Excerpts From My Commonplace Book: On Not Writing

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

By far the most popular article I’ve written for Toasted Cheese is “Keeping a Commonplace Book” (see Top Posts Today in the sidebar for evidence; it’s always there!). As I mentioned in that article, for several years now, I’ve been collecting quotes on my blog and many of those quotes are writing-related. So when casting about for a topic for this month’s article, it occurred to me that the same people who are interested in the how-tos of commonplacing might also be interested in some of the content I put in mine.

I decided to take a ‘quotes on a theme’ approach and pull quotes that relate to a specific topic. It turns out I’ve collected a lot of writing quotes, so there will likely be future articles on other themes, but for this month’s article, I chose the theme of “not writing”—a subject that seems to be of universal concern to writers. If you wrote fewer words in 2014 than you intended to—this one’s for you. Take heart. Not-writing is as much a part of the writing process as placing words on the page. If you’re in writing drought right now, remember the writing life is a cycle. One day the words will begin to flow again. Trust.

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it’s not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing. During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts. … I woke one night in the midst of a minor panic attack. It wasn’t unusual for me wake in the night, anxious and scared—and I always knew the source of the panic right away. But it was rare for my heavy-sleeping husband to wake at the same time. And instead of reassuring him and letting him get back to sleep, I told him the naked, humbling truth. I told him that if I didn’t finish my novel, I thought my future happiness might be at risk. He wiped his eyes and yawned and said, “OK. Let’s figure out how to make this happen.” It didn’t happen overnight, but the tide of my life shifted. —Susanna Daniel {+}

Studies on the nature of creativity have shown that people who consistently come up with more inventive and creative ideas are not necessarily innately gifted, nor are they necessarily more intelligent than other people. They are however capable of tolerating a certain level of mental discomfort. It works something like this: When our brains are presented with a problem—any problem—we feel slightly anxious. When we solve a problem, our brains release endorphins that make us feel good. So, we have a problem to solve, we often run with the first answer we come up with because it feels good (literally) to find a solution! But people who are willing to see that first solution, and then set it aside—delaying that endorphin high—while they continue to search for another answer, and another, and another… until they have compared all possible solutions and then chose the best option—and run with it—consistently come up with much more interesting, creative solutions.Molly Idle {+}

Not writing is important: it’s restorative. Taking a break from the work is also a part the work. Nobody really talks about that part of being a writer, and I know why they don’t. It’s scary. When I’m writing, I feel plugged in and energized and in sync. But when I’m not writing, I feel out of it. I have the very real fear that I’ll never be able to write anything ever again. When you look at the stiff, dark branches of trees in the winter, isn’t it hard to imagine those same trees all lush and full of leaves? But winter happens. Then spring comes. —Sarah Selecky {+}

Postal submissions taught writers that this vocation is not a sprint. Writing is a series of marathons separated by long respites, where we regain breath and build strength. It is time for writers to slow down again, so that our performance in the next race can be better, more meaningful, and if we are lucky, closer to the eternal, mysterious rewards of art. —Nick Ripatrazone {+}

Many of the successful published writers I hear talk on panels at conferences make it sound as if they are writing machines, as if they haven’t taken a day off from writing in years. Part of my success as a writer was not writing. If I hadn’t spent all those years teaching and reading and editing the work of other writers, I am certain I wouldn’t be the writer, and person, I am today. There are infinite ways to be a writer with a capital W, just as there are infinite ways to tell a story. —Julia Fierro {+}

There are a number of mysteries in [Penelope Fitzgerald’s] life, areas of silence and obscurity. One of these has to do with “lateness”. How much of a late starter, really, was she? She always said in interviews that she started writing her first novel (The Golden Child) to entertain her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, when he was ill. But, like many of the things she told interviewers, there is something a little too simple about this. … There is a poignant note inside the back cover of her teaching notebook for 1969, a long time before she started to publish: “I’ve come to see art as the most important thing but not to regret I haven’t spent my life on it.” Yet the conversations she was having with writers in her teaching books show that she was always thinking about art and writing: they show how the deep river was running on powerfully, preparing itself to burst out.Hermione Lee {+}

I think that there is a case for saying that you have a bit more to say as you go through life. I mean, obviously there are people who write wonderful books in their early 20s. … But I think those people are the exception. Most of the time, I think one should just let these things mature. It’s no bad thing to start a writing career after you’ve experienced a bit of life.Alexander McCall Smith {+}

I have a blog, but I don’t do it properly. Months go by, years even, without me writing. Then suddenly I write a lot. Other people … other people blog properly. … The reason I don’t blog every day is because I am slow. … [U]ntil I’ve figured things out, I’m lost. Life for me is leaves blowing backwards. If I try to blog about it, I’m just snatching from the air. I have to wait until I’m clear of the leaves. Then I can look back and see what pattern they’ve been making, and their colours, and the fineness of their outlines. Other people are not lost at all. The precision of people who can blog all the time. It startles me, that clarity of leaves. —Jaclyn Moriarty {+}

Vertical writing … values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. … vertical writing seeks to dig into the page, to value the building of character and authenticity over the telegraphing of plot. … Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.Nick Ripatrazone {+}

By and large really great writing from all wars comes a good time afterwards, when a person has had the time to let material develop and form itself, so that it’s not rhetorical. So that it’s not so heavily autobiographical. … It’s a bit like writing about cancer; there needs to be time. You need to find a way to transcend the tendency to put in every little detail. Just because it felt so important, it may not be important to the reader. And time is needed for imagination to come into play and to work with the material, to shape a story that may not be wholly in the real world, but only partly. —Tim O’Brien {+}

Nancy Slonim Aronie writes “great work comes after good work which comes after lousy work which comes after no work. remember that order.” please do. —Irene Nam {+}

What I forget, though, and what I am trying here to remember, is that the work does get done. Not every day, like the writing teachers recommend. Not even every week. But invariably, wherever I go, I write, just as inevitably I forget about having written, and subsequently worry. —Alex Gallo-Brown {+}

The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle, is the most important time for a writer. Escaping from the typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give a subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level. —Ray Bradbury {+}

Some of our most creative work gets done in downtime–waking from a nap, taking a walk, daydreaming in the shower. (Writers are particularly clean.) Downtime is when breakthrough ideas are delivered to us, unsummoned, when yesterday’s blockages somehow come unblocked. That’s because we treated ourselves to a little boredom and cleared our brains of the sludge of information. Try it. —William Zinsser {+}

I used to think that I needed wide open days and uncluttered hours to get important creative work done. Sometimes that’s true. But I’ve also learned that perhaps more important than what happens when I’m staring at the page is what happens when I’m not. How I chew on the idea in my downtime. My subconscious must know about the deadline—needs it, even—and works feverishly to pull it all together. Perhaps it’s even a pipe dream to imagine having something done early enough to bask in its finished glory with a glass of wine. And maybe that’s not even the point—writing is work and the furious finish is part of the process. —S. Hope Mills {+}

What We Were Reading in 2014: Recommended by the Editors

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

The real writer is one who really writes (thanks Marge Piercy), but writers need to read, too. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” But with so much to choose from sometimes it’s hard to decide what to read next. So we asked the editors what they read this year and what they’d recommend to TC readers and here is what they had to say.

What We Were Reading In 2014

Background Image: Paul Bence/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Baker recommends:

Carsick by John Waters. Equal parts fiction and memoir, even more fun with the author-read audio book. Not to everyone’s taste but if it’s to your taste, we should get together for lunch.

Captain Marvel (ongoing series). Sometimes the “as you know Bob” element of comics deters me from reading but I am absolutely captured by the new Captain Marvel. The visuals are lush; the story and dialogue are well ahead of standard comics. Captain Marvel will be looked back on as a turning point in what comics can be.

Closing Time by Joe Queenan. While reading on my Kindle, I wanted to reach through the screen. Sometimes to comfort Queenan and sometimes to fingerpoke him in the shoulder. Long in my “to read” pile, I finally got around to it and hated putting it down, even when Queenan frustrated me with his word choice or double standards.

Tina DuPuy (blog, columns, articles, Twitter). DuPuy’s voice is clear and unapologetic, with humor and more than an occasional dose of snark. She writes from a progressive viewpoint on topics that are always ahead of the mainstream. Reading her prepares me to talk about the next big thing when it turns up on everyone’s lips.

The Shame of Poor Teeth in a Rich World” by Sarah Smarsh (Aeon Magazine). I think that Americans don’t talk often enough or realistically enough about poverty and its effect on generation after generation, not just in big ways but in small. John Cheese has written on the topic for Cracked (+ and +), combining truth and dark humor. Smarsh’s piece came to my attention through social media. I shared it liberally but it didn’t catch on the way I think it should have. I can only imagine that it’s because of its specificity and that specificity is why this simple 3,500 word essay still crosses my mind often nearly a month after I read it. My husband and I discussed our personal experiences relevant to the article over dinner and in the car and while brushing our teeth before bed. Even if you don’t share the experience, Smarsh’s writing draws in the reader and paints an unpretty picture I think more Americans should see.

Recommendations from TC’s archives:

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Billiard recommends:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples. Saga is an ongoing comic series, but it’s one that I read when the collected volumes are published. It’s fantasy/SF, and the plot is…difficult to explain. It’s about war, and love, and literature, and it is one of the most compelling things I’ve read in quite some time. Volume 3 was published in March of this year, but you’ll probably want to start with Volume 1.

Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Weibe. Like Saga, Rat Queens is an ongoing comic series. Volume 1 was published in April. This book has a female-led cast, and is a tremendous amount of fun. It’s also difficult to explain, so allow me to borrow from Amazon’s description: “…a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!” Reading Rat Queens is some of the most fun I’ve had this year.

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire. This is the eighth volume in Seanan’s October Daye series. Upon completing The Winter Long, I went back to the beginning and re-read the entire series. I never do this.

Seanan also has a blog, and while she mostly posts work and travel updates these days, sometimes she posts things like this. (Be aware that the linked post deals with depression and suicide.) Earlier this year, she published a collection of blog posts/essays called Letters to the Pumpkin King. Seanan’s nonfiction writing is witty, insightful, often hilarious, and occasionally heartbreaking. I love it; I hope you do, too.

I first encountered Lindy West last year on an episode of (the sadly canceled) Totally Biased where she appeared opposite comedian Jim Norton to discuss rape jokes. I found her to be funny and eloquent and started following her immediately. She writes about pop culture and feminism and body acceptance, formerly for Jezebel, but she’s very recently moved to GQ. Here’s a post from this year about liking Chris Pratt before it was cool.

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Broker recommends:

Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking. What it says on the box.

Anne Lamott, who has a wonderful blog and is just out with a new book, Small Victories. She has a way of shucking right down to the cob, saying simple-sounding things that are also very profound.

What-If by Randall Munroe. His comic is always worth reading, and he has a weekly answering the mail questions thing that’s gathered in the book. The rollover text on the comics is part of the fun.

Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the end of the Lane is seriously wonderful: magical realism and childhood nightmare all in one.

To round things out, this article from The Atlantic (not for the squeamish; it features parasites): How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” by Kathleen McAuliffe on work by Jaroslav Flegr.

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Harpspeed recommends:

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. This mystery novel from an Icelandic writer is also part ghost story—Sigurdardóttir creates a fabulously atmospheric setting that make the word “creepy” obsolete.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I liked the juxtaposition of the two historical characters, deeply dimensional and rich.

This is a Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Pachett. I am curiously drawn to writers’ personal stories and liked reading Pachett’s memoir because she also fills her pages with good advice for writers.

The Last Walk: Reflections on our Pets at the End of Their Lives by Jessica Pierce. This story is part biography, memoir, ethical philosophy, and science journal in its examination of the author’s beloved dog’s descent into old age and the author, herself, who explores the many facets of the human-animal bond.

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury by Amy Newmark and Carolyn Roy Bornstein. Disclosure: My friend, Carolyn, is one of the editors of this collection and recently gave me a signed copy knowing how interested I am in her work on the subject of writing and TBI, and that I enjoy reading personal essays; this collection is a great introduction to the power of the personal essay and the growing concern that is currently trending across America’s landscape.

Recommendations from TC’s archives:

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Beaver recommends:

Proof of Loss” by Emily Rapp (The Rumpus). Emily Rapp writes unsentimentally about continuing to live after the inevitable death of her son Ronan from Tay-Sachs disease: “In those final days of my son’s life, I thought I would die, but knew I would not, which made me want to die even more ardently. Still, I lived. How? Perhaps I didn’t live at all but existed, half-alive, half-dead, in some liminal space.”

Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women” by Rose Lichter-Marck (The New Yorker). I am fascinated by this story about creating and not-sharing and unasked-for posthumous fame. If you have a hard drive full of unpublished stories, you might be, too.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. An Untamed State grew out of a short story called “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” The novel starts where happily ever after leaves off, playing off both the sunny Disney versions of fairy tales we’re all familiar with and the dark, twisted original stories that didn’t hesitate to make readers uncomfortable.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. You should read it because it’s on every* best nonfiction book list of 2014. You should also follow Roxane on Twitter because she’s smart and hilarious and gives a lesson on how to deal with haters on a daily basis. (*possibly a slight exaggeration but not much)

One Long Country Song: What Friday Night Lights Taught Me About Storytelling”  by Hannah Gerson (The Millions). Hannah Gerson, on writing about that small town background she’d been avoiding and how watching TV “to relax” got her there. (Writers are always writing. Even when they’re not.)

Recommendations from TC’s archives:


Everyone Else Is Doing It (So Why Aren’t You?)

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

NaNoWriMo is the pumpkin spice of the writing world. Come September, it starts seeping into everything a writer touches. By October, it’s ubiquitous. So when November rolls around, it’s inescapable. NaNo is a great excuse to hang up the “do not disturb” sign for the month of November, whether you’re doing it or not. If you’re not NaNo-ing, how else can you use those 30 days to become a better writer?

Set Goals

National Novel Writing Month isn’t so much about writing a novel in a month as it is about discipline, goals, and practice. If NaNo isn’t your thing, set your own goals for the month (or the season). These might include “write for two hours five days a week” or “outline a story in early November, write in November and early December, then edit and submit it before the New Year.”

If you’re already a writer who’s disciplined and working as much as you can, look at your comfort zone and where you might be able to break through it. Are you writing a little every day that never goes anywhere? Use November to pore over abandoned pieces and maybe link them or finish them. Polish them and submit at least one before November 30 and you could have a fresh publication credit by the end of the year.

Background Image: Toban B./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background Image: Toban B./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Write poetry, CNF, or memoir

NaNo is made for fiction writers but not all writers create fiction. Many of us are poets or memoirists (or would like to be). The nonconformists among us looking to co-opt NaNo might want to use November to create our own November challenges.

Write a poem a week; use Mondays and Tuesdays to explore ideas, write on Wednesday, revise Thursday, rewrite on Friday, and ask for feedback over the weekend.

Use your favorite writing prompts as the impetus for memoir instead of fiction. Write a memoir every day in November, even if it’s only a sentence or two. At the end of November, reread and look for a uniting theme among the 30 pieces you’ve created. Flesh out those stories and gather them together. Do you have a collection or at least a good beginning?

Write Short Stories

Lots of my NaNo friends are short story writers. Most of them use NaNo as an excuse to stretch themselves by working on novel-length fiction. Some like to use NaNo simply to create longer short stories. Usually they write five 10,000-word stories, which they plan in October. Those stories tend to have a connecting thread, like a character who appears in each story or a theme that carries through every story.

The NaNo police are not going to show up at your door and tell you your work for November doesn’t “count” because you didn’t write 1667 words per day on a single piece. You win NaNo by having 50,000 words of original fiction written in November. You don’t edit yourself as you go. You don’t delete paragraphs that aren’t working. So who cares if you realize on November 10 that this piece is complete? End it and begin something new. If you’d like to connect them later, you can, if it makes you feel better about the way in which you participated in NaNo.

NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers program allows the setting of a word count of your choice as a goal. NaNo Rebels maintains a discussion board at the official site (search it; if you read this after 2014, this link to the welcome thread may no longer be valid).

Write Character Sketches/Bios

Okay, you’re a fiction writer. You want to write a novel (or another novel). You’re down for NaNo… but uninspired. Still, you want to go to the coffee shop and answer “I’m doing NaNoWriMo” when the person beside you asks what you’re doing. Do you have a character in mind? It doesn’t have to be a main character. Write that character’s background story. You can fill out a Character Development Worksheet. You can write diary- or blog-like paragraphs from any time in the character’s past. Take an online quiz, giving the answers a character would give. Try a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test for the character you have in mind to learn more about him.

Everything you write about the character is fiction. You can count it toward your total word count of fiction on your NaNo project. You might be able to get a novel off the ground by the end of November but you might not. You can create your own NaNo project by creating 10 original characters (one every three days) and writing 5000 words about them, from their names to the story of their first heartbreaks. You might put them all into a single project or you might hang on to them until you find their stories.

Explore New Genres

NaNo has no restriction on genre. How many genres are your NaNo friends working on? NaNo is a great excuse to write in a new genre. Start something fresh or take a false start and continue it. If you feel your fiction pulling you toward horror or sci-fi, follow it.

If it doesn’t work, go back to where you consciously began the new genre (maybe a little further back than that), and try a different path. If you were writing a romance novel that turned into erotica and fell flat, think about why it wasn’t working. Character motivation? A setting that didn’t add to the plot? A word that you were uncomfortable putting into your narrator’s vocabulary? Change it up and give it another shot. None of your writing will be wasted.

Practice With Prompts

If you’re not into creating a single 50,000 word project for November but you’ve set the goal of daily writing or reaching 1667 words of fresh fiction per day, practice with prompts. You can find writing prompts right here at TC, at Twitter, at Pinterest, and all over the web.

Again, you can connect your daily pieces later if you want a more coherent feel to the work you’ve done in November but there’s no rule saying you must reach someone else’s goal. If you use NaNo to get into daily writing practice, you “win” when you have 30 prompts that worked for you, even if it was a few sentences jotted down in a Moleskine book before bed.

Enter a Contest

Lots of journals and publishers have contests going on in November (TC included) and with so many writers focusing on NaNo, you have a better chance of making the cut. That’s not to say that you can slack; you never want anything less than your best out there. But you can spend November writing a single short story that gets published rather than a 50,000 word novel that will never see the light of day.

Research (and query) agents or markets

When prospective NaNo-ers are writing outlines, you can research markets, publishers, and agents. October and November are opportune times to send your polished query to an agent. When the agent requests more from you, you’re ready to go. If an agent or editor responds to your piece asking for a few edits, you’re not caught up in NaNoWriMo madness. You’re ready to fulfill those requests.

As always, you’ll be writing to keep from watching your inbox, but you won’t feel the pressure that NaNo writers are feeling. Your November harvest could be a publication credit, a signed book contract, or the payment for a short story.

Keep your goal specific, like “research and query one agent per week” or “research markets every MWF and submit on the weekends.” Specific goals are harder to slack on.

Submit or Workshop

Even if you’re eschewing NaNo to the point of taking the month off of writing, send something out. TC’s inbox is most swelled in January when the New Year’s resolution to submit inspires writers. Beat the rush. Submit something in November for publication. Send a piece a week to the journals you’ve researched. Find the best possible fits, follow the submission guidelines, and send it in.

There’s more going on in your local real world of writers than NaNo. In addition to write-ins, there are workshops at bookstores, libraries, and cafes. Everyone will be talking about their NaNo frustrations while you show up with a story (with a beginning, middle, and end) ready for feedback. It’ll be a welcome distraction for the NaNo-ers and you’ll come out with some fresh opinions.

What Now?

Implement one of our A Pen In Each Hand accompanying exercises (culled from the above), get yourself a lovely seasonal beverage, and enjoy the month of November. Pumpkin spice: optional.


Tales From the Inbox: Baker & Beaver Discuss First Reading

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Theryn: Let me start with this. It annoys me when people fail to put “submission” in their subject line and/or submit to the wrong address because these subs end up in my main inbox with all my other mail, rather than being filtered into my submissions folder. Sometimes I wonder if people do that intentionally (especially with the wrong email address) thinking they’ll somehow jump the queue, but really it just increases the chances of the submission being missed or mistaken for spam. So, follow the guidelines, please. (Oh, haha, literally as I’m writing this, a “submission”-less sub showed up in my inbox!).

Stephanie: I just got that one too. I use a flagging system (and have for years) so when something has “submission” in the title, it gets the big, bold “TC SUB” tag and gets my attention. I also have a filter so that anything with “submission” in the title never goes to spam. So all it really does when a writer doesn’t follow that guideline is increase the chance I won’t see it. It will either be deleted with the flotsam and jetsam or it’ll languish in the spam folder for a month and then die alone and unread.

T: Ditto. When you bypass the guidelines, you bypass my “never send to spam” rules.

Background Image: Michael Dolan/Flickr (CC-by)

Background Image: Michael Dolan/Flickr (CC-by)

T: Oh, yes. Part two to this. Sometimes when people re-submit / submit again they just hit reply on the response I sent them. Which sends their new sub to me only, and leaves my lovely colleague Stephanie out of the loop. If I don’t notice you sent it just to me, and she doesn’t see it, your chances of making it past the first round just went down (oops!). Also, not as important, but still annoying, with threaded conversations, the new sub gets tied to the previous sub and that gets kind of messy. Again, I’m not sure if this is a jumping the queue thing or if people just aren’t thinking, but it would behoove you to submit to the correct address.

S: I am lovely. Since I’m on there as “managing editor,” I also get subs sent directly to me. I have no problem—nor does anyone else, to my knowledge—with a cover letter that mentions me in its salutation. The problem is when it comes to my email address. I usually don’t notice until my ravishing colleague Theryn says, “What is this submission you want in?” Then it goes from shortlist to DQ.

T: Ravishing? lol, ok.

S: I have a thesaurus and I’m only slightly afraid to use it.

T: Your lack of fear makes me afraid 😉

T: I also shake my head when I glance at my submissions folder and see a bunch of attachment symbols. What about “NO ATTACHMENTS” is hard to understand? Ok, maybe people don’t get why attachments are problematic. The main thing for me is they really slow down the reading process. All the opening and closing is annoying, when you could just be moving smoothly from one sub to the next. I often read/shortlist subs on my phone where attachments are a pain. I just want to read your sub and move onto the next without impediments. So just paste it into your email, ok?

S: Sometimes I give people the benefit of the doubt that they may have an email program that sticks some kind of an attachment onto everything. Sometimes it’s a signature that’s technically an attachment. But it is a huge red flag. I read those submissions right away and usually the attachment is the submission. So it actually saves me time in that I can say, “Oh a sub with an attachment? Can I get this out of my inbox? Why yes I can.” Click.

T: Oh, for sure. Same.

T: What do these things have in common? Oh, yes. WASTING MY TIME.

S: NEXT!

T: So it makes me sad when I head into the subs folder to shortlist and I glance down the names and notice that 75% or more of the subs are from men. What’s up with this, seriously? I brought it up in the class I’m teaching because it’s just so striking to me. I mean, we’re a publication that was founded by women and has had a majority female staff since the beginning, and this info is not a secret! Also, if you look at our archives, we have a good balance of m/f writers. What I’m saying is it’s kind of obvious that we’re a female-friendly publication and yet, women still seem hesitant to submit to us. (And if they’re that hesitant to submit to us, how hesitant are they to submit to a publication with an all-male staff / that publishes mostly men?)

S: Are men more confident about submitting? That’s the only thing I can think of. I don’t think there are more male writers. I don’t think it’s fear of rejection.

T: These are the key differences I note between men/women writers (generalizing, of course). Men a) seem to be more willing to submit early drafts of pieces and b) almost always submit again after a rejection. Women a) seem to polish/edit work more before submitting and b) almost never submit again after a rejection. My guess as to why? Men are taught to take risks (submit anything! why not? what’s the worst that could happen?) and to pick themselves up and try again if they fail (rejection = challenge). Women are taught to be cautious, to not expose themselves unnecessarily (therefore: “I should work on this a bit more; it’s not ready yet; I don’t want to look stupid”) and that if they fail once, well, they’re really not good at that thing and maybe they should try something else, something “easier” (rejection = you suck at writing, maybe you should take up knitting, not that there’s anything wrong with that).

S: Sadly, this could be the case. I don’t think it’s a confidence problem. I think it’s more “Well I’ll just go elsewhere then.” We’re not rejecting the author. We’re rejecting this piece. It’s like holding out a bag of Hershey Miniatures and telling me I can only have a Mr. Goodbar. Maybe I want a Special Dark. But you don’t offer the bag again so I’ll just have this fun-sized Crunch from over here.

T: lol now I want Halloween candy.

S: Hey, I don’t pull my metaphors out of nowhere. I have a bag of Kit Kats here.

T: So I really do think women writers do need more encouragement to get their work out there than men do. With that in mind we have been putting out occasional calls for more submissions specifically from women writers.

S: We put out a call for minority voices and I think we’re enjoying a really great response. Hopefully asking for work from female writers will have the same result.

T: I’m not sure what else would be helpful. Women writers: you tell us, what would encourage you to submit more?

S: That’s the best way to figure it out: ask.

T: Ok, going to do some reading. Starting with the flash. I liked the first one I read; voice and setting were interesting/unusual. Putting on consider list. Next!

S: I usually start with the flash, then poetry, then CNF, then fiction. Not just because it’s longer but because I have a more black-and-white reaction to the other submissions. Fiction sometimes needs to sit with me for a while before I label it “no” or “consider.” I have rescued submissions from the “no” pile after I’ll be baking cupcakes or something and a character or setting I read creeps in there while I’m leveling flour or something.

T: I love subs that stick with you. And ones that grow on you the more times you read them.

S: So what do you think of the flash submissions, in general?

T: Hmm. A lot of the time, I think the flash is well-written, but insubstantial. Like, more of a beginning or an anecdote or a sketch. I think, so what? When I read flash I need to be able to picture the whole story even though there are only a few words. It’s the Hemingway/iceberg thing. What’s on the page is the one-eighth of the iceberg that’s above the water, but from that, as a reader I need to be able to extrapolate what’s underwater. If the piece doesn’t imply anything beyond what’s explicitly laid out then it’s a no for me.

S: I think there’s some weird idea that flash is about word count and nothing else. Recently—maybe this reading period?—we had a flash submission that was too long for our parameters and wasn’t flash anyway, which was doubly frustrating. Then we had a fiction submission that fell under the flash word count limit but was rightly submitted as fiction because it wasn’t flash. I wanted to kiss that writer.

T: I also think humor is really hard to pull off, and that’s something a lot of people try in flash pieces. I’m not saying don’t try it, just that it’s a lot harder to do well than being serious. I think it’s because humor is such a personal thing—what one person loves another will hate. Example: I hate punchline endings. If you want to write jokes, do stand-up. But at the same time I’m sure other editors love them.

S: I don’t like anything that sets up to a punchline. I’m in the Monty Python Club. We used to get more humor pieces and I think it’s because we have some levity on the site and we have a fun title. But we’re not a humor magazine. Maybe people are reading us and discovering we don’t have a satire section.

T: I love writers who read through the archives before they submit. Three cheers for you!

T: Then there are the (long) stories masquerading as flash. You know, a story that clearly needs to be longer, but the writer has tried to cram it into 500 words. Reminds me of when I was a kid and all my stories “had” to end when I reached the bottom of the page. This type of story is recognizable by an abundance of detail (e.g. all the characters are introduced by their full names) that’s unnecessary unless it’s actually meant to be a longer story.

S: As a sidenote, if I see a full name in line 1, the story is on notice. I’m looking for reason #2 to slush it by that point.

T: Oh, me too! I’m not saying characters shouldn’t have full names, but a line 1 mention is definitely a red flag for me.

T: I am never enthused by work submitted by a third party (i.e. someone a writer has hired to submit for them). Just saying.

S: I don’t get that. Half the rush is clicking “send” and then sitting there waiting for a response, having your nerves tingle every time you open your inbox. I only get it if it’s a case of “I think this is brilliant and he never submits his work so I’m trying to prove a point.”

T: *ponders stealing Steph’s novels and subbing them for her*

S: *leaves them to be stolen*

T: Let’s look at some poetry. A common reason for saying no is poems that are strings of pretty words with no substance behind them (why are you telling me this? what’s the point? where’s the meaning?). A poem is more than than just description. Also a poem is not just a chunk of prose chopped up with (random) line breaks. Speaking of line breaks, sometimes I really like the content of a poem but the line breaks baffle me. If you’re not sure where to end a line, the best advice I’ve heard is to end on a strong word (not “of” or some other meaningless word).

S: Yes: end on a strong word. That’s one of the criteria I use on first read. Line breaks that end with “of” or “the” don’t say much to me. Rhyming poetry turns me off too. Sometimes a rhyme will slip by if it’s well done but usually the lines are forced to fit a rhyme and/or meter. That said, when we get a great poetry submission, it’s usually my favorite submission. Of all the things we’ve published, the poetry is what stays with me over years.

T: Like humor, I think rhyming poems are a genre that’s really hard to do well. More often they end up being cheesy.

S: Or sentimental to the point of saccharine.

T: The number one piece of writing advice I give students (with respect to essays) is to start by writing about concrete things not abstractions. Anchor your ideas to an object and your writing will immediately be better than if your ideas are just floating around unattached to anything. I feel like the same advice could be applied to many poems. Writing is interesting in its specificity. A poem that consists entirely of vagueness isn’t.

S: Specificity is the key across the board. A moment. An object. A character. Most of the submissions I put through to second read have elements of softness or vulnerability but they all have a hard edge.

T: Oh, crap. I just read a story I really liked and then noticed it’s a simsub. Blargh.

S: You had to go and like it, didn’t you?

T: 😛

T: Too much telling.

S: That’s still a huge problem in the writing world. I see it a lot in stories published elsewhere and I wonder if those editors aren’t getting good submissions or what’s going on that that’s what they choose to publish. Maybe I’m old school.

T: And then… there are the stories that almost have me until they abruptly careen into the ridiculous. I think this is a variation on “I’ve reached the end of the page; must end this story.” It’s like the writer gets scared of where the story could go, so they back off and go for melodrama instead. Disappointing.

S: I have a specific groan for when I read a story that falls apart at the end.

T: It’s the worst. Seriously, I hate it when that happens.

T: Some things are just not a good fit.

S: That’s especially frustrating. I want to include a note that says, “This is good. I can’t wait to see it published elsewhere.”

T: All dialogue. This is almost always going to be a no. A story is not a script.

S: I admit, not only have I done an all-dialogue stories but many moons ago, I submitted one. I was the “wtf?” of that month’s slush pile, I’m sure. But it wasn’t doing me any good sitting in my “finished” folder.

T: Ahhh, it’s a dead person story. At least he seems to know he’s dead (twist!). I hate stories with dead protagonists, to be honest. We get so many of these, so it’s a cliche, and it’s just not an interesting premise to me in the first place.

S: I had to specifically put it into Dead of Winter’s rules. We still get them. And The Sixth Sense is, what, 15 years old now?

T: I know, right?

S: Tell me/us something that will get a story marked “consider” on first read.

T: I like stories where I can’t immediately tell where they’re going.

S: I have a specific gasp for stories that surprise me in a good way.

T: The best.

T: So, I’ve reached the end of this month’s subs, and I literally have more subs in my DQ folder (mostly for attachments) than I do on my consider list. Just saying.

S: And the frustrating thing, if I may presume to speak for both of us and probably most lit journal editors out there, we want a huge consider list. We don’t like DQs and we don’t like to say “no” on first read. Very often, I start to say to myself, “Self, let’s reconsider this submission” and then a new submission comes in that’s exactly what I wanted and it reminds me not to change where I’ve set the bar.

T: Ideal number of DQs: 0. I mean, I’d much rather spend our time arguing about how to cut down a long shortlist than grumbling about people not following the guidelines. Ya know?

S: Too much of a good thing would be wonderful.


What Sets You Apart: On Valuing Your Own Experience

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When you can’t find someone to follow,
you have to find a way to lead by example.

—Roxane Gay

A few years ago, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TEDtalk called The Danger of a Single Story. In it, she recounts how all the books she read as a child growing up in Nigeria were either British or American. Because of this, when she started writing, she imitated the stories in those books—her characters were white, blue-eyed, played in the snow, ate apples, talked about the weather, and drank a lot of ginger beer—rather than writing stories that reflected her own experience. Her perception of who and what books could be about only changed when she discovered African writers and realized books could be about people who looked like her and shared her experiences.

The danger of a single story is it distorts your perception of what stories can or should be about. If your experiences don’t match up to the narratives you see around you, you may question their validity or even fail to recognize their value at all.

Background Photo: Niccolò Caranti (CC-by-nc)

Background Photo: Niccolò Caranti (CC-by-nc)

When you spend your days online, it’s easy to get the impression that you’re perpetually lagging several steps behind everyone else. Something happens and hours later think-pieces on the subject flood your social media timelines as writers rush to get their two cents in before the news cycle moves on to something else.

“How much thinking could anyone have done in the past hour?” you grumble, as you simultaneously try to process whatever grim news has taken center stage that day and attempt to keep focused on whatever it is you’re really supposed to be doing (cough work cough). You wonder how people manage to churn out coherent words in minutes on events you haven’t even begun to comprehend. (Obviously, they are better at this writing thing than you are. I mean, clearly, that’s the only explanation. –xo, your insomniac brain.) Perhaps a week, a month, a year or longer passes with the topic rolling around in the back of your mind before something clicks and you know what you want to write about it. You open a new document—and then you second-guess yourself.

Hasn’t too much time passed?

What if everything has already been said?

What authority do I have to speak on this subject anyway?

Who’s going to want to read what I have to say?

Why bother?

We’re all familiar with the saying “there are two sides to every story” but two is not even scratching the surface. In reality, there are infinite versions. The versions of the people actually involved in the event. The versions of those who witnessed or observed it. The countless versions of those who heard about it later, passed along via the grapevine or filtered through the media. And layered over those are the versions that percolate over time and are refined through experience. The story you tell in the moment, stuffed with details, is not the same one you tell twenty years later when you can see the big picture.

So you’re a few steps behind the few hundred (or thousand) people you follow on social media. So what? These are the early adopters, the overachievers, the workaholics, the people who only need four hours sleep a night. I mean, that’s why you’re following them, right? Because they’re in some way exceptional. But there are approximately seven billion other people in the world who you aren’t following and who aren’t dashing off essays in the time it takes you to reply to a few emails. Social media gives you a skewed perspective. You start to feel like those few people you follow are “everyone” when they’re really not. They’re not even representative of everyone.

When you actually pause and pay attention to what’s being said, you realize how much of it is a variation on the same theme—a single story told multiple times. This isn’t surprising. We’re often drawn to follow groups of interconnected people. As a writer, for example, you probably follow writers, editors, and other bookish types, many of whom come from similar backgrounds and have had similar experiences. The result is that you end up in a kind of bubble where people are saying the same kinds of things, reinforcing and validating each other, consciously or unconsciously. If your perspective is different, your first instinct might be to hide or downplay that difference to fit in. Don’t. That difference is your strength; it’s what makes your story worth telling.

Why bother writing about something when myriad words have already been written? Because your story has not yet been told.

It’s never too late. Everything has not been said. You may write about anything that matters to you. You just have to find a way in. The key? To figure out what sets your story apart from the ones already out there, and to focus on those points of difference. Even the most clichéd of stories can be given new life when told from a point of view that subverts stereotypes.

Recently I read an essay about the lack of female road narratives in literature. The premise was that the road trip is essentially a quest narrative, and men have an abundance of these to choose from. (True.) Women, on the other hand, have The One Where You End Up Murdered by a Serial Killer. This narrative is so pervasive in our culture that it functions as a single story, drowning out the few exceptions. I’m well aware of that particular single story, being something of a police procedural / crime drama / mystery / thriller junkie, but I hadn’t made an explicit connection between that narrative and my own experience until I started reading this essay.

Years ago, I went on a cross-continent road trip by myself and lived to tell about it. In fact, the trip was completely uneventful. I filled a notebook that summer, one I can honestly say I haven’t looked at since. Since nothing (dramatic) happened, I never saw the value in writing about the experience. I also didn’t give the trip a whole lot of forethought and I didn’t see what I’d done as anything special. I’d gone on plenty of road trips with other people; going by myself wasn’t a big stretch.

But, as I read about how rare alternatives to the prevailing narrative are, I realized maybe it’s precisely because nothing traumatic happened that my experience is worth writing about. Maybe there’s someone out there who needs to hear that story.

Click.

I made a couple obvious mistakes in devaluing my own experience.

I assumed because it hadn’t seemed like a big deal to me at the time, it wasn’t a big deal in general. Wrong. Your life is only ordinary to you. To someone else, it may be extraordinary. We live in a society obsessed with safety and increasingly-ridiculous fears. To step outside a comfort zone is to do something out of the ordinary.

I assumed because nothing negative happened, my story wasn’t significant. Also wrong. Sure, tragedy is a shortcut to drama, but that doesn’t mean every story has to have a sensational event to propel it forward. A “nothing happens” story is more of a challenge to write than one with a built-in plot, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling. And for this particular narrative, “nothing happened” is actually a powerful message.

Because of those assumptions, I never took the time to think about why my perspective was different from the norm—or even to notice that it was. Why did I not hesitate to go on this trip when every cultural message says no, don’t do it, you’ll die? Why wasn’t I afraid? Why didn’t I succumb to the single story despite being a fan of ripped-from-the-headlines crime dramas? These are the types of questions I should have been asking but wasn’t because I viewed my story as unimportant.

Some differences are visible or immediately apparent. Others are buried more deeply within us and take longer to recognize. But regardless, it’s the stories that start from a different perspective than we’re used to that we need more of. These stories can be challenging to write because there is no defined path to follow, but that’s precisely why they are necessary. When you write your own story, you’re giving someone else a map.


The Summer Writing Bucket List

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Summer is my favorite time of year. For many of us it is a change-up in the daily patterns of our lives. Because there are fewer vehicles on the roads due to school breaks and vacation rotations in the office, the commute to work isn’t as long, so many of us can sleep in a little longer and arrive home a little sooner. Home life changes, too. The sandals and flip-flops come out of the closet. Summer food is back. It’s a time to BBQ and to enjoy an icy cold one while dinner cooks on the grill or at your favorite restaurant now that the patio and umbrellas are open for dining al fresco. Don’t forget to stop at the ice cream stand on the way home.

The Summer Writing Bucket List

Indeed, the day-to-day demands don’t seem so demanding when the sun is still shining at eight o’clock, leaving plenty of time in the day to squeeze in those extra activities that were not possible during the long winter months. It is so easy to drop off the radar and slip away because no one is looking. And there is no requirement or a sunny sign-up sheet in order to take part in the summer change-up. It’s a given. A gift.

I personally get very excited beginning in June when I see my favorite indie bookstores and my local library have their summer reading lists posted on their doors and display boards. How many new novels can I squeeze in before September? Yet reading is not the only change-up in my summer lifestyle—my writing changes too. It seems to be a natural occurrence as it happens like clockwork every year. Maybe it’s the boost in serotonin levels in my brain from all the added sunshine or maybe it is an evocative reaction to the sights, the sounds, the summery smells resonating deep in my writer-being that I credit from spending extravagant amounts of time outside as opposed to the ocean of time spent inside last winter. Perhaps it is all of the above.

Whichever the reason, along with it comes one extra perk and that is a sense of freedom that can be exhilarating. During July and August I give myself express permission to break away from any existing writing projects. I tuck them in on my hard drive and I step away to try something new. Something that perhaps I’ve always wanted to try but haven’t had the chance. I break out my summer writing bucket list. bucket1My bucket is blue with a picture of SpongeBob SquarePants on its side. If ideas were stones, my bucket would nearly topple over from the weight of all the ideas it holds. I reach inside and pick…

Last summer, I was possessed with writing personal essays. I made a list and managed to get three nearly finished before September first. The summer before that I spent some time playing with narrative points of view. This summer, I’ve decided to change up my writing bucket list. The last three bucket numbers are now re-ordered to Numbers 1, 2, and 3. My plans are to spend some time writing blog posts on a particular non-fiction subject, writing an old story in a different point of view, and perhaps writing one or two fresh pieces of flash fiction. Yes. I’m ambitious.

And even though I may abandon my laptop to literally go fly a kite on the beach or go see a ball game, and may not return to my writing until the next day or the day after that, it is perfectly A-okay to do so. It is okay because if indeed the summer months take over my writing schedule, I know that anything I don’t finish will become fodder for the winter months—my winter writing bucket list.

So writers, while the sun is shining consider a change-up in your writing. Write a list for your summer writing bucket and make it happen.

And tell us about it, too. Share your thoughts and experiences with the TC editors in a comment or a tweet or drop by TC’s weekly writing thread in the Chasms and Crags forum hosted by TC editor, Beaver. Tell ’em Harpspeed invited you. 😉


Variations on a Theme

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

What Is Theme?

There are about as many ways to describe what a theme is as there are themes. The moral of the story. The premise the story is trying to prove. The one sentence snapshot of the story. The greater truth that the author is trying to convey through the story. Most of these descriptions boil down to “What is the story really about?” Plot is what happens in the story. Theme is what the reader takes away from the story.

Generally a theme is presented as a statement. Take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, the classic story of those two star-crossed lovers that ends in tragedy because their families cannot stop feuding. While there are probably as many different descriptions of the theme as there are English teachers, the theme is generally presented as a sentence. Some commonly presented themes for Romeo and Juliet are:

  • “Hate destroys love.”
  • “A great love defies even death.”
  • “Love conquers hatred.”
Background Photo: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Background Photo: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Views on Themes

When it comes to the theme of a story, writers tend to fall into two camps.

There is the “my theme will naturally happen without my needing to worry about it while I am writing” camp.

I tend not to know what the plot is or the story is or even the theme. Those things come later, for me.

—Michael Ondaatje

Ultimately, your theme will find you. You don’t have to go looking for it.

—Richard Russo

A novel’s whole pattern is rarely apparent at the outset of writing, or even at the end; that is when the writer finds out what a novel is about, and the job becomes one of understanding and deepening or sharpening what is already written. That is finding the theme.

—Diane Johnson

And then there is the “without a clear theme at the start, the story will be aimless” camp.

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

—Herman Melville

You can’t tell any kind of a story without having some kind of a theme, something to say between the lines.

—Robert Wise

So, the very first thing you must have is a premise. And it must be a premise worded so that anyone can understand it as the author intended it to be understood. An unclear premise is as bad as no premise at all.

The author using a badly worded, false, or badly constructed premise finds himself filling space and time with pointless dialog—even action—and not getting anywhere near the proof of his premise. Why? Because he has no direction.

—Lajos Egri

Which camp do you fall into? Do you think about the theme of your stories at all? Do you start with a theme, or discover it when you are finished?

But… but… The THEME!

Many writers worry that if they have a clear theme, their story will feel artificially moralistic. We’ve all read those stories where the theme batters us over the head until we put down the book, saying “Enough already!” and we don’t want to be those writers.

If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.

—Elizabeth Bowen

So are the choices here between wandering aimlessly through a forest hoping we make a clear path, or clear-cutting a path so wide that destroys the forest?

That’s a very simplistic view, the either/or view. The fun and interesting stuff comes about when you look at all the grey areas in between two simplistic views. Theme actually has another component to it—the reader has a say in what the story is about.

I get thousands of letters, and they give me a feeling of how each book is perceived. Often I think I have written about a certain theme, but by reading the letters or reviews, I realise that everybody sees the book differently.

—Isabel Allende

If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.

—Pablo Picasso

Look at the variations on the theme of Romeo and Juliet. Most people agree love has a lot to do with the story. But what love accomplishes (or doesn’t accomplish) can depend very much on the reader. A young teenager can read it and think that the theme is “Love is worth sacrificing everything.” A jaded adult can read it and think “The impetuousness of young love leads to destruction.” A pacifist can read it and think “Hatred destroys everything, including love.” A fatalist can read it and think “Love cannot overcome fate.”

What’s It All About, When You Get Right Down To It?*

We’re currently in a messy spot with themes. Should you have a theme before you write, or not? Can you have a strong theme that isn’t an “in your face” thing? Does your theme even matter if the reader is going to find their own theme anyway?

The answer to those questions is… ask another question.

Earlier, I said that most themes are written as statements. They are presented as “the moral of the story.” I’d like to twist the idea of theme and pose it as a question.

Let’s start with one of the themes we presented for Romeo and Juliet. “Great love defies even death.” How can we make that theme into a question? Well, there is the obvious one: “Can a great love defy even death?”

I contend, however, that “Can a great love defy even death?” is not that interesting a question. Because there are only two answers to it: Yes, or No. If you are trying to have a meaningful conversation, you generally don’t get a lot of response from a yes or no question. “Did you have a good time at the party?” “Yes.” “Did you like school?” “No.” If you want dialog, you need to ask open-ended questions. “What was the party like?” “What did you do in school today?”

What happens to the idea of theme if we phrase it as an open-ended question? What if, instead of our original question, we ask, “How far would lovers go to be with each other?”

If we think of Romeo and Juliet as an exploration into the answer to this question, the story becomes a lot more interesting. What is Romeo willing to do to be with Juliet? What is Juliet willing to do to be with Romeo? Both are ready to defy their families. So let’s escalate that. Are they ready to defy the feud between their families? Defy the law? And defy even death to be together? Those two characters are willing to go all the way. If they were not, it would be a different story. Same question, but a different answer.

Asking an open-ended question about your story is a good way to circumvent all the theme angst, but still give yourself that theme dimension that makes a good story a great one. By asking an open-ended question, your writing becomes an exploration. You don’t need to know the answer ahead of time—you can find out the answer for your particular set of characters in their particular circumstances as you go along. But your story has the theme built into it. And with a good open-ended question, it can still have Melville’s mighty theme.

The question exploration approach to theme also allows your readers the room to draw their own conclusions. You don’t end up accidentally trying to prove your point with a sledgehammer when your goal is not to prove a point, but to push the boundaries of a messy question to its limits and see where it takes your characters.

So start your story by asking yourself a messy question.

  • How far would someone go for revenge?
  • What price would someone pay for their heart’s desire?
  • How much would someone endure for their faith?

Then push your characters as far down their paths as they can go in your pursuit of an answer.

When you have your answer, you have your theme.

 

*”One minute I’m just another rabbit and happy about it, next minute whazaam, I’m thinking. That’s a major drawback if you’re looking for happiness as a rabbit, let me tell you. You want grass and sex, not thoughts like ‘What’s it all about, when you get right down to it?'” —Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures


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Emotional Terrain: Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Vanessa Blakeslee’s first short fiction collection Train Shots was recently published by Burrow Press. In it we meet characters ranging from a drug-addicted doctor to a Britney Spears-like “pop princess” in places ranging from Costa Rica to Pennsylvania to Florida. Vanessa recently took time from her reading tour and Edward F. Albee Foundation residency to talk about the collection, her characters, and the burgeoning Orlando literary scene.

Emotional Terrain: Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Toasted Cheese: We discovered that we kind of traded places (I grew up all over Florida and moved to Pennsylvania; you moved to Florida from a different part of Pennsylvania). “Barbecue Rabbit” technically could take place anywhere but it’s set in Pennsylvania and feels like a Pennsylvania story down to the bones. Pennsylvania also dips a toe into the title story as well. I’m curious about the perspective of someone who isn’t shaking Pennsylvania from her boots the same way I can’t shake Florida. Do you think there’s something particular that stays with you when you make a geographic or culture change or is it simply our life experience in play?

Vanessa Blakeslee: It’s uncanny that you ask this because right now I’m revisiting a project that I’ve been working on over the past few summers set in northeast Pennsylvania, where I grew up. For a while I didn’t think Pennsylvania was an itch I wanted to scratch as a fiction writer but while at Vermont College, I wrote a story called “Shadow Boxes” that took place in my hometown. The story later won the Bosque Fiction Prize and got shortlisted for a number of others. This prompted me to consider that maybe there was more to mine in the subject matter (apparently so). I’m two or three stories away from a completed first draft. I’m still early in the process—and who knows how the manuscript may change—but so far the project feels very much in the tradition of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, both books I greatly admire.

Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee

I think when you’ve spent a significant portion of your life somewhere, those particulars of place can’t help but stay with you. You undergo moments of humiliation and joy in an array of locales, from the grocery store where you landed your first job (and maybe your first love), say, to the woods where you walked with your grandmother, to the school parking lot where you got beaten up. Those memories become ingrained in the landscape, whether your returns are real or imagined. At the same time you’re shaped by the natural world—even if that world is New York City—down to the climate and weather, and the cultural milieu that is inhabited by the people there. You can’t escape those factors, nor should you; they’re what knit inhabitants together across economic divides, the insular peculiarities of individual families, age, and time. And over time, it’s as if the heaviness of memory pressurizes one’s sensory knowledge of a place with the emotional terrain—that’s when you’ve got real gold to mine from, as a writer.

TC: It seems like you’re being tagged specifically as a “Florida writer.” It never feels dismissive but it doesn’t feel complete when I read it. How do you interpret “Florida writer,” if not simply “I live and write in Florida?”

VB: Again, I think this has more to do with the emotional terrain in my fiction rather than the concrete specifics of place. Most Floridians are from somewhere else, many from the Northeast who chose to make Florida their home for a number of reasons—so you have a vast number of residents who didn’t spend their childhoods there, and are in some way deliberately starting a new chapter in life. There’s a sense of displacement there, of transition—perhaps even frontier. Transplants set out to move there with hope and optimism, if only for the weather and lifestyle—so you’ve got everyone from college students to retirees showing up, brimming with desire and dreams. We’re now the third largest state; all of this growth happened so quickly that you have radically different people colliding on one narrow peninsula. All of this makes for unique conflict scenarios as well as emotional terrain for fiction.

As for the label, I don’t mind being called a Florida writer because I do write a lot about my adopted state—just watch out if I move somewhere else! Because I write what I write, and I certainly don’t feel pressure to be a “Florida writer.” If that’s how others chose to see my work, fine, but ultimately labels fall short and backfire. Literature is vastly bigger than any convenient labels we can come up with.

TC: There’s incredible diversity in the state (people, backgrounds, geography). What do you find inspiring about Florida?

VB: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my eyes peeled for what happens in my backyard, or my neighbors’ backyards. But Florida, and Orlando in particular, has such a variety of establishments, parks, neighborhoods, malls, etc., in part due to the tourist economy, that I think the city offers plenty in terms of choosing lively backdrops for fiction. PR’s, the Tex-Mex restaurant, was an obvious one since I worked there for five years. I wasn’t surprised when the restaurant worked into my imagination, both in “Clock In” and “Train Shots” (also in “Arthur and George: The Quest” which didn’t make it into this collection but is available online at Drunken Boat).

The landscape and climate inspire me a great deal. In the case of “The Lung,” I had fun setting that story during a summer of raging wildfires rather than a more expected scenario. There’s no “hurricane story” in the book, for example, and I kind of like that. I like bringing readers into the real world of a place, and the reality is that Florida’s chilly winters and torrential summer downpours are much more evocative of what life is like here than the occasional devastating hurricane season.

TC: What do you wish more non-residents knew?

VB: That the literary scene in Orlando has really taken off. We have our longstanding traditions, like the annual Winter with the Writers festival at Rollins College, which brings in A-list poets and writers every February. Over the past five years, I’ve noticed a renewed energy and enthusiasm within the writing community. The University of Central Florida now offers the MFA in Writing, plus the University of Tampa has a low-residency program. The Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project hosts a new writer every three months; those residents come from every corner of the globe and bring new lifeblood. Burrow Press, the publisher of Train Shots, showcases noteworthy talent several times a year at its up-and-coming reading series, Functionally Literate. Peruse the weekly event listings during the school year and you’ll find the calendar packed with literary events—so many, you’ll often find yourself missing out.

I love where the Orlando lit scene is at right now. It’s just big enough that we’ve got a considerable pool of varied and burgeoning talent, yet small and intimate enough that most of us know each other and love nothing more than cheering each other on, absent of petty jealousies and competition. I’m not claiming that we’re the Brooklyn of the South yet—maybe in another eight or ten years—but we’re definitely on our way. I couldn’t be happier to be here right now, because I deeply sense that we—not just as a literary scene, but as a city—are fast approaching coming into our own. Ultimately the lit scene will change as Orlando grows; the egos will flare up as the intimacy dies. I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time yet. I can only describe our literary scene as being a place of true community, love and support. I’m ever grateful for it, and excited for its future.

TC: No matter where your story is set, your settings are specific and vibrant (“Welcome, Lost Dogs” struck me in this way). Do you think of setting as a character in its own right or more of a backdrop for particular situations or people?

VB: It depends on the story. My fiction arises very much from setting. I’m not so much an image-driven writer; often I find myself fascinated by hearing anecdotes of people stuck in unusual circumstances, and my stories grow out of exploring those predicaments. Setting very much drives a story such as, “Welcome, Lost Dogs” or “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” In “Princess of Pop” setting looms so large, it functions almost as another character: the pop star is falling apart, she chooses to hole up in the hotel where Joplin died, and the story pretty much remains there.

In others, where the setting takes more of a backseat to the conflict—“Ask Jesus” comes to mind, as well as “The Lung” and even “Hospice of the Au Pair”—I crafted the setting to create a certain desired effect. I suppose a premise has to contain a certain peculiarity for me to set it in Florida—a juxtaposition of the inherent natural beauty abundant in this state, as well as an extreme, perhaps comically absurd, element of the grotesque—one might call it the New Southern Gothic, or even Florida Gothic, who knows? For instance, “The Lung” could have taken place anywhere. But since it’s a story about smoking, disease and the impermanence of nature, I set it in Florida during a summer of raging wildfires. Likewise, I chose for the protagonist to work in the field of environmental protection and have a green thumb.

Conversely, “Hospice of the Au Pair,” about a WASPy middle-class girl who falls in love with a morphine-addicted doctor, was originally set in Florida but something about the premise and setting rang as too expected, somehow. Maybe it came off too consciously as “another kooky Florida story,” and therefore gimmicky. In that case, changing the backdrop to Costa Rica injected the story—if you don’t mind the pun—with just the right unusual details to make it truly fresh and believable.

TC: Some of your characters aren’t written to provoke sympathy or likeability but they’re compelling and realistic (Sam in “Hospice of the Au Pair” stands out to me). When writing short fiction, how deeply do you get into your characters? Do you let their backgrounds evolve as you work or do you begin with their histories in mind?

VB: Short fiction doesn’t leave much room for backstory so I don’t spend too much time on characters’ histories aside from nailing down the immediate situation they’ve just come out of offstage, which has propelled them into the crisis they’re facing now. Much of the time this is very thin, just a couple of lines at the outset. Then, as the story progresses and a gap opens up where a bit of backstory information is called for to shed light on the present situation, I’ll make something up that is ideally both idiosyncratic to the individuals, setting, etc., and also inevitably fitting.

For instance, I don’t know much about Sam, the expat doctor in “Hospice of the Au Pair,” but in the final scene in the yard, he notices the blazing colors of the tropical trees. Why does he notice them? What’s the significance of this gesture? I tied it back to the autumns of his boyhood in the northern United States, a purer time which he very much yearns to return to now, via his own, albeit fractured, family. So I feel that I do get into characters as deeply as when writing a novel, but you’re just in and out so quickly with the short form. And in a way it’s very freeing, not having to come up with as much backstory to fuel the narrative moment. Although I’ll add that even with a novel, writers usually don’t need as much character history as they think they do—a story centers on what’s happening now, after all, not back then. There, too, I find myself making up the material I need as I plug along. With novels, I feel like there’s more of a sense of character history but that’s an element best left to the subconscious to work on. In composing first drafts, I’m hyper-focused on pushing the action forward.

TC: Your characters seem to come from a place of great empathy and insight. I’m curious about how and where you observe people for inspiration.

VB: Thank you. I draw upon people I meet in real life as a starting point for my characters but often I combine traits from different individuals. If you’re writing character-driven literary fiction, then as you craft motivation and plot you have to exaggerate or diminish certain traits of a protagonist as he or she navigates the situation and the obstacles flung in front of them. To what degree you manipulate those traits and to what effect, therein lies the art. Characters, even ones rooted in real life, inevitably take on their own shape because the form demands that you invent and embellish.

The characters I felt closest to while writing the stories were the narrator in “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” the pop icon protagonist in “Princess of Pop,” as well as the female heroines in “The Sponge Diver” and “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” I also felt close to P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots.” While all of the characters I just cited are female with the exception of P.T., I wouldn’t say that sharing the same gender has as much to do with “closeness,” however—rather, it’s a certain emotional terrain that we occupy, or that those characters spring from. I have lived, in brief spurts, the isolating experience of being an expat “caught between countries.” I have been in romantic relationships with varying degrees of power dynamics, for good and for ill. As fiction writers we talk a lot about what we “reveal and conceal” on the page, and I’m fascinated by how relationships operate that way, too—how much of privacy contains secrecy, and when does secrecy cross over into deception?

The character of Margot in “The Lung” I found a bit slippery to capture at first, because I see her as so different from me. She’s very much the strong, no-nonsense woman I aspire to be; perhaps, in recent years I’ve made strides toward becoming more like her. The troubled Ethan was often hairy to handle in scene—figuring out exactly what his objectives were, and where his motivations were coming from. Same thing with Jono, the love interest in “The Sponge Diver.” In revision, it became apparent that the story’s quiet power lay in the potential to make both of the characters responsible for their relationship’s demise, but getting that to happen, pinpointing and rendering vivid those tiny moments of miscommunication and masquerade that build to bring it down, was tricky.

While my life is a far-cry from that of a celebrity or train engineer, in emotional terms we’re not so different. That’s what I aim to do in my fiction—illuminate how we all struggle with loneliness and disenchantment even when we are “living the dream,” whatever that dream is, and often especially after we achieve expertise or status. Doubt, despair, feeling like a fraud, whether in our vocation or in our efforts to love others—I don’t think any of us escapes our time on this planet without grappling with these things. At what point does the despair become too much? P.T. wonders in “Train Shots”—a poignant and worthwhile question, one which echoes back to the protagonist’s crisis in “Princess of Pop.”

TC: Looking back weeks after reading Train Shots, “Princess of Pop” is the story that stayed with me most strongly. I was just telling my husband about it over the weekend. I think it’s because it’s a character we think we already know.

Speaking of characters, I have to ask: is Erica in “Ask Jesus” the same Erica, mentioned but never seen, from “Clock In?”

VB: I’ll say this: I did deliberately chose the name Erica for both stories so that the reader might have the option to make that connection. But it’s up to the reader to decide.

TC: There’s a romantic or sexual relationship in every Train Shots story, whether currently happening in the center (“Ask Jesus”) or the periphery of the story (“Train Shots”) or in the past but looming over the characters (“Uninvited Guests”). I feel like a lot of writers, particularly in short fiction, stay away from sexuality in the story unless it’s directly involved in the plot instead of acknowledging that it’s primary to human nature.

VB: Biological impulses and sexual desire drive the world; we like to believe we’re more sophisticated than that, but it’s naïve to believe so. Literary fiction, at its most basic level, is about connection and disconnection between men and women, and while all stories don’t have to be centered on love and sex—that would be rather mundane—its absence in storytelling is as noticeable as an elephant in the room.

Writing literary sex, whether funny or awkward or passionate or violent, is just like facing any other scene you’ve got to capture; there’s no need for gratuitous detail, but you have to stare. Sex—the lack of it, the yearning for it, and the messy consequences of our romantic pursuits—occupies a great deal of our adult lives. That concept of emotional terrain crops up. Would P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots,” be so distraught if not for his longtime companion having broken up with him three days before the young woman’s suicide? How much of the Princess of Pop’s turmoil is wrapped up in her status as a sex symbol, her identity stolen by corporate interests and molded into a pawn from when she was barely a teen? No doubt her hypersexualized image influenced Erica, the character from “Ask Jesus” in some way, in how she chooses to modify her body to fit what the culture deems sexy—which plays with her head and takes a toll on her marriage.

So maybe it’s just the way I see the world, that sex and sexuality are integral to the messes we get ourselves into even when a situation doesn’t overtly appear that way. What do human beings long for most but freedom and intimacy—how do we go about pursuing both? What do we sacrifice? I’m fascinated by this.

TC: One example of a story with a sexual relationship is “The Sponge Diver,” which was originally published in Toasted Cheese. Most (all?) of the stories in Train Shots are previously published. Did you do much or any rewriting between the previously published versions of the stories and the versions that appear in the collection? How did you prepare the stories for the collection? Did you do your own editing or collaborate with an editor or publisher?

VB: I started many of these stories, including “The Sponge Diver,” as an MFA student at Vermont College. In the years since, I kept revising them as they were accepted for publication in literary journals and along the way, kept sending out the manuscript to small press contests for book-length collections. Twice, the full manuscript placed as a finalist, although under different titles.

I kept playing with the stories to include, the order and the title. Just as I found myself exhausted of submitting it through the contest system, Ryan Rivas (the editor at Burrow Press) approached me about possibly launching my debut collection. At the time I was writing a craft blog for the Burrow Press Review. He had come to know me as a hard worker and an active member of the literary scene and he knew I’d been publishing in well-regarded places. He read the manuscript in January 2013 and afterwards contacted me with a firm offer. For the next several months, we went back and forth deciding which stories to swap out and which to include.

Train Shots

Train Shots (Burrow Press, 2014)

Ryan’s philosophy is that assembling a story collection is a lot like putting together a music album, and he’s absolutely right. We left out certain stories not because they lacked merit but because the ones chosen must speak to each other in a particular, resonating way. I’d describe the process as very hands-on; I absolutely loved the thorough scrutiny we both brought to the manuscript as a team. On my own, I’d never been able to come up with a satisfying order. Ryan had a terrific eye—and ear, I might add—for which stories belonged where, a vision of the book as a living, breathing whole. Whereas I’d worked on the stories for so long on my own, I think I’d become too close to them. So I’d say I was ultimately surprised and thrilled by the final “playlist,” not to mention profoundly grateful.

I was also surprised by how heavily we edited, and even revised in some cases, certain stories. All of them had been published before. I think it’s easy for emerging writers to assume that once a journal has published a story, there’s no more work to be done, which is far from the case. This is the stage where you have the opportunity to refine and bring your work to the next level, so you’re really presenting your best—to zero in on repeated diction and unwieldy syntax, to make sure the final notes of each story truly sing. We had a deadline, of course, but we took our time. I believe our efforts paid off.

I had always wanted to include the flash fiction, “Clock In,” as the opening, as it uses second person and literally invites the reader into the world of the book. “Train Shots” is one of my most memorable and usual stories, so we knew we’d include that one from the beginning; the tone and theme made it a ready contender for final spot, and usually the placement of the title story bears weight, so that made sense—Train Shots. But also there’s a double-meaning to the phrase “train shots.” In one sense, the collection is a journey, the reader peering in on different characters in various settings, glimpsing a “shot” of these individuals’ lives before the train zooms on. Then in the title story itself, P.T. eats dinner at a dive bar alongside the tracks in Winter Park, where the bartenders offer “train shot” drink specials when the trains go by.

As for the order, we probably considered twice as many stories than what ended up making the final cut. We eliminated ones that would contain beats or subject matter too similar to others, and sought a balance in narrative perspectives and moods, from light to dark. I recommend to anyone who is seriously putting together a collection to get together with a trusted writer friend or teacher and employ another pair of eyes, at least, to help you select and juggle the order—doing so would have saved me a lot of grief and time.

TC: Travel and transition are themes in Train Shots and the pieces seem to have a sense of motion to them. What has been your journey as a writer so far? How did you begin? Who encouraged you? How long have you been publishing?

VB: I’ve been writing since I was six. As a child I made up stories constantly—whether by playacting with Thundercats action figures or sitting down at my mom’s electric typewriter until I used up all the ribbon. By high school and my first year of college, I had largely set aside my own imaginative writings. My sophomore year I studied abroad in Australia, and I can only describe my time there as a spiritual awakening of sorts, the kind born from travel and spending time intensely with a congenial group of very different people. When I came back, I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop and within the first few classes, knew that this would be my path. Still, I didn’t publish my first story until 29—“The Lung” which appeared in Cimarron Review.

Two short essays of mine provide a fairly succinct snapshot of my writing journey leading up to Train Shots: “The Corner Booth” and “Paradise Lost,” both of which can be found online at The Paris Review Daily. They are also far more lyrical and lively than any answer I could supply here.

TC: Where is your next journey? More publishing? Short fiction? A novel? Another collection? Do you like to plan where you’re going or see where fate takes you?

VB: All of the above. At the moment I’m at the Edward F. Albee Foundation residency in Montauk, NY and will be working on what I envision will be a novel-in-stories set in Pennsylvania. In between, I’ve been working on essays, book reviews, and the occasional poem. Lately I’ve been drawn to speculative and dystopian fiction, and hope to write a futuristic novel—although not until the book promo for Train Shots dies down, because the new novel project requires research and a trip or two. My agent is currently shopping my first novel, so with luck that will get picked up soon.

TC: Where can we find you online?

VB: For events and book news, vanessablakeslee.com. For my thoughts on the writing life, interviews, book reviews, guest blog posts and the like, visit Vanessa Blakeslee: On Writing. You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and my new favorite, Instagram.


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What’s Your Creative Process?

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I was at a late summer barbeque at one of my friend’s homes when one of the people at my table (a non-writer) asked me about the writing craft. “So what is your creative process?” His question jarred me. “My creative process?” I echoed. Did I even have a process—never mind a creative one?

“You know, “ he said, with a smile. “How do you tap into the stories?”

“I don’t,” I said without thinking. This attracted the attention of the people sitting with us who were just before only half-listening to our conversation. “I don’t tap into stories,” I explained. “They tap into me.” I thought that might satisfy him. It was reasonable response and true, but I was wrong.

“How does that usually happen?” he prodded. What was meant to be a casual question, small talk at the picnic table, had turned into something deeply personal. I don’t think my new friend realized the intimacy of the question. He picked up his corn-on-the-cob and took a bite and waited for my answer…

First, I thought about rituals. I don’t open a twenty-year-old bottle of scotch when I begin to write a new story; drinking makes me tired. Neither do I exercise beforehand. I don’t need the extra endorphins because I’m happy when I’m writing. I don’t frequent coffeehouses all day and write while surrounded by locals. This may have worked for Ernest Hemingway but I’m no Hemingway. Not even close. So how do I answer this inquisitive man’s question? How do I tell a perfect stranger that I hear voices?

Some days I hear only one or two; other days I hear several conversations, beginning, ending or in medias res. I hear arguments in earnest, decisions being pondered and executed, revelations, secrets, lies, plots and once in a while, a bloody knuckle sandwich being delivered. Other days, I can listen in on the internal monologues of these ambiguous specters, their private soliloquies full of emotion and sentiment that may or may not connect to the plot of the story I’m currently working on. Yet I am so enraptured by their dialogue that my fingers cramp as I try to capture the moment on Post-it notes. I’m no mind reader and I’m not crazy. The voices I hear are characters—my characters from the stories I write, characters who drop in on me unexpectedly and keep me up at night with their problems. And there is no off button. I have to listen to them until they reach the end of their scene or parley is declared.

Years ago, someone else asked me a similarly profound question. They asked if I knew how all my stories ended before I finished them. I told the questioner that I was a fiction writer and had learned it was best to just let the story write itself, that what my characters did on my pages was entirely up to them. Occasionally, I did navigate them here and there around the dead ends and roadblocks but overall, they did the driving, over the bumps and through the frequent potholes. Thus, a new definition for character-driven story came into my craft. Could this be my creative process?

When it’s time to write, I sit back in my chair and tune in like I’m watching reality TV. Sometimes I feel like I am a Hollywood producer, sitting in my canvas director’s chair watching a movie being shot, the one that’s playing inside my head. This helps me to avoid the dreaded writer’s block and takes the pressure off me when its time to turn the computer on. It’s not my fault if the characters are having a bad day.

Still, my characters can be very cunning. I know this because lately in addition to hearing their dialogue inside my writer’s head, I have begun to see and smell them as they manifest themselves evocatively, channeling through my senses. They make themselves known to me in small ways throughout the day.

Recently I was escorting a small group of young students to their classrooms. A larger group was ahead of us on the stairs. As the kids were trudging their way upward, I saw the small golden head of one of my characters lean over the banister, her pixie face gazing downward at me as the sun’s rays captured the moment. Ashlin. Reminding me that she is still sitting in the bleachers over center ice waiting for her next scene. Other times it is an earthy smell, the muddy boots left dripping outside a classroom door signaling Seamus, another young character or the sound of jingling keys—that would be Hector, whose pockets are lined with quarters.

My characters haunt me like lost little ghost children. They surround me until their expectations are met, their stories committed to my mental hard drive, and I let them, for they are my muses. My inspiration. I hear voices and see people that aren’t there. Don’t call me crazy; call me a writer.

I turned to my new friend across from me who was still patiently waiting for my response. He caught my glance. I knew my words would not be my most eloquent, at best economic and simple, bordering on facetious, but it was the truth and all I had to offer. He put the cob of corn back on his plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin as I reached for my Chardonnay. Our eyes met again and I smiled. “I hear voices.”

 

Time has passed since that fateful backyard barbecue. Today I have several parties marked on my calendar. The first is a wedding in May. I plan to wear my favorite green dress and gold sandals. I’m looking forward to the champagne, the fancy appetizers, the chocolate fountain, and schmoozing with the other guests.

Will I tell people that I am a writer? Probably not. However, if I am found out, this time my responses to questions about my writing life will be eloquent, witty, and humorous.  And how do I know this?  I know this for a fact because I have taken the time to prepare myself. I went on several interviews with myself recently. Most took place in traffic this past winter while commuting to and from work—yes, I was alone in the car—and I feel pretty confident discussing my second vocation—the one that is not my day job—with friends and new acquaintances alike. I even hope to meet my corn-on-the-cob friend for a reprise of our conversation at this year’s holiday barbecue.

And how about you? Are you prepared to talk about your personal habits and thoughts on the subject of your writing? What will you say when a stranger hands you a glass of punch and asks, “What’s your creative process?”


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