Lately words are making me feel old. Soon enough “answering machine” will make no sense to people, “carbon copy” is probably all but lost, and “pencil it in” is likely cruising into oblivion very soon as well. With little effort anyone over the age of 30 can produce a dozen more recently retired expressions, then rattle off a series of new words that fall neatly into the gaps. My latest acquisitions: listicle, selfie, and blog tour. Yes, I know, I’m slow on the uptake. That makes me feel old, too, but I can moan about that with the husband. For now I should get on with the tour.
I’m honored to have been invited by my dear (and dearly gifted) friend Suzanne Farrell Smith to talk about my writing process as part of a tour of writers’ blogs (a trip to Google will fetch a slew of the tour’s wonderful posts). Suzanne’s post is so rich that I wasn’t sure why I should add my own thoughts to the tour, but then I remembered the reason I started this blog: To share. To share my enthusiasm for short stories, my energy for writing, and whatever advice or inspiration could be lifted from the documentation of my Daily Shorty year and ongoing writerly thoughts and obsessions. I’m just here to share. So off I go with a smallish splat of Q & A.
1) What am I working on?
In recent weeks I’ve devoted most of my writerly energy to putting together my first short story collection. I’ve been amazed at how hard it is to select from my files the stories that truly go together, and then to discover the best arrangement of the selections.
I developed my current (tentative) manuscript using index cards, each bearing a story title and notes on voice, length, form, themes, and arresting images and phrases. As I arranged and rearranged and arranged again my stack of cards, I kept drifting, mentally, into the fetal position, marveling that the gift of wordskill can morph into manacled ankles before you can say, “A speculative flash piece in narrative form exploring mortality, confused identity, and ruptured familial ties, with metaphors and analogies using water and blood.”
I’ve conjured countless rationales and justifications in this life—I am the much youngest of three kids, so to make up for my relative lack of strength and stature, I mastered early the arts of argument and persuasion. Which is to say that I can stack the index cards any which way and then explain why the order is absolutely right, and by the third attempt (of many, many) I was overwhelmed by my own spin. The goal is to get behind the justifications to the truth, and that’s something I’ve always struggled with, regardless of context. In other words: I’m not done. And wish me luck.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
In one of my MFA semester evaluations, my mentor began his characterization of my work like this: “Claire does not write realist fiction.” I was taken aback, and at our end-of-semester meeting I asked—with some pique—why he’d said that. He gave me that “Oh dear, she’s slipped into her native Russian” look, and said, “Well, Claire, because… you don’t in fact write realist fiction??” Somehow I’d read his comment as saying that my stories don’t reflect the cares and worries of real people. Of course they do, dammit. Yes, he agreed, of course they do. But they do that using satire or a sprinkling of fairy tale or the form of a product label.
We’ve seen more experimentation and weirdness in short stories over the last decade+, thanks to writers like Aimee Bender, Etgar Keret, and George Saunders, but it’s still true that the vast majority of the stories I read in litmags are written in the realist tradition. My graduation manuscript didn’t include a single story that could be called realist, though many were written in narrative form. After writing a story every day for a year, I do now have some realist shorties under my belt. And when I get the word-alchemy right, I like these stories just as much as anything else I’ve written.
Realist or not, narrative form or not, I like dark, I like funny. I like weird. Every story I write hits one or more of those notes.
3) Why do I write what I do?
When I won a literary fellowship from the State of Maine, one of the judges commented that I give life to characters who “live in the margins.” I hadn’t realized that before, but it’s true. I write about these people because no one will notice them if I don’t. I put them in short stories because I’m completely in love with the form, so much so that I have to remind myself to read novels.
I hate to sound over-serious nor too full of myself, but I am both of those things, so here it is: I write odd, dark, often darkly funny short stories because I want so badly to tell the truth, and pushing art beyond the boundaries of what feels “normal” gets me to that truth well and fast. I could write a hundred essays (and hopefully someday I will) but the whole lot of them couldn’t possibly tell as much truth as I can reveal in one small piece of fiction. Isn’t that just the sort of preposterous thing sniffy, pashmina-wearing writers say? But I truly believe it. At the very same time that I know it’s preposterous, I believe it. And now someone needs to give me a pashmina, because I’ll never buy one for myself.
4) How does your writing process work?
I noticed long ago that I both love and despise routine. I crave order and feel comforted by rules and frames, but once I know the rules and frames, once I’ve had to bow to order, I begin to chafe. And I will rebel, it’s just a matter of time and style. So with regard to my writing practice, I establish order and then plan for the rebellion.
When I find myself unable to write immediately upon waking, I’ll shift my writing time to after lunch. When I begin to hate my post-lunch commitment, I’ll save writing time for after dinner. Deep into my Daily Shorty year, every month or so for about a week, I addressed my mental exhaustion by giving myself whole days to do everything but writing, which meant I didn’t start writing until 10:00 PM or even much later. I would sneak up on myself and then have to take a headlong rush at the story before I became too incoherent to write. So whatever the context, I just keep adapting to the new me, with ever-changing targets and ever-evolving strategies.
As for the writing itself, I am a vertical writer who has learned how to incorporate some horizontal habits. And I’ll mention one other element of my process because I’ve discovered that it surprises people when they hear it, yet I can’t understand why: I never consider a story finished (well, as finished as possible, anyway, which is more how I see a story that I think is ready for submission) until I have gone through that final draft for the purpose of examining every single individual word. Is this word necessary? Yes, I think it is. Can you justify that belief? Yes, I think I can. Okay, how about this word? You know, now that you ask me, I have to say that this word is unnecessary. There, it’s gone. Okay, how about this word? And so on.
And so ends my part of this tour! Next week, my friend and fellow alum Stephanie Friedman will talk about her process. Stephanie writes short stories that start off quiet but then sneak up on you before you’re quite prepared, which makes the surprise revelation or action or image particularly satisfying. As I’ve told her a couple of times, her work reminds me of Grace Paley, and I don’t see how a writer can ever go wrong doing that. She’s also an astute reader, a generous teacher, a loving wife and mom, and just an all-around thoroughly fantastic person. Here’s a page devoted to the Daily Shorty week Stephanie did with me. Her bio:
Stephanie Friedman is the program director of the Writer’s Studio, a continuing education program in creative writing at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. Her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, and online for Hunger Mountain, Blood Orange Review, and Literary Mama. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.
Stephanie intends to post Saturday, March 15, here.