When the late English professor Jim Clark and his wife had puppies, they looked to his colleagues and students at UNC Greensboro to find them homes.
Kathy Flann ’98 lived next door. She adopted a puppy and named her Clark. “She was the best dog,” she remembers. “She was just wonderful.”
Her friendship with human Clark, then editor of The Greensboro Review, and other prestigious professors with the UNCG English department, helped Flann get out of a slump that had threatened to quash her passion for writing.
She’s gone on to publish four books and many more short stories, memoir essays, humor pieces, and recently what she calls “NextDoor Poetry.”
The love of reading, writing, and teaching
As a child, Flann picked up any book she found around the house. “I would read romance novels. I would read Stephen King. I read George Orwell when I was ten. I loved MAD Magazine.”
She came to UNCG as a doctoral student, thinking she would become a teacher. It turned out not to be the right direction for her. “I felt too over-scheduled to do my own writing,” she says.
Nevertheless, she formed long-lasting friendships with the faculty. They suggested she switch to a master of fine arts in creative writing.
She felt right at home, guided by UNCG’s professors such as Clark, Michael Parker, Fred Chappell, and Lee Zacharias. She became a fiction editor for The Greensboro Review and got back to crafting her own stories.
“All the literature I read was applied toward that end,” she says. “For me, my interest is always in how literature is made and how I can do that.”
The works she wrote as a student became her first published works after graduation. She’s been featured in journals such as swamp pink, Shenandoah, and New Stories from the South. Her first collection of short stories, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. Her second collection, Get a Grip, won the George Garrett Award.
And her teaching plans worked out anyway. She now gives creative writing workshops for Johns Hopkins University’s Advanced Academic Programs. She built courses for BBC’s “Get Writing” website and published Write On: Secrets to Crafting Better Stories.
NextDoor poetry and overly comfortable couches
Inspiration comes from some remarkable places. In 2020, Flann started paying attention to her regular emails from NextDoor, a platform that lets neighbors share anything they think is important, such as items for sale or questions about pets.
“The emails just had the subject lines of what was trending on NextDoor,” she says. “I was really taken in with the voices and the variety, how they sounded next to each other. I was just thinking about what would sound interesting together. What would happen if I put this next to this?”
The results were a Mad Libs-style poem like this:
What’s your favorite candy?
Kit Kat is found!
The kids are thrilled!
ISO of a Dentist
Need dental cleaning
They got such a positive response that she created a Twitter account called “The Unexpected Poetry of NextDoor Digest.”
Her humor pieces are generally some of her favorites to write. They include instructions on how to tame a couch that is growing dangerously comfortable, an apology to her future self for teaching her child how to make Alexa play “Whoomp, There it Is,” and a eulogy to “real pants” in the era of stretchy pants.
“I almost feel like they insist on being written, instead of other kinds of writing where I feel like I’m insisting that it be written,” says Flann.
Advice to Zombies
Her humor book – How To Survive a Human Attack: A Guide for Werewolves, Mummies, Cyborgs, Ghosts, Nuclear Mutants, and Other Movie Monsters – was inspired by her husband’s television preferences.
“He was watching a zombie show,” says Flann. “All the zombies were screaming as I was trying to write. The show was so loud that I couldn’t concentrate. Then I started thinking about how bad the zombies were at this. They were just getting slaughtered. Somebody should help them. So, I started writing – right at that moment – advice for the movie monster zombie to survive.”
Publishing it was trickier. When no one picked it up initially, she and her agent reworked it into a graphic novel and pitched it to Running Press.
“Running Press came back and said, ‘Yeah, we really liked this idea, but maybe not as a graphic novel.'” She gave them her original manuscript, and they found a happy medium – an illustrated humor book. For an extra humorous twist, it was also categorized as non-fiction.
The ups and downs of getting published is something Flann tries to prepare new writers for. It’s a business driven by quality, readers’ preferences, editors’ tastes, and luck, and sometimes it is hard to distinguish which of those factors is driving a rejection.
She says, “It’s a little bit mysterious. That’s where other writers come in – having a community tell you if they find your work ready or not.”
Writers will say they are “pantsers” or “plotters” – either they write by the seat of their pants or they outline a meticulous plan before they put down a word.
Flann puts herself in the pantser category. “It’s hard for everyone, honestly,” she says, “To keep all the pieces of that ‘plot thing’ together. But it’s a little harder for some writers than others.”
UNCG offers a myriad of resources to pantsers and plotters alike. It teams up with organizations such as NC Writers and the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival for conferences and other events. It hosts reading sessions with alumni. The Distinguished Visiting Writers Series provides workshops and master classes by established authors and editors. Younger authors can take advantage of summer camps. Community Voices stokes the creativity of children who originally came to the Greensboro area as refugees.
Flann’s works can be found on her website. She’s happy to make her writing as varied as her reading tastes when she was a child.
“Something light and funny and fluffy, with the substance of cotton candy that you read once and never again,” she says. “And then, sometimes you just want something more substantial, to dig your teeth into. I feel like we need both.”
Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Kathy Flann
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