Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer on Having One Foot In and One Foot Out

In the 27th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer, author of The Water Diviner (University of Iowa Press), examines an approach that applies to both psychotherapy and fiction writing.

Many years ago, in a small, softly lit office that smelled vaguely of burnt coffee, I had a long discussion with someone about the importance of empathy. I was young and naïve at the time, and I was training to be a clinical psychologist. The discussion was with a supervisor, whose name was Bill. He had untidy gray hair, a way of looking at people sideways, and many decades of clinical experience. Bill told me that a psychotherapist needed to have a particular kind of empathy. “One foot in and one foot out,” was how he described it. Participating in a client’s experience was essential, he said, but more was necessary. A therapist also had to observe the experience of her clients—from outside, as it were. If she had both feet in, she would be unable to see what a client needs to understand in order to change. It took me many years to cultivate the kind of empathy Bill had talked about. I think what helped me the most in this endeavor was writing stories.

When the characters in my stories first come to me, they are incomplete. I imagine this is how characters come to most writers. Sometimes they appear as though through a fog. Usually, though, they will have some feature that is well-defined: a singsong voice, an odd habit of patting at the air, facial scars that look silvery in sunlight, a tendency to stare open-mouthed, a lop-sided gait, or an aura pungent with Old Spice. I begin with these features and as I write, the characters come to life.

Beautiful downtown Laramie
This fellow who pats at the air becomes Daniel Perera. He’s a devout Buddhist, an immigrant from Sri Lanka. He’s in his sixties but his ascetic vegetarian diet keeps him trim. His Tamil wife was killed in Sri Lanka’s civil war. Now he lives in Laramie, Wyoming, preparing taxes for ranchers who sometimes arrive at his office after a day of hunting, in pickup trucks loaded with elk or moose carcasses. Daniel has developed some obsessions. The ranchers’ mud-splattered boots bother him. He is convinced he can smell animal blood on their clothes. He counts things too much and he is sometimes irrationally afraid for his safety, but he gets by. He is about to marry a white woman, a middle-aged Christian widow. He doesn’t yet know that her grown children are planning to sabotage their relationship. What do they think of his odd habits and his obsessions? How will Daniel react to their malevolence?

It is only by immersing myself in the lives of characters like Daniel that I can explore their desires, conflicts, and fears. In order to write stories about them, however, I must also observe them: the way they relate to others, their place in a plot, and what events and experiences might transform them. The whole process of writing stories is, I think, rather like doing psychotherapy. One must have one foot in and one foot out.

Writing, like doing psychotherapy, also inevitably makes one more self-aware. I love writing about characters that I initially believe to be quite different from me. These are characters with backgrounds I do not share, who face situations that I have not encountered in my own life. Sometimes I get ideas from news articles or from events friends describe to me. Other ideas come from events I observe, on the subway, on the street, in stores, or in my neighborhood. I see an orange melon falling to the sidewalk by a bodega and splitting open. A blind homeless man huddled in a nest of grimy blankets flinches, startled by the pulpy thud. What comes to his mind in that moment? What does he feel? I’ve never been homeless or blind, so I can only write about him by finding some buried part of myself that might resonate with his experience.

I reach into the past, to the time when I first moved to the U.S., when I felt I had no access to home. I think about times when I’ve felt alone, or out of place or unable to understand what was going on. Little by little, by reaching deeper into myself, I begin to see how the world might seem to this man who starts, not knowing what has happened nearby. No matter how alien characters may initially seem, writing makes them akin to me. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Story Prize Anthology: 15 Years of Great Short Fiction (Coming in March 2019)

As we announced at last year's Story Prize event at the New School, Catapult Books is publishing a fifteenth-anniversary anthology that will be out in March 2019, just in time for the event at which our fifteenth group of finalists will read and we'll announce our fifteenth winner.

The book includes the stories that each of the first fourteen winners of The Story Prize read from at our event, introduced by quotes from their on-stage interviews, excerpts from their TSP blog posts, or judges' citations.

Here's the list of stories:

Edwidge Danticat, “The Book of Miracles” from The Dew Breaker
Patrick O’Keeffe, “The Postman’s Cottage” from The Hill Road
Mary Gordon, “My Podiatrist Tells Me a Story About a Boy and a Dog” from The Stories of Mary Gordon
Jim Shepard, “The Zero Meter Diving Team” from Like You’d Understand, Anyway
Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain” from Our Story Begins
Daniyal Mueenuddin, “Saleema” from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Anthony Doerr, “Memory Wall” from Memory Wall
Steven Millhauser, “Snowmen” from We Others
Claire Vaye Watkins, “Ghosts, Cowboys” from Battleborn
George Saunders, “Tenth of December” from Tenth of December
Elizabeth McCracken, “Something Amazing” from Thunderstruck & Other Stories
Adam Johnson, “Nirvana” from Fortune Smiles
Rick Bass, “How She Remembers It” from For a Little While: New and Selected Stories
Elizabeth Strout, “The Sign” from Anything Is Possible

More on this, including some of the backstory, when the book comes out in March. For now, as the promo of the top says, you can preorder and save 20%.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Karen E. Bender's Advice to a Young Writer: Thoughts on the Structures That Hold up the House of the Story

In the 26th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Karen E. Bender, author of The New Order (Counterpoint), shares her thinking.

You start with honesty.

There is the truth that you want to hide, that you think others will turn away from. Combating shame is your currency, your work. It doesn’t have to be a dark truth, though it can be—you can describe a joyful truth, a crooked truth, a funny truth, something that hasn’t been said about the world and that you want to hear. Everything that hasn’t been said—you can say it. Writers reinvent the world, create ways of seeing, through their precise way of depicting what is around them. All you need is your own insight and bravery. You are combating the lies in our culture—all the clichés, all the ads, all the statements people say to explain their world but not yours, not exactly. And lies are so grating because you secretly know that your experience is valid, and that it is right, too.

The world feels different when you describe it with that specificity, that correctness. It feels brighter, lighter—mostly, it feels real. When you describe the truth about the world, the world snaps awake.

So tell a truth in whatever way you want to. You can tell it through fiction, in which honesty is not literal but is emotional, and needs to feel true. You can tell it through nonfiction, which is literal truth created by you.

Your truth may not be other people’s, and that is fine. It’s not supposed to be. But others may hear your version and say, yes. That is how I move through the world as well. That moment, that connection, is what bonds writers and readers, what nourishes you as a writer, more than anything—it’s the closest we get to knowing what it is to be another person.

You shape the world with your truth. It’s waiting to be shaped by you; this is your opportunity.

You say it.

Then craft.

This is the funnel for your honesty. The way you shape it into a precise container. For art isn’t unshaped life, it is life that feels more vibrant than life. What is the question you want to answer, how are you going to shape your story to answer it? How are you going to use all of the tools at your disposal—sensory detail, dialogue, scene, plot? Play with these craft elements, use them. Don’t feel that you can only be good at one element of craft. If you are a sensory detail person, you can also become a dialogue person. You may hate thinking about plot but it can become your friend. Read many different authors and see how they use these tools. Also, read sentences out loud and see how the words feel as you say them, how the rhythm of the sentences resonate in you.

Then patience.

Being a writer means that much is out of your control. Magazines may accept or turn down your work. Readers may connect with your work or dismiss it. You can’t control how others respond to your manuscript. But you can control your process of revision, how you nurture your work. Take the time to write a story once, twice, as many times as you need to reshape it. Do it again. Be resolute. Be ambitious. Be fearless. As a writer, your power is in your patience. That’s what you can control—the process, your vision, your words.