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We are pleased to welcome author, journalist, and activist Ming Lauren Holden to Writers on Craft this month.  Ming Lauren Holden grew up on a zebra ranch in Santa Barbara county and has done development work in ten countries on four continents over the past twelve years. She founded the Survival Girls, a self-sustaining theater group for Congolese refugee girls in a Nairobi slum, in 2011. Her nonfiction book about the experience was published in November 2013 by Wolfram Productions.

Ming spent her year as a Henry Luce Scholar in Mongolia, serving the Mongolian Writers Union as its first-ever international relations advisor and advocating for a Mongolia PEN Center.  She most recently won Chattahochee Review’s Lamar York Nonfiction Prize, Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Story Contest, and USAID’s Frontiers in Development essay competition. Her poetry, fiction, nonfiction, journalism, photography, and literary translations also appear in Arts & Letters, Cerise Press, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Passages North, Poets & Artists, The Poker, The Santa Ynez Valley Journal, The Huffington Post, and others.  She graduated from Brown University with Honors in Literary Arts and went on to earn her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Indiana University, where she was the first M.F.A. student to be named the Herman Wells Graduate Fellow.

What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work or modern news or literature-any “go to” texts?

I go to contemporary poetry, actually, to get a break from both the form and content of my own nonfiction and those of the media superstructure.  Sharon Olds is a favorite, as are Ross Gay, Forrest Gander, Steve Scafidi, Charles Wright, Jenny Factor–and the work of experimental fictionauts like Noy Holland, Brian Evenson, and Thalia Field.  Anything that busts through the usual and hits me in the gut with that rupture usually wakes me up from whatever trance my own work or the “master narrative” has put me in.

If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?

Trust your own rhythm and voice.  You can edit something until you lose hope or faith in what it could be or what you thought it was.  Don’t let it get to that point—where the heart of it is on the cutting room floor.  Editing can be a way for the gremlin in your ear to start criticizing your work so that, after enough rounds of editing, you cut things that are really some of your most unique gifts.  Everyone edits their stuff a ton—by no means am I saying don’t edit—but remember whatever bell inside you that rang when you were inspired to write this thing you’re writing, and don’t get so far away that you can’t hear it.

How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?

It has, happily, focused outward from my own navel a tiny amount from when I started writing.  I started to wonder what literature does for people, and whom it serves.  I started trying to tell stories that helped to illuminate the plight of millions of voiceless people–an inherently problematic endeavor, but one worth trying and failing at.  It exists at the juncture of literary art and activism, which is an important place.  Writing used to be a way to describe my life as I felt it from the inside, and now it’s something I think of additionally as a connective tissue between myself and the people I write about, and between those people and my readers.

What do you feel is the purpose of literature?

On an individual level, I think it is to endow freedom and connection.  It helps people feel less alone.  Everyone, I think, needs to be heard telling their story.  I think everyone needs to see themselves in the art they experience, to know they’re not the only one to have looked/felt this way.

As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?

I can only quote Kurt Vonnegut: There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-”God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

(I would add: to both others and yourself.)

Your work has been so deeply influenced by your exposure to other cultures.  Can you speak to that for our readers?  How do you feel being a World Citizen has impacted the projects you’ve taken on or would take on?

I think my incredibly good fortune in terms of working in other countries is the chance it has given me to really look at what stays the same across cultures—the wonderful and the terrible—because that’s what makes us human.  Classic literature is classic because it’s timeless; because it asks or answers questions about humanity and existence that stay true through the ages.  Kindness, cruelty, love, humor – it’s all there, in every human corner.  I got to see that, in many countries, at a relatively young age.  The questions asked and answered by literature and the writing of it were illustrated deeply by what I saw and the people I worked with.  The Survival Girls (www.thesurvivalgirls.com), who are Congolese women creating original pieces of theater about the injustices they have suffered, taught me that storytelling truly does save lives; it really does affect trauma recovery for the better.  When I saw how central telling one’s story is to healing from certain things, I began to be interested in the work of literature as that of witness, and of testimony.  I looked for ways to honor that role that literature plays in grief and healing and trauma, in shedding the light on situations so that those situations begin to change. Seeing so much of the world and working with people from all over taught me the opportunities to care for others that comes along with being a human in community with other humans, and the projects I take on engage with literature’s role in that.

What’s recently released or in the pipeline for your readers? Give us a sneak peek.

The Daily Beast put up an extract from my book about that theater group, which I founded in Nairobi two years back.  The book is called The Survival Girls, which was released last month. All proceeds from sales of the book go to tuition for the Survival Girls’ university education.

Writers on Craft is hosted by Heather Fowler, who cares about writing. She does a lot of it. Visit her profile on Fictionaut or see here for more: www.heatherfowlerwrites.com.

 

Lately I’ve been absent from the world of Fictionaut, consumed by a return to the classroom and the many issues such a change implies. Still, there are favorites, writers I seek out here for their brilliance; Chris Okum, Michael Gillan Maxwell, Steve Gowin, and Sheldon Lee Compton. However, when Michelle Elvy asked me to contribute to the Editor’s Eye, I decided to go in search of strangers, as I feel estranged from the world of Fictionaut these days, and the old familiar faces are not so familiar after all. So here then are my diamonds in the rough:

1: Peter Kispert’s Tourniquet

This is a short, beautifully wrought piece of writing. I found myself drawn in by the strength of the writing, the way each word builds on the previous word. When I read, “I learned a tourniquet is a compression tool, a vice for flesh” I knew this was a writer I wanted to discover and share with people.

2: Paul de Denus’ The Confession

Powerful scene that takes me right into the action. I found the first line to be a killer: “He told me he once burned a church. I particularly liked how once the first line dissolves on the tongue like a communion wafer, the whole world of the narrator opens up and the whole thing is like watching a log burn in the grate on a cold night—satisfying, engaging, wonderful.

3: Steve Edwards’ An excerpt from The Heart Café

Longer than the usual Fictionaut offering, this one brings a world to my attention that I want to read more of, become immersed in, discover what the hell happens next. The writing is strong, the dialog sharp, the narrative flow nice and snappy, and the last line is a humdinger: “…she dissolved like a snowflake on a tongue.”

4: Glynis Eldridge’s black friday

Maybe it’s because I’m brooding on life, death, aging, and my own mother is growing old, but there’s a weigh, a poignancy, an absence though of sentimentality, in this work-in-progress. The writing is strong, the voice assured, the subject matter no laughing one, and the image of an old woman sipping tomato soup through a straw is enough to break one’s heart. A worthy read.

5: Sina Evans’ 11/30/13; or, what you won’t see in the picture

A poem, because I don’t do poetry at all well. I love the shape and form of this one. The images are fresh, the language simple, and there are avocado trees within! No, really, this is a gem, a real beauty of a poem. The way the weight falls on the final trio of images—“hive, landscape, bodies,” is quite wonderful.

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James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and Australian cattle-dog, Rua. He is the author of the book, Blood a Cold Blueand his website is at www.jamesclaffey.com.

Editor’s Eye is curated by Michelle Elvy (Fictionaut profile here). She writes and edits every day at michelleelvy.com, and readers can also find her editing Blue Five Notebook (with Sam Rasnake) and Flash Frontier.

 

I’ve so enjoyed being back here, participating as an editor for the “Editor’s Eye” feature! What a unique destination Fictionaut is. There are new gems here every day, fresh-pressed and ready to be loved.

I read to feel. I am not an academic reader (or writer). Typically, I am not interested in the groovy-ness/cleverness of an imposed structure, unless it’s internal, unless it is authentic.

When I read, I want to be moved, the same way I do when I listen to music.

I let words dance in my brain and trick my senses. Sensory involvement and emotional engagement go hand-in-hand in short prose pieces. What grabs me is often more about what is NOT said than what is.

When selecting these five stories, I tried to give myself very few restrictions. I let the work decide, not the comments or stars. Some of the pieces I chose were somewhat overlooked, others were well-favorited.

Reading for the “Editor’s Eye” feature reminded me of how much I admire what Fictionaut offers readers and writers to share on a daily basis.

I’m grateful to Jurgen Fauth and Michelle Elvy for asking me to participate in this feature.

Here are my choices:

Zeta Reticuli  by Christian Bell

Poetry and prose blend here in this flash by Christian Bell. What Bell creates is a visceral, claustrophobic moment when what we love feels threatened. He brings us into the eye of a personal hurricane. There is little comfort to be found in his beautiful ending. We just want it all to be okay.

Grackles by Barry Basden

Basden is asking the reader to sit and observe quietly as he sets the past before us. This piece tackles bigotry, wearing old and new small-town binoculars:

“One of our distinguished old-timers, reminiscing a while ago, said, “We let them pickaninnies fend for themselves.

Basden incorporates much poetry in his use of language. The following sentence, like so many in this piece, is masterful:

I sip the Dairy Queen’s sweet iced tea and, from a shaded bench, watch the grackles prance.

No need to say more. Please read.

AFTER by Adam Sifre

Reminiscent, to me, of Raymond Carver’s poetry!

 You haven’t lived until she dances just for you,

under the kitchen lights

Details wrap me inside this moment, AND do not want to be unwound:

naked except for the gray cotton shirt

and we are there, we are in love with what the poet loves.

She laughs, arms waving above her head.

Just delightful!

Quitting by Jake Barnes

This story by Jake Barnes is mysterious in the best way. It takes me through a cloud of… smoke. I can see what is happening and yet — I can’t completely work it through until the end.  It jiggles like the ample-sized bellydancer. I can see that the speaker must quit smoking and yet the world is an oozing place, he notices too much, he needs the crutch of the cigarette (cigarettes are known to be love replacements). There are vague hints sewn in about the difficulty with temptation in more than one form. It is a very human story, sly and smartly written.

The tip-off (for me): “A little lower, actually…”

This man is lusting after something he is not supposed to have, and it is going to win. This is all too true, in life, this daily struggle of “not supposed to…”

Thank you, Mr. Barnes.

Some Nights by Ron Burch

Ron Burch’s story “Some Nights” is an addictively dark read. It kidnaps the reader with one man’s experience of modern isolation. I am right there with Burch’s narrator, feeling locked inside a bruised and hopeless night…. alone and looking for love, inside a big house, in Los Angeles.

 You worry what it can do to you this night.

The night is a bully. And yet, the night itself hurts…

This night, which seems especially wounded.

This excerpted line takes us into the lonely city of online loneliness farms i.e. dating sites:”…and you send suggestively sexual lines to each other while exploring a roomful of each other’s personal history the size of a mansion, and you desperately want it to keep going on and on…”

Loneliness kills. Scientists know this. The solution? Dating sites! Burch shows us just how empty online looking-for-love sites can feel: a bigger, virtual house with lonely people invisibly calling out to one another, using sex as glue, bringing us microscopically, unflinchingly close to a very modern kind of desperation.

Editor’s Eye is curated by Michelle Elvy (Fictionaut profile here). She writes and edits every day at michelleelvy.com, and readers can also find her editing Blue Five Notebook (with Sam Rasnake) and Flash Frontier.

We are pleased to welcome author, editor and poet John Lawson to Writers on Craft this month.  John is the author of nine books of fiction and poetry, and seven chapbooks. Over 500 of his poems, stories, and articles have been published in magazines, anthologies, literary journals, and newspapers worldwide. John was a winner of the 2001 Fiction International Emerging Writers Competition; in addition to being a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award (2006, Superior Achievement in Poetry) and the Wonderland Award for Bizarro Fiction (2007, collected fiction), other award nominations include two for the Rhysling Award, two for the Dwarf Stars Award, and the Pushcart Prize.

He is also a founding editor of Raw Dog Screaming Press. He spent four years as editor-in-chief of The Dream People online literary journal of bizarro fiction and poetry. Other editorial projects include two print anthologies, four e-anthologies, and freelance work for such companies as National Lampoon and Double Dragon Publishing.

What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work or modern literature-any “go to” texts?

Typically I’ll look at something I feel is the bottom of the barrel and draw inspiration from that, ha ha! Not unlike those gruesome car crash assemblies in high school meant to instill safe driving habits in students. Barring that cold splash of water approach I’ll opt for The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels by Barry Gifford, Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, maybe Audition by Ryu Murakami or Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I’m lucky enough to also hang with some brilliant contemporaries from whom it is easy to draw inspiration as well, so friends like D. Harlan Wilson keep me on my toes, and colleagues like Eric Miles WIlliamson, not to mention a great book published this year titled This Time, While We’re Awake. I can pretty much flip to any page from those sources, read a few paragraphs, be like “Uh-huh!” and go get down and dirty.

If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?

Avoid writing how you want the reader to feel. This one thing will clear up a lot of the word usage advice out there along with “show, don’t tell” all in one swoop, and in narrative terms will keep you focused on the details that matter. Which is fairly significant, because that allows a clearer understanding of what’s actually happening, and keeps the pace more brisk. As an editor I often see work in which there are so many descriptors of the adjectives and verbs that the action slows to a snail’s pace, scenes drag out forever, etc., and the constant emotional digressions about how things “feel” aren’t actual investment in character development. We don’t get any clearer idea of what the character is like after a page about how horrible and unjust something is, but if we see the character’s reaction to injustice, well, there you go. The phenomenon I describe here is not limited to those of us who are unpublished. My son has been enjoying audio books during our two hour roundtrip travel time to his school. The series he currently prefers was an attempt to cash in on the Harry Potter craze (and yes, the intro music employs the same notes and chord progressions as the theme from the Harry Potter films), and in the publisher’s haste the work was brought to market seemingly unedited. The books are an extreme example of what I describe above, far more egregious than what I normally see in the regional writing contests I judge, or in manuscripts I’ve rejected. I could go on, but the point is: time spent writing how you want the reader to feel about your writing is time spent not writing the characters, plot, and action.

How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?

Fourteen years ago I was “having fun” and doing whatever I wanted, which did earn me some respect, but overall wasn’t appealing in any mass market sense. This was a good phase to get out of the way early on, because now that I have a solid grounding in “rule breaking” it’s a lot of fun to take various conventional forms and see what I can do within those parameters. Believe it or not I began with screenwriting, a field that is not friendly to the rebel. Luckily I soon found my way into fiction markets to entertain my disruptive tendencies, and poetry markets to hone my word usage, while still keeping a foot in the screenwriting arena to develop my understanding of traditional story structure and “how to please the crowd.” Years later I seem to be able to do all these things simultaneously, which pleases me to no end. In the beginning my vision was fairly narrow because I believed that in order to push boundaries one need focus on very select audiences at society’s fringe, whereas now the sky’s the limit. I feel I can write for every audience while still bringing something new to the table, and absolutely love doing romantic comedies—something I despised when I started writing.

What do you feel is the purpose of literature?

People need to be entertained, first and foremost, even if it’s just in the most shallow sense. Beyond the surface, though, literature hopefully touches on something thought provoking. I think the goal is to give the mind a full workout, to provide a safe environment to explore what it means to lose one’s lover, to kill another human, to find yourself in unexpected danger and prevail, to exercise a form of compassion you didn’t know existed. Literature is the original virtual reality, after all, but unlike video games or web sites or films: it exists only inside you. It’s a collaboration every time, really, with the reader filling in the chalk outlines provided by us authors. The purpose of literature? To work together toward finding a more enlightened place while distracted by the fun of it all.

As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?

You are going to die, and probably sooner than you think. What would you want to do before that happens? What will you regret? Sort these things out now. Not some figurative “now”—I mean this second. Why are you reading my words when your life is slipping by?

Your work spans many genres and styles.  You also wear a lot of hats with all the various aspects of publishing you work within.  Do you have any thoughts to share about how to manage a career while serving each genre well?  How does time management work for you?  Can you share how you’re able to accomplish so much? I’d also be interested in hearing the differences you perceive in the publication climates between literary and genre venues.

As referenced above I’ve spent a lot of time sick, or watching the people in my life suffer and die, so I don’t worry about what other people intend for me to do, instead opting to pursue my aspirations before time runs out. Does it always work out? No! But things wouldn’t always work out with a regular 9 to 5 job either, although that would probably pay better. So, I make time in my life by not having a life, essentially. There is no leisure time. I haven’t watched commercial TV in at least a decade, don’t socialize, don’t go to concerts or movies, and don’t sleep very much. That “blood, sweat, and tears” saying? That’s pretty much how I accomplish things.

Now, as I said, I started off doing whatever I wanted, which has been crucial for operating in the various writing circles I’m now established in. Sometimes I see my friends or others painted into a corner and trying to break out of being the [insert genre here] author, and feel bad for them. At the same time I don’t have the reputation of being the [insert genre here] author to fall back on and build a single, dedicated audience for myself, so it cuts both ways. No matter what style or genre you’re working with I learned early on to get involved in the scene. Be a reviewer or editor or proofreader or publisher. So many of the big breaks I’ve gotten came through the time I dedicated to publishing others as editor of the literary journal The Dream People—which only came about because I approached an indie publisher I admired and said, “Hey! How can I help?” They had a lit journal which was in limbo after losing its editors, and the rest is history. The Dream People published cross-genre work, so from there I organized anthologies in several genres featuring the authors I had worked with. Meanwhile, those authors became familiar with my writing and would direct me to the appropriate markets, or were themselves like-minded editors, vastly increasing my acceptance ratio. It continues to this day even though I’m involved in publishing books. Every hat I wear feeds the other, so to speak, keeping my career in motion—and in publishing a body at rest stays at rest, while a body in motion stays in motion.

Career aside, when it comes to serving the genres I can’t think about what genre I’m working in too deeply while writing, instead focusing on serving the needs of the story. Often I could set out to do one thing and find it really needs to be another, and then kill the story by trying to force it into a certain mold. I’ve not encountered the supposed snobbery of the literary scene; they only seem concerned with the quality of the writing regardless of the story’s focus. As for the genre circles, they are receptive so long as you operate with the required speculative element, although…well, I won’t say there’s snobbery per se, but some editors are far more “traditionalist” when it comes to experimentation and other more “literary” approaches to spec fic. Regardless, I don’t think you can go wrong serving the needs of the story above all else.

What’s recently released or in the pipeline for your readers? Give us a sneak peek.

Well, that’s a long one, isn’t it? So. On Halloween I brought my second poetry collection, The Horrible, back into print. While people liked my first collection well enough there was some resistance to mixing so many genres in a single volume, thus I focused solely on the horror genre with this one. There are other reissues in the works for the next couple months, both of which fall under the bizarro banner, those being my novel New Mosque City and my fiction collection Pocket Full of Loose Razorblades. As for my other poetry collections: Wholesome Terror, which is more literary and experimental, will be out later this month, and I hope to have No Clean Way to Die out by the end of the year—it’s a fun romp through phobias.

Two other fiction collections I’m doing final edits on before publication are Truth in Ruins and Devil Entendre. The work in both those is older, having mostly seen publication in the bizarro and horror press respectively, maybe a decade ago. Also…I hope to finally have Verminomicon: A Field Guide to the Vermin of Yuggoth, Abominations of a Haunted World ready soon. Verminomicon is a Lovecraftian art book almost a decade in the making, conceived by Anthony DeBartolis who spent six years building the sculptures. Just when I almost had the accompanying novella complete last year my computer died, taking with it the text (and the bulk of other writing from my last 14 years), which I’ve been slow in reconstructing.

Beyond that, 2014 will see a number of erotica releases from me, starting with NSFW: Not Safe For Women, and Colors Made of Tears. These works come easily, especially when attempting to answer: how would Kurt Vonnegut write erotica? Or: what would a collaboration between Thomas Harris and EL James turn out like? Those are too much fun, and I’ve even thrown together a free original soundtrack to accompany them on my site, currently about two and a half hours in length with more to come. Most exciting to me, though, is the children’s market. My son and I are always concocting stories together, so I’ve started writing early reader and mid-grade books. They’re addictive, and I’m hoping to see them start trickling into the marketplace over the next couple years. We’ll see how that goes, I suppose.

Writers on Craft is hosted by Heather Fowler, who cares about writing. She does a lot of it. Visit her profile on Fictionaut or see here for more: www.heatherfowlerwrites.com.

After I graduated from my MFA program, I felt battle weary. As a minimalist writer in the midst of Foster Wallace-worshipping post-modernists, my work provoked derision at the best of times or a yawn at the worst. I joined Fictionaut six months after I graduated, but I did not post work right away. I waited another couple of months before I worked up the nerve. For me, Fictionaut was a lab where I could do anything. And I did. Sometimes readers ignored a piece or chided me for writing it. But, every so often, a fellow writer acknowledged one of my pieces. The encouraging words and the critical challenges helped me to understand why I do what I do.

For this edition of Editor’s Eye, I looked for pieces that not only captured my literary sensibilities (which are eclectic), but also offered a new perspective to the old problem of how to tell a story in a fresh, engaging way. I paid close attention to the decisions other writers’ made within their chosen literary form, but more importantly, I looked for stories that best captured the spirit of Fictionaut– stories that enliven this eccentric playground.

(In order of most recent stories)

Phillip F. ClarkThe Readers

Love of family, of the self, and of art. Clark invokes the ethereal with precision. The voice never falters, it never meanders into exposition or trivialization, and it leaves us happily suspended.

Neil McCarthyOn a bridge in Regensburg

There’s grace and beauty in this poem. The emotion conveyed is familiar, but how it’s disbursed illuminates the narrator’s longing for identity or proof of existence.

This incessant journeying, these photographs that document
the ages of my illusory face, this cracked black pepper light
on my skin at night is but a stopgap grace.

We travel to escape the routine and experience something new, but often we miss the familiar and the place that is our own.

Charlotte HamrickUp To Down

A good poem should feel like a shot of caffeine injected into your consciousness. It should clobber you with the possibilities of language.

Should we drag our anger and our
blue acquiescence, bloodied, over
a cat tongue rack for misplaced hope

Hamrick delivers an avalanche of a poem with humbling panache.

Con ChapmanMe and J.D. Salinger at Burger King

J.D. and “Me” are a match made in a primitive place with dial-up modems. As Chapman’s J.D. Salinger quips: “The Vatican runs the place. They’re not about to put in Wi-Fi.” Well sweet baby Jesus, I admired the chemistry between “Me” and the fantastical Salinger. How can we not be enthralled by Salinger’s deep disgust for the BK Veggie Burger and his posthumous obsession with his now maligned legacy. Don’t we all love and hate Salinger. I believe some teachers assign The Catcher in the Rye because they hate their students. Ah, but wait I bought my copy when I was thirteen.

Linda SeccaspinaBed Bugs are Jumpin’ in Thunder Bay

Halloween and bed bugs mayhem. A play on an itchy (sorry) problem, but also on our paranoia. We obsess over the source of an infestation. Neighbors turn against neighbors, parents turn against their children, etc.  And, what about the xenophobes who want to blame the critters on those “damn foreigners.” These little shit stirrers torture and destroy our domestic sanctums. Seccaspina has fun bringing all these elements out and has a hell of a time going George A. Romero on us.

Bea StreetNew in Town

The relationship story told from a doubtful “we” or what “we” will never be again in this age of human disconnection. Street exhibits control over each sentence in the piece. The images flow with dexterity through a set of relationships each wrought with history and apples, lots of apples. I usually stay away from apples and snakes in my work, but Street’s confident, lyrical style takes full advantage of all those damn apples underfoot.

Chris OkumShirley Temple

What can I say, but thank you for this gem. Okum expertly weaves a little tale about egomania, capitalism, the American-can-do spirit, and corporate despotism while foreshadowing the outsourcing trend and economic doom. Here’s a fun fact, I went to business school. I’m a child of immigrant parents and as such had to help pay the rent, so cut me some slack. I read (scanned actually) Iacocca’s book in my sophomore year at college. I get this story at a particular level and snicker in awe. This story has already received 6 faves, but come on people, we can do better than that.

I also wish to acknowledge two stories that have not gone unnoticed by readers on Fictionaut in terms of faves: Cruelty by Deborah Oster Pannell and Ancestry.com by Nonnie Augustine. Here’s a salute to these valiant writers.

Many thanks to Michelle Elvy and Jürgen Fauth for inviting me to participate in this series.

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Gessy Alvarez earned her MFA from Columbia University. Her prose has appeared in Hothouse Magazine,  A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Literary Orphans, Black Heart Magazine, The NewerYork, Bartleby Snopes, Thrice Fiction, Camroc Press Review, Pank, and other publications. She interviews emerging and established writers and poets, and showcases links to published work at her blog, Digging Through the Fat.  

Editor’s Eye is curated by Michelle Elvy (Fictionaut profile here). She writes and edits every day at michelleelvy.com, and readers can also find her editing Blue Five Notebook (with Sam Rasnake) and Flash Frontier.

With only the caveat that I should spurn the recommended list for pieces with few or no favorites, I read for Editor’s Eye in the same way I read Fictionaut for myself. That I get to share my thoughts about the pieces I’ve read is an additional privilege and I’m grateful to Michelle Elvy and Jürgen Fauth for this opportunity.

Starting on October 6th, I’ve read Fictionaut every day to ensure no newly added story eluded me. I also followed leads; I ruminated the “Other stories by” archives of writer’s who, for whatever reason, came under my radar during my reading period. It’s been an education. I’ve learnt about process, about what interests me as a reader, about my reader prejudices and foibles. I’ve come to realise how forgiving I am of punctuation and grammar slips when I believe in the story being told. That all authors who posted works between the 6th and 20th had my full attention and intellectual investment may be small compensation for the following short list.

John OlsonA Little Load of Paint*

An artist is the embodiment of his chosen medium in the first line of John Olson’s “A Little Load of Paint”. Lush, vibrant prose is utilised expertly to give a sense of the colour and stimuli that were the armature of Cezanne’s work.

As a Fine Art undergrad, back in the nineties, I spent hours either poring over reference books or wandering around my home town trying to get my head inside Cezanne’s. I wanted to know how to translate the rough mound and slab of industry, and then post-industry, into the cell lenticular patchwork of light and landscapes that this impressionist was master at.

Testament to Olsen’s skill, he managed what a bachelor of arts couldn’t, I was right there in the “theatre” “of seeing”, until, “Later, toward evening, it will glow. It will swallow you whole. It will collide with everything you think you know. Everything you think you think you know”, when, as if self-conscious of the poetry he’s created, or perhaps in parody (?), Olson lays it on a little thick. Otherwise this piece was a tour de force of “consciousness in pigment and space” and a mini masterpiece in progress.

Steven John HorayHis Father’s Statement

In just fourteen lines, Horay compiles two generations’ worth of slow-baked bitterness, a father and son’s finely accounted relationship. Not even a couple of rogue apostrophes could bump me out of this engagingly detailed and psychologically deep and layered narrative. Resonant, this is the work of a writer to watch.

Steven PiraniTo Be Delicate, to be Colour

I was drawn to the mood evoked by the title of Pirani’s fiction, which I instantly imagined as a soft birds’ egg blue but was surprised to be told was “purple”.  This piece begins as an exploration of the adjective and takes the reader on a journey through the Proteus nature of language. Along the way, we pass a beautiful description of colour before personification brings the description to life. What I liked peculiarly was the sense of being urged to probe a little deeper into the implications attached to the descriptive tags we use. I thought Pirani demonstrated exquisitely the linguistic limitations of a group of words that’s function is meant to enhance and expand understanding, by holding a mirror to the way language can be reductive. In essence, this piece flags the patriarchy of language.

This exercise could easily have gone up its own cake-hole of intellectualism, but just as it seems about to be sucked into the tea-towel holder of pretention, Pirani brings it humorously under control with acerbic wit: ‘occasionally, they decapitate your name for you and call you “Deli”, which we both agreed sounded like shit, and so we both avoided that one.’ It’s intellectual play at its most readable.

All Pirani’s work is brimming with emotion – perhaps sometimes a little sentimental – perhaps sometimes it could use a little tough love on the endings, but in and among so much control and self-conscious, self-aware and trying-too-hard-to-be-clever, showy writing, Pirani’s was the warmth of a bonfire slumped low with good company.

Chris SheehanA Bear Story

This story would make a great study subject for a semiotics paper. I read and re-read it many times. Each time, a different element presented itself to me. It’s cloudy enough to be engaging, like poetry in its avoidance of spoon-feeding, but not so mysterious as to feel exclusive. I’d urge everyone to read it, then go read Saussure and come back to it and say a knowing ‘Ah’.

Rhys NixonMuch Ado About Exploring

Nixon’s piece begins in a lovely farcical tone with an edge of something register-clashing to come that served as enough of a hook to lure me in – just like the Shakespeare play alluded to in the title. And this story has its own similarly innocent Hero, whose character is called into question before lights out on this narrative.

Wonderful descriptions drive the plot forward as opposed to merely adorning the narrative: “The houses all appeared twice as tall as usual, and the streetlights long and bright” – as our Hero’s exploration outgrows his preparations and expectations, his surroundings dwarf him.

I like, too, that there are smells, and these are in keeping with our Hero’s limited perspective. The subject of exploration – the house – is damp, but rather than saying so, which would have left the reader assuming our Hero had prior knowledge of such locations, we are informed: “It smelt like somebody had decided to do the laundry, but after organising their clothes they decided to leave them in a corner, forgetting them.” This tells us so much about our Hero’s character, his oversights and lifestyle.

If this were my story, I’d edit out the chat with the officer – best left to the imagination – but the ending’s spot on. I’ll be reading you, Nixon.

P. R. MercadoMyself Today

I was intrigued by the autobiographical suggestion of Mercado’s title for this piece, a narrative loaded with suggestions, and I was pleased to have invested my attention. It takes the form of a poem but it’s really more a flash about the inability of the speaker to write “a good poem”. I enjoyed the genre bend, the play with form. I felt the ending fell a little flaccidly, though, in hindsight, this is perhaps deliberate and a clever choice. Overall, it put me in mind of some of Isherwood’s Berlin stories and left me wanting more.

 

*After note: this story went on to get recommended, as did a number of stories I earmarked, but I kept it on my list in order that I might end this selection with a few observations and thoughts about the recommendations process.

There were a number of stories I picked early on in my reading period that then went on to make the recommended list and therefore had to leave my list. As an indication of the quality of the pieces I was choosing, this was all good. Except, what of the other stories I had chosen? Yes, yes, this is the whole reason for Editor’s Eye, to find such overlooked gems, of course. But it got me thinking about what this oversight revealed about the process of recommending stories. That the others stories on my list did not get recommended has less to do with the quality and entertainment value of the pieces, as far as I can determine, and more to do with showmanship or the popularity of given authors within the Fictionaut network based on reciprocity. I’d like readers to think about this for a moment; think about what happens when we value back-patting above critical rigour. If writers were evaluated in the first instance and elevated on the basis of their social skills, we’d have to knock a good number of greats off the literary canon. The internet has opened up a fast-track highway for many aspiring authors, but I wonder how many talented greats are side-lined by a media that values extroverts over their quieter counterparts. It’s my opinion that the words on the page should be considered before the personality of their author. That’s just my opinion. But I hope you’ll agree. If not, I hope you’ll read with your mouths shut and your minds wide open.

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Rachel J Fenton was born in Yorkshire and currently lives in Auckland. Winner of the 7th Annual Short Fiction Competition (University of Plymouth), she is also the recipient of the 2013 Winter Flash Frontier Award and has been listed for many prizes, poetry and fiction, including the Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize. AKA Rae Joyce she works as a graphic poet and comics creator, was Artist in Residence at Counterexample Poetics, and won AUT’s Graphic Fiction Prize, 2012. Her vocal talents can currently be heard sampled in the hip-hop track ‘15 Years’, courtesy of Jamez Chang and The Last Ancients collective.

Editor’s Eye is curated by Michelle Elvy (Fictionaut profile here). She writes and edits every day at michelleelvy.com, and readers can also find her editing Blue Five Notebook (with Sam Rasnake) and Flash Frontier.

We are pleased to welcome poet and fiction author Meg Tuite to Writers on Craft today. Meg Tuite’s writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is fiction editor of Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press, author of Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, Disparate Pathos (2012) Monkey Puzzle Press, Reverberations (2012) Deadly Chaps Press, Bound By Blue (2013) Sententia Books, Her Skin is a Costume (2013) Red Bird Chapbooks, won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for a collaborative poetry collection entitled Bare Bulbs Swinging, (2014). She teaches at the Santa Fe Community College. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com

What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work or modern literature-any “go to” texts?

Yes, when I am despondent and splintered by the lack of words produced on the page, I always read. I curl up inside the brilliance of Kate Braverman, Rilke, Zora Neale Hurston, Bruno Schulz, Janet Frame, Anne Sexton and anyone who frightens me to the edge of a cliff. I also love those writers who offer thick blankets and a fireplace.

If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?

Read Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing; read your work aloud many times. Let it sit and simmer and hope it ages as well as the lasagna in your fridge after a day or two. I just finished reading Stephen King’s book: “On Writing.” Exceptional! Read it. Two things have served me well over the years. Read and read a hellava lot, from this century and those before it. Also, try to find a few other writers that you connect with and set up a group. Meet with them once a week to keep some deadline in your head. Edit each other’s work and also do prompts together. Write, write and write, whenever you get a chance. It may be shit, but that’s what first drafts usually are. Just remember that there’s something you might be able to compost out of that shit.

How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?

I don’t think my perception has changed. I want to connect. I want to risk something in my work. I want to expose something raw, whether it be an emotion or some memory that has lingered and become its own story through writing and editing. The work I find most exciting is when I sense the vulnerability of the writer in their words. They have given a bit of themselves on the page. Something the reader can latch on to and say, yes, I know this and I have been there. It’s always a relief for me to know that I’m not alone out here in the cosmos.

What do you feel is the purpose of literature?

I am sure it’s what kept me alive. My mom took my siblings and me to the library once a week and I was transported. I no longer just existed in this tiny pinpoint on a map in a neighborhood in Chicago, but the world was vast and yet reachable. I got a piece of it every time I opened another book.

As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?

When I was young, everything was an absolute. Love, drugs, fear of jumping off the precipice, fear of being transparent, fear of being seen, fear of life. It was all so extreme.

I can say that what keeps the days from becoming just numbers on a calendar is the writing. I now know that if we find some way to express whatever trauma, chaos, isolation and excitement that we have experienced in life through creativity, whether it be blasting out poetry, prose, music or pounding on paint cans, we are there. It is as good as it gets. So find your instrument and beat the hell out of it.

Your shorter work explores some very dark themes in terms of sex and gender. As an author, while you are writing what some might call “traumatic content,” do you have any particular strategies or modes of craft that keep these passages so accurate and yet emotive, any theories on writing sex or trauma that inform what you choose to put on the page?

I remember when I first started writing I wanted to document what was tangled in ruin. I wanted my blood on the page. I started publishing in 2009, but had been writing for most of my life. I don’t know that there are any modes of the craft, except honesty in whatever form that takes for the writer. You don’t have to have lived the crisis to be able to understand what it is to be human. I would just say to students and any writers out there, ‘Don’t hold back.’ The world is in a state of siege, which breaks down to country, neighborhood, family, individual. Write from your truth.

What’s recently released or in the pipeline for your readers? Give us a sneak peek.

I have two collections coming out late October and November. Bound By Blue, published through Sententia Press is thirteen short stories that delve into the trauma of childhood, family and coping with whatever comes our way.  It is that strange experience of being an adult until you revisit your family and find you have never bypassed the age of fourteen, no matter how many years have been swallowed. I also have a novella-in-stories, “Her Skin is a Costume,” published through Red Bird Chapbooks coming out soon. I believe it is always a survival mode for each character. Isn’t that how we reckon with every day that awakens us?

I have always thought it would be so nice to wake up to some Russian choir that rouses us or Rachmaninoff at the very least, don’t you agree? Fuck the alarm clock!

Writers on Craft is hosted by Heather Fowler, who cares about writing. She does a lot of it. Visit her profile on Fictionaut or see here for more: www.heatherfowlerwrites.com.

When Michelle Elvy asked if I’d be interested in jumping in to do a round of Editor’s Eye, I was at once honored, thrilled and humbled. However, I was also just a little bit intimidated because of my respect, bordering on awe, for all of the outstanding editors “who have gone before”. I also feel a deep sense of responsibility to do right by the authors upon whose work I comment in a public forum.

Meg Pokrass selected a piece of mine for Editor’s Eye in January 2012. It came at a time when I was still fairly new to Fictionaut and feeling a little tentative about writing flash fiction. I’ll always be grateful to Meg for including me in Editor’s Eye because it gave me a sense of acknowledgement, belonging, validation and a gentle kick in the rear that helped to nurture a sense of confidence. Not that any of the fine writers whose pieces are included here need that. But it was great for me at the time, and I welcome the opportunity to pay that favor forward.

One of the unexpected benefits I’ve derived from my participation in Editor’s Eye is that it shook me out of my comfort zone and broke my pattern of primarily reading the most recent work from familiar authors. I now realize how many diamonds in the rough I missed when pieces slipped off the front page and I hadn’t dug deeper.

Responses to writing, music, and art can be very personal and extremely subjective. I respond to writing in much the same way that I respond to music and visual art. My learning style is more right brain than left, and I tend to respond to writing, music and art in a visceral, emotional and holistic manner. My tastes are very eclectic and creative writing that challenges assumptions, surprises me and/or conveys humor, compassion, a sense of irony, or an examination of the human condition usually resonates with me. While I am drawn to light and redemption, I also like stories and poems that may veer to the dark side, explore metaphysical realms, and may be mysterious, a little spooky and don’t necessarily end with everything resolved and tied up in a neat little bow. For Editor’s Eye I looked for stories by authors from whom I had read very little or none at all.

Thanks to Michelle Elvy for inviting me and to Jürgen Fauth for providing the forum, to Meg Pokrass for including me in Editor’s Eye way back when, to all of the authors whose work I read these past two weeks and to the 8 authors whose work is presented here. Keep on keepin’ on!

From a Quarter-Life Son by Vincent Fino

This prose poem is an observation of  the possible pitfalls of “the whole catastrophe” in only 88 words. It examines the possible fate of a mid-life dad. It resonated with me not only because of who I am and where I am in life, but also who I was as a younger man and who and what I’ve become as a mid-life dad and the pitfalls I’ve managed to avoid. Keep the faith and you won’t step in holes if you know they’re there! Good work Vincent!

The Harrisburg  by H. L. Puaff

The Harrisburg is a really lean and taut little piece of  flash fiction.  Some might call it science fiction but I’d prefer to call it Future Flash. If that’s not already a genre then I’m officially coining the phrase. In any case H. L. Pauff  manages to go to town and really get it done in very short order. No spoiler alerts here, but The Harrisburg is well told tale with the requisite tension and a powerful ending that seals the deal. Congrats H. L. Puaff on a powerful little piece of Future Flash.

The Belly Dancer  by Dallas Woodburn

You want creative writing that examines the human condition, challenges assumptions, surprises you, and conveys humor and compassion with a sense of gentle irony? Well? Then what are you doing? Don’t just sit there nodding agreeably. Read The Belly Dancer by Dallas Woodburn! Dallas Woodburn knows how to tell a story with broad strokes of dialogue and character interaction that allow the reader to complete painting the picture with their own imaginations. That’s good writing. This is poignant and compelling story telling with compassionate insight into personal relationships and the need for connection. A story worthy of reading and discussion. Looking forward to reading more work from Dallas Woodburn!

Blocked – A Facebook Tale -16 -Searching  by Carl Santoro

Carl Santoro presents to us a really interesting story about a man’s search for answers, meaning, truth and, ultimately, himself. He uses dialogue very effectively to move the story forward without relying solely on descriptive passages. Carl’s story explores both the external landscape and the internal, psychological landscape.  If I were editing this piece, I would suggest that the title be revised to “Searching”. Even though it may be the 16th piece from a larger collection called “Blocked – A Facebook Tale”, perhaps a subtitle might work best in this instance. Also, for some reason, in my first readings of this story, I totally missed a rather lengthy, purely historical afterword. While this is really is interesting andinformative, and is important in some context, I feel that the story stands strongly on its own merit. Perhaps a link to further information in the Author’s Note would work better. In any case, I really liked this story by Carl Santoro and it is well worth reading and commenting on. Carl is a really good writer and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

How To Write a Poem by Bud Smith

A 50 line list of instructions? A recipe? 50 lines of prose poetry? No, dammit! It’s how to write a poem, which requires living a life in a physical body, enduring the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, getting dinged up a little bit, and finding the sublime in the ordinary. That comes with a whole world of its own challenges and complications. This piece is about living and being alive, embracing the physical universe, and experiencing it ecstatically, warts and all. It’s not quite Walt Whitman singing the body electric, but I think Mr. Whitman would approve of Bud Smith’s sensibilities in this piece. Like I said, I tend to respond to creative writing that conveys humor, compassion, a sense of irony, or an examination of the human condition. This does that for me in a very playful and light hearted manner. Don’t let the apparent simplicity of this piece fool you. There’s a lot of truth here. Check it out!

this day before tomorrow by Glynnis Eldridge

Like I said, my response to music, art, and creative writing is often visceral, emotional, and holistic. Glynnis Eldridge’s piece this day before tomorrow is an exuberant and sensual romp. It’s a stream of musical language, high voltage imagery, rhythm, and cadence that reads like a song that should be sung. It’s great off the page but will sound amazing in a live reading. It’s a bold, brash celebration of the senses and emotions that deserves to be read and discussed. Thank you Glynnis. I’m really looking forward to reading more of your work.

Chain by Ron Burch

I often like stories that are mysterious, a little spooky — that veer to the dark side and explore metaphysical realms that don’t necessarily end with everything resolved and tied up in a neat little bow. Ron Burch’s Chain does all that for me in a very tight, compact piece. A comment on the piece described it as “Twilight Zone meets Kafka.” I say: “Right on brother and throw in a little Dickens for good measure!” Not a bad comparison. At this point the less I say, the better. Chain is a really, really good piece. Click on the link, read it and join the conversation! Good work Ron!

Splitting by  Deborah Oster Pannell

Rhythm, cadence, imagery, a meditation on living and dying ~ all part of  Dedorah Oster Pannell’s 95 word prose poem. Poignant, compassionate, cathartic ~ it’s all there. This poem has three parts with a shifting point of view. This is a case where less is more and the writer honors the reader by trusting them to do much of the heavy lifting and to bring their own meaning to the piece. There’s exquisite imagery and beautiful language in Splitting and Deborah Oster Pannell has explicitly stated she “would love some constructive criticism on this piece.” Click on the link, read her work and jump in there with your comments. You won’t regret it!

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Michael Gillan Maxwell is an American writer and visual artist from the Finger Lakes Region of New York state. He was bedazzled and humbled to be honored with first place in the Flash Mob 2013 International Flash Fiction competition. Teller of tales, singer of songs, prone to spontaneous combustion & random outbursts, he breaks into song without warning and may be found ranting and raving on his website, Your Own Backyard.

Editor’s Eye is curated by Michelle Elvy (Fictionaut profile here). She writes and edits every day at michelleelvy.com, and readers can also find her editing Blue Five Notebook (with Sam Rasnake) and Flash Frontier.

I enjoyed the chance to read extensively through the pieces that are available on this site.  Of late, I have not had time to do that. It is a pleasure I have missed.

When I read, I do not apply the same aesthetic that shape how I play with sentences. I like lots of things, but I work in a particular range. I know these things intersect somehow.

I look for lightness even as I have difficulties saying what that is. I like pieces that are attentive to structure. I like pieces that seem to me to take the air of the world around us. I like curious things.

As is the remit, I read but did not select pieces that have already garnered significant approbation in the form of little stars.  I did not select pieces by people whose work I have come to know well over the time I have been on Fictionaut. I limited myself to pieces posted over the past few weeks as a function of constraints at my end.

My thanks to Michelle Elvy for asking me to do this, and to the folk who have previously assumed this role: without you, I wouldn’t have had the first idea what to do.

Here are my selections:

Javed Baloch,  The Boy Who Knew Death

When a cadence shapes long sentences such that it pulls them close to saying too much but tells you when to stop the sentences follow one after another and spill over what separates A from B.  Then they stop. What happens then is particularly lovely. The pleasures of asymmetry depend upon structure.

Christian Bell, Coast to Coast

The rhythms that hum through the sentences.  The imagery and Art Bell.  This has a kind of de-materialized Ballard vibe, a little journey to the edge of the apocalypse that runs invisible along the fade of empire. A network of illuminati tracks it. Their updates bounce amongst the satellites. Art is a radio impresario who relays them across the night. Every interior is wired for sound.

James Claffey, Out of Range

The downward movement of a Canada goose and a tent surround of pines in a time away from signals. The piece is contrary motion, a counter-point of gestures and a sense of being-suspended. The composition converges on the way fingernails trail across a forearm as the sky “blues to black” and disappears the scene. Note the lovely symmetry between situation and the language that triggers it.

Yasmin Elaine Waring,  Einstein’s Wife (A Relative Theory)

An equation is a mannered thing, a formal operation in a formal language. An equation that describes a complex environment itself obeys combinatorial rules even as it contains myriad particularities that conform or do not to their own rules. Sometimes the relation between rules and what violates them cuts.  So it is here.

Strannikov,  Égalité in Equal Measure

I enjoy black humor.

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Stephen Hastings-King lives by a salt marsh in Essex, Massachusetts where he makes constraints, works with prepared piano and writes entertainments of various kinds. His short fictions have appeared in SleepingfishBlack Warrior Review and elsewhere.  Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Question of Worker Writing, will be published in the Spring of 2014 from Brill as part of the Historical Materialism series.

Editor’s Eye is curated by Michelle Elvy (Fictionaut profile here). She writes and edits every day at michelleelvy.com, and readers can also find her editing Blue Five Notebook (with Sam Rasnake) and Flash Frontier.

We are pleased to welcome American journalist and versatile author Miles Harvey to Writers on Craft today. Harvey has a B.S. in journalism from the University of Illinois and an M.F.A. in English from the University of Michigan.  He has worked for United Press International, In These Times and Outside on a variety of topics and issues. One of his stories for Outside served as the basis for the 2000 book, The Island of Lost Maps, which recounted the strange story of a Floridian who stole many old and precious maps from various libraries across America and was named one of the top ten books of 2000 by USA Today and the Chicago Sun-Times. He is also the author of Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America, a non-fiction work that explores Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues‘s adventures with the French expedition to Florida led by Jean Ribault during the sixteenth century. His fiction has appeared in publications such as Ploughshares, AGNI, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Fiction Magazine and The Sun, and has received a Distinguished Story citation in Best American Short Stories, 2005, and a Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXVII: Best of the Small Presses, 2013. He teaches creative writing at DePaul University.

What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work or modern literature–any “go to” texts?

I don’t ever despair at the state of modern literature; there are just too many writers doing exciting work right now. Just this week, I finished three books that blew me away–Peter Orner’s short-story collection Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, Roberto Bolaño’s novel  Monsieur Pain and Michael Paterniti’s sublime work of creative nonfiction, The Telling Room.  I’m also reading a stunning draft of an unpublished novel by Scott Blackwood, who won a Whiting Writers’ Award a year or two back. His daring first novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, is easily one of my favorite books from the last few years. It came out on a university press, so not that many people have read it, unfortunately. But I couldn’t recommend it more highly to all you Fictionaut authors and readers out there.

Some of my go-to writers: Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, José Saramago, António Lobo Antunes, Alice Munro, Charles Baxter and Raymond Carver. Oh, and Borges! I can’t get enough of Borges.

If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?

When I was a magazine editor, it took about two seconds to tell the amateurs and the dabblers from the professionals. The pros embrace editing, and they know when to pick fights. They tend to see editors as collaborators—and they understand that editors often save writers from their own weaknesses and blind spots. The amateurs argue over every last comma and semicolon; their precious prose is sacrosanct. So I guess my advice would be to listen to, and learn from, editors. At least 75 percent of the time, they have your best interests in mind. Another 20 percent of the time, they have the publication’s best interests in mind, in which case you’re unlikely to win an argument with them anyway. The trick is to learn when, and under what circumstances, to put your foot down.

How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?

I’ve always had a fairly wide range of literary interests and ambitions, so I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what I “do.” I have an undergraduate journalism degree and an MFA in fiction. My books are nonfiction, but I’ve always written and published a fair amount of short stories, and I teach both genres.

This year, with the premiere of a piece at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, I became a playwright. I also edited a book for the first time. So I suppose I would say I’m still evolving. I hope so, anyway.

What do you feel is the purpose of poetry/literature?

What isn’t the purpose of poetry and literature? I’m not sure poetry and literature need to justify or explain themselves. They pretty much make life worth living.

As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?

A friend recently gave me a bumper sticker that says DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK. Much to my surprise, my wife went right out and slapped that thing on our Kia Soul. I’ve never been much for maxims, especially of the pop-philosophy variety, and I’ve always associated that sort of bumper stickers with earnest, unbathed do-gooder types. “Are you trying to make everybody think we’re from Oregon?” I asked my wife.

For a long time, that sticker would cause me to cringe every time I glanced at it. But lately, I’ve sort of begun to embrace it, in part because I’ve noticed some of my middle-aged friends becoming more and more rigid in their world views.

Don’t believe everything you think—I’m not sure it’s the best advice I have to offer about being human, but it’s far from the worst, especially for writers.   

Your work is heavily influenced by setting.  Do you feel that an author who explores the locations of their work is more likely to reach a universality of appeal due to this focus on place?

The thing is, you don’t normally reach universality by writing about the universal. Faulkner’s stories and novels, for example, are universal precisely because they are so grounded in the local. Yoknapatawpha County is a real place to readers. We see it, we hear it, we smell it, we feel it in our bones. And because it is so vivid and concrete, we recognize it as somehow our own, even if we’ve never been within 1,000 miles of Mississippi.

Perhaps the thing that perplexes me most as a teacher of creative writing is how little attention many of my students pay to setting. In 1996, a literary magazine editor named Joan Connor wrote a prescient essay, “In the Middle of Nowhere,” in which she observed that the submissions she was receiving increasingly lacked a precise sense of place:

“One development which I have noted is the generic setting. Farm stories abound, as do school stories, unidentified city stories, and apartment stories. But the barns, schools, cities, and apartments are interchangeable; they have no individuating characteristics. The setting seems to be inserted like an afterthought from the outside rather than be integrated into the story.”

My sense is that setting has only gotten more generic in the nearly 20 years since Connor wrote those words. I’m not sure quite how to explain it, but I see tons of those “school stories” and “apartment stories.” In one sense, they are universal (a word that comes from the Latin for “of or belonging to all”) but in a much more profound sense they are soulless and empty. Because they belong to nowhere, they also belong to no one.

What’s recently released or in the pipeline for your readers? Give us a sneak peek.

I’m just finishing a project that has consumed me for the past three years. During 2011 and 2012, while more than 900 people were being murdered on the streets of Chicago, my creative-writing students and I fanned out all over the city to interview people whose lives have been changed by the bloodshed. We spoke with kids in gangs and kids trying to stay out of gangs. We spoke with mothers and fathers of young people who had been killed. We spoke with police officers and teachers and members of the clergy and murderers. We spoke with an emergency-room nurse and the county coroner and a funeral-home director.

When we began the project, I reminded the students that we live in a world where everybody’s talking—blogging, texting, tweeting, Friending, shouting each other down—but nobody’s really listening. So that was their assignment: just go out and listen.

They came back with thousands of pages of interview transcripts–and the stories were just amazing. I took some of those stories and wove them together into a play, How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, which premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre earlier this year.

We also put together a book of Studs Terkel-type oral histories, which will be published this fall. It’s a powerful collection, and I’m amazingly proud of the work my students did on it. Here’s a trailer, created by a DePaul graduate student:

I’m setting aside free copies for the first 20 Fictionaut readers who e-mail book.project@depaul.edu. (Please note where you read about the book.) We’re also making copies available at no cost for librarians and teachers across the country.

 Writers on Craft is hosted by Heather Fowler, who cares about writing.  She does a lot of it.  Visit her profile on Fictionaut or see here for more: www.heatherfowlerwrites.com.