The new Director of Cambridge Common Writers shares her vision for the alumni association and opens up about her own writing—from her first book launch at age six (!) to tackling difficult topics through speculative fiction and how she keeps herself accountable.


JULIA LEEF wrote her first book at the age of six about a frog and a prince who problem-solve their way through many exciting adventures such as “The Prince and the Frog Dug a Big Hole and Now They Can’t Get Out.” She was so proud of her first completed book that she convinced her teacher to let her read it to the Kindergarten class, presumably because it’s hard to say no to a six year-old. She has loved writing stories ever since, dabbling in all styles of fiction but mostly drawn to fantasy and magical realism. She works at Macmillan Learning in Boston and loves that dirty water. Her work appears in Belmont Story Review and Wyldblood Press.

Interview by Liz Shick

Congratulations on becoming the new Executive Director of Cambridge Common Writers! Having volunteered for CCW for several years myself, I’ve seen firsthand how much time and energy you’ve already dedicated to the organization, both as Board Secretary and Website Coordinator (the latter a position you continue to hold). What drives your commitment to Cambridge Common Writers, and what is your vision for CCW going forward? 

Funnily enough, I didn’t think this was going to be a long-term commitment when Rex, Robbie, and Michael approached me to build a website for a Lesley MFA alumni group. I thought I’d be laying the groundwork and maybe helping with the site’s upkeep. What changed was seeing the community’s reaction to the site’s launch and our very first virtual reading. So many alums and mentors told us how happy they were to finally have an organization like this. Every time the work and time commitments start to wear on me, I hear another anecdote from an alum who got an agent because of a connection we helped make, or a mentor who feels supported by our community in the midst of all the distressing things going on with Lesley University. And that’s what motivates me to keep going.

Julia with Robbie Gamble and Chris Clark at a CCW reception during the January 2024 residency

During my tenure as Executive Director, I hope to promote a strong sense of literary citizenship among our community members. We’re all writers and artists, doing our best to put our work out into the world. It’s important to show up for one another—whether that’s attending a play, pre-ordering a chapbook, writing a review for a short story collection, or any of the other ways we can truly make a difference in someone’s writing career. So, if someone asks CCW to host their book launch, I hope they are then inspired to register for someone else’s event, or write a review for a colleague who came to support them at an open mic. While the act of writing often feels like an individual effort, so much of what we do needs a community to thrive.

I couldn’t agree more about the importance of literary citizenship. I’m sure I speak for many other alums when I say how grateful we are for everything you do to foster this sense of community among us. What was the most valuable part of your own Lesley MFA experience? Is there any particular advice from your Lesley mentors that has stayed with you? 

Attending the residencies in-person was such a crucial part of my MFA experience, because speaking with other writers, participating in seminars and workshops, listening to readings, all helped recharge my writing battery. One of the reasons I decided to get my MFA in Creative Writing was that I realized, two years after graduating from college, that I had barely written anything. I’m the type of author who needs that external motivator, and the residencies allowed me to surround myself in that culture, keeping writing at the forefront of my mind.

(L to R) Bridget Weigel, Sarah Boçi, Maud Poole, Wendy Ewan, Aqueela C Britt, Caitlin Robinson, Julia Leef, LaWanda Dixon

This ties into the piece of mentor advice that I think about most often, which comes from Laurie Foos: “Always keep writing at the center of your life.” I’ll admit, I’m not always the best at the literal interpretation of this. I still struggle with prioritizing writing for myself when I also have deadlines for other people to meet, and less daunting daily tasks that need to be done. But I have gotten better at staying immersed in that culture—whether that’s reading the latest issue of Poets & Writers, participating in online writing forums, or my work with CCW. And that makes writing feel less like a hobby to indulge and more like a central part of my life that deserves my time and energy as well.

What first drew you to writing, and how has that pull evolved over the years?

I don’t remember a specific moment that made me want to become a writer. When I was a kid, I had all sorts of careers in mind—author, illustrator, detective, rock climber, astronaut, firefighter, and so on. Over the years, many of those fields dropped off the list until just “writer” remained. I wrote a book in first grade, about a frog and a prince who become friends, and my teacher let me read it to the kindergarteners. I’d sat in my fair share of story-times by that point, so it was exciting to be the reader for once.

Julia’s first book, The Frog and the Prince!

So writing has always been a core part of my life. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. But the way I think about writing has certainly changed over the years. Writing is not something you can engage in passively if you want to make a career out of it. I know that seems obvious, but there’s a reason so many writers, when asked for advice, will often say, “you have to write.” When I was a kid, I didn’t think there would ever be a time I wouldn’t want to write. Writing was fun. I didn’t have to think about craft, or themes, or submissions, or a volatile market that seems increasingly harder to break into with each passing year. I could just enjoy making stuff up. Now, writing is work. It is a skill that I must actively choose to invest time and energy into, even and especially on the days that it’s hard. Because writing is still the only thing I want to do, and it can’t happen without me.

So true! I imagine that’s something we all struggle with. What keeps you on track in the absence of assignments and deadlines, post-Lesley? How do you carve out time for your own writing when you’re working full time and running Cambridge Common Writers?   

It’s definitely something I’m still trying to figure out. So far, the best method I’ve worked out for spending time in the chair is virtual writing sessions. This tricks my brain into thinking of my writing time as an obligation to others, much in the same way you may be more likely to go for a run with a friend than by yourself. I’m accountable to the person who expects me to join them for the session, and once I’m there, I’ve already crossed the biggest hurdle. It’s not something I can consistently do every day though, so I try to use small writing goals to keep me in the habit—200 words a day, or 15 minutes of writing, even if most of that is just staring at the page. It’s about setting aside the time and space just for the writing, but it’s still a work in progress.

Julia working on the first draft of her novel by the Charles River

I hear you. It’s a work in progress for me too. Your bio mentions that you gravitate toward magical realism and fantasy in your writing. What draws you to those genres? Are there particular themes you find yourself wanting to explore in your writing? 

Part of it is I just have a very bizarre imagination. I’ll hear prompt words like “tattoo” and “record player” and write a Poe-esque horror story that involves a tattoo artist being driven slowly mad by a record player that can create art far more beautiful than anything she is capable of. But I also love the way speculative fiction (and horror does this especially well) utilizes allegory to comment on real-world issues. You can be reading a story about a man who suddenly turns into a huge insect, or a young girl travelling across space to save her father while battling a giant brain, and realize you’re actually reading about the dehumanizing consequences of devoting yourself fully to others, and discovering that inner strength and love helps you stand up to the oppressive weight of conformity.  Plus, there’s a bit of escapism involved when you’re able to filter these serious themes through worlds and situations that also excite and fascinate you, which makes them feel safer to explore.

Some of the books Julia read in 2023

Looking back on the stories I’ve written over the last few years, there’s definitely a trend towards women fighting back against or breaking free of societal norms and struggles—unhappy marriages, the expectations of motherhood, bullying, sexism—via fantastical means. I’ve also been recently exploring themes of breaking out of the ruts of apathy and depression, and the difficult but crucial work of rebuilding a life after trauma through self-worth and community.

Important stuff! Thank you for tackling those themes. What you are working on right now? 

I’m jumping between a couple of different projects, which is definitely not how I prefer to work, but sometimes it can’t be helped. At the beginning of this year, I participated in a “write a weekly flash story for six weeks” challenge, and have been working on revising and submitting some of those stories. I’m also working on a novelette to submit to Gemma Mediawhich has published works from a number of Lesley MFA mentors and alums. Once those are all wrapped up, I hope to get back to my sci-fi, multiverse novel. I finished the first draft in 2021, and it’s been in a bit of a limbo state ever since.

Julia working on a craft essay about Fences for the MFA program

What advice do you have for those who have recently graduated or are just starting their writing journey?

What’s challenging about writing is that the more you learn and develop your own skills, the harder it gets, in a way. When you’re young or first starting out, you’re not thinking as much about craft, or character arcs, worldbuilding or literary devices. If you’re lucky, you haven’t learned yet how to be self-conscious about your own work, and if you think about publishing, it’s probably with that optimistic, “it’s just a matter of time” viewpoint of someone who hasn’t read the latest article about how traditional publishing is dying and no one reads books anyway (it’s not and they do). I don’t say this to discourage people, but as a reminder that if you ever find yourself thinking, “this isn’t as easy as it used to be,” that’s because it’s not, and it’s not supposed to be. As our lives get busier, too, we need to find ways to balance our art with the million other things that have to be done. And sometimes, writing isn’t one of them.

The June 2018 cohort

But you have to try. If you can’t write one day, try again the next. If you’re stuck on a manuscript, write a poem or a journal entry that has nothing to do with it. Check in on the other writers in your life—we love grousing about the literary world and hyping each other up! Find your community—online, in person, wherever, and encourage each other to keep trying. Take advantage of groups like Cambridge Common Writers to help support your writing life, or make your own. The point, and the necessity of this work, is to make the choice to be a writer, every single day.​

I believe in you. And I’m so excited to see what you’ll put out into the world.

Listen to Julia read an excerpt from her short story, “Recently Deceased Mother Gets Up to Make Breakfast.”

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