A local Richmond author, Leila Gaskin, asked me to participate on the My Writing Process blog tour. She's a witty, quirky, wonderful woman whose recent book, Hot Flashes, involves middle-aged women and dragons. I got to know Leila on a writers' retreat at The Porches this past fall and also through James River Writers. She posted her Writing Process blog last week. Check out Leila's at http://leila-gaskin.com.
Writing's strange. Give a roomful of people the same exact prompt and you'll end up with a stack of completely different stories. Everybody thinks a little differently. Brings their individual experiences to the table. Something that motivates one person might make another seize up with writer's block. Here's my take on these four questions.
1 - What am I working on?
My goals for 2014 are to self-publish a book of linked short stories, Signals, and a collection of poetry, Lady Sawed in Half. This is terrifying. I can be a perfectionist. I can get obsessive. These traits come in handy for self-publishing. If you don't get stuck on the spinning teacups of edits and pathos roller coaster of "this is awesome!/this sucks!" I stand (no matter how nauseated and wobbly from the ride) committed to finishing these projects. I expect this to be a huge learning opportunity.
The linked short stories started as a combination of events. Last year, I took the Nancy Zafris (previous editor of the Kenyon Review) workshop through JRW. She's a feisty, knowledgable, literary writer who left an impression on me. She also handed out Tobias Wolff's short story, Bullet in the Brain. I read it (didn't realize at the time how it was going to stick with me and greatly impact the next couple years) and moved on with my life. Signed up for a fiction class with Jamie Fueglein at The Visual Arts Center, where he gave us the prompt: That jerk who cut you off in the car at whom you're inclined to shout obscenities has something very important on his mind. He's in a hurry for a reason. Write about that moment from his point of view.
Well this jerk in traffic and the Wolff piece merged into one idea and I ended up with my first story for Signals. It's about a man going to see his dying father in the hospital and how pissed off he is about this inconvenience in his night, until you get to the end and we see his conflicting relationship with his father. A funny thing happened when I wrote the end of this story, I cried like this person was my brother, not some guy on paper. Another strange thing happened. All these other characters kept popping up nagging me to write their stories, too. Demanding that they had life changing moments in the same vein as my last guy. So I wrote another and another. Then a narrator reared his head and said, Wait, I'm the one that's supposed to be telling these people's stories, not you. Get the hell out.
That's what happens when you get started on a writing project. It's almost like the story or characters choose you instead of the other way around. They're the ones that won't go. Won't get out of your head. They keep whispering secrets about themselves and the world they inhabit. And, you nod and slap your palm to your forehead and exclaim, Of course! I call it percolating. When the ideas are bubbling around in your subconscious and keep popping through to your consciousness. Until you end up with a solid story line. Some ideas dissolve into the hot mix. Others stick around and demand to be noticed.
Poetry surprised me, too. About two years ago, I took a mixed genre writing class through JTCC with the instructor Kelsey Trom. We dabbled in creative nonfiction, short story, graphic novels, screenwriting, and poetry. The poetry snuck up and sucker punched me in the gut. Where had it been all my life? Since then I've taken several classes with Susan Hankla through VMFA. I'm convinced poets are fearless. And terrified. All at the same time. It's fascinating. So, now I'm polishing up poems from the last couple years and adding a few new ones to the collection, Lady Sawed in Half.
2 - How does my work differ from others of its genre?
See above - every person's story will be different. Thank God.
3 - Why do I write what I do?
I've been in an existential crisis since I was eight years old and I think that comes through in most of my writings. I'm conflicted. I think this one life is probably all we have so you better damn enjoy every moment you possibly can. I am fascinated by the difficulties of life and internal torment, buoyed by an eternal hope in the goodness of man and the richness of our experiences. How lucky are we that we exist and can think, play, love, drive to the freakin grocery store? All the things we get to experience because of billions of years of preparation on the universe's part, and generation after generation of the "right" people hooking up to get to you!
4 - How does my writing process work?
Ideas are literally everywhere. Overheard conversations, the morning news, remembrances, etc. Once an idea gets started a lot of times it helps to sleep on it. Then you have to know when to push and try to get more thoughts on paper. I'm funny because I switch between notebook writing and computer. So, I'll usually start a story in a notebook. Then after I get a little chunk, I'll type that up on the computer. Print it out. Read through it and edit. Jot notes in the margins and back of the sheet, maybe grab another piece of notebook paper. Then back to the computer document to add these things. Perhaps type some more at the end. Print it out. Repeat many many times. Then share with other writers and readers for their invaluable critiques and advice.
But these are just my methods. Next week you can check out the writing processes of Maya Smart and C.D. Mitchell.
I first met Maya a couple years ago. We had both signed up for classes with Susan Hankla at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Three hours of poetry and three hours of short fiction each week for 12 weeks. That's a lot of together time in a hot room with 9 strangers. You quickly become connected and cheer each other in your growth as writers. I was impressed by Maya's dedication to building her craft and support for our community of aspiring writers in RVA. She has started a blog this year in her continuation of her writing process. Please visit it and look for her Writing Process blog post next week.
C.D. Mitchell is a Memphis writer I connected with through LinkedIn when he encouraged me to submit to The Pinch Journal. He has a new book of linked short stories out, Alligator Stew, with Southern Yellow Pine Publishing. This collection of secrets, death, quilt, TV watching goats, and cheating spouses is well worth a read. I gladly gave a review and he reciprocated with gratitude and writerly advice. I thank C.D. for encouraging me to keep pursuing my goals and for helping me discover The Pinch, a cool gem of a journal. The importance of connecting in the writing community is paramount to a profession that can be isolating. Visit C.D. at his blog and look for his books at Amazon and other retailers. He'll share his Writing Process blog next week.