Professor Liz Ranfeld has taught in the English Department at AU since 2011. She received a bachelor’s degree in English from Taylor University and a master’s in creative nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire. She, her husband and their two children live in Albany; in her free time, Ranfeld enjoys traveling, gardening and reading.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
In kindergarten, even before then, I was stapling together construction paper into a book. And I was like, “I wrote a book!” I once copied all of “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” and I was like, “I wrote this!” My mom had to tell me that, no, that’s not what it means to write a book.
I was fascinated by books and stories from a very early age. I started writing fiction through middle school and high school and ended up being a writing major in college. It was only near the end of college that I developed a love for the essay, for creative nonfiction, and ended up going into creative nonfiction for my graduate work. It’s always been with me, that desire or need to write. It was in college where it really became part of my identity, not just something that I do. It became part of how I process the world and also how I speak to the world and interact with people.
What does your creative process look like and how has it shifted over time?
My creative process probably looks a little different from day to day. It looks significantly different during the school year and on breaks. I tend to be more productive in the summer, just because if it’s during the school year, I usually feel the pressure of, “Oh, I shouldn’t be writing,” because I’ve got student work to grade or stuff to prepare. I have to be very intentional to write during the school year.
If I’m writing nonfiction, a lot of times that is something where, if I’m writing topically, I’ll get an idea of something I want to contribute to the conversation, spend a couple hours on it that night, write it and get it shared, either pitched for an article somewhere or posted to my professional page. If it’s an essay, something where I’m really thinking about something in the world or some cyclical theme in my life, then that might take me weeks or months to sort out. I’ll write multiple drafts and return to certain ideas over and over again until I find that they are an essay. And then, sometimes I still write fiction; that looks like trying to participate in fiction writing challenges and trying to commit to a short amount of time.
How does your family influence your writing?
I write a lot about my extended family. It was kind of my entry into nonfiction, writing essays trying to understand how our family worked and how it didn’t work. Some of the first essays that people really liked were these ones about my family, which is tricky. I continued to do that. I’m very influenced by my family narrative, my family story—the decisions my parents and my grandparents made. My grandmother was a poet and a writer, so I can see some of the influences there.
As far as my immediate family, my husband and my kids—writing about your kids is always fraught with ethical and moral questions, especially if you’re writing nonfiction. It’s not my place to write about some highly personal or sensitive thing that one of my kids has gone through.
My daughter had an experience that was so much like something I had gone through as a kid, and I could recognize her pain and what I had gone through. It would have been a beautiful essay, and it would have helped people, and it would have been good. But it was not appropriate for me to write. It wasn’t worth it, even if she didn’t read it as a kid or wasn’t bothered by it if she comes across it in 20 years. It wasn’t a line I could cross because it was so important to her and so private and so personal. I couldn’t do it.
I actually write a lot about chronic health because my husband is severely chronically ill. I write quite a bit about what that’s like. So when I write about marriage or about relationships, it’s often informed by the specific challenges that our marriage faces when you’ve got one healthy person and one who’s not healthy.
What do you like to do when you’re not drowning under papers to grade?
I like writing and reading and movies. I also have chickens. One of my favorite things is to go outside on a summer evening, let them out a couple hours before dark and just watch them. My neighbors probably think I’ve lost it. I just like being around animals, and if the animals I can be around are chickens, then I’ll take it. I find them to be delightful.
I really like to travel, and I like to take my kids on little adventures. My daughter and I, who is eight, are going on a cruise this summer to Cuba. My son and I, who is four, are still trying to figure out what we’re going to do this summer. I might take him camping for a couple nights. He would really like to do that.
How has working at AU changed your life or perspective?
I grew up in Muncie, but wasn’t really familiar with AU. I probably attended some events or concerts here, but really only became part of this community because of this job. In the beginning it was difficult to get my grounding because it seemed like everybody knew everybody, and not only did they know everybody, they’d known them for 20 and 30 and 40 years.
The great thing is, though, it didn’t feel insurmountable. It wasn’t like, “Oh, there’s this group and I’m not part of it, and I have to figure out how to get in.” It was simply a matter of, “I don’t know people yet.” And then I did get to know people. And people have been really warm and welcoming, and that kind of community has been neat to experience—to go from not having any history here to really feeling, in seven years, like I’m connected here and part of the community here.
What do you wish to tell students who are unsure about what to do when their time in college ends?
I took a few years off before I went to grad school. When I graduated, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to write, but I had no idea how to turn that into any kind of career. My senior year of college, a writing professor told me that I had a gift for giving feedback and helping younger writers, and maybe I should look into teaching. Before that, teaching had never crossed my mind. It definitely wasn’t solidified at first. Right after college I applied to grad schools and didn’t get into any of the three programs I applied to. So, I’ve experienced that, too. If you go through that, if you go through your first round and you don’t get the job or the schools you want, it really is okay. The first try doesn’t always have to be perfect.
I spent a few years working. I substitute taught and got a job at an art center, started figuring out the community art scene and how I could use some of my creative talents in a productive way. And then I did end up going to grad school after that, once I really knew what I wanted to do and changed focus.
It’s okay if it’s not a straight path from here to there. That’s fine. I could not have plotted my life, and I don’t think I would have wanted to plot my life. So, yes, it’s great if you know what you want to do and you have ideas you can work toward, but it’s not a sign of failure to be about to graduate and not have that set up yet, especially if you can connect with people who can help you move and take a next step. Don’t get paralyzed and not take a next step, but don’t be worried that the next step has to be the ultimate step.