Chip Houser draws lines between fiction, architecture

Chip Houser, a student in UMSL's MFA in Creative Writing program

Chip Houser balances his work as an architect for JEMA with fiction studies in UMSL’s MFA in Creative Writing program. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Disparate as they may seem, architecture and storytelling have certain things in common – at least for Chip Houser, who has invested time in both pursuits. Take the parallels between renovation and prompt-based writing, for example.

“If I have a kernel that somebody else provides, I’m way better,” says Houser, a JEMA architect who is also hard at work on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. To illustrate what he means, Houser describes the small table where he is conversing over coffee as though it were an interior space to be renovated.

“Say the restrooms are where your phone is, and the elevators are where this cup is, and probably the stairs by them – you can’t move those,” he says. “Well, you can, but it would cost a fortune. And the restrooms have got to stay where they are, with all the plumbing, and then you’ll have structural columns and windows. Those things are all constraints that sort of limit your options, and I thrive on that.”

The native St. Lousian, who estimates he’s written about 50 short stories at this point, says the six he’s had published so far all stemmed from in-class writing assignments or other prompts that offered some sort of nugget on which to expand. Like with architecture, he feels like he’s found his niche in this regard.

Chip Houser at JEMA“I typically don’t do ground-up buildings,” says Houser, who first worked as an architect in Italy and Germany after finishing his undergraduate degree roughly two decades ago. “That’s because in Europe, most of what you work on is interior renovation – you don’t build a lot of buildings. That [focus] has informed my fiction writing. I really like renovation, and I really like context.”

A non-traditional, part-time student in UMSL’s MFA in Creative Writing program, Houser’s quick to add that he chose a career in architecture for entirely practical reasons – and while he’s good at what he does at JEMA, he admits to being more passionate about writing. In a way, he has architecture to thank for getting him moving on that second craft.

“When I was living abroad, it was the very beginning of email and the Internet, so I didn’t communicate with people except by written letter and by calling my parents every week or two, and so I had all of this creative energy,” Houser says. “I existed mostly in English, so I didn’t have deep social relationships there … I started writing and illustrating children’s books. And they were terrible. The drawings were cool, but the stories were really bad – not bad, they just weren’t professional quality.”

Still, those efforts earned him several awards and ensured that writing would continue to be an important part of his life. After returning to the United States, Houser won a weeklong fellowship that took him to the University of Minnesota’s children’s literature archives, an experience that he says cemented his love for writing.

“It was amazing – I got to look at original art and stories from many of the famous children’s books that you probably recall,” he says. “One was ‘Goodnight Moon,’ all the original spreads. I couldn’t believe it. It showed me there was a love for this creative stuff like that, and the ones that are really, really good are kind of treasures.”

Eventually moving back to his hometown of St. Louis, Houser took a new plunge in 2012, quitting a six-figure job to pursue writing full-time for a season.

“I remember I was sitting at my desk, and I got a phone call from [Professor] John Dalton,” he says. “We had a really nice talk, and he asked me if I’d like to be in the program, and I said, ‘That would be great.’ So I ended up resigning. I told my company that was what I wanted to do, and they were super supportive.”

Between that major shift and losing his father to a terminal illness, it was a tough year for Houser, who says his dad was his biggest cheerleader when it came to his writing.

“He died the day after my first class at UMSL,” Houser says. “And it was hard to go from working full-time to just being a student. But it gave me a lot of time to focus, and the professors were wonderful. Especially that first year, it radically changed my writing. It gave me time to really focus on honing my stories.”

In his experience, UMSL has been a place where he and fellow graduate students can safely nurture their writing and find their voices.

“Unlike architecture where you have a task and you’re accomplishing it, and after it’s done it gets built, getting published is very difficult, and it’s really abstract until it’s happened to you,” he says. “I think stories are really fragile things, and you need an environment that nurtures that so you can develop it where it needs to go. UMSL has done that for me.

The professors understand how important these stories are to the aspiring writers that are their students, and they really are amazingly good at seeing how you write and how to help you write better.”

The community of writers at UMSL, and in St. Louis more broadly, has also meant a lot to Houser, who recently gave a presentation in conjunction with Night Writers STL. The small group that gathered at JEMA in November to explore the overlaps between writing and architecture ended up discussing all sorts of topics before the afternoon was over.

“I don’t know how long we talked about race – probably 45 minutes or an hour,” Houser says. “It wasn’t on the agenda, but it was really interesting, and it just felt nice to talk about things that are kind of hard to talk about.”

Now taking just one writing workshop per semester since he’s a full-time architect again at JEMA, he expects to finish his MFA in the fall of 2016. He’s concentrating mostly on his thesis at this point ­– the beginning of what he hopes will be a novel.

“It’s about a dragon,” says Houser, whose focus is speculative fiction.

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