Archives For flash fiction

In April 2014, I led a four-day writing workshop with a dozen graduate students at Miami University. The subject: The Architecture of Stories. The assignment: Write a story inspired in both form and content by a significant architectural structure.

I’ll be posting excerpts from the stories along with info about the architectural structures. Here’s the second one!

Architectural Inspiration: The Cincinnati Art Museum…

 

 …and a failed exhibit that involved a gun being fired in the building. The bullets were aimed at this box…

 …and were supposed to form the shape of a crown. Oops.

 

The Story: excerpt from “Dead Art/Not Relevant” by Curtis Dickerson

“It takes bold, very genuinely thoughtful people to understand that it’s not a crazy thing to do.”

The sniper is anonymous. The artist name on banners hung from light posts and museum walls. Ballistic gel in place, calculations calculated. The sniper asks if the artist would like a particular shape in the target. Between the two: Ann Ford, Portrait of a Man in Armor, Whistling Boy, Vase, Blue Hole, Commode, Shiva, Reclining Female Figure, Human Figure, Romanian Blouse, Soup Can, Dancer, Greek God or Hero, Mummy of Adult Male, St. Stephen, St. Christopher, Bill Curry, Eve. Circa 2500 BC – 1980 AD. There are no female artists represented. Where is the artist? He is adjusting his monitors. Where is the sniper? S/he is calibrating his/her weapon, s/he is picturing the target penetrated, s/he is not a talkative person.

“For young people with no real idea of how to make anything, or any real talent or skill or inspiration, this kind of work comes easy.”

From ten to five, Eden Park is rife with gunfire, normally regulated to less desirable/bad/problematic/depressed/scary/different parts of town. We were cautioned with fliers, with reports on the local news. We are interested, we are angry, we are excited, we are annoyed, we are confused, we are repulsed, we are thrilled; our concerns are not considered. We must relive it again a year and a half later when the exhibit opens. The artist is profiled in the Enquirer. He is a “Cincinnati artist” who lives in New York City. We are Cincinnati artists/lawyers/teachers/editors/housewives/businessmen/actresses/clergy who live in Cincinnati. His point of reference is a film that came out eleven years before he was born. We saw it in theaters, have rented it from the Cincinnati Public Library. “It is disturbing, but is it disturbing in a meaningful way? This seems so far from the mission of a general art museum, which is to preserve, display and exhibit art.”

A column, plume–a geyser of energy, instantaneous, captured with/through six blinking cameras–propels projectile. Sheriffs stand arms sheathed smirking: better than a day spent on a beat or in the office at least. The ghosts of greats trapped in canvas are anxious, the pulses of nervous energy from the living they sense through pores. Watch as it passes, if you can. And you can, a year and a half later. And you can feel it, perhaps in a century. And you can feel it coming, though once you feel it it’s already past.

“To shoot a gun in the halls in the museum, it’s in bad taste. The speeding bullet is going in front of 18 iconic treasures. I think it’s his way of showing that it’s dead art and not relevant.”

(quotes taken from the Cincinnati Enquirer article “Cincinnati Art Museum’s ‘Crown’ exhibit under fire” written by Janelle Gelfand and published 15 March 2014)

The story behind the story (as told by Curtis Dickerson)

I happened upon this story listening to our Cincinnati NPR affiliate. A museum curator was being interviewed for WVXU’s local program “Cincinnati Edition,” and when the prompt for our sprint week was explained, I immediately thought of this instance. I’m not sure I have a position on the correctness of firing a gun in a museum, especially one that houses works as old as the Cincinnati Art Museum does, but it’s a heavy decision to make, and I don’t envy anyone who had to look at the artist’s proposal and decide whether or not that this was a thing that should have been done.

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About the author

Curtis Dickerson, a native of Dayton, Ohio, studies and teaches writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he lives alongside his partner and dog. His interests and passions include social justice, reality television, and animal advocacy. The most recent book he has read which he highly recommends is George Packer’s The Unwinding.

Today only, go to Amazon.com to download the FREE Kindle version of Eric Bosse’s terrific story collection Magnificent Mistakes. Lots of flash fictions and in this collection of 19 stories. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite short-short stories, “House of Ghosts”:

The back door swings open, and the ghost of my father’s lover stands there in the moonlight. I offer him tea. He accepts and smiles as if death were an exquisite pleasure. I pour hot water into a World’s Best Mom mug and tell him it’s been five days since the night my wife called me David.

Download it today to read the rest of the story (it’s only two pages!).

I interviewed Eric Bosse back in March for the How to Become a Writer Series. Read it here: https://phdincreativewriting.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/how-eric-bosse-became-a-writer/

Eric Bosse’s story collection, Magnificent Mistakes, was published by Ravenna Press in the fall of 2011. His stories have appeared in The Sun, Zoetrope, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, Night Train, The Collagist, Wigleaf, and several other journals and anthologies. He teaches at the University of Oklahoma and lives in Norman with his wife and kids.

Writing is like breathing.  We all breathe and think we know how to, but only a few of us pay attention to it.  I teach yoga as one of my many jobs and much of the practice of yoga is about breathing.

Joanne Avallon is a freelance writer living in Rockport, Massachusetts. She was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize from Wellesley College and received an M.F.A. from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Sundog, The Norton Anthology of Microfiction, Smokelong Quarterly, FictionNow, BlinkInk, and other online literary sites. She has read her poetry on National Public Radio. Joanne also teaches American Literature at North Shore Community College and consults for the Clean Air Task Force. She is married, with two children and a 70-pound dog.

Read more by and about Joanne:

Flash Fiction: “All This” & Interview

Flash Fiction: Beauty, Bridge Mix, The Game of Life

Flash Fiction: Mice Cube

Flash Fiction: Kapha

Interview: Smokelong Quarterly

How Joanne Avallon Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Joanne for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I don’t know that I had a choice; as soon as I could write, it seemed to me that I should write.  I was a sensitive child and sometimes, for reasons I didn’t understand, I felt my heart was about to burst.  I wrote to find out why.  Poetry fit that purpose because I could ponder one idea – a few lines of verse – for a long time.  When I hit my teenage years, or they hit me, I discovered that I had a knack for telling stories.  When I was sixteen, I remember telling a story to my father – a voluble and busy man – and I had him stuck to his chair until I decided to end the story.  Now that is power.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I majored in literature in college with a focus on creative writing.  I thought then, and I still think now, that it makes no sense to be a student of literature and not write.  There were so many English majors in my class who had never actually tried to write what they studied so assiduously.  When I graduated, my parents told me that I would starve as a writer and that they would only pay for a graduate degree that would get me a job.  So, I followed the steps of Carlos Fuentes and went to law school and became a lawyer.  I practiced law long enough to earn the tuition for my MFA in Literature, Writing and Publishing at Emerson College.  In the middle of all of this, I got married and had two children.  I was pregnant or post partum for most of time I was studying for my MFA.  I defended my thesis when I was seven months pregnant with my son and endured endless puns and double entendres about that fecund period of my life.  I am glad I got my law degree.  It helped to me be a better writer and has come in handy when I needed to earn some money.  I did find it hard to write with small children and decided those years would be my “stockpile” years where I would develop my writing without worrying too much about publishing.  I am just beginning to get back into the publishing world now.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Frank Bidart, my poetry professor at Wellesley, was tirelessly encouraging and went over my senior thesis, a book of poems, word by word.  That thesis won me the Academy of American Poets prize.  At Emerson, Pam Painter opened my eyes to the world of flash fiction, which I consider the perfect storm between poetry and prose.  In her class, I wrote “All This,” which is in MicroFiction:  The Norton Anthology of Short Short Fiction.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

My favorite piece of short fiction is Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net.”  I had the pleasure of listening to her read it while I was at law school.  When she was done, the reading organizer presented her with a chocolate pecan pie and she said, “A pie is the best payment I ever got for this story.”

I love that story because it is a retort to all the male writers of her generation writing male adventure/journey stories.  That story is about a husband’s journey to find and understand his young wife.

Eudora lived in her hometown or nearby for a good long time.  I grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts and just recently moved to Rockport.  Many of my good friends I knew as children.  There is wisdom to be gotten in letting yourself grow old where you once were young.  I appreciate Eudora’s eye on small town life and on the way time passes.  She also has a wonderful hand with character, drawing them deftly with a few well-written sentences.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer? 

Dear Friend,

You have no doubt already faced the blank stares of friends in response to your announcement that you are a writer.  Writing is like breathing.  We all breathe and think we know how to, but only a few of us pay attention to it.  I teach yoga as one of my many jobs and much of the practice of yoga is about breathing.  When you focus on your breathing – the simple inhale and exhale – you begin to notice how it makes you feel and how controlling your breath can help control your emotions.  And then you start wondering about breathing itself and about what it means to be alive.

Such a simple thing leads to huge insights.  Writing is simple, too.  Almost everyone in our culture is literate but few stop to focus on writing as a craft, to understand the power of it or the importance of it.  If writing does nothing else for you than force you to lead an examined life, then it’s a fair trade: work for insight.  Be brave and continue.

The other response you will get when you tell people you are a writer is the dreaded question, “are you published?”  This is a rude and inappropriate question asked by someone who doesn’t understand your art.  Always answer “yes.”  If they ask you where, say “The New Yorker” and then ask them what they do for a living.  No doubt they will talk happily about their careers, forget your name and walk away thinking they just had a wonderful conversation with a talented writer.  Do nothing to disabuse them of this notion.

Life is long.  Sometimes writing will come easily; other times it will not.  Be patient with yourself, keep working and remember, the journey is the reward.

Namaste,

Joanne

As writers, we live double lives: lived once in the world of others, and again, in the quiet of our own minds. It takes a certain amount of will and courage to leave with regularity the circle of humanity in order to enact a kind of theft, which is one aspect of what the writing life seems to be.

Anne Germanacos is the author of the short story collection In the Time of Girls (BOA Editions). Born in San Francisco, she has lived in Greece for over thirty years. Together with her husband, Nick Germanacos, she ran the Ithaka Cultural Studies Program on the islands of Kalymnos and Crete, and taught writing, literature, and Modern Greek. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has appeared in over eighty literary reviews and anthologies, including Dzanc’s Best of the Web 2009. She and her husband have four children and five grandchildren. They live on Crete and in San Francisco.

Web page: http://www.annegermanacos.com/

Update June 13-14, 2012: Celebrating Freshly Pressed with a book giveaway! Click here for a chance to win a signed copy of Anne’s book.

Read more by and about Anne:

Book: In the Time of the Girls
Short Story: “Killing the Husband”
Interview: A Writer’s Dictionary
Short Story: “Whore of Babel”
Book Review at Blackbird
Flashes: “Drops (rain, lemon, tear) Cough!

How Anne Germanacos Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Donna Miscolta for recommending Anne, and thanks to Anne for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

Writing brought the world into a different focus while conferring something that felt like a secret, additional self.

The desire began with this revelation of clarity, difference, separateness and power. (I’m sure my receptivity to the revelation was encouraged by need.)

Writing offered another body (in words) that could hold the many shifting parts, adding new ones when they occurred. It allowed me to go my own way, holding out the possibility even in situations that required me to go against my own grain.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I became a writer by writing every day, creating, rewriting, sometimes destroying in order to make space for something new.

As writers, we live double lives: lived once in the world of others, and again, in the quiet of our own minds. It takes a certain amount of will and courage to leave with regularity the circle of humanity in order to enact a kind of theft, which is one aspect of what the writing life seems to be.

If we steal in the right way—from ourselves and the world—we may fashion (and be rewarded with) a gift. I love the ecology of writing, the way it turns nothing into something, generally without too much damage to the environment.

Painting by Belinda Bryce

My writing is in constant (often unconscious) conversation with the books I read. Writing for many years without an audience, reading gave me a sense of the human community we’re all a part of, and written companions. It made me want to write something worthy of that conversation.

More than anything, though, it’s likely I became a writer by a certain act of daring: I left home at seventeen to live in another country, married and had children young, taught, and wrote. I’m sure it was the desire to be a writer—to make a life that would nourish and replenish me as a writer—that allowed me to make such a bold decision. Being in love didn’t hurt, either.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

When I was 12, a teacher encouraged me to write daily, and because I was a little in love with him, I did. The next teacher who responded to my writing returned my love, and so we’ve been married for many years. Having someone by my side who never faltered in supporting my desire to write helped tremendously to create, if not smooth, the path. (There is no smooth path to becoming a writer.)

Painting by Belinda Bryce

My children required me to be strong enough to be both a mother and a writer. In order to teach, I had to read carefully and find ways of conveying a passion for language to young people who were sometimes more interested in other endeavors. Sometimes, though, the intensity of their focus made class worthy of a story!

Graduate school gave me fine teachers, a sympathetic audience and wonderful, supportive writing friends. This community was both preparation for and launch toward the book that would garner a small audience.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Rather than looking to a particular writer or artist’s biography, I take inspiration from any life along the way and hold my life against any number of lives, measuring, to know how far I have to go, as a person first, always, because without the primacy of the life—both lived and imagined—there’s no story.

I recently read a biography of the artist Joan Mitchell and was fascinated by the descriptions of the way she saw—she had an eidetic memory and synesthesia, to boot! It sometimes helps me to understand the way I move through space and time, trying to make something of it, by stepping away from words toward another medium, and one I don’t work in.

I recently read a biography of the artist Joan Mitchell and was fascinated by the descriptions of the way she saw—she had an eidetic memory and synesthesia, to boot!

I admire the work of Homer, Padgett Powell, WG Sebald, Geoff Dyer, Isaac Babel. Grace Paley, Adam Phillips, Anne Carson. David Markson, David Malouf. Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson. I could go on.

The work they produced against their days helps sustain me—as a human being and a writer. Also, some of these writers have created works that seem to lend validity to certain less conventional aspects of my own writing.

I know that doesn’t exactly answer the question. I guess I’m resistant!

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Minimize doubt. Find a way—a method, a trick, a psychological tic to dissolve doubt’s potency. You will most likely always be working alongside it, so best to have some useful way of repelling it. I write against it, a little like diving into a cold pool of water—scary but invigorating. Generally, it does the trick. But if that doesn’t work, get up and do something else. Forget about it for a while.

Be gentle with yourself—you will find so many reasons not to be. But it’s most likely your kindness toward yourself (I’m not saying self-indulgence) that will help you alongside the rigors of constant, daily writing.

I can’t speak to a practice that is anything less than daily. It’s the only one I know, so it’s the one I peddle.

By writing daily, you make it your life.

And one more thing: publication is the icing on the cake. The act of writing itself gives you a way to be in the world and is its own reward. Publication just makes it okay, finally, to actually mention that you’re a writer.

It is no accident that slaves were forbidden to read and write, or that women were long kept out of universities. Knowing this so early on made me believe that being a writer was the best thing one could be and that writing literature was the most revolutionary, dangerous, powerful, empowering and important thing a human being could do.

Dr. Amina Lolita Gautier is the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her short story collection At-Risk. Gautier is the second African American writer to win this award in its thirty year history. Gautier is a writer, scholar, and professor. Following in the footsteps of the late nineteenth century African American intellectual (Charles W. Chesnutt, W.E.B. DuBois, Frances E. W. Harper, and Pauline Hopkins) who merged both critical and creative talents, Gautier’s academic interests are two-fold. Her background as a scholar of 19th Century American literature and, more generally, African American literature combines with her training as a fiction writer such that she is both a critic and a creative writer, fully engaged in the analysis and creation of literature.

More than seventy of her short stories have been published, appearing in Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review and Southern Review among other places, and her fiction has been extensively reprinted, appearing in several anthologies, including Best African American Fiction 2009, Best African American Fiction 2010, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2008, The Notre Dame Review: The First Ten Years, The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Contemporary Women Writers on Forerunners in Fiction, and Voices. Gautier is the recipient of the William Richey Prize, the Jack Dyer Prize, the Danahy Fiction Prize, the Schlafly Microfiction Award and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Award. She has received fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Callaloo Writer’s Workshop, Hurston/Wright Writer’s Workshop, and the Ucross Residency.

Visit her web site: http://www.aminagautier.com/

Read more by and about Amina:

Book: At Risk
Story with audio: “Love, Creusa” at Shenandoah
Story: “Preferences” at Pindeldyboz
Story: “Minnow” at River Styx
Interview at Dominion of New York

How Amina Gautier Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Amina for saying yes!

Note: This is an April Fool’s Day treat! I’m posting the newest interview today – a week early – and will take off on Easter Sunday. Enjoy!

1.     Why did you want to become a writer?

I came of age during the anti-apartheid movement in the US; I was an adolescent when Stevie Wonder recorded his anti-apartheid song, when the play Sarafina! toured New York, when the Cosby spin-off A Different World was weaving anti-apartheid material into its episodes, and when Nelson Mandela was not yet free. At home, my mother had a copy of Kaffir Boy and when I entered ninth grade, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People was selected as the book in common, the one text all incoming students would have to read and discuss communally. I was surrounded by adult and peer discussions of apartheid, which also led to conversations wherein which it was easy to draw parallels between the restrictions placed upon native (black) South Africans during apartheid and on African Americans during slavery and after the Reconstruction, one of the most obvious being restrictions upon literacy and education. This atmosphere impressed upon me the importance, power and danger of literature. When factions attempt to create oppressed societies, one of the foremost ways they go about doing so is by banning thought-provoking literature. It is no accident that slaves were forbidden to read and write, or that women were long kept out of universities. Knowing this so early on made me believe that being a writer was the best thing one could be and that writing literature was the most revolutionary, dangerous, powerful, empowering and important thing a human being could do.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

Short Answer: I have always been a writer.

Long Answer: I played with dolls and listened to music. When I was a child, I imbibed many elements of craft without any conscious effort on my part, learning quite a bit about writing stories from playing with my toys and listening to music. Any child who has played with toys—be it Barbie or Transformers—has the makings of a fiction writer. As any kid knows, there’s no game without a premise or story. Playing with dolls went a long way to helping me learn the intricacies of plot. No matter what I had in mind for Barbie and Ken, Midge or Skipper could always interfere. Enter subplot. Enter characterization. Enter forward moving action motivated by a character’s wants or desires.

The Temptations; image from Wikipedia

The first stories I ever recognized as stories were actually songs. There was no way to live in my childhood home and not be exposed to music. When I was younger, I was part of an extended family and I had only to walk from one room to another to hear a different song i.e. a different story. My grandmother played gospel, my cousin favored hip hop, and my uncle preferred rock, but it was in my mother’s room, where she played soul music that I first absorbed stories. The songs I heard: Ashford and Simpson’s “Hi-Rise” The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and “Since I Lost My Baby,” Luther Vandross’s “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me,” The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” and “Children of the Night,” Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It” and “Jimmy Lee,” Natalie Cole’s “Just Can’t Stay Away,” Blue Magic’s “Sideshow” and Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s duet “You Are My Heaven” were complete and linear narratives set to music. They had beginnings, middles, and ends. If you took away the musical accompaniment, you would have short stories.

In the more formal sense, I began with writing poetry, in the way that most elementary school kids in Brooklyn begin with writing poetry. My language arts teacher exposed us to poetry around the fourth grade and made us kids in the gifted class enter a variety of poetry contests. My poems won a bunch of these school-wide, district-wide, borough-wide, city-wide contests. One particular win allowed me to meet the mayor (Koch, at the time) and shake his hand. All of the contest wins came with trophies and savings bonds. All in all, it was a good deal and it wasn’t anything I thought very much about. When I got to Stanford, I majored in English with a Creative Writing Emphasis (the precursor to the minor which the university now offers). The creative writing courses were all taught by Jones Lecturers (former Stegner Fellows who stayed on to teach) and entry into the courses was by lottery only.

As lottery would have it, my number came up for the fiction workshop first, though I continued to write poetry. My fiction instructor shared an office with one of the poetry instructors and one afternoon I brought some of my poetry to Chris Wiman for some feedback. After showing him my poems, he promptly shot me down. And—here’s the thing—I let him. I realized that I had no desire to be a poet if I had to train to do it. This was partly because the rewards of it had come too easily to me as an adolescent and partly because I just wasn’t interested enough. That’s how I knew I was a fiction writer. I’d only been in the workshop for one quarter, but I already knew that if I’d shown my fiction teacher my stories and he told me I would never make it and advised me to quit, I would not have been meek and walked away with my tail between my legs. I would have ignored him, marched to my dorm, written ten brand new stories, and made him choke on his words. After only weeks, I was fully invested. There was no one in the world that could discourage me. In order to be a fiction writer, I was willing to be in it for the long haul, to work as hard as it took, to write as many hours as it required, to dump as many boyfriends as it necessitated and to lose as much sleep as I could afford.

 3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Odd as this may seem, my Latin teachers helped me to become a good writer. I started studying Latin in fifth grade and continued with it all the way through high school to AP Latin my junior year, after which there was nothing left to study until college. The rules of grammar, which I found confusing or irregular in English, made sense to me when I viewed them through the lens of this non-native language. Exposure to Latin will, of course, improve anyone’s vocabulary, but the focus on word formation, etymology, derivatives and nuanced language will serve the fiction writer a good turn. Since no one expects secondary school Latin students to prepare for lives as theologians or priests, much of the material students learn to translate is secular rather than ecclesiastical. Thus, Latin exposed me to rhetoric and poetry. Although I learned first through another language, I was already well-versed in scansion, metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, hyperbole, irony, litotes, caesuras and all of the other rhetorical devices long before I ever got to AP English. My study of Latin made me hyper-aware of language, syntax, diction, and rhetoric earlier than I might have been expected to care about the formal qualities of language. Thank you—ago tibi gratias— Mr. Doddington, Mr. Schroeder, Mr. Mulgrew, Miss Bennett, Barb Watson and David Demaine.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I’m not particularly interested in any fiction writer’s biography. Perhaps I would be if I were reading poetry or autobiography, but when it comes to fiction all I need to know about the writers that I read is that they write damn good stories and don’t cut corners. Just as Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan never met a shot they didn’t like, I’ve never met a story I didn’t like. For just a small investment of my time—somewhere between five and thirty minutes depending on the story’s length—I can read a story that will make my heart and mind grow by leaps and bounds. That’s a great return on investment if ever I’ve heard of one. Unfortunately, I’m not as open-minded when it comes to novels. Given the tendency of many contemporary novels to disintegrate three fourths of the way through, I’m hardly willing to invest hours or days of my time into one unless multiple trusted sources can vouch for it. If, by some chance, I am roped in to reading a novel that dies midway through, I make it a point to never read anything else by that author ever again. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

I am, however, inspired by lines and passages in stories. If I’m in a funk, reading the last line of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or the opening paragraph of Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies” or the “Be a Martin” scene in Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews” will always bring me back to a better frame of mind.

I have always been inspired by the section of John Gardner’s Art of Fiction, in which he says:

To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on. That is not to say, of course, that the writer who has no personal experience of pain and terror should try to write about pain and terror, or that one should never write lightly, humorously; it is only to say that every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded toward life or death. It does not mean, either that writers should write moralistically, like preachers. And above all it does not mean that writers should lie. It means only that they should think, always, of what harm they might inadvertently do and not do it. If there is good to be said, the writer should remember to say it. If there is bad, to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.”

Gardner’s suggestion that literature can soothe the desperate and that good literature is a matter of life and death rings true with me. Literature has certainly saved my sanity. Therefore, whenever I write, I am always mindful of Gardner’s inspiring advice. It reminds me that my reader has many faces. He or she is not just a person with leisure reclining on a sofa. He or she is also a nursing home patient, the quiet teen who turns to books when shut out of reindeer games and socializing and reads late at night in corners of the house/apartment when parents are asleep, an infirm person who rarely has visitors, the adolescent who closes the bedroom door and buries himself or herself in a book to drown out the noise of adults fighting, the retiree who has been waiting decades to read literature at leisure. Knowing this prevents me from cutting corners and taking shortcuts as a writer, it deters me from writing gimmicky material, veers me away from sentimentality, forces me to write however many drafts the story requires.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Dear Writer,

1.     Get Out of Your Own Way:

In his rap “Bad” LL Cool J rhymes “You want a hit? Give me an hour plus a pen and a pad!” Bravado aside, his lyrics boil the writing process down to its bare essentials. In terms of accoutrements, all a writer needs in order to write is pen and paper. All of other the niceties are a bonus, like sprinkles on ice cream, nice but not necessary. Real writers can write anywhere, anytime, anyplace. You don’t need a certain time of day, peace and quiet, the right circumstances, the correct placement of the constellations in the sky, green apples or any type of rituals. You don’t even need a muse. These esoteric needs are actually self-imposed obstacles and roadblocks aspiring writers place in their paths. If you spend your time awaiting optimal conditions to begin writing, you are setting yourself up to fail. Writers are not picky. When we need to write, we will write on whatever is handy. I have written on computers, typewriters, and word processors. I have written by hand. I have filled spiral notebooks, Trapper Keepers, legal pads. I have written on index cards, construction paper, receipts and cereal boxes. I have even written on myself. I am a writer. I write.

2.     Don’t try to write something ‘new.’ Just try to write something good.

Although fiction is not as old as poetry in terms of genre, it is at least four hundred years old (if not older), if we date it back to 1605 with Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which many cite as the “first novel.” Plenty of stories have been written since then and most, if not all, stories have already been told. Writing a short story as a series of emails is neither new nor innovative, since it is based on the premise of writing a short story as a series of letters, a technique which is at least as old as Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748). Same thing goes for writing the story in the form of a photo album, homework assignment, map, radio broadcast, telegram, or PowerPoint presentation. Ditto for writing the story in second person, first person plural, or the point of view of an animal/inanimate object/ghost. This is not to say that the writer should eschew experimenting with these forms or any others; it is merely to say that the writer who does so in the belief that adopting any of these forms makes the story “new” is a writer who is not well-read enough to discern. There has been a tendency among aspiring writers and workshop students (at least in my own classes) to offer the following commentary as praise when discussing a fellow student’s story: “This is good. I’ve never seen it before. It’s very original” which erroneously conflates quality, originality and lack of exposure, when all it really means is that the person making the comment needs to read more and read better.

3.     Remember what Yoda told Luke: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

These days I take rejection as validation: I’m in the game, I’m doing what writers do, and good for me for trying. Rejection of a piece should never be taken as rejection of the whole writer.

Eric Bosse’s story collection, Magnificent Mistakes, was published by Ravenna Press in the fall of 2011. His stories have appeared in The Sun, Zoetrope, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, Night Train, The Collagist, Wigleaf, and several other journals and anthologies. He teaches at the University of Oklahoma and lives in Norman with his wife and kids.

Web site: http://everythingisbeautifulandnothinghurts.blogspot.com/

Read more by and about Eric:

Book: Magnificent Mistakes

Story: “Trinkets”

Story: “Mallard” in Wigleaf

How Eric Bosse Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Eric for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer? 

When I figured out that being my high school freshman football team’s fourth-string quarterback put my odds of playing in the NFL at basically nil, I had to do something else. Actually, I’m not sure I ever wanted to become a writer, because writing was something I always did. People hesitate to say “I’m a writer” because it sounds arrogant or pretentious, I gather; but, if you write, then by definition you are a writer. And I made stories and poems as soon as I could write sentences. Even before I knew how to hold a pencil, I moved through the real world and the worlds of my imagination simultaneously and more or less constantly. I don’t know that I ever had imaginary friends, but I imagined countless adventures and conflicts with people I knew and with characters from books and TV shows. As a child, I was my own mobile 3-D cinema experience. Later, when I dropped out of high school football, I detoured into acting, took theater classes, auditioned for plays, and began an independent course of study in cinema. But by college, I found acting classes less engaging than English and philosophy. I kept acting but ultimately switched to the English major not because I intended to leave theater but because school was a pastime and lit classes amounted to an interesting hobby. I wrote a lot of terrible poetry in those years, which I mistook for great. But no one ever published it. After college, I fell into journalism to pay the bills. Over time, I grew less satisfied by acting in plays. Even when I acted professionally, acting began to feel like the equivalent of playing guitar in a covers band. I eventually figured out that I was a bad poet, but I didn’t have the stamina for novels. And I didn’t have the technical skill to make movies. I was a writer without a genre, I suppose.

A video reading of “Seagulls”

2. How did you go about becoming a writer? 

In the eighties and nineties I churned out mountains of bad poetry and volumes of intense personal journal entries. Then, around 1998 or 1999, I joined Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s glorious online writing workshop. There, I fell in with a lively, committed group of flash fiction writers. We spurred each other on, and I discovered I had a knack for compression and vivid imagery. I sent out a few flash fictions, got published, and gradually expanded my work into short stories. I considered flash fiction the “basic unit” of my stories, and you can see that at work in my book. Even the longest pieces are broken into fragments that have their own shape and momentum. Hopefully they work cohesively, as well.

For any aspiring writers who may read this, one obscure masterpiece that uses flash fictions within a larger narrative is Oz Shelach’s “novel in fragments,” Picnic Grounds. I learned a lot from that book. And from Ernest Hemingway and Yasunari Kawabata, too.

But maybe that’s not what you’re after. In my more-or-less daily practice, I got up early, before my wife, and tapped out story after story. I read a lot of magazines and online journals. I started following writers I admired. I went deep with a few (the usual suspects: Hemingway, Vonnegut, Tobias Wolff, George Saunders, Stuart Dybek) then gained an appreciation for the more densely packed stories of Alice Munro and the rich and varied worlds within books by Andrea Barrett and Jim Shepard. I can’t say precisely how these writers influenced me, but whenever I found myself in a jam while working on a story I’d ask what one of them would do in a similar situation. I still do that. It’s a crutch, but it helps. Also, if I just don’t feel in the right frame of mind to write, I start by reading poetry. Good poetry. That almost always works to get me going. I rarely experience writer’s block; but I go through phases when I’m terribly undisciplined. I have to somehow trick myself into writing. Once I start, I don’t stop until I’m out of time.

As for getting published, I sent out my best work as many as thirty, forty, even fifty times—starting with the top tier magazines and working my way down through print and online journals. I did that until each piece got published or I became disenchanted with it. Or both. I try to gauge whether a story fits well with a given publication, but that’s guesswork. I don’t devote a lot of time to fiction market study. I learned from running my own online journal that a rejection really should not come as a blow to the ego. As an editor, I turned down countless excellent stories because they didn’t quite align with my aesthetic for the journal. These days I take rejection as validation: I’m in the game, I’m doing what writers do, and good for me for trying. Rejection of a piece should never be taken as rejection of the whole writer. That’s the best advice I can give to a beginner—well, that and don’t pay for grad school. There are enough fully funded slots in MFA programs that if you don’t get one this year you should keep trying until you do.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how? 

I mentioned Zoetrope: the writers there helped immensely. Closely studying published writers I admired helped. I had one close reading relationship with a peer in grad school, but that faded when I moved away. I have yet to find a true, long-term mentor—an expert reader who believes in me, actively reads my stories, and tells me honestly what works and what doesn’t. I was certain Kevin Canty would become that for me when I went off to grad school, but he went on sabbatical for my first year and we never quite clicked when he came back. Kevin’s a good guy. I admire his work. And he may be the published author out there with whom I—well, my stories—have the most in common. But whatever makes for a good mentor -and-writer relationship, I have not found that. It feels like a myth to me now, one that I may never live. But who knows? I may not be easy to get along with. I’ve got that fatal combination of shyness and confidence that people often misread as arrogance. I’m probably the most neurotic, self-critical person I know; yet I come across as…well, that’s purely speculation. Whatever I am—quiet loner or asshole, or both—I’m kind of out here on my own, as a writer. Which is fine. Kathryn Rantala at Ravenna Press has proven very supportive these past few years, and the book has begun to reach a few readers. That’s all the validation I need.

My acting experience feeds into my writing career in a productive way. It’s been twelve years since I last did a play; but, now that I’m doing a lot of public readings (about 30 in the past year), I can use those theatrical skills to pull off a more dramatic and hopefully engaging reading than your average writer. We writers are often, by nature, quiet, shy, reclusive. And I am. But when I go on stage or walk up to a mic, I know how to perform. So, in that sense, I’ve drawn upon the contributions of a host of mentors and teachers who helped me. My high school forensics coach, Gaye Brasher, has probably done as much for my writing career as anyone else. And the great, under-appreciated theatrical director Murray Ross in Colorado Springs cleared the way for me to find myself over and over again in the plays he directed. It’s strange to make the connection now, as I write this, between acting and writing. I understand characters and character development and even dialog thanks to the theater. Oh, and I had a good friend, Paul Vaughn, who collaborated with me on a few super-low-budget movie projects (see below). He was great. He kept me honest. And I did my best work when I wrote with Paul firmly in mind as my reader. Unfortunately cancer took his life a few years ago. Fuck you, cancer.

MOCK: The Ultimate Mockumentary

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you? 

Well, I can’t get over what Jean-Dominique Bauby did in his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Bauby suffered from locked-in syndrome when he wrote the book, meaning he couldn’t move his body at all. His mode of communication with the world was an eyelid. Someone would read the alphabet, in the order the letters most frequently appear in the French language, and Bauby would blink when he heard the letter he wanted next.

But it’s not the first-glance inspirational value of his triumph that I take to heart. In fact, I suspect taking inspiration from that struggle is one of the crude luxuries of able-bodied privilege. What inspires me still, after five readings, is Bauby’s evocation of the sensual and emotional details of a life and world from which he was almost entirely removed. I don’t know how factually accurate his memoir is, but the fullness with which he imagines and records his story devastates me. In a good way. So I hold that in mind sometimes when I write, as a kind of ideal to strive toward.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

I should write that letter. Now that I’ve become a parent and launched an actual grownup career (I’m a professor—well, a “lecturer”—and for the most part I teach essay writing rather than creative writing), my time and energy for writing have dwindled. Writing these answers has tripled my output for the week. (Did I just type “output”? I’m getting sloppy in my old age.) But in my letter to an imaginary aspiring writer, I would assure that writer that she is in fact a writer, and that her self-doubt is simply a byproduct of the task of writing. (Did I just type “byproduct”?) In a letter to just such a writer, Charles Baxter identifies feelings of inadequacy as “the black-lung disease of writing.” Self doubt is a professional hazard: you will write, and the world will remain indifferent. You will fail. You will learn something new, try something new, and you will fail again. You will feel like an imposter. And this will happen to you again and again and again. And along the way, if you can remember to be kind to yourself and others, you’ll hopefully lead a life worth living. Maybe you should not gamble your entire financial future on the chance that you’ll spit out a bestseller sooner or later. But if you want to write and you care enough to do the work of discovering your blind spots and improving your vision, then don’t give up. And don’t expect success. Redefine success so writing will be its own victory. Each draft is a triumph, even the one where you botch the whole thing. Every rejection is a badge of honor. And every publication is a major milestone along the road. The road to what? Keep going. Find out.

 

A review!

A gloriously long and detailed review of my book For Sale By Owner and Laynie Browne’s The Desires of Letters (Counterpath) was just posted at the awesome site/resource/lit journal, Literary Mama. Here’s an excerpt:

Thus, while the stories are in fact disturbing at times, these disturbances create layers of interest and intrigue. Parker causes the reader to reconsider the things she takes for granted (healthy children, mental well being, family connections) and asks that she appreciate these things a little more, hold them a little closer to her chest.

…Parker’s collection is at once practical and poetic, somber and funny, abstract and exact.

A question!

At the AWP Kore Press 20 Year Anniversary Poetry Reading, an audience member asked, “How can the average reader support independent publishing and women writers?”

The panelists and moderator addressed the importance of buying books, especially from the publisher, and making donations. I was just another audience member, but I chimed in with my own response: Talk about indie books, tell your friends about them, teach them in your classes, write about them on your blogs, interview the authors, link to them on Facebook. If you tweet, tweet about them.

So, in the spirit of buying and talking about books published by indie publishers…

a bag of books!

…here are the books and lit journals that I picked up at AWP:

Irlanda, Espido Freire, trans. by Toshiya Kamei (Fairy Tale Review Press)
— ooh la la, this is pretty, and the opening pages irresistible. Rilke epigraph: “How would I begin to recall you, dead as you are, you willingly, passionately dead? Was it as soothing as you imagined, or was not being alive still far from being dead?” First line: “Sagrario died in May, after much suffering.”

The Louisiana Purchase, Jim Goar (Rose Metal Press)
–stunning cover; tells how we got the moon: “President Jefferson walks off the mound. The Cardinals take the field. Ozzie Smith falls over dead. The crowd falls silent. Phil Niekro throws a ball at the sky. The ball does not return. We call it the moon. It becomes a crescent. When Jefferson holds up two fingers, the moon breaks into the dirt.”

It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, Diane Williams (FC2)
–i bought this because of the novella-in-flash, and the flash stories with titles like, “Well, Well, Well, Well, Well,” and because it’s Diane Williams

Kino, Jurgen Fauth (Atticus Books, ARC)
— kinda got this as a sneak peek; it looks full of hip german madness

The Book of Portraiture, Steve Tomasula (FC2)
— steve runs the show at notre dame and lives in town; he’s not only brilliant, he’s super kind and welcoming to us iusb folks who always come to his amazing parties

Lizard Man, David James Poissant (Ropewalk Press)
— jamie is one of those people who i hope will remember me when he’s rich and famous

Three Ways of the Saw, Matt Mullins (Atticus Books)
— i interviewed matt here; his book has a beautiful design and i’m excited to read it

When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women, ed. by Andrea Hollander Budy (Autumn House)
–i wasn’t exactly planning to buy a poetry anthology, but this one looks great. i love that there are bios and photos of each poet followed by a cluster of poems (not just one), that the poets are all women, and awesome: Lia Purpura, Kim Addonizio, Sheryl St. Germain, Aimee Nezuhukuatathil, Julia Kasdorf, Juliana Baggott, Camille Dungy, Mary Ruefle…

The Desires of Letters, Laynie Browne (Counterpath)
— reviewed this week with my book at Literary Mama (link above)

Love and the Eye, Laura Newbern (Kore)
–i saw her read at the kore anniversary reading and really loved her poems; it was one of the few kore books i didn’t already have

Journals:

Absinthe: New European Writing
Booth
Midwestern Gothic
The Common
Exit 7 (first issue!)