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.

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.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Describe Your Reading Habits: An Interview with Deb Olin Unferth

In the ninth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Deb Olin Unferth, author of Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press), answers questions about what and how she reads.

Unferth: Well, I have a fairly complex system for reading. This may surprise you to learn, but I keep a list of every book I’ve read or listened to for thirteen years now. I also count every hour I read.

Unferth: No, alas, half-read books do not count as read books. If I read a few stories from a volume, I don’t get to list it as a book I’ve read. I have to read all the stories. If a book is incredibly long and I only make it three-quarters through, too bad for me. In December I am often hurrying through a few books I tossed aside months before in order to make my goal by the December 31 deadline.

Unferth: I never reach my annual goal. Or I should say I have never reached my annual goal. I may yet.

Unferth: Yes, well, I have other goals, rules, and suggested guidelines for reading too.

Unferth: A guideline is different from a rule in that I don’t absolutely have to follow it. There is some flexibility there. For example, I keep the books I’ve read separated from the ones I haven’t read. That part is a hard and fast rule. The guideline part is that if I haven’t read a book, it’s not supposed to go on my nice bookshelves in my office. It’s supposed to go out on one of the hallway bookshelves. But that part is merely a guideline, you see, because I do have books on my office shelves that I haven’t fully read, only I keep them on a different shelf. These are dictionaries, reference books.
Pictured: (left) an Unferth office bookshelf,
(right) a pile of rule-satisfying books

Unferth: Sure, some people read whole dictionaries.

Unferth: I do have a dictionary system, but that’s a different topic. Beyond our scope here.

Unferth: Yes, I count audiobooks as books I’ve read, though they don’t go on a shelf, but I am nervous about it. I had never thought much about it until my colleague, Lisa Olstein, pointed out to me that I do not read the audiobooks, but rather they are read to me. It was a good point, and disturbing, but I have not stopped counting them.

Unferth: Yes, I did say that I also count the number of hours I read. And I count the number of hours I write. And the number of hours I exercise, do school work, volunteer, clean, and several other activities. I keep it all arranged in Word docs and I keep printouts on my desk in a folder. I review it every day.

Unferth: Correct. Every day I read over how many hours I’ve read since 2004.

Unferth: Correct. And how many hours I’ve cleaned.

Unferth: In all recorded categories I’ve gotten a little worse as I’ve grown older.

Unferth: Well, I feel a bit foolish to reveal all the rules on my list of rules for reading. I will say that I have two rules designed to keep me from reading more than 25% white men. That percentage has lowered by about 5% per year for many years. Other rules have to do with when books are written (it’s easy to be too contemporary top-heavy), what kind of books they are (I have several categories and subcategories here), and rereads (I require myself to reread a certain number of books each year—I believe there’s value in it).

Unferth: Absolutely it’s confusing. I spend a significant amount of time arranging piles of books and figuring out which requirements they fill.

Unferth: No, not enough time that it warrants its own category but enough time that I sometimes feel like I should be getting “credit” for it in some category or other, though I’m not sure which.

Unferth: Don’t be cute. There is no “waste of time” category. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Siel Ju and the Suitable State of Mind

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Siel Ju, author of Cake Time (Red Hen Press), discusses her writing and reading habits.

What influenced you to become a writer?
I feel like my becoming a writer has happened through a series of serendipitous accidents—and perhaps some laziness. For example, I decided on English writing as my major simply because I had the most AP credits in that subject going into college. Then I decided to go to grad school mainly because learning seemed preferable to working a "regular job"—and I applied to writing programs since that was what my major was in.

Of course writing is something I've done and enjoyed since I was young age—which explains to some extent why I had the AP credits and how I got into grad school. But honestly, when I look back not only on this but most other aspects of my life, chance and circumstance seem to have played a bigger role than anything else.

Describe your writing habits.
My habits vary quite a bit depending on what else is going on in my life. Right now, with promoting Cake Time while also considering a day job shift, I write fiction just an hour a day, between 1 pm to 2 pm. I used to think I wrote my best fiction first thing in the morning and so for many years always tried to write then—but I've chilled out on that a bit. Hopefully my writing hasn't suffered; I'm not the best judge of it at this point.

The only real constant with my writing habit is the sense that I could and should be writing more, and faster too. I feel I spend about as much time worrying about my writing than as I do actually writing—but I'm working on changing that.

Where do you do your best work?
I feel I'm most focused at home, when I write in silence—but this is something else I'm trying to chill out about a bit. I'm kind of at the point where I feel that if I'm less rigid about what I believe to be the perfect, most conducive circumstances of my writing (the where, when, how, with whom, etc.), I'll be more apt to write whenever and wherever more easily and joyfully.

That said, I do most of my writing at home, alone, in silence.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
I have a whole semi-elaborate morning routine. First, I  journal for about 45 minutes—with a green smoothie, then coffee, and then either a smoothie bowl or oatmeal. Then I mediate for 15 minutes (I recommend the Headspace app!). Then I do some type of movement—lately, yoga—to get the blood moving. After that, I can sit down to write.
Morning routine: Drink of green

I'm actually not sure that these practices are specifically about getting into a state of mind to write. Even if I didn't write, I'm pretty sure I'd need to do these things to be in a suitable state of mind to live.

Describe your reading habits.
Thinking about my reading habits brings up a lot of emotions for me; I do enough of it that I go through periods where I actually worry my excessive reading is a sign of something, I don't know, bad. Reading's such a calming activity—and one that feels vaguely productive, too, while being simple and easy—so I find it very addictive. I'm often tempted to read instead of write, which is a real issue, if you're working on a novel.

Right now, I'm more or less a full time writer—and once in a while, all I'll do in terms of "work" in a day is read—then I'll go out to socialize in the evening. Those are the days when I worry a bit about what exactly I'm doing with my life. The days are fun, but a bit unanchored, basically.

Other times I feel like all the reading's fine. I mean, what else am I going to do with the time I get to spend at home? Watch TV? Raise kids?! Reading seems a lot more rewarding and pleasurable. I keep a reading journal of sorts on Instagram, and I'm part of a handful of book clubs ,and I love all of it. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Reflections on the Tin House Summer Workshop: “An Amazing Display of How Many Ways You Can Do This”

By Drew Ciccolo
Reed College, Portland, OR
July 2017

Rapt attention: Workshop participants
On July 9, along with upwards of 250 other odd ducks, I arrived in Portland, Oregon, for the 15th annual Tin House Summer Workshop (THSW). In a packed Reed College lecture hall, the magazine’s editor and co-founder, Rob Spillman, reminded us that all writing is political and to take care of ourselves over the course of the next week before introducing the workshop’s hard-working director, Lance Cleland, who bears a strong resemblance to the late actor River Phoenix.

Lance is frequently likened to a ship’s captain, and in his welcome speech, he joked that some of us might be thrown overboard, that we only had so much food. He also characterized his relationship to the workshop as a marriage, and since it was his seventh year as director, he said he’d felt compelled to spice the marriage up this year by role-playing with our manuscripts. But what I found most interesting was his elucidation of the Tin House aesthetic, which informed the difficult choices made while culling the 212 participants from a record-number of applicants (just over 1300, if I heard correctly), as well as the selection of faculty. Briefly, this aesthetic might be defined as one focusing on writers who exemplify the idea that there are a multitude of ways to write compelling work that demonstrates a spirit of generosity. He urged us to help shepherd others in our workshops down the path they want to forge, not the path we think the market may dictate or a path we might, for whatever reason, be tempted to impose on their work, to be kind to one another, to be critical of the work and not the person, and to let everyone in the room have a voice.

The Workshop

The short fiction faculty this year was comprised of Aimee BenderAnthony Doerr (whose collection Memory Wall won the 2010 Story Prize), Danielle Evans, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Link, Jim Shepard (whose collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway won the 2007 Story Prize), and Claire Vaye Watkins (whose collection Battleborn won the 2012 Story Prize). When a writer applies to THSW, they’re asked for their top four preferences. Though I’d read and liked stories by almost all these writers and had a hard time ranking my preferences, putting Manuel Gonzales at the top turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in recent memory.

Workshop pilot Manuel Gonzales (green cap)
and the eclectic dozen (Drew in red cap).
In line with the Tin House aesthetic, our workshop consisted of an eclectic dozen, including: a tax accountant with five graduate degrees living in Chattanooga; a Pakistani journalist and fiction writer who now lives in Dubai; a woman from Salt Lake City who now lives in Maui (with goats); a writer, playwright, theatrical director, and producer living in LA; and a woman born in Thailand and raised in Hong Kong who now lives and teaches in San Francisco. Ages ranged from early-twenties to early-forties. Some had MFAs and some didn’t. We quickly developed a strong sense of camaraderie, in large part because Manuel—a wry, easygoing bear cub of a man whose voice reminds me of Jerry Garcia’s—created a warm, down-to-earth, frequently funny atmosphere.

On the plane to Portland, I read a story of his, called “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” about passengers on a plane that’s been circling the Dallas/Fort Worth airport “at an altitude of between seven thousand and ten thousand feet for, according to [their] best estimates, around twenty years,” which, along with other stories in his debut 2013 collection, The Miniature Wife, placed him high in my pantheon of great speculative fiction writers. Most of us in his workshop submitted speculative stories—to wit, five dystopian stories (three of them post-apocalyptic), a story containing a portal to another world, a ghost story, a story narrated by a woman with wings, and a story in which the narrator inadvertently kills a gnome.

Over the course of the week, we delved into a slew of craft considerations. Among the topics we discussed were:

•  Methods of inspiring a reader to suspend disbelief, taking care not to cause a reader to ask superfluous or distracting questions about the story-world; 
•  How a reader can feel satisfaction when a narrator brings up the very doubt the reader is harboring;
•  The idea that if a conceit or phenomenon in a story is far-fetched, there doesn’t necessarily need to be an answer as to why what’s occurring is occurring, but a character or characters should, generally speaking, have questions akin to those a reader would have;
•  The relationship between a given character’s level of self-awareness (especially in terms of how s/he comes across to others) and a reader’s inclination to sympathize with said character;
•  How the oldest story can be opened up in a different way and made new when it’s being processed through eyes that are not our eyes;
•  Using a negation of normal reality or an unreal proxy—like the protagonist’s interaction with his father’s ghost in Ethan Rutherford’s “The Peripatetic Coffin,” or a meditative dying moment like the one in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”—to trick your reader into believing they’re in a situation that allows you to just “come right out and say the shit you want to say” and not have to rely on metaphor or subtext;
•  How it can be a good idea to be sappy and over-the-top in terms of emotion and sentimentality in a first draft, then pull those elements back in future drafts, which is usually easier than going back in and injecting emotion and sentimentality later;
•  Raising your freak flag and raising it high by digging right into any bizarre conceit(s) or phenomena at the beginning of the story; and
•  Not being afraid to ask a lot of fundamental “what ifs” during revision, e.g. “Instead of [this], what if [that]?” (this advice came from Manuel via Ramona Ausubel’s fall 2015 craft lecture at the Institute of American Indian Arts).

We also talked about putting together story collections with overarching narratives, so that they’re cohesive collections as opposed to The Collected Works of [You, Me, Whoever]. 

Craft Lectures

In “This Lecture is Like a Smoldering Rabbit,” Anthony Doerr, who’s become concerned of late that similes have fallen out of favor, energetically sought to “examine the power of similes, study a few good ones, marshal a defense of them and, by association, their more capacious kinfolk, metaphors, by suggesting that they present to us as writers a unique superpower, a superpower of connectivity that, when used well, like all superpowers, might just save the world.” He began by citing Frank Jenners Wilstach’s A Dictionary of Similes (1916), the 540 pages of which contain “thousands of unattributed, folksy, weird, and futilely sexist similes” (“quiet as a woman the first day-and-a-half she’s married” inspired quite a ruckus), to show that “language, like biology, is subject to the forces of natural selection,” that “the fashion for combining certain words in certain combinations comes and goes and no cliché is a cliché forever.” So, even hackneyed “analogies such as ‘cold as ice’ or ‘busy as a bee,’” Doerr explained, “given enough time, perhaps after the polar ice caps have melted and the bees have gone extinct, might become fresh and interesting once more in the way that, say, ‘bright as saucepans’ or ‘hot as the hinges of hell’ probably sound more strange and interesting to our contemporary ears than they did to Wilstach’s readers a century ago.”
Anthony Doerr talking about simile
like someone with a point to make

Doerr also provided us with a couple of honorable mentions from The Washington Post’s twice-run painfully bad analogy contest:

“McBride fell twelve stories and landed like a Hefty bag full of vegetable soup.”

“She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.”

Doerr went on to discuss the use of simile and metaphor in the Iliad, T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and George SaundersLincoln in the Bardo.

One of the biggest highlights, though, for me, was an analysis of two similes in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (which uses nine of them in total, each brilliant). Doerr focused on four images of the woods, the second and the third of which are similes, in order to show that they do an immense amount of work (in very few words) and substantially affect the way the final, simile-free image of the woods functions. The first image of the woods (simile-free) alongside the road the grandmother and her family are stranded on comes just before the car carrying The Misfit and his accomplices appears: the woods are “tall and dark and deep.” A little later, after The Misfit and Co. have arrived and as the family sits vulnerable in the ditch, O’Connor, as Doerr put it, “smacks us with her biggest simile so far”:

“Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.” 

For Doerr, what this simile “allows O’Connor to do is open a second eyeball in our mind—an open mouth overlays the woods, and now the threat that surrounds the grandmother and her family and surrounds us as readers is both amplified and complicated.” At this moment, he explained, “O’Connor needs us to see a line of trees but she also needs the trees to become more than trees; she needs us to see the woods while simultaneously seeing something darker, something more chilling, something that devours.” Two pages later, after Bailey Boy has been taken into the woods and two gunshots are heard, “just in case the first simile has started to fade from our attention,” Doerr explained, “O’Connor invokes the magic again—again she starts with the trees (a) and ends with the body (b)”:

“She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath.”

“For a second time,” Doerr noted here, “trees (a), become linked to something strange (b),” and  “through the magic of simile, the connection is buttressed.” Nature, he enthusiastically continued, “is activated, the woods come further to life—they’re insucking, they’re salivating, they’re gonna eat the whole family,” and “weirdly, the woods and the devouring mouth become of the same kind,” so that “by the time O’Connor again allows the woods their own sentence…

‘There was nothing around her but woods.’

… she no longer even needs the simile at all. In the system of imagery O’Connor has built in our mind,” Doerr concluded, “the woods have already become far more than woods—they’ve become oblivion.”

Aimee Bender gave what may have been the most ambitious of the lectures I attended: “Pace, Suspense, Locomotion: What Makes Something Move on a Page?” In this talk Bender ruminated on how certain writers work with pacing and gave some helpful tips on how to most effectively pace a narrative—essentially, she sought to de-abstract the idea of pace, and, to my mind, she succeeded brilliantly.

In “In Particular, the Universal,” Manuel Gonzales contrasted contrasted the lyrics, all vague and abstract, of a popular song from 2013 with the poem “A Woman with No Legs” by Natalie Diaz, one of the poetry faculty at THSW, in order to show that a writer must earn abstraction by first digging down into the concrete particulars of a given narrative. At some point in the lecture, maybe during the Q&A, he also offered the following wisdom: “Write better shit.”

In “Structure Where You Least Expect It,” Jim Shepard opened up his late friend Denis Johnson’s short story “Emergency” by giving it an awe-inspiring close read, contrasting Fuckhead and Georgie by tracking their dreams of themselves and their probable realities, then showing, having broken the story into distinct sections, that the nuanced disruptions of linear chronology in the story have huge implications.

Closing Thoughts

Reed College: Seeing the light
By the time July 9th rolled around, I was already feeling a good deal of apathy toward the story I submitted to be workshopped. On the second or third day, though, I was walking back to campus from Safeway when I had a revelation concerning how I want to approach my writing going forward. This revelation, which has to do with voice and form (I’ve got plenty of content in my head already), shook loose for myriad reasons and had been, I think, a long time coming, but reading stories by Manuel Gonzales and workshopping with him was what finally sent it over the transom into my conscious mind. It seems to me this is the sort of thing that spending a full week thinking about and discussing the craft of writing can bring about, a fresh take on one’s own work, and though the revelation I had is difficult to communicate, of all that happened during my week at THSW, it’s what I’m most grateful for.