Anita Felicelli & the Development of the Short Story


by Sarah Luria

Anita Felicelli’s debut short story collection, Love Songs for a Lost Continent hit shelves Oct. 1, 2018, marking the third short story collection from Stillhouse Press and Felicelli’s first foray into full-length adult fiction (she is also the author of the young adult novel Spark Off You, a collection of poetry, and a children’s book). Recently, I spoke with her about how she constructed this wild narrative — replete with elements of the fantastic and recurring characters — and where she draws her inspiration from.

Love Songs for a Lost Continent  by Anita Felicelli

Love Songs for a Lost Continent by Anita Felicelli

SARAH LURIA: You chose to feature some characters in several different stories throughout this collection, creating a powerful connective tissue that runs throughout the collection. Did you plan for the characters to reappear and change when you set out to write this book, or did that come later? What effect do you think this has on the overall narrative?

ANITA FELICELLI: I didn't have a plan for characters to reappear and change because I wrote a number of these short stories over a period of years without knowing whether they would coalesce into a collection. Every once in a while, I'd realize I wanted to write about a character that had already appeared in another story. For example, “The Logic of Someday” was a story I wrote much earlier than some of the other stories. The protagonist of that story saw her boyfriend's mother, Maisie, in a very specific, negative light. But a few years later, I had questions about Maisie. Until I imagined myself into her life and perspective, I don't think I'd fully thought through how years of poverty might harden a person. That imagining led to “The Art of Losing.” And later I realized that a minor reference in Wild Things was actually to Susannah's son, Jude. I hope that looking at the same characters from different perspectives and at different times allows the collection to feel kaleidoscopic, intuitive, and surprising. I didn't want to create the linear experience that you get from many novels in stories like “A Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” as enjoyable as I've found such experiences. Rather, I wanted the collection to have an echo of the pleasurable wildness that I often feel in real life, encountering someone from our past who exercises his or her agency, and turns out to be completely differently than what we might have expected.


“I hope that looking at the same characters from different perspectives and at different times allows the collection to feel kaleidoscopic, intuitive, and surprising.”


Anita Felicelli (Photo By Amy Perl).

Anita Felicelli (Photo By Amy Perl).

SL: Obviously, as an author, you draw inspiration from your own life experiences, but are any of these stories loosely autobiographical, or inspired by actual events?

AF: None of the stories can be described as loosely autobiographical. However, many grew out of an autobiographical seed or actual events I heard about that sparked my imagination. It will probably sound like a weird coincidence, but I've known more than one mother of a son like Drew in “The Logic of Someday” and “The Art of Losing” and what it's like to parent a child with severe ADHD and conduct disorder who deals drugs. Although I'm a mother now, I've also experienced infertility like the narrator in “Rampion.” I've done many, many different kinds of day jobs, including criminal defense work and writing for a hedge fund, and my close encounters in these lines of work color the plots of “The Logic of Someday,” “Once Upon the Great Red Island,” and “Swans and Other Lies.’”

SL: Many of these characters oscillate between extremely hopeful and extremely cynical world-views. What was it like to move back and forth from the darker moments in this collection, and those which feel more uplifting?

AF: I think the radical shifts you notice follow my own train of thought, and my own experience of the world as a place of infinite variety and range—somehow both absurdly wonderful and deeply horrible at the same time.

SL: Several of your stories, like “Deception” and “Rampion” ring with a sort of mythical, adult retelling of a childhood fantasy story. What fantasy stories were most influential to you as a child, and did any of them serve as inspiration for the stories in this book? How did you come to embrace the magical or fantastic in your writing?

AF: I was a voracious reader of fantasy and magical stories as a child—it's cool you picked up on that. I loved Madeleine L'Engle's time series: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Other early favorites were The Chronicles of Narnia, the Andrew Lang fairytale books, Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books that toggled between realistic stories about make-believe and full-on fantasy, Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, and the Amar Chitra Katha comic books that retold Hindu epics and myths. “Rampion” is a retelling of Rapunzel from the witch's point of view. “Deception,” about a young woman who marries a tiger, is partly based on a folktale similar to Beauty and the Beast that appears in multiple regions of India in different forms. “Once Upon the Great Red Island” is partly based on Malagasy folklore.

I'd written in a barebones minimalist style about subtly strange events or characters as far back as high school. A lot of the American writers I was reading back then were influenced by Raymond Carver and John Cheever and so I thought you had to carve the writing down for it to be “good.” As an English major, I'd focused on British literature, however—Shakespearean plays, Tristam Shandy, Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss, Vanity Fair, Bleak House, and Sense and Sensibility. I always assumed that was the kind of fully realized fiction weighted towards the real, but playing with form or coincidence, that I might one day write. I came to embrace the fantastic again after becoming a recluse due to a devastating, disabling event in my late twenties. I didn't think I would ever recover from what had happened to me. Outside of my day job, I barely interacted with other humans, and instead for almost six years, I spent my free time hanging out with my two corgis and reading from the read-lists that my now-spouse Steven emailed to me from afar. These were lists populated with authors like Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina O'Campo, Victor Pelevin, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Bohumil Hrabal. I later discovered Helen Oyeyemi's and Kelly Link's fiction. Reading these masterful magic realist authors from all over the world made me realize that writing further into the realm of the fantastic didn't have to satisfy an escapist impulse, but was more like digging into a deeper reality.


“Reading these masterful magic realist authors from all over the world made me realize that writing further into the realm of the fantastic didn't have to satisfy an escapist impulse, but was more like digging into a deeper reality.”


SL: Your stories offer many different characters, with varying points of view. What kind of audience do you think this collection might most appeal to?

AF: My hope is to appeal to open-minded readers who genuinely value pluralism and the full possibilities of the imagination. Hopefully that doesn't sound ridiculous.

SL: One of my favorite lines from this book is: “Something about the hungry way he was looking at her from under his long lashes made her feel like he was drinking her down.” You write passion so well. What advice do you have for aspiring writer looking to write compelling, realistic romance stories/scenes?

AF: I try to come at passion a little slant. Whenever something is erotic, I find that there are a lot of other complicating feelings there, too. Often those are feelings that might challenge a cohesive sense of self. So, I try to reveal vulnerability or humor or even the slightly dangerous feeling of an erotic encounter rather than present a conventional wine-and-roses romance. When I do hit more in the wine-and-roses register, I try to subvert that energy through later plot points.

SL: Your last book, Sparks Off You, was a YA novel—obviously quite different from this collection in both tone and structure. What were some of the major differences in language, story development, and character that you see between writing YA and adult fiction?

AF: There's a quote by Madeleine L'Engle: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” I'd originally planned Sparks Off You to be an adult novel about teenage characters, in the vein of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden or J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, but many drafts later I realized it was YA-like, possibly because I was 24 when I first believed I'd completed it, and my teenage years weren't very far behind me. The prose in Sparks was poetic, sometimes purple, but over the years, I trained that out of my prose voice because I came to believe it distracted from the story. My dear college roommate is a commercial YA author, and I think the bigger difference between our approaches is not the YA-adult audience divide, but that she is very focused on story and plot, and I'm focused on language.

As for character, although there are gigantic differences between my life and the artist protagonist in Sparks (my mother is alive, for instance), I gave that protagonist my personality and perceptions. In contrast, I've never written a character in adult literary fiction who is consciously based on me. The older I get, the more I believe that other people are much more interesting than I am.

SL: Lastly, your book deals a lot with the tangled relationship between identity and the lives we live. Looking back on yourself as an early writer, what writing advice might you give to a younger Anita Felicelli?

AF: Oh, this is a difficult one. I was just at my parent's house and stumbled across a middle school literary magazine for which I served as fiction editor, and read three of my poems in it. I was an extremely sensitive teenager with a dark mind, but the one thing that got me through adolescence was that I had been absolutely certain from the age of five that I could be a fiction writer as an adult. So, I wouldn't want to disrupt that huge, early confidence in my identity as a writer. I think it would have shocked me to know how long and how hard I would work as a fiction writer over the next decades. I didn't understand that a creative path is much, much harder to achieve anything in than a law job or corporate job is, perhaps especially for people of color who have an unusual perception of the mainstream culture and are actively trying to make a space for their perceptions that doesn't exist already. One story I wrote in a college workshop, “Wild Things” didn't find a home in the '90s, but a few years ago, a revised version found a home with a journal that didn't even exist when I'd written the first draft. So, I think my advice to young Anita Mohan would be to hold onto that confidence in your work—believing that your fiction is important when nobody else does is what allows you to persist through the weird looks, the lack of interest, and the pitying or discouraging remarks from those who are on more straightforward paths. I was raised in a home where external validation was very important. I used to feel really deflated by rejection letters even if they were handwritten and included praise and it would take me a little while to recover and steel myself up to submit again in spite of my cocky, outsize belief in myself... I'd advise Anita Mohan to place less value on external validation and submit more frequently. With very frequent rejection, a thicker skin naturally grows and your odds of being accepted increase.


“With very frequent rejection, a thicker skin naturally grows and your odds of being accepted increase.”


sarah.jpg

Sarah Luria is a sophomore at George Mason University. She is majoring in English, with concentrations in Linguistics and Writing and Rhetoric. She likes to write screenplays and the occasional poem, and is most inspired by writers like David Foster Wallace, E.E. Cummings, and Anne Sexton. Hoping to pursue a career in book editing, she is inspired by an editor's ability to shape a book into something amazing.

Small Presses FTW: Immigrant Identity In Modern Literature


by Danielle Maddox

Diversity is something I crave when reading, which is why I often turn to small presses—a hotbed for up and coming new authors—when scouting for new books. Recently, I found "Meditations on the Mother Tongue" (C&R Press, 2017) by An Tran, a competitive powerlifter and strength & conditioning coach based in Washington, DC. Tran’s debut collection of short stories relate culture and identity, with each story building upon the last to create one grand narrative about the immigrant identity.

"Meditations on the Mother Tongue ,"  An Tran ( C&R Press , 2017)

"Meditations on the Mother Tongue," An Tran (C&R Press, 2017)

In the title story of the collection, the main character, Bao uses the language and history of his Vietnamese heritage and his love for Parkour—an increasingly popular adventure sport, which has its origins in Vietnam—to connect with his dying mother. Using the Vietnamese he has learned, Bao shows his mother video clips of people skillfully traversing different terrains as “she lies on the couch, the television on, and he kneels on the ground like a knight, holding his laptop atop one knee.”

Though not conventionally Vietnamese, through Parkour Bao has found a way, despite his limited grasp of the Vietnamese culture, to connect with his mother in the final days of her life. In this scene, his mother lovingly corrects his pronunciation, as Bao finds a way to communicate his need to be closer to the cultural identity he and his mother share. The story ends with Bao and his mother in a hospital. As he steps into the room to greet her, he performs a veneration ritual to signify he is ready for her to leave, telling her: “Your child is right here” in Vietnamese, suggesting that both of their journeys are complete.

Though not a long book, "Meditations on the Mother Tongue" does make for a complex read. While the stories are grounded in reality, there are also moments that feel mystical or fantastic. Another story in the collection, “The Dharma’s Hand,” follows two brothers, Phong and Thanh, as they hike and camp in the Vietnamese mountains with their conjurer father, who has agreed to be their guide, per their mother’s request. Their mother is concerned about a curse that has been placed on Vietnamese American men who travel to Vietnam.

The story oscillates between the camping trip and Thanh’s failing marriage back home in the States. In his quest to try and achieve “the traditional American family,” Thanh has unwittingly created a rift between himself and his wife, distancing his current identity from the Vietnamese culture he grew up with. This clash comes to a head in the midst of the trip, when Thanh becomes sick from touching a poisonous flower, causing his entire body to become wracked with pain. To heal him, Thanh’s father cuts lines into his skin, asking him, “How long ago were you poisoned?” He places a firm hand on his son’s stomach and Thanh focuses on the sensations flowing through his body, feeling “[his] father’s magic flowing into [him] and out of [him].” It’s an epiphanic moment for Thanh, who finally answers, “I was always poisoned,” accepting his fate—whatever that might be—while also admitting the life he has created in America is not his own. 

Tran’s ability to write familial relationships from the perspective of the second generation is a compelling glimpse into the dual identity of immigrant identity and it’s moments like these that harken back to the central thesis of the book: that we can always find ourselves in our culture, language, and loved ones. Each character in Tran’s collection is on a unique journey, guiding the reader through their struggles to find the thing that keeps them tethered to their heritage and to their own personal truths. 


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Danielle is an undergraduate at
George Mason University
working towards degrees in
English and African American studies.
She is currently knee deep in unfinished stories. 

Tania James at Fall For the Book

By Evan Roberts

Photo courtesy of  Knopf Doubleday

Photo courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

In Dewberry Hall during George Mason’s annual Fall for the Book festival, Harvard alumnus and new Mason professor Tania James spoke to a packed crowd of eager, rain-soaked undergraduates. I was privileged enough to be one of them.

“I really was expecting to read to only two people,” joked James, author of the well-received novel The Tusk That Did the Damage. And while I was prepared to pester her with questions about the unique perspectives in her latest novel, she made clear that she had turned the page to the next section of her life, moving beyond this latest piece.

For one, she’s a recent mother, and is more recently escaping a year-long writer’s block following childbirth. With less time on her hands, now she writes in “short bursts,” as opposed to forcing herself to write for extended hours. James recounted that previously she spent long periods of time writing “because [she] had to,” but now believes that time wasn’t used efficiently. It’s a predicament I believe every writer can relate to: the desire to produce, or else face the chest-gripping sense of guilt. “It’s a waste of time to work on one thing if you’d rather work on something else,” she said. Amidst all these exciting life changes there is one writing ritual James still abides, one from before her days as a mother: the first two hours of each morning are dedicated to the craft.

Currently, James is interested in what she calls the “weirdness of early motherhood.” In this transitory period of her life, now she’s drawn towards writers who have a surrealistic take because she feels surrealism speaks to her own experiences of past events – specifically to her own experience with motherhood. This new perspective captivated me. It seemed to provide a new source of inspiration, a way to dwell on the most confusing of reflections, and to appreciate them not necessarily for how they actually occurred, but for how they are remembered. When asked how she balances surrealism in otherwise realistic stories, she said that the voice should not be trying to “convince;” it should not linger in trying to explain or rationalize the science of the world, and should instead state what is occurring with authority. By explaining the inner workings of our worlds, we bring unnecessary attention to the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

In the concluding moments of the reading, James spoke on the dichotomy between a novel-length work and a short story. To her, a novel is the culmination of life lessons and perspectives gleaned over a period of several years of the author’s life. A novel is essentially the product of “countless inspirations,” and I truly believe this to be evident in her works. In contrast, James said that a short story has an intense focus – such an intense focus that it’s impossible for her to see past the borders that this single inspiration has framed for her.

Before the applause of damp hands and the formation of a queue by the author’s desk came the inevitable question during any reading: What inspires you?

Said James, “Every day seems to offer something.”


Evan Roberts is the coordinating editor of Moonshine Murmurs, and has worked as an editorial assistant, reader, and media contributor for Stillhouse Press. He will graduate from George Mason University
in December, 2016 with a BA in English.

The Road Less Traveled: a Visit With Porochista Khakpour

by Leslie Goetsch

Khakpour currently lives in New York, where she is Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Khakpour currently lives in New York, where she is Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Born in Tehran and raised in California, the enigmatic and seemingly enchanted Porochista Khakpour has crossed the country and beyond in pursuit of the writing life. As she says in her essay, “My Life in the New Age” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2016), “I always liked the road less traveled.” One of Khakpour’s latest stops was Fall for the Book’s New Leaves Writer’s Conference March 21, where she spent the day and night as a visiting writer.   

The Last Illusion , Bloomsbury, 2014

The Last Illusion, Bloomsbury, 2014

Khakpour kicked off the first day of the conference with a reading from her latest novel, The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014). She began her reading with a discussion about the medieval Persian epic, the Shahnameh, which serves as the inspiration for The Last Illusion. Khakpour’s retelling of the legend centers on the character Zal, a child of the “wrong color,” whose mother raises him in a cage, along with her other “darlings,” birds. These two passages from Khakpour’s novel demonstrate her range as a writer. The first offers a daring, poignant scene in which Zal is cursed by his suicidal mother; the second a humorous view of Zal as he approaches adulthood in early 2000’s New York, where he takes a job at a pet store and falls in love with a canary.  (Zal’s story is also the inspiration behind the three striking feathers tattooed on Khakpour’s right hand and wrist, and although she makes it clear her mother would prefer the tattoo removed, it’s hard to imagine her without this physical reminder of how writing has directed her life.)

As part of her visit, Khakpour also spent time conferencing with MFA students about their work, offering suggestions and a personalized reading list, as well as advice on how to navigate the writing world. Despite battling a recurrence of Lyme Disease (precipitated by a car accident late last year), Khakpour’s energy never flagged. She was funny, smart, nurturing, and constructive as she discussed her writing, assuring students that there is, in fact, a life after the MFA and opened herself up to questions.

Porochista Khakpour appears 3 in from the left; Leslie Goetsch appears 3 in from the right.

Porochista Khakpour appears 3 in from the left; Leslie Goetsch appears 3 in from the right.

Khakpour’s struggle with illness is the subject of her next book, Sick (forthcoming in 2017). Sick is a real-time recount of Khakpour’s ongoing struggle with Lyme Disease, including her difficulty finding a diagnosis, exploring treatment options, and her determination not to let the physical symptoms of the disease interfere with her writing career.  While she has published many nonfiction essays and reviews, this will be her first full-length nonfiction work. During a question and answer session with the author, Khakpour explained that she first became interested in the project because she felt her experience could help others suffering from the disease. Interestingly enough, Khakpour says she originally wanted to publish a pamphlet that could be distributed to hospitals and doctors’ offices, though her publisher inspired her to turn her reflections into a memoir.

The subject and style of Sick are a significant departure from the magical, moving fiction of The Last Illusion, but as her reading at George Mason revealed, Khakpour is a storyteller whose spirit and insight marks all of her writing. There is little doubt that when the memoir debuts next year, it will make for a powerful and affecting read, and greatly add to the ongoing conversation about Lyme-related illness.


Leslie Goetsch is an MFA student at George Mason University. She is the author of Back Creek (Bancroft Press, 2008), a coming of age novel set in rural Virginia.


 

A Lesson in Tension

By Suzy Rigdon

Leslie Pietrzyk  is the author of the novels  Pears on a Willow Tree  (Harper Perennial, 1999) and  A Year and a Day: A Novel  (Harper Perennial, 2005). Her collection of linked stories,  This Angel on My Chest  (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), was the recipient the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. More here: http://lesliepietrzyk.com/

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the novels Pears on a Willow Tree (Harper Perennial, 1999) and A Year and a Day: A Novel (Harper Perennial, 2005). Her collection of linked stories, This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), was the recipient the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. More here: http://lesliepietrzyk.com/

Compelling writing is about tension, Leslie Pietrzyk told graduate students from George Mason's MFA program during her Visiting Writers workshop in early February. Invoking the hallmarks of Alfred Hitchcock, Pietrzyk gave the example of film: if the audience sees a group of people on a train and then it explodes, we are surprised, Pietrzyk said. However, if we watch a group of men playing cards on the train and beneath their seat, visible only to the audience, the bomb counts down the seconds, we are hooked, our hearts racing.

Pietrzyk knows tension. Her fascinating collection This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) revolves around a single theme: in each of the stories, a woman’s young husband dies unexpectedly. From the very start, we know the direction each story will take; yet we read all sixteen stories, waiting for each discovery, anxious to see how the widow(s) will react. With each new tale, we grieve or laugh or shout alongside her.

If we see the bomb ticking away, we will sympathize. We will feel connected to the character, to their struggles. We become invested.

For Pietrzyk's craft workshop, I chose to work on a piece that had already earned a handful of rejections from literary magazines. Turns out the problem was pretty straightforward: I had pulled a punch in my story, springing a revelation on readers just as it had been sprung on me during the writing process. But readers don't like to be surprised, Pietrzyk said. They feel duped, tricked, like in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis' character finally discovers he was dead the whole time. It’s better to give more information to the reader up front, rather than surprise them later. If we see the bomb ticking away, we will sympathize. We will feel connected to the character, to their struggles. We become invested.

This Angel on My Chest , University of Pittburgh Press, 2015

This Angel on My Chest, University of Pittburgh Press, 2015

In Pietrzyk's story “I am the Widow," the title sets up the tension well. Widow is a strong word—evocative. Even before we start reading, we feel we know this woman. We become settled in our expectations, so even as the widow mentally (and seemingly irrationally) lashes out at the friends and family during her husband’s funeral, at the mementos they drop into his coffin, we stay with her. Her pain and anger makes us hurt, too.

Pietrzyk is a master of her craft. She tells stories in the second person, transforms narrative into lists and indices of foods, a quiz, and even a 40-page craft lecture told from twelve different perspectives. She builds stories from the point of tension. As she explained during her craft seminar, tension has to come somewhere between the external story (i.e. the plot and action), and the internal story (the emotional life and motivations of characters that ultimately create conflict). Even when writing in the most unconventional of ways, Pietrzyk succeeds at this.

At her reading, Pietrzyk told a crowded room of writers and readers that her self-challenge while writing This Angel on My Chest. was to feature at least one hard truth about herself as a woman, a writer, a wife or a widow in each of her stories. She considered releasing the book without giving readers the truth of her inspiration, but ultimately decided she needed to. Although she hopes readers don’t get wrapped up in looking for the factual truth in her stories, this knowledge creates a different type of tension.

Good analysis and good writing both stem from the same place: asking questions. How do you begin to revise a story you’ve spent weeks on, one that has already been rejected a few times? Think about the tension, Pietrzyk recommends. What kind of story do you want this to be? What do you want the reader to care about? Everything needs to lead toward something, she said. And in This Angel on My Chest—as in all of her writing—everything does.


Suzy Rigdon is the author of Into the Night (Spencer Hill Press, 2014), and has also been published in The Albion Review and Word of Mouth Literary Magazine. She is a second year MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University, where she is the Marketing Director for the Fall for the Book literary festival. To find out more, visit her website at suzannerigdonauthor.com or follow her on Twitter @SuzyRigdon.

The "Process" of Grief: POP!

By Mark Polanzak, author of Stillhouse Press' first memoir, POP!

Drag Me to Hell  (2009)

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

If you've seen Sam Raimi’s comedy-horror film Drag Me to Hell, you'll understand my writing and grieving process pretty well. The main character, Christine, finds herself cursed and goes to a medium for help. The medium channels the dark spirit haunting her into a goat in order to slaughter it and rid Christine of the curse. There are parallels between Raimi’s film and my father’s death, and subsequently my writing about it years later. But although there is a proper process for channeling spirits, there isn’t a prescribed path for grieving. And instead of a goat, there’s my first book, POP!.

As a bereaved seventeen-year-old, I didn’t want to go through the grieving process. Not because I didn’t want to admit that I had lost my dad—though that was in there—but because it seemed really, really difficult and complicated. I didn’t want to cross the Rubicon that separates blissful teenage naivety and experienced young adulthood. I was having enough trouble learning the mitosis cycle and how cosine waves worked; I would surely botch the task of grief. But of course you can’t refuse to grieve. It’s autonomic.

One important thing I learned about grief is that there is no standard process. You can’t do it wrong. The order of grief operations we’ve all heard about—denial, anger, acceptance, and stuff—isn’t real. The person who conceived of it flat out made it up. But I didn’t know this between the ages of 17 and 21, which messed me up. I thought there was a right way to grieve, and so my sadness and sacredness and confusion and anxiety—all coming at me out of order and without warning—were compounded by a sense of self-castigation that I wasn’t doing it right, wasn’t being serious and dedicated enough to the process of grieving. I had no control over any of it. It owned me.

POP!,  Stillhouse Press, March 2016

POP!, Stillhouse Press, March 2016

The process of writing my very personal, if-not-exactly-memoir, POP! mirrors my discoveries along the path of grief. After two years of writing fabulist, fantastical, magically realist, and absurdist short stories in my MFA program at the University of Arizona, I thought it was time to write a magical, fantastical novel. It seemed really, really hard, but I did it anyway. I began a book (it was about a stick figure). And pretty quickly, I hit an enormous problem in the story (big shock—the character was flat). I abandoned it after a year. I concluded that I was not ready to write a book, not there yet. So, I stopped trying.

I thought that there was a certain way a book was supposed to look sound, arc, unfold, and there was a way a writer wrote a book—through diligence every single day, working through scenes, developing characters, constructing plot and making the setting just so—I knew I couldn’t be working on a book when I began, at first haphazardly, writing what would become POP!. I wrote unlinked vignettes in a notebook, wrote a scene four different ways, drew characters and then redrew them, stuck them where they didn’t belong, and never gave a thought to the elements that I believed all real books needed.

But that’s just it: there is no proper way to write a book. These vignettes, fragments, character morphs, and all the rest eventually presented themselves as parts of a single organism that was steadily growing together. The pieces I had simply thought of as good practice for a big project began to come together, to brush up against one another, until one day there was a whole. The ending scene reached back and connected to the beginning. I had done it without really knowing it. I had written a book.

The book is about my father’s death, its many meanings and effects on me as a son and a writer, and on my mom and my brother. Yet I was never sad while writing it; I was in the medium’s trance. I was excited and energized to be writing something personal, something that broke the rules of how I felt I was supposed to write. I am sad now when I read sections of POP!. I channeled my grief into the book. It no longer possesses me. I can kill the goat or keep it.


Mark Polanzak is the author of the forthcoming hybrid memoir, POP! (Stillhouse Press, 2016) and several short stories. Despite his conclusion that there are no rules in grieving or writing, he is currently writing a fictional rule book on etiquette. Read more about Polanzak here.

Source: http://www.stillhousepress.org/pop

Writing From a Place of Understanding

By Linda Prather

“Who is the crafted person on the page? Is that person as well-rounded as the narrator? What is the intention of this piece?” Rachel Louise Snyder asked fellow writers last week during the second installment of George Mason University’s Visiting Writers’ spring workshop. Snyder, a recently tenured professor of Literature at American University, focused on the craft of the personal narrative and crucial concepts for memoir writing, specifically dual narration and intention, during her April 16 workshop.

Source: American University Faculty Pages

Source: American University Faculty Pages

Snyder, who also works as journalist and has traveled extensively, often explores themes such as struggle, survival and social justice in her writing. She writes both fiction and nonfiction and is the author of two books, What We’ve Lost is Nothing (Scribner 2014) and Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade (W. W. Norton 2009). With regard to structure, Snyder says, fiction and nonfiction can develop quite differently. According to Snyder, fiction lends itself more to discovering the structure of a piece as evolves, whereas with nonfiction, it's important for writers to have some general idea of structure before embarking on the composition process.

Snyder draws her lessons in craft from a variety of sources, including author and poet, Grace Paley, who often doesn’t quite bring her stories full circle. By veering off course near the end, Snyder says, Paley’s stories are both surprising and memorable. During her workshop, Snyder also shared a “fill-in-the-blank” mantra for writing nonfictionthe thing about (subject) is (what)?which she learned from fellow journalist and This American Life host, Ira Glass. If you can’t succinctly fill in the blanks then you don’t have your story clear enough in your mind, Snyder said, adding that the best nonfiction essays present an essential question with which the writer is grappling and that answering it is often beside the point.

What We've Lost is Nothing , Rachel Louise Snyder (Scribner 2014)

What We've Lost is Nothing, Rachel Louise Snyder (Scribner 2014)

Snyder's more informal lesson took place in my car, as I navigated rush hour traffic, heading north on Chain Bridge Road. We were on our way to dinner at Dolce Vita in Fairfax when the conversation turned to the query letter and how a writer gets her nonfiction placed in such prestigious literary publications as The New York Times and The New Yorker, both of which have featured Snyder’s work. Here’s the formula that Snyder shared for shaping the ideal query letter:

  • Paragraph 1: Write a brief narrative illuminating the issue that you plan to explore.
  • Paragraph 2: Explain why it matters. Why tell this story at this moment?
  • Paragraph 3: What are experts saying about this topic? Are there statistics you can site? Who will you interview?
  • Paragraph 4: Why are you the best person to tell this story?

Herein lies the real value of the Visiting Writers program, as highlighted by Snyder’s impromptu lesson: the opportunity to chat informally with published authors outside of the classroom, to gain insight from an established author that students can then apply to their own writing lives. Now, for that query letter...


Linda Prather is a nonfiction candidate in George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA Program and is slated to finish her masters in the spring of 2016. She has lived in Northern Virginia for the last eight years.