Faculty of the Fortnight: Chris Millis
October 29, 2015
Filed under Faculty of the Fortnight
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In a dimly lit office, a table covered in piles of paper sits beneath a shelf stacked with books. A second desk is covered with yet more papers and literature of every kind. On the wall hangs a large poster for the movie “Small Apartments.” Chris Millis, the writer in residence at Sierra Nevada College this year, has multiple projects going on all the time with various deadlines.
“My writing projects never end. There are five things that I am working on one table and a bunch on another. I have three books I’m writing right now, plus a screenplay rewrite. I have another screenplay that I have to write from an outline that I did, and that is just the stuff on the top of the list,” he said.
Millis teaches creative nonfiction, fiction and screenwriting classes at Sierra Nevada College. He says teaching has been a learning process for him.
“The fact that I need to pick apart my process, figure out why I do what I do, and the way I do it, and then organize that into a 15-week program, has been challenging and fun,” he said.
Millis received his MFA from Goddard College in Vermont.
“I got my MFA because I published this novel, “Small Apartments,” and had the opportunity to write the screenplay. I was going through a funk, so I went to graduate school to try to figure out how I wrote a book in the first place and got it published,” he said. “The nice result was getting the MFA and being able to teach college writing.”
Prior to arriving at SNC, Millis had not spent much time in the classroom as a professor.
“Outside of seminars and presentations, I hadn’t taught academically before. Then I got invited to be a visiting writer at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York in their graduate program. I only had to teach one class but had other responsibilities,” Millis said.
In 2012, Millis was invited by English Department Chair June Saraceno to come to SNC for a writer’s workshop. A year and a half later, Saraceno reached out to Millis to come back to SNC as the writer in residence. Millis had been working in Los Angeles while his family was living in New York. He saw Saraceno’s invitation as a chance to create a more stable life in Incline Village.
“I was living in California for most of the year and felt like SNC was a pretty cool invitation. I was very grateful to be invited. I discussed it with my wife and we decided to do it as an adventure as a family and to put our twin boys through third grade here,” he said.
Millis says he is not here to just grade papers and tell students if they are good or bad, but to give advice and teach students the tools needed to turn writing into an easy process.
“I’m just hyper-focused on practical tools that writers can use,” he said.
Millis says the writing process is all about learning a simple three-part structure. This structure can help in all forms of writing.
Part one includes the thesis and involves setting up the story. Part two is the midpoint, where a big change will happen, and in part three the character combines knowledge and experience to make a comeback.
“When I think about teaching writing, I really think about teaching architecture. I’m teaching students how to frame houses. What you do with the frame is up to you,” he said.
Millis likes to make story structure easy to relate to by deconstructing works of writing with his students.
“I think showing students the structure in articles, books and movies gives them a wonderful lightbulb moment,” Millis said.
Many students and new writers often lack self-confidence regarding the quality of their work. Millis encourages his students just to finish.
“People are judging themselves too harshly. It is important to finish things,” he said. ”Structure gives you the confidence that you will finish because you can see that it is all mapped out.”
Millis says he is getting more comfortable in the classroom as he helps students create a toolbox of skills and techniques that can be used for a lifetime.
“It’s really cool for me knowing that I can help somebody shorten their learning curve on something that would have taken longer to learn on their own,” Millis said. “It gives me a lot of pleasure to share something I know.”