Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Today’s Working Writer is Sarah Cedeño.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I have lived in the same village, Brockport, NY, my whole life. I’m not ashamed of the word “townie.” So much of my writing relies on how place haunts us, even though I’ve never really left.
Here in Brockport, I’ve managed to complete a BA and MA in Creative Writing and have settled, just this weekend, into an 1855 Victorian on the street of my dreams, which is barely a block away from western NY’s Erie Canal. I live with my husband, Cory, two sons, Johnny and Sammy, dog, Molly, and cat, Nera.
I’m currently studying fiction at Goddard College’s low-res MFAW Program in Plainfield, VT, where I am also the Editor-In-Chief of Goddard’s Literary Journal, The Pitkin Review.
I specialize in short fiction, but have recently (and persistently) tried my hand at a novella. I’m sort of freaked out by the scope of it. My current project is a collection of short stories (and possibly a novella?) inspired by quirky news events I found while indulging in retro local newspapers. I am a local history nerd.
You say, “So much of my writing relies on how place haunts us, even though I’ve never really left.” How has living in the same village your entire life influenced your writing? Do you set your writing in Brockport or does the small town mentality ever seep in?
I spent a lot of time in my parents’ back yard growing up, digging up potato bugs and playing with poisonous berries. We didn’t vacation. I didn’t do summer camp. I made friends with two girls who went to the church across the street from my parents’ house when I got bored of my best friend, who lived next door. In this sense, small-town mentality is really all I’ve ever known. But I think it fostered my need for story, to imagine something I hadn’t already memorized.
I loved the idea of the unseen — I spent a lot of time in the cemetery one street over, imagining the people who were buried there and the lives they lived. Of course, we always told ghost stories, and attempted to drag ghosts out of thin air with a Ouija board. For an entire summer, I believed the couple across the street was storing bodies in their oversized freezer.
As I got older, I discovered I didn’t always have to make up a darker past–or any past at all, really. I really love local history, and find such interesting tidbits from the old newspaper, The Brockport Republic, that get my imagination reeling. It’s an obsession, at this point. I spent weeks on the newspaper’s online database researching a 1936 murder trial of a dog named Idaho that was charged with drowning a 14-year-old boy in the Erie Canal, just a block from my house. Of course, it isn’t just the spectacle and situation of the past, it’s also the energy and pathos behind all these stories. You could imagine how such a tragedy would rile a town. And the poor boy’s mother. In the end, it all comes down to the human condition. The entire collection I’m working on is spun out of these newspaper archives.
We also have a state university here, so this village has so much texture in terms of community. This is the kind of place that never gets stale. It’s lucky to be so unendingly sparked by friction between the small-town and college-town. I don’t believe in the myth of the sleepy college town.
A lot of your writing is historically based. Do you stick to the facts exactly or use them more as an inspiration? How much liberty do you take with history?
It’s sort of like when you watch those horror movies, and there’s the disclaimer at the beginning, “Inspired by true events.” Every story I write begins with a piece of history I’ve researched extensively: either a setting, like a home for unwed mothers; or a conflict, like a boy who was drowned in the canal; or a character, like a woman who worked in a Quaker Maid canning factory; but then the stories take their own emotional bends. The history is only the construct, really, and the emotional truths — which I sometimes struggle with capturing and sometimes takes drafts and drafts to do — are what actually make the stories come to life.
I take a lot of my inspiration from writers like Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates and Lauren Groff that way. But I guess it’s hard to say that every writer doesn’t write from history to some extent, maybe in less-direct ways. For me, anyway, one particular piece of the story might be solid fact or based mostly in fact, but the rest of the story is fluid and gives way to what makes the piece the most true it can be, which is true to humanity. Ultimately, the story is the character’s story, not history’s story.
What is the weirdest historical event you’ve based a story on? Do you find that the whackier events make for better stories or is simpler best?
It’s always eye-opening (and fun) to see how many odd things happen in small communities.
The strangest news event that has inspired a story of mine was the 6-month-old puppy that was tried for murder. It divided the entire town. Some wanted him put to death.
I don’t necessarily think I could say if simpler or strange is better. I think the best stories are ultimately about the characters and not the situation, so as long as the emotional story is good, then a simpler story could be as powerful as a strange story, and vice-versa.
I think what draws me towards the strange is that these bizarre things happened when I wasn’t around to witness them, so I feel the need to become part of them in a creative way. I try to be a part of something that came before. It’s some impossible sort of nostalgia.
I also think that a lot of the premises I’ve chosen are wrapped up in my worst fears: losing a child, leaving home, plane crashes, etc. Steve Almond gives the advice to write about your worst fears, and I think that’s important. The writing becomes more vulnerable that way. I’m still learning this. It’s hard, like that childhood game “Bloody Mary” where you turn out the lights and stare into the mirror, chanting “Bloody Mary” until the ghost appears. I always chickened out. Writing my fears is like that.
You are pursuing an MFAW, editor of chief of The Pitkin Review, you have a family, and you write. How do you balance it all? When does writing fit in?
I’ve actually always thrived by having a lot on my plate. Writing occupies an essential space in me, so if I’m not doing it (and there have been times when I’ve written little), I’m pretty miserable. Of course, it took me forever to figure out that being cranky and not writing went hand-in-hand.
The MFA has been a great because I have to structure writing time. In fact, I think one of the best benefits to an MFA program, if you’re serious about writing, is that it instills in you this writing habit. It makes it a non-negotiable part of who you are. I write whenever I have time. I could always make the excuse that I don’t have time, but given the choice, I cut out relaxation for writing time. I’ve actually never been happier than I am now, in this program. Even at its grueling points, you feel better for it. It’s like getting a knot out of a muscle.
But I walk a thin line between anxiety and depression, and if I’m not one, I’m usually the other. Keeping this much stuff in the air has been a therapeutic way to keep myself out of depression. I prefer the anxious side, if I have to choose one or the other. But it isn’t a perfect solution either. I have multiple sclerosis, too, so there are times when I am just too overwhelmed by all the activity (mental, mostly — the constant multi-tasking and inability to turn it off, even when I’m sleeping). Those times, my body has its way of warning me to knock it all off or I’ll be sorry.
Of course, my family is the constant that keeps everything in perspective. My boys remind me to get out of my head and come back to earth, where I’m needed most. And everything I do now, the MFA, teaching, editing, and writing, is fulfilling to me, so when I feel the guilt of being a distracted parent (which is a part of being human), I remind myself that doing all these things I love makes me a happier mother and a better example for my boys.
How do you use writing to cope with your depression and anxiety? Has anxiety or depression ever surfaced as themes in your writing?
Actually, I find myself blogging about things I can’t stop thinking about, that bring up a lot of anxious energy or depression in me. These are usually the super-tragic, awful things that ultimately make no human sense. For example, this past summer, a two-year-old boy drowned at a home daycare in my small town. I was consumed by it, obsessed with grasping any inch of truth I could gleam from it, and the only explanation I can offer of why I was so caught in this tragedy was that the little boy was born within hours of my son and had an older brother my eldest son’s age. So there are these moments that grasp us by the sheer proximity (distance-wise or situationally) and demand some sort of reflection. I find that once I get these words out of me, whether it be a post about the Boston bombing or the Newtown Connecticut tragedy or something smaller, like wishing I knew more about my grandmother, I feel like I’ve captured some essence of it. Trapped it, maybe. I don’t know. Does it give me a false sense of control? Probably. Who knows?
In my fiction, I tend to have one character that has similar obsessions or worries as I do. Though while the best narrators are observant, are thinkers, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are anxious or depressed or sensitive, even, just sensitive to the world around them. I have as many characters that are emotional just as much as I have characters that are stoic. My anxiety and depression informs writing in both explicit and implicit ways. In “Moving,” a story I’m revising right now, the main character has crying fits, and fights against moving from her childhood home, even though the bulldozers that were scheduled for the demolition are parked out front. Who doesn’t want to read about a character on the brink to know that it’s okay and we all have these moments?
I have written a post about anxiety and depression on my blog, too, as it pertains to writers and creativity. There is a boundary between writers and the world, I think. It’s a boundary that makes my husband look at me funny when I can’t stop obsessing about a tragedy that happened months ago. For me, it’s like picking a scab that never goes away. When I moved into my first home, I covered the walls with black and white photos of ancestors, and my mother asked me why I had pictures of dead people all over the place. I didn’t think there was anything weird about it, but some people might, I guess.
What made you decide to write a novella? What have been the challenges and rewards of writing in a longer form?
Writing in a longer form is a great challenge for me. I think it’s because I’ve been writing short fiction for so long, that I am in a rhythm of pacing through with a smaller scope. It’s almost habit, or second-nature, though not to make it sound like it’s an easy time for me–writing a short story is still a challenge! Most of my short fiction pieces end up between 15-20 pages, so I thought, when my stories started to push the the limit, why not attempt something longer? And then a good friend of mine mentioned a novella.
I will (hopefully) graduate in May, so I wanted to attempt a longer form while I still had really great writers to influence me. This semester, I’m working with Michael Klein, and he wrote to me, asking why I felt like I had to read every novella ever written? Why I had to predestine it to be a novella? I guess I want to know the scope before I begin. If I read a thousand novellas, maybe I’ll catch the rhythm of the thing. Maybe I need to not be so in control of it.
Man, writing is hard. I’ve said that a million times while writing this novella. The reward, I think, will come after, if I can stick with it and have a chunk of pages that belong to just one title. Maybe part of the challenge is trying to lengthen it, but still maintain the relevance to every piece of information I write. I’d love to know why it is such a challenge. I’m on page 38 as of right now, and before the week’s over, I hope to be on page 46, and hopefully some of those pages will be worth keeping.
I am in awe of novelists. They must have gigantic amounts of patience.
Because you’ve become an expert on them now, what are your favorite novellas? And in general, what writers do you most admire?
I certainly don’t feel like an expert on novellas, and even though I’ve studied them extensively this semester, I probably could learn quite a bit more.
As far as novellas…I love Andre Dubus Voices from the Moon. Richie, the young boy, is so innocent and wise in the face of family turmoil. I learned from that character. I also love Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home and Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Water. They are all so different in style.
Hands down, Alice Munro is a huge inspiration for me, especially in the project I’m working on now, with the local history bend. Her stories are so lived-in and her command of voice is soothing to me. I feel like I’m listening to a relative tell a story. I want to take a road trip to meet her some day, but I don’t want to see her at a formal, gigantic reading. I want to see her in her own element, and that’s sort of stalker-like, so I will just live with the myth of her in my mind.
Also, I love Lorrie Moore. Self Help was such a major read for me in grad school. I cried through the whole thing. And Birds of America is so good! She is a master of humor. I need to be reminded to bring humor into my writing. It is important in that it reminds us to breathe.
Ann Beattie is another writer I love, especially her collected The New Yorker Stories. And George Saunders. He’s funny, too, and also captures the desperation in the every day. Joyce Carol Oates is forever inspiring to me. I love her short fiction.