your novel as your final project with your mentor Gary Wilson. What craft issues did you struggle with in writing a longer work?
RD: Towards the end of the open program, I realized I was cheating with the structure of my book. I’d always been enamored of Winesburg, Ohio and The Dubliners, and felt I could work in a linked-story structure, and felt that would be “easier.” It became obvious, in workshop, however, that way too much backstory needed to be involved for each story to be understood. Through working with Gary in workshop, I came to realize the story was actually a novel. It was a painful moment of insight, because all the stories I’d written had been scenes that would occur at the end of this eventual novel. I would have to come up with a beginning and create an arc that would get me to them.
I walked into the certificate program with that formidable task before me, which I believe was harder than if I’d started a new work from scratch.
I knew I had powerful, independent, BIG scenes and that I was good at dialogue. What I had a hard time with was plotting, sequencing, and pacing. For ages, I kept longing for the entire manuscript to be on paper and in order, thinking once I had that, I could polish from there. Gary would add that early on I struggled with over explaining, and he worked with me to understand how to better trust my reader. My workshop participants would add perfectionism. After a career in PR/journalism, I just hadn’t been able to turn in what were supposed to be draft workshop submissions that were less than “perfect.” Everyone consistently urged me to just keep going, but it was against my nature. Though I now call myself a “recovering perfectionist,” I still struggle with this.
"I came to realize the story was actually a novel."
DE: Your novel has since gone through many drafts and has been nourished by your residencies at the Ragdale Foundation. At what point did you find the right structure for your novel?
RD: Once I graduated from the certificate program, Ragdale became my “school.” I applied originally at your suggestion and went on to write most of my book over multiple residencies.
In my second time at Ragdale, I’d had the “gift” of a four-week residency. It was then, being able to apply such intensive focus, that I had an experience that I’d heard of, but didn’t really believe—my characters actually did start to take on a life of their own and behave accordingly. I was able to begin to release them from the “true story” facts of the plot, as well as get over my journalist/memoirist focus, and that’s where the real “fiction” began.
However, even though the story only covered a six-month time period, it was getting longer and longer. I could no longer keep my entire story in my head and was completely overwhelmed.
Fortunately, at the same residency I also met fiction writer Barb Shoup, who had been working on a novel set during the same time period. She helped me to focus on essential scenes and cut redundant characters—and, to divide the story into separate sections that would allow me to eliminate extraneous “furniture-moving” detail. She also told me where the story stopped, which was much earlier than I’d thought, and cut through a lot of the overwriting I retained from the sections that had originally been freestanding, linked stories.
Once these changes were made, a structure emerged.
DE: What is the main bit of advice you would give to an aspiring writer based on your struggles and triumphs?
To get into a community as early as possible; don’t try to do it alone. Personally, writing was a second career, and I didn’t have time to waste. When I began my novel, it was clear I didn’t have another twenty years to perfect my craft as I had in my professional career. Therefore, I knew I needed structure, the best teaching available short of an MFA, exceptional advisors, and a community. That took me to the open program at the Graham School, and I signed up for your memoir class. You then told us about Ragdale and suggested we apply. I essentially wrote most of my novel there over ten years of residencies and met a plethora of fellow writers who’ve been inspirational and educational as well as practical—my editors, copywriter, positioning coach, and more. I even started hosting my own literary salons to use what I had to offer—my marketing skills—to give back by showcasing the work of many of these writers whose literary expertise way trumps my own. It’s paid off. In short, my entire network in the literary community, which is what has facilitated my upcoming publication, began with the Writer’s Studio program. I’d advise any writer to find their own “tribe,” and grow with them.
Dina Elenbogen is an award-winning and widely published poet and prose writer. She is author of the memoir Drawn from Water (BkMkPress, University of Missouri) and the poetry collection Apples of the Earth (Spuyten Duyvil, NY). She has been teaching at the Writer’s Studio at the University of Chicago Graham School for eighteen years and is recipient of the 2012 Excellence in teaching award. This autumn, she is teaching Flash Nonfiction: A Generative Workshop and Poetry of Place.
Rita Dragonette is a former award-winning public relations executive turned author. Her debut novel, The Fourteenth of September, is a woman’s story of Vietnam which will be published by She Writes Press on September 18 and has already been designated a finalist in two 2018 American Fiction Awards by American Book Fest, and received an honorable mention in the Hollywood Book Festival. She is currently working on two other novels and a memoir in essays, all of which are based upon her interest in the impact of war on and through women, as well as on her transformative generation. She also regularly hosts literary salons to introduce new works to avid readers.
To learn more about the University of Chicago Writer’s Studio, please visit our website, and please join us for our Alumni Reading and Panel on November 15, 2018, featuring Rita Dragonette, Elizabeth Wheeler, J. S. Puller, and Stephanie Friedman.
 The Writer’s Studio Certificate in Creative Writing is on hiatus at the time of this publication.