A few things I talk about when I talk about writing: Or another fishing story

Thanks to Harrison Solow for inviting me to write about my work. Harrison Solow is an impressive scholar of Welch, a poet, a brilliant essayist, and author of a wonderful epistolary book of creative nonfiction (although it is also fiction!), Felicity and Barbara Pym.   Between 2006 and 2011 she was honored with eight writing awards.  She has been a Pushcart-nominee in both poetry and cross-genre and won a Pushcart Prize in non-fiction.

I’ll begin by discussing what I’m working on now–always a little dangerous because it’s important not to say too much. And talking about writing is like a fishing story. So much happens quickly and underneath the surface.  I don’t know if it’s possible to write non-fiction about writing fiction but I’m always willing to give it a try:

I’ve always written flash fiction and short stories, and I’m writing new ones. Flash fiction is great fun because it happens all at once, creates an instant shape and doesn’t interfere with a writing day. My latest short story, Anesthesia will be in the next issue of Gargoyle.  I’ll also be reading a story called Plan C at Litquake this October. And a new novel is dominating my life.  I’ve set it in an undisclosed country, and, as in Heidegger’s Glasses, (Counterpoint Press 2010 and 2011) it concerns a group of people as well as one character in a dilemma. When I work on a novel a key question for me is: What is narrative?   I know this might sound self-consciously post-postmodern, but I can’t stop asking the question.   I think about the stories we tell each other in conversations and I’m still looking for a form of narrative that feels as natural as taking a breath when we start to talk.   I’m not looking for what’s real or natural.  That’s impossible.  I’m looking for artifice that is natural–a fit for my voice and the way I see things.

How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?

Critics say I’m voice-driven, image-driven, title-driven, or idea-driven.  These categories strike me as elegant terms for a landfill. Whatever isn’t obviously character-driven fiction is thrown into it. In fact my characters are present to me.  But they’re born from a world of compelling images and ideas. Fortunately there’s a new word to describe this kind of writing: Fabulism! After looking at all the things included in this category, I’ve decided that the fabulist fiction I write is most linked to surrealism. My characters are condemned to live normal lives in a situation with at least one element that couldn’t possibly have happened. (Except isn’t this the case for all of us?)  In my last novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, Scribes lived in an underground mine with cobblestone streets and a fake sky with a sun that rose and set. They were WWII prisoners forced to answer letters to the dead. In spite of their surreal surroundings and absurd mission, they argued, fell in love and wrote a book called Dreamatoria. I also write creative memoirs, often using material close to my life. My last collection of stories, Enchantment (Counterpoint 2012) had two semi-autobiographical novels. Critics have said that my surreal short stories and close-to-life memoirs mirror each other. This isn’t deliberate, nor do I completely understand it, but in some sense the novel is a way to braid these two sensibilities.

Why do I write what I do?

I often have a sense that somewhere there’s a pneumatic tube of the imagination and when another writer doesn’t happen to be there–someone who could use the material more quickly and more deftly– something is given to me.  My job is to craft it into a shape. This is  a complicated way of saying I don’t know where my work comes from. I’ve always liked Wallace Steven’s quote: the imagination is the weather of the mind. This weather is pervasive for all of us.  Where does this weather come from?

How does my writing process work?

1. quickly, 2. sort-of-quickly, or 3. slowly –depending on what I’m writing. Prose poems happen with great speed. That’s why I enjoy them. Sometimes I write a short story from start to finish. More often it comes together slowly. Novels are slowest of all. They’re big trucks filled with paraphernalia. As I said, the structure of narrative is something I keep learning and re-thinking when I write a novel.  But I still begin with images, phrases and pieces of dialogue–in other words, with ornaments on a Christmas tree. I push them around on the page until they burrow into negative space and show me the tree.

But this sounds so serious. A lot of time I stare out the window and then desperation hits and I write like mad.

Next week I’ve invited three authors from Counterpoint Press to talk about their work.

Bruce Holbert Is the author of The Hour of Lead (Counterpoint Press 2014). His last novel, Lonesome Animals was named as a Best Book of 2012 by both  Slate, and The Seattle Times. He earned an M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop where he also edited The Iowa Review.  His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Other Voices, The Antioch Review, and Crab Creek Review.   The New York Times, the New Orleans Review, The Spokesman Review and The Santa Fe Writers Project  are among the many magazines and periodicals that publish his non-fiction. His poetry has been published in RiverLit, Big River Journal and The Bacon Review.  More at bruceholbertbooks.com 

Laura Pritchett is the author of Stars Go Blue. (Counterpoint Press 2014). She also authored Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, which received the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and a PEN USA Award for Fiction. For Sky Bridge, she received the WILLA Fiction Award. She has had over 100 short stories and essays published in various magazines The Sun, Orion, O Magazine, High Country News, Salon, Desert Journal and others. Pritchett lives in northern Colorado and teaches around the country. More at www.laurpritchett.com.

Linda Gray Sexton is an acclaimed memoirist, novelist and essayist.   Her most recent memoir is Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmations.   (Counterpoint Press 2014).   In 2011, she published the memoir Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide (Counterpoint Press) and in 1994, published Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton. She has also written several novels, including Private Acts, Mirror Images and Points of Light. She is  the author of numerous essays.  More at lindagraysexton.com ,

7 thoughts on “A few things I talk about when I talk about writing: Or another fishing story

  1. Barry Garelick

    Good to see you’re still alive, well, and writing. I took a course from you some years ago. I write as well, but I write about math education. Sometimes they are articles; sometimes they are stories/memoirs. The latter have characters, themes and they work as stories. Some people read them and like them; those are people who agree with my views. Those who disagree hate them. But as you said in the course I took from you, if your story has voice, readers may take issue with it, but the voice remains as voice.

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