Friday, May 31, 2013

Katey Schultz on Writing What She Doesn't Know

In the second in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War (Apprentice House), discusses a pivotal moment and the power of perseverance.

What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
The best and worst writing advice I've ever gotten is "write what you know." In short, this was the best advice because I had to start somewhere and it made sense to start with what I knew. The first piece of writing I ever had published was back in undergrad, when a professor of mine convinced me that my opinions about local coffee shops would be of interest to others. I wrote an essay comparing the pros and cons of each business based on the quality of the drinks and the experience in each shop. It seems simple enough, but the fact that I had become somewhat of an "expert" in coffee culture and that other people thought this mattered, was pivotal for me. I never forgot the thrill of seeing that first article in print on the newsstands.

The flipside to this is that "write what you know" is, in fact, a very limiting piece of advice and I don't suggest anyone follow it beyond getting a basic starting point every once in a while. My collection, Flashes of War, features characters in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the stories are written in first person, from the point of view of soldiers or civilians. I've never served in the military, don't know anyone currently serving, don't know any Iraqi or Afghan citizens, and have never been to the Middle East. But I felt compelled to write the stories in that book, and I was able to research and imagine with enough precision to pull it off. More than writing what I know, the exercise of writing what I don't know stretched me to become a more precise, conscious, dedicated writer, and I'm better off for it.

What obstacles have you encountered as a writer, and what have you done to overcome them?
Like many other authors, I have experienced my fair share of rejection letters. I decided to take two years and travel to writing fellowships all over the country (only places that either offered a stipend or allowed me to break even while I was there). My goal was to diversify my skills and connections in the literary world, and to complete the two-year journey with a post-graduate fellowship or book contract. At the end of two years I had neither, and my stack of rejection letters from presses, literary magazines, and universities was too numerous to count. I did the only thing I knew how to do—I kept writing and kept traveling, promising myself I'd give it my best for one more year. The day before I got in my car to end my three years on the road, I received my book contract. Not long after that, I was awarded the Emerging Writer fellowship at Randolph College in Virginia. Perseverance paid off.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
I've never done this, but I have certainly had the experience where friends or readers tell me a long, involved, real life story that they think would make a great work of fiction. What I try to pay attention to in these moments is the energy that the speaker is emitting, and how his or her enthusiasm manifests as they shape the story and tell it to me in real time. I think there's a lot to be said for the ways in which we get excited about sharing stories with one another. Rather than taking the details or characters of someone else's story being shared with me, I try to learn from the momentum and passion of the moment the story is being told. When it comes time to create my own stories, if I'm feeling dull, I can conjure that storyteller's energy and usually get the creative juices flowing.