Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Why Louise Farmer Smith Writes Short Stories

In the 51st in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Louise Farmer Smith, author of Cadillac, Oklahoma (Upper Hand Press), traces her inclination for the short form.


Writing short stories is what I do best. It is not just my preference; it feels like an inborn inclination. My first writing success was with a story called “Sugar House” about an aid in a juvenile detention center. In this story Lena, a big, husky woman, sings out in a raw voice as she rocks a young offender. This story came out of my experience interning in the children’s division of the New Hampshire State Hospital, and I had feared it was unpublishable, though to my great delight it was taken by Virginia Quarterly Review.

What has produced this inclination for the short form? I offer an explanation that has two feeder systems. The first was my mother who had been trained as a child to give dramatic readings. After she was married, my father discouraged her from performing as an adult, so she poured the passion and drive of her impoverished childhood into being a mother.

At bedtime she read aloud to my little sister Phoebe and me, and this may have tipped me toward a form of writing that can be fitted in between pajamas and goodnight kisses. She read such books as Heidi and Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. Drama. Suspense. Menace. Phoebe wept. And I wept, and so did Mother. She knew where to bring us to a pause in the story, however sad.
Flying Dutchman: Bedtime story

Perhaps even more influential was my position as the oldest child. Once my little brother was born, I had a tiny herd for which I believed I was responsible. I also had the grandiose opinion that I was responsible for the happiness of the whole family, my parents’ marriage included.

With a child’s hyper-radar, I always knew when there was trouble between my theater major mother and my engineer father, although I rarely understood the causes. This invisible tension steered me into fantasizing, making up stories to tell myself in the dark as I struggled to get to sleep. These stories, for instance, involved Mother’s thwarted dreams and Daddy’s practical issues with her projects. Lying in bed, age eight or nine, I would try different scenes, imagine peaceful, logical dialogue, and move fresh, helpful characters—my mother’s best friend for instance—onto the scene, all in the service of a happy ending.

This rehearsing of a literary form, though devoid of conflict, was the beginning of my schooling myself in the short story. I couldn’t use a long form, I had to make up a story as fast as I could to relieve myself of the fear that the bedrock of our home, the marriage, was, shaking.

After years of my placing short stories in literary journals, Upper Hand Press published One Hundred Years of Marriage which tells the stories of one family’s marriage choices over four generations. In each case, a child is the narrator, observing the marriage and wondering why the parents chose each other in the first place. One Hundred Years of Marriage was a novel-in-stories. And although my second book is a story collection, I want Cadillac, Oklahoma, to deliver the same satisfying experience and cohesive world as a novel.

The book I’m working on now, The Woman Without a Voice, continues my focus on marriage in the form of memoir. I have used the published diaries of 19th century women who feared leaving home for the trek west as a background for telling my own family’s pioneering story and the tragedy of my great grandmother’s incarceration.

I go over the memories of my grandfather who lived with us for ten years, as well as what I know of his father and sisters, plus the asylum records of his mother, as I work and rework the cruel alternatives they faced. Those people come into my imagination like actors onto a stage ready for the brief episodes I write from their few tattered documents and family lore. History or biography are long forms the surviving evidence does not support. This will be a short book about wives.

Writing and issues of marriage continue to be intertwined in my work. I learned to love short stories as a teenager and later taught them in high schools and colleges. Whether I weave them into books or not, I will always treasure the story as the fastest way to satisfaction, but whatever they are, they are what I write. I have walked away from childhood with the story’s shortened form in my bones.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Clare Beams' Ten Pieces of Writing Advice

In the 50th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Clare Beams, author of We Show What We Have Learned (Lookout Books), offers and accepts some tips.



Ten Pieces of Writing Advice
(Addressed In No Small Part to Myself)

1. Be patient. I’m putting this one first, in case you have to learn it over and over, like I do. Publishing takes time. More importantly, writing well takes time. Creative work sets its own pace, almost always a slower one than you might set for it.

2. Keep working. I graduated from my MFA program in 2006, so my cohort of fellow students has now had a decade to make its way in the writing world. So far as I can tell, the only real difference between the group of people who are actively writing and the people who don’t seem to be is exactly that—they kept writing. (Though of course some of the people who’ve been quiet are just patiently incubating.) So far, it seems, those who’ve been writing and publishing aren’t always the ones who were the superstars of our program as students, or the ones who seemed to be the pets of our professors, who seemed to be cultivating invaluable literary networks. They’re just the ones who’ve kept writing, for years, and gotten better at it.

3. Forgive yourself, up to a point. #2 aside, life intervenes. It gives you new jobs, new babies, periods of terrible or wonderful upheaval. You might not manage to write during these times. Remember that not writing is not a crime, not a meanness, that you are not hurting anyone when you don’t write.

Just remember, too, that it’s waiting for you.

4. Write what only you can write. It’s wonderful to be inspired by what the people around you are doing. But what someone else is doing should never be what you are doing, not exactly. Figure out what only you can say (this takes time; see #1), and then keep trying to say it.

5. Find joy. Making time to write in the midst of life is not easy. It’s a lot harder if you’ve loaded writing up with so much freight that you can hardly bear to do it. If your current project is making you miserable, take a break and write something else that excites you, even if it doesn’t feel like your real work. Write something totally new, something that makes you remember why you loved writing to begin with.

And anyway, the real work is sneaky. It isn’t always what you think it is.

6. Be good to other people. This advice isn’t specific to writers—but no matter what happens with your writing, remember that you aren’t exempt from it. You may and should love your writing, and tend it, and carve out the time and attention it needs. But you should also try to remember that your writing is not a person.

7. Print things off. A practical tip that changed things for me—if you compose on a computer, print off your drafts long, long before they’re anything approaching ready, and then tear them up with a pen. You can tell yourself you’re just tinkering, which somehow lowers the stakes, even though you may actually be rewriting 90% of what’s on the page.

8. Trick yourself. Truly, whatever keeps you in the chair. Need to block off Internet distractions while you write? Block, block, block. Need to be able to dip into Facebook so you don’t panic and give up entirely? Facebook away, and then come back. Write only on the computer, or only longhand with a certain kind of pen. Refuse to allow yourself to get up, or roam around the house or the neighborhood and then return. Give yourself a word-count goal, or a length-of-time goal, or no goals at all. Just talk yourself into doing the work somehow.

9. Don’t overthink. There are exceptions to this one, I’m sure, but in general, don’t spend too much time crafting a grandiose scheme for what you’re writing before you actually write it. Grandiose schemes can only live in sentences.

10. Read. Read widely. Read to learn. Much more crucially, read to love—because reading this way is probably part of why you started writing in the first place. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Callan Wink on Work and Legitimacy

In the 49th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Callan Wink, author of Dog Run Moon (Dial Press), takes us on a fishing expedition.


I think many writers, whether they admit it or not, spend a fair amount of time trying to ascertain their own legitimacy as "writers." There are some semi-standard benchmarks: getting a story published, getting a book published, getting a good review, getting many good reviews, on and on, culminating in thoughts about one’s own legacy, or body of work. Possibly, when a certain level of achievement has been realized, these thoughts finally recede, I don’t know, I’m definitely not there. Personally, however, my thoughts regarding legitimacy often dip one step deeper and ponder the bottom-line worth of the whole endeavor.

Maybe it has to do with my firmly Midwestern upbringing and current small-town western existence. There is a real, if vague, sort of distrust one faces from rural communities if he/she decides, for some unfathomable reason, to spend the greater portion of a nice day inside, thinking, sitting. Doing…what, exactly? A person of able body, especially a man, should engage in real work on a daily basis. Preferably, work that takes place out of doors, after a day of which one can see tangible proof of his efforts. Those who choose inside jobs—lawyers, bankers, real estate agents, priests and professors—are viewed through narrowed eyes. Potential shirkers all. Can work that leaves one’s hands soft really be called work? Quite possibly this is a silly question to ask in our current tech and knowledge based economy, still, it’s a thought I wrestle with when I stoop over my keyboard and waste another perfectly good day plunking away.
Summer work: A river runs through it

I reconcile this inherited worldview by only partially donning the authorial mantle in the first place. For half the year I continue to engage myself in an occupation in which sweat, sunburns, and pulled muscles feature rather prominently. For the past decade I’ve spent the majority of the temperate months rowing fly-fisherman down rivers in Montana. Fishing guiding is a job that has almost no relation to writing and that, in part, is why I value it. I sometimes joke that to be a successful fishing guide all one needs is a strong back and a weak mind. While that’s not entirely true, there is an element of mindless manual labor that I find myself missing after a winter spent chained to the writing desk. Being outside and in the world, being physically exhausted after a day on the water—these are things I would miss greatly if I were to ever stop fishing guiding, but, more importantly, I enjoy the sense of self-identity that stems from having the job. Most of my friends are fishing guides, and, after a hard day in the late summer, we go to the bar to grouse about the heat, about difficult clients, about the wind. Complaining about your job with your co-workers is the birthright of the working class, something that solitary fiction writers don’t often get to do. (At least those of use who don’t live in Brooklyn.) In fact, on a more general level, talking to other writers, especially about writing, is not something I’m incredibly good at or even inclined to do in the first place. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in the presence of several writers I greatly admire, and, for whatever reason, it seems that we end up talking about fishing, the weather, dogs—anything but writing.

At this point, when people ask me what I do for work, I can either tell them that I’m a fly-fishing guide or a writer. Each of these answers gets a different response, and, at least in my local environs, the fly-fishing guide response is still the one I like best. That being said, the thing inside me that compels me to write is the same thing that ensures I’ll never be perfectly happy strictly floating rivers. It’s the thing that sets me slightly apart, in a not entirely good way, from many of the other fishing guides I know—the knowledge that I have some other gig that helps pay the bills. To some, this paints me as a mere dabbler, the sort of fishing guide that has a trust fund or a spouse with a law practice. I disappear in the winter and do some rather incomprehensible inside job that doesn’t involve fishing and thus I’m slightly suspect. And conversely, during the long days of summer when boats and fish and rivers consume my life, I know many other, more successful, "real" writers are toiling diligently. I feel the weight of work undone, the guilt seems to radiate from my neglected laptop itself.

Legitimacy—most likely it only stems from pure devotion to one’s craft. Quite possibly, at some point one of the jobs is going to have to make way for the other if I hope to reach a higher level of performance. But, at this point, I try to enjoy the dichotomy of my year. There’s a season for writing and a season for fishing and at the end of each I’m looking forward to the other.

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.