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Lillian Li finds inspiration for her fiction by learning new skills. Photo by Leisa Thompson Photography

After completing his Master of Fine Arts in 2019, and a fellowship at the start of the pandemic the following spring, Gerardo Sámano Córdova (M.F.A. ’19) considered returning to an advertising career to ensure a steady income. Instead, in the interest of preserving his mental energy for creative pursuits, he lived with family, taking on occasional freelance work. Along the way, he has found a harmony between the written word and his first love, visual art. 

Lillian Li’s (’15) path to publishing her debut novel was fueled in part by practicing French, learning piano, and volunteering. As she works on her second novel, she is taking inspiration from her technology career and her improv troupe. 

For years after moving to New York City, Darrel Alejandro Holnes (’10) taught six classes a term, year round, while he pursued a writing career. More recently, he has found equilibrium, with less teaching and more world travel, and the publication of two poetry collections.


Gerardo Sámano Córdova, Lillian Li, and Darrel Alejandro Holnes balance writing with work, travel, and life. Photos from left: Aimee Andrion, Leisa Thompson Photography, Sarah Stacke


Sámano Córdova, Li, and Holnes are all alumni of LSA’s prestigious Helen Zell Writers’ Program (HZWP). The highly selective program funded their graduate studies and a subsequent year of writing, so they completed the program without accruing new student loan debt. The HZWP was designed to give writers a chance to start their careers without these burdens. While a day job is necessary for many HZWP alumni to supplement often-irregular writing incomes—providing the steadiness required to sign a lease, buy a house, and budget for childcare, groceries, and health insurance—creatively speaking, a day job can be tough on the manuscript. 

Writing a book takes time and brainpower. Folding those hours into the waking life of a working writer can be immensely challenging. Without the time to regularly sink into the work of writing for hours at a time, books often fail to progress. 

And yet, many HZWP alumni find a way to a literary career after the program. Here are the day jobs, side-hustles, multi-hyphenate roles, and non-writing-related creative habits that three HZWP alumni, all published authors, pursue in order to make the writing life work.


Before publishing his first novel, Gerardo Sámano Córdova had a career in visual art and design. Photo by Gerardo Sámano Córdova

Sámano Córdova’s debut novel, Monstrilio, was published in March 2023, and the author launched the book in Brooklyn, surrounded by friends and family who had come from all over the world to celebrate him. His novel tells the story of a ravenous, human-like creature grown from a slice of a dead boy’s lung, and reviews have been enthusiastic. The Los Angeles Times hailed the book as “an unearthly hybrid that’s part horror, part literary meditation on grief, part wildly entertaining tale.” The characters of Monstrilio, like their author, are cosmopolitan, roaming through Mexico City, New York, and Berlin. In addition to touring for the book, in the past year, Sámano Córdova has lived in Brooklyn; Mexico City; Querétaro, Mexico; and Montreal. 

Sámano Córdova began writing the book during his first year of HZWP in 2017, and his top priority in the years after the program was to complete it. He knew that reentering the advertising world would devour energy he needed during a crucial stage of drafting: preparing the manuscript for his agent to send out to editors. Instead, he lived frugally with family and friends, and sold the book to Zando in early 2022.

Illustration below: Sámano Córdova’s doodle of a monster inspired the concept of his debut novel, Monstrilio.


Sámano Córdova’s writing life, and most writing lives, is one of extreme revision. “That first draft [of Monstrilio, in 2017] was very, very different than what the book looks like now,” he says. Mentors in the HZWP program, like former Professor Eileen Pollack, and cohort members, like the writer ’Pemi Aguda (’19), provided generous feedback. Pollack also urged Sámano Córdova to meet with literary agent Jenni Ferrari-Adler when she visited the program, knowing his work would resonate with the agent. Sámano Córdova signed with her soon after. 

During the revision process, he drew upon his previous career as a graphic designer and his lifelong pursuit of visual art. He’d studied film and photography as an undergraduate at Ithaca College, and supported himself with jobs that mixed coding and design, even working with a high-end fashion house to design shoes.


Sámano Córdova’s writing life is one of extreme revision. “That first draft [of Monstrilio, in 2017] was very, very different than what the book looks like now,” he says. Illustration by Gerardo Sámano Córdova


With characteristic humility, Sámano Córdova describes himself today as “a doodler.” His drawings often spark his literary ideas, including the monster protagonist of Monstrilio

And from his background in photography, the negative space between objects in an exhibit holds for Sámano Córdova a similar tension to the white space on a page. “A lot can happen in that negative space for the reader,” he says. 

Sámano Córdova, now Fordham University’s writer-in-residence, is working on new material. Some days, he says, it’s easier to write knowing he already has a book out in the world. On other days, other people’s expectations can be stultifying. Always, Sámano Córdova returns to his first love, visual art, as he creates fiction, drawing his way into new stories.


There are no shortcuts when writing a novel, Li says. Photo by Leisa Thompson Photography

In 2013, Li began a novel about a struggling family restaurant in the Metro D.C. area—part high-stakes workplace drama, part family saga, with a good dose of humor. She figured she had the first third of the book set. But her mentor, the aforementioned Pollack, thought otherwise. “This is not a novel; these are character sketches,” Pollack told her. 

“And she was right,” Li says. “She saved me a lot of time.” Pollack instructed Li to think of novel characters not as enacting the routine of daily life but as experiencing the disruption of that daily life. So, Li set the restaurant on fire in the first act.

Pollack also gave Li a lesson in managing expectations. She gestured a timeline by stretching her hands wide. “This is the very beginning,” she said, waving her left hand. “And this is the very end,” she said, wiggling the fingers of her right hand. “And you’re here, near the very beginning,” she indicated about a centimeter past her left hand. “You’re almost at the ‘zero draft stage.’ Not first draft, mind you; you’re a ways away from that. Zero draft.” 

That lesson taught Li that writing a novel requires endurance. “It turns out you can’t fake it,” Li says. “Knowing some of my pages are going to be trashed isn’t an invitation to write a bunch of trash pages as a shortcut.”


For Lillian Li, play is essential to creativity. Photo by Leisa Thompson


In addition to working on the book, Li spent her fellowship year in the HZWP learning French, taking piano lessons, and creating a literary magazine at the Neutral Zone teen center in Ann Arbor. She found that her writing practice was energized and focused by these non-novel-writing creative activities. “If I had used that fellowship year only to write,” she says, “I don’t think I would have finished the book.” 

Li made her way through Pollack’s timeline, and sold the novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, at the end of her fellowship year, in 2016. When it was released in the summer of 2018, Li was growing roots in Ann Arbor, working at Literati Bookstore and teaching in LSA’s Sweetland Center for Writing. 

Shortly after the launch, Li returned to graduate school to earn a Master of Science in Information from U-M’s School of Information (SI) while “zero-drafting” her second novel. She needed health insurance and a steady income, but beyond that, she knew that this line of work would nourish her book by putting her in contact with new people and problems in the world.


Now, Li works full time as a UX researcher for Duo Security in Ann Arbor. Li finds UX research to be a lot like the development of a fictional character. She synthesizes data points, taking logical leaps to create narratives about users of Duo’s products. Li says this work requires understanding character motivations—while no one’s going to say “my love of family is why I use such-and-such grocery app,” deeper needs and desires often shape user experience. Li draws out themes that add up to tell a story.

Li usually writes in the mornings at home before switching gears to Duo work. Her second novel, yet untitled, is about a group of childhood friends that graduate into the recession and become part of a viral YouTube video—with devastating consequences. She began the project in 2018 and is now using her paid time off to prepare her manuscript for submission. 

Li also does improv in her free time. She started taking improv classes in 2020, to be more present and confident on stage for book events, thinking improv might help her public speaking skills. 

“As writers, improv skills are muscles we are already honing—creating characters on the spot, confronting a blank page, creating a narrative arc within given constraints.” 

Li fell in love with improv, though the rewards of improv surprised her—her biggest growth area has been in her ability to be flexible, to play. Improv forces Li to let go of the authorial autonomy she’s used to as a novelist. In improv, Li must flow with miscommunications and imprecisions, surrender control of a scene, both hold attention and relinquish expectations—in other words, throw out her outline completely. The practice, like careening toward a zero draft, is freeing.


Holnes poses with a hand-carved wooden cane that was gifted to him by a friend when he last visited Cuba; the cane holds significance for Yoruba traditions still alive in the Afro-Cuban community. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Since 2011, Holnes has lived in New York City, where he is now an assistant professor of playwriting and poetry at City University of New York’s Medgar Evers College and New York University’s Gallatin School and the College of Arts and Sciences. Holnes says that teaching writing during his second year of the HZWP set him up with valuable pedagogical skills he uses daily. 

For several years after moving to New York, Holnes taught six classes a semester and throughout the summer as a part-time adjunct professor—an incredible workload, distributed over three colleges, no less. He had to pay his rent, and there was barely any time to write. “Balance is always a goal,” Holnes says. “Sometimes we achieve it; sometimes it’s out of our reach.”

Photo below: Darrel Alejandro Holnes’s original poetry shone on Rockefeller Center in September 2022 as part of artist Jenny Holzer’s installation piece Speech Itself, in celebration of PEN America’s Centenary. Photo by Darrel Alejandro Holnes


Now, Holnes takes summers off from teaching. That’s when he writes, and summers are also his time to travel the world. A few years ago, distressed by fearful world events, Holnes made a goal to visit 30 places he’d never been. “I knew in my heart that the world was a place I could trust,” he says, “and I wanted to travel.” 

Holnes studied music from early childhood, is classically trained as a jazz saxophonist, composes, recently produced a jazz album, and even collaborates with musicians to present cabaret shows and his own plays. He makes sure to pack a suitcase of musical instruments for his trips, and he finds collaborators and inspiration all over the world.


Music, theater, poetry, and travel fill Holnes’s summers off from teaching. Photo by Christine Fischer


Holnes grew up in Panama, and he makes the trip home during his summer travels to spend time with family. He’s also visited Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Holland, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, China, Colombia, Mexico, Cuba, Austria, Turkey, Greece, and several cities in the U.S. Holnes’s trips, which he records on an Instagram account called Black Boy Travel Joy, have value to him as an artist, as an international person, and also as a Panamanian. 

“We [Panamanians] are the bridge of the Americas and between the Pacific and Atlantic seas,” he says. Holnes’s two books of poetry reflect this international perspective and have won some prestigious literary awards. Stepmotherland, published by the University of Notre Dame Press, was awarded the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and the International Latino Book Award. Migrant Psalms, published by Northwestern University Press, won the Drinking Gourd Poetry Prize. While writing both of these books, Holmes was awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

To finance his summer trips, Holnes has become “really good at coupons,” saving his teaching income, accruing points and miles, and scouring the fine print. It’s a lot of work, he says, but, for Holnes, travel opens “doors to worlds unknown, giving me the courage to face whatever sadness or upset the news had thrown my way.” This shift in perspective and multiplication of possibilities is a necessary part of his creative process. “No matter how much fear,” Holnes says, “there’s hope out there.”


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Release Date: 11/06/2023
Category: Alumni
Tags: LSA; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Helen Zell Writers' Program; English Language and Literature; Gina Balibrera