Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Becky Mandelbaum's Four Simple Pieces of Advice

In the 32nd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Becky Mandelbaum, author of Bad Kansas (University of Georgia Press), talks about reading and writing.


Like many writers, I’ve received a great deal of advice over the course of my writing education, and yet these are the four pieces that have stuck with me. Like most good advice, each is more maddeningly simple than the last.

1.  Read more books, watch less TV 
Be prepared to lose a few friends with this one. While I, too, appreciate the appeal of burning through a season of Stranger Things in one sitting, I always remember what my first college writing professor told our workshop. “If you want to write good fiction, especially good dialogue,” she said, “stop watching television altogether. What you must do is read books. You must devour books.”
Stranger Things: Don't look now
She was not wrong. Over the years, the act of reading—such an obvious answer to the predicament of writing—has come to my aid over and over again. Whenever I’m at an impasse with my work, reading is always the solution. If it’s good writing, I think, “I’d like to write something that good.” If it’s bad writing, I think, “I can do better than that.” Either way, it leads me back to the page.

2.  Write
As an undergrad at The University of Kansas, I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Laura Moriarty, a killer novelist and teacher. When I asked her for writing advice, she told me simply, annoyingly, to write. “There are people out there who will call themselves writers,” she said, “but they don’t actually write. At the end of the day, the work is all that matters.”

So my advice is: Get your pages in. It doesn’t matter where or when or how. It also doesn’t matter if these pages are any good. I repeat: It does not matter if they’re any good. For every viable sentence I write, I probably write ten that end up in the trash. Those are frustrating numbers, but what is writing if not gratifying frustration?

3.  Revise, revise, revise
I once heard the writer Pam Houston tell a group of her students, “The very minimum number of times you should read through a manuscript is twenty-five.” Not surprisingly, a series of gasps and groans circled the room. Who wants to read her own book twenty-five times? Later, when I asked Pam about the advice, she told me, “The truth is, I usually read through a book fifty, sixty times before I’m done with it. But nobody wants to hear that. Twenty-five sounds more reasonable.”

4.  If you can do anything else and be happy, do it
In college, I had the opportunity to interview National Book Award winning poet Nikky Finney. Like most great poets, Finney emits a force field of wisdom you can feel on a cellular level when she enters the room. “If you can do anything else besides writing and be happy,” she told me, “then do that instead. This is not an easy life.”

These words have followed me ever since, appearing most often in times of self-doubt. Over the past few years, as my friends have begun to settle down in their careers, writing has sometimes felt like a dubious and even reckless life path, one that not everyone understands. Sometimes, when I’m home for the holidays, my brother will encourage me apply to law school. “I’ll pay for you to take the LSAT,” he’ll offer. “I’ll pay your application fees.” His concern is not unfounded. If there is money at all in writing, it comes in random, fitful bursts, like a row of cherries on a slot machine. I try to remember that the life of a writer is not a normal one and, as Finney promised, will by no means be easy. If I could clean teeth or crunch numbers or organize fundraisers and feel even a fraction of the satisfaction I feel after falling into the heart-swallowing extraterrestrial wormhole of a short story, I would certainly do that instead. But I can’t, and so I don’t. In exchange for all the fear and doubt and neurosis, I get to be in love with what I do.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Jeffrey N. Johnson Builds on His Training

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Jeffrey N. Johnson, author of Other Fine Gifts (Meddler Press), discusses how studying architecture provided a good foundation for his writing.



How did your architectural training prepare you to be a writer?
In September 1981, on the first day of design studio, our freshman class was herded into an auditorium to be introduced to our professors. The volume rose as the class assembled, everyone chatty and laughing and making a general ruckus. The room felt more like a high school lunchroom than a gathering of aspiring professionals. Amid the commotion, a potbellied man with unkept curly hair stepped to center stage and surveyed the crowd. He was clearly annoyed. Most of us hadn’t heard an accent beyond a rural Virginia drawl, so his stern Swiss voice carried great gravitas. He wagged a finger in the air and said, “There is no giggling in architecture.” The room fell dead silent. At that moment I was suffused with the seriousness and importance of the journey I was embarking on—this strange pursuit of the arts.

The late Professor Olivio Ferrari is legend at Virginia Tech. He had studied under Max Bill at the founding of the Ulm School of Design and later worked for him in Zurich, then went on to help mold one of the finest architecture programs in the United States. Under his guidance, the school was a place of inquiry. Ideas were paramount and ideas were to be questioned. Design was more than just drawing up plans. We were sent to the wood shop to get our hands on the materials. You might walk out of a lecture and realize you needed to take up photography, then you ended up spending the next semester in the darkroom. Some were encouraged to go to a mountaintop and practice their watercolors. It was a holistic approach that I quickly realized applied to all the arts. Everything was interconnected. Writing included.
Author's sketch: meditation on Venice

The strongest memories of my architectural days are of time spent sketching. On the study abroad program in 1984 and later backpacking Europe in 1988, sketching became a form of meditation. I would stand in one place for several hours and work on one drawing, one space. Gradually what I was looking at became more than just bricks, stone, and mortar. I wanted to understand everything about it. What was planned and what had grown organically? Who built the space and why? How did people interact with the environment; how did they change the space, and how did the space change them? Sometimes after dissecting a building’s architectural order, I swear I felt a direct connection to the mind of its long-dead builder. It didn’t happen often, but when it did it was a revelation, to perhaps feel for just a few seconds exactly how Palladio might have felt. I imagine classical musicians have the same sensation once they have dissected their favorite composer.

Writing shares so much of all this. The constant inquiry, approaching a problem from multiple angles, the desire to get inside another person’s mind and to sense the passage of time. It’s a serious endeavor. But I don’t shy away from injecting some humor in my work – to avoid humor is to avoid reality. So I retain Professor Ferrari’s proclamation, but slightly modified. There is some giggling in writing, but not much.

Describe your writing habits.
How I write today has changed drastically from where I started. The first draft of my novel, after a few false starts, was written in a six-month fury, or at least it was a fury for me. The rule was 500 words per night, five nights a week . . . any five, so if the juice wasn’t there I could take an evening off. This discipline was tossed when my twins were born. Given the three-hour feedings x2 and a full-time job, there was little energy left for my night owl tendencies, so I began writing longhand in a notebook during any break in the day I could steal. I’ve since become intimate with every coffee shop in the DC area. Longhand has proven more difficult—the short bursts of time don’t allow for the immersion I crave, plus I end up writing multiple versions of the same sentence or scene, leaving me with too much raw material to decipher. I intend on reverting back to my evening sessions, but it’s comforting to know that either way works. As in architecture, there are many processes to explore. Whatever it takes to get the work done.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Jennifer Caloyeras Reluctantly Joins the Family Business

In the 30th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Jennifer Caloyeras, author of Unruly Creatures (Vandalia Press), discusses her writing and reading habits.


What influenced you to become a writer?
I come from a family of writers and I really tried hard NOT to be a writer because I resisted going into the family business. My father is a screenwriter and television writer and playwright and my sister is a novelist. I moved away from writing to become a teacher and then a songwriter, which I did for many years, but eventually, I couldn’t ignore my desire to write and I came back to it, but not until my late twenties. I have achieved a good balance now between writing and teaching writing at UCLA.

Describe your writing habits.
I try to write on a schedule. My schedule doesn’t necessarily include specific times. I have two kids and I feel like our schedule is always in flux. Instead, I focus on completing goals. I’ll make a set of writing goals for the year, for the month, for the week, and for each day. Whatever the goal is, I try to meet it.

Where do you do your best work?
I can get a lot of writing done in a short period of time, but I’m also easily distracted. If I could go hole myself up somewhere, I could get a ton done. Unfortunately, that opportunity doesn’t happen all that often. I have a desk in a family office that I work from when no one is home. If I get stuck, I’ll go for a walk to clear my head and work through a problem I’m facing in my writing.

How do you know when a story is finished?
It’s never done! I have found myself, on more than one occasion, still editing my writing on my way to do a public reading of my published fiction.

Describe your reading habits.
I am an avid reader and get through anywhere from two to four books a week. I am constantly adding to my to be read pile. I don’t go anywhere without a book and find that I can get a lot of reading done throughout the day: in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, waiting for carpool, next to my kids doing their homework. I made it a priority to read because I love it so much. I try to vary the material I read, although I mostly stick to fiction. I’ll move from contemporary to classic, to short stories, to young adult, to historical fiction, to works in translation. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I am going to read next! And I think that everything I read has an influence on what I write.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Susan Tepper Keeps At It

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Susan Tepper, author of Monte Carlo Days & Nights (Rain Mountain Press), discusses what propelled her into writing.


Writers usually have some inkling, I believe, that they will be doing this work. I never had an inkling. My dream from childhood was to become an actress, and so I left Long Island for the city when I was seventeen to attend drama school. Looking back on it all, I think it was the reading of so many plays that cemented language into my brain.

When acting with its limited rewards finally exhausted me, and I had moved out of the city, and was in my yard pulling weeds, with not the slightest clue of what I’d do next with my life, I began to get a message in my mind: Write that story. It pounded me all summer long.

Finally, sometime that August I sat down and cranked out a very long story. Mostly autobiographical with some juicy fake details. Then I took it to the New School where it was massacred in the workshop. Since I’d been banging around New York and other cities for years as an actor, rejection didn’t mean a whole lot to me. It sort of bounced off. They didn’t like my story. Oh, well. Except – except I happened to luck upon a great writing teacher in that first workshop, Alexander Neubauer. And when he returned his photocopy of my story, he’d written wonderful notes and at the bottom he put: Keep Writing. He underlined those two words a bunch of times. Wow! That’s what went through my mind: Wow, I can do this! It was revolutionary.

From that point forward I was seemingly jet-propelled by an unstoppable force. I went on to take workshops with Darcey Steinke, Jeanne McCulloch, Jamie Cat Callan, and another male instructor who will remain, due to his obnoxious verbal behavior, anonymous. But even he gave me something important to take away. I was a sponge. As playwright G.B. Shaw wrote in his play Overruled: “I soak up dirty water as well as clean.” Because that is the essential role of the creative writer. To construct worlds around what is soaked up during living.

My mother, who was a poet, humor writer, and essayist, had a lengthy non-fiction piece published in The New York Times opinion page when she was seventy. She had no journalism background, she was a sporadic writer, did it when she felt like it, with no career aspirations. It proved the point that good writing will rise to the top. She tossed great books my way. Somehow, she knew what I didn’t know about how my life was going to play out. Sadly, my mother died just a few weeks ago, and that shared path feels lonely now. She must have sensed she was near death, because she kept asking me when my new book would be coming out. Thankfully, she had seen the cover artwork in advance, so she saw something of this book. That gives me consolation.

Lobbying: At the Algonquin
Being a writer is so much fun, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had, and it’s what I most enjoy doing every day. I love talking with other writers about craft and life and love and disappointments. Recently I started an author/book Interview Series "Live From the Algonquin" to bring back some of that bygone writer glam. The Algonquin lobby is so elegant, and we order Prosecco, and for those few hours, it feels like we’ve stepped back in precious time. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Louise Marburg Offers Ten Pieces of Writing Advice

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Louise Marburg, author of The Truth About Me (WTAW Press), offers a tip or ten.



1. Read as much as you can, read every day, read all sorts of things, and especially read the genre in which you aspire to write.

2. Pay attention. Eavesdrop. Notice.

3. Do not wait for inspiration, for it will never come. Sit down and write a line, then write another, and so on. Eventually, a story will appear.

4. Train yourself to be able to write for as much or little time as you have. Don’t wait to write until you have the whole day free. If you have fifteen free minutes, then write for fifteen minutes.

5. Don’t set daily goals such as word counts and pages: Write what you can.

6. Don’t plan too much, because your plans will change.

7. Allow yourself the freedom to be surprised by what you write.

8. Make friends with other writers. Critique each other’s stories. Give and take advice. Find out what your writer friends are reading. Share tips on where to submit.

9. Don’t expect it to get easier as you become more experienced. It doesn’t.

10. Remember that every day you don’t write is a day you don’t become a better writer.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Josh Barkan Starts with Oddities

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Josh Barkan, author of Mexico (Hogarth), discusses how instinct and curiosity lead him to write his stories.


Where does a story begin for you?
Starting a story is following an instinct, a curiosity, a small fact or small oddity that I want to know more about. A large unexploded bomb, weighing thousands of pounds, was found in the city of Niigata in 1992, one of the largest conventional bombs ever discovered, forty years after World War II. What was it doing there? Why did the Americans drop it? What if there were a Japanese intelligence officer during the war who discovered not only one bomb like this, but a series of bombs like this, dropped around Niigata, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kyoto? What if he suspected these were signs of something bigger to come, yet not knowing what that bigger could be? What if he had a superior officer who would not let this young intelligence officer report that information to headquarters in Tokyo? Would the intelligence officer have the courage to act upon his convictions and suspicions? This was the path of the novella in my first collection of stories, Before Hiroshima, but I didn’t think about these larger themes of paralysis, and the authority of a superior officer, first. What I thought about was a two-inch news item I had found in the Yomiuri Shimbun, while visiting Niigata, about an unexploded bomb.

And what about the rumors I would hear, while living in Mexico City, that the narco El Chapo Guzmán once came into a fancy restaurant to have a meal?—even while there was a multi-million dollar bounty on his head. Why would he do that? Why were there rumors about him having done the same in his home state of Sinaloa? What if, based on these rumors, I imagined him coming into a fancy restaurant in Mexico City and my protagonist was an American chef who had to please the famous narco? What if El Chapo demanded the chef cook him a perfect meal? What if the chef realizes the only thing that will satisfy the narco is human blood? So he takes his own blood and the blood of a young girl in the restaurant and serves it to El Chapo, with the blood steeped into the fine shavings of Wagyu beef.

Sinagoga Maguén David, Polanco, Mexico City
I remember when I came to Mexico City, to the neighborhood of Polanco, the oddity of finding a large Jewish community with men dressed in black, Orthodox, Hasidic clothing walking to temple on Friday. I am Jewish and I had never known there was a large community of Jews in Mexico. What if a teacher coming from the United States is a secular Jew and he teaches in a high school, where the children of two narcos in his class must be separated because they are children from rival narco families, children who have fallen in love? What if the teacher has fallen in love with an Orthodox Jewish woman in Mexico City and her Orthodox father does not want her to marry a secular Jew and he tries to keep them apart at their wedding? What if the teacher—because his father-in-law will not accept his wedding to the Orthodox daughter—feels empathy for these two narco children in love and tries to protect them, at personal risk to his own life? How is this like Romeo and Juliet?

So I begin stories with oddities, with things that are unexpected, with a small detail that can then grow into questions and conflicts that I need to find out how the characters will resolve them. This is one of the things I admire about the short-story writers I like. There is a quirkiness to their writing. Raymond Carver’s protagonist in “Cathedral” ends the story on his knees, drawing with his hands in tandem with a man who is blind, to feel what it is like to “see.” Every single story by Carver is strange. John Cheever’s protagonist in “The Country Husband” is eating dinner in the suburbs of New York City, one night, and he sees a maid who was once a Nazi collaborator, who was stripped naked by the villagers of a town in Normandy, as she was forced to atone for her collaboration. The last image of the story is a cat dressed in doll’s clothing. Odd things, which feel real, and have moral significance. I look for the strangeness that will illuminate our normalcy, which will get to the center of our common pain and elate me.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Lee Conell on Spotting the Extraordinary Among the Ordinary

In the 26th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Lee Conell, author of Subcortical (Johns Hopkins University Press), describes some formative influences.



What influenced you to become a writer?
My father is a building superintendent and my room was right next to his answering machine—so I was often waking up to messages left by tenants. Sometimes, when I couldn’t get back to sleep, I began to tell little stories or to try to imagine myself into the scene behind the tenants’ calls. I am still trying to write about the scenes behind some of these calls, and about the class tensions I witnessed or was part of in that upbringing. A sense of going behind the scenes, not just in an apartment but in someone’s mind, had a definite influence on my interest in writing and storytelling.

City buses also played a role. On long bus rides, my mother would try to keep me entertained by asking me to look out the window and rank on a one-to-ten scale the weird things we would inevitably see on New York City’s streets. I have to believe that identifying the extraordinary in what seems ordinary has something to do with my becoming a writer. I also read a lot on mass transit, although most of the books I was reading (and, yes, rereading) were not short story collections but the YA science fiction series Animorphs. I was really into animals and aliens.

I didn’t really try to write short stories until a boyfriend’s aunt gifted me a brand new copy of Alice Munro’s Runaway. I hadn’t heard of Munro and I definitely hadn’t read many contemporary short stories—but I remember being blown away by all the scope a Munro story could cover, how it felt in some way like riding in an elevator that moved in all directions. Then I became more interested in the short story and discovered writers like Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Junot Díaz, George Saunders. I realized that inside a story you could be so funny and so moving and so weird (on a one-to-ten scale, a story could sometimes be a ten in weirdness). I wanted to try that.

Name something by another author that you wish you’d written.
Since it’s around Halloween, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mavis Gallant and her fantastic story “From the Fifteenth District,” where the dead complain about the ways the living keep haunting them. It’s among my favorite ghost stories and the concept is one of those deceptively simple why-didn’t-I-ever-think-of-that ideas (although I’d imagine it seems that way in part because of how well Gallant pulls it off).

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
Taking a walk is the best. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that connects to the rhythm of writing for me. But about fifty percent of the time I’m too lazy to put on shoes. I know this will sound made up, but I’ve actually found reading television recaps oddly helpful in terms of getting back on track. Sometimes I’ll even read recaps for shows I don’t watch. It almost feels like backing away from a pool before you take a running start and dive in. Backing away from the difficulty of a scene I’m writing by reading something fun and sharp and analytical and sometimes goofy, but that is also—at least on the surface—pretty detached from the fictional world of my story, has proven helpful. When I return to the story, I know the narrative cadences are probably coming from my characters themselves and not from whatever I read last because, well, what I read last was a recap of a television show. Of course, sometimes this backfires and I end up down a serious Internet rabbit hole, but usually if that occurs I feel guilty enough to return to the story. This is probably not the most efficient way to get back on track. I should really just try to go with the walk taking.