Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tim Gautreaux's Ten Pieces of Writing Advice

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Tim Gautreaux, author of Signals (Alfred A. Knopf), shares his perspective.


  1. When you plan to write a piece of fiction, begin with this attitude: You have been hired to read an 8,000-word short story in a hot meeting room at three in the afternoon to a large class in freshman English. Your fee from the university is $10,000 to be paid with the caveat that each student who falls asleep during the narration will cause a $1,000 deduction from your fee.

  2. Understand the value of compassion in writing fiction. With this in mind visit a Wal-Mart in late morning and walk through the store observing the customers carefully until you can do so without condescension.

  3. Always keep in mind that whatever you write will be thrown into an enormous pile of competing manuscripts and that your writing has to kick all those manuscripts off an editor’s desk. Understand that an editor is always looking for a reason, any reason, to throw one manuscript to the floor so he can get to the next one in the enormous pile.

  4. If you choose to write a depressing story in which the main point of view character is something like a drunken father who is cruel to his children, try to make the reader see that he is not totally invalid as a human, that there is maybe some small bright spot in his being. Otherwise, you’ll be creating a one-dimensional troll that will annoy the reader, who in turn might suspect you of grinding an axe instead of telling a story.

  5. You are an entertainer. You have a responsibility to get and keep the reader involved in the narrative from the first paragraph on. A good story is a warm bath in a well-lit room.

  6. Don’t ignore your family history and where you were raised. It is your unique territory as a writer. Only you own it, so it can be made exotic to anyone else.

  7. Controlled and complex humor is the yeast that gives body to fiction, but remember that what is funny in a story causes the reader to laugh, but never the characters.

  8. Theme is automatic and something you concern yourself with only after your first draft.

  9. Don’t confuse fiction with autobiography, but do inhabit the physical world of your point of view character who should probably not share your personal history but can own your heart. You are what you write.

  10. The prose should be glossy. In either simple or complex sentences needless repetition, stale phrasing, or any degree of wordiness is a rock against the toe of the reader. The quality of your writing is determined by what is not in it as much as by what is. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Zach Powers' Thoughts on (In)visible Prose

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Zach Powers, author of Gravity Changes (BOA Editions), touches on transparency and astonishment.



Way back when, studying saxophone as an undergrad, I encountered a strange pedagogical sentiment. One was supposed to play the instrument in a way that emulated the human voice. My immediate response was to ask: Why the hell wouldn’t I just sing, then?

I was young and shy and probably never asked my question aloud. Partly that’s because the sentiment isn’t entirely wrong. Most musicians I know would agree that their goal is to make their instruments “sing.” Western music is derived from voice, after all. But it’s been twenty years, and I’m still not sure why voice should be both the starting and the stopping point when it comes to creating a melody.

Now that I’m in the world of creative writing, I’ve encountered a similar sentiment. I hear over and over that prose should be transparent. Here again, my inner contrarian rises to the surface. Why would you spend so much time putting words on a page only with the goal of making a reader ignore them?
Wonder Woman aloft: Merely a vehicle?

I once wrote: “The words are merely the invisible jet of writing meant to carry the Wonder Woman of emotional urgency to a reader.” That sentence is terrible on so many levels. If I’d written it in a manuscript, I would have deleted it even before I started writing the next sentence. But it’s also one of those things I might have cut and pasted into a Twitter post. Terrible as that sentence is, it also contains something I think worth saving. Energy, mirth, the dreaded cleverness.

I came to literary fiction by way of sci-fi, and I was first drawn to writers who carried speculative elements into their literary work. I read Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World in one sitting. I spent a good year writing only self-referential works inspired by Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. I discovered Aimee Bender’s “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” in an anthology and then sought out every story she’d ever written.

Bender, in particularly, writes transparent prose. I’m constantly awed by the efficiency with which she crafts sentences, a place for every word and every word in its place. I reread one of her stories whenever I feel my own writing getting bogged down in invisible jet metaphors. But as exceptional as her prose is, it’s the more visible moments that draw me into her stories. For example:
My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.
That’s the opening paragraph in Bender’s “The Rememberer.” This paragraph both pulls me out of the story and deeper into it. Initially, I’m forced to retreat into my own mind, to acknowledge the impossibility of the premise and suspend my disbelief. But once I’ve made it through that process, I’m more deeply invested in the story than I would have been otherwise. Bender uses opaqueness to get my full attention.

It doesn’t matter to me at all if a premise is “contrived” or prose “visible.” Yes, those are helpful concepts to be made aware of in a writing workshop. The tendency toward simplicity and concision should be learned and internalized.

However, emotional weight doesn’t come only from characters acting as if in a stage play. But I think that’s the implication hidden inside talks of transparency. The reader is meant to co-opt a character’s feelings or react to a character’s thoughts and actions. But I can look at a sunset and feel something without somebody else feeling it first for me. I can ponder the vastness of the universe and my own speckness and feel swallowed and boundless at the same time. I don’t need an intermediary.

I guess my point is this: Astound me. Whether it’s a poetic turn of phrase or a mind-blowing premise or an everyday scene written to perfection, I want to be astounded. Astonishment can’t be contained in a piece of writing advice. Good advice is, by its very nature, common. Great writers recognize when the uncommon is more interesting and effective.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Daisy Johnson Plows Ahead

In the 21st in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Daisy Johnson, author of Fen (Graywolf Press), discusses her best and worst writing days and how she stays on track.


Describe your writing habits.
The answer to this question changes often. Some weeks are dreamy, rushes of productivity at my desk or on the sofa, occasionally meeting writing friends in a local pub with big, empty wooden tables. I write 2,000 or more words a day, finish reading three or four books a week. I read and write from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon. I am a god of writing, I am unstoppable.

Mostly it is not like that. I lounge miserably around the house, empty and reload the dishwasher, watch Netflix, open my favorite books to try and osmosis their power into me. I write, a little, alone in cafes or run along the river trying to summon language. There is a framed sign on my desk that was something I apparently once said and my partner wrote out for me. It reads: I think this book is going to be really fucking good. Writers are needy, self-conscious and whiny. At least half of the day is filled with telling myself: You can do it, you did it already, you can do it again.

It is different for every book and story but mostly I am a catastrophic first drafter. I am a cow-first drafter, plowing it out, oblivious to quality. I am a better, if grumpy, rewriter. Each story in Fen, was rewritten three times at least. Unfortunately, though I had hoped to learn, the same is true of my novel, Everything Under, which was begun from scratch maybe seven times.

Name something by another author that you wish you’d written.
There are so many, but one answer has remained the same since the first time I read it at fifteen. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow,* by Peter Høeg, is one I still reread every couple of years, and it continues to evoke a feeling of awe and jealousy.

Where does a story begin for you?
Mostly a story for me begins with the idea of something weird, a strangeness in the form of a what if. Stories in Fen began with: what if a girl turned into an eel, what if language physically hurt us when we heard it, what if an albatross came to steal a baby.

How do you know when a story is finished?
A story is never finished but I’ve started to come to recognize the feeling of utter nausea that comes from looking at something a final time. That doesn’t mean that I won’t return to it at a later date, do another read through, but if you know the opening and closing words off by heart it’s time to give it a break.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
You’ve caught me on the right day to answer this question. I’m 80,000 words into a new novel and it was going swimmingly until yesterday. The trick—which I do not always follow—is to change scene and to work on something else. I always have a couple of new short story ideas to jump into. I was happy to remember I needed to answer these questions. If that fails, then reading is always a good way to get your head back into the game.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
It’s too easy to think of writing as a magic that will happen only when the perfect state is achieved. That’s a sure fire way to make sure no writing happens. I write wherever I am, and I try to write however I’m feeling. Running helps, as does not having a stinking hangover. I like having days off to build the anticipation, but mostly what helps is to think that the only way to do it is just to write. Even if what you’re writing is rubbish and won’t make it past the second draft. Don’t worry about the rest of the stuff. Cut out the noise. Write as fast as you can.

*Published in the U.S. as Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Matthew Lansburgh Finds Time to Feed His Soul

In the 20th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Matthew Lansburgh, author of Outside Is the Ocean (University of Iowa Press), discusses the process of writing and publishing his work.



What is the best piece of writing advice you've ever received?
When I was a student in NYU's MFA program, I was lucky enough to be able to work with Zadie Smith. She read an early version of what became Outside Is the Ocean, and we met for coffee twice. She gave me a lot of helpful feedback, but one of the best pieces of advice I gleaned from our meetings was the importance of putting your work aside so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. She told me she sometimes puts drafts of her work in a drawer for several months before picking them up again. I now try to do the same thing, and I've found it to be incredibly helpful.

Did the stories in your collection go through many drafts?
I started working on Outside Is the Ocean over a decade ago. The stories I worked on when I began the project went through a huge number of drafts. I revised some of them dozens and dozens of times. The last stories I wrote—"Buddy," "Outside Is the Ocean," "Amalia," and "Clear Waters Below"—went through fewer revisions. I guess the earliest stories were the vehicles I used to learn how to write a story.

Were there times when you felt like giving up on the book ?
Without a doubt. For many years, I kept coming back to the project again and again, trying repeatedly to tackle various problems. Occasionally, a journal would publish one of the stories, and that gave me a boost of confidence. Most of the time, however, it felt like I was just wandering blindly through an endless desert without a compass or sense of when my journey would be over.

What's your writing routine like? 
Unfortunately, I've never been one of those people who's had a set writing schedule. I admire people who are disciplined enough to get up at 5:30 every morning and write for six hours. I've spent most of the past twenty years working full-time as a lawyer, however, so there have been many long stretches during which I just didn't have the energy to make meaningful progress. I did most of my writing in spurts—vacations, weekends, residencies. Currently, my day job allows me to work just three days a week, so I'm able to devote a lot more of my energy to something that feeds my soul rather than drains it.

Have you shared your work with friends and family?
My partner Stan has been there from Day One, and he's read so many drafts of most of the stories, that he could probably recite certain passages by heart. I've told my siblings about the book, but I still haven't shared the news with my mother. Although it's fiction, some of the dynamics mirror dynamics in my own family, and I'm not sure what my mother's reaction would be. In general, she's very supportive of my writing, and she often asks whether I've written anything I'd be willing to share with her. On the other hand, she and I have had a challenging relationship, and I'm afraid some of the stories might be unsettling to her. People who've read the collection say they find the portrait of Heike to be very sympathetic and nuanced. My hope is that one day my mother will read the stories and see the tremendous love Stewart has for his mother.

What are you working on now?
A few years ago, I started writing a novel, the tone and subject matter of which are quite different from Outside Is the Ocean. The new book is a lot funnier and zanier than the story collection. It has a strange cast of characters—including a woman with wings who works at Coney Island—and the protagonist is a complete misfit.

Has the transition from stories to a novel been difficult?
I think all writing is difficult. One of the things I love about the writing process is that I can always create new challenges for myself, new problems to solve. In some ways these two projects aren't as different from one another as one might imagine. The stories in my collection are linked and, like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, examine the lives of a recurring cast of characters from various perspectives. So it posed some of the same challenges I'm facing in writing my novel. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Josh Weil and the Scent of Sagebrush

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Josh Weil, author of The Age of Perpetual Light (Grove Press), talks how his parents, books, reading aloud, and a high school teacher led him to become a writer.


What influenced you to become a writer?

First there were my mother’s stories: She told them to my brother and me while sitting in the hall between our bedrooms’ open doors. She was a good storyteller; she read good books. And expected the same of me. As a pre-teen I read some of what you’d expect—Jack London, Robert Newton Peck, books about dogs and boys—but my mother never imagined that I could only read work written specifically for kids, never assumed that I would only relate to a protagonist my own age, so I grew up also reading what I pulled from her bookshelves—complex, classic stuff: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Shakespeare—and I suspect there was no more important influence than that, those early experiences with getting swept up in story that formed for me the sense of what a good story was.

Of course, I was influenced by less literary authors, too, but they were always damn good storytellers: Leon Uris, say, or Frederick Forsyth. Often, I’d fall most deeply for books I read aloud to my father and brother on car trips we took each summer: a month or more in my Dad’s green Mazda station wagon, driving from research station to research station, his work as an agronomist guiding us all around the country. We’d read books gripping enough to make the miles roll by, to make us crack them open again in the tent at night. So I experienced in a communal way the power of story (I still remember reading A Day No Pigs Would Die aloud to my father, both of us crying so hard he had to pull over to the shoulder). There was the shared experience, the comfort of falling into a world alongside family, but at the same time that singular and solitary co-creation that a book requires from the reader—the need to imagine aspects of it, make it your own—struck me more powerfully than anything else. Long after we’d shut the book, I’d carry it with me, lying awake in the tent, or staring out the car window, seeing the characters in details not taken from any book, constructing new scenes that might take the story somewhere else.

Until I began writing my own stories down. The first was a western, a melodrama about a man named Buck: He’d knifed a guy in a bar fight (it wasn’t his fault!) and fled, a posse hot on his heels, only to be caught and hung till dead from a cottonwood. I was twelve and I’d just read The Oxbow Incident­ and it was haunting me (it still does) and I guess that’s why I was drawn to the tragic stuff (and still am), because it haunts you, makes you feel things you wouldn’t want to have to in reality, lets you know the corners of your heart you otherwise might not, gives you a more full experience of life.

Still, it wasn’t a book that turned me irrevocably toward life as a writer. It was a high school English teacher, tall and thin, his name lost to me, a massive blond beard all I can remember of his face. I don’t remember the assignment he gave us either, only how it felt when he pulled me aside after class one day and told me that the scene I’d written had moved him, that he wished that I’d write more. Such a wondrous thing. (I still find it humbling when a reader tells me something sprung from my imaginings has somehow touched them.) That night I went home, went to work. The scene became a chapter, the chapter a novel. Another western: The Scent of Sagebrush. Cue the harmonicas, the jangling spurs! Now I smile, but at seventeen it was the most serious thing I’d found in life. Every night, after I’d finished my homework, I’d bang out pages, more engaged than I’d been all day, existing in that fictional world until it became, for me, more real, more present, than the one everyone else could see. By the time I graduated, the book was done. By the time the summer was over, I’d written a second one. How, after experiencing such a thing, could I not go back in, and in, and in, trying each time—as I’m still trying, some twenty five years later—to transfer what I found inside my mind into words on a page, to work just well enough to somehow bring a little of that feeling back.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Rob Davidson Finds Inspiration in Images

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Rob Davidson, author of Spectators (Five Oaks Press), discusses writing stories in response to the work of visual artists.


What inspires a new story? It can be anything—a fleeting glimpse, an overheard bit of gossip, a memory. Sometimes it’s another work of art.

The stories in Spectators began as ekphrastic exercises. Ekphrasis, a Greek word meaning “description,” is a literary response to an artistic production, typically a piece of visual or conceptual art. The resulting story, while inspired by the work of art, is not mere summary or objective description. The best ekphrastic works are richly subjective, presenting idiosyncratic responses that could only have been penned by a particular writer. There are countless examples, from Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” to Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night” (inspired by Van Gogh), to Juan Felipe Herrera’s “Exiles” (inspired by Edvard Munch’s "The Scream").

Floating in Time © Sara G. Umemoto
Many of the flash fictions in Spectators were inspired by the photography and visual art of Stephani Schaefer, Sara G. Umemoto, and Tom Patton. The process is simple. In each case, I sit with the chosen image, studying it intensely before beginning composition. This might involve minutes or hours. Only when I feel I have fully entered into the world of that image do I begin to write. It begins as a kind of dialogue, with me going back to the image frequently. Eventually, I quit looking at the image and focus solely on my text, which develops its own dreams and aspirations.

Naturally, some readers want to see text and image side-by-side. When it happens, the experience is powerful. Tom Patton and I mounted a joint gallery show at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka, California, in early 2017. Seeing Tom’s excellent photos paired with my flash fictions, printed as broadsides, was grand; we both saw our own work in a new light.

So why not do a book together? A couple of reasons. First, not every fiction in the book is in response to visual art; some are homages to other writers, like Borges, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James. Second, I always intended the fictions to stand on their own merits. Seeing the image alongside the text I wrote might be interesting, but I don’t consider it essential.

I wrote these flash fictions to challenge myself to do something new. After three published books, I am a mid-career author who has learned he’s good at some things. There is a certain temptation to keep doing those things because you think you know what you’re doing. And there is another temptation to challenge yourself to cross lines, to cultivate what the Zen Buddhists call shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind”: an openness to new things; a willingness to try those things; an eagerness to learn; and the absence of preconceptions. Let go of the presumption that your wisdom counts for something. Look anew, as if for the first time.

While drafting Spectators, I had a few rules in mind, rules I made for myself solely for the reason of cultivating a beginner’s mind: to dispense with plot (go ahead, try it); to be more lyric and less narrative; to experiment with genres other than realism; to make each piece a response to another work of art; and to write nothing longer than a page.

It all started with those wonderful images by Stephani, Sara, and Tom.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Cutlass Press Gins up an Event to Launch KL Pereira's A Dream Between Two Rivers

By Nick Fuller Googins
Jamaica Plain, Boston 
Sept. 6, 2017

KL Pereira’s collection, A Dream Between Two Rivers, had its launch party at Boston’s Papercuts bookstore on Sept. 6, and it was a night of firsts: the first story collection put out by the independent bookstore’s publishing arm, Cutlass Press; the first stop for Pereira on her 12-city tour; and the first book launch I've been to that offered a preposterously large bottle of Tanqueray for the audience's refreshment.
Pereira at Papercuts
(photo by Katie Eelman)

There was also prosecco on ice, and most went for this chilled option after a brutally humid day and on an evening that wasn’t doing much to cut it. Plastic cups sweated in our hands as we waited for Pereira.

She appeared decked out a Ouija board-themed dress, appropriate given that the September moon was nearly full and that Pereira’s stories run the gamut from dark to darker to darkest. She read a “darker” one, her collection’s opening, “The Dark Valley of Your Lungs,” in which a girl with a killer voice (literally) finds a mentor of sorts in a woman with silver hands and feet. The story, creepy on its own, ends in a cemetery, and if that isn’t enough creep, know that it was written in one too: Pereira revealed during the Q&A that she’d penned the first draft one evening in nearby Forest Hills Cemetery. If there had been anybody in the audience wondering how one gets away with rocking a Ouija board dress, nobody was wondering it anymore.

Literary horror has long been in Pereira’s wheelhouse. She told the audience of an archeological dig through the mounds of school-work that her mother had saved. She’d recently excavated her earliest stories, composed at age nine:
  • “The Haunted School”
  • “The Secret of the Old Piano” (“pilfered from Nancy Drew,” Pereira confessed)  
  • “The Fishing Trip” (spoiler alert: a shark devours the young narrator and her father)
In response to a question regarding the generative process, Pereira explained that she’s “always been interested in the weird” and hails from a “family of storytellers.” Her ancestry stretches back to Cape Verde, Colombia, Italy, and the Azores, providing her with a rich library of folktales and legends to draw upon.

It was fitting that A Dream Between Two Rivers launched in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood because Pereira wrote most of the collection there in 2009. She lives now with the witches and the spirits up in Salem, but the audience greeted her as if she’d never left. When she admitted that she was pretty nervous, and a friend had advised her to picture the audience as cats to help, the crowd erupted in reassuring meows.

After the Q&A, I asked Pereira what she’d done earlier that day. She’d been selected for the MBTA’s “Books on the T” program, so she and her publishing team had been guerrilla-dropping copies of A Dream Between Two Rivers in subway stations around the city, she explained. What this means for the rest of us is that Pereira’s unique brand of literary horror is right now making its way through the underground arteries of greater Boston. Innocent commuting souls: beware.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Geeta Kothari Takes Her Time

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Geeta Kothari, author of I Brake for Moose (Braddock Avenue Books), discusses her approach to getting writing done.


In her essay,“That Crafty Feeling,” Zadie Smith, writes that she finds other writers’ working methods “incomprehensible and horrifying,” so I present this post with the following qualification: Tracking time works for me, in my particular circumstances, circumstances that include a spouse, a dog, full-time teaching, friends and family members scattered far and wide.

One day, around the time my parents died, I finally understood that time isn’t an infinite, renewable resource. After the grief, came the despair. I added up all the wasted hours. So many, with people I didn’t like doing things I didn’t care about. Of course, I couldn’t actually add up all my wasted hours because I never kept track of them. This was a period when I didn’t keep a journal or a schedule on paper. Even when I began writing seriously, I paid little attention to how I used my time. I measured my progress by how many pages I filled, how many drafts I wrote, publications. This last item seems a little insane now because rejections for my stories far outnumbered acceptances (and still do).

For a while, I tracked the number of words I wrote daily. Then came the day when I realized I’d written over 150 thousand words and had nothing new to read at a conference I was attending, and counting words lost its charm. I draft quickly and revise slowly. Word counts give me a false sense of progress when I’m drafting and no sense of progress when I’m revising.

Why all these attempts to measure productivity? It’s not as if I work in an office or report to a manager who wants to know that company dollars are being well spent. I report only to myself, and if I want to spend my writing time eating chocolate and watching Netflix, no one will know.

Maybe I’m trying to make sure I spend what time I have left on things I find meaningful. I wasn’t one of those children who kept a journal or wrote stories to amuse herself. I came to writing late as an adult with the idea of being a writer but no practical sense of what this meant. I had no idea that thirty years later the best birthday present would be five days alone in an apartment in Toronto where I wrote and talked to no one except strangers I met in the elevator.

Pomodoro: Break time
In that apartment, the empty days stretched before me like a crisp new notebook on which one is afraid to make a mark. I worried I wouldn’t use the time well, that I’d waste it, though without Wi-Fi in the apartment, it would take more effort. I wrote down what I wanted to do in the five days, keeping my plan modest. Instead of counting words (though I did have a word goal), I tracked time and how I spent it using the Pomodoro Technique, which suggests four timed intervals of 25 minutes of focused work with five minutes break, followed by a longer, 15-20 minute break. There’s nothing sacred about the 25 minutes. For writers who are struggling to write daily, like many of my students, 5 minutes is a good place to start. I use a cube timer that has 60, 30, 15 and five minute intervals, so I usually work for 30 minutes with a five minute break.

At home, where there is rarely a blank slate of day, I have found writing daily works best if I aim for two short sessions, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. Because I work on several projects at once and some are deadline driven, the night before I decide what I want to work on. That way I don’t waste time in the morning trying to decide what to do. I keep my list small and modest. “Work a half hour on Lahore section,” one recent entry read. My Freedom app is automatically set to block social media every morning.

I mark each interval in my journal. It’s ridiculous how much pleasure I get from making an X next to the previous X. Later—when I’m low perhaps, feeling underappreciated and scolding myself for NOT WORKING HARD ENOUGH, I’ll go back over my weekly record of Xs and reassure myself that I have spent my time well.

That younger self who wasted so much time used to believe the reward for writing was publishing. The reward, it turns out, is knowing you have spent your days well on something you love.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Caitlin Hamilton Summie's Office with No Door

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Caitlin Hamilton Summie, author of To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts (Fomite), embraces disorder.


I do my best work amid chaos. Or perhaps it’s best to say that I have no choice but to work amid chaos.

I am the mother of two young people. My office has no door. Let me repeat that. No door. It has a window from which I glimpse our beautiful maple tree in the front yard, and off to the left is the front door. Straight ahead of me is my children’s desk, which is their second place choice for homework after the kitchen table. But on occasion, a small person sits at this desk, mastering multiplication or writing essays about books or reviewing the life cycle of plants. My husband has an office space across the hall, and I hear his radio. I hear trucks outside on the road wheezing (sometimes thundering) up the steepish hill upon which our house sits. Sometimes children come over to see my kids and play. Phones ring. Emails ping. Even at night, as I type away, I hear the same rush of cars and often also dialogue or music from TV shows. Water in the pipes. Pounding upstairs if my son is playing basketball in his room, shooting a teeny basketball into the net he has hanging off his door. Dogs barking.

Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
This is where I write.

I write at night, on weekends, on a lunch hour, before work. My desk is an old melamine board laid across two file cabinets. Around me are manila files for work, bookcases, supply cases, the kids’ desk, and walls covered with their artwork, a few photographs, and imposing torn-out calendar pictures of various large cats, one a lion, the other a tiger? A lynx? Behind me, a beautiful gift from a client-author-friend: feathers meant for a free spirit, offering me good luck and special wisdom. I’ll take both.  I don’t know now if I could write in quiet again. For the last many years, since 2002, my spaces for writing and work have all been similar: open, shared, slightly cluttered, colorful. In the past, I have been reduced to sleeplessness when things are too quiet. Would I be reduced to silence if there wasn’t always a hum and a roar?

All of my work is driven by emotion, by character rather than plot. I write it all amid the chaos of a busy family life: the bus going by, neighbors knocking on the door, testy football radio commentators, birdsong. All of it. And rather than distracting me, it keeps me grounded in my subjects, reminds me of what compels me most: connection, family, history, togetherness.

I don’t want a private office. I don’t need a door. Quiet would unnerve me. Keep it open, I say to myself. This is your truth.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Joseph Scapellato and the Story’s Intention

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Joseph Scapellato, author of Big Lonesome (Mariner Books), shares his process.




In the first year of my MFA at New Mexico State University, I was taught a concept that transformed my approach to writing and reading, a metaphor that I reach for every time I’m on the page.

I was in Robert “Boz” Boswell’s class. I was 22, with a tangle of facial hair that almost met the minimum requirements for “mustache,” with a tangle of short story drafts that almost met the minimum requirements for “readable.” I used every fiction assignment to try something different—I was writing to figure out what my writing was and wasn’t, what it could and couldn’t be, and despite the fact that nearly everything that came of this was caca, I was excited. I was in grad school: If I wasn’t failing, I felt, I wasn’t trying.

Someone asked a question, I don’t remember who, I don’t remember what.

Boz nodded. As usual, something in his posture said, “I’m sitting outside,” even though we were in a classroom. His body seemed to want to be at a baseball game. He stood up to write on the board.

“I only know a few things,” he said. “This is one of them.”

He wrote:

The Writer’s Intention

The Story’s Intention

"When we first write a story," he said, "we have one or more intentions for it. Our intentions might be vague and simple, or specific and complex."

(The following examples are not the ones Boz used.)

We might say to ourselves, “I want to write a story about baseball.”

Or, “I want to write a first person story where a mother and a daughter go to a baseball game.”

Or, “I want to write a third person multiple-viewpoint-character future tense story with a simile in every paragraph and lots of foreshadowing, and it’ll be about a mother and a daughter who go to a crosstown series baseball game in Chicago and discover that every player on the White Sox and on the Cubs is a werewolf, and so are they.”

Whatever our initial intention happens to be, that’s what Boz would call the Writer’s Intention. It’s what gets the story going.

As we continue to write the story, however, there can come a moment when the story starts to “want” to be about something else.

The story that you wanted to be about “baseball” begins to want to be about “loneliness.”

The story that you wanted to be about a mother and a daughter going to a ball game begins to want to be about the daughter’s relationship with her best friend, who also happens to be at the ball game, sitting one row up, with a stranger.

The story that you wanted to be a third person future tense multiple-viewpoint-character story about a mother, daughter, and ballplayers who are werewolves starts to want to be a first person past tense story, told in one paragraph, from the point of view of the mother of one of the ballplayers, who also happens to be a werewolf, a werewolf who eats other werewolves.

This isn’t to say that a story literally has desires, volition, or agency, but that’s how it feels when this happens—like the story is alive, like the story is coming to life.

Whatever the story starts to want to be or be about, that’s what Boz would call the Story’s Intention. It’s where the story’s going.

This distinction is important, Boz said, because whenever the story’s intention is in conflict with the writer’s intention, we need to abandon the writer’s intention in favor of the story’s intention.

“The story is smarter than you,” Boz said.

Listening to this, I felt like I was leaving my body. What I was hearing was the confirmation of a feeling that, until then, I’d had no vocabulary for. What I’d thought had been a crazy and inadvisable impulse to trust surprise—to trust the moments when the story that you’re writing raises the bar on itself, and at the same time, raises the bar on you, its writer—was, in fact, advisable, if not perhaps a little crazy. It was a process that I could trust.

I started trusting it right then and I’ve been trusting it since.

Without it, I wouldn’t have been as open to radically revising the beginnings, middles, and endings of every story in my story collection, over and over; I wouldn’t have stuck with the troublesome passages, poking them, prodding them, looking for ways to make them alive again; I wouldn’t have re-entered the stories I’d written six, seven, eight years ago, and with my editors’ help, used the old intentions to rework the stories from the inside out.

Above all, this metaphor reminds me that whatever I think the story is going to be is never as compelling as what the story wants the story to be. And if surprise, discovery, and delight are part of the process, for the writer, then maybe there’s a better chance that surprise, discovery, and delight can become a part of the product, for the reader.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Orlando Ortega-Medina Taps Into His Subconscious

In the 14th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Orlando Ortega-Medina, author of Jerusalem Ablaze (Cloud Lodge Books), discusses the messy process of writing his first drafts.


How do you approach writing a first draft?
I’ve always found that accessing my subconscious is the most critical aspect of my writing of any first draft of literary fiction. Tapping into this dark, bottomless reservoir as a primary source is more important for me than any character study, plot outline, or clever turn of phrase.

Why do you consider this subconscious approach to be more critical than the traditional “conscious” methods such as plotting or outlining?
The only way for me to be productive at this early stage is to try and disconnect myself from my internal edito—the cause of most writer’s block in my view—so as to vomit a first draft onto the page. I deliberately use the emotive verb vomit to emphasize that a first draft is meant to be messy, elemental, something out of which to eventually fashion a story. It is not the story itself. In my case, it is only after I’ve poured out the stuff of my subconscious onto the page that I revisit what I have written—with the merciless mind of an editor—and commence the revision process that will ultimately refine the story into something publishable.

Do you have any special method for accessing your subconscious?
In my student days, I employed various techniques for plugging into this source, including sleeping with a notepad on my nightstand to record my dreams upon waking for use as a story starting point, isolating myself in a room with Philip Glass (or similar) playing in the background and writing the first thing that came to my mind, driving to the desert and writing longhand in the shade of a Joshua Tree, or even depriving myself of sleep for several days and then writing nonstop for hours - something I understand David Bowie did when he wrote his seminal album, Aladdin Sane. These days, I necessarily take a more practical approach – something better suited to my workaday schedule as a lawyer: I set my alarm two hours before the official start of my day. When the alarm jars me awake, I roll out of bed half-asleep, proceed directly to my dedicated writing space, and spend the next two hours writing non-stop. I literally wake up in front of my computer as I write.

Are you saying that you never know what you’re going to write in advance?
Not exactly. Writing off the top of my head doesn’t mean I don’t have a story blueprint in mind. I sometimes use my two hours of writing to dream up a storyline that I will use as inspiration for a later writing session or, perhaps, to invent a protagonist’s biography and family tree, or to write a protagonist’s backstory. The beauty of the process at this early stage is that there are no rules; so there are no mistakes. Everything is about the writing, digging deep and pulling a story out of myself, learning about my characters as I write about them, never doubling back, pushing the narrative forward come what may, and then setting aside what I’ve written for another day—after I’ve written the word END.

What role would you say your subconscious has played in the composition of your stories? Is there something particularly dark inside of you that you’re working out in them?
There’s something dark inside all of us—some more than others, of course. Many of us, however, suppress the very idea that we have a dark side, as if admitting to this will somehow make us worse human beings. It’s the same mental game many of us play when it comes to the subject of death. We’re all marked for death, but we do everything we can to avoid thinking about it. In my view, hiding from something that is so close only makes us more vulnerable to it when it inevitably asserts itself. When it comes to my fiction, I draw from the dark part of my subconscious the raw material I need to tell my more dramatic stories. When I’m successful, writing that first draft is both creative and therapeutic. Put another way, I‘ve chosen to work out my dark side in my stories, casting out my demons on paper. Once all my demons are gone, I imagine I'll have nothing left to write. That's both my greatest hope and my greatest fear.
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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Jacob M. Appel on Being a Good Literary Citizen

In the 13th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Jacob M. Appel, author of The Liars' Asylum (Black Lawrence Press), lists a few things writers can do to give back.


I am frequently asked to give advice to aspiring writers—which usually means offering whatever limited wisdom I have on how to craft better stories, secure agents and publishers, and increase book sales. All of these are reasonable goals, likely shared by the overwhelming majority of readers of this post. Yet as a professional ethicist, I thought I might tackle this subject differently this time around and offer some tips on how to make the literary world a better place:

1. Be Positive or Be Quiet
I am proud to say that I have never written a negative book review, either for publication or on sites such as Amazon, Goodreads, Librarything, etc. You shouldn’t either. Any literary work you encounter was once someone else’s baby, a beloved repository for another human being’s imagination and emotion. Needless to say, some of these metaphorical babies grow up to be admirable adults—and others, quite frankly, do not. But what possible good comes of denigrating them once they are in print? If you don’t admire a work, not reviewing it at all is statement enough. With so many wonderful books on the market, any time or space spent penning a negative review occurs at the expense of other great works deserving of exposure.

2. Donate Books
Not everyone is James Paterson and capable of providing millions of dollars in seed money to public libraries, but most writers can afford to give away a few free books—or, at least, ebooks—to worthy individuals, causes, and institutions. Generosity starts at your local public library. Ask the librarians if they’d like free copies of your forthcoming book; if they tell you they have it on order already, ask that they cancel the order and provide them with the copies at no cost instead. Maybe suggest the work of an emerging or marginalized author they might purchase with the savings. Send copies of your latest volumes to charitable auctions, book drives, schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. You need not spend a fortune: even one or two copies a month, over time, can make a difference without breaking your piggy bank.
James Patterson: Super-mensch

3. Thank Other Writers
I do not mean to thank them for doing you favors such as writing generous reviews or offering blurbs—although obviously, one should do that too. I mean thank them for being good writers. If you read a story or novel that you admire, send a brief email message to the author telling him or her so. A kind word from the ether never hurts, and on occasion, I have struck up wonderful friendships with fellow authors that originated in a complimentary note. And, needless to say, blurb liberally. I do not blurb every manuscript I read, or even read every manuscript I am sent, but I at least try to read an opening chapter or two whenever possible.

4. Thank Your Readers
The easiest and least costly way to thank your readers is to answer their correspondence. I suppose that may be difficult if you are one of the dozen or so authors likely to be recognized in a public place, or a serial killer with a best-selling memoir, but most of us mere mortals do not receive enough mail to require secretarial assistance. Another way to say “thank you” is to give freebees to fans: free PDFs or signed galleys always make welcome appreciation gifts. Even an email, letting a reader know you’ll be speaking or signing books in her state or city, can show gratitude for a kind review or fan letter.

5. Do Not Complain
The literary life is tough – on the pocketbook, on the ego and on the soul. But if you had wanted an easy job, you’d have become a neurosurgeon or an astronaut. While it is certainly acceptable to point out structural inequities in the publishing system, far less palatable are personal jealousies or claims of individual victimization. Bear rejection gracefully. Admire candles that burn brighter than your own. We’d all like to be Toni Morrison or Philip Roth—but nobody is owed that success. Not even if he or she pens a brilliant book. Being published, and being read, is not a right, but a privilege.

There is a lot of incivility in the world today. Sometimes it feels as though anger is the new national currency. But in the literary community, at least, that need not be the case. And any writer, no matter obscure, has a part to play: The wheels of fate may decide whether you are eulogized as a brilliant writer, but each of us has the power to determine whether we are remembered decent and virtuous literary citizens.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Edie Meidav Urges You to Fail

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Edie Meidav, author of Kingdom of the Young (Sarabande Books), encourages writers to take chances.

Best advice for any creator: Fail.

Fail not just better, not just once but do so frequently, boldly, beautifully. Flail as much as possible.

And if these words give you pause, consider drafts of artwork by almost any great painter. Or take Leonard Cohen, who remains one of our chieftains of failure. Even from the grave he appears to have died only half-completely, so resolutely present remains his life. One of his most penetrating songs speaks of the kabbalistic idea that through our flaws, our cracked selves, light best shines.

As he lived—bon vivant, zen monk, dandy, gracious, generous, self-absorbed, unable to commit, leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him, aware of his peccadilloes as an artist, singer, fellow human—so he died, ready for it but nonetheless shining forth this: the beauty of the incomplete, testified to by a man ignored for years, celebrated again at the end, but all along bearing the ability to reinvent himself as an artist, embracing whatever little was left of his voice.

Leonard Cohen: Hail to the chieftan
Years ago, in my first awareness of the shard as a necessary companion to the creative life, I watched a girl drawing. We were at a summer camp riddled with the requisite mosquitos, shaming, joys, hysteria, and odd moments of education in exactly the sites one expects them least.

There on her bunk she sketched in a figure.

Stop, I wanted to tell her, stop right there, and there, and there. But she kept going. How beautiful it had been to see, as Elizabeth Bishop might have put it, the crypto-proto-ruin, the figure only as she began to allude to it, and what possibilities were foreclosed as the more predictable part of her began to fill it in. So arrived my first aesthetic lesson in the art of incompletion, in taking a path toward the unexpected.

Years later, in speaking with a fellow writer with a similar love of novel writing, he and I discussed the charismatic mystery of the unexplained and the unfulfilled. A character's backstory need not be known, but the energies of most beginning writers go toward filling in that figure.

Because readers wish to know, because we have orthodoxies about how to continue. Doesn’t the story have to end like this, we say, shouldn’t we know more about her?

Or do we?

Often the very thing we think we must do as we set out to write, or continue to write, or have finished writing something is to achieve that very beautiful platonic ideal that occurs somewhere, so tantalizingly, in the first eighth of any project. The ideal becomes visual meze, oversaturated, overglutted, every part presented and filled in, no hunger left unsated.

Yet among ancient altarpieces, we find beautiful the very roughest, those that peel and undo themselves most before our gaze. So our modern eye has learned how to calibrate what is present with what goes missing. So we have learned to love absence, which probably speaks both to our contemporary anomie and to something more enduringly existential. The funerary stele, the elegy: these, our oldest forms, celebrate absence.

Which relates directly to the mid-stage of any creative process. There comes a moment when we must willfully embrace the incomplete, where we must propose to ourselves a kind of ecstasy—literally, standing outside of, in this case, our original idea, whatever got us going.

Any singular artwork we witness, made by another, commands our respect in this way: It offers us a mirror ecstasy, a spine-shivering thrill since we are pushed out of our daily habits of hearing, thinking, seeing. We enter the work, we complete it through our imagining. The greatest artists lure us to incarnate ourselves subtly and differently. And, as recipients of art, our education rests in allowing the artist to teach us to find a new way to live in the world with the elements familiar yet the order shifted, life’s hierarchies questioned.

So what the creator can ask herself is this: What information do I need to gather now? What would provoke me beyond myself? How can I omit, how can I have a noble failure, what crack in the pottery might let the light shine in?

Try, when writing, to see if you can change your usual instruction manual. Abandon the platonic ideal of the finished object and allow what might at first seems to be an organic or aleatory irregularity to become your gift and singularity. What you pay attention to most is your gift, even if—especially if—your very attention is incomplete. If you wish to challenge the history of your discipline, resting in prior structures of construction will not help you. And if you are at the point where you have begun to repeat old tricks, cannibalizing past successes, you might need to enter your studio backwards, figuratively, as a way of honoring whatever thinking could split your assumptions, whatever waits for you to uncover its truth. Consider the suggestive beauty of both veil and shard, and always befriend failure; it will never desert you and might become your strongest ally, a guide for life itself.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Lee Upton on Obsession, Denial, and No-Guilt Naps

In the 11th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Lee Upton, author of Visitations (Louisiana State University Press), answers a few questions.


When was the first time you wrote an explicit sex scene?
That hasn’t happened yet…. I have that to look forward to…if I become an entirely different person.

What emotional states interest you as a writer?
Obsession. For example: In Visitations, a woman in the story “A Stalker” says of her obsession with a man who had once loved her: “Being wanted—it was like a worm delivers a drug right into your bloodstream. Then you’re unwanted, but the worm wants more.”

Another emotional state that interests me: Denial. In another story in Visitations, “Gods and Goddesses in Art and Legend,” a character attempts to numb her grief: “People paid too much attention to what passed for romantic love. It was sentimental, overwrought. Hyperbolic. In the end, it wasn’t profound. No, it was only regrettable, not tragic or even sad. Still, people shot each other in the head because of it.”

Are the stories in Visitations united in any way?
Yes. Many pivot, at some level, around the subject of books. About over-valuing a book and undervaluing one’s own experiences. Or undervaluing books. How myths and fairy tales and early childhood reading contour an entire adult life. Why it would be such a pleasure to join the world’s laziest book club. The crevices inside books from which we can pull fresh meaning.

What habit do you recommend for other writers?
Napping. I used to work full-time at a credit agency and struggled to stay awake. I worked my way up to eight cups of coffee a day, and I was still sleepy. I remember how desperately I didn’t want to be exhausted after work so that I could write. When the weekend arrived I was so tired that I fell asleep in the afternoon with my papers and books around me on the fold-out couch in my studio apartment. My exhaustion might have come from not only working hard and being bored while I worked, but from loneliness. Loneliness is exhausting.

The thing was, when I woke up from that first nap on my first Saturday of my first week at the credit agency, I began to write with great concentration—as if words had been assembling themselves while I slept. It was like that fairytale, a touchstone for so many writers who rely on the unconscious: “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” While the shoemaker sleeps the elves cobble shoes for him. Later I made friends, moved into a house with roommates, met others who wanted to be writers, and wept with gratitude for my new life. Those naps had helped me, but I no longer needed them as much.

Napping: sometimes a surreal experience
I’ve had children—and so like anyone else who has raised a child, I know about standing exhaustion and what a privilege it is to nap. Now, usually, I can’t nap often—because of other responsibilities. But a while back, after a series of small crises, I went to bed in the late morning and napped. After I woke up, within two hours, I napped again, and then I napped yet again. I napped so much that I dreamed I was napping. In the dream I kept telling myself “Wake Up! You’re napping too much!”

I hadn’t wanted to nap; I wanted to write instead. When at last I woke I experienced what I’d felt all those years ago: the softening of boundaries, the sense that I could easily slip through a portal into intense concentration. As if the elves had been cobbling for me. I need to find ways to nap more often.

How do you know when a story is finished?
I’m going to answer the question by asking another: How do I know when a story begins? I tend to write long fiction that needs to shrink. Often that requires deleting many pages of false beginnings and frumpy middles. When I find the true beginning I can work toward the true ending. One encloses the other, in embryonic form. There has to be a sense of movement too, a sense of the tactile. You know how a card shark can shuffle cards and the cards, splayed out, are then snapped back into one stack? That’s how it doesn’t feel, although I’d like it to feel, at the moment when a story is finished.

Where do you get your ideas?
Often I’ve heard this question referred to in terms of frustration—sometimes with a clever put down from the writer to the questioner.

Why does the question elicit such derision?

Because stories are not “ideas”? (Yet stories can’t escape ideas, and even slippery stories foster ideas.) Because there is no physical space from which the author retrieves stories? (Yet we speak of scene “building,” and aren’t we often indebted to spatial metaphors?) Or is it because some writers guard jealously their sources of inspiration? Or because the question might suggest that writing is merely a matter of finding a premise and, as such, the question downplays the diligence, discipline, intuition, and luck that writing a story requires?

But, really, the question is a compliment—you have ideas! Writing—it’s like nailing clouds. Where do you get your hammer?

I love the question even if it is largely unanswerable. It humbles us and elevates the craft. Here’s the best I can do: I get my ideas from missed connections, things that turn my stomach (oh rich source: shame, linking us all as social creatures), the chasm between what we’re supposed to feel and what we actually feel, incongruities (especially comic incongruities), the urge to reflect the dignity of those who are ignored or neglected and treated unjustly, the wish to illuminate what might be called the inner life in a way that may have a bearing on a reader’s life. Moments of gratitude and love unearned but desperately needed. And, often, affection for the stories I grew up with and the urge to pay homage to their self-renewing, thorny, perennial mysteries.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tim Weed and the Ecstasy of Influence

In the 10th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Tim Weed, author of A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing (Green Writers Press), discusses eleven books that have inspired his writing.


Which books inspired you the most? Which authors have been your role models? I’ve been surprised by how difficult questions of influence are to answer. Even easy questions such as, “What was the best book you read in the past year?” may cause an embarrassingly long silence as I rack my brain. Putting together an accurate top-ten life list would probably take me a week of thumbing through overstuffed bookshelves—likely supplemented by visits to various online book outfits for memory-jogging summaries and reviews.

It’s just so hard to say. There are so many great works of fiction. It’s difficult to narrow the ones I’ve read down to a list of favorites—harder still to speculate about which authors have had the greatest influence over one’s work as a writer. I like the analogy of books as fossil fuel: lush vegetation trampled down in an ancient epoch only to bubble up years later in a spontaneous wellspring of newborn prose. Who can say whether that font of bubblin’ crude, that metamorphosed Texas tea, was once a royal palm or a tree fern?

Still, I’m going to give it a try. So here are eleven books that have most influenced me as a fiction writer (I tried for ten but just couldn’t squeeze 'em in):


Looking back on these books, and thinking about the reasons they have stuck in my mind, I think of irresistible characters, high stakes, and immersive storyworlds. I think of Tolkien’s wondrous Middle Earth, of LeGuin’s bold reimagining of human sexual dynamics, and of the unforgettable sunlit intimacy of Renault’s mythohistorical vision. I think of the limpid, merciless clarity of Paul Bowles’ exotic tales, and of the storytelling genius of Robert Stone and Edith Wharton: the relentlessness of her ratcheting tension and the pitiless journeys their protagonists must undertake. I think of the profoundly affirmative versions of human consciousnesses passing through rich sensory worlds painted by Jim Harrison, John Cheever, and Larry McMurtry. And, especially with Cormac McCarthy and Peter Carey, I think of the sublime possibilities of language. Its sheer, terrible beauty.

I note somewhat sheepishly, that only two of these books are story collections (three if you include novellas). The truth is, while as both a reader and a writer I love short fiction, I’ve been more influenced by novels, possibly because the form allows for a more profound immersion in the storyworld—or, if you prefer, for a more intense and long-lasting measure of escapism. I use the latter word intending none of the negative connotations often associated with it.

The poet David Baker once said that all poetry can be divided into two categories, the ironic and the ecstatic. If we assume a continuum rather than a dichotomy, I think the same can be said of fiction. The Greek origin of the word ecstasy is “ekstasis,” meaning “to be or stand outside oneself.” Ecstasy is transcendent, implying a state of trance, vision, or dream. Irony, on the other end of the continuum, is social, worldly, and rooted in the intellect. Irony is essential in literature of course, as an antidote to sentimentality. But for me, the best-remembered fiction—the work that sticks with me long after I’ve put it down—is to be found on the ecstatic end of the continuum. The kind of story where one forgets all about those black marks on the page and enters the narrative as one would enter a trance, a vision, or a dream.

At various times and in various ways, all of these authors have done that for me. It is a gift for which I owe them a lifetime of gratitude. And I hold out the cautious hope that I can, therefore, claim them as influences.

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