Sunday, December 4, 2016

Amina Gautier on Loving the Short Story

In the 48th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Amina Gautier, author of The Loss of All Lost Things (Elixer Press), on the artistic challenges short fiction presents.


I hear it time and time again at various writers’ conferences. An agent/editor/publisher is saying it to me or to someone else: Now that you’ve written a short story collection or two, you really should write a novel, if only to challenge yourself. If only to challenge yourself. Because infusing a three to five thousand word story with life—giving it the blood and bones and tendons known as conflict, drama, and tension—is somehow not a challenge? If pressed further, the agent/editor/publisher will clarify that what he or she meant was that since you’ve already mastered the short story, why not challenge yourself by writing something new? Yet, that same agent/editor/publisher would never approach a writer who has written two or three novels and encourage him or her to challenge him or herself by writing a short story collection, since he or she has already mastered the novel.

There is a misconception that, by virtue of their length, short stories take less effort and time. Short stories are one of the most challenging art forms around; their brevity only makes them that much more so. The writer cannot stage her characters and use body language, props and visual cues to make the story known. She can only use words; and since she is writing a short story, she has only a few words and a few pages in which to make a moment come to life. Short stories are not easy to write; they challenge every single step of the way. Once the writer has gotten the subject matter and a general sense of the plot, she still has to find the words, and each word has to matter, each word has to count. She can’t use them just to tell the story; they need to create the rhythm. What is the mood of the story, what tone does she need to set, what words will help? Does she need sibilants or liquids? Long serpentine sentences, or short staccato ones? How can she best show the story—after all, she has so little time. She does not have chapters to write her way in, or create backstory; she doesn’t have a pocket full of flashbacks and she has neither the time nor the space to insert a new character midway through when the action lags. She does not have pages of filler to pontificate and talk about the weather and the scenery; she cannot introduce characters and then forget about them halfway through; in fact, it’s best that she not take her eye off the characters for one hot second because when she is not looking, they will hop into extra scenes that, while lovely, are not needed, speak lines of dialogue that are not necessary, and swim in pools of redundancy.
Limitations: Only packing what's necessary

The writer of short stories must always stay on her toes. She must choose carefully, select and dramatically render that just right moment that captures the heart of the conflict, takes the emotion and forces it to speak. She cannot afford to be gentle. She is not coming back forty pages later to deepen the image or expand the conflict. She must make each turn count.

As both a reader and a writer, I abhor flabby fiction. I respect concision. I was trained on the “less is more” advice. Short stories function like the baggage limitations at the airport—forcing you to rethink what you really need, to select, to make choices, to choose, to decide, and to excise. A love of conciseness might beg the question why not write poetry? The answer is simple. I love the sentence too much. I love the beauty of sentences in short fiction—whether they be sweeping and lyrical, or short and succinct. Well-crafted sentences are the building blocks of the short story; I am fascinated by the why and how one can carefully manipulate the mechanics of sentences—the grammar, diction, and syntax to pace a story, imbue it with a rhythm or make form follow function. I celebrate sentences, for they are the brick and mortar of any good short story. Whether they be the intellectual ones of Baldwin, the sassy ones of Bambara, the nihilistic ones of Borowski, the poetic ones of Elkin, the journalistic ones of Hemingway, the lyrical ones of Dybek, the serpentine ones of Faulkner, the buoyant ones of Mansfield, the uncompromising ones of O’Connor, or the quietly humorous ones of Paley, the sentence is the foundation of the story, the structure that upholds it so that the writer’s brilliant subject matter takes center stage.

I love the short story in all of her glory, with all of her twists and turns. I love her because she keeps me on my toes. I love her because of what she gives and what she demands.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Robert Overbey on the Art of Not Being a Dick (or Thinking You're Not)

In the 47th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Robert Overbey, author of A Life Without Seasons, regrets not answering a reader's question.


Someone once asked me, in front of a sizable group, where my characters come from. My initial reaction was to say that I don't really like talking about writing. I also just wanted to get the hell out of there. Later that day I was thinking about that girl and her question. It was an easy answer. Why didn't I give it to her? It's true I tire of talk about the craft of writing and the holy precious process, yet there I'd just been, standing before the room, reading my stories and vaguely discussing what it is I think I do. Wasn't that the time to be truthful? Granted, as someone who is more familiar with an MRI than an MFA, I'm hardly leaving anyone hanging in heartbreaking suspense. But the question was genuine, and was asked with a genuine interest. An interest in stories I'd written. I should've appreciated that. That someone cared enough about what I'd read aloud to ask about the story behind it. But I had to be a dick about it. Well, actually, I like to think I delivered my dismissive response with grace, but it was probably with only as much grace as a dick can really possess. The answer was easy, and I think it still is. It's probably the same for most, if not all, writers. If you're out there and still interested, my characters come from some amalgam of people I've met, people I've invented, and myself. Big secret, huh? Amalgam: that's a $10 word. Thanks for listening.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Patricia D. Benke Says There's No Such Thing As Writer's Block

In the 46th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Patricia D. Benke, author of Qudeen the Magnificent (Outskirts Press), explains why she thinks it's all part of the process.


The dictionary defines writing as the activity or skill of marking coherent words on paper and composing text. If you accept this terminology as explaining writing as foremost a physical process, then yes, you might say you have writer's block if you cannot get your hand to move and produce the words you are looking for. Writing though is something more complex. I believe it happens before, after, and while one marks paper with words.

For example, if you cannot find the right words to describe maple leaves falling go find maple trees and watch their leaves fall. Something inside you might expand your feelings and change the selection of words when you return to the pen and paper. You have been writing.
Falling leaves: Use your words

Writing likewise happens when you set aside attempts to describe the maple leaves and wait for your mind to organize on its own what’s in there waiting to emerge, which may happen while you are looking at lettuce in the grocery store.

Intense editing of what you’ve already written about the maple leaves is writing. Did you describe the colors and movement in just the way you want? Maybe the description of maple leaves needs to percolate for a while as you put the words aside and move somewhere else in the story, then come back. If you don’t come back, maybe it doesn’t belong. Maybe you want elm trees. Save it and move on.

Given a definition of writing that combines concrete technical skill and the more ethereal notions about where writing comes from, and how or when it may emerge, I subscribe to what others may think a startling idea: There is no such thing as writer's block.

It took me about eight years to come to this.

In 2008 I began writing what I just knew would become a masterpiece that traced the life of a young Arabic girl and the assimilation of her generation. My trusted friends and agent enthusiastically embraced the concept of the proposed book. But they viewed my rapidly growing manuscript much differently than I saw it. One prescient observer noted, "It starts and stops and starts and stops.” In my heart I knew the comment held a kernel of truth because my Prelude, intended as a window to the central theme of the book, never matched what I was actually writing. I set the novel aside and lamented I'd lost my way. I picked it up again then set it aside. And lamented some more. I continued to struggle over words, sentences, direction.

A friend who knew me well and read every ideation of my saga, persisted in offering a different perspective: the omniscient voice was too limiting, too distant. What I was trying to say needed to be told in first person. I resisted. It would become too personal, too probing, too reflective of my own family, my own experiences, some of which were more painful than I was ready to admit. It would be about me. I didn't want it to be about me. There was my “block.” It was about me. It had nothing to do with what words I chose to set on the paper. It was about whether I was ready to write the truth.

Once I switched to first person, something kind of magical happened for me. The work fell into a series of short stories, each told in the first person by unrelated characters in different regions of the country. It had started and stopped because it was more than one voice, more than one girl speaking. From my saga I pulled the individual stories that I needed to create the bigger themes. While each story comprised the individual experience of a single girl, together they told the bigger story I promised in the Prelude: the creation of an immigrant soul and the corollary deconstruction of it. It became what I call a novella of short stories, something new for me.

So here's my conclusion. That agonizing eight-year struggle was actually part of the writing process. I would even argue it was necessary, important. I would never call that struggle some strange malady that someone invented; something called writer's block. If you come to accept your writing as the holistic process of creation as well as application of technical skill, you might choose to allow yourself the struggle and give up the moniker writer’s block. Call it something else.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gary Gildner Finds Grace

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Gary Gildner, author of The Capitol of Kansas City (BkMk Press), discusses how a baseball injury led him to writing.


In the late 1950s in Flint, Michigan, I attended a Catholic high school staffed by Holy Cross nuns from South Bend—spirited young women who loved Notre Dame football as much, it seemed to me, as they loved Latin, science, Shakespeare, and all the math. Because of their large enthusiasms, I did well academically, but not so much for the glory of learning as to stay eligible to participate in sports. I mean to say, I was neither a passionate scholar nor a serious reader. Until one late spring Saturday afternoon, slowed by a broken leg and looking for something to pass the time as I lay sunning in the yard, I opened a book of stories and was stunned by Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.”

I had regularly turned to newspaper reports of big and small athletic events, and occasionally to magazine stories about famous sports figures and the rare mountain climb or fabulous fishing adventure. Plus I had flung my own line after brookies and rainbows and been made happy by it. But this, this story about Nick Adams quietly fishing for trout and camping out in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was altogether something else. It was the flesh and bone, I thought, of my world, as clear and close and physical as any stream I had ever waded in or built my fire beside, and I admired its moves and rhythms—its aliveness—as only a smitten 17 year-old boy can admire anything that catches him fully and holds him still to see, intimately, what, before, he only thought he’d seen.
Hemingway: Come to Papa

I broke my leg foolishly attempting to steal third base on ground a morning rain had made too slick for such a run, ramming my foot under the base while the rest of me wanted to catapult over it. Now I was reading a magnificent piece of writing about taking care, keeping things whole. And grace. No, I did not miss that. I felt it. I was not attending Holy Redeemer Catholic School, often serving at our daily eight a.m. mass, for nothing. And “Big Two-Hearted River” makes it way with such lyrical simplicity! There are no grand and expensive words anywhere, nothing fancy or fake, only—from sentence to sentence—what I might have called a new kind of poetry if I had been at that time a serious student of poetry.

The previous summer, not quite 16, I pitched a no-hitter in my first game playing American Legion ball, and at every game I pitched thereafter that season major league scouts were camped in the bleachers behind home plate taking note of everything I threw. Thus the beginning of my dream to play professional baseball. Preferably for the Detroit Tigers, whose Hal Newhouser, a future Hall of Fame pitcher, was a hero of mine.

Lying in my sunny back yard wearing swim trunks and a cast wrapping my leg from knee to toes, I thought: But what if I don’t make it to the show? In recent games I pitched my arm would start to hurt after about three innings—and now this broken leg . . . Well—and the next thought arrived as smoothly and efficiently as one of my better curveballs—maybe I’ll go fishing and cook my dinner under the stars and write about it. Like Ernest Hemingway.

Oh yes, those Holy Cross nuns had inspired in many of us a particular confidence, and after my Legion success—plus success in school sports going back to the seventh grade—I had plenty of confidence, though not enough good sense. Wanting to impress those scouts, I ignored mature advice and tried to throw a no-hitter every time I stepped on the mound. Employing far too many pitches requiring torque beyond reason. My young arm began to give out and finally I had to abandon my baseball dream. But thanks to Hemingway, I was reading—and taking in all kinds of writers, Russian, Irish, French, the tall and the short—and learning a better dream.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Allegra Hyde: "Act Like an Author, Think Like a Painter"

In the 44th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Allegra Hyde, author of Of This New World (University of Iowa Press), explores some visual art principles that serve writers well.


I studied painting before I turned to fiction. At the time, writing seemed simpler—it required no bulky canvases, no expensive brushes—and, perhaps because I discovered writing could be unwieldy in its own way, I never left certain techniques of painting behind. Any artistic endeavor is an exercise in awareness. In early painting classes, one is pushed to truly “see,” to strip away conditioned perceptions so as to more accurately represent the surrounding world. Isn’t this what we aim for as writers? Here are several principles of visual art translated for literary purposes:

1. Give Weight to Negative Space. When drawing or painting, the territory around a subject can be as interesting and active as the subject itself. Likewise, in writing, it is useful to remember that a story’s setting does not have to merely exist as a backdrop. The “negative space” of a story can be brought into focus for a more dynamic narrative.

2. Green is Difficult. The human eye is most sensitive to green frequencies. We have evolved to parse the many shades present in nature—olive, emerald, yellowy-lime—which means using green paint straight from the tube will look artificial. A parallel problem in writing is the challenge of describing a subject such as love. Fictional representations often come off as cliché, because most people are deeply attuned to the many shades of human intimacy. Getting love right in a story, like the color green in a painting, means being as specific as possible and honoring the need for a custom “mix.”

3. Underpainting Can Be Important. Old masters like Johannes Vermeer often used monochromatic underpaintings as a guiding framework the way some writers use outlines. Having a base scaffolding upon which to build allows both painters and writers to transition from broad gestures to successively detailed layers. Underpaintings don’t have to be completely hidden, however. Vermeer liked the way exposed portions of his ultramarine sketches would vibrate, visually, against the warmer tones of subsequent layers. Writers might consider what it could mean to juxtapose a base narrative of a particular genre or style against surprising variations in tone. 
Verneer's The Art of Painting


4. Copying Masters Makes You Better. Visit any major art museum and you’ll see visitors with sketchbooks, copying Caravaggio’s shadowy ensembles or O’Keefe’s floral close-ups. Sometimes it takes the act of replication to reveal the secret mechanics of a painting: how the composition hangs together, the interplay of light and dark. As writers, we can also inhabit the work of literary masters. Conscientiously copying out passages from The Bluest Eye or Pale Fire can teach us about pacing, syntax, style, and techniques that may have otherwise remained invisible. Then we can use these techniques in our own efforts.

5. Be Patient. Sometimes you have to wait for paint to dry before you continue working on a canvas. Likewise, writers may have to let a manuscript sit for days, weeks, years, in a desk drawer before returning to it for further revision. That’s just part of the process.

6. Don’t Inhale Paint Thinner. This is general life advice.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Mari Reiza Pulls the Strings

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Mari Reiza, author of Inconceivable Tales, lists some books she wishes she'd written and reminds herself that she is a writer.



Why do you write?
There are so many reasons FOR it, I feel the question should almost be reversed: Why wouldn’t I? Writing keeps me away from spending money, ensures I remain fit and sane, and saves me on therapy. It gives me a freedom I could not find anywhere else. Above all, when I write, I pull the strings, and I can make anything happen. Please tell me any other way I can achieve that and I’m willing to give it a go.

Name something you read that made you want to be a writer.
I was captivated by poetry from when I was a child and my mother came home with Gloria Fuertes’ books. I re-read The Iliad a few years ago during a beach holiday, and I did not want to come back from where it had taken me, not even to the comfort of my sunbed. When stories have captivated me, whether it’s because the author is putting my own feelings into words so well it helps me understand them, or because he or she has made up a world so far from mine that it’s making me reconsider everything, I have always felt that I would one day write my own.

Is there a book by another author you wish you’d written?
Dirty and proud
Written On The Body (J. Winterson) because I can feel but not write love like that. Animals (E. J. Unsworth) because I’m dirty in that way and proud of it; being a good girl is overrated if you ask me. Quicksand (S. Toltz) because how can one have so many funny lines in one’s brain. A Man Lies Dreaming (L. Tidhar) because of the mastery of how to cope with pain. The Robber Bride (M. Atwood) and The Heart Broke In (J. Meek) for the wickedness of some of their characters. The Blind Assassin (Atwood again!) for the imagery. Straight White Male (J. Niven) because sometimes I really want to be a lad. The Country of Ice Cream Star (S. Newman) because it’s EPIC and she has invented a new language. Dept. Of Speculation (J. Offill) because it sometimes can feel so close to home. Happy Are the Happy (Y. Reza) because I would like to understand whether I am happy. Traveling Sprinkler (N. Baker) because it’s like talking to a mate. Idiopathy (S. Byers) because the cow scene is great. May We Be Forgiven (A. M. Homes)… those rubber gloves, blue? (Happy Thanksgiving!) The Infatuations (J. Maria) for the perfect murder… Irma Voth (M. Toews)...
Coping with pain

Where does a story begin for you?
It depends on the book. But an image or a character more than a plot or a concept. And sometimes, I must admit, I can easily get lost in great lines and beautiful language even if I don’t understand in the slightest what the hell is going on. Great! I confessed.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
A room with a view and a background of books. I have my writer business card taped to my table to remind myself that I AM A WRITER. One glass of wine can help first round of creation, but editing always sober.  Otherwise, I force my hand, tell her if she doesn’t write I will cut her off. I drag myself through the minefield that’s my schedule as if I was carrying a military operation. Mean sergeant of myself, I am.

What do you do when you get stuck?
Get out of the room into the terrace and scream. Sometimes it’s not enough and I need to call it a day. Sometimes my brain does not work or life has upset me too much and there is nothing I can do but say, "Basta! Until tomorrow."

How do you know when a story you’re in the process of writing is or isn’t working?
When I re-read it even in a good mood and I say, "God, this is crap!"

Describe an unfinished story that you want to go back to but haven’t quite figured out yet.
My family saga. It is a monster. It’s an unfathomable monster. Where do I start? How do I do it justice? How judgmental can I be? Am I too close? Am I too detached? Why did I not ask my granny more questions before she left us. I guess she would not have answered them anyway. She was clever!

Discuss a local bookstore or library that is important to you.
Libraries have saved my life too many times. But I owe The Library of Congress, and I know this sounds posh but it’s totally accidental, more than most. And that’s another story I haven’t dared write… Phew! So much work ahead.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Charley Henley on How Boredom Can Spur Creativity

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Charley Henley, author of The Deep Code (China Grove Press), talks about working in a food processing plant and spending a night in the drunk tank.


When I was an undergraduate at the University of Montana I worked for a couple of summers at this Birdseye corn processing plant in Waseca, Minnesota. The job paid $4.50 an hour, but it was a hundred hours a week. So, sixty of those hours were at $6.75. A lot of money in those days. And I was very happy to get it. Like many industrial operations, the corn plant was basically a long winding conveyor belt that took raw product dumped off the truck and turned it into processed packages of cobs and cut corn. These were boxed and stacked in a warehouse freezer reminiscent of the last images of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I worked every position along the conveyor. I worked the muddy huskers, full of dead critters and corn smut. I worked in the hypnotic drone of the cob select stations. And I worked on the sanitation crews, where we fought a never-ending battle against mold with chlorine and nitric acid. My favorite job in the whole place was running the blanchers, two gargantuan machines that parboiled the fresh cobs. But to me they looked like a pair of warp engines off a trap freighter, taking the spinward run out to Ceres and the asteroid fields.
Corn, corn, and more corn

All down the sides of the blanchers there were these heavy valves, and it was my job to regulate the temperatures in the machines, loosening and tightening the valves with an industrial wrench. Then I had to record everything in a log book. It was loud as hell in that plant. And we wore ear muffs, flex coveralls, and thick rubber gloves. It left us isolated. Sensory deprived. We’d go twelve, fourteen hours a day. Week after week. Nothing to do but rattle around in your own brain. There was this other guy who I took turns with, working the blanchers. I don’t remember his name now. Or who started it. But in the margins of the log book, we began to write a story. Back and forth. One sentence at a time. It was about a drug runner and a soldier of fortune down in Central America named Nick Danger – no relation to Carlos. And I suppose it was probably pretty stupid, right? But Nick Danger got me through those hours of monotony. He’ll never appear in hardback, of course. But, I’d like to think that the Birdseye Company is meticulous in their record keeping. I’d like to think that ensconced somewhere in some bunker beneath a corn field in Minnesota, there’s Nick Danger. He’s still on the phone at Guatel, screaming at his man in Miami, who has hung him out to dry.

I spent a night in the Tuscaloosa County lockup one time. Stumbling out of Egan’s, I’d gotten picked up for walking drunk. And I remember waking up in the wee hours of the morning, surrounded by all the other drunks. My head on this jailhouse Bible. It was really nice of them, I think, to give us a Bible. Anything, really. Something to read in the sheer boredom of the pink walls. I don’t recommend spending a night in jail. But the truth is, I got a story out of that night called "Satellite Mother." And unlike The Adventures of Nick Danger, this one got published. It’s out there in the world for anyone to read. That’s about all an author can ask of a story. So, in the whole mix of this grand thing, I do not think that I would want to have spent that night any other way. It has become one of the best nights of my life. Though it was absolutely the most boring. This is the thing: Boredom is your friend. Without boredom, you will never write. Do not be afraid of the boredom. Earlier that night in Egan’s, I had not been bored. But I was not writing in Egan’s. I was running away from writing.

The other day my son told me that I should’ve been a truck driver. He may be right about that. I used to ride the Greyhound a lot. I’ve ridden cross country more times than I can count. The monotony of it can drive you mad, especially in the dead winter across North Dakota. My head would struggle at first against the boredom. But after the first day, I’d fall into the zone. Voices would rise out of the engine, the pavement. Images streaked across the fields. Today I have a job that I love. I teach creative writing and literature to undergraduates, many of whom are as amazed by the power of literature as I am. I’m very lucky to be able to do what I do. But I can imagine other jobs. Out on the road, I always come up with the solutions I need to these fictional problems and puzzles. Perhaps, if I were a long-haul trucker, I would write them down in the sleeping compartment of my rig after a long day’s drive. But if I were a child today, I do not think that I would want to be a truck driver. Instead, I would hope to become an asteroid miner. Imagine the wonderful boredom of it. Alone for weeks in the inky blackness of deep space. Nothing but a set of log books that no one will ever read.