david-abrams-photoDavid Abrams‘ short stories have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review and other literary quarterlies.  He regularly contributes book reviews to The Barnes & Noble Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, San Francisco Chronicle and January Magazine.  He retired from active-duty after serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, a career which took him to Alaska, the Pentagon, and Iraq.  His blog, The Quivering Pen, can be found at: www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com

Q (Meg Pokrass): Have you had mentors? Do you mentor? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance for a writer…

When I think of mentors, the first thing that springs to mind is Obi-Wan Kenobi working with Luke Skywalker to help him realize his full potential as a Jedi warrior.  Remember that scene on board the Millennium Falcon where Obi-Wan blindfolds Luke with a helmet then instructs him to hit the little flying droid with the light saber, saying, “Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them — stretch out with your feelings”?  That’s the kind of mentor I’d like to have: the gentle, sage advisor who urges me to look within to see beyond.

Unfortunately, I’ve never really had a mentor like that.  At the risk of sounding like a personal pity party, I’ve been out here on my own most of my writing career, flailing away with the light saber, if you will.  Oh sure, there were my professors in grad school and believe me I love each one of them dearly and value their advice and encouragement even to this day.  But I wouldn’t call them my lifelong mentors.  They were good for me during that short season of college, but now that I’m flying solo, I’m pretty much left to my own devices out here in this vacuum.  And, frankly, I suck at self-mentoring.

There’s a new book, Mentor by Tom Grimes, in which he writes about his relationship with his mentor Frank Conroy.  I haven’t read it, but from what I’ve heard, it’s a cautionary tale about getting ahead of yourself in the publishing business.  I don’t know if Conroy steered him wrong, or if Grimes made bad choices despite good advice, but I know it doesn’t turn out completely happily-ever-after for either of them.  This is not a slam against mentoring, just an observation that, like any relationship, it’s a combination of chemistry and circumstance.  Just because someone’s looking over your shoulder, helping to guide your pencil, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do.

This is starting to sound like I’m pissing in my own Corn Flakes here and I’m sorry to not be more positive about the concept of mentorship.  I’m very happy — and more than a little jealous — for those writers who have formed close relationships with other writers.  I’m just saying, that’s never been much of a reality for me personally.

Would my writing benefit from having a mentor?  Without a doubt.  There have been plenty of dead-end streets I’ve gone down where I wish a mentor had been standing to hold up a Detour sign.  So, yeah, if there’s a Ben Kenobi out there who wants the job of taking me under his or her wing, I’d be cool with that.  Please, before I hurt somebody with this light saber.

What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired… suggestions for unblocking creativity?

There’s a whole complicated prelude to the answer for this question, involving procrastination, distraction, and a general fear of the blank page (which my wife, the armchair psychologist, says is really tied to a fear of success)… but I won’t go into any of that.  Let’s just say I believe the best way to unblock creativity is to hit one key on my keyboard, and then another, and then another.  I have to write myself out of that “stuck place.”  Maybe three times out of ten what I write will be complete and utter shit and I’ll end up putting it out of my misery with the Delete button.  But those other seven times?  I probably have something worth saving — at the very least, I might find a path out of the shadows in which I’m trapped.

Short of that, nothing beats going to the bookshelf, grabbing my battered copy of Flannery O’Connor’s collected short stories, cracking it open at random, and reading five or six sentences.  Five or six sentences of O’Connor is all it takes to scratch those wires together and get a spark.

What writers do you turn to time and time again for inspiration?

Like I said, Flannery is my go-to writer for renewing my faith in the English language.  Nobody but nobody writes better at the pure sentence level, word by electric word.  Other writers I’d have on that Inspiration short list would certainly include Raymond Carver, Tim Gautreaux, Lewis Nordan (my go-to guy for humor), Ron Carlson, and Richard Ford (especially Rock Springs and Wildlife).  And of course the masters: Hemingway, Chekhov, Flaubert.  If we want to talk about mentors, these are my true guides in life.

How did your blog “The Quivering Pen” come about – it is a terrific blog, how long have you had it?

It started last May as a way to test-drive portions of my novel-in-progress (Fobbit, a dark comedy about the Iraq War) with an audience.  I was hoping to build anticipation for the book and lay the early groundwork for later marketing.  This is all very premature since the novel doesn’t even have a publisher yet, but I figured that when the time comes, I’ll at least have a small audience who might be interested in buying the book.

That was the blog’s genesis… and that guiding principle lasted for about a week.  Then I found that I liked having a microphone to talk about reading, writing, and publishing in general.  So, it quickly evolved into a place where I can be, as I mention on the blog, a “book evangelist.”  There are so many under-read and under-appreciated writers out there today that I figured I could be just one more voice crying in the wilderness, “Here, Read This!”

“My First Time” – Please talk about this new feature at The Quivering Pen.

I’m a long-time fan of the “Book Notes” series at David Gutowski’s Largehearted Boy blog and I started thinking about how I could do something similar at The Quivering Pen.  I wanted it to be a feature that was interesting and useful for readers.  So I came up with the idea of asking writers to submit stories about their first-time experiences in writing and publishing.  I put out the call for established, successful authors to send me anecdotes about, for instance, “My First Editor,” “My First Agent,” “My First Public Reading,” “My First Failure,” and “My First Publication.”  The response was tremendous and very gratifying.  I’ve been fortunate to have authors — including Caroline Leavitt, Luanne Rice, Sheri Holman, and Alan Heathcock — take time out from their writing schedules and book tours to tell a few stories for my blog.

Circling back to your original question about mentoring, I guess in a small way I hope that “My First Time” provides that kind of inspirational guidance to young writers out there.  Something where they can say, “Hey, if this is what happened to these bestselling writers at the start of their careers, then I guess there’s still hope for me after all.”

Are you open to submissions for the “My First Time” series?

Sure.  I’m always looking for contributions from established authors who have published at least one book and who have a story to share about their “virgin experiences” in writing and publishing.  For more information on the guest blogs, they can query me at thequiveringpen@gmail.com.  Unfortunately, I’m unable to pay for contributions at this time — their only recompense is the glory of appearing on the internet for one brief, shining moment.  And, of course, my eternal thanks.

And what is next for you? What are you working on now in your writing world?

I’m finishing the latest round of revisions on the Iraq War novel, Fobbit (Elevator Pitch: “It’s as if The Hurt Locker and The Office got married and had a kid they called Catch-22“).  Then there are several short stories I need to pull off the back burner and finish — mainly ones about the Iraq War.  They probably won’t be the last things I write about that experience, but they’re the ones who are crying the loudest to be written right now.

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.

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