ASU alumna, instructor finds stability in writing

By

Rachel Bunning

Update: Venita Blackburn was named a finalist for the PEN America Literary Awards on Jan. 25.

Most people who pursue a degree in liberal arts and humanities have probably been asked why or what they intend to do with such a degree. Arizona State University alumna Venita Blackburn proves these majors go above and beyond all expectations.

“Writing really felt like something I could enjoy doing and I was willing to commit to it for a while. Figuring out my path, alone, was a big deal,” said Blackburn, a current instructor at the university. “I was notorious for quitting and changing majors. I’ve always been artistic and I just had an inclination that fiction was the one.” 

In 2008, Blackburn received her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the Department of English, a unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She had the opportunity to work with Aimee Bender, a novelist and short-story writer, during her undergraduate studies. Blackburn was so inspired that she decided to apply for ASU’s competitive master's degree program. 

“I applied for the MFA in creative writing and I got in,” Blackburn said. “I wanted to be a writer, I wasn’t sure what kind of stories, but I had some stories to tell. They give you training to be a teacher and turns out I liked it, so I kept going and stuck around and I’ve been here ever since.”

Upon completing her degree, Blackburn decided to continue teaching at the college level. She worked at community colleges in the greater Phoenix area until she was hired as a full-time instructor for Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus, where she has been for the last five years.

“I’m always teaching various forms of creative writing and English in different formats, whether it’s online or in-person or advanced or intermediate or beginners,” Blackburn said. “It’s been really great. I’m always really appreciative when I get those rare students who have insight, will and commitment to language and the work. That’s always really fulfilling.”

While Blackburn was teaching, she noticed students were excited to get involved outside of the classroom. She started a community writing group called “Live, Write” for people with interest in works dealing with communities of color. The group is open to the entire community as it recognizes the distinctions and particular areas of concern communities of color face.

“I had a lot of students going through my class who were struggling with race and the perception of it in their work and they were sort of uncomfortable with a lot of the comments being made in some of the workshops,” Blackburn said. “Instead of just directing my students to specific workshops that were designed for just that, I decided to start one here.”

In the midst of teaching at both the university and within the community, Blackburn has also found time to continue practicing her passion for writing. Her first collection of short stories, “Black Jesus and Other Superheroes,” was published this fall. Her collection won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize last year and was announced on the PEN America Literary Awards Longlist for the Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction.

“I was writing all these stories about people who had unusual powers, super powers in a way,” Blackburn said. “Some of them obvious and others more internal, but it was about how these powers are not so much a gift, but something that has to be coped with and managed more than anything. I think it was a metaphor for this life in general. How we all have these different abilities, and sometimes disabilities, that people don’t recognize the true value of them if we’re limited in our thoughts. So that became a theme for it.”

Blackburn’s success is just beginning. She is continuing to work on her writing while educating young writers within the university and community. 

“For new people starting out, I highly recommend they try everything,” Blackburn said. “There are a lot of different avenues. Be exposed to different kinds of groups, go to conferences, residencies all over the nation and potentially the world, if you can. There are a lot of opportunities, and just take them all.”