Friday, November 30, 2018

Jendi Reiter on Choosing Relationships That Support Their Writing

In the 30th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Jendi Reiter, author of An Incomplete List of My Wishes (Sunshot Press), discusses the powerful influence writing can have on a writer.

In the Tarot, the Tower card signifies a disruptive, fundamental change. Richly robed figures tumble headlong from a crown-topped edifice struck by lightning, as droplets of fire rain from a black sky. Yet the building stands on a sturdy rock that has likely weathered many of nature's assaults.

Conventional Tarot readers may dread this card, wanting to give clients good news. But it's one of my favorites. I even have it on a T-shirt.

Writing is hard because our deepest intuition is a force as disruptive—and vital—as the lightning that cracks the Tower wide open. Some cherished beliefs or relationships may not survive the personal growth and truth-telling that the creative process brings forth. Fear of such changes is often the real reason for writer's block, for me and other writers I've known.

Difficulties balancing "writing" and "life" aren't always financial or time-management problems, or even codependence. There's a deeper layer that writing-advice books don't usually acknowledge. We may be correctly perceiving the risk that our work will take us places that our family, friends, community, or religion doesn't want us to go.

Case in point: When I began writing fiction in my early 30s, I thought I was a Christian woman, and now I'm neither. The narrator of my first novel, Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016), simply took over another project and insisted that I tell his story, which somehow felt like my own, despite the superficial differences in our backgrounds. Writing in the voice of a sexually adventurous gay fashion photographer made me realize I'm transmasculine/nonbinary—an option I didn't even know existed till my novel research brought me into a diverse and welcoming queer community.

What does this mean for my happy marriage to a straight man? We're still figuring it out, but it does slow down the process of writing the sequel...and I have to be kind to myself about that. You're not always a "better person" for choosing to preserve relationships—a truth that feels transgressive for writers socialized as female. On the flip side, don't doubt your commitment to the writing, just because you're being careful about its real-life impact.

"Problems with your novel are really problems with your soul," my first fiction-writing mentor, a virtuoso of the literary short story, used to tell me. As an evangelical, she meant that I was blocked and depressed about Two Natures because "sodomy dishonors God." I'll always be grateful for her encouragement of my writing as a spiritual vocation—and I'm still unraveling my shame, fear, and anger from the abusive theology of the community where I first felt the Spirit move. No wonder the book took eight years to finish!

The card that precedes the Tower is the Devil: a giant hairy goat-headed fellow who holds a nude man and woman in bondage with chains round their necks. But interpreters often note that the shackles are loose enough to escape if the human figures weren't so passive. I've learned to welcome writer's block as a sign that some situation in real life is entangling me in chains of my own making, and I'd better break them before the unsustainable structure comes crashing down. In that sense, my Christian mentor's advice is still golden.

Re-committing to my writing flushes out relationships where I'm being gaslighted—made to feel unclear about my perceptions, ashamed of my emotions, obligated to ignore my gut instincts, or forbidden to set boundaries. When I'm in a toxic relationship, I become afraid of my own mind, which arrests the journey into the creative unconscious.

Jesus reportedly said, "If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." (Matt 5:30) This unsettling text has been weaponized against queer people, as a command to cut off a vital part of ourselves—our embodied identities, our capacities for love and pleasure. As with the Tower card, though, I've found the good news within the disruptive shock. It's a promise that I can survive without an attachment I once thought essential—if the alternative is that I'm slowly dying within it.

After the Tower comes the Star, the card of inspiration. An angelic woman, nude and unashamed, pouring the infinite water of life into a pastoral pool. On the other side of writer's block, when outworn supports have crumbled, lies not isolation but a clearer and stronger empathy for myself, my characters, and the world into which I release them.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Victoria Patterson's Letter to Her Beginning Writer Self

In the 29th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Victoria Patterson, author of The Secret Habit of Sorrow (Counterpoint), shares some insights gained through experience.

You have no idea what you’ve undertaken. That’s OK. You’re going to love writing. No matter what happens, it’s yours. But here are some ideas and thoughts.

Don’t suppress who you are—your oddities, wackiness, your un-literary background. You’ll end up closing off the source of your most true impulses. If you alter who you are because of fear of not succeeding, or of not fitting into a capricious market, you’ll hate yourself, and then your work will suck anyways.

Stop asking others, “Do you think I have talent?” It’s like asking, “Should I buy it?” i.e., “Should I buy myself?” No matter how difficult, no matter the obstacles, no matter the years it takes, be willing to trust yourself.

Learn to honor yourself through your failures. Let them contribute to a stealthy self-respect, steadiness, and poise, which will be integral to your work.

Praise your adversity-bred toughness. Many writers have abandoned their craft due to the necessity of rejections.

It’s not that exciting. Learn to appreciate the drudgery. It’s a requirement. The grind becomes part of your ability to write well.

One of your best teachers will be yourself: by copying sentences, paragraphs, pages and pages in private notebooks, from authors you revere. Don’t worry. It’s not imitation. Go hog wild. Copy as much as you want. The magic of these sentences will cast a spell, impelling you toward your own expression.

Try not to worry too much about angering people. Chances are they’ll be angry at what you didn’t predict, and the things you fretted over won’t matter.

Your deficiencies and weaknesses will paradoxically become the best and worst qualities of your prose. Don’t despair. Whatever you don’t or can’t overcome, you can let it be purposeful and useful to your work. But to do this, you have to be aware and alert, otherwise, it’ll hide in your prose, diminishing it, and you won’t even notice.

Don’t use talent as exhibitionism, withholding behind language. Move deeper, risking vulnerability and foolishness. Don’t fall for the easier, flashier accomplishment.

A commitment to your work is not a pledge to achieve fame or success. Try not to dwell over the fate of your work. Instead brood over the writing.

Remember that your truest appreciation comes from silent, absorbed readers.

Learn to live for the next thing you write, and the certainty and thrill when your own work speaks back to you.

Don’t fall for the constant fatuous exhibitionism of social media, a need to be in public view as conspicuously as possible. Most of your time must be reserved for privacy.

Don’t be afraid to write badly, just do it in private, where mediocrity and badness can flourish, and where you don’t have to strain not to be trite, sentimental, or clichéd. You have to loosen up and write badly. Unless you’re willing, you can’t write well. You’ll need lots of privacy for your inevitable bad writing.

One of your greatest attributes is your urgency to write, that vital seed of determination, interest, need, and desire. It’s all yours. You might not know what the story means yet, but you are impelled to tell it, and this fundamental element propels a reader’s interest and can’t be faked.

Be glad that your stories are hungry. If the motivation is trivial to the writing, the story will lack the passion that generates interest, no matter how beautiful the prose.

Try not to worry about intellectual expression or academia. Your respect and delight in the incidental and prosaic details of life are more helpful, as well as your ability to perceive through emotions.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Sherrie Flick on Organizing a Book Tour

In the 28th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Sherrie Flick, author of Thank Your Lucky Stars (Autumn Press), offers advice to writers on putting together their own tours.

Your new book stands forlorn on the remote publishing island called No Marketing Department. It wants to be saved, but no pleasure boat skirts the horizon. My book Thank Your Lucky Stars escaped on a DIY reading tour to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, and Maryland. Here’s some advice.

It doesn’t start the moment you publish your book. It begins with its author living a good, empathetic life. Be a supportive writer friend to others. Attend readings. Buy books. Bake cookies. Some of these people will offer up a couch or a ride or a slot in their reading series in your future.

Some people call this Networking. Other people call it Not Burning Bridges. I call it Being a Nice Person.

After you’re a seasoned writer friend, and after you’ve gotten your manuscript accepted, you’ll need a website and a social media/newsletter presence that isn’t just about your book. This should be in place long before your publication date.

Work ahead. Many universities schedule a year in advance, as do many popular reading series and bookstores. When you query, even if it’s to a friend, practice good email etiquette. You never know where that email might be forwarded.

Be sure to have a readily available press sheet, a two-sentence pitch, and an e-ARC or hard copies ready to forward, if requested.

I contacted some venues cold, of course. Some never get back to me. Some requested a book and never got back to me. One university’s funding fell through, and one slot in a reading series was mysteriously revoked. Sometimes it’s impossible to sync up available reading dates with your driving schedule.

I choose not to dwell on the weird and sometimes disappointing circumstances around setting up a book tour. Some venues say yes, some say no. Look to the future. Maintain objective perseverance. Rejection is part of the game, just as it’s part of publishing.
When the going gets tough

Know that you’ll probably need a spreadsheet to keep all this straight and to keep your publisher in the loop.

Once you have some readings scheduled, always carry a box of books in your trunk or some extras in your luggage, even if you’re reading at a bookstore. For similar reasons, invest in a phone credit card swiper.

Think about funding. For I Call This Flirting, my debut chapbook, I was able to get a local Opportunity Grant to support the travel from Pittsburgh to Chico State for its release. For my current tour, my fourth, I have combined paying and non-paying gigs in each geographic region so there’s always a small net gain. Not all paying gigs are at university reading series. Sometimes you can tack on a university visit, a student conference, or a community center class to supplement your income stream.

Consider how much you like to spend time with strangers. I’m not an extrovert, which is why I try to set up readings where I have friends, which also increases attendance. But sometimes I splurge on a hotel instead of staying with my host or friends because I need to recharge.

Know what’s expected of you. Put details into your spreadsheet. Practice your reading in advance. Have a pre-set 10/20/30-minute reading ready in case your time changes once you arrive. Show up early. Never go over your time. Mark your pages so you don’t flip here and there saying: “I should’ve marked some pages.” A good reading sells books, and short organized readings sell more books than readings that are too long and disorganized.

Consider if you like long road trips. A book tour looks easier on the calendar than from rush hour on route 70.

Bring along things that make you happy. I bring my own coffee, Melitta, and a little jug of milk. My husband Rick loves to join me. Having a supportive partner is extremely helpful, but remember to orchestrate time away from the book events or you’ll both lose your minds.

Once you’re done reading, signing books, thanking your host in person, and going out for drinks and dinner, send a thank you card. Send a card to every venue and every person who hosts you. It will make both you and them feel good.

Be a nice person. Connect with friends. Travel the country. Plan a book tour. No search and rescue team is coming to save you and your book. Sometimes that’s okay. Build the boat yourself.

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.