Halina Duraj, PhD, is an assistant professor of English, teaching literature and creative writing. She serves as director of USD’s Lindsay J. Cropper Memorial Writers Series, which is now in its 10th year, and she’s a published author. She recently won the prestigious O. Henry Prize Award for her short story, “Fatherland.” Inside USD asks her about her writing inspirations, her growth as a writer with a new short story collection just published and about a growing creative writing community on campus.
I’m not so sure writers have a single voice, so it’s not something I worry about too much. I do try to write early in the morning, before the day’s noise gets inside my mind. It’s easier to listen to a character or narrator’s voice inside my head before I hear other people’s voices.
How has your current short story offering, The Family Cannon (Augury Books 2014), enabled you to grow as a writer?
That collection feels like proof of my growth as a writer, from story to story. Although they weren’t written in chronological order, they do span about six years of writing. I’ve come to be proud of all of those stories: they were the best I could do at the time I wrote them, but I can see the limitations of each one, and I can see how my craft improved with practice.
Who are a few writers that inspire you as a writer and professor and why?
I love Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) and Carole Maso (The Art Lover) for the way the forms of their novels are absolutely integral to what they’re writing about. And I love Lynn Freed’s work (The Servants’ Quarters). She inspires me as a teacher because her prose is pitch-perfect. It reminds me that so much of teaching how to write is training the writer’s ear, as in music lessons.
Through the Lindsay J. Cropper Center for Creative Writing, the speaker series, contests, etc., a passionate creative writing community exists on campus. Can you talk about the importance of these creative resources to USD’s liberal arts/holistic education model?
It is so important for writers-in-training to see role models reading their own work on stage. It’s also important for other students to experience literary events. As part of the audience, students participate in the dynamic, lively expression of language, which fosters a lifelong appreciation for the literary arts. Students always at first resist attending readings on Friday nights, and then on Mondays they rave about how much fun they had.
The great short story writer, John Updike, said, “I will try to work steadily, even modestly, in the spirit of monks who carved the undersides of choir chairs.” This quote reminds me that what matters is doing the work well, whether or not anyone reads it. You have to love writing for its own sake; you’ll go crazy if you look for rewards outside your own belief in what you’re doing.
Can you go a day without writing or reading a book? If so, what’s something you do when you need a break?
I can and do go a day without writing, unfortunately. It’s harder to go without reading. I always have a book of fiction—something I’m not teaching, something I’m reading for pleasure—on my nightstand and I try to read a page before I fall asleep. I teach because I write, and I write because I love reading, so reading a little for pleasure every day reminds me of my purpose.