Chiseling the Marble

All of my focus the last few weeks has been on the non-writing aspects of my life. Health issues, life issues, children issues are in the forefront and must be dealt with. At times like this, I feel it necessary to draw back from daily writing and networking on social media. I draw into myself a little, too. There is so much to think about, do, and simply feel. When things return to something a little closer to normal, I know I’ll resume my habit of settling myself every morning in my writing room. I’ll drink my coffee and look out my window awhile. I’ll take pen in hand and begin again. That is simply the nature of life and living. Beginning again. Over and over.

Still-Writing-by-Dani-ShapiroHowever, even when I’m not writing, I’m reading and thinking about writing. Right now I’m reading “Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life” by Dani Shapiro. It’s marvelous. It reminds me quite a bit of Natalie Goldberg’s gently inspiring “Writing Down the Bones” (I have a story about that book and what it means to me that I’ll blog about someday). There are so many quotable passages in this book, but I’ll share just this one that really resonated with me this morning:

“Don’t think too much. There’ll be time to think later. Analysis won’t help. You’re chiseling now. You’re passing your hands over the wood. Now the page is no longer blank. There’s something there. It isn’t your business yet to know whether it’s going to be prize-worthy someday, or whether it will gather dust in a drawer. Now you’ve carved the tree. You’ve chiseled the marble. You’ve begun.”

So go and chisel something today. For me. I promise I’ll be back to join you soon.

Flash Fiction: Strings

kites-014

Strings

The aunt and uncle’s farm, early spring, the earth smell of unsown fields, and Sunday lunch. My uncle sprawled in the recliner, his work boots raised like an affront. Burning Camel stuck to his lower lip. Snoring. The aunts and my mother drinking coffee, my aunt whispers about strange things coming out of her when she goes to the bathroom. My mother spies us on the floor pretending to play crazy eights. She indicates with her cigarette the back door. All our lives we’ve been following that little point of fire. We are given kites to assemble. Rickety-ass kites. Balsa wood and paper. Balls and balls of string. We tromp down the path between the trees. The field opens up to us like something born. My older brother Bill and his girlfriend shy in the face of their molten horniness. They drop their kites and head for the barn. Bits of colored paper we tear halfway, straddle them on the strings, watch them race like children. My younger brother innovates with headlines he tears from the Press-Citizen: Local Boy Bowls 7-10 Split! Up, up it goes. The rogue German Shepherd is trying to bite everyone. Bit cousin Nancy in the face last month. Couple Wed 75 Years Die Fifteen Minutes Apart. Heavenward. O glorious day! The kites bob and weave, boxed by the wind. The German Shepherd running in circles. Planets Collide! Bill comes hopping out of the barn screaming. His knee wide open, dangling, meat falling off the bone (the way my aunt describes slow cooked pork ribs). The German Shepherd, insane over the blood. They’d been jumping from the hayloft, Bill and the girlfriend, his knee sliced by something under the straw. Some farm implement lying in wait, some menacing blade. Space Aliens Take Over House of Representatives! To the clouds! Bill, howling. Blood just everywhere. His knee inside the German Shepherd’s jaws. Nobody sees Uncle John until he’s there, taking aim. A blast. Bill on the ground alive and bleeding. The German Shepherd, dead. Little brother still tearing up the newspaper. Rickety Kites Survive Nuclear Blast! The kites, untethered, rise further, disappear. Our faces upturned like the best kind of prayer.

*Originally published in New World Writing.

Segmented Flash Fiction: “Abbreviated Glossary” by Gay Degani (with author comments)

Gay II(Readers, in talking about my previous post with my friend, Gay Degani, she linked a segmented flash of her own and it’s…amazing. So I asked if I could reprint the story here and get her to talk a little about the story and its structure. I was hugely moved to learn the origins of the story and I think you will be too. Thanks so much, Gay, for honoring my blog once again!)

~~~

I wrote “Abbreviated Glossary” around 2009 or 2010, and I’m trying to remember what prompted me to do it this way. I know I didn’t want the piece to be too complicated–emotional scenes with dialogue–because the inspiration for the story was real. One of those “what if” stories where you take something from your life, something big, and change most of the details to create–well, a story not quite your own.

Honestly almost everything I write comes from my life in one form or another. In this case, it felt like an offering, I suppose. It’s turning my life into something meaningful and it was cleansing. Perhaps this is how I forgive myself. Or perhaps it’s my way of writing memoir. I did lose a child to anencephaly back in 1980, but I didn’t want this piece to be about me.

So segmentation worked. It allowed me to reveal a difficult situation without delving into all the emotion, all the self-blame, all the loss. I can’t find a draft of this story with any other structure so I must have been exploring “form” at the time, read someone else’s piece using this technique, and had an “aha” moment–that’s the way to do this story.

The original version was done as chapters, each segment with its own Roman numeral. I called it “Five Chapters.” At some point, I decided to use words instead. This added another dimension and gave me a more distinctive title. That’s all I can remember about this, other than I work-shopped it twice, both times with male authors facilitating, and interestingly, neither liked it–at all. Thus Melusine seemed to me the perfect place to submit.

(And here is Gay’s gorgeous and delicately wrought segmented flash, originally published in Melusine):

Abbreviated Glossary

Want:

I slide my naked leg between his thighs. Dev is trying a case tomorrow; he’s tired. But he owes me his touch, and I know exactly how to use my tongue.

Pact:

His lips disappear between his teeth when I break the news. He says he’s not ready—no diapers for him—but I know he is. I’ll do the hard part. I promise.

Hope:

My fingers knead the curve of my belly. Dev slips an arm around my waist and grins at his boss. Proud papa.

Thrill:

Dev can’t keep his hands off me, calls me sexy mama, but when he’s not around, I fret. Eight months along and my bump so small.

Rift:

Skull bones don’t always fuse together, the doctor tells me. I call Dev, but he’s in court, won’t request a recess, even when I beg. The hard part, I see, will be losing both.

Gay Degani lives in Southern California with her husband in an old Victorian house where parrots congregate at dusk in the oaks and camphors around her neighborhood.

She has published fiction online and in print, including her collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder and editor-emeritus of Flash Fiction Chronicles, an editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at: Words in Place where a complete list of her work can be found as well as her social media links.

Three times nominated for Pushcart consideration and winner of the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize, Gay has won or been a finalist in contests sponsored by Women On Writing, Glimmer Train, Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Competition, and Bosque (The Magazine). Her novella, The Old Road, has been unfolding in Pure Slush’s 2014-A Year in Stories project. Her suspense novel, What Came Before, is now available at Barnes and Noble online and Amazon.com in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook formats.

To Segment or Not to Segment: “Baby, Baby” (flash fiction)

Today, writer Robyn Ryle told me she just had a segmented story accepted at Luna Luna Magazine. It was a story she’d changed to a segmented structure after reading my story, “Rodney & Chelsea” posted some while back here on my blog. I can’t wait to read her story and am so excited that my story inspired her to look at structure another way!

But does segmenting always work? What is lost and what is gained by employing this structure in flash fiction?

The structure suits flash fiction very well in that it eliminates the use of transitions, bridges from scene to scene, and therefore results in fewer words–a goal of flash fiction.

The absence of transitions creates a snapshot effect. The reader has to collaborate with the writer to create story within the white space. The writer is playing with the reader’s subconscious, which of course differs from reader to reader. This, to me, is what makes flash so exciting to read and to write. The individual snapshots carry more weight, or ought to carry more weight, if they’re to be effective.

Also, segmented structure allows a flash to cover a broader expanse of time (see my post about Jeff Landon’s “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace.”–although I wrote a one-sentence flash that covered a lifetime in my flash “The Stars of Ursa Major” published many years ago in New South).

But what is lost? I would say a gentle flow or build. Flash fiction doesn’t always need to be “punchy” or “sharp” (many would disagree with me on this!). There are times when you want something smoother, slower even. Or you want to stay in one particular moment or scene. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a future post, but I will say now that segmenting something like this would diffuse the moment and nothing, nothing in flash fiction should be diffused.

Here is another of my segmented flash stories, published in an issue of FRiGG Magazine which was devoted to micro-fiction. I saw this story as a collection of micros and editor, Ellen Parker, agreed. I wanted to convey the frenetic, exhausting, exhilarating first weeks and months of motherhood, but only to focus on the sharp moments that force themselves out of the blur of it. Did the segmented structure serve my purpose? Let me know what you think…

Baby, Baby…

Everyone’s in a hurry. Especially the men, who run for the trains and sacrifice their briefcases to the doors. Men in seats, reading newspapers or paperbacks. Ling is weary of these men. She wants to stick her pregnant belly into their noses. She looks at herself in the window. She’s wearing a herringbone maternity suit with a large red bow at her neck. She looks angry and fat, but festive.

~~

Six weeks after giving birth, Ling goes back to work downtown. She pumps her breasts in the ladies room, sitting on the toilet. Co-workers come in to pee or brush their teeth and the pump squeaks and from the stall, Ling says sorry…I’m sorry.

~~

Before dawn, she buckles the baby into the Escort and sticks a bottle in its mouth. She leaves the car seat at the babysitter’s for her husband, who collects the baby when he gets off work and drives the baby home in his Toyota. The baby listens to Bruce Springsteen in the Toyota and Moonlight Sonata in the Escort.

~~

Ling hands the babysitter a half cup of frozen blue milk in a baggy. The babysitter shrugs. I’ll mix it with her formula, she says. You have a run in your stocking.

~~

Ling doesn’t sleep and becomes ineffectual in her job. She’d quit, but they are sort of broke. Suddenly, she doesn’t know what any of it means. What does it mean? She asks her co-workers. What are the codes? What are the procedures? She types a row of question marks, eats prodigiously from a bag on her desk. Sometimes she closes her eyes and dreams that the baby has been put back into her stomach. Only now, the baby is a monkey.

~~

On weekends, she takes the baby for long strolls. Once they’d gone as far as three miles and the baby got hungry and Ling had forgotten to pack a bottle. She ran all the way back, bumping over cracks in the sidewalk as the baby screamed.

~~

The husband arranges for a babysitter so they can go to a Christmas party. The party is a Vegas night and they gamble at tables and make small talk with the husband’s co-workers and their spouses. At the craps table, Ling whispers to the older woman next to her, I have a three month old. I can’t believe I’m here. The woman offers a sip of her screwdriver.

~~

Each working day at dusk, Ling runs into the house and kicks off her sneakers. She reaches up into her skirt and rolls down the band of her panty hose and takes the baby from her husband’s lap. She lies on her back, holding the baby overhead and flies the baby back and forth in her upstretched arms. She sings:

baby baby
flying all over the world
looking for toys and candy

and the baby smiles and the husband laughs. And the baby’s cheeks droop like water balloons. And the baby drops drool on Ling’s forehead.

Writing Process Blog Tour: James Tate Hill

jt-picture copyJames Tate Hill’s fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora Review, The South Carolina Review, and other outlets. He has been a finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and the Hudson Prize, and in 2012 he was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. His book reviews and interviews can be found at Bookslut, and he serves as Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle. A native of Charleston, West Virginia, he teaches writing at North Carolina A & T State University.

First, let me thank the wonderful Kathy Fish, not only for inviting me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour, but for allowing me, blogless and Tumblrless as I am, to post this on her blog. Her own responses from July 17 can and should be read further down the blog.

What are you working on?

I’m turning the last corner of line edits on a novel about child stars with mysterious talents. It charts the stardom and complicated romance between two orphans who grow up in an abandoned movie theater. As teenagers, their talents have faded, and the former stars struggle to pull themselves from downward spirals. Seeing similarities in their stories, they wonder if more than fate and their own bad choices are behind their demise.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

The novel has speculative elements in the tradition of books like Geek Love and Never Let Me Go, but I don’t—I can’t—write prose like Katherine Dunn or Kazuo Ishiguro. In fact, the novel’s coming-of-age structure might place it as firmly in the category of Young Adult as so-called Literary Fiction. I’m certain the work of writers like Kevin Wilson, Stephen King, and Shirley Jackson, ostensibly writers for an adult audience, helped to shape this novel, and I hope my work has a fraction of the psychological complexity of theirs. But as I forge my own complicated romance with more and more Young Adult fiction, I’m finding complexity is more a function of writer and story than genre.

Why do you write what you do?

All my writing projects, or the ones that work, can be traced to an obsession. Since early childhood, I’ve been obsessed with fame, show business, celebrity of just about any stripe. Why I’ve been so interested in this topic is a question for another day—I have my theories—but as far back as my early twenties, I noticed the stories I enjoyed writing most invariably involved a character, not necessarily the main character, in the public eye. Inevitably any story about fame takes place in the gap, small or large, between perception and reality, a space every writer probably explores on some level.

How does your writing process work?

In the fabled showdown of tortoise v. hare, I’m definitely the tortoise, although I’ve yet to win any races. I began the first, altogether different version of this project eight years ago, a few days after the death of the novel that came before it. I had been fortunate enough to find an agent for a love story set in the wacky world of professional wrestling, a novel whose myriad shortcomings are better left unmentioned. But the rejection of that more traditional narrative led me pretty far in the other direction—a little too far, as it turned out. Fast-forward a few years. I had just completed a mystery and had written twenty-five pages of a new novel that weren’t bad, but sitting down to work on it felt like creating a human being, cell by cell. When I heard a faint heartbeat, it wasn’t coming from the new project; it was coming from the figurative drawer in which I had buried the child stars project years earlier. An idea took shape pretty quickly, a story that ran from page one all the way to the end, which is to say a genuine plot. Only the heartbeat, i.e. the central conceit, of the earlier drafts lives on, but after eight years the book seems to be what it wanted to be all along.

The following writers have generously agreed to continue the tour next Thursday:

Valerie Nieman is the author of three novels, the most recent being Blood Clay, winner of the Eric Hoffer Award in General Fiction and a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Prize. Her 1988 novel Neena Gathering was returned to print last year by Permuted Press as a classic in the post-apocalyptic genre. Currently a North Carolina Arts Council Fellow, she has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as grants in West Virginia and Kentucky. Her debut poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake, will be joined by a new book, Hotel Worthy, forthcoming in 2015. Her poetry has been honored with the Greg Grummer Prize and the Nazim Hikmet Prize. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she was a newspaper reporter and editor for many years. She now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and is the poetry editor of Prime Number magazine.
Find out more at http://www.valnieman.com

Ariell Cacciola is a writer based in New York City. Her writing has appeared in various magazines, journals, and anthologies. She also translates from German to English and is finishing her first novel. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Florida State University and an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she received a merit fellowship and a literary translation fellowship in 2011-2012 to Leipzig, Germany.
Find out more at http://www.ariellcacciola.com

Robert Long Foreman is from Wheeling, West Virginia. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Hobart, Fourth Genre, the 2014 Pushcart Anthology, and Another Chicago Magazine. He teaches creative writing and literature at Rhode Island College.
Find out more at http://www.robertlongforeman.tumblr.com

My Writing Process – Blog Tour

Many thanks to my friend and amazing author, Myfanwy Collins, for inviting me to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour. (If you haven’t see it, here is her terrific post.)

1) What are you working on?

Two things: I’m pulling together a new collection which may turn out to be a novella of connected flash-length stories. It is moving in that direction and I’m excited about it.

I’ll be a little coy about the second project and just say it involves an invitation to teach flash fiction and I’m extremely excited for the opportunity.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure my work fits into any specific genre. I do write a lot of literary flash fiction, as well as prose poetry and regular length short stories. Sometimes I go a little experimental with my writing. I’m not really sure what distinguishes my work from other literary writing beyond my own style, which of course is unique to everyone.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I was recently asked this question for Flash Fiction Chronicles. And while I write things other than flash, much of the answer pertains to all of my writing so I’ll just link my answer here: “Why I Write Flash Fiction.”

4) How does your writing process work?

I’m constantly going over the same material. Most things I publish now I can trace back to some embryonic scribbles in a notebook from months, if not years, ago. That’s why I always describe myself as a slow writer. There is some feeling that there’s something there in a line or an image that keeps drawing me back to it.

Another part of my process is a tendency to weirdify my past (which is weird enough already). I like to look for the strangest aspect and just run with it. And I love to write down weird bits of overheard dialogue. I love to listen to strangers’ conversations. I love to watch people in airports. All pretty typical writer stuff.

I have asked the following terrific writers to go next. Look for their responses July 24th (James Tate Hill is going to honor me by posting his response here on my blog):

Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose stories have
appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Birkensnake, and other
places. Her short story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was
published by firthFORTH Books in 2012, and her novel, Une Ville Vide,
by PublieMonde in 2013. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart
Prize, the British Science Fiction Award, and included in the Wigleaf
top 50 longlist. Find out more at http://beritellingsen.com.

Rebecca Meacham is the author the flash fiction collection Morbid Curiosities, which won the 2013 New Delta Review chapbook contest. Her story collection, Let’s Do, won University of North Texas Press’s 2004 Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Read more at: http://rebeccameachamwriter.com

James Tate Hill’s fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora
Review, The South Carolina Review, and other outlets. He has been a
finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and the Hudson Prize, and in
2012 he was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.
His book reviews and interviews can be found at Bookslut, and he
serves as Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle. A native of Charleston,
West Virginia, he teaches writing at North Carolina A & T State
University.

Flash Fiction: The Blue of Milk

Asked by the editors of Blue Fifth Review to comment on the writing of this piece, I said, “La lecture huile sur toile is such a beautiful and ghostly painting. It evoked in me a terrible sense of loneliness. From that feeling, I created this gauzy scene with two characters: A naked woman walking in the moonlight and a small boy trailing behind her, dragging a white blanket. I wrote various observers into the story and finally settled on a man walking his dog. I wrote the story with the repetitions and flow the way it felt and sounded to my ear. Later, in revision, I found myself trying to wrestle the story from its strangeness into something safer, but it just wouldn’t take. I wrote a new ending, went deeper into the strangeness, and finally the story felt exactly true and right.”

The Blue of Milk*

There was a woman who went to the park at night and swung on the swings and drank from a bottle in a paper bag. When she became dizzy she would stand and remove her clothes and walk the perimeter of the park singing low.

There was a man who walked his dog, who saw her, but kept to the other side of the street and never entered the park. When the moon was out and shining she looked blue he thought a naked blue or silver or the blue of milk but he tried not to look at her.

There was a small child who lay in bed waiting for his mother to return. He decided one night to follow her.

The man saw the boy trailing far behind the woman. The boy dragged a blanket. The man kept to the other side of the street and didn’t enter the park.

All the nights after this were the same with the woman taking off all her clothes and circling the park and drinking from the bottle in the bag and the boy trailing behind like a ghost and the man walking his dog and seeing them both but keeping to the other side of the street and not entering the park or calling out to the woman and the boy.

The nights grew colder. The woman persisted with taking off her clothes and the boy persisted with following her in just his thin pajamas and the man persisted in walking his dog but the man began wearing a coat and the dog too wore a coat that matched the man’s.

One night the man’s dog, a terrier growing old and blind, started to bark at the woman as she passed by and the woman and the boy trailing behind her were startled and for the first time noticed the man and his dog and the woman stopped and the boy stopped and the woman cried out and the terrier strained at his leash and the man felt now he had no choice but to cross the street and enter the park and apologize for his dog and get the woman to put on her clothes and maybe help her and her son back to their house and God knows what else but now he probably had to do something as they had both seen him.

The terrier stopped barking and the man bent to pick him up as he crossed the street and entered the park and approached the woman who was crying and patting the head of the boy whose arms were wrapped around her naked legs.

The man said I apologize if my dog frightened you I don’t know what got into him but see he’s very sweet really and you can pet him if you’d like. The man knelt and the boy reached out his hand to let the terrier smell it. Both the boy and the woman petted the terrier and let him lick their hands and the man tried not to look at the woman.

Ma’am he said you seem to have misplaced your clothes can I help you find them? The boy looked up to his mother now embarrassed but the mother only said yes let’s find my clothes and she set down the bag with the bottle in it in such a way that it would not tip over.

Her clothes lay on the ground near the swings and the woman pulled them on. They were only pajamas and it had gotten quite cold now and the man took off his coat and put it over the woman’s shoulders and his stocking cap he put on the boy’s head and now everybody looked quite normal and it seemed okay to walk them home which he offered to do.

It turned out that the woman and the boy lived not far from where the man lived, on his own with the terrier, though he’d never seen them during the day or any other place in the neighborhood. She asked him to come inside and she would make them all tea but she was unsteady on her feet. She said this is our abode and it sounded like a warble and she made a sweeping gesture with her arm and the boy started to cry. She went to the kitchen and the man sat down with his terrier on his lap and the boy lay on the floor with the blanket knotted in his fist.

The woman brought a cup of water with a tea bag in it but the water had not been heated. The man watched the brown color of the tea swirl slowly into the clear water and said I would like to help you if I can do you need some money or food do you have a job what can I do? The woman said there is nothing to be done or said we are fine you finish your tea and go please. The boy dragged his blanket to the other room and the woman said we need to sleep now and she came to the man with the terrier on his lap and gave him a kiss on the cheek. The man could see her breast through the opening in her pajamas and he touched it and mouthed it and she let him and she liked it and this is how they were for some time, the woman bent to the man, the long strands of her hair falling onto the little dog’s head and over his blind eyes, in the quiet of the woman’s abode.

*originally published in Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Series, in response to la lecture huile sur toile by Francis Denis. Thanks to Sam Rasnake and Michelle Elvy for inviting me to contribute.