Carlow Culture

Getting to know Carlow’s newest creative writing professor  

Interviewed by Parker Wadding  

portrait courtesy of Sarah Shotland

 Sarah Shotland is the English program’s newest creative writing faculty member.  She has produced plays, published creative nonfiction, scholarly articles as well as fiction, including her novels Abolition is Everything and Junkette. In this interview, she talks about her art, teaching writing in prisons, opportunities for writers at Carlow, the new class she is teaching in Spring 2023, directing the Mad Woman in the Attic Program, and mentoring the Red Dog Reading Series. 

How have the places you’ve lived affected your art?  

I am a place-based writer.  Which means the places that have been homes to me inform my writing profoundly, but I can only write about a place once I have left.  Distance allows you to see how a place has shaped you because you can put it into context with a wider world. For instance, when I grew up in Texas I couldn’t wait to leave.  As soon as I turned seventeen, I went to New Orleans, and I’ve never gone back to Dallas again.  But the project I’m working on right now is all about Texas, because I’ve finally had enough time to see how much it shaped me.   

What was the Words Without Walls program that you directed at Chatham University?  

Words Without Walls brought creative writing workshops to jails, prisons, and drug treatment centers in Pittsburgh, starting in 2009.  We worked with 300 to 500 writers every year, doing creative writing workshops; we had a reading series where we brought highly celebrated writers from all over the world to come to the jails and prisons and work with our students. We also published books of all our students’ best work.  The goal of Words Without Walls was not just teaching classes. It was building relationships and giving people new positive pathways to be in relationship with each other.    

How has your writing been informed by teaching creative writing in prisons and other places?  

For four years once a week I worked with basically the same group of men in the prison that used to be on Pittsburgh’s north shore. A lot of those writers in that class had been on death row and were now serving life without the possibility of parole. When you have had to face your own death as imminently as these writers had, you are unable to look away from the truth in a way that most of us spend our lives avoiding.   

In this class at the prison the types of harm that these writers had committed were things that raised life’s biggest questions about truth, consequence, redemption, and forgiveness. To be able to work with writers who are grappling with those questions so intensely changed my own writing, because I had to face those questions too.  So, in that way it has made me more willing to face life’s big questions and to write about them even if I don’t know the answers.  Those guys came to class every single week and they didn’t have answers; they just kept writing about it.  They saw in their own life that the process of writing gave them more clarity, week by week.   

The other thing that has been extremely important to me in terms of that writing in prison is that the story you tell yourself about yourself is largely what determines its next chapter. The narrative that is running in all our minds is one that we can revise, just like writers do. People go into those classes with a story that they’re telling about themselves, and through the process of writing they can change that.   

You’re now adding a few more populations to your teaching resume because you have become the director of the Madwomen in the Attic Program, mentor for the Red Dog Reading Series, and sponsor of the new Banned Books Club. Can you tell me about the Madwomen in the Attic and the Red Dog Reading Series?  

Sure, so Madwomen in the Attic is a (community writing) program here at Carlow.  It has existed since 1979 and it offers high quality, rigorous, and supportive writing workshops for women.  The program is intergenerational and it’s an incredible community of women who support each other and build relationships with one another where writing is at the heart of what we have in common.  Beyond the relationships, incredible accomplishments that have come out of the program. I can’t even begin to name the number of books that Madwomen in the Attic have published of their own writing.    

Red Dog is our reading series here at Carlow for Undergrads. In the spring, we are going to be holding Red Dog every Tuesday in the Commons. We hope everybody will come and enjoy our special guests and take a stab at the open mic and have fun with us as the creative writing program.   

In addition to Madwomen and the Red Dog reading series, you will be teaching.  Intro to Creative Writing and a special topics course on fiction and art. Can you tell us about this brand-new course?    

I’m so excited about this course.  One of the big art events that happens in Pittsburgh every few years is the Carnegie International.  It is hosted by the Carnegie Museum of Art, and they commission artworks from artists around the world. I wanted to give students a real opportunity not just to go to a museum and look around once and then check it off their list but to think of museums and public resources like that as a place that you can return to repeatedly.  You must be inspired to make things and that’s going to be different for everybody. Next semester in this class we’re going to get a really broad exposure to lots of ways we could be inspired and lots of ways we can think about what being an artist means to us.  I hope this will shake us all up and give us new creative ways to think about how we can be artists in a public space.  

Why did you choose Carlow?  

Well, I have admired Carlow for a long time, ever since I moved to Pittsburgh in 2009.  Carlow’s values are incredibly aligned with the values of making art in community with one another.  And so, I wanted to see what it felt like to work at a place where the values underlying everything were ones I really believed in and really agreed with.  The people here are incredibly, incredibly kind, generous, hospitable, down to earth, brilliant. It is so wonderful to work with people who also believe in all those values in a very sincere way.  And who support each other in living those values out in their work.  And so far, it’s been such a wonderful warm community to start to be a part of.   

The students are awesome.  Y’all are all kind to one another. Supportive of one another, but also serious and excited to be in college and earnest about wanting to learn and challenge yourselves. But also down to earth and easy to talk to and real, so that’s just been amazing.  

For more information on Sarah Shotland’s class and programs contact her by email


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