Working Writers Series: Nora Boxer
Welcome back 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 Nora Boxer
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a writer of fiction, poetry, and hybrid work who has also dabbled in the visual arts. I graduated with an MA in Fiction from the University of Texas in Austin in 2010. I received the 2010 Keene Prize for Literature, a $50,000 juried award, for my short story “It’s the song of the nomads, baby; or, Pioneer,” about a pregnant woman who goes off grid in Taos, NM.
Prior to my time at UT Austin, I lived in Taos. I originally went there for a 1-month stay in an Airstream, on the land of a photographer who had a couple of trailers she rented out to writers. I ended up staying in New Mexico for 4 years, and was the editor of the literary journal Chokecherries for SOMOS, the Society of the Muse of the Southwest. During this time I also received the First Annual Writer’s Travel Scholarship from the now defunct www.equivocality.net. This award was granted by a private patron (one of the early developers of WordPress) who believed travel and writing are interrelated, and the prize was a free round-trip ticket anywhere I wanted to go in the world. I spent six months in East Africa working with HIV/AIDS nonprofits.
After UT, I moved to Berkeley, into a tiny house with an even tinier writing studio, where I completed a novel. The book is about a woman in San Francisco’s electronic music scene who is diagnosed as HIV+ and ultimately becomes involved with a women’s tribal activist group in Kenya. Through friends, I was networked to a Bay Area-based agent who I ultimately fired. After the Yes! of the Keene Prize, this turn of events with my agent was disheartening, and not one I would have foreseen. I have yet to try again to secure another agent.
Since receiving my MA, I’ve been a resident at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony; the Elsewhere Collaborative; and Maumau Artists’ Residency in Istanbul, where I worked on a project influenced by travels to Rumi’s tomb in Konya. I’m very interested in residencies and in programming and space that supports other creatives, and wrote a side thesis on these topics in grad school. Recently I’ve begun working locally with the Birdhouse Arts Collective to develop a local residency at the Omni Commons in Oakland though the project is still in its infancy.
I have been freelance-editing manuscripts as a side gig for the past few years as well as coordinating the local county fair poetry contest. My poetry has appeared in several journals, such as Prism Review, Sugar Mule, and OVS. I have worked as a writer-in-the schools and in the nonprofit world, though in the past year I’ve ended up in a P/T administrative gig I dislike. In my 20s I lived for two years at Green Gulch Farm, an American Zen Buddhist center. I currently teach fiction in the adult-ed program at San Francisco City College.
I’ve loved a lot of things about my path as a writer but I am still struggling to “emerge”.
Firing your agent must have been a hard decision. How did you come to it, and what has kept you focused on writing since then?
My agent was referred to me by a friend who used to work in publishing in San Francisco. The agent was also Bay Area–based, and had worked as an acquisitions editor for many years, but not in fiction. He had, however, acquired a certain book during his career that made him sound like he could be a great fit. My sense at our initial meeting was that something was “off” — I didn’t like the comparables he wanted to pitch for my book, and specifically asked him not to use one of them — but I somehow convinced myself to trust the process and to ignore my uneasiness. Fast forward two months and we had only gotten three brief rejections, with no word from the other 10+ editors my agent had sent to. My unease was daily at this point. Then a very nice rejection came in, from Chuck Adams, actually, saying there were many things he liked and respected about my book but that it didn’t quite fit his list. He had referred me to someone at the PEN/Bellwether Prize, Barbara Kingsolver’s Socially Engaged Fiction award, but the deadline had just passed and the award wouldn’t happen again for another two years.
Underneath was my agent’s letter he’d written. It compared me to the book I’d specifically asked him not to compare me to; it had typos in it; and it clearly showed he had little to no personal relationship with the editor he was writing to. At that point I freaked out and all the mistrust I’d managed to stuff down came rushing up to the surface. I called two writer friends, one with multiple books out, and another who’d sent a book around New York a few months prior. They both told me this should not be happening; that I should not have been sitting around waiting for two months; that a good agent will have the connections to push you through to be read much faster.
I called a meeting with my agent and dissolved the relationship. I learned the hard way that a Bay Area agent won’t have the connections needed, like a NY or even an LA agent would. Like many unrepresented writers, I had succumbed to “agent fever” – this kind of panic, scarcity, or confusion about getting representation, like you’re almost begging. I know now it has to be the right representation.
We never even heard anything from the majority of editors my agent sent to. However, I felt like “used goods,” like my book had already been sent around (sort of) and how was I going to explain this to a new agent? Simultaneously, I ran out of money, my landlords repurposed the room I’d been using as a writing studio into a guest cottage (they were extremely kind to have given it to me rent-free for 2 years, with the understanding that this would eventually happen), my back went out, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and I ended up in a somewhat trying job as I re-entered the workforce in a rapidly gentrifying Bay Area.
I’m ready to secure new representation. I’ve gotten over feeling like damage was done. During this time I’ve also had to come to terms with the part of me that wants to stay hidden. Writing is such a private act, and then publishing is such an exposure. But if I don’t get over my fears about that exposure (many of which are irrational) then I don’t get to give to others what I have to offer via my writing. Without giving that gift, everything withers. I’m trying more and more to recognize that it’s not about me – it’s about the work.
The past year has been the least I’ve written in a decade. An old friend has recently offered me the use of his backyard shed to write in a few times a week. I’m headed there right now after I answer these questions, actually. I’m working on a story about gentrification, the loss of wild and creative spaces, and owl wings.
What is your writing “network” (grad students, mentors, etc.?) and how do you sustain it?
I’ve never had a long-term mentor. I was lucky to study with Carole Maso as an undergrad. I took a writing workshop with Martín Prechtel that was highly influential, and I still teach his “language reversals” exercise and work with it on my own. Jim Crace taught me about reworking the opening page until the right rhythm emerges in the language, so that the story can flow through.
I went to the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference in 2011, right after I moved back to the Bay Area, and many of the writers I met there connected me to local reading series and events. I had the good fortune to be in workshop at Squaw with Kelly Luce; we’ve sustained a friendship and it’s been great to see her succeed this past year. I know Robin Romm from my undergraduate days and our paths have continued to cross over time as well; I always enjoy her company. I’ve also stayed in touch with a few folks from a shared residency at Byrdcliffe.
Taos, where I lived from 2004-2008, is definitely the most supportive creative community I’ve been part of. I really felt that the multiple generations of writers and artists in Taos supported one another, rather than competed. I remember applying for the Gift of Freedom, A Room of Her Own Foundation’s big award, and opening up the results email to see my neighbor Summer Wood’s face. It was the best way ever to find out you didn’t win an award, and it was also so Taos. I lived on a property with nine cabins that was just down the road from the D.H. Lawrence ranch. Aldous Huxley had supposedly written one of his books in a cabin, and Ram Dass’ Be Here Now was collated in the main house. There was also a dual outhouse on the property that wasn’t in use but that couldn’t be torn down, because rumor had it that at one point Lawrence was in one side and Huxley was in the other. The late great musician Diane Izzo lived on that ranch too and we became fast friends. I’ve always had friends in other creative disciplines, maybe more so than writers. I’ve also always been attracted to the sense of artistic continuum over time.
How has your working life (exterior) sustained your writing life (interior)?
For the most part I have been able to find a good balance, though I’ve never made very much money. I’ve been a writer in the schools, gone to a number of residencies, and worked for SOMOS. I’ve been editing in various capacities since 2005. I was a Zen student at Green Gulch Farm for two years right out of college, which was an interesting way to enter the workforce, to say the least. The past year has been more of a difficult balance. I’m teaching fiction now at SF City College, and I coordinate the poetry contest at the Alameda County Fair, which is a charming, if surreal job. I’m editing manuscripts from time to time. And I am working (volunteering) to develop a local artists’ residency at Omni Commons in Oakland. However, none of these gigs pay much, so I’m also working three days in an admin job at the moment. I’ve been there a year, and this is the first time ever where I feel like there’s a gap between who I am and what I’m doing. I’m 41; I’d like to close that gulf. My three long-term goals are to write and publish, to teach creative writing in a more full-time capacity, and to be part of creating and administering an artists’ residency. All that energy is sprouting right now in various forms, but the day job is paying the majority of the bills at the moment.
What books have you recently read that have blown you away?
What has interested me most of late is cultural history and/or memoir regarding the formation of creative spaces. Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Peter Coyote’s Sleeping Where I Fall, Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. I read Shoes Outside the Door, about the early days of the San Francisco Zen Center, but it focused on Baker-Roshi’s affair and was too sensationalized, missing much of what could have been told instead. Still, it was very interesting to learn things I didn’t know about how this space I’d been part of had formed.
Sometime during the tail end of writing my book I heard advice to stop reading novels while you work on your own, and I did. The last novel that really moved me was Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds – he was my classmate in grad school but a poet, and then he emerged with this great novel. Poets always write the best novels, in my opinion! Kevin is another great case for how unnecessary our obsession is with pigeonholing writers into genre.
Writers I love and feel a kinship to include Janet Fitch, Kate Braverman, Anne Carson. The poet Jean Valentine has been a huge influence, and I also love Merwin, and Rumi, whose tomb in Konya I went to in 2013. I’ve also been reading more short stories lately, since I’ve been teaching again. Suzanne Rivecca’s really good. I’m teaching Ha Jin, Michel Faber. Right now I’m reading Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I might teach him next semester.
Nora Boxer can be found online at www.noraboxer.com
Working Writers Series: Alexander N. Miller
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 Alexander N. Miller.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m currently living in Jamaica, Queens, New York. I’ve lived here for about two and an half years. It’s a tough city to live in, and I live with family. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, but my parents moved to Coral Springs, FL when I was about one, so I say I am from Florida. I grew up in Coral Springs (Ft. Lauderdale area) and attended Florida International University where I majored in Biological Sciences until I found my interests in that major waning. I changed my major to English Literature in hopes of training myself to be a fiction writer. I had the idea that I would be a writer, and use my English degree (or just my degree in general) to do whatever I could or had to do to support writing fiction.
After graduating, I wrote for a luxury magazine in Miami as an editorial intern for some months before getting a phone sales job. I realized there I was by no means a salesman, and left, unwisely taking another phone sales job. That was also short. I contemplated going into the military for a good while, and abandoned the idea after considering the absurdity of their requirements (only in some areas). After my military campaign, if I can call it that, is when I moved to New York. At the time it was May of 2011. I needed to get working fast, so I took an internship with a small marketing company. I was greeted with surprising unprofessionalism at the internship, and it’s sort of continued with every job I’ve had thereafter. I then began working for a gym at the same time, and then stopped interning to take a job with JPMorgan Chase as a research analyst. That job involved a lot of client research and looking over legal documents. I learned about people with great detail just from looking at paperwork. I never had to speak to customers of the bank, only co-workers.
So, I had two jobs. I liked the extra money, but it did weigh on me, and I noticed that’s what New York City can do — weigh on you, and drain you. It’s like you’re a bottle being passed around among a group of thirsty friends — eventually all the water will get low or disappear.
I currently work at a radiology facility in Manhattan in reception. Similarly, I learn a lot about the patients that come in because I have to screen them prior to their examinations, and I also read their reports after they are read by a doctor.
I read a lot — mostly fiction. Sometimes I read non-fiction when I find an interesting topic. It was reading that made me want to write. While in college I found myself reading when I was supposed to be studying, and I suppose that’s what got me to change my course of study. I read whenever I can, but lately I’ve stopped reading on the subway because it’s harder to concentrate and really get into a book. I reserve lighter reading (magazine or newspaper) for the subway.
I try and write before the sun goes down, but sometimes I have the urge to put something down at night. I used to be a night-writer but I shifted because I wanted to do other things at night, like watch films (I’m a film-lover), and read anything that grabs me, or things recommended to me.
You say you have learned a lot about people from your various jobs reading legal documents or talking to people as a receptionist, do these interactions influence your writing?
I would say the jobs I’ve had, specifically the ones you’re asking about, have not influenced my writing yet. I think they take time to sit in me and sink. I’m finding they need to be memories before they can become prose. Anything I’ve tried to write as its happening turns out crappy and I can’t take it. I let things germinate a while.
Daily interactions influence my writing more. Work relations play a part in influencing my writing, of course, but no recent work experience, or any work experience within the past two and a half years really. When I talk to people, I pay attention and try to be aware of everything that person is saying or doing. It’s just how I am, and it works great when a memory makes its way to the front of my mind and maybe I write about it. Maybe I don’t. If I do write about it, maybe it sits there and I never go back to it. Sometimes I keep working on it and I find I want the characters to say something. Then I have a story of some kind. It takes some playing around. The playing around with things comes from writing everyday, or as often as possible.
You say you write every day. Have you always been so vigilant? What are the advantages of being so dedicated? Is it ever hard to balance with your day job?
No, I have not always been writing every day. I used to write only when I was inspired or felt like I had some story to write. Sometimes if an idea popped into my head I would just write the idea down and continue to think about whatever I was thinking about prior to the idea coming. It’s not good to write like that, at least it’s not good to write prose like that. It takes this constant trying to get it right.
To this day, there are times where I’ll skip days because I traveled for a day or two, or for days. When I have finished drafts of my novel (currently working on) I’ve taken a break and just wrote in my journal or played around with other ideas just to keep writing. So, for the most part I write every day. For every draft of my novel, while working on each of them, I wrote just about every day. I didn’t pay attention to word count, but I was happy with about a 1,000 words per day.
The advantage of writing every day, whether it’s on a manuscript or just writing just to write, is that you get practice letting ideas flow. I get a better understanding of how I write. And it’s like practicing a sport. If you don’t do it, it won’t work out so well when you want to do it well. I find I’ve gotten better at writing by writing as often as possible. The reading helps just as much, if not more than the writing. The more I read the more experience I get with what writing looks like, and how the writer helps the reader imagine what’s happening in a story.
I balance writing by putting it first most of the time. I know I have to go to work I work to play bills, and work can be fun too, but it’s not as fun as writing. The accomplished feeling isn’t the same. A person can love a day job too, and perhaps love it just as much as the writing, but the activity isn’t the same for me. I love writing much more than any day job I’ve had, and it’s the reason I changed my major to study literature back in college. Writing is also a job — a job I haven’t made money from yet, but still a job. I can put writing second only when it involves the immediacy of money to live (eat, but clothes, transportation), which a day job provides.
Besides writing fiction every day, you’re also quite an active blogger. How does blogging fit into your writing process?
I’ve tried to balance the two things — writing fiction, and blogging about writing and sometimes posting things I write. It’s really difficult. Sometimes I think I should just talk about everything else but writing, and let the writing speak for itself.
Sometimes I’ll post a short story I’ve written, or a short story I like from another author. I’ll use my WordPress as a sort of journal sometimes, but I’ll keep it less personal than my actual, physical journal. I use a little notebook as my physical journal, and I only write in that journal at home. I don’t take it with me because I don’t want anyone to read it. It’s the only place I express everything in my head without limits. If I’m going to be any place for a long time (4 or so days), I’ll take it with me. If it’s a weekend trip, I’m leaving it at home. I can write about anything that was on my mind when I get back tot he journal. At least then the thoughts will have had time to sit and I’m ready to put them down.
So, I guess I’ll say that blogging may not fit into my fiction writing process, but it serves a good way to express my thoughts on writing. It’s also a good way to keep up with people that read my blog, kind of like a way to connect with the world, because writing is a reclusive activity, and that’s one of the reasons I like it. Sometimes I have to get out though, and away from the computer to see actual people.
You say you’re working on a novel but also occasionally post short stories on your blog. Which length do you feel more comfortable with? Do you explore similar themes in your short stories and novels or are they totally different?
I’m actually working on a collection of short stories along with the novel. The collection of short stories is with a good friend right now, being critiqued, and then he’ll give it back to me. Some of the stories have been rejected, and one has actually been published in an indie lit mag (Zouch Magazine), and some I just post on my blog just to put out there. I feel much more comfortable (now) with writing longer form stories. I don’t think I’m a good short story writer, but I’ll still write them. I don’t think I’m a good poet either, but I still write those too. Short stories are so hard to write, in my opinion. You have to do so much in a short amount of space, and many readers have short attention spans. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just how it is. I like to set the scene, and I like reading novels that set the scene, even if it seems mundane, or drags on. The more color the better the overall story will be. I know there are other writers, past and present, that favor the short story and say nothing is wasted. Novels are journeys. They aren’t quick.
I don’t know if there is any differentiating in the themes I cover in short stories and novels. I would say novels involve many themes lumped together. Novels (good ones) usually don’t have one theme. They have many. That’s one of the things I don’t like about short stories and short story writing. Although short stories are great and fun, they lack that wholeness you get from a novel. Short stories can only touch on certain things while making the reader look or see the one thing they are trying to show. The novel gives you the air and space to breathe in concrete details and characters with great depth, because it has the room and time to. I take nothing away from either form. They are both beautiful.
What specific themes does your fiction explore?
I’m still young, and figuring things (this writing thing) out, so I keep theme open. I follow Thomas Pynchon’s quote “Get too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page.” Also I don’t necessarily end up writing about what I originally intended to write about. The novel I’ve been writing (the one I keep mentioning) started out somewhat different than the story it is now, or the story it has become rather. I’ve come to realize the first draft is your piece of crap outline, and you go forward from there, polishing and polishing, shaping and shaping.
In regards to theme — I just explore what feels natural. I’ll call it “humane themes.” I like to explore humane themes. I have a story, so I tell it. I have a character, so I tell that character’s story. What comes out and what happens to that character is just what happens. Like I said, I follow what Pynchon said. I think he’s right. I don’t like when I write and it feels contrived. I felt that way about East of Eden. It was an excellent novel, but the writing was contrived, partly because it’s meta-fiction with Olive’s son telling the story. Ray Bradbury said you should just write and not think about it, which sounds hard, but he’s another great one that I agree with (somewhat). He said don’t worry about intellect. Your intellect will show in your writing. I’m sure you’ve heard about him taping to his typewriter “Don’t Think”.
How do you reconcile writing without thinking with the editing process? Doesn’t the polishing process interfere with this?
Regarding writing without thinking, I think it’s really hard to write like that. That Ray Bradbury quote is something to strive towards though. I’ve closed my eyes and let my fingers just go on and write. I know it could be colossal shit I’m writing, but at least I’m writing. I know I can always go back and edit, and I know when I finish the draft and actually do go back and edit, I may or may not fix it. Who knows? It may not need fixing.
I try not to worry about how good the writing is on the first draft. If I worried about how good it is on the first draft, it would take forever just to write a single paragraph when I know I can pump one out pretty quickly. The manuscript can really flicker to life at times, and that’s what I look for in a book I read, so I think it’s the same when I’m writing a story. I’m like most people in the sense that I hate my own writing, or I think it’s crap on the first draft. There may be some things I like, but overall it just doesn’t feel all the way good, or right, when I’m writing the first draft. I majored in English in college. Not that it matters entirely with editing, but it’s more important that I’ve always been a reader, and that’s what’s going to help me when it’s time to edit. I’ve read enough to know what is working for me, and what I’ll truly want to cut. I have faith in my own judgment. After I’ve finished with it, someone else needs to read it to see what I’ve missed or lend another perspective.
I have to have faith in my own judgment, and I have to believe in my abilities as an editor to make something I’ve written much better. I not only read for enjoyment, but to understand good storytelling. Having the skills and the tools to make things better with editing is what allows you to write that garbage first draft without stopping often. You can just let your mind flow when it needs to, and you do it again day after day. One day you finish. You have a draft.
Throughout this discussion, you’ve said you’re always a reader first. What books have most influenced your writing?
This is the hardest question to answer because I have to look through the books I’ve read now (the most recent ones). I think the books I’ve read in my leisure in the last two and a half years have been the most influential. I have been most influenced by The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway for his simple description and making me feel like I been to Spain, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon for it’s daring plot and daring style (you have to keep readers on their toes), and Sula by Toni Morrison for her poetic writing and themes she explores.
Working Writers Series: Hillary Leftwich
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 Hillary Leftwich
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I was born and raised in the Christian dominated town of Colorado Springs, headquarters of the one and only James Dobson and Focus on the Family. It was a little surreal growing up in an environment where there really is a church on every corner. As a young child, I was diagnosed with Dyslexia and was held back in kindergarten. I secretly hated the idea of being behind all my other classmates. As a result I began to read books in an attempt to improve my reading. I read a lot of books, sometimes two or three at a time. I read my mom’s hardback collection of Stephen King and Douglas Adams novels because they were easily accessible on her bookshelf, and when I ran out of those I moved on to Edgar Allan Poe and O. Henry. Not sure how I got into Poe and O. Henry, but I remember reading “The Cask of Amontillado” and being completely captivated. Reading was a natural progression into writing short stories at the wee age of 8 (I still have the original copy of the first short story I ever wrote on my first electric typewriter), and from there I would churn out various silly short stories, more as entertainment for myself. It was a way of connecting reading into writing for me, and the urge to write just continued and never stopped. I also have a strange situation of being able to taste certain words. Some words have always been connected with certain tastes, and as a kid not knowing what was happening it would drive me crazy. I found out a few years ago this is known as Synesthesia, which is a perception of two senses being crossed, like colors and sound. I still can’t say the word picnic without getting sick. Some words are tastier than others.
As a teenager I attended a private Christian school in junior high and was harassed and bullied for three years. I was unanimously voted to play Satan in the school play. No joke. We were not allowed to dance, that was against the Bible. One teacher even strongly suggested that the girls not wear jewelry because when the rapture inevitably arrived it would all be a useless pile left on the carpet. I felt very alienated, so during this time I would focus a lot on writing as a form of expressing myself and escaping the situation I was in. It also gave me great writing material. After transferring to a public high school, my senior year English teacher convinced me to submit one of my stories to a state competition for young writers, which I did, with much hesitation. This was the first time I would be putting myself out there to everyone. I won first place. After graduating I remember being either unaware or not informed, or more than likely both, that someone could actually pursue a degree in writing, so I decided to get my degree in Cultural Anthropology, which did not work out at all. I wound up partying too hard and was put on academic suspension. I returned home with my tail between my legs, started attending a community college, and took about a ten year hiatus from writing. I had a baby and had to untangle myself from a very horrific and messy domestic violence situation with his father. I realized the only way I could better my life and my son’s life would be to go back to school, so I moved to Denver to pursue my degree in English from CU Denver. During the last semester of classes before I graduated, my son had a terrifying series of seizures and almost died, really should have died, according to the neurology staff at the hospital. I spent a week sitting next to his hospital bed while he recovered with a laptop computer, determined to finish off the semester and graduate. It took my mind off of things happening around me, things I didn’t necessarily want to absorb at that time. But my son is an unstoppable force in a small package, one that I admire and look up to because of his tenacity. He is what pushes me forward and keeps me moving, a reason to not give up. You can read more about my experience dealing and learning about his Epilepsy in my blog here.
Currently I am finishing up my MA in Creative Writing at Regis University and have been fortunate enough to work with my favorite professor Dr. Marty McGovern and other amazing writers like Harrison Fletcher . I co-organize a writing workshop through my school, The Mozaic Writing Community, and also am co-founder of a local writers group here in Denver called Denver Shitty Writers along with a wonderful writing friend of mine. My best friend is also a novelist and we support each other as well. During this creative writing program, I started writing again for the first time in over ten years. The best way to describe stepping back into writing after a long hiatus is what it felt like when I accidentally gave away my childhood security blanket. As a kid, I never went anywhere without it. There are photos of me with that blanket in almost every one of my childhood pictures. In my twenties I mistakenly donated it to a second-hand store, not realizing I had stored it inside of a decorative pillow sham so it wouldn’t continue to unravel and deteriorate. I was trying to protect it. I had hidden it away. The terror I felt after realizing I had given away my security blanket, yet the freedom of being released from that attachment, is exactly what it felt like to start writing again.
It sounds like you use your writing as a means of persevering when reality is, for lack of a better term, incredibly trying. Is this a theme throughout your work that you explore?
I would say that persevering is a theme I touch upon, but I also like to explore themes that have almost nothing to do with my own personal experiences. More often than not I use writing as a form of stepping into someone else’s shoes. I feel like my own are too familiar, or maybe I just like to explore what other people have to live through. I like to write about characters that are very different than me, to be able to share a perspective that is oftentimes completely opposite from my own. Having Dyslexia has always been a huge challenge for me, but it has allowed me to always look at everything in a different way than a lot of people. Having different perspectives in writing is always advantageous, and as an adult I have been able to turn what was once a major obstruction into something that actually works in my favor.
Can you give us an example of how you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone in your writing?
I am familiarizing myself and doing a lot of writing with micro fiction and memoir. Both of these genres fascinate me to no end. They are incredibly difficult and challenging to be successful at, and it is something I want to be able to publish in the near future. I am almost obsessed by the brevity of flash fiction and the honesty behind memoir. As a fiction writer, it took me a while to even understand the difference between memoir and fiction, how they differ, and how to write memoir successfully. Micro and memoir are interesting but elusive. They are the random strangers you see across the room and are scared to death to talk to. But they are worth approaching, worth taking the chance of falling in love with. But If I had to pick just one style of fiction, flash fiction would be my secret lover.
Was blogging also a step outside of your comfort zone, or is this a space that comes more naturally?
Blogging was definitely a step outside my comfort zone. I am naturally a private person, so allowing people in on my thoughts publicly was a little unnerving at first. Then you begin to wonder if anyone is even reading it, and after awhile you’re really just writing for you, not necessarily for an audience. That’s when writing gets real. I recently started a new blog for my writing where I combined the word limit rule of Twitter and the writing format of a typical blog. This came about after much investigation into which format for a writer is best. I could not decide if I wanted to start a Twitter account, because I personally hate the way it looks, but I also did not like how some blogs had novel length posts, so I created my own blog and I call it Nanotwit. It is brief and to the point. We get along fantastic as a result. It’s basically a blog about what I think about writing, thoughts on stories I am reading and other random things that may come to mind. For the blog about my son’s Epilepsy struggles, that actually started as a class project for my undergraduate degree. By the time I was done with it, I felt it was a pretty honest and straight-up look into the hell I had to go through as a parent dealing with a monster of a brain disorder that no one is ever prepared for as a parent. Blogging is basically an online journal, and you have to decide if you are comfortable having people you don’t know stepping into your private thoughts and feelings, taking their shoes off and making themselves at home in your head and emotions. That blog, even almost five years after the fact, is testimony of what I had to go through, and what my son managed to survive. I go back and read it, and I’ll admit it, I cry every single time, because it was such a dark time for me. I did not make all the right decisions, I messed things up. I was uneducated and not informed about Epilepsy. It was, in my own mind, my fault. I think a good parent always defaults to blaming it on themselves, I suppose it’s the curse of parenthood. It’s funny, because I think that’s what drew people to that blog, because I admitted to being in the dark about a lot of things. I think people like that, the honesty of everything. People can sense if you’re being phony in writing. It is intimidating to try to be real and honest in anything, but in writing sometimes it’s the only time you can be.
There’s that idea that writing is the solitary, somewhat lonely profession, but you’re very active in forming writing communities. Is this helpful for your process?
I think writing can be a secluded act, and this just may be a necessary aspect of writing, but it is also crucial to seek out critique from other writers and resources, whatever those might be. We all have different backgrounds in writing, so feedback can come in many different forms. I’m not the only writer out there who doesn’t have the lifestyle that allows me to be able to attend an MFA. It is a huge commitment. My chief commitment today is to take care of my son. I am lucky enough to have the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop here in Denver and my other two writing groups as well. It is also my goal to get into the Tin House Writers Workshop because there are some really amazing writers facilitating the 2014 session. If I lived anywhere near Julia Fierro it would be incredible to attend the Sackett Street Writers Workshop. But since I don’t, I had to find local resources for writing, and when I couldn’t always find them, I helped create them. I can’t say at this point in time I regret not pursing an MFA when I first graduated high school, you know, before the real world every adult warns you about actually happens to you. I wasn’t mature enough for college at that point, let alone the demands of an MFA program. If savory writing is about being honest and real, then I will take ownership of all my experiences, experiences not forged within the college setting womb. I think the important thing is to just write, not for any publications, not for anyone else, just write. Besides, I honestly don’t think editor’s have any way of knowing the difference between a piece written by someone who works full time and has kids or an MFA student at a full residency program, nor do they care, as long as the piece itself is polished and written well.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I mainly find my inspiration from people watching. This sounds old school, but trust me, it’s great for ideas. The best place to people watch is Colfax Avenue, which is notorious for prostitutes, homeless people, and anything in-between, like scary clown pimps. According to Playboy Magazine, it is “the longest, wickedest street in America“, and there is definitely a lot of truth in that statement. Never a dull moment. I also love airports, bus stations, or train depots. I can leach off other people’s anticipation they radiate when traveling. All these types of places, if you pay attention, are filled with anxious, kinetic people who wear their stories on their sleeves. It’s great to think up what they are all about, where they were coming from and where they are going.
As far as reading, I can tell you I am nerding out pretty bad reading the classics to my son like Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It’s great to see the excitement on his face, the anticipation. It makes me think of my dad and how he would read to my brother and me Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh every night before bed, regardless of whether he was exhausted or not. He knew how much we looked forward to being read to. This brings back vivid, warm memories for me, and I cannot express how important I feel reading is for a writer, or a child. In my free time I am gobbling up issues of Tin House, Colorado Review Glimmer Train, Nano Fiction, and Brevity, just to name a few, all of which are fantastic resources to discover new writers. I am also reading Abby Geni’s The Last Animal, Claire Vaye Watkins Battleborn, Ann Hood’s The Knitting Circle and Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. I am also enjoying a copy of Roy Rogers and the Ghost of Mystery Rancho my mom sent me, probably as a joke, but who knew Roy Rogers could be such a badass? Meanwhile, I am anxiously awaiting the new Haruki Murakami novel to hurry up and be translated into English already so I can read it. Contemplating learning Japanese so I don’t have to wait.
Working Writers Series: Luanne Castle
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 Luanne Castle.
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
There are so many directions I can go with the question “tell us a little bit about yourself.” One of the first things I learned about writing memoir is that you have to choose which story you’re going to tell in each book. A memoir writer has to leave out far more than what she puts in.
In one possible story, I am retired from teaching college English, free to write what I want instead of “papers” for conferences and lit crit journals. But my interests in teaching are still with me today: poetry, children’s literature, Holocaust memoir, and American literature from a variety of cultures. This is the woman who highly values logic.
In another story, I’ve been writing and reading poetry since I was a little girl. This is the woman who just put together her first poetry manuscript, called Doll God. It’s also the woman who loves theatre and dolls and art.
A third story is that I am my father’s daughter, a girl who grew up in the ‘burbs, first over a bomb shelter and then in front of the city dump. The memoir I am writing is called Scrap, which alludes to many things, including my father’s business as a trash collector.
Blogger is my identity in another story. I write three blogs: http://dontwelookalike.com/, http://thefamilykalamazoo.wordpress.com/, and http://writersite.org/. I started writing the adoption blog Don’t We Look Alike with my daughter. Both my children were adopted from Korea when they were babies. I enjoyed the experience of blogging so much that I shortly afterward started a genealogy blog for my family and then one about writing, which focuses on creative nonfiction and poetry.
Yet another story has me working part-time out of my home for the healthcare business my husband and I own. I’ve done this most of my adult life, all throughout teaching and raising my kids. My mind is always split between creativity and organization.
There’s also the perpetual student story. I have a BBA undergrad with marketing and history double major. Then an MA in English and an MFA in creative writing (split between poetry and fiction). I received a PhD in English from the University of California at Riverside. Since I retired in 2005 for a medical reason, I have taken online courses and attended workshops and conferences, all about writing. I’ve completed the coursework for a Certificate in Creative Nonfiction from Stanford University and have the tutorial (and final) portion ahead of me next year.
What else do you want to know? I’ve been married to my husband for 38 years. I’ve lived in Michigan, California, and Arizona. I have four cats and advocate for animal rights.
My son works as a counselor and my daughter is a musical theatre performer. I know from her resume that this is where I ought to tell you something unique and funny I can do. Then you can ask me about it. I used to be able to stand on the tips of my toes, but I can’t do that any longer. Here’s something I find interesting: I found newspaper articles online where I learned that my great-great-grandmother caught fire when she tried to help a neighbor. She jumped into a cistern and put out the fire. She survived for many years after fire, although it seemed touch and go at first—at least according to the articles in the paper. I like to salvage stories like this for posterity. I’m the keeper of the flame of our family history. All the photos and stories from both sides of the family have come to me, and I am sharing them on The Family Kalamazoo.
How do you balance your time with so many writing projects, especially the blogs where publication is often much quicker than the traditional way?
I wish I were better at balancing my time between writing projects. Instead, I get jealous on behalf of my writing. When the toilet breaks, although I’m glad to get a plumber out right away, I’m also irritated that every moment I have to spend dealing with it is time spent away from the writing. I try to schedule appointments in the morning so that I can write in the afternoon. I’ve even been known to lie, telling someone that I have an appointment that afternoon and can they schedule two mornings from now, greedily trying to grab that afternoon slot to write. It’s as if writing is my secret lover I’m always trying to make time for. I’m crabby when I’m away from it too long and crabby when I spend too much time writing.
List-making is also something that helps. I live my life by lists. When I say it, I fear it makes me sound too OCD, as if I operate by rote and routine. It’s always sounded like a lack of creativity to me. The truth is without lists I couldn’t keep a thing in my head as a list tethers the insides of my cranium to something recognizable, making a bit of order out of utter chaos.
I use two lists. I start a new legal pad list every day. Whatever odd chores are left from the day before, I copy over and begin fresh. Then, I also have my pre-printed list with items like memoir, revise memoir, send out poem, brush cats, and cook dinner. Yup, if I didn’t remind myself to prepare dinner, I would forget. If I can’t check off that I worked on “memoir” for the day it acts as a little pressure to put that first the next day. Another way it helps is that I see it in front of me each day. I tell myself, “OK, time to go work on Scrap.” Then I do so as soon as I can.
Since you write in so many different formats, poetry, memoir, blogging, etc, do you feel that these styles shape your voice according to the form, or that your voice shifts to fit the form?
The form I write in determines my voice, to a point. In creative nonfiction, I struggle to bring out what I want to say, layering in as I revise. So I often start out with a framework of scene, perhaps heavy on dialogue (as I am letting the characters guide me) and light on scene setting and reflection. The voice builds as I add in filters over the original frame.
In poetry, I have to work at not falling into my poetry habits. Once I feel a particular style is effective, it’s easy to resort to that style the next time around. I have to keep fighting those “tics.” I try to remember to push the boundaries, try something new, and question everything that feels too easy.
Blog writing comes naturally to me. Unlike with CNF, I don’t struggle over the wording. Unlike with poetry, I don’t worry that it’s easy. It’s my everyday voice and sounds much as I do when I speak.
Can you tell us a bit more about Doll God and Scrap?
Doll God – Poetry collection
This is my first full-length collection of poetry. A few poems date back just over twenty years, but most of them were written in the last five years. They explore some of my obsessions: dolls, spirituality, fairy tales, and artistic creation. For me, these topics are all connected. Many of the poems are not about dolls, but the ones which are offer guideposts to the manuscript. Dolls have their origins in idols. When dolls were first created they were a tangible representation of spirituality or religion. Fairy tales have a similar connection to both creativity and spirituality.
These obsessions of mine are ways to look at the real work of poetry for me—that is how it deals with loss. There are many losses in the book, but they are prismed (or dispersed, if you don’t like to see a noun turned into a verb, although I think “prismed” captures the image better) through ways to understand: the multiple meanings of dolls, the old stories seen anew, and by inscribing the miracles.
Scrap – Memoir
Growing up in the sixties in southwestern Michigan, my family lived first over a nuclear bomb shelter and later in front of the city dump. For some time, my father owned a garbage collection business. Other than my mother who did the books in our basement, Dad was the only employee, driving the truck, dumping the dumpsters, and getting new customers.
He used to bring me treasures he scavenged on his route. He also used to bring home his moods which ranged from jokey to inexplicably angry. The book explores the father-daughter dynamic within the context of our personalities and family history. It uses some of the techniques of mystery novels—most notably revisiting scenes of the “crimes.”
Scrap is emblematic of my attempts to salvage the scraps of memory and story and re-purpose them. A longtime recycler, my father taught himself to shape scrap metal into sculpture when he retired. Images of fragments, discards, re-making, and fighting all fall within this notion of “scrap.”
The big argument in CNF seems to center around “truth v. Truth”, and how honest we can be with something as faulty as memory. As you’re working on Scrap, is there any tension between telling the narrative accurately and telling the message you hope to express? I really enjoyed that line you had earlier about keeping the flame of the family history, and I am curious what that means to you?
I’m the oldest grandchild on both sides. My mother was twenty and my father twenty-six when I was born, so when I was little, the memories of the “old days” were still fresh with my parents, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles. In those days my ear was open to adult conversations, much more than they realized. And many family stories were intentionally passed on to me. My maternal grandparents were wonderful storytellers. My brother and cousins don’t know a fraction of what I know about the family. I’ve collected the vintage family photos and other heirlooms from the everyday lives of my ancestors. I don’t know if I’m the keeper of the flame because I was in the right place as the oldest grandchild to collect the stories or if my curiosity encouraged my relatives to share with me. Probably both. If I don’t share this information it will be lost to future generations.
When it comes to writing a compelling memoir, it’s important to focus on one central story. Once I knew the central story for Scrap, and that the main characters would be my father and me, I had to find the meaning for readers in this story. Ultimately, I decided that my story has a lot to do with knowledge and understanding as keys to forgiveness.
There is a tension between keeping the story accurate and adhering to this message because real life is messy and just when I think my story has played out in real life, something happens that feels like a setback or seems to change the course of the narrative. But when I take the long view I can see that these are blips on the plot arc I originally identified. It’s up to me to decide what clutters or confuses the story or sends the reader the wrong message–and what can be emphasized by more attention in the scene to details of setting and characterization.
While many smaller stories come together to tell this narrative, many more must be excluded. As a memoir writer, I have to be hard on myself and not let an anecdote creep in just because I find it particularly engaging or because I don’t want to lose it. The place for those stories is on my genealogy blog, which is an ongoing family history project—or perhaps in a future book.
Any memoirs you are particularly fond of?
For years my reading was focused mainly on fiction and poetry, but a few memoirs slipped in every so often. I loved Audre Lorde’s Zami and taught Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I also read, taught, and even wrote about various Holocaust memoirs. The first time I thought about memoir as an important genre was when I read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. The book’s creative structure cracked open the world of the memoir for me. After that I began to study memoir writing. I started reading every memoir I could get my hands on. The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr, and The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, were early favorites because I felt very close to the narrators. The favorites started piling up: Mark Doty’s Firebird, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to The Dogs. Every other time I finished a memoir, it became my new favorite. As I began to narrow in on the shape of my book, I found The Bill from My Father, by Bernard Cooper, very important. I just finished Mary Gordon’s The Shadow Man, which taught me so much. I can’t stay with one particular favorite because each memoir has been an instructor, helping me refine my skills. But if I had to choose a book to take to Gilligan’s Island with me, I would most likely grab Zami or The Liar’s Club off the shelf.
Working Writers Series: Allen Taylor
Today’s Working Writer is Allen Taylor.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
My first big ambition was to be a novelist. I’ve wanted to write fiction since I was 10 years old. In college, I discovered poetry and took a 20 year hiatus from fiction. I’ve recently started pushing the pen of prose again.
I’ve had little successes here and there, a publishing credit or two over the years. As I struggled to get paid for my writing I worked odd jobs. At one time I was making a living as a telemarketer, a skill I had to learn the hard way because I am not a natural salesman. I actually did quite well at it once I got the hang of it. Where I really shined was in business-to-business telesales.
At one point, I got fed up and put a resume in for a newspaper job. I used my cold calling skills to call around to a few newspapers to see if they were looking for writers. One editor asked me to send him a resume. He called me in for what I thought was going to be a staff reporter position. When the interview was over, he offered me a job editing a community weekly and I spent four years doing that, winning awards, having a hell of a good time. Then George W. Bush decided I should spend a year in Iraq with my National Guard unit.
While in Iraq I started writing poems that I planned to publish when I got home. I was going to be the first poet to emerge from the Iraq War. I figured if I’ve got to waste me time doing something stupid, then I might as well get something out of it. When I got home, I discovered Brian Turner beat me to it with “Here, Bullet.” I self-published a book of poems titled “Rumsfeld’s Sandbox,” which I think is quite good but hasn’t received any recognition. It was probably a huge mistake to do it that way. It’s available only on the Kindle at Amazon.
Since then I have published a few digital chapbooks of Twitter poems and a quirky fiction short story – all for the Kindle.
I also started a website in Iraq. World Class Poetry. When I got home, I put a lot of energy into it and built it up to over 200 pages. I put some AdSense ads on it and it started making me money. It wasn’t much. It was about $100/month at the most, but it was enough to make me profitable. Then I got the bright idea to move it to a new domain name and redesign it. Very bad idea. I hit a huge snag that caused me to lose interest and now it just sits there not making any money at all. Every now and then I think about reviving it. It’s just a thought.
I’ve always liked trying new things. A couple of years ago I discovered Bizarro fiction and started writing some of my own. I’ve had more success publishing Bizarro flash fiction than I’ve ever had publishing fiction or poetry before. I’m still working on a couple of novellas that I think have potential. I continue to write poetry.
What was the push that got you back into writing prose, and has your time writing verse influenced or change how you approach the form?
Good question. I’m not sure about what pushed me to start writing prose again. I think I just said all I had to say for the moment in poetry. Not for all time, but for the moment. I discovered the Bizarro genre and found that to be rather new and interesting, so I started kicking out a bunch of flash fiction pieces for the Bizarro genre and managed to get some of them published. It was a whole new creative outlet.
I’ve always been experimental. I try new things and take risks with my writing. “The Sandbox” was the pinnacle of that for me in poetry, but I discovered through that poem that poetry can be limiting. As rich and varied as it is in form, that poem (an epic burlesque, I call it) is still limited in its expressions. So there are times when prose is better suited. I wanted to explore those.
Has poetry changed the way I write prose? I’m not sure. I think it certainly has to a degree, but in what ways I can’t be sure. I’m more attentive to word choices, probably. And I still pay attention to cadences, to the rhythm of the language. But my poetry is more Beat than formalist. I do play with forms, but even then I tend to experiment with the form rather than stand straight up and follow all the rules. It my mind, it all runs together, as it should.
I really enjoyed that World Class Poetry is a resource for poets, especially one that lists poetic terminology. When you formed the site, did you hope for it to be a teaching tool for younger or beginning poets?
Yes, actually, that was the goal. I may get back to that at some point. Fiction has been occupying my time mostly of late, and my professional writing for businesses.
With WCP, I wanted it to be a resource for beginning poets to learn the craft. After I saturated it with content, I was going to start providing more resources for intermediate and professional poets, but I never got that far before I ran into technical difficulties that frustrated me. When the bug hits again, I’ll ride that horse hard.
What do you find to be the appeal of Bizzaro fiction, and how would you define it?
Bizarro is fun to read, plain and simple. I would define it as absurdism on steroids. The main ingredient in most Bizarro books is weirdness. The plot lines, the characters, the dialogue, the situations, and often the settings are absurdly weird. Also, Bizarro fiction writers love to mix elements from a variety of genres. So you’ll see science fiction meshed with horror and western elements overshadowed by fantastic weirdness that makes you think Dr Seuss and Lewis Carroll invaded the mind of your favorite genre writer.
There are often grotesque or perverse aspects of Bizarro that would be a turn off for some readers, so it’s not for the easily offended. But if you like literature that stretches the boundaries of what is acceptable and forces you to open the window of your imagination, then Bizarro foots the bill.
Why did you choose to go the self-publishing route with “Rumsfeld’s Sandbox”?
I wonder that every day. I was dealing with a lot of things at the time personally that were distracting and making my living by writing online content. I just wanted to get it behind me. Plus, it was an experiment in publishing for the emerging Kindle format.
The biggest challenge has been the marketing. I just haven’t been that aggressive. I had intended to use World Class Poetry as the primary vehicle to market the book. I was up to 25,000 unique visitors before I hit the previously mentioned snag and burst my bubble. It was a huge shock to know that what was going so well suddenly fell through the floor. By then it was too late.
What were your inspirations for Rumsfeld’s Sandbox? What about that experience in Iraq most effected you?
Well, the fact that I was against the war to start with. I was against it in 2002 when they first started talking about it.
In the summer of 2003, I listened with rapt attention to the news of the Valerie Plame name leak. The following year, as my National Guard unit was training for its mission in Iraq, George W. Bush admitted there were no WMD in Iraq. It pissed me off. I was already skeptical of the claim and was against the war for what I thought were traditionally conservative reasons. My National Guard unit was activated in August and we spent four months training for a mission we didn’t know the nature of yet. We got on the plane right after Christmas and I spent all of 2005 in Iraq. During that time, the insurgency picked up and Iraq became a hotbed of terrorist actions, which was the shining ball of evidence that the Bush Administration made a huge strategic error in not setting up security before executing the mission.
I was trained as an Armor Officer. My job was to command tanks. Before we were activated (Texas National Guard), they re-designated our entire state from 49th Armor Division to 36th Infantry Division. So we went over without our tanks, doing jobs that none of us were trained for. None of the training really prepared us for what we actually did. We didn’t even know what our mission was going to be until December 2004.
The fact that I was politically against it and was stuck in a unit with a terrible chain of command, I spent the entire time loathing the experience. When it was over, I was ready to leave the service. I tendered my resignation immediately.
Rumsfeld’s Sandbox grew out of that experience. I wouldn’t call them war poems. Not all of them are about the experience, per se. But all of the poems were written either in Iraq or the 3-5 years immediately following.
Can you tell us about your work with Garden Gnome Publications?
I wrote a flash fiction story titled “My Secret Life As A Garden Gnome.” I read it aloud once at an open mic night and people loved it.
Since I’m short, stubby, and bearded – like a garden gnome – I thought it would be fun to start a digital press called Garden Gnome Publications. So I did. The gnomes and I publish flash fiction on our Flim-Flam blog. All the stories are entered into the monthly Flim-Flam Games.
I’m also taking submissions right now for my first e-book anthology. It will be published only in e-book formats. The Biblical Legends Anthology Series features flash fiction, short stories, narrative poems, and essays on absurdist themes taken from the Bible. It falls into the category of speculative fiction. The first anthology, for instance, asks writers to send their stories on inhabitants of the Garden of Eden. The stipulation is that none of the characters can be Adam, Eve, or the serpent. It forces writers to think about the garden in unusual ways. The deadline is midnight EST November 23, 2013 and I’m getting some good speculative stories on that theme. The next three themes planned are:
- Sodom and Gomorrah – I’m looking for antediluvian apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic writing set in these two ancient legendary cities.
- Deluge – We know how Noah and his family survived the flood. How did everyone else cope with the sudden onslaught of rain. What were their attempts to survive?
- Land of Nod – Cain killed his brother and was banished to this place east of Eden. I’m looking for stories set in this place before, during, or after Cain’s time but Cain can’t be a character.
Deadlines are on the website.
What do you do to financially support the time you spend writing?
Actually, I write.
I’ve been a full-time freelancer since December 2005, when I returned home from Iraq. I’ve spent most of the past seven years managing commercial blogs. I’m transitioning my business now to provide services for authors and publishers, primarily independents. Through Taylored Content, I provide blog enhancement services; edit, proofread, and ghostwrite e-books (and assist writers in converting their works into digital format); write e-mail content, sales letters, and press releases; and ghostwrite fiction. I also write for other types of businesses, as I always have, but the ease of self-publishing and digital publishing has given rise to a whole new market that wasn’t there before.
I can see where someone might be good at business – marketing and selling – but maybe not good at writing. They could hire someone like me to write and package their e-books, put their name on them as the author, and distribute them through the various online sales channels.
I’m also kicking around the idea of providing publicist and digital agency services for budding authors, but I haven’t solidified those in my mind yet. There is a need for someone with the right marketing skills to come alongside authors who are great writers and help them attract the right kind of readers. I could do that. It’s the same thing I’ve been doing for other types of businesses for seven years. I could do it for writers and publishers.
The most natural question to arise from that statement is, “Have you done that for yourself yet?” The answer is, I’m working on it. I’ve had several flash fiction pieces published in a genre. It’s only a matter of time before I get longer works accepted. I’ve already attracted the eyes of some high profile people in the bizarro community. After that, it’s handshaking and networking.
Working Writers: Amber Shockley
Today’s Working Writer is Amber Shockley.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I just received my MFA from Queens University of North Carolina at Charlotte this past May. I’ve received a handful of publications, and with the help of my thesis adviser, Alan Michael Parker, as well as Sally Keith and Cathy Park Hong, I’m currently working on submitting my thesis, now manuscript, for publication. Cathy Smith Bowers and Jon Pineda both served as readers.
My manuscript is a memoir; I use three classic texts: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and Homer’s Odyssey (Book XII, where Odysseus passes by the sirens), to write about the incest and domestic violence that occurred during my childhood. The title of my manuscript is “Seafarer.”
I perform burlesque on occasion. My stage name is “Miss Cheeky Boom.” You can see a performance here.
I have a blog where I discuss the trials and tribulations of working with the public in a restaurant format as well as living as an undercover gay (most don’t guess unless I tell them), an undercover disabled person (I have several so-called “invisible disabilities”), an undercover poor person (I try real hard to keep my clothes clean so people don’t know I’m wearing the same pair of pants over and over again), and an undercover (not famous) poet with burlesque tendencies.
You say you often have to reconcile your identity as a Southern queer woman. How does this play out in your fiction? Is it helpful to write about it?
Regardless of the genre I choose, my goal every time I write is to hit some truth. That’s pay dirt for me. Unfortunately, as a Southerner, I know the truth is that people in my region are often incredibly small-minded, religious beyond reason, and so hopped up on the sandy brown-haired version of Jesus that they can’t see God in anything, or anyone, else. Sometimes I’d like to wrap my hands around the South and wring its neck. Or move. Look at how much fun Dorothy Allison is having out in California. But the truth also is that in the South you will find some of the sweetest, most self-sacrificing people you will ever meet. Believing that a man willingly died on a cross for your sins really softens (some) hearts. Plus, the food here. Plus, the smells. The smell of our flowers in springtime will knock you on your ass in delirium. Now, as a member of the queer community, I happen to know the truth is that gay people raise families, balance their checkbooks, take care of their aunt when she is dying, and swerve their cars so they don’t hit a squirrel in the road. The queer community has some of the most passionate, talented people you will ever find. Fighting the belief that you are wrong for most of your life really strengthens (some) hearts. But the truth also is that gay people, like all other people, are monumentally, tragically, maddeningly flawed beings who drink too much some nights, cut in line at the grocery store, think about sex all the time, and make mean, petty comments behind their friends’ backs. They cheat on their spouses. They are selfish. When I write, I feel driven to show all these truths about my region, about my queer community, even the truths that hurt, even if I fear that someone will stress only the less savory truths. I honestly believe that the whole truth, rather than creating judgment, is the fastest, surest connection between people — writer, reader, and beyond. So does it help to write about it, to tell these truths? Yes, it helps me, and I hope it will help others.
How has writing helped you cope with personal trauma? We don’t need to go into specifics, but I’m curious how you approach such uncomfortable topics in a public way (by having to share your work with professors and publications)? Are you ever hesitant or does it help you to cope/heal?
Writing about trauma was, for me, also about seeking truth. When I was four years old, I was interviewed by a social worker as part of an investigation into whether I had been molested by a close male relative. Social services determined that I had been sexually abused, and steps were taken to prevent further incident. I do not remember the interview, nor do I remember much of what I explicitly detailed to the social worker. I do, however, remember the first time I ever felt hollow. Clearly, there is a memory block, which is a trauma in and of itself — the frustration of not being able to access your own mind, especially concerning an event so important. The manuscript I ended up constructing while I was at Queens is a product of me working that out, of me answering these questions: How do you write lack of memory? How do you write the maybe space? For me, the answer was to give what facts I could, but to ultimately honor feeling over fact, to recognize that feeling is truth too, as well as fact, and to bring in other characters from other stories to fill in the narrative. Finding that I didn’t have to have all the facts in order to write the poems, especially if I acknowledged in the poems that I didn’t have the facts, was immensely helpful, and released a bit of a knot. Sharing those poems isn’t a problem because it isn’t so much sharing my trauma as it is sharing my triumph.
Have you always been a poet? What draws you to the form? Do you think poetry allows for more artfulness or alternatively a better way to explore the truth than other genres?
I’ve always liked coming up with little stories — to clarify (the truth for myself), to explain (my truth to others), and/or for sheer entertainment. The stories have to be small so that I can finish them in one, or a few, sittings. I still have a box full of stories I started writing when I was a kid, but never finished. Right now, and by right now I mean for the last seven years, I have a novel that I’m working on. Apparently, I have a short attention span. Poems are the only stories that I’ve been able to finish, so far. After I finish them, I like to torture them and myself by going over and over them again, wiggling a word here, a line there, like a loose tooth that won’t come out. Apparently, I am a perfectionist. So, poetry just happens to be a perfect match for my particular set of shortcomings, fetishes, and neuroses as a person. I love them, I love writing them, I love singing them, I love hearing them sung. Poetry, read well, can have a seductively hypnotic affect. Get into poetry, and you’ve jumped down the rabbit hole of language and meaning. It’s a tight rope act, balancing sound and sense, clarity and abstraction. Poetry demands that you come out onto the stage perform. You can’t read poetry in a monotone; you’ll seem ridiculous. Poetry is the drama queen of the genres, even when it is quiet and gentle. Essentially, I’m a shy woman who likes to flash a little leg from time to time. Poetry lets me do that.
Do you think the ideas that stick are the best ones? Does your writing process benefit from the chaos? Similarly, how do you fit writing in with all of your other jobs and hobbies?
Some ideas that stuck have been the best ones, but others have stuck like raw egg on a wall. I’ve looked back at lines or even whole poems I’ve written and ended up having to pinch my nose to re-read them. Real stinkers. I should’ve baked a cake that day instead. My wish, or hope, is not that I have time to write every poem I get the idea to write, but that I take the adequate amount of time to write any given poem well, including the incubation period where you leave it to rest then come back to check and see if it’s still breathing. I do have a chaos of ideas from which to choose, and thank the Lord for that. Writer’s block hasn’t been an issue.
I appreciate that chaos, but at the same time, that writerly way of thinking, or over-thinking, over-imagining, can also be a curse. I’m a bit muse heavy, and I have a fair amount of melancholia in my system. I’m generally an upbeat, vivacious sort of person, but I do become incredibly sad from time to time. If I’m writing, I’m deep in my head and sometimes; unfortunately, I shouldn’t stay there too long. I have to do things to balance that. While my job and hobbies do take away from the amount of time I spend thinking and writing, they serve as weights on the scale. If I didn’t have my job, or my interest in burlesque, or something to pull me out of my head and into the world, I feel sure that I would’ve gone down depression’s drain to the death sewer long ago. Sometimes I have to get out of my brain in order to recharge my brain —hold a hot cup of tea in my hands, see how small and thin a dime is, hear another person’s laughter. The best thing I can do as a writer is live a full life, including work and hobbies. Muse screams at me, runs me off the road, cuts off the television, hides all the cookies in the house if she really wants something written. That’s the deal we have so far.
Your muse sounds quite influential to your writing process, but is it ever detrimental? Do ever wish she were less powerful?
For my writing process, more muse — better. I feel I can handle it, because the influence balances out how controlled I tend to be when writing. I think it’s when I get locked into ruts, habits, concepts, plans or formulas that I’m more likely to produce poor material. Sometimes when I snap, or snap out of it, I get something better. I’m thinking of a certain scenario where I latched on to this idea I had about the way my titles should be for individual poems in my manuscript. It was a great idea I think, and I may still use it down the line, but at a certain point, I realized that I was muzzling muse that way, and frustrating myself to no end. You’ve got to let muse keep talking, even if she changes the subject. I don’t think my writing suffers from a powerful, talkative muse so much as my personal life does. Imaginative people do tend to be your more high-strung ninnies. I can conjure up wickedly horrific scenarios for myself, or those I love. I can dream up expectations so grand that reality is disappointing. Is that muse or madness? In any case I’d like to keep my level of creativity, even if it comes with complications. Never, never do I wish it away, or less. As far as I can ascertain, writing was the thing I was given when my addled little soul sauntered up to the front of the line to receive a parting package just before being born. Perhaps as a consolation prize. I have nothing else. Beauty? No. Leadership skills? Certainly not. I doubt I could guide much more than a sandwich out of a plastic bag. I’m not athletic, or punctual or particularly skilled with machinery. I am imaginative. I am sensitive to language. So, a writer. And a poet, to boot. A poet is a writer who’s gone so cuckoo they can hardly speak in complete sentences anymore. Honestly, I’m proud of that. As far as writing goes, I try to feed it and let it fly as much as I can.
From your response, it sounds like you’ve been infected with the writing bug from a very young age. How long have you been writing, and when did you decide to devote your life to it? Was there ever any doubt you’d be a writer?
My grandfather was a preacher for the Church of God of Prophecy, and my mother was raised in that church. No bikini swimsuits, jewelry was frowned upon, but speaking in tongues was encouraged. My father was a Lutheran, and felt strongly enough about it that he sort of kidnapped me, for lack of a better word, and had me baptized in the Lutheran church without my mother’s blessing and against her wishes. I give you that extraneous information as a backdrop to tell you this: I was a horrible Lutheran. I make that proclamation as a preface to this: There were these small, blue sheets of paper labeled “For Little Lutherans,” along with very stubby pencils provided at the back of every pew in the Lutheran church that I attended as a child (mama came around, eventually, for a while). On several sheets of that paper, I constructed my first story, “Red and Blue are Friends,” which I also illustrated. Soon thereafter, I created a publishing company, actually a succession of several publishing companies, under which I produced many unfinished works. Ambition has never been a problem. Fruition has been more of an issue. I may or may not have had a brief existential crisis after reading Harriet the Spy and thought for a while that I would be a journalist, but still a type of writer. I declared in both a Hello Kitty themed diary and a New Kids on the Block bedecked notebook that I would be a writer. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t devoted to writing, or at least to the idea that I would either be a writer, or nothing much at all. I’ve doubted the level of success I would have from time to time, thus I’ve entertained various ways other than writing to support myself financially (none of which have been very entertaining), but I formed pretty quickly, and have yet to be disabused of, the thought that writing was the way for me.
What are your writing goals for the future? If you could make a full-time career out of writing, would you or do you like having the balance between work and poetry? Also what writer’s career most inspires yours?
My goal right now, aside from continuing to write and to improve my writing, is to find a home for my manuscript. I know that there is a lot of debate presently regarding the merit of the MFA, but I can say that I absolutely grew and benefited from attending the program at Queens, by leaps and bounds. Not only did I leave that experience with a writing group of friends that helps me meet my goal of continuing to write, but I was also privileged enough to learn from bonafide poets that operate at such a high frequency, it astounds me. Alan Michael Parker was my thesis advisor, and continues to encourage me in publishing my manuscript, even after I have now completed the program. His generosity is an amazement. It would be my dream to make a career out of writing. I would love to travel, to teach. Both of those. I have a problem with airplanes. Buses, trains could be involved. I want to spread the good word about words. One poet I admire, and I must stress that this is just one out of a multitude, is Kim Addonizio. Her poetry is fierce, detailed, dirty, substantive. Often, in form. She has a broad portfolio, including a collection of short stories, novels, even a CD. She has tattoos. If I’m not mistaken, she plays harmonica. She seems to be in good relationship with other poets. I think of her as a poet’s poet and that, too, is my ultimate goal.
Working Writers Series: Em Faerman
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.
Working Writers Series: Tien-Yi Lee
Today’s Working Writer is Tien-Yi Lee.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am the mother of two young boys, ages 3.5 and 1.5 (they will insist the “half” is terribly important). I work part-time as a freelance web and graphic designer, a field I’ve been in for over fifteen years. My educational background is in Biology.
In my previous life without kids, I was a night owl, playing drums in bands, dancing salsa, watching late night TV, waking up when I was ready to wake up the next morning. Nowadays, evenings are the only quiet time in my day, and are reserved for writing (ok, I squeeze all my reality shows into one night of TV watching). I try to write between 8:30 and midnight. On most days I feel like I am stretched too thin, doing too many things, and doing nothing well. But then I’m reminded that everyone feels this way.
I started writing six years ago, mostly short stories, including one which was published in TMR in 2010 and awarded the Peden Prize. Last year I won an Artist’s Grant by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. I felt terribly guilty about it, since I hadn’t written a word in months, but I think something about winning that award substantiated my identity as “a writer” (a term I never associated with myself). This past January, after an almost two-year writing hiatus, I decided it was time to start working on the novel, which had been brewing in my head. It’s actually an expansion of the short story published in TMR. I’m up to 65,000 words, which is pretty amazing for me, since I often feel like I am the sparest and slowest writer ever. In August, I took an entire week off and went up to Vermont by myself. It was heavenly. And shocking, how productive one can be without the distractions of everyday life. My goal is to finish a first draft by the end of the year. I am still trying to figure out how to balance writing with the rest of my life, both in practical terms and as a part of my identity — though some part of me acknowledges it may never be clear.
You sound quite busy! Your educational background and current career are so far from writing. Does having these outside interests influence your work or distract you from it?
I’d have to say that my outside interests, though integral to who I am, mostly distract me from my writing. It would also be true to say that writing distracts me from my work. With my graphic design work, I do it when I do it, and when I’m not doing it, it’s done. With writing, especially when it is going well, it is pervasive — distracting me from my work, my kids, and everything else.
You said you’re currently working on a novel, which is an expansion of your TMR short story. When did you first realize this story deserved more attention and space? Has it been difficult to expand such a short work to a full-length fiction or has it flowed naturally?
The original short story is quite compressed — it covers a lot of events over a long time span, so I knew there was room for expansion. I liked that the characters were complex, and I wanted to see them continuing on with their lives. I could see it resulting in messy situations and difficult moral dilemmas, which I think make for good stories. So the novel basically continues where the short story left off, though the next section is told by a different narrator. Plotwise, it feels natural to tell it this way, in large chronological chunks, by different narrators who each interact with the protagonist. That being said, I find the novel form a real challenge to negotiate. I’m not used to lengthy descriptions or detailed, blow-by-blow recounting of scenes. I have a hard time with slowing down the pace at the right moments, and filling up all those pages has been tough! But I am learning a lot, and that’s fun.
You said you think messy situations and difficult moral dilemmas make for a good novel. What are your favorite novels that feature difficult moral dilemmas, and what have you learned from them while writing your novel?
This is a tough question — I’d have to dig back into the novels I’ve read, as nothing quickly comes to mind. So I’ll resort to saying that what draws me to a story, whether in novels or short-stories or movies or TV, are those in which there are multiple characters who are both sympathetic yet deserving of blame. First thing I can think of that fits this bill is the characters in the TV series The Wire— are they gangsters who kill people, enterprising kids who grew up under duress, or just people caught in the system? The Iranian movie A Separation also had a bit of an intractable situation in the beginning, where there was a woman who suffered from a miscarriage and it wasn’t possible to lay blame on any one character, but each played a role. The stories that stick with me most are those in which there is no clear cut good guy or bad guy, where multiple people are flawed, culpable, yet also deserving of sympathy.
You said your writing is “pervasive,” but do you have a writing routine?
I try to write in the evenings, usually starting around 8:30 or 9, until whenever I fall asleep. I write in bed, on my laptop. Not ideal, but if I’m in the groove, it actually works pretty well. If I’m not, I just fall asleep or get sidetracked by “other things” (internet….)
If I’m on a roll, the ideas will come to me anywhere — while I’m driving, on the treadmill at the gym, often in the middle of the night. That’s what I mean by pervasive. But they almost always come sideways, when I’m not trying to generate them — so often I’ll deliberately try to read something boring, as a way to get my mind to wander. At these times it doesn’t matter if I’m not sitting down with my computer, because I can be productive wherever I have a little mental space. A lot of it is plot development, new scenes, new character traits to weave into the story. It can also be phrases, sentences, descriptions. I write all these things down in a notebook.
If I have a little extra time during the day, when I am light on design work, I will also try to squeeze in some writing. On the days my kids are not in the house, I’ll write in my baby’s room, because it is the least cluttered. I’ve also written in cafes, libraries, and most recently in my car. Twice a week, I have a sitter come to my house to watch my kids for three hours. On those afternoons I like the car, because it means I don’t waste time commuting and it is actually very private and cozy. I like being able to take off my shoes.
You say ideas come to you anywhere. Are these ideas fully formed or more like a kernel of an idea? And if so, how do you develop it into a larger story?
These are usually ideas for scenes — so plot ideas. For example, I decided I wanted to create a creepy vibe that permeates one section of the book. I remembered a friend telling me about a scenario where she came home from vacation and found dead cockroaches all over her apartment. It turned out her landlord had brought in an exterminator while she was away. The bugs had come out of their hiding places and died all over her floor. Pretty gross. So I decided to incorporate bugs throughout the section (the sound of them in the walls, finding their shedded husks under the refrigerator etc), culminating in that scene.
But ideas could also be a phrase, a conversation I want two characters to have, a line of dialogue, a way of describing something — for example, I recently added the phrase “pinball energy, all flashing lights and snapping rubber bands” into a scene I’d already written to better describe the character. Ideas can also be bigger picture — for example, themes that I want to reinforce throughout the book.
Earlier, we discussed what are your favorite works about moral dilemmas, but more broadly, who are your favorite authors? What books most inspire your work overall?
There are a lot of writers who inspire me, and who I admire for different reasons.
For a long time my favorite author was Milan Kundera, who I love for his succinctly stated observations of human nature and his simple writing style.
More recently, I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, for its complexity, and the way it draws disparate narratives together in a surprisingly moving way.
I also recently read Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, The Burgess Boys. I loved Olive Kitteridge, and even though the two books are completely different, what I admire most is the way she conveys the nuances in her characters’ relationships. Every two characters interact with a slightly different dynamic (like in real families!), and she does it using the subtlest gestures, a choice phrase in conversation, and with economy. It’s masterful.
Another book I found memorable was Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. What amazed me most was the seamlessness of his prose. I read it in less than a day (on my trip out to Missouri, actually), and at the end, I thought, not much really happens in this book, but it just flows and flows, smooth as butter, and I couldn’t put it down for that reason alone.
I also read a lot of short stories. I love Alice Munro, the way her stories make me cringe, Lorrie Moore for her humor, William Trevor, Tobias Wolff, though my favorite is probably still Raymond Carver. I like simple, beautiful writing.
As a graphic designer I often have to ask my clients to describe what they’re trying to convey, turning something visual into words. Conversely, I sometimes find inspiration for my writing when I look at visual mediums and styles. Just today I was discussing this with a photographer, because we’re about to have some family portraits taken. She asked me what kind of setting, and I said I’d prefer outside, but wanted to avoid bright colors, too many angles or patterns floating around. I like wide-open spaces, with subtly textured layers for background — beach, ocean, and cloudy sky, for example, with an overall wash of white/gray/blueness, nothing too distracting from the main subjects. I have a photo like this that I look at sometimes, to inspire that feeling in how I write.
Tien-Yi Lee can be found at her website.
Working Writers Series: Chelsea Hodson
Today’s Working Writer is Chelsea Hodson.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. I’m originally from Phoenix, Arizona. I was a 2012 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. I’m writing a personal essay collection. I work as an editor for Kill Your Idols & a personal assistant to a writer. I always thought I’d be a journalist, but then I read Sarah Manguso’s The Captain Lands in Paradise in a college poetry class & I wanted to be a poet. I have a journalism degree & no MFA. My blog, Inventory, is an attempt to catalog everything I own.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do for Kill your Idols, and as a personal assistant?
I copy edit the text & assist with editorial decisions for the books Kill Your Idols publishes. The most recent book I worked on was 101 Essential Rock Records. Though there’s definitely a creative element to copy editing, I love how clinical it can be. It’s comforting to have rules to follow.
I began working as a personal assistant when I first moved to New York & desperately needed money. I assumed it would be a terrible job, but I soon found that I quite liked it, & I’ve worked for several different people since then. It’s flexible, & I’m often sent off to work on my own to do research or run errands. I like writing & editing because it allows me to put things in order, & I often find that personal assisting is another way to do that.
What was it about The Captain Lands in Paradise that drove your interests towards poetry? Does your interest in journalism ever enter into your verse?
The Captain Lands in Paradise was the first book of any genre I’d read that haunted me. Certain lines or entire poems would loop in my head for days after reading them. They still do. I’d always respected poetry as a form, but I never felt a personal connection to it until I read this book. Something stirred in me–I wanted to be part of it.
My journalism training informs nearly everything I write. Though I realized early on that I wasn’t interested in becoming a reporter, I always loved the concise, direct approach to journalism. I learned how to ask questions, how to observe small details, how to research, & how to write clearly.
When you say you’re working on a personal essay collection, are you working with memoir?
Yes, most of them have memoir elements, but some of them don’t. I love writing about memories because of their fragmented nature, & how biased & incorrect they often are. I like to get as close as I can to the things I write about, & the details of memories are often so far away, almost unreachable. Like many writers before me, I write to investigate, & sometimes that means investigating things inside my own brain.
Can you go on a bit about the how you weave the fragmentary nature of memory into a cohesive narrative?
The absence of memory is often just as interesting as a vivid memory to me, so the fragmented nature of it doesn’t bother me. I work with whatever I’ve got. I’ll often use numbers or locations to indicate how to group certain memories together. Even if I end up not using the headings later, it always helps me to organize them in some way to make them feel more contained.
Why have you decided to catalog everything you own, as well as blog about it?
When I moved back to Brooklyn from Los Angeles earlier this year, I thought, why not make a list of every single thing I’m taking with me? I realize now that many people think that’s a bizarre question, but it seemed simple to me. Writing about each item seemed like a good opportunity for an exercise: I put something online every day no matter what. Even if I can’t write well that day, it’s just about completing the list I started.
Do you write about the memories associated with the object? Have there been any surprises along the way?
I write whatever feels most natural that day. Usually that is memory-based, but the length & style of the Inventory pieces are always evolving. Sometimes I include themes from that day’s news stories, or I’ll write from someone else’s point of view–two things I don’t typically do in my essays. But even if the form feels inconsistent at times, each piece is written to connect to the former piece in some way.
What I’ve found most surprising is how time consuming the project is. I figured I could crank out these small pieces of text & prepare all the posts months in advance, but I actually spend a lot of time on Inventory, often working on it at some point every day.
Do you have any goals for where your Inventory project is going to do? Do you want to publish it?
No, and no. I think the internet is a suitable home for it.
Have you been reading anything good lately that you’d recommend?
I just finished reading Lolita for the first time, which I loved. That was one of those books that I always meant to read but never did until recently. Now I’m making my way through Sophie Calle’s Did You See Me? and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.
Working Writers Series: Mike Finley
Today’s writer is Mike Finley.
I’m a St. Paul writer and poet, videographer and performance artist who’s been writing and publishing since 1966. I grew up in northeast Ohio and discovered hip poetry in a Cleveland bookstore that year. The poets were funny and dark and rebellious and I set out to be just like them. A college dropout, I traveled around the country having Kerouackian experiences and writing like crazy. I’d describe myself as the kind of young man who would hitchhike to a girl’s house 700 miles away, knock on her door, cry “Ta-da!“ on the front porch and expect people to take him in and feed him. Amazingly, one did, which is how I wound up in St. Paul, where I finished school and has lived most of his adult life. In St. Paul I worked as a security guard in a menswear store, writing poems and stories and reviews by the light of the moon. It was easy to publish in those days because paper plate printing (Insty-Prints or Kinko’s) was cheap, so I got accepted in hundreds of magazines. I was offered an editor job at the University of Minnesota, or I might still be guarding bellbottom pants. At one point I heard Robert Bly advise writers not to publish, too soon. Give yourself a chance to wise up a bit. So I dropped out of the poetry scene and lived as a journalist and ghostwriter, writing poetry on the side. In the 1990s I discovered the Internet, and became one of the first digital publishers, reissuing his six chapbooks as e-books. Kraken Press took off, and today I have had about two million downloads – who they are, or why they downloaded, I have no idea. I’m in my sixties now and have had a good life, without breaking through as a writer, but I am still having fun publishing LIEF Magazine and projects by myself and friends at Issuu.com.
What started your shift into surrealism, and what do you think is the appeal of the style?
I started writing when I was 16, and though my life had some painful terrible things in it – the death of a sibling, family troubles, me running away from home – I was too close to those things and too young to be wise about any of that. So I explored mystery instead. I naturally wrote in a kind of detached, weird way – but then in college I discovered the great French writers like Rene Char and the Spanish writers like Borges and Vallejo – and they gave me confidence that some incredible way of writing was out there waiting to happen. So I used surrealism to teach me how to write, while my brain was still learning how to think (because of my age). I still do it today, but mainly for humorous effect.
Another thought – the appeal of surrealism is mostly for the writer, not the reader. Not many people really want to read your dreams. Flaubert, or Balzac, or one of those guys said: “Write a dream, lose a reader!”
The worst thing might be to let your spellcasting abilities turn you into a monster of the imagination, like Rimbaud or Coleridge or Baudelaire, serving up bizarre, grandiose imagery to satisfy bizarre appetites. At least, I didn’t want to go that way.
Why do you think readers struggle with surrealism? We all dream, after all.
It’s a paradox. Most great writing creates a kind of spell, a path to walk down, and taking that directed walk is the delights of reading, the literary equivalent of getting high. But most people recoil when writing gets unreal. Think of it like reverse-film action, a person leaping backward from a pool to the diving board. People’s brains say, “That was amazing, but it felt false, it was a trick, not a real part of life. It’s even a kind of a lie. Great ideas can come to us in dreams, but like liquor you have to go easy on it. You run the risk of being – what’s the word – solipsistic!
I find I don’t read much classic surrealism any more. I enjoy it most when it’s funny.
Why do you think you would have done if you were more successful, published more, been able to live off writing?
I’ve been writing and publishing in the Twin Cities, and probably no more than 100 people know my work. I have a few dear friends – Klecko and Rick Broderick have been my mates for two decades, and there are others and god bless ’em for the kindness and attention they have shown me.
There are several reasons I never made it. First, obviously, maybe I’m not that good consistently. I write very quickly and sometimes I’m satisfied before I should be. Looking back, I can see how aspects of my personality fed into my writing to my detriment. I’m excitable and impatient with long descriptions and beautiful language. I am often confident a thing is complete before it really is. Now, most writing is flawed, so that’s not a killer … but it doesn’t help.
Another thing is that I have a tendency to be “heroic” or overstated – over-the-top – that doesn’t sit well with people who want a calm, reasoned literary experience. In my youth I saw myself as a myth-making character. For instance, I met Charles Manson in 1969 – at least I think I did. I often put myself in the path of danger to have something to write about. Lying down on a highway. Climbing a water tower at night. Also, a lot of people in my life were dying and doing other unsubtle things. All this drama kept me from making it with the more academic or more sedate publishers.
I wish I had had more help at times. I never had a good, supportive person, who would edit out the dumb stuff, the too-soon stuff, the excesses and indulgences that mark everyone’s early drafts. I envy people with terrific dads or uncles or moms who can guide them through their writing. I was always on my own, and always needing to make rent. It’s hard to make it on just your own judgment. It’s like being your own lawyer, not recommended. I’m really just a guy who tried hard, and often wrote with passion – but it – success – didn’t happen for me. Let’s face it, there’s not enough it to happen for more than a handful of people.
So why do you do this?
I once saw an evangelical preacher give people the “touch of death” – one little touch of the palm of the hand and people are overcome and fall to the ground. It’s charlatanry, but it’s also real – if you connect with people, you can give them a hell of a jolt. We all have it in us, to touch one another with the effort of seeing them, the love we have been taught by others, our encounters with bears, everything that life offers up. And if you do it with humor and tons of brio, those people in the room – Aunt Alma and your college roommate and that strange nephew who keeps hanging around – they will feel it, and fall. In that sense, I feel I am successful. There have been times when I felt that kind of power going out of me and into other folks, or vice versa. It is a bracing experience.
One final reason: people hate literature nowadays. It’s a remarkable distaste people have for being told much of anything. They hate the guy reading at the dais, for thinking he deserves the spotlight. They think, “What could you possibly have to tell me? And why is this taking so long?” We really are living in a post-literate world.
Do you have a philosophy about what writing should do?
I have written in lots of forms – novels, stories, creative nonfiction, poetry, but what I most like are short, middlebrow monologs, like my piece about encountering a bear, or the one about the man whose dog blew him up, or the dream I had of my daughter coming back to life. These little stories are in the moment, they are not flowery, and there is a bear or explosion or death-defeating moment in them. They are not about me or my prowess with words, they are about whatever they are about.
People know I have been through a lot – like my daughter Daniele’s suicide in 2009 – and that if I can come up with a moment of joy or madness or barf-out-loud hysteria – there’s hope in that, fuel for the future. I strive not to be a bringdown or buzzkill. I want everything I present to be a useful gift to people – even if it is just a joke or an instructive poke in the eye.
My favorite as a young person was William Blake. What immortal hand or eye can frame thy fearful symmetry? I loved his cranky, eccentric attitude. You can tell he did not play well with others. He asked his wife if her sister could join them in their reenactments of the Garden of Eden, in the nude; she said no. But that’s the attitude I try to have. A little mad, indifferent to what the world says, because the world is reliably rotten, and always jabbing you with a finger Yes, I wish I had the glory and wore the shiny sashes of more celebrated writers, but when I’m pounding it out and feeling good about a story, like it has power to change a person’s mindset or mood, that’s pretty glorious, too.
If you’ve seen my website, my book site, or my video site, you see the volume of stuff I have been extruding. I published a 500+ page chapbook of collected poems in part as a joke. “Who’s Finley that he should pilot such a project?” But I felt that the technology was there, and the will was there, and the writing was there, so why not. Danny Klecko, my baker friend, and I give out an annual Kerouac Award to area rebel writers, those who have gone unrecognized for too long.
Danny and I got busy a year ago and wrote two quick books togethe – you can’t tell who wrote what. The point was that that shouldn’t matter. The stories do all the mattering. My friend Richard Broderick has collected dozens of “dichos” – anonymous Latin American street poems, many with a wry twist view about life and death. They are hard little nuggets of reality. These projects are fun precisely because they are not about us. And we try to write for ordinary people, not fellow writers. I like writers, as people – they’re just not my people.
Do you think we’re post-literate because of the excess of technology, or has there been a kind of cultural personality change among writers?
Rich Broderick said to me this morning that the problem is not that our culture is IN crisis – but that our culture IS crisis. Our culture is one pulsating, competitive, commercial culture – it is the spirit of our capitalist ethic of Love the winners, fuck the losers. We have created an amazing culture justifying that thought, and playing to it so effectively than most of us losers readily assent to it.
My daughter was a punk, and her group’s culture was created in reaction to the death culture that was itself a kind of satirical death culture. I was a hippie, and our childlike innocence bombed, too. I wish sometimes our leaders would stop talking about the war of the day or the current economic horror story, step back and see that we are in some ways the saddest country on the planet, and we are exporting our sadness to the rest of the planet as our #1 cash crop. Our people are going mad, and the false consciousness around us is so thick, we don’t notice it, or we think we’re edgy or something. When children die in large numbers before the parents, for whatever reason, that’s a sign. Like whales beaching themselves, or bees and butterflies disappearing, a message is being sent.
What’s the answer? Damned if I know. But I feel better when I try to tell the truth about something to another person, when we know we’re not bullshitting one another. Shelley said poets are the natural legislators of the world. What a nightmare that would be! But – people who can talk and listen owe it to everyone else to cheer them on, and let them know that the corporate vision of denial of despair is not the only vision, and we have needs beyond healing OUR cracked, split ends. On a good day that is what good artists do.
Mike Finley can be found at his website, http://mfinley.com , at Kraken Press at http://issuu.com/mike_finley, On YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/mikefinley, at LIEF Magazine at http://www.familography.com/lief/ or on his Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/mike.finley