Dispatches | June 14, 2013
Working Writers Series: Q Lindsey Barrett
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 Q Lindsey Barrett.
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I came to writing late, but once I got here, I knew the entirety of my life had led me to being a fiction writer. My first publication was, literally, the first thing I wrote – a poem. Back in 1990 when Cosmopolitan magazine was still publishing fiction and poetry, I sent my little poem off, it was accepted, published, and I was paid $25. I thought, ‘What’s all this about the difficulty of getting published?’ It was 2003 before my next acceptance.
TMR played a role in my perseverance. I studied lit journals like getting my work in them was a test I had to pass; started taking community college writing courses, reading writing craft books, attending writers’ conferences, and writing writing writing. I had a more-than-full-time, high-pressure job as a legal administrator and was raising two daughters, so it took until 1995 before I felt I had a story ready for publication. Early on I connected with The Missouri Review’s style and editorial sensibility and my goal became to have my first short story publication be in TMR. I sent the story off and a few months later received my SASE with a form reject of the ‘we won’t be publishing this piece, but send us more’ variety. A hand-written ‘Thanks!’ was scrawled on the paper and the ‘send more’ part was underlined in blue ink. Ah how that tiny taste of encouragement kept me at it.
I decided I needed more education, so I applied to the University of Washington’s two-year graduate (non-degree) Fiction Writing Program (focused on short stories). After earning my certificate, I wrote and submitted, wrote and submitted, often rewarded with ‘send us more’ rejects. I repeated the second year of the program, but in the novel-writing track. An excerpt of my in-progress novel was selected for publication and my professor described me as her ‘most gifted natural writer,’ which I’ve since learned means little in terms of getting published–chatting with agents at conferences about my novel had them stifling yawns. (Took me a while to learn how bad I am at the big hook, at the one-sentence pitch.) Still no success with short stories, another poem won a contest and was published, and I had an ever-longer, yet still unfinished novel.” Decided I needed more education.
I applied to five highly regarded low-residency MFA programs and was accepted at four. I choose Vermont College. I switched to a less all-consuming job so I’d have brain power for my studies and continued to submit during my MFA pursuit, fueled by personal, full letter rejects (Esquire), no but send more (The New Yorker), and the occasional word of encouragement among the billion standard rejects. I graduated in 2010, and received my first short story acceptance a few months later (though it was another year and a half before it was actually published). I started shopping in earnest for an agent and pursuing teaching opportunities at conferences (I had attended many) and at local continuing education–family obligations prevent relocation for university teaching. I began reading slush for Hunger Mountain. 2011 brought several short story acceptances, 2012 a couple, one so far in 2013, and a few contest ‘honorable mentions.’ Agents often kindly tell me I’m a very good writer while turning my books down, usually with talk of the brutality of today’s publishing market, always with the news that what I’ve written isn’t quite ‘there,’ in terms of what publishers are looking for.
I love teaching! Though, at best, teaching at conferences is a break-even proposition; more often the cost of getting to a conference exceeds the honorarium. My students are always appreciative, and often ask if I’ll take on their books as editorial projects. I have occasionally done so, but find that immersion-level editing uses up all my creative mind, leaving none for my own work. Last December I was asked to step into the role of Assistant Fiction Editor at Hunger Mountain. I continue to teach and write and submit and seek agent representation and still believe ‘writer’ is what I was meant to be. I occasionally think I’ll write a book called “My Unpaid Writing Life.”
What was it that made you step into writing and, throughout the (incredibly too common) rejection process, what made you keep at it?
I blame my mother. She created a books-are-magical monster by reading to me in utero (well, she was reading to my older sister) and by continuing the practice regularly after I was born. Since she wasn’t continuously available, I was forced to teach myself to read while still toddling around and I spent my childhood with a book seemingly glued to my hand. In high school and college I was one of those freaks who loved essay questions and the writing part of every job was always my favorite, but I never thought of being a ‘writer’ (which to me back then meant novelist) because I thought you had to be anointed or canonized or touched by the right hand of God in the Sistine Chapel to gain the required magical powers.
Having temped at law firms in college and by then needing an actual full-time paying job, (and possessing neither time nor money for full-on law school), I became a paralegal. My specialty was drafting estate planning document for clients that were layperson-intelligible while containing all the legally-tested language. I thought it would be useful to people if I were to write a book making legal concepts everyone should understand understandable. I also was in the process of becoming single again and thought other single moms could benefit from me sharing the stuff I knew how to do—home repairs, car maintenance, in addition to legal issues with visitation and child support. Since I didn’t know how to go about getting a how-to book written and published, I looked for classes at my local community college. The first available class was on fiction writing. I signed up, figuring whatever I learned would be useful. Oh how I loved fiction writing! I discovered that, unlike every other kind of writing I’d done, a fiction writer didn’t have to be tied to ‘the facts,’ wasn’t constrained by ‘what really happened.’ Even better, no matter what sparked the story, the writer could go anywhere in service of that story. I took several other classes more related to my initial plan, but nothing could match the joy of making something out of nothing, of overhearing an interesting conversation and turning it into a story, of meeting a person and making up a whole life based on a brief encounter. I started keeping a writing notebook, jotting down things and people and sounds and sights and events that captured my attention. Wool gathering for future story-sweaters.
It’s ironic that my first publication was a poem, first, because I suffered Severe Poetry Trauma when I was eight (curse you Miss Divore), and second, because I am so not a poet. I’m too much about narrative arc and too little about imagery. Even my two published poems tell stories. It makes (real) poets a little crazy when I tell them I had scribbled notes on a page and when I went to turn those bits of wool, those words into a story, the scribbles looked like a poem. I tidied the lines up a bit, sent scribbles-newly-christened-poem off and received an acceptance shortly thereafter. No credentials, no writerly education, no record of publication. I did this twice, albeit thirteen years apart. Poets toil over each line, each word, for years without publication or recognition. But my hard reality is that in the intervening and much of the subsequent years, the dozens of short stories and novel, which is what I agonize over, slave over, brought nothing but rejects. (I realize this holds a lesson for me—don’t revise whatever spark of life my raw prose has right out of it—but so far this is a lesson I am unable to learn. I have to beat a story insensible before circling back to the original inspiration and resuscitating the thing.)
So why do I keep at it for years and years on each piece? People who run casinos have studied what keeps folks at the game tables or dropping coins into slots. It’s not the size of the jackpot or the regularity of payoffs. Rather it is intermittent reinforcement at random intervals.
In the big crap shoot that is the publishing biz, I have received intermittent reinforcement at random intervals–in the form of minor encouragement from major publications (with zero Big Kahuna Journal acceptances); a plethora of honorable-mention-long-list-short-list-finalist, not-quite wins; the occasional selected-for-publication from journals I admire; adulation from audiences when I have a chance to teach what I know or to read my work aloud; seemingly heartfelt and generous praise for my work from agents as they are declining representation. I stand as Exhibit A in answer to the question of whether the casino experts’ research applies to publishing.
Much as the odds in Vegas are more favorable to the gambler in games with an element of skill – Black Jack, Poker – than those which are pure chance – Slots, Keno – I continuously strive to improve my skills in hope that writing ability will increase my chances of winning (however you describe winning at the publishing game). One thing I know is that the Oprah Lottery is only open to those who keep writing until a publisher chooses to turn their manuscript into a book. Another thing I know for certain is that giving up is the only sure way to fail.
Even so, I do think about giving up from time to time. I work though the death of a tiny bit of my soul each reject brings (like the way booze kills brain cells, but we keep drinking) by forcing myself to move forward. I require myself to have at least ten submissions out there at all times. I require myself to re-submit each rejected piece within a week, often with a bit of tweaking word choice or story order before tossing that paper airplane back into the jet stream. I’m publication picky—I don’t want publication for publication sake—and it’s a lot of work rematching a story to yet another publication I think is a good fit, but this process gives me specific tasks to keep my mind away from the dark place where I start to think all these years have been a wasted enterprise. Most days are sunny (mentally, not literally – I live in the Pacific Northwest) and I feel like what I’m reaching for is just off the tips of my fingers. Bit more stretching will do it.
And then there is the childhood me. The little girl who had a lot of interesting and terrifying and (theoretically) traumatizing experiences (which I, so far, don’t write about), but whose mom read to her. No matter what was happening in my (real) life, I knew I could submerge myself in the world of characters in a book. All was well when I was reading or being read to, and I would always emerge newly optimistic. The short answer to why I keep at this writing thing (and the length of this response no doubt gives you insight into yet another reason I am not a poet), is, I suppose, (having discovered this by setting out an answer to your question), that I’m writing to make magic for that little girl. And who would give up on her?
You mentioned creating a whole story from a small moment, perhaps a conversation with a stranger that you may never meet again. How do you pop that small kernel into a full fledged story?
Perhaps the best way to answer is to provide an example. My flash fiction, “Warrior Blues,” started when I heard a guy telling another guy about how much he hated San Diego. That caught my attention since it’s my home town and because most folks love San Diego. I gathered that he was in boot camp there, so the association with an unpleasant experience might explain why he hated it. It wouldn’t have stuck with me if that’s all there was to it, but he went on to talk about marrying his high school girlfriend when he was home on leave before he shipped out. He said the minute he drove away, (immediately after the ceremony), off to San Francisco which would be his new home base, he knew marrying her had been a mistake. He had BB King cranked to the max on his car stereo, playing “The Thrill Is Gone,” and that’s exactly how he felt. That was note-worthy – as in, that struck me as one of my wool bits. I wrote it down.
When I’m not feeling inspired at the time I have set aside to write, I’ll page through my notebooks seeing what catches my eye. The TV news had been showing troops leaving for Iraq, so when I revisited the BB King note, it jumped off the page. I made up a whole back story for the guy based on what I know about who’s signing up to go to war these days. I wondered what he’d be like—a guy who joins the military right out of high school, hates everything about it, but is stuck until his service obligation is done. I pictured him longing to have his old life back and decided to have his girlfriend show up the night before he shipped out to surprise him. That let me have her represent the life he’s leaving behind and that’s what motivates the character in my version to marry her, right then. (As though that will solve his blues.) I was working toward the ending, toward the bit I had written down at the time I overheard his conversation. Because I had much more material in the back story I gave him, it could have turned into a longer piece, but I was pleased with a couple phrases I had written to describe how much he hated the heat in San Diego. He seemed like a cold person and I thought ‘cold blooded like a lizard in the heat.’ Once I had him being a lizard, a few more sentences came to me and it seemed complete, in that certain things I had written struck me as telling his whole story without needing more. So I did use the backstory I’d written though most of it isn’t on the page, and it turned out to be a short short.
The process is slightly different when I’m working on something specific at the time I discover a kernel. I’ll use my story “Fissures” as an example. I had been reading about the plight of Russian/Eastern European mail order brides in terrible/abusive marriages, trapped in rural places, far from large cities or transportation, or any resources that might help them get away. They’re like modern day indentured servants who are also required to have sex with their bosses. Once they start popping out babies it’s much more difficult for them to get out of their sad situation. When I sat down to write, I wasn’t consciously thinking about the Russian brides, I was working on a completely unrelated novel.
I decided to give one of my characters in that novel a voice ‘like a squeaky toy was stuck in her throat.” This came from another of my wool bits, a description of a former co-worker who was strikingly beautiful and had a horrifically high voice. It was note-worthy, the reaction people would have when the gorgeous creature would open her mouth. This real woman’s name was Vickie, and I inadvertently typed, “Vivkie,” when typing up a description. That typo reminded me of a Russian girl I know, one of my daughter’s friends, whose name is Vika. Her mother works on a Russian fishing trawler, a floating fish processing factory, and she married off her older daughter, Anzela, at eighteen to an American to keep her from having the same awful life cutting fish open below decks on churning seas day and night for months at a time in long nauseating shifts. (Not a mail-order bride, a lovely young entrepreneur importing Russian fish married her [she is very beautiful]. He ended up adopting the much-younger sister, eight year old Vika, so she could come to America too.)
My family and I had just driven cross county and the plains felt so desolate. I could see how trapped a person—say a person imported from the other side of the world–could feel in the wide-open spaces. There were towns clustered around factories which provided the only work available. The typo, “Vivkie,” melded with the factories and the plains and Russian mail order brides and fish processors and a whole character along with her entire life story came in a flood. Then, thinking of how pregnancy makes a woman in a bad situation even more trapped, I remembered being nine-months pregnant and my (former) mother-in-law nagging/whining/manipulating me into climbing her apricot tree and picking her damn apricots around my giant belly. She became the factory owner whose (undocumented) employees are essentially indentured servants, the woman whose son rapes and impregnates Vivkie in “Fissures.”
I think the secret to popping that kernel is to be open to whatever character or story is triggered by the kernel, whether serendipitous typo, long-remembered personal experience, overheard conversation, interesting description of a person, or current events. Then being willing to combine the seemingly unrelated wool bits that your subconscious mind wants together. Your mind tells you it wants the connection by foisting distracting memories/thoughts on you when you’re trying to write something else. Gather wool. Pay attention.
Since last month was national short story month, could you recommend us one that you think is a must-read for any writer?
“Zolaria” by Caitlin Horrocks, which, halleluiah! can be downloaded as a pdf off her website. So there’s no excuse for every writer not to read it and study it and absorb its lessons. Fabulous story, excellent writer.
I discovered Ms Horrocks’ work when she taught a class I took at a tiny lit festival in a smallish Eastern Washington town. I don’t know if Spokane, Washington is downwind from the shuttered Hanford Nuclear Power Plant (‘the most contaminated nuclear site in the western world’ wheee!) and leaking radiation is expanding their minds there at Eastern Washington University. But the awesome Jess Walter (We Live In Water) and Greg Spatz (Half As Happy) also sprang forth from Eastern.
Once folks have read “Zolaria,” they should buy Horrocks’ book,This is Not Your City. (“Zolaria” is the first story in the collection.) As I tell everyone who’ll listen, whether you derive equal enjoyment from all the stories in the collection or not, you can learn everything there is to know about short story writing from reading This Is Not Your City.
You can follow Q Lindsey Barrett on facebook or find her at: http://www.qlindseybarrett.com
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