Saturday, December 30, 2017

Anthony Varallo's First Story

In the 46th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Anthony Varallo, author of Everyone Was There (Elixir Press), describes a writing breakthrough, of sorts.

I wrote the first story I would ever publish in 1996. I was in my second year at my MFA program, where I was writing sensitive and melancholy short stories about children who felt, well, sensitive and melancholy about a variety of things. Their parents, for example. Their vanishing childhood, for another. Also, winter. Or, more specifically, snow. Snow in winter. The children were always walking around in the snow in winter, feeling sensitive and melancholy. Or they were sitting at the window (it was snowing outside) thinking about the way the past was always alive in the present, which was thoughtful of them, since that was usually the theme of the story. The snow picked up outside the window whenever they did that.

Thematic: Sensitive and melancholy
During this time, I remember going to workshop and not feeling well. I don’t remember what was wrong with me, exactly, probably a headache or the start of a cold, but I do remember that I was having a hard time paying attention to what everyone was talking about. My mind began to wander. And, for reasons that I still don’t understand, I began to imagine a short story where the main character fails to show up for his or her own story. Like a lead actor neglecting to show up for the play. The story goes on—but the main character never appears. A concept that struck me as incredibly clever at the time. I think I even jotted a few notes in my notebook, on the sly: Character doesn’t show up for story. Story continues anyway. Problems, etc. 

I went home and wrote the story in a single weekend. The story, “Not Stuart,” didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, though: the main character, Phoebe, doesn’t show up for her story (she’s only pretending to be asleep) while her rude and horrible but lovable husband Stuart walks through what would have been Phoebe’s story, complete with embarrassing meta-asides from the writer (me) about how badly the characters are behaving. A concept story within a concept story. Sort of. Even though I’d lost sight of the original concept so soon—how had that happened? The story ended with the meta-writer throwing his hands up in disgust. This story went all wrong! I can’t fault the ending for a lack of honesty.

“Not Stuart” was not the story I’d set out to write, but I sent it out anyway on the hunch that it was short enough (five pages) and clear enough and maybe clever enough in places to grab a reader. But some minor miracle, an acceptance letter arrived in my mailbox a few months later, a letter I would later unfold and fold so many times that the crease split in half. My first published story! My first published story in a magazine someone might actually read. Or, more consolingly, my first published story in a magazine very, very few people might actually read.

When I look back at “Not Stuart,” I don’t regret publishing it, and I certainly don’t regret writing it. True, I don’t think it’s the best story I’ve ever written, but I don’t think it’s the worst, either. I remember writing it quickly, flush with the concept, certain of how clever it was all going to be. I remember putting words on the screen before I thought about them too much, or before I realized how heavy-handed the concept was. Before my doubts had a chance to get the best of me, too. I would give anything to write like that now.

Anyway, I’ve made my peace with “Not Stuart,” my first published story: I included it in my new collection, Everyone Was There, to keep the others company.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Emily Bieniek's New Year’s Resolution: To Devalue the Hero’s Journey

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Emily Bieniek, author of On the Great Land (Ward Street Press), compares her own reaction in a stressful situation to how characters behave in fiction.

The night I was mugged started like any other night; better than usual, actually, because my boss let me go home early before the holiday break. I was riding my bike home from campus, as I always did, when I saw two people cross the street about a block in front of me. They looked too small, and therefore too young, to be fellow college students, which was odd because it was already 10:30 at night. What’re those kids doing out here? I thought. 

I wish I could paint the moment that I knew the situation was not just weird, but dangerous. Both children stopped in the middle of the street, and each raised a long, thick rod over their shoulder. Silhouetted in the streetlight, they looked like batters at home plate.

It didn’t occur to me to turn around and bike away. As I drew closer, helplessly letting my wheels spin toward the pair, I realized that each kid was holding a golf club duct taped to a sturdier metal bar. I rolled slowly up to them and tried to sit up straighter on my seat.
Writer's task: Get real

“How can I help you?” I asked. I took my hands off my handlebars and held them up like the twin ends of a goal post. The children’s hoodies were drawn over their faces, but I could tell that they were both boys and that they were even younger than I had first thought - neither one was taller than my chest. If they hadn’t been carrying weapons, the situation might have been funny.

The bigger boy pushed the smaller boy in front of him. The littler boy staggered forward and froze, his reinforced golf club raised over his shoulder.

The older boy sighed. “Give me all your money!” he said, gesturing toward me with his own rod.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to reach into my backpack to get my wallet, okay?”

“Okay,” the older boy agreed.

I reached into my backpack and held out my wallet.

“You know what?” the boy said. “Just give me the whole thing.”

“No problem.” I took my backpack off and gave it to the smaller boy. Both children relaxed. “You guys okay?” I asked. “Can I go now?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s fine,” the older boy said.


I pedaled off. They hadn’t taken my bike or any of my jewelry, and I’d put my housekeys in my pocket before leaving work. My neighbor found my driver’s license on his lawn the next morning. I hadn’t been carrying my laptop. The kids’ net gain was an old backpack, eight dollars, and a flip phone.

Reflecting on that night, I’ve often wondered how I knew what to do and say to avoid getting beaten up. I had never been mugged before. Maybe the boys were never going to use those heavy golf clubs, but I think that the way that I instinctually sat up straighter and spoke calmly and politely impacted the outcome of the exchange.

People act on instinct in novel and complex social interactions all the time. In a story, it is the writer’s job to show the reader why their characters respond the way they do to new experiences, but in reality, people often don’t understand their own intuition. In a hero’s journey, the entire story can lead to on one pivotal moment for which the hero practices through a series of tests, but this is not how real life works; in reality, the pivotal moment is lost in the course of the hero’s life. In 2018, I hope to refine my ability to capture a character’s history, to convey that the character isn’t introspective enough to sufficiently to know why they are acting in a certain manner when faced with a new social challenge, and to demonstrate that although the story has climaxed, the character’s life will continue beyond the confines of the page.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Matthew Pitt on Making a Memorable Impression

In the 44th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Matthew Pitt, author of These Are Our Demands (Ferry Street Books), discusses learning how to nail an audition—and how it applies to his writing. 

In my life, I’ve been compared to a musical diva exactly once—and not because my singing was like buttah.

It happened during final callbacks for a play I really wanted to take part in. Actually, there was one lone part for performers with Y chromosomes (this was at Smith College), and the play itself wasn’t the thing: What I wanted was to work with the professor directing the production. I’d heard he ran rehearsals with an improvisational mindset; that each exercise and read-through was spirited, challenging; that you could count on discovery each day.

This professor gathered the lucky few who’d emerged from first auditions into a circle, gently describing what he hoped we’d aim toward that evening. Did we have questions? “I’ve got one, John,” I piped up (his name is John). I pulled a small, purple orb from my jacket. “Have you heard of this fruit? It’s a muscadine. My roommate from Georgia grows them in her yard and brought some back. It’s a form of grape, but what’s interesting is, you can’t simply chew it like a grape. The skin is too, well, tough. To eat one you have to pierce the skin, then suck the pulp and juice. It’s quite a process. And that pulp is delicious to us but poisonous to certain animals. Anyway, do you know it?”
Streisand: A portrait of the artist
as an ingenue

“No I don’t,” John shot back. “But I do know Barbra Streisand’s first audition. Do you know Barbra Streisand’s first audition?” I shook my head. “Let me show you Streisand’s first audition.”*

Wordlessly John moved to the wings, re-entered with an outsize wave (transforming our group into casting directors), and sauntered to stage center, where a folding chair awaited. While walking he pantomimed chewing invisible gum, mouth masticating extravagantly as if it belonged to a bovine. He peered at us quizzically, then himself, innocently (“Something the matter?” was the subtext). After giving a thumbs-up, he stretched the “gum” into a thin strand, rolled it, and plugged it under his chair. “Know why Barbara Streisand did that?” he asked. “Same reason you just told me that story. You know now I’ll never forget you.”

Of course, he was right about my story then and continues to be, in those I tell today. Whenever I flip through a notebook, scouting for material with potential, something like Streisand’s entrance insists when I have an actual, active story in my sights, rather than some dull scrap capable of singing a few pretty bars back and little else. The rare notion in my notebook that nails its audition is the bracing one. The perplexing one. Such notes take many forms: a character wearing a predicament like an illusionist’s straitjacket; a tone chiming out misaligned from its setting; dialogue pledging to tell a secret, or better still, withhold it at all costs. The common denominator is that they somehow both conjure and contest a familiar melody, moving into uncharted waters and pitch that cannot be circumscribed. You know, like divas do in their renditions. There is an uncouth, maybe even unprofessional, quality to such notes. But their depths are obvious from one glimpse. So too is the sense, equally entrancing and aggravating, that it will take reams of artistic patience, and indirect and delicate methods, to access the fruit under the skin. These are notes, in theatre and improv parlance, that aim not to please, but push ahead: “Yes, and…”

A postscript: Those callbacks were like no other auditions I’d been through before. They enlivened and exhilarated me. And…I didn’t get the part. But I did wind up with a future acting teacher in John, Tai chi coach, a man who brought me to Javanese puppetry, commedia dell’arte, and later, served on my creative thesis committee. John at first was hesitant about that last role, but I told him I wanted my fiction to improvise the same way he encouraged me to onstage. Awareness is awareness, no matter the form of art being enacted. After my thesis defense, on my way out the door, John entreated me to be sure and write to him.

“Of course I’ll write,” I offered breezily.

“No.” He gripped my wrist, a grip I still feel writing this sentence. “Not right away. Write me much later. Write me at the moment I would have thought you’d forgotten me.”

I’d say more, but this moment seems to have moved into endings, a topic for another time. So dear, John, consider this your latest letter. I haven’t, I hope, forgotten any of it.

*So far as I know, no recording exists of Streisand’s audition for viewing or confirming pleasure. But several accounts of it have been written, including one in a book by the late Michael Shurtleff. The consensus seems to be that the gum Streisand gnawed away at was imaginary.

Monday, December 18, 2017

What Cynthia Flood Has Learned

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Cynthia Flood, author of What Can You Do (Biblioasis), shares some wisdom.

In 2016 a story I wrote in the 1980s reappeared in an anthology. I hadn’t read it in years, felt that the work held up well. So long though! Six thousand words. A frame story, yes—but I like now to stay somewhere between 2500 and 4000. Past that I get nervous, fear rambling. Also, in that 1980s story, many of the academic narrator’s sentences run 35-45 words, some close to 70. Today I’d use way more varied sentence structures. Much less punctuation. Zero semicolons.

Back then I greatly admired Doris Lessing’s stories. Later, even more, William Trevor’s and Nadine Gordimer’s and Alice Munro’s. Now Lydia Davis, Colm Toibin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Carys Davies. . . . I’ve published a novel and five collections of short fiction. What have I learned?

Length has little to do with the difficulty of writing. Some long stories in What Can You Do reached good draft in a few days, while others took weeks, months to get that far. The shortest story went through thirteen drafts. My reading preferences have changed, too. When reading fiction now, especially novels, I often think This would be so much better at two-thirds the length! (Same, with movies). Trevor’s novels Felicia’s Journey and The Story of Lucy Gault should have been stories. They’re horribly/beautifully overweight.

When finishing a day’s work I make a To Do list, including any puzzles, problems to solve. I like to spend some days or a week on one story, then move to another. Having three or four going means I don’t get bored. Also, when I return from one fictional world to another, the staff in the back rooms of my head may have answers ready for me. I’ve learned to trust them, particularly with images.

To invent plot is way easier than to convey emotion without labeling it, to show an individual sensibility, one person living in the world. For that, imagery’s crucial. Alice Munro excellently chose the word magnet to express its power. While reading a draft, I may find some energy-laden words, not chosen with conscious design. How to use them? Not heavily, not to lay down clues for detectives. Perhaps suggest? A reader might notice—or not, yet enjoy going where those images gently lead.

After drafting some pages of a story, I used often to realize that stuff needed near the beginning must be hauled forward from pages 5 or 6 or 15. This frustrated me no end. Still, sometimes I waste hours trying to fix those pages in their present order, make them something they can’t be. I believe now that what gets written first = what the brain produced recently. To write a draft can require a descent through many pages to reach earlier deposits, perhaps laid down long before I thought of writing anything.

I try now to begin with bits, sentence fragments, unrelated paragraphs. No connective tissue. The aim: to get them down on paper. I have to fight the wish to complete, get organized. I don’t always win, but those scraps may resolve into fiction months later when I reread them in my notes-folder. There, felt-pen coding gives a slap of color to story ideas, so they stand out.

Having taught college English, I easily write the thesis-followed-by-evidence form. For years I rechecked story drafts to ensure they didn’t carry this essay-taint. Fictional design, however, makes its own demands. Although narrative paragraphs and sentences don’t argue, they must work to create a reality. Editing, I ask each one Why are you here? What do you contribute? Amazing, how often favorites serve little purpose.

Clean-up comes near the end. I love lists, but try to limit them. I kiss goodbye to most copula verbs, passive voice, pluperfects, adjective strings, series of coordinating clauses, expletive constructions, adverbs. These clog prose arteries. To use another image, the elaborate gears of English can mangle meaning and reduce a reader’s interest.

I set the story aside for some days, then follow a fellow writer’s surprising advice: Read it aloud from the end, sentence by sentence. Check the rhythms. Find unexpected repetition, omission, overlap.

Finally, I’ve learned to trust the liminal times in each twenty-four hours: just before sleep, just while waking. To be aware, then. Good material may emerge to meet—what is it in writers that generates fiction? I don’t know. I’m grateful, always. Writing: one of the best parts of my life.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

John Shea Gets Started

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, John Shea, author of Tales from Webster's (Livingston Press), discusses sources of inspiration that include a Robin Hood movie, the Hardy Boys, and riding the subway.

I grew up among books. My parents were readers, and the love of books certainly carried over to me and my younger sisters. In some ways, though, I owe my start in creative writing to the nuns of Marymount International School—and Errol Flynn. It was in third grade, I believe, while my family was living in Rome, that the school decided that one of the monthly assemblies would be given over to an airing of the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood. My earliest memory of writing outside of schoolwork was developing a short (very short) story involving Robin and his archenemy, personified by Basil Rathbone. At least as important was a drawing, my attempt to recreate their classic duel on a castle stairway. My materials: pencil and paper, cut into very small pages. That booklet no longer exists, but I’m confident I adhered to the film’s plot and had Robin win. It was only many years later, when I had heard about Mr. Flynn’s worldly adventures with many women, that I realized the irony of those chaste Catholic nuns showing us youngsters one of his movies.
Adventures of Robin Hood: Flynn, Rathbone face off

My next inspiration for writing was much humbler: The Hardy Boys detective series. I still have one or two of my booklets in that genre—indeed, I used the names Frank and Joe Hardy as well! Perhaps a little angel warned me because I then wrote a couple of stories about young brothers with different names. The next step, as a budding author, was to write little mysteries or adventure stories using the names of the boys in my class in Notre Dame International School. I figured that might be a way to attract an audience. And it was. We gradually developed a small circle of grade-school writers. On the other hand, you had to be careful: If I had one of my classmates humiliated or even knocked off, chances were that “John Shea” would come into some equivalent trouble in my friend’s story. I think it was in part a way to bolster ourselves in a foreign country, keeping our own language alive and well. At the same time, we could experience the vicarious thrills of adventures, mysteries, and science fiction.

Fortunately, although I continued to read and enjoy stories and novels that had little resemblance to my own life, I eventually began to write more contemporary, realistic pieces. While I was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, I got a terrible haircut in the student union, thanks to an Italian-American barber who may have been somewhat deranged. Among other things, he tried to persuade me that women in art always looked more beautiful when they were being killed. Once I had escaped from his scissors, I was able to turn the experience into a short story. My first story published by a national journal had its origins in an encounter with an attractive neighbor. At one point, bumping into her outside our apartments, I learned that she had recently returned from a vacation in Italy and had enjoyed meeting a handsome Italian man. The problem: He was writing her letters, in Italian, and she couldn’t read them. That brief meeting started me thinking: Why not shape a story in which a young man, unattached, volunteers to translate love letters written to his attractive neighbor. And what might happen once a pattern started? It was only when I was deep into the writing that I realized the story had a Cyrano de Bergerac angle.

I’ve found that even the prosaic, everyday world can sometimes provide a start for fiction. Having spent many years using the Philadelphia subways, I one day came up with a twist: What if a commuter gets stuck in one of those full-length turnstiles and the efforts of police and firemen to release him are not working? And if his secretary comes by with papers for him to read in the meantime?

My friends have noticed that I often have a little notebook and pen handy—when I was at work and when I’m at home or visiting. I’ve found it very useful to jot down ideas or even phrases and words: I never know when some random thought or some particular happening in the world will help inspire me to write. And when I’m at a loss for ideas, I find it useful to turn to these notebooks and hope something there will start me going.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Peter LaSalle: The Short Story vs. the Novel

In the 41st in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Peter LaSalle, author of Sleeping Mask (Bellevue Literary Press), talks about aiming to create a tour de force.

It's all but a given that the short story genre has always been overshadowed—often loomingly so—by the novel. However, the great, wonderfully metaphysical writer Jorge Luis Borges was once asked why he wrote only stories and never a novel. A gracious man, Borges smiled, I suspect. He provided an answer along the lines of, "Why write a novel when you can do just as much in a short story?" I seem to remember reading that at one point he went so far as saying that too many novels, with their inevitable slow spots and frequent padding—in his opinion, anyway—tended to bore him.

Well, I have written novels, but I do think I know what the Argentine maestro meant, granting I'm certainly no Borges. It entails a mission I've kept in mind ever since my early pre-computer days, when I loaded a blank sheet of paper into a rattling old light-green Hermes manual typewriter to begin a new story and acknowledged there was a ton of responsibility before me—a short story with its sheer intensity, validly akin to poetry in that aspect, would demand a good deal on my part.

Maestro Borges
Or to put it another way, even more recently when writing about child soldiers in Africa raiding a girls' boarding school or a gifted young Virginia Woolf scholar in Boston who survives cancer and struggles to show a brave face amid the dreamlike state of it all—those being a couple of the concerns in this new collection Sleeping Mask: Fictions—I knew the stakes were high, that I would need to get a lot done within a small number of pages according to Borges's credo and at least aspire to make the next several thousand words maybe nothing less than a little tour de force. Because for me that's what a truly successful short story essentially is and what makes the genre by nature so remarkable, capable of challenging the novel.

Other than emphasizing the word "force" in the phrase, I'm not sure if one can give a very precise definition of tour de force as applied here. It's probably best described by the result. Which is to say, the reader's response, a quiet rush for him or her after finishing a good short story, strong, and the feeling of having been transported somewhere new and important via the whirlwind of the words. In the half hour or so of being with the characters while reading, something large has definitely been added to one's experience of the world and done so with almost immediate impact.

Sometimes this seems to lie in an intense, resonating significance of theme, generated by a solid subject to begin with. In these latest stories I tried to avoid simply the rather self-centered malaise of everyday life that occupies much popular recent American writing and instead perhaps have a go at matters like the randomness of the many big dangers surrounding us in our troubled contemporary scene, socially, politically, and such—for instance, the current narcotraficante wars on the Texas-Mexico border and how a young couple might encounter by total chance that kind of nightmarish violence, as happens in one story, "Lunch Across the Bridge."

And the more I write the more I believe that the tour de force factor for a story is sometimes found in innovation and experimentation regarding language or structure, a quest for which the genre with its kinship to poetry is particularly well suited. This does call for risk and not relying on the safe, ready-made (also quite old-fashioned, in fact) trappings of straightforward narration, long the staple of traditional realism. It usually involves pursuit of writing that just might be new on the page, a story, let's say, that in looping repetitions and words echoing words gets at the way that mirrors themselves—whether over a dresser at home or gilt-framed in a visited art museum, everywhere—can become pretty haunting because they reassert a sense of human incorporeality, a ghostliness somehow deep inside us, as I wanted to make happen in another story in the collection, "A Short Manual of Mirrors."

I honestly don't know if I've been successful, and only the aforementioned reader response will attest to that for any writer. Nevertheless, I sure hope that with Sleeping Mask: Fictions—overall and maybe more than in my four previous collections—I have worked my outright best to live up to Borges's thinking and taken advantage of the genre's uniquely engaging possibilities that do attract so many of us to keep writing short stories, repeatedly longing to create a genuine little tour de force ourselves, no doubt, despite the non-stop noise we can't help but hear about the haughty dominance of the novel.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

David Rutschman on Moving Between Distance and Intimacy

In the 40th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, David Rutschman, author of Into Terrible LIght (Forklifte Books), discusses how the haiku form has influenced his work.

Name something by another author you wish you had written.
This is Basho, translated by Robert Hass:
Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.
For many years, I tried to force myself to write traditional length realistic short stories. That was fine. More than fine, actually; it was great—I learned a lot. But those weren’t the stories I really wanted to create, and gradually, over time, I began to give myself permission to write stranger stuff—pieces that engaged forms of knowing other than psychological realism. I allowed myself to go back to the works I most loved as a reader—parables and koans, fables, haiku. Small, oddly shaped things.

It’s strange in a way for a fiction writer to confess to loving haiku. There’s no fleshed-out characters there. Definitely no plot. But there is motion, at least in the haiku I most return to, a sort of swooping in or swooping out through levels of intimacy.
Basho: haiku, cuckoo

Like in that Basho one above. Can you feel the way it moves in this translation? Even in Kyoto. That line is scene-setting, grounding us in a place, a city. But already— with that word “Even”—there’s a little seed, a little hint, of a personal sensibility, right? The sense of an experiencing consciousness? Not just: In Kyoto. But: Even in Kyoto. We can feel the human being there, although we’re still pretty far away.

But then we get closer, into sense experience: hearing the cuckoo’s cry. From the city to the ear; from outside the body to the body’s experience itself.

And then, wonderfully, shockingly: I long for Kyoto. From the city to the ear to the longing heart. From far away to closer to so-close-I-can’t-bear-it.

Does this poem richen if we know that the hototogisu, the Japanese cuckoo, is also called the “bird of time?” Here’s the (different) motion of a different translation of this same poem:

Bird of time—
in Kyoto, pining
for Kyoto. 
(tr. Lucien Stryk)

See how this swoop feels different? Without the word “hearing,” we lose the emphasis on the speaker’s sense experience. Instead, in this version, the “bird of time” is part of the city—objective, outside—and we come inside—into the subjective experience—with that word “pining.” With the explicit naming of the element of time, too, the feeling of the poem changes for me—is the speaker longing for the Kyoto of the past, the Kyoto that is gone? For the self that is gone?

How can this much wisdom—about the relationship between present and past, between longing and having—fit into a piece this small?

In my own stories—whether traditional length or very short, whether realistic or fabulist—I pay a lot of attention to intimacy and distance, to those moments in a work where we swoop in closer or pull way back. As a reader, I first began to notice these swoops in haiku, but once I tuned in to them, I started to see them everywhere: in short stories and novels, in all sorts of poems. Even in song lyrics.

The band The Mountain Goats has a pretty famous song, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” Do you know that one? As the song begins, we’re situated at a nice safe distance:

The best ever death metal band out of Denton
Was a couple of guys who’d been friends since grade school
Once was named Cyrus, the other was Jeff
And they practiced twice a week in Jeff’s bedroom

The song continues, hovering up in the air above the two characters, telling their story—the kids stencil pentagrams on their instruments and Cyrus gets sent away to “the school/ where they told him he’d never be famous.” Then:

If you punish a person for dreaming his dream
Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
Will in time both outpace and outlive you.

I think that so many songwriters might have ended there, or somewhere near there, out at that level of emotional distance. It would still be a pretty good song. But—unforgettably, perfectly—this one doesn’t stop. It goes on:

Hail Satan!
Hail Satan!
Hail, Satan!
Hail, Hail!

Can you feel that move all the way in? That swoop? From outside of the situation to inside it? From far away to the heart’s very center?

Basho would like that, I think.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Karen Shepard: How to Make Intermittent and Erratic Progress as a Writer, in Twenty-Eight Easy Steps

In the 39th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Karen Shepard, author of Kiss Me Someone (Tin House Books), breaks down the brilliant moves that have brought her fame and fortune.

1. Write a first novel about Asian/American/European women, which is what you are, except with characters who experience things you’ve never experienced. Watch the publisher’s art department produce a cover it considers vaguely Asian, with lots of deep purples and soft focus. Read reviews that claim you don’t look Asian enough in your author photo. Wonder: Enough for what?

2. After the paperback edition features a new cover with a black and white photo of an Asian baby, have someone at a reading ask if the baby is you.

3. Ponder identity politics. Realize that when you were a student in college, you could’ve been a member of one Asian student group, whereas now at that same college you could be a member of four. Find yourself unsure as to how to feel about this. Recall a time a Chinese American colleague told you that your experience as an Asian American was different because you could pass as white. Remember that she added, “So you identify as Asian American. Fine.” Remember how she went on to say that you didn’t “read as Asian American” because you read as “too powerful,” and how she added to that the speculation that it was because of your association with your “very powerful” husband. Find yourself dismally sure as to how to feel about that: this colossal failure of imagination concerning what defines Asian American, or women, or power.

4. Write a second novel with no Asians, and instead bad boys and the women who love them. White boys and white women. Set it in the South. You are not from the South, though you lived there at various times in your life. Recall the Southern woman you heard complain: “You know, she’s from New York.”

5. Ponder your own identity as a Chinese Jew. What it means. Should such a writer write quietly lush prose about repressed men and long-suffering women who make delicious food? Flamboyantly lush prose about guilt and suffering? And which of those would be Chinese? Which Jewish? Stop and think: Maybe you should be a personal shopper. You would do that well. Is that a Chinese trait or a Jewish one: shopping? Which group has more style? Think: Don’t go there. You will offend everyone.

6. Grow tired of trying not to offend.

7. Write a third novel set on the Upper West Side of New York City in the '70s, a time and a place you remember as filled with possibility, if you can drain that term of some of its optimism and replace it with a healthy dose of anxiety. Remember that feeling that anything could happen. You might see anyone of any race doing anything with or to anyone of another race. Write your way into remembering more. Write your way into discovering what you never knew. Anything could happen: not a bad place to start when it comes to fiction.

8. When that novel is published, answer questions about that time and place, since you’re now, apparently, an expert, having lived there.

9. Remind yourself that as a fiction writer, your authority is, or should be, based in imagination, and not just experience. Lament how often the world acts as if the opposite is true.

10. Remind yourself that despite your ongoing claims to the contrary—to loved ones, to friends, to everyone—you do not know everything.

11. Attend a lecture by an art historian at your local Historical Society. Bring your toddler daughter so you can’t fully concentrate on what’s being said about this group of Chinese workers, brought into your small New England town in 1870 as factory strikebreakers. They ended up staying for ten years. Get excited enough to take quick and incomprehensible notes in the back of your checkbook register. Think: this is something you want to know. Don’t yet ask yourself why.

12. Spend two years researching. Stand amazed at how little you know about anything, especially 19th-century labor strikes, 19th-century shoemaking, 19th-century immigration policies. Read more. Discover further chasms in your knowledge of American history, interracial relationships, farming, the Bible.

13. Announce to your husband that this is a great idea for a novel, but you are not the person to write it, not because you are not Chinese enough, but because you’re not writer enough.

14. Read more. Discover slivers of why emotionally you might’ve been interested in this story in the first place. Discover where your weird psychological and emotional make-up intersects with the weird psychological and emotional make-up of this historical situation. Again, not because you are a Chinese Jew, but because you are a human being inhabiting this earth.

The Beckett: failing (L), failing better (R).
15. Spend another several years writing. At the same time, try, with your usual inadequacies, to be a teacher, a mother, and a wife. Turns out it’s hard.

16. Write more. Rewrite. Show what you have to your first reader, your husband. Rewrite again. As Beckett would say, Fail again, fail better.

17. Have your agent try to sell the finished product, your fourth novel, in fall of 2008. The first three had sales figures that sounded more like shoe sizes. Did you mention that it was fall of 2008?

18. Have the editor of your third novel tell you there will be an offer and then have her publisher forbid that offer. His stated reasoning: It is too unlike your previous novel. His reasoning: Your sales figures sound more like shoe sizes.

19. Be rejected by many other publishers. This has less to do with being too Chinese or not Chinese enough or too Jewish or not Jewish enough, and more to do with being a writer. Being a writer will always be like this. But writers don’t write only to publish; they also write to understand the world and their place in it. That might translate to understanding what it means to be a Chinese Jew in this world. But it might not.

20. Think about writing another book, a book so wildly successful that all publishers will then want everything you have ever written.

21. Ponder what that book would look like. It might reassure us all about what we already feel and what we already know and what we already believe. It would keep the good characters and the bad characters clear, separated by impermeable borders: this person is worth my sympathy; that person is not. As for people who think differently from me: what’s to know?

22. Discover these thoughts to be irrelevant since you have found yourself unable to write. Worse, you have found yourself unable to read. Occasionally crawl around on the floor as if you have been gut-punched. Repeat for a year or more.

23. Return to reading. Stay at it. Read books that are not warm baths but more like plunging into a cold, cold lake.

24. Return to writing. Write stories, in the hopes they will be easier. They are not. Which you already knew since you have been trying to write them for thirty years.

25. Publish your first collection of stories ever. Fill it with experience and imagination. Discover again that one is not worth much without the other. Be quietly pleased when one reader asks if you’ve ever lived in an apartment paid for by your married lover who died in 9/11. Be even more pleased when another reader asks if you have a half-brother and did you ever give him a blowjob.

26. Return to pondering your life, as a Chinese Jew, a mother, a wife, and a teacher. A dog owner three times over. A control freak. Bossy. Someone who cries at advertisements. An occasional embarrassment to your children. Growing older. Filled with hope. Filled with despair. Supremely rational. The picture of lunacy. A writer.

27. Keep writing. About anything. About it all.

28. Remind yourself that as a human being, your authority is, or should be, based in imagination, not experience: who we already are and who we can imagine ourselves to be. Ask yourself again: Who do you want to be? And how will you put it into words?

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

KL Pereira on Lost and Missing Mothers

In the 38th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, KL Pereira, author of A Dream Between Two Rivers (Cutlass Press), relates a history of absence.

Missing mothers haunt my work. It’s partially because of my obsession with fairy tales, to be sure. Mothers are often an absence, a shadow, a lurking thing that can neither be written out of the text, nor forgotten. In fairy tales, the mother has often died, a reality of times when coming through childbirth was far from sure, and stepmothers were a fact of life. Then, as now, mothers seem to be stolen away, and our narratives are full of looking.

There are so many mother-shaped holes in my life, my story. I’m always, it seems, trying to find them. But, try as I might, mothers always seem to elude me. They turn out as absences or shades, violent shadows. I can’t quite seem to fill their shapes. There’s something that rises up and blocks me.

And this is what I really want to write about, but can’t: We have a terrible tradition of losing mothers in my family. My mother lost her mother when she was 17. My grandmother had had ten children by the time she was 36 and by 39 her body had given up. I never knew her, none of her grandchildren did. Some of her children do not remember her. She became an absence that everyone felt and a fairy tale that everyone was too sad to tell.

My grandmother lost her mother when she was four years old. But her mother did not die. She was taken. Her children were taken. My grandmother and her siblings were seized by the state and their mother (my great-grandmother) was committed. Yes, that kind of committed. The one census record I’ve discovered cites schizophrenia as her illness. It’s a box on the side of a card that is ticked off by a neat “x.” There’s no explanation. She was an immigrant, spoke little to no English, it was the Depression and she’d left her young children at home while searching for her husband, her husband who, it was said, was running around on her, and what rights did she have, what rights do women and immigrants have now over their own bodies and lives?

I’m usually not a fan of the happy ending, where everything works out, even in fairy tales, but when it comes to this story, I want that ending. I yearn for it. Perhaps precisely because I know that it can never happen. I can’t save my great-grandmother, break her out of the asylum, rescue her children from the orphanage, reunite them. Because that is not how it ended for either of them.

Every time I find a new census record, it breaks me. There’s no other way to say this. Because of the way state and federal census records are released, I have to wait years between updates and each time it shows that my grandmother was still in the orphanage and then with foster homes that never adopted her. That my great-grandmother was still in the asylum and then, after being deinstitutionalized sometime in the 1970s, died in a nursing home, long after my grandmother’s death, and long after my birth. So many details are still missing, but I know that neither of these women got the ending I wish for them. And if I know the truth and it’s heartbreaking and there is no redemption for anyone, how do I write this story, how did I write so that it’s not like losing them, again and again and again?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Bill Roorbach's Freaky Fridays

In the 37th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Bill Roorbach, author of The Girl of the Lake (Algonquin Books), describes his writing habits, his reading habits, and how he gets back on track.

What influenced you to become a writer?
When I was five—an earliest memory—my mom took me to Shopper’s World, one of the first malls. It was still new then, late fifties, and we were going to see Santa. The wonderful thing was that it was just me and Mom, very rare, and about to get rarer: Eventually she’d have five kids. I sat on Santa’s lap and he asked me what I wanted and I said I wanted a desk. He seemed fine with that—very jolly in fact. On the way home Mom asked me why I wanted a desk. I said, “Because I want to be a writer.” She read to us, my mom, maybe that’s where my conception of a writer came from, the idea that it was something I wanted to do.

Describe your writing habits.
It used to be so clear. Get up, eat breakfast, write till lunch. Then a walk and a nap and write again, till dinner. After dinner, correspondence with editors, agents, and so forth. If teaching, writing in the mornings, class in the afternoon, grading in the evening. But then we had a kid. Now it’s ten minutes typing before the shower comes available, forty-five minutes on laptop in parking lot while the girl is at ballet, a couple hours after midnight (assuming no one’s throwing up), nineteen minutes while dinner’s in the oven.

Where do you do your best work?
Skunk family: Sub-tenants
I have a studio in a little outbuilding here at our place in Maine, but a family of skunks lives under it. Mostly they are good neighbors, but they do fight with the woodchucks who also want to move in, so there are stretches when it’s too smelly to work out there. These days I’m on the porch with the rest of the family, each doing our projects. Trouble is, the visual artists can chat and listen to music, so I’m often chased back out with the skunks. 

Name something by another author that you wish you’d written. 
Game of Thrones. But just for the money.

Where does a story begin for you? 
Usually with something interrupting life as usual. A character is grocery shopping before a snowstorm. He sees a homeless woman struggling with her bags. He decides to help her.

How do you know when a story is finished?
I always seem to finish writing stories on Fridays. So much of my life was set up like that, from grade school forward: There’s a work week, and there’s a weekend. I don’t do it on purpose—some inner clock times everything out for me. To write a given story might take a few days, might take a year—doesn’t matter, I finish on a Friday. So that’s how I know I’m done. It’s Friday, and I can’t think of anything more to do: Stick a fork in it.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
Walking, usually in the woods or on the beach or otherwise in nature, though cities work well, too. Also gardening. So much so that I count both walking and gardening as writing.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
Reading, walking, gardening, heavy drinking.

Describe an idea that you want to write or return to that you haven’t quite figured out yet.
I used to play keyboards in bands, though I’ve lost my chops over the intervening decades. I would like to learn or relearn one song really, really well and get say, the Rolling Stones to let me play it with them at one show, somewhere big, with jumbotrons and screaming fans. And then write about the experience. 

Describe your reading habits.
I used to read relentlessly, always five or ten books going at once, a pile by the bed open to various depths, one main project always forefront, ready to be opened in all the interstices of a busy life. I’ve had periods of reading a book a day—until recently a book a week was just average. Now I’m lucky if I can read a book or two a month. The problem is getting older. The problem, frankly, is staying awake. Also not enough hours in the day. Success has brought a lot of duties. And a lot of those duties involve reading. When night falls, I’m more about watching a movie these days. Which I count as reading, if it’s a good enough movie.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Douglas Trevor on Toni Morrison and Subjective Histories

In the 36th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Douglas Trevor, author of The Book of Wonders (SixOneSeven Books), discusses how Toni Morrison influenced his writing when he took an undergraduate writing class with her.

When I was a junior at Princeton in the spring of 1991, I had the opportunity to take a small craft class on fiction writing with Toni Morrison. There were six of us in the class—all students in the creative writing program. We met once a week in Professor Morrison's spacious office in a building known to us simply by its street address: 185 Nassau. In addition, Professor Morrison scheduled individual appointments with us. This was two years before she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In one of my private meetings with Professor Morrison, I remember her asking if I had first drafted the story we were discussing by hand or if I had typed it directly into my computer. At the time, I was using a Macintosh SE that had dual floppy drives. I recall writing my stories on this computer, saving them on a floppy disk, and then printing them out in the computer lab in Fine Library. I told her all this, adding that my own handwriting was so bad, sometimes I had difficulty deciphering my lecture notes.

She responded by shaking her head and laughing very softly. She said I had to be able to read my own handwriting if I wanted to be a serious writer; otherwise, I would never learn how to control and create the music of my sentences. She told me to rewrite the story by hand and then revise it and rewrite it again. Typing, she observed, is not the same as writing.

Perhaps none of Morrison's novels are more overtly attentive to the question of rhythm and variation than Jazz, which would come out in 1992—a year after my class with Professor Morrison ended. In Jazz, the distinct narrative perspective on each character is akin to a different solo. Taken together, these solos form a larger, composite piece, all knitted together—orchestrated, as it were—by the narrator.

I find the theory of character development embodied by Jazz to be an incredibly generative model for thinking about fiction writing, not just because it emphasizes how characters need to sound different from one another, and how this acoustic distance is part of what establishes character in the first place, but also because Morrison thinks about the historical dimensions that inform how and why characters express themselves in unique ways. By historical dimensions, I don't mean that older characters will use different forms of speech and diction than their younger counterparts, although of course that's true, but that each character should have a different relationship to history. This history can be personal or political or—as is really always the case in Morrison—both.

The title story of my recent collection, The Book of Wonders, is just one example of how Toni Morrison's lessons about character development, and her emphasis on subjective histories, continue to shape my writing more than twenty years later. In this story, a middle-aged woman named Simone is convinced that her mother, Annabel, has long scribbled secrets about her past in a leather ledger book she keeps under lock and key. For Simone, to access this book is to access a secret history that will help her explain the distance that has always existed between her and her mother. Annabel, on the other hand, regards the past in very different terms. Never really satisfied in marriage, she has instead dwelt upon the memories she has of those female friendships she cultivated while a student at Radcliffe in the sixties. Annabel has chosen to live in these memories—to clutter her home with pictures of these women, and to judge her daughter in relation to these figures.

While Simone assumes that excavating her mother's real past will prove something incontrovertible about it, and therefore explain their own relationship in some fundamental way, what she discovers instead is not so much what her mother thought about the past but how she thought about her own life. This discovery has a much different impact on Simone than she would have ever imagined.

"The Book of Wonders," both the story and the collection, is about this kind of impact—about what happens when one character is made to understand how another character sees the past. By virtue of her sustained meditation on how history works in the minds of different people, I group Toni Morrison with other writers whose work has meant the word to me—other writers for whom the flickering and repressing of the past constitutes one of their central concerns: Proust, Woolf, Marquez, Sebald, Bolaño, and—more recently—Egan. That I had the opportunity to engage directly with Professor Morrison's mind, to watch her pen mark my pages, is something—to this day—I still cannot quite believe.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Michelle Ross Asks: Is a Story Ever Finished?

In the 35th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Michelle Ross, author of There's So Much They Haven't Told You (Moon City Press), contemplates the array of choices writing a story presents.

By nature, I’m an indecisive person. If I don’t bring leftovers to work with me in the morning, then I will deliberate for so long about what to get for lunch, that in the time I wasted trying to decide where to go, I could have been out and back and eating already.

Writing, of course, is an exercise in making choices. Every word is a choice. Every detail. Every action. In the process of writing any story, I make thousands of choices along the way.

I’m also a perfectionist, and I suspect this largely explains the indecisiveness. Maybe perfection exists on a small scale. There are perfect sentences, I think. But on a larger scale, perfection either doesn’t exist or, at the very least, I don’t think it’s a reasonable goal. That’s in part because while some writing choices feel easy and natural, as though I couldn’t have chosen any other way, many other choices involve more chance than that. I could have chosen differently and still ended up with a great story. Maybe it would have been a slightly different version of the story I wrote. Maybe it would have been a drastically different version of the story I wrote. Maybe so different, anyone else wouldn’t know the two stories had started with the same seed.
Decision tree: Chose your own story

So I remind myself that there isn’t one correct path I must stumble my way onto or else the story is doomed. There are many fine paths I could take, so I just need to relax, make a choice and another and another and keep going.

And then there’s the revision, of course, and so reconsidering choices, and choosing differently, which creates more and more choices to make.

Until, finally, the story is finished.

On one hand, I want to say that knowing when a story is finished is rather simple. It’s a gut feeling. I’ve put in the work, given myself time and distance from the story, reread the story again and again and found that nothing nags at me anymore. That’s when I know a story is finished.

But many times an editor who has accepted one of my stories for publication has requested edits. Was the story not finished when I sent it out?

When I put stories together to make this collection, I revisited work I’d published in journals a decade earlier in some cases. I found more edits to make—most of them copyedits, but also more significant edits. I cut whole paragraphs. I rearranged scenes. Were the stories not finished when they were published in journals?

My book has been a finished thing since February of this year. If ever my stories are truly finished, surely it is when they appear collected in a book that has my name on the spine, right?

Recently, an editor expressed interest in republishing a story from my book, only she wanted to know if I’d be willing to consider making some edits. In addition to being in my book, this story won a contest years earlier. A prize of $1,000, the most I’ve ever been paid for a story. I’ll admit I felt a little uncomfortable at first about editing this story now. Because to make changes seemed to be an admission that the version of the story in the book is less than perfect. But didn’t I know that already?

There’s that famous sentiment I’m not sure whom to credit: Art is never finished, only abandoned. The word “abandoned” feels a little harsh, but if by “finished,” we mean “perfect,” I’m inclined to agree that no story—or few stories anyway—are ever truly finished.

There’s something liberating and beautiful about that.

And so, yeah, I listened to this editor’s insightful suggestions, and I edited the story. And it’s a better story.

But it’s still not perfect.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Michael Knight on a Literary Touchstone

In the 34th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Michael Knight, author of Eveningland (Atlantic Monthly Press), discusses his sentence-level admiration for The Great Gatsby.

Name Something by Another Author that You Wish You’d Written / Talk about a Literary Touchstone / What Influenced You to Become a Writer?
Given the nature of this prize and this blog, I should probably select a short story to answer this question, and if I’m not going to select a short story, I should probably take advantage of this opportunity to shine a light on some under-read masterpiece rather than on what is surely one of the most read novels of all time, and if I really do intend to select an already well-known novel, it would make perfect sense for me to pick the one referenced by the title of my new collection (Walker’s Percy’s The Moviegoer is now and ever shall be one of my favorite works of fiction), but the book that keeps insisting on itself in my mind is The Great Gatsby. I know, I know. I already feel like a heel and I’m barely a hundred words into this post.

But, still, there are those sentences:
An oldie but a goodie
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
And there is the point of view, Fitzgerald’s observer narrator, Nick Carraway, his first person voice inviting us in, courting our sympathy—he’s a charming storyteller, after all, and he’s just as amazed as we are by the near surreality of the wealth and decadence on display—allowing for bias in Gatsby’s favor while also keeping us at a slight but vital remove. This is a narrative stance I have employed (imitated? stolen?) on several occasions in my own fiction, including in the story “Water and Oil” in Eveningland. Even when I’m writing in third person, I often imagine my narrators this way, as actual humans with flaws and opinions and recognizable uncertainties bearing witness just on the fringes of the action and moved by what they see, as I hope the reader will be moved. There is a scene in my story “Jubilee” that makes direct reference to (rips off?) The Great Gatsby, a party scene featuring a guest list that bears an undeniable resemblance to Nick Carraway’s list, famously scribbled in the margins of railroad timetable.

And there’s the way Fitzgerald uses imagery to mirror Nick’s interior life, a craft lesson for any writer. 
Two o’clock and the whole corner of the peninsula was blazing with light, which fell unreal on the shrubbery and ran in thin elongating glints upon the roadside wires . . . But there wasn’t a sound. Only wind in the trees, which blew the wires and made lights go off and on again as if the house had winked into the darkness.
Those lines span two beautiful paragraphs and appear in the novel immediately after Nick has learned the truth about Gatsby’s history with Daisy. For me, as a reader and a writer, no sentences in literature better reflect the way the world might look to just that human and just that moment in his life. 

Like most everybody else, I first came across The Great Gatsby in a high school, Nancy Strachan’s American lit class my junior year. I was the perfect age and exactly the right sort of kid to romanticize vague notions about the glamorous 1920s and a boozy literary life, false notions, to be sure, but no doubt the beginning of my dream to become a writer. And I can still remember the way my pulse thumped as Fitzgerald lead me inexorably toward what I surely must have known was coming, that image of Gatsby floating dead on a raft in his own pool, the water littered with fallen leaves, and from there to those last lines, which I most likely didn’t understand completely but which I somehow felt completely and have kept on feeling across all these years and dozens of re-readings and which, even now, I can feel creeping up on me as I type these words. Honestly, writing this post has made me want to go read The Great Gatsby all over again.