Katie Brewer: What is your background—what lead you to the career you have now?
Derek Sheffield: I read books, lots of books, from middle school onwards. I loved, and still do, the power of language on the imagination. Saul Bellow says, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” That has been my story. I knew early on that I wanted to be able to create these wonderful machines of words we call books. They had been so important to me that I wanted to make more for others. Reading led to writing and writing to teaching. Many writers teach because it can be difficult to earn a living through selling books. So, teaching offers a steady, middle-class job that can be conducive to writing. Even though we aren’t paid a princely salary in money, we have summers (unless we aren’t teaching then, too, or doing another job) to read and write. Perhaps the best reason to teach, though, also applies to writing: it is meaningful work. Both vocations are concerned with beauty and truth, not dollars.
Katie Brewer: Is it hard for you to get over fear of criticism from other people reading your work? How do you deal with that?
Derek Sheffield: What helps now with criticism or rejection is that I have the comfort of knowing that my work has been published in some of the most prestigious publications we have. I’ve won awards judged by some of our most prominent poets. I’ve published two chapbooks and two books. I’ve been awarded fellowships by various organizations. So, honestly, that helps. But what is more vital and lasting is that I’ve reached the point now where publication is clearly secondary to writing. I love the process of making poems as well as I can make them. That is what is primary: doing the work and getting it right. Publication is the butter; writing is the bread. Good bread tastes darn good without butter.
I welcome the kind of constructive criticism I receive from fellow writers. We share work with each other, as part of our process, and their constructive comments have helped me greatly. This is the kind of attention your work receives in a workshop, and workshops are typically part of creative writing classes.
When I was just starting out, I was more vulnerable. What helped then was the advice I received from one of my mentors, Nelson Bentley. He advised me to send my poems out the next day after the came back rejected. That way, hope lives.
Katie Brewer: Did you ever feel pressure to pursue a more “traditional” career path?
Derek Sheffield: No, I didn’t. My parents were very supportive. I was able to discover and follow my bliss. Perhaps paradoxically, that path is often more likely to lead to financial stability. My colleague who is a business professor encouraged his daughter to pursue her degree in English because that’s what she wanted to study. She is now making twice his income working for a public relations firm in London.