Matt Mullins has had a few fistfights, but he has no real experience with the martial arts. He is not the other Matt Mullins, the FIVE TIME MARTIAL ARTS WORLD CHAMPION MATT MULLINS, who could definitely kick this Matt Mullins’s ass (unless maybe this Matt Mullins had the advantage of total surprise and a baseball bat). This Matt Mullins has spent nearly his whole life in the Midwest fighting with more intangible things. Mid American Review, Pleiades, Hunger Mountain, Harpur Palate, Hobart, Descant, and a number of other print and online journals have all been there for him with the spit bucket and towel. This Matt Mullins has made a living as a tree surgeon, a house painter, an automotive plant security guard, and a teacher, among other things. Search the web all you like, but you will not find this Matt Mullins on youtube throwing spinning back kicks to a heavy metal soundtrack before tearing off his shirt. His debut collection of short stories, Three Ways of the Saw, is available from Atticus Books and Amazon. You can find his experiments in digital/interactive literature at lit-digital.com.
Have you had mentors? Do you mentor? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance for a writer…
I’ve had writing teachers and friends who also write whose ideas and suggestions have influenced me, but I’ve never had a mentor in the true sense of the word. The people who came closest to being mentors for me were the ones who opened the doorways to new writers and new ideas, which I then began to explore on my own terms. In that sense, I had friends and teachers who pointed me toward the mentors living inside the books I’ve read.
But I think some kind of mentor/mentee relationship is key for an artist of any type. The genius of others is at the core of good art, and you’re striving in a vacuum if you haven’t in some way considered the aspects of that genius through a relationship with those who’ve come before. The advice and guidance of experienced practitioners of your chosen medium is always useful. For some people this guidance comes from an actual relationship with a specific person. In my case, I learned by going directly to the writing of others. So although I do think mentors in the typical sense are important, personal experience has taught me that another type of mentoring occurs when you study the writing of writers whose work impacts you.
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired… suggestions for unblocking creativity?
For me, step one is to put my ass in the chair. Ignore the dishes. Don’t pick up around the house or rake the leaves or clean the gutters or go out drinking (excuses I’ve used). Once I’m there at the desk confronting the lack of things, it becomes a matter of will. I’ll try to avoid dwelling on the fact that nothing seems to be emerging from my imagination at the moment. I’ll kick around in the attic of my head and see what knocks loose. I might look to the outer world, history, current events, nonfiction, where there is always something interesting happening that can be a trigger. Sometimes I’ll pull out something unfinished I set aside a long time ago and try to see it with fresh eyes that let me take it in new directions. Now and then, I might read someone who inspires me then try to riff off what they did in another genre. I’ll read a poem then try to incorporate my take on its notions into a piece of fiction, for example. But, really, once I stop worrying about being “stuck” and start doing, the writing usually begins happening.
Are there favorite writing practices/exercises that you can share? No worries if not.
I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but it’s a technique I really like to use, so I’ll go into it again here. I like to withhold scenes in such a way that they still emerge in the reader’s imagination. Leave one scene and begin the next at the right moments and in the right ways and you imply the events that happened in between. These events then emerge in the reader’s imagination. Because the reader’s imagination is your most powerful tool as a writer, withholding those scenes allows you to essentially “write” something by using your reader’s mind. What’s better than having the reader do the writing for you? They’re automatically going to love what they come up with. But you need to give them the pieces that enable them to do so. The key is to learn how to plant what comes before and trigger what comes after in a way that allows the withheld scene to fully emerge in the reader’s mind. So there’s definitely some risk involved, because if the withheld scene doesn’t fully emerge, you’ve done the opposite of your intent: You’ve created a hole instead of causing the reader to imagine the scene for themselves. You can apply the same principal to subtext as well, that lurker whispering the heart of your intentions—you give just enough to make it hum in the background while leaving room for the reader to connect the dots on their own.
The best advice you ever got? Words of wisdom… What helped you as a young writer?
My dad once said, “If the flame burns, the writer will out,” and I believe it was George Clinton of P-Funk who said “If it don’t fit, don’t force it.” I think that somewhere between my dad’s Irish romanticism and the bottomless groove of George’s cosmo-funk there lies a kind of universal creative truth: you can’t make it happen unless you’re driven to try, but trying too hard usually isn’t the best way to make it happen.
Talk about your new book and anything here about the process of putting it together, publishing, etc. Anything you want to talk about here…
Before it was accepted for publication, the compilation of the manuscript itself caused me to look at my own work in a different way. My focus was on getting individual stories published, so I wasn’t really seeing the larger picture. Even though half of the stories in the collection had already been published by journals, I’d never taken a step back and considered how all the stories I’d written would fit together as a collection. Once I did that, I started seeing patterns and themes emerge. Everything seemed to fall into place naturally from there, and I realized that I had a solid manuscript I wanted to start submitting to publishers.
After it was accepted for publication, watching the book come together was a really positive experience for me, because it was an objective indication that it was time to let all these stories go.
I am a constant reviser, and I read and write relatively slowly. I felt bad about that until I went to see Junot Diaz read a few years ago and someone gave him shit for not putting out a book in the ten years since Drown. His response was, “Hey, I’m a slow-ass writer.” I wanted to stand up and cheer. I felt like cheering again a few years later when I learned Junot’s slow-ass process resulted in a novel that won him a Pulitzer.
For me, getting the book published was the final phase of my own slow-ass process. I took it as my last chance to touch these stories—everything from their overall shape down to each word in every sentence. That’s the kind of writer I am. The story needs to be compelling overall for its structure and content and ideas, certainly, but every single sentence also needs to sing. Lots of writers feel this way. We’re the ones who’ll spend an hour working over both the content and the rhythm of a sentence. In the end, the publication process gave a constant reviser like me a deadline, which is something I needed. It was a chance to take the stories that I’d been living with for a while, put the final spit-shine on them, and send them on their way.
What is new, what is next in your writing world? Anything here about what you may be publishing in the future.
I have two screenplays in progress that I’m hoping to nail down this summer. One’s an adaptation; the other’s an original. I have a novel knocking around in the back of my head. And I have a short manuscript of flash fictions/prose poems I’m finishing up called The Roaring Engine of Here.
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.