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 Em Faerman.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I have a B.A. in Philosophy and a B.A. in Literature with a concentration in Writing & Rhetoric from Florida Atlantic University and entered the work force post-grad. While at FAU, I studied creative writing under Dr. Jason Schwartz (A German Picturesque, John the Posthumous), Jim McGarrah (A Temporary Short of Peace, When the Stars Go Dark), and Amy Letter (now of Drake University). I have continued to write, working mainly on a longer piece, which was started in my final semester under the guidance of Letter and Dr. Schwartz.
Currently I work for a structural engineering firm specializing in forensics (cause and origins of damages, mainly residential) as a technician and assistant to the principal engineer. The exposure to the field of engineering forces me to focus on form and structure in my writing, privileging language and the shape it takes on the page over content/plot. Furthermore, the structure provided to me from a 9-to-5 type job has proved productive for my writing life. Not only as far as scheduling, but I often spend time “in the field” inspecting claims, mainly for insurance companies. It is always interesting and telling to go in (or under or on) someone’s home and see the interstitial workings of things.
You say that engineering has affected the structure of your writing. Have your stories changed drastically since you started this job as an assistant?
Engineering shows us, through the application of physics, that if the structure is not sound it will not hold, and there are many components necessary for the integrity, success, and longevity of a structure. Like a building, writing requires an assortment of necessary components: a place of access and egress, the ability to absorb flow and movement (think about how a skyscraper needs to bend a little in the wind), the proper support of the anticipated load. Every story is a little different and often the structure it will finally take doesn’t immediately reveal itself, but in writing there is more room for play than in engineering, you can start a project without it being fully planed out and permitted. Even if it never becomes published, it’s a complete entity not just a blue print meant to emulate something else, something “real”. There are more “right” answers.
Also, in engineering there is a constant drive to innovate. Innovation makes money, it furthers the field of study, and it is the topic most trade publications focus their articles on. As they should because innovation is exciting! I try to infuse my writing with that too, taking the necessary components and combining them in a new or innovative way. Or sometimes ignoring those components all together and just forcing myself to observe how the words’ meanings change based on their placement within the structure’s whole. Just because the necessary components are all there in a piece of writing doesn’t mean it “works”, even if those components are put together with the utmost craft and skill. Simply having a plot carried out by characters in a setting doesn’t necessarily make a great story.
Engineering is very much a forward looking field concerned with the future, not the now. Before really engaging in this idea of “building”, I was just assembling some storytelling components together hoping it would hold, but you can’t just put a door and four walls with a roof together and call it home. That is probably where things start to diverge. In engineering, innovation is encouraged. In writing, it is often marginalized.
With this structural approach to writing, what style or genre do you tend to write? Or put more simply, what is your fiction about?
Error. So much of my job is to observe and at times document other people’s errors. And not just construction errors or instillation deficiencies become apparent but sometimes you can’t help but notice the errors in a life — the dirty dishes, the scattered toys, the photograph of an absent spouse, the tone of voice they take when answering the phone, the sick child…Also, my writing tends to be sexually suggestive, or intimate in some way. Sex is one of the few things that responsible adults engage in which is largely chaotic, animalistic and not based on logic. That’s why it’s so interesting! Putting sex into a more structured arrangement outside of the messiness of real life is an attempt to put logic into actions taken based on emotion. An impossible task!
The writing I tend to do is, like sex, focused on repetition. How the same action or phrase or gesture changes in meaning based in its context and all its previous contexts within a set limited space and that space’s structuring. The action or phrase or gesture creates something like an inside joke if read closely enough and is the “image” around which the piece is built and around which it pivots (that sky scraper needing to bend a bit in the wind again). Where this one component is placed in conjunction or juxtaposition with the other components that make up the whole is how the meaning arises from the text. Stephen Dixon’s “Milk is Very Good For You” does a great job displaying this..
So I take a few of these actions/phrases/gestures/inside jokes whatever you want to call them and put them all together, their meanings changing as the piece moves forward. If I’m successful (ever!), a multiplicity of meanings will be created within the text, its sum greater than its parts. Kind of like a memory, how it’s meaning changes over time as you age and grow and learn. I think many writers tend to forget but that’s all language really is — a group of phrases changing meanings over time.
You say you tend to write longer pieces. What is your writing process or routine?
Everything starts as a scrap of paper with some scribbles on it for the most part. That scrap is usually an action/phrase/gesture that I want to explore more. Sometimes I end up with a collection of scraps that seem to fit together somehow in my mind. I usually type up what I’ve already scribbled on the scraps then attempt to put the “matching” scraps into some kind of logical order. After that, I think about it some more before discovering the parts that are still missing, the content that gives body to the piece, the underlying connectivity between them, the contexts that will allow their meaning(s) to shift. How long it may take for me to accumulate these scraps varies. I have an immense amount trust in the universe on that.
Lately though, I have been revising most of the pieces I had written as an undergrad (still) while that longer piece sits a bit. I remember looking back at my work at the end of each semester as an undergraduate during the two or three weeks slotted for “revising” our portfolios and only fixing little things like typos, tense shifts, and small details. I also remember thinking how dumb my peers were since, well, this story is brilliant, obviously. Probably most undergraduates can relate to this thought but looking at those pieces now, it’s easy to see their flaws, so I’m the one who feels a little silly. It has only been recently that I’ve really embraced revision and begun to understand how powerful it can be. Most of my better writing moments occur in revision, not during composition.
Now it’s been more than six years since some of those pieces were scraps of paper, and it is those six years which has taught me the most about writing, not the few weeks spent composing each story for workshop. Also, being outside of the academic world, I feel a lot freer to write to please myself, to experiment and to tweak my unique flavor of aesthetic. If I never get published, at least it is my own doing and on my own terms since I haven’t changed the recipe to suit anyone else’s taste.
What do you do when you encounter totally new ideas? Do you write them immediately or let them soak?
If I am mid-process with another piece, I put the new idea on hold and do not spend much time actively turning it over or expanding it. If the idea is so urgent and persistent, I may do some research to see if the idea can be executed in a way that will be to my liking. Sometimes it is the answer to a problem I am trying to solve regarding another piece. Once my mind begins wandering on to a new project though, to the point were its more of dwelling, it’s often my cue that the old project must be finished or not worth finishing at the moment. Like that first draft, an idea at first conception always seems brilliant and that’s exactly why I like to wait a little; I don’t want to spend a sizable amount of time on an idea to reach a dead end, or to realize it wasn’t so brilliant to begin with.
As a whole though, I tend to treat each piece I write like a file at my day job. Maybe this one’s on hold and that one has to be routed to archives or review and that one is closed and another will be reopened soon. For the most part, I work one file at a time in a designated order. It helps keep each one unique in my mind and also on the page. The goals I hope to achieve with one piece can be very different from the next, so I try to retain each one’s autonomy by allowing them the space they need to breathe and grow without being forced to ripen too quickly — what I’m going for is to grow the blue ribbon heirloom tomatoes, not the watery grocery store ones.
Who are your favorite writers, and how have they inspired your craft?
There was probably a time I would have answered without hesitation Jane Mendelsohn for Innocence. I came across this when I was still in middle school maybe and remember thinking she was doing something with words that was really different. I’ve been exposed to so much since then, but I’m not sure I have a favorite per se. There are many writers I admire for a specific work or a specific aspect of their writing. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera come to mind for their storytelling, Vladimir Nabokov for his synesthetic descriptions, Phillip Roth for sheer volume and breadth of his work (plus Portnoy’s Complaint). Mark Danielewski was very daring and innovative with House of Leaves. Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams is crafted around a thought-inducing concept. Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato has great structure. Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation encapsulates a unique narrative voice allowing great play of language. Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War is probably the book I recommend to anyone who asks for a recommendation simply for being beautiful and overlooked. Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five along with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (Sorry, I know – cliché) for use of language and just having balls.
I try not to read too much of one author simply because there is so much out there and maybe you read to the point of it rubbing off and influencing your own writing through osmosis — kind of like when you hang around someone too often and your speech patterns and word choice begins to mirror theirs. Maybe I’m biased but I think Jason Schwartz might be on to something — he has a voice that is his, and isn’t that what we should be aiming for? His prose doesn’t offer a place of entry for anyone to reach their hand in there and change anything, a hard thing to achieve, and he really pushes language to its limit. When I got a hold of A German Picturesque the summer prior to being in his workshop, I thought here’s someone who is really doing something different with words, who really forces you to dwell on the weight of those words, but also how can I meet such expectations and have my prose be just as unique, just as “me”? That is something I am still striving towards. I had a philosophy professor who really just summed up the whole writing thing, probably without realizing it: “If it’s shit on the page then its shit in your brain, and that’s a fact.” And that was probably the truest thing I had ever been told as an undergrad until graduation. Ken Herman, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, stated as the keynote speaker, “The thing that makes an institution great is when the graduates go out into the world and do great things.” That really resonated with me and still does, especially knowing graduate school wasn’t on the horizon the next fall. So here I am: out in the world doing things. Now I just need the greatness to kick in.