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Thoughts on Writing

12 May

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Dana Award-winning novelist and fellow SFSU grad Scott Lambridis invited me to participate in a blog hop–a series of writers answering questions about their writing. Below are my answers, plus links to the writers who will be answering the same questions next week–selected by me, great at what they do.

What am I working on?
I don’t have one big project, just many many small ones. I’m almost done with two stories based on historical events–one about a giant named O’Brien and the doctor who wants to study his bones after he dies, one about Nero’s many comical attempts to assassinate his mother. Not quite as close to done–but, maybe–are a story about the world’s laziest orangutan and one about a cat who is elected mayor. And then others which are but promising scraps at the moment–zookeeper vs. disobedient fish, germophobe in love with sinus-infected woman, old lady haunting her house while still alive, and so on. And every once in a while I toy with a couple of ideas for novels (very silly, considering my longest story is 8 pages).

How is my work different than others in its genre?
If by genre you mean, broadly, fiction: My stories are very very short. They are quite distilled–not a lot of background, scene-painting, or even character development sometimes. I like restraints. I like to see if I can give a reader the unit of emotional satisfaction you expect from a story, but using as few words or as small a moment as possible. My impulse is always to compress. I remember an exercise in a creative writing class: the teacher told us about a news article he’d read about a woman whose pilot husband died behind the controls of the plane, and who was able to land the plane on her own somehow. The teacher asked us how we’d write into that story if we were to make it our own. And I was surprised at the reaction of every writer in the room but me–they all spoke of expanding the story, exploring the relationship between the woman and her husband, going into flashback to her childhood, or going forward past the landing to the rest of her life after this traumatic event. Yet no one wanted what I wanted as a writer and a reader: to feel her emotions and thoughts in those few tiny moments between realizing her husband is dead and realizing she has to land the plane herself. That’s a whole story right there–nothing else is needed. I want to learn about that character in that tight, tiny space. I want to give moments like that their proper weight–they deserve to be stories all by themselves.

Why do I write what I do?
I have recently been told (by way of being a finalist in a contest) that I am a Fabulist, which I think means that I write stories where weird things happen. I do stand in opposition to strict realism–fiction is fake, all that’s real is the emotional response a story can cause in a reader. And that can come from anywhere and anything, so I don’t limit myself to real people and situations in my hunt for that response.
I write to explore the unexplored–the unknowable. People we can’t know, moments we can’t get inside, mysteries we can’t solve.
I write because I read. I read and it causes me to wonder and I record these wonderings on the page using words. I write in conversation with the writers of the past who have done the same. This conversation has been going on for centuries and I’m glad to join it.
And, again, I write short because I keep finding moments of unexpected joy or sorrow or other emotional extremes in the smallest places.

How does my writing process work?
I have no process; I write when the mood strikes. I often write very quickly with few later edits–I think this is because I let ideas simmer in my brain for a long long time before I start typing them out. Which is not to say that my stories spring fully-formed out of my head, but they do tend to come out in nice, easy-to-manage chunks (another virtue of writing short). When editing, I work towards a specific goal: I know a story is finished when it closes itself off from me, when I look at it and can see no way back into completely understanding it again. Why does this particular phrase send a chill down my spine, why does this character move in that odd way just then, and most importantly, why does it all feel right and seem to work? At this point, the story is finished–it has grown up and doesn’t need me anymore. It can stand on its own.
I like this Truman Capote quote about how to know when a story is finished:
“Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.”

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Tune in next week to these blogs to hear these writers talk about their craft:

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Noel Pabillo-Mariano is an English PhD candidate at UW-Milwaukee where he teaches in the ethnic studies department. He is a Kundiman fellow as well as a two time recipient of the Maxwell H. Gluck Fellowship of the Arts. When not teaching, he works with the Milwaukee faction of The Moth: Stories podcast as well as a community activist for GaymerX, the LGBTQ+ video games and gaming conference. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Connotation Press, Redactions, Silverado Quarterly Review, Red Riverstones, and elsewhere. His work has been anthologized in Here is a Pen: an Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets (Achiotche Press) and Kuwento for Lost Things (Carayan Press). A lover of most things geek related, his two proudest moments are taking down the Elite Four with a level 50 Psyduck and performing at Turner Hall for The Moth: Stories Grandslam. He can be found blogging at http://noelpmariano.com

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Erica Eller is a writer who lies in wait. She is in the initial stages of writing an experimental novella that involves historical research. Previously, she postponed her creative projects while finishing her M.A. in Literature at San Francisco State University, which she recently completed. She wrote her thesis over the course of the last year on a collection of poems entitled Singularities by the experimental American poet, Susan Howe. Erica also holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Currently, she is traveling for an extended period of time in Berlin and Istanbul. She is the creator of the Hazel Reading Series, a San Francisco Bay Area women’s reading series. Erica spoke in a panel at the AWP in Seattle this February of 2014 regarding the concept of the series, which continues in her absence due to the dedication of her fellow organizers (hazelreadingseries.org). She has published fiction in the Otolith and Everyday Genius. Her blog entitled Pomp and Intertext is a compilation of casual reviews, anecdotes, and commentary about an eclectic array of literary texts.
Link: http://pompandintertext.com/

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Julia Halprin Jackson‘s work has appeared in West Branch Wired, California Northern, Fourteen Hills, Flatmancrooked, Sacramento News & Review, Fictionade, Fiction365, Catalyst and Spectrum, as well as selected anthologies. Julia has been awarded scholarships from the Tomales Bay Writer’s Workshops and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing (fiction) from UC Davis. She lives in Northern California with her fiance, where she co-founded and co-curates Play On Words, a collaborative literary performance series. Read more at http://juliahalprinjackson.com.

And many thanks to Scott Lambridis for inviting me to participate.

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Scott Lambridis’ debut novel, THE MANY RAYMOND DAYS, received the 2012 Dana Award. The novel, about a scientist who discovers the end of time, is seeking publication. Stories of his have appeared or are forthcoming in Slice, Painted Bride, Cafe Irreal, Flash Fiction Funny, New American Writing, and other journals. He recently completed his MFA from San Francisco State where he received the Miriam Ylvisaker Fellowship and three literary awards. Before that, he earned a degree in neurobiology, and co-founded Omnibucket.com through which he co-hosts the Action Fiction! performance series. More at http://scottlambridis.com.

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