Monday, December 29, 2014

Heather A. Slomski Prepares Herself

In the 65th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Heather A. Slomski, author of The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons (University of Iowa Press), discusses a story she wishes she'd written and offers her advice.

What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
The story I wish I’d written is “Father’s Last Escape” by Bruno Schulz. For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s a very short story—barely five pages long—about a small family grieving for the loss of Father, who, prior to the story’s start, has been dying and returning to his family in different forms. The last time he returns, which the story chronicles, he does so as a crab or a large scorpion (the story doesn’t clarify further).

"Father's Last Escape": Returning as a scorpion
While the story is laced with dark humor (Uncle Charles comes to stay, for example, and as a result of his depression, he gets a strange pleasure out of trying to viciously step on Father), it is incredibly tender and sad. Schulz bestows upon Father-the-crab/scorpion such a convincing blend of crustacean/human attributes, and the combination of knowing that there is a kind and gentle man embodied in this crab/scorpion, of witnessing this “man’s” crablike behaviors (zigzagging across the floor at lightning speed; his desperate and futile attempts to right his position when turned on his back), and observing Joseph and Mother’s mixed feelings of Father in his latest form, is immensely moving. I still laugh out loud in a few key places while reading this story, though my laughter is not lighthearted or joyous, but the spent laughter of the bereaved.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
I do occasionally borrow characters or situations from real life, though less often than more, and so far I’ve gotten away with it. My work is fiction, not nonfiction, so anything “real” in my work has undergone a heavy process of fictionalization—not because I’m intent on hiding the truth, but because I’m not interested in writing nonfiction. I write to use my imagination, not to record things that have happened. If something “real” inspires my imagination, it does just that—inspires my imagination.

Ten pieces of writing and writing-life advice for aspiring writers:
1. À la Lorrie Moore: “First, try to be something, anything, else.”
2. If you come to the realization that you must write, prepare yourself for a life of continuous hard work and only sporadic payoffs.
3. Figure out how you can have people in your life but still spend a lot of time alone.
4. Learn to live frugally, even if/when you don’t have to; doing so will help you keep a clear mind.
5. Something I learned at a young age from my father: Never leave the house without something to read. You never know when you’re going to be stuck somewhere for ten minutes or three days.
6. Discover new writers (or writers who are new to you) on your own; don’t merely read the writers people tell you to read or the books everyone else is reading.
7. Write only to please yourself; do not write what you think others want to read.
8. If you get stuck on a piece of writing, walk away from it. Maybe for a short time, maybe for a long time, maybe forever. And start something else in the meantime.
9. Have a couple of hobbies—productive activities you can pursue when you need a break from writing and reading—but be careful of having too many. Writing and reading require a great deal of time.
10. Let other writers influence you, but don’t attempt to sound like them. Figure out who you are as a writer, and write to sound like yourself.