John Riley lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he works in educational publishing. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Fiction Daily, Smokelong Quarterly, Connotation Press, Blue Five Notebook, Willows Wept Review and other places online and in print. He is an assistant fiction editor at Ablemuse.
What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer.
I’ve never had a mentor so it’s difficult to say much about its importance, although I’m sure it’s of incalculable importance to writer’s who have one. I know from literary history how important it was to many of the writers I admire. But I’ve always been too shy about my writing habit to take enough writing classes or to venture out to develop that type of relationship. As an undergraduate I did take the typical creative writing courses and the teachers there were positive and looking back I think that if I’d known how to respond those relationships may have developed. But that wasn’t my style. So my mentoring has come from my reading. I tend to develop an obsession with a writer and read everything I can, then move on. I do the same with topics I’m fascinated with, whether it’s history of the Christian Church or medieval science or what have you. So my mentoring has consisted of my rabbiting from writer to writer, subject to subject. I wouldn’t advise that method to anyone else though.
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?
I’m stuck or uninspired too often to claim to have a cure but the best thing I can do, when I’m able, is to forget about writing and begin reading. Try to clear my mind of the anxiety of not getting started or of what I’m bogged down in and read whatever I want, fiction or nonfiction. I love to write but I’m working hard at not letting it drive me crazy. If I do I’ll stop, which is what I’ve done before. So what if I’m not as prolific as other writers? Comparing myself to other people is a trap. I do what I can do in the context of my busy life. Another method that helps, which I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the site, is to turn to the writing and editing I do for a living. (Actually, I need to do this more often.) I work in nonfiction in my day job and find it liberating sometimes to do my research, plan out where the book needs to go in my head, kick it into high gear and just write write write. I love to write. To think in language and type words to the best of my ability. The sheer act of writing is the only job I’ve ever enjoyed. So there is always that alternative if the fiction or poetry is stuck. And the great thing is that the fiction/poetry side of my brain is usually working in background while I write the nonfiction. Finally, there is a lot to be said for taking a walk.
Are there favorite writing exercises or prompts which you use regularly & will share?
I’ve already mentioned my primary exercise–turning to the nonfiction. I have had some success writing to prompts given to me by others. I’ve tried using them to prompt myself but so far with limited success, although I have done some picture prompt pieces I haven’t thrown out. My favorite prompts are word prompts. If my energy level is high and the words are right it can turn me loose. Even if the result isn’t worth much the exercise is good for someone who tends to choke himself down. Confidence can be a problem for me, as I suppose it is for many writers, and if nothing else a good prompt can give me a few minutes when I forget what a fool I am for ever thinking I could write anything worthwhile.
What’s the best writer’s advice you ever got?
I did hear a writer I don’t care for personally, nor do I care for his books, say two things that have helped me more than anything else I’ve heard. The first was that you don’t have a language problem when you’re stuck. That when you’re stuck it is not because the words won’t come. It’s because you don’t know where you are going. Sounds blindingly simple but I needed to hear it. I tend to be a sentence writer and he is a book writer so I’m confident he knows what he’s talking about. The other thing he said is that the writing itself is like the performance of a play. There have been nights of rehearsals and set building and all the other work necessary to get a show up before it opens, just as the actual writing is the culmination of a long process, whether that process is conscious or not. Sometimes when you’re stuck it’s because you’re trying to open the show before it’s ready. As I said, his work doesn’t mean much to me but I found his advice to be invaluable.
How have social networks such as Fictionaut and Facebook helped you in finding a community and support as a writer, if you feel that they have?
My entire support group is and has been online. Starting my company and getting it up and running and raising my kids diverted me from fiction and poetry for too long. Although there is a fairly active writing community in my area I haven’t yet ventured out. When I did begin writing something besides the nonfiction I started with poetry and stumbled onto a board that has been both helpful and inhibiting at the same time. Early on it certainly knocked some of the preposterous stuffing out of me. It was pretty tough going though so I can’t recommend it to everyone. But increasingly I’ve been turning to fiction and it took a while to find a community. The first place I felt some degree of comfort was at the 52/250 project and I’m certainly grateful that Michelle and Walter and John took that on. Then I started doing some of the prompt exercises over at Zoetrope and now I’ve sneaked past the guards at the Fictionaut gates and have burrowed in like an August tic. I find Fictionaut to be encouraging, generous and a little intimidating. There is so much talent here. I’m trying to find the sweet spot between participating and keeping my mouth shut and soaking up all the stuff there is to learn. Facebook has been a good place to be made aware of writers I may not have known about otherwise and to get to know some better. I do have to be careful on Facebook and not waste time there or get dragged into conflicts. I have strong opinions about some things so I’ve slipped up on that last one a few times but I’m getting more savvy.
Ask yourself a question here (what question would you most like to be asked?)
I have two. First: What makes me think anyone at Fictionaut cares what I have to say? Hopefully, anyone else here who is down on my end of the evolutionary scale, with one hand on a ladder rung and the other carrying a big stack of books, will say “Oh hey, yeah. That’s right,” or else shake his or her head and think, “Now I feel so much better about myself.”
Second: Kepler or Newton?
Meg: You are damn interesting to me, John Riley. Such a strong writer, a supportive community member, funny and honest as hell, refreshingly so.
Hm: Kepler or Newton?
You didn’t answer it, do you want me to? Yikes.
What are you working on now? What are your current goals?
I want to make progress on the novel I’ve been circling with my spear held in throwing position. I’d also like to write a few longer stories. But I’ll never stop writing flash and poetry. There is a satisfaction that comes from them both that is impossible to get elsewhere.
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.