Behind the Words: Elizabeth Hilts

Posted by on Jul 11, 2014 in Uncategorized | 4 comments

A System of Linear Equations- Hilts, ElizabethElizabeth’s Hilts’s essay, A System of Linear Equations, is a wonderfully quiet piece that dedicates many of its words to exploring the world that she has found herself in; a world with a mother who is “completely out of her mind” and a world where she has to face adult realities. Hilts was nice enough to answer some questions about her writing routine, teaching, and what she’s working on now. 


I love your descriptiveness in this piece, especially because it juxtaposes the idea of holding a secret with giving every possible detail of a setting or situation. Did you do that intentionally, or did you find it came more naturally?

What a great question. When I started the first draft of this piece the task I had set was to remember what it felt like to walk through my world with that big secret.

I was trying to remember what it was like to be in that space and time, hoping this would help me access the “me” I was then. I was, of course, full of secrets in those days so I guess traveling back to the setting and the situation requitapped directly into how it felt to hold that one specific secret.


Were you writing when you were fifteen?

Of course I was. I’ve written since before I had the tools of writing; I would dictate stories to my dad (always my dad) and, based on the evidence, I wrote across genres. When I was fifteen I mostly wrote very bad poetry and even worse lyrics, all very derivative. I did write in journals but I burned all those at some point, a devastating denial of self that I still can’t believe I committed.


How did you write about your mother? As in, how were you able to paint your mother as human without making her the antagonist or a monster?

Wow. I’m really pleased to hear that I have been able to do that! All credit is due to Baron Wormser who, during the semester he was my mentor, asked me to write just one scene that focused on my mother as a person. The first line I wrote was, “She is 34 years old”—and I was immediately overwhelmed by how young she was when her entire world collapsed. Even if she hadn’t also been spiraling into madness she must have been so scared, so devastated, so lost. That’s when I truly understood that she wasn’t a monster, that she was just suffering—and that it wasn’t her choice.


How do you personally know when an essay is finished?

I don’t. That’s why I need readers who I trust. And that’s why I sometimes (often) submit something prematurely.


Do you have a writing routine?

I do on paper. In reality what happens is that I write a bit when I first wake up (though after coffee), I write while my students are writing in class, I write when I am waiting to meet with students—in other words, I write in stolen moments. Though there is this, too—most nights I startle awake just after drifting toward sleep and feel compelled to get up, go into my office, and write. The writing, of course, is not a problem—I write all the time. The tricky part is the thinking, the making sense of what I’ve written, the contextualizing of all those words that come so easily. For that I have no routine and I’m wondering about that more and more of late—how do I develop a thinking routine? I guess that’s a different kind of discipline, eh?


How does teaching affect your writing?

I’m lucky enough to be guiding students through reading a wide range of texts, including literature; as a result I think a lot about how all kinds of writing works. In attempting to explain it, I understand writing a lot better. And I get to read widely so that’s a positive thing. The problem is that all the time it takes to teach (because teaching requires many more hours than those spent in the classroom) gets in the way of the thinking routine I need to be developing.


Do you think the success of the Inner Bitch books has affected your writing?

I think all the books (even “Every Freaking! Day with Rachell Ray” which required taking on another person’s “voice”), having written for and edited an alternative newspaper, and even my corporate work taught me a lot about how I write and helped me develop a lot of discipline when it comes to writing.


What are you working on now?

Other than grading papers and meeting with students? Oh, you certainly must mean writing. I’m mainly working on revising the memoir that was my MFA thesis; as a way to stretch the writing muscles a bit, I started warming up each morning with some “flash” pieces (some fiction, some creative nonfiction). These are little things, designed mostly as exercises in paying attention or capturing the dangling thread of an idea that may become something more someday. I do have a novel-in-progress I plan on returning to once the memoir is done. Oh, and the 2016 Inner Bitch calendar is due in August, so once the semester ends…well, lucky me, I’ll be busy.


Zac Zander lives in Connecticut with his dog, Kaki, who is named after the musician not the pants. He holds an MFA from Fairfield University and is working on a collection of essays.


  1. Elizabeth’s voice, I. The essay and even in this interview, is so singularly neautiful.

  2. Elizabeth’s voice, in the essay, and even in this interview, is so singularly beautiful.

  3. Thank you, Catherine Shugrue dos Santos!

  4. Elizabeth , You have the gift of letting others hear your “voice”.
    What a gift….

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