How pottery and law led to a writing career.

Robin McLean ’87
By Emily Harrison Weir
 
Writer Robin McLean is both bold and patient—a potent combination that's guided the 1987 Mount Holyoke College graduate through an unusual set of careers.
 
McLean's most enduring passion is writing, and her first collection of stories was twice a finalist for the Flannery O'Connor Short Story Prize. Reptile House also won the 2013 BOA Short Fiction Prize.
 
Reptile House impressed audiences on her three-month, 12,000-mile US book tour, which included visits with several Mount Holyoke alumnae clubs and book groups. In addition, McLean's work appears in literary journals such as the Cincinnati Review, Nashville Review, and Malahat Review, and in American Fiction: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers.
 
Literary success wasn't something McLean envisioned when she enrolled at Mount Holyoke, also the alma mater of her mother and three sisters.
 
"My family is full of doctors, so I thought I'd be premed," she recalled. "I was shy and a slow reader, so I didn't even consider a literature major."
 
McLean—who now devotes half the year to her own work, teaching writing at Clark University during the fall semester—first immersed herself in biology courses, and studied Russian language and literature intensely for a time. But then she took a creative writing class, and was smitten.
 
"The professor kind of went nuts over my first story. He said the most exciting stuff about it, and I was spellbound," she said. "My second story was horrible, but after that I kept writing and found it mesmerizing."
 
Her second MHC creative writing teacher, novelist Valerie Martin, was also supportive.
 
"She told me I had ability and should keep writing," McLean recalled. "When a teacher takes time to encourage you, you hold onto that." 
 
She still occasionally refers to comments Martin made on her student work. 
 
But after graduation, McLean went years without writing. Instead, she went to law school, passed the Bar, and took a law clerk position in Alaska. Bored by that job, she reinvented herself and spent 15 years as a professional potter in the northern woods.
 
In 2001, she returned to writing. The long hiatus, she now believes, was a necessary gestational period.
 
"I wasn't writing then because I hadn't really lived yet," she said. "I think my writing was waiting for me to have something to say. Now I do."
 
She came roaring back, as if making up for lost time. McLean earned a 2011 MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, and much of her thesis material eventually made its way into the Reptile House collection.
 
The key word is eventually, because McLean's writing process takes time. One recently published story, "But for Herr Hitler," took ten years of sporadic revision. Eight months from start to finish is about average for one of her short stories. McLean said she learned "the necessity of repetition" from her pottery career, and an earlier devotion to figure skating.
 
"You have to work to get better," she said. "You may never be Chekhov, but you need to move toward improvement all the time."
 
In Alaska she was politically active in community and environmental issues, and now uses her writing to call attention to critical issues.
 
"I'm always surprised by how many people don't view these issues as important," she said. "I want to be the one saying, 'Hey, this house is on fire' and throwing water on it."
 
When people observe that her pieces often embrace the dark side of life, McLean notes that's by design. "Art isn't for entertainment," she said. "Real art tries to contribute to the conversation of the world and move it in a positive direction."

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