Friday, July 27, 2012

Jen McConnell's Open, Unguarded Moments

In the 13th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jen McConnell, author of Welcome, Anybody (Press 53), discusses ideas that trigger stories, the rare ones that have come easily, and those she more typically struggles with.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
Ideas come to me all the time. Too often sometimes. Once in a while they lead somewhere, end up somehow in a story. Most often though, I think, “Oh that would make a good story,” only to realize that there isn’t anything beyond that first thought.

I work full-time, I have kids. When I am focused on those, I am locked in. It’s the moments away – walking the dog by myself, in the shower, driving long distances listening to music, overhearing a conversation at the grocery store when I’m zoning out in the checkout line. Those occur when my mind is relaxed enough to let the synapses fire randomly (that’s what I imagine happening). And it is these open, unguarded moments when I’m most receptive to the ideas floating around. 

Often it’s a turn of phrase that starts the idea rolling. I’m working on a story now called “The Catastrophist,” which is a term a friend off-handedly called his grandmother. I love that phrase. And it was perfect for a story idea I’d had early after hearing a conversation on a street. All I heard was one guy say to the other, “it was a normal, awkward dinner party,” and that was all I needed. 

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
Thirty minutes. I didn't even know the story was brewing inside me, but I had spent a few days with a friend, and during the drive home the complete story came to the surface. 

I pulled over into a gas station along I-90 by Lake Erie. I pulled out my journal (with me at all times) and wrote the story from start to finish. Granted, it's a very short story, for me anyway. About 1,000 words. After it was published, I looked back at my journal and it's amazing to see how little changed from the first draft to the final. 

This has happened a few times, but that was the shortest. I wrote another story during a plane flight from east to west coast. That too had very few changes from the initial draft to the published piece. This is certainly a rare occurrence and I am grateful when it happens! It makes up for the majority of stories that I sweat and struggle over. 

What's the longest time it has take you to write a story? 
Years. My usual way of writing is to write the first draft and then revise and revise, then put it away for a while. Weeks. Months. Then when I look at it again, it either works—with a bit more revisionor it doesn't. If it doesn't, but I think there is something there not to give up on, I will rewrite the whole story. I've rewritten a story from third to first person (and vice versa), from a different character's point of view, from a different starting point. I even rewrote a 4,000 word short story into a poem. It isn't very good. 

Usually when I rewrite so much, I've lost the story I was originally trying to tell. So I try to get back to that original essence. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. I just let those ones go and chalk it up to improving my craft, not a waste of effort.  

What writer or writers have you learned the most from? 
Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, Julie Orringer, T.C. Boyle, Junoz Diaz, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Haruki Murakami. Their stories are all so alive in so many different ways. From all of these I have learned most about form. I can't learn voice or tone or stories from other writers, but I am able to look at how each of these amazing writers form their scenes, paragraphs, and sentences. How they weave a seamless plot, or write dialogue, or structure their sentences to tell the story in a way that best serves the story in a seemingly effortless way.  

What story by another writer do you most wish you'd written? 
For a long time it was "Bigfoot Stole My Wife / I am Bigfoot" by Ron Carlson. This is just a perfect story. For the last year or so though, it has been "Donkey Get Greedy, Donkey Get Punched," by Steve Almond. It's a masterpiece.