An Interview with Octavio Solis

8 Dec
Octavio Solis is one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in the country. In addition to his work for the stage, he's writing a series of stories set in El Paso.

Octavio Solis is one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in the country. In addition to his work for the stage, he’s writing a series of stories set in El Paso, two of which appear in the most recent issue of Huizache.

Octavio Solis is a playwright and director whose works have been produced across the country and include Alicia’s MiracleSe Llama CristinaJohn Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, Ghosts of the RiverQuixoteLydia, June in a Box, Lethe, Marfa Lights, GibraltarThe Ballad of Pancho and Lucy, The 7 Visions of Encarnación, Bethlehem, Dreamlandia, El OtroMan of the FleshProspectEl Paso BlueSantos & Santos, and La Posada Mágica. His collaborative works include Cloudlands, with Music by Adam Gwon, Burning Dreams, cowritten with Julie Hebert and Gina Leishman and Shiner, written with Erik Ehn. Solis has received an NEA 1995-97 Playwriting Fellowship, the Roger L. Stevens award from the Kennedy Center, the Will Glickman Playwright Award, a production grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, the 1998 TCG/NEA Theatre Artists in Residence Grant, the 1998 McKnight Fellowship grant from the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, and the National Latino Playwriting Award for 2003. He is the recipient of the 2000-2001 National Theatre Artists Residency Grant from TCG and the Pew Charitable Trust, the United States Artists Fellowship for 2011 and the 2104 Pen Center USA Award for Drama. Solis is a Thornton Wilder Fellow for the MacDowell Colony, New Dramatists alum and member of the Dramatists Guild. His new anthology, “The River Plays” has been published by NoPassPort Publishing. He is working on commissions for the Magic Theatre SF and Yale Repertory Theatre.

To read an exercise on creating tension between desire and thought, inspired by Solis’ story “The Want,” click here. More of Solis’ stories in this series can be found in the new issue of Zyzzyva and forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review. On March 4, Solis will read from these stories at Arts & Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art.

In this interview, Solis discusses his approach to fiction and nonfiction, laying the mental groundwork for stories, and moments that lead characters to speak in code.

Michael Noll

Huizache doesn’t label this story as fiction or nonfiction, and so I’m wondering how you would categorize it. Is it one or the other?

Octavio Solis

I would categorize it somewhere between. I started writing these pieces that reflect things that happened in El Paso: turning points in how I recognized how I functioned in the world and who I am, so they’re moments of discovery. But as I was writing, some of them seemed so surreal that they seemed like dreams, and so if I didn’t write them down, they’d be relegated to just dreams. But as I started writing them down—I’m a storyteller, it’s what I do—as I started writing the story, the details and characters started to take on a life of their own. There are details on the sides that aren’t clear, I can’t see them as clearly, and so I give myself permission to make them up. But they’re made up in the sense that I insert them in the moments when they weren’t there, but they’re part of my background, personal history, youth, my past. So they fall into place very readily. I don’t even feel like I’m making them up. But usually the central moments are real and true except that they take on a life of their own. Somebody said, I can’t remember who, “Once you start writing something down, it starts to become fiction. It just can’t help it.” That’s what I gave myself permission to do: tell a story. I realized I had bigger fish to fry than just write an autobiographical story. I’m more interested in telling stories that will resonate in a more universal way.

As for what really happened, I remember that it happened in the winter, but I don’t remember if it was right around Christmas time. It could have been. I remember that I was in college, so it had to have been over Christmas break. But to write that way, frankly about something like that, I’m running a risk because it doesn’t cast me in such a positive light. At the very least, I look like an idiot. But I was young and stupid and horny and crazy—and something else was operating. I also had recently lost my faith. I was told I’d been saved by my drama teacher, was reborn in Jesus and all that, and warned not to stray in college. Then all of that fell away, and I realized the reason I wanted to be saved and be a Christian was to be in the theater. And that felt like it was my way in. But then in college, that all fell away. There were consequences for all that—feelings of grief and remorse about the loss of that community. So I was dealing with loneliness on an epic, metaphysical scale. Not just physical loneliness. And once you have all of those ingredients working together, you become sensitive, aware of the invisible connections that were already emerging. You just let them happen. You don’t even have to force them that much. And so suddenly this girl becomes the virgin Mary and I’m offering her refuge. Of course it’s a complete negative image of that. She’s not looking refuge. I’m looking for a good time and she’s ready to provide it, which is quite different, and that’s the point. It’s an inversion of the Christ story.

Michael Noll

Did you always know the story was headed for that moment? The beginning is filled with Christmas imagery—Bing Crosby, the lodestar in the Franklin Mountains—but there’s also a shock of recognition at the end for the narrator (“And how fucking Catholic of me…What a fucking cliché.”)

Octavio Solis

It also happened to me as a writer, that sort of discovery, oh shit, what have I been writing? It’s all so clear to me now. How could I have missed it? That’s the wonderful thing about writing these stories. I’ve amassed 50 of them.The wonderful thing about them is that I make discoveries as a writer as I’m working on them. I’m not there to share an epiphany. I’m having the epiphany. That final paragraph is also me as a writer thinking, “Oh Jesus, unbelievable.” No matter how much of an atheist I am, all this Catholicism has made me think this way—and I’m so blind to it. I’m hoping that if I’m having the discovery, the reader will land in this same place. And that comes from my theater background. I was trained by a great writer, María Irene Fornés. She taught us to be available to the moment, to discoveries, to not have everything so planned out, to see the journey, the starting point clearly and follow the thread. It will take you to a place as a writer you didn’t expect. Then it becomes a delightful discovery for the writer and will be that for the audience. If you can predict how it’s going to end, the audience will, too. But if you don’t now what’s around the corner, then the audience won’t, either.

Michael Noll

There’s something pretty uncomfortable about that discovery, especially in the moment right after he picks up the girl. He claims to be doing it out of concern for her, but when he says, “Dangerous for a girl in her condition…I hope you didn’t drink too much,” it’s creepy. As I read it, I thought, “Oh no.”

Octavio Solis

Oh yeah, it’s very uncomfortable. But then it turns around the other way as well: she looks innocent and stranded, but she’s not. She’s also looking for me as much as I’m looking for her. The dynamics are constantly shifting inside the car. They start shifting from the time I see her. The dialogue in the car—because of the discomfort, because it’s harder to just lay out baldly what the needs and wants are—you start speaking in a kind of code, unconsciously, without the narrator really knowing what he’s really after, what he’s really saying, until she makes it very clear: You wanted this. You were after this. Don’t pretend otherwise. Because he’s functioning on two planes. I explain a little in that passage about the difference between want and need: I want someone in the carnal way, I need company, I need to be good again, the good Christian again and find myself in fellowship with other people just to do that. He’s opening on this level where he’s wanting someone. He even says, I want someone to give me some nighttime CPR, and goes into bars looking for that. He wants to take her home. He’s a boy scout, but he also won’t admit to himself that he wants something else.

December 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Tension Between Desire and Thought

6 Dec
Octavio Solis' story, "The Want," appears in the most recent issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

Octavio Solis’ story, “The Want,” appears in the most recent issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

Every writer knows that it’s important to find a character’s motivating desire, and those desires are often pretty simple: make money, find love, get revenge, get away, get laid. These are essential human desires, but when they’re distilled down to basics, they can feel too simple. In our minds, our lives are messier and more complicated than any of these desires, which is why we’ve all heard someone say (or we’ve said), “It’s not just about ___. It’s the principle of the thing.” In life and in stories, there’s the desire itself and the invisible architecture of thought, rationalization, philosophy, theology, and politics that we construct around it. Sometimes we become so invested in this architecture that we forget about the desire upon which it’s built.

Octavio Solis crafts an entire story around the distance between the architecture and desire in “The Want,” which you can read in its entirety online at Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

How the Story Works

The premise is simple. The narrator is home from his first semester of college and feeling lonely. He goes for a drive and thinks, “I need a girl, some girl to lie to, hold, feel against me, someone to give me a little nighttime CPR, for god’s sake. Just one time. One night. That’s all.” It’s a pretty straightforward desire, and if the story proceeded from there, the plot would be the same as any of a thousand movies about young guys trying to have sex. But Solis begins to build an architecture of thought around this desire, and the story changes.

Here is the next paragraph:

The loneliness is hurting real bad now. It’s not in the heart but in the head like a migraine shooting icicles into the back of my eyes. It’s in my throat too, sore with the whispers that keep hissing out of my mouth like bile. All around me, the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach. This is what my born-again high school teacher said would happen. You abandon the Lord and you’ll feel the desolation of that choice. You’ll be more alone than you could ever imagine. Painful and paralyzing is the sinner’s harrowing.

The desire has been enlarged, spreading from the heart (and, probably, another organ) to his head and eventually to the entire world (“the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach”). You’ve probably been taught about the pathetic fallacy: the giving of human emotions to non-human things (animals, the sky, trees). At it’s worst, it’s an emotional shortcut. A character is sad, and so the weather is sad and rainy. That’s sloppy writing. But Solis is using the same basic idea in a different way. His narrator sees the world (empty streets) and perceives it through the lens of his emotion (lonely, horny), and so in his mind, the street seems to reflect his own feelings back at him.

The desire also becomes about more than just sex. Now, religion is part of it.

Into this new enlarged sense of desire comes a girl, walking alone by the railroad tracks. She’s pregnant. The narrator offers her a ride. The scene that follows depends completely on the distance between the narrator’s physical desire (find a girl) and the thoughts he’s built around it (“All mortals hidden out of reach…abandon the Lord…more alone than you could ever imagine.”) In short, he forgets (or pretends to himself that he’s forgotten) about looking for sex. He tells himself (and her) that it’s human connection that he wants: “I tell her that I draw strength from her company.”

The girl cuts through this. I won’t say how. You should read the story. But it’s important to note what she does not do. In stories by beginning writers (and in some scripts by professional TV and film writers), a character like the girl will dispense wisdom. She’ll be a kind of guardian angel, swooping into the story to help the main character feel better or learn something. If that’s the point of the story (Highway to HeavenQuantum LeapTouched by an Angel), then so be it. But it’s crucial to look out for lazy tropes. For example, when a character like the girl is black, she too often becomes the magical negro. Solis avoids this problem. The girl doesn’t dispense wisdom. She acts and speaks in ways that match her own desires in the moment.

The result is a great, tense passage. Read it here.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create tension between physical desire and the architecture of thought a character builds around that desire, using “The Want” by Octavio Solis as a model:

  1. Find the basic desire. Keep it simple. What does your character hunger for? Or, what is an absence that is unacceptable to your character? The objects will be some of the usual ones: money, food, shelter, security, love, friendship, sex. Once you find the desire, put the object at its center just out of reach. Solis’ narrator wants a girl, but he can’t find one. The bar is full of “older blinder boozers” and the streets are empty. What does your character want? How can you make it seem impossible to get?
  2. Lay the foundation for the architecture of thought. The story begins on Christmas, and so there is a series of Christmas imagery: Bing Crosby on the radio, a city light that reminds the narrator of the Christmas star. The character is home from college, and so he flips through his high school yearbook, looking at pictures and notes written by classmates. The yearbook suggests a different kind of loneliness, not just sexual but more general. And, it’s a pretty short jump from Christmas imagery to theological loneliness. So, give your character and story something to work with. This is basic narrative work: what details in the setting and situation stand out to the character?
  3. Build the architecture of thought. When your character is alone in his/her head, thinking about these details while in the midst of the basic desire, what thoughts come up? Keep writing. What do they spin themselves into? In “The Want,” we soon realize that the narrator is struggling with his religious beliefs (or has moved past them and is struggling with the aftermath). We also realize that he’s not quite sure how to be an adult (reading the yearbook). He goes into a bar but doesn’t like the company he finds there. Like anyone does while driving, he thinks and thinks about these things and develops some ideas. To some extent, he’s created his own diversion from looking for sex. He’s distracted by his own thoughts. What are the thoughts that your character might become distracted by?
  4. Bring another character into the story. This character will not be aware of the invisible architecture of thought in the first character’s head. The girl in “The Want” only knows what she sees: a guy has picked her up. It’s natural, then, that her actions and words will cut across the world the narrator has created in his mind. She interacts with him based on his desire (which is evident), not his thoughts. Conflict ensues. So, what character can you bring into the story? How does that character fit into your main character’s basic desire?

The goal is to create conflict and tension by giving your main character/narrator both a desire and an architecture of thought build around that desire. You may know what those thoughts will be beforehand, or you may need to explore the premise a bit to discover them. Once you do, bring another character into the story.

Good luck.

An Interview with Angela Palm

1 Dec
Angela Palm won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for her memoir Riverine.

Angela Palm won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for her memoir Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here.

Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, recipient of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. She is the editor of a book featuring work by Vermont writers, called Please Do Not Remove. She has taught creative writing at Champlain College, New England Young Writers’ Conference, The Writers’ Barn, and The Renegade Writers’ Collective and is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship in nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Creative NonfictionEcotoneAt Length MagazineBrevity, DIAGRAM, Essay DailyPaper Dartsapt, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hippocampus MagazineMidwestern Gothic, Little Fiction, Big Truths, and Sundog Lit. She was raised in the rural Midwest and lives in Vermont.

To read an excerpt from Riverine and an exercise on writing expansively, click here.

In this interview, Palm discusses finding the thread in connected essays, moving beyond the self in memoir, and what it means to be a Midwestern writer.

Michael Noll

Early in Riverine, you write about visiting your riverside home years after leaving it:

“The road had  anew name, the one-way arrow of time expanding here as it was anywhere else on Earth, but the defining entropy of the place was the same. There was no aftermath through which I could proceed as story, as I’d hoped for—no obvious tale waiting to be told.”

This passage encapsulates what I think a lot of people feel as they begin to write their own stories, whether it’s through essay or memoir. What was the moment that happened—in a draft or in your head—that showed you the way into the story?

Angela Palm

I had written four standalone essays in which the landscape of my home featured prominently as metaphor and as setting. I knew the river would be one of the main threads that stitched the different pieces together. I also knew that Corey’s crime was the central narrative hook. But I needed more. Those pieces alone didn’t make a book, didn’t organize a book, so I began doing some research and found different maps of the Kankakee Marsh from different time periods. Mapping—my obsession with its accuracies and inaccuracies, with its erasure, history, and inherent limitations—became the book’s organizing principle. I would use mapping as a way to chart story, I decided, and everything began to take shape from there. It was then that I wrote the opening essays, “Map of Home,” which begins with the epigraph “Every map is a fiction,” by DJ Waldie. That essay and epigraph are a guide to the whole book.

Michael Noll

In the early scenes with your father and friends playing cards, it’s hard not to think about Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. That was a book that inspired a lot of memoirists, but it’s also 21 years old. A lot of great memoirs have been published since. Was that a book that shaped your thinking about memoir? What other memoirs were important to you in terms of craft?

Angela Palm

It’s interesting—everyone assumes my book was informed by Karr’s work. But I didn’t start reading her work until after I’d sold Riverine and in some ways I think that was for the best. I fancy myself an essayist at heart, or a writer of books that can’t commit to a subgenre. But the books most influential in writing Riverine were Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard which informed my voice in some way, Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston which informed my female psyche, and Bluets by Maggie Nelson which gave me permission to mix narrative with research and science and philosophy and lyricism.

Michael Noll

Angela Palm's memoir "Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions," according to a Wall Street Journal review.

Angela Palm’s memoir “Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions,” according to a Wall Street Journal review.

The central relationship in the book is between you and Corey, and so, naturally, there are moments when you write about him outside of the frame of your friendship. For example, at one point you write, “Things had started to go really wrong for Corey when he got in trouble for taking a gun to school and stashing it in his locker.” The passage goes on to explain what happened, ending up in an intimate moment shared by both of you. But I wonder, though, about the authority in that first sentence: “Things had started to go really wrong for Corey when…” Did you worry at all about stepping into a more journalistic space, writing about others, rather than the personal space of memoir/essay?

Angela Palm

Limiting myself to those personal spaces—those memories shared directly with Corey—would have resulted in an overly sympathetic and possibly sentimental rendering of story. And I didn’t want that. In order to tell the whole story, I had to move beyond myself in some places—this place in particular. No, it didn’t worry me. I was committed to tracking his transition from innocent kid to traumatized kid to juvenile delinquent to adult criminal. The event of the gun at school was part of that sequence. I spoke with him to clarify my memories of those events and to pin down the timeline. The phrasing of that paragraph combines information and my perception of that information.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about how the literary geography that you place yourself within. If this book had been set in, say, rural Georgia, the word Southern would almost certainly be used in descriptions of both the book and you, its writer. Of course, it’s set in Indiana. Yet I can’t find the word Midwest used in reviews or descriptions of the book—which seems to suggest something about the Midwest as a literary place. I suppose one could say, truthfully, that it’s large and varied, but so is the South. Do you think of yourself as a Midwestern writer? Does that adjective have any meaning for you?

Angela Palm

In some sense, I do consider myself a Midwestern writer. I’ve also called myself an anti-pastoral writer. My writing sensibilities about place come almost directly from the Midwest’s landscape, its people, its history, and its specific challenges. Despite often being considered unremarkable, I find there’s plenty to say and consider and unpack, still, in the region. The connotations of anything labeled “Midwestern” are typically negative, but I reject that. It’s a place full of contradiction, full of rich identity like anywhere else. There are too many boxes to put writers in and too much time spent doing so. Midwestern writer, anti-pastoral, place-based writer? Memoirist or essayist? Advocacy journalist, true crime writer, or prose lyricist? My work has been called all of these things by different people, and still I write without thinking of how a piece might be construed or constricted by its organizational terminology.

December 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Expansively Instead of In a Straight Line

29 Nov
Angela Palm's memoir Riverine "Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions," according to a Wall Street Journal review.

Angela Palm’s memoir Riverine “is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions,” according to a Wall Street Journal review.

In my own writing, the number one sign that I’ve lost track of the narrative is that I become locked into a minute-by-minute recitation of what’s happening in the story. Even if the action is eventful, the telling of it feels tedious. Good prose should seem light on its feet, not plodding; expansive, not narrow; all-inclusive like Borges’ aleph or Whitman’s lines “what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Perhaps that sounds a bit high-minded, but it’s a feat of mechanics, something that any writer can try on the page.

A great example of expansive prose can be found in Angela Palm’s memoir Riverine. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Memoir Works

Palm grew up in rural Indiana, in an unincorporated group of homes along the Kankakee River. Her neighbor and friend was a boy named Corey, who she played with and fantasized about until the day he was arrested for the brutal murder of two of their neighbors. She continues thinking about him long afterward, and the memoir is an attempt, in part, to make sense of that murder in both their lives.

As a result, the book faces the need of telling what happened to Palm and Corey but also exploring the world around them. Palm does exactly that in a passage about a third of the way into the memoir:

Generally, the town newspaper was a thing you decidedly wanted your name in or out of, depending on your status. If you were Bridget Trotsma with the brownest eyes and leanest thighs and eagerest stage mother, you wanted to be in. You said, “Look at that. I can’t believe I made front page. Again.” You smiled to yourself knowing full well you’d be on the front page but not knowing that you life would never be better than it was in that moment. If you were Corey, on the other hand, and you had killed two elderly, innocent persons and torched their car in a cornfield, you wanted to be out. You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart. He talked to someone who talked to someone else who talked to the police.

The passage starts with a definitive statement about town newspapers and the sort of people who wanted to be written about. It’s a statement that requires explanation and evidence, which Palm proceeds to provide with the examples of Bridget Trotsma and Corey. Buried within that explanation are more statements that beg for more information, like “But Corey wasn’t that smart.” It’s no accident, then, that the next paragraph begins “Or, he was smart once, but only had a makeshift upbringing as the fifth of five children, one dead too young, to guide him.”

This meditation on types of people and how they become that way runs into an opposing view in the next paragraph:

I walked the aisles of the grocery store—a mistake, in retrospect. In the bread aisle at the IGA, I heard a man say, “I hope he fries.” Firing squad, another said. In the frozen section: “Those people living in the old riverbed ought to be self-incorporated if you ask me. Those people ain’t never been fit for this town. Draw a line between the northern farms and the river and be done with them.” Some folks are born evil, someone said. “Ain’t nothing you can do about it.” But that wasn’t true, was it?

The paragraph proceeds to offer examples that complicate a belief that in “born evil.”

The passage has now moved from the town newspaper to a metaphysical discussion of the nature of the soul, and so the next paragraph begins with “His case never went to trial” and ends with “But somehow I held out hope against hope in Corey’s civility, in his true self before he shattered, over time, into other broken versions of himself.”

We learn essential information about the narrative, the sort of details that are part of any crime story. But by making definitive claims about the world (from simple things like newspapers to complex abstractions like the nature of good and evil), the prose expand far beyond the basic execution of the crime and its punishment.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s expand a narrative beyond its immediate action, using Riverine by Angela Palm as a model:

  1. Start with a general statement about the people, places, or things in your narrative. Palm begins her passage with newspapers and how people feel about appearing in them. It’s a version of the old saw “There are two types of people: those who ____ and those who ____.” Of course, statements like these are simplistic (“There are two types of people: Those who believe in dualities, and those who don’t.”). The point is not to definitively describe something so much as launch a discussion of it. You’re giving yourself something to talk about. So, pick any aspect of your narrative world and describe it in terms of “There are two types of people…” Ideally, you’re picking something that is connected to the main thread (the action or plot) of your story, but don’t let that stop you in your tracks. If you’re stuck, pick anything and see where it takes you. Don’t plan yourself into a perpetually blank page.
  2. Provide evidence for your statement. Give examples, as Palm does with Bridget and Corey. Put faces on the examples. Avoid, if you can, the invention of straw men (faceless characters who act in ways that are convenient for the writer). Ground your statement in reality (even if that reality is intentionally curated).
  3. Make definitive statements about your examples. Palm writes, “You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart.” She starts with a generalization (“if you were smart”) and then makes it particular (“But Corey wasn’t”). Try using Palm’s basic structure “If you were ___, then ___.” Then, follow it up with “But/And ___ was/wasn’t ___.”
  4. Provide evidence for this new statement. Palm digs into the idea that Corey wasn’t smart and tries to explain how that could be true. In your own work, think about the how. This may feel like a natural progression: from what is to how/why it got that way.
  5. Introduce opposing views. If this sounds like instructions for a freshman comp essay, that’s okay. Good arguments are often narratives, and good narratives often make arguments about their worlds and characters. Palm introduces what some of the townspeople say about Corey, which differs from her own perception of him. She does this by putting herself in the place where the townspeople can be found: the grocery store. She doesn’t worry about identifying the people she encounters. Instead, she lists their statements one after another.
  6. Ask if these opposing views are true. Palm does this literally: “But that wasn’t true, was it?” Notice how she uses a question, not a statement (But that wasn’t true). A question demands an answer, which she then must provide. What you’ll probably find is that if you ask enough questions in your narrative (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction), you’ll find one that’s difficult to answer–and it’s that question that is likely at the reason you began writing the story in the first place.

The goal is expanding a piece of prose to reveal the world around a plot and possibly discover a story’s about-ness.

Good luck.

An Interview with Kelly Davio

27 Nov
Kelly Davio is the author of the essay "Strong Is the New Sexy" and the poetry collection,

Kelly Davio is the author of the essay “Strong Is the New Sexy” and the poetry collection, Burn This House.

Kelly Davio is the American Editor of Eyewear Publishing, the Co-Publisher and Poetry Editor for Tahoma Literary Review, and the former Managing Editor for The Los Angeles Review. She writes the column “The Waiting Room” for Change Seven Magazine and regularly contributes to a variety of magazines, reviews, and journals, ranging from Ravishly to Women’s Review of Books. Her debut poetry collection, Burn This House, is now available from Red Hen Press. Her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” was published at The Rumpus.

In this interview, Davio discusses the cultural criteria for womanhood, the corporate interests in empowerment, and the lessons of writing poetry for essay writers.

To read Davio’s essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” and an exercise on structure, click here.

Michael Noll

This is such a powerful essay, especially the line, “I was never a curvy woman to begin with, but with each of the more feminine attributes I’ve lost, I’ve become, I am given to understand, less and less of a real woman.” I’m curious how you worked up to this statement. Was it a realization that you’ve had for a while and so part of writing the essay was finding a way to say it? Or did this line only occur to you as you worked on the piece?

Kelly Davio

This idea, that I’m the antithesis of a “real woman,” is something I’ve been circling around for some time, often with amusement and other times with resignation or even bald aggravation. Our culture is strangely invested in telling women what makes them real: having curves, having health, having children, having beauty, having strength, having sexiness. I don’t feel that I meet any of the criteria for being a real woman, so it must stand to reason that I’m an unreal woman. I’ve been writing about this idea in my poetry for a little while, and have developed a character I call The Unreal Woman—she’s part comedic alter-ego and part antihero—whom I use to explore the idea of being left out and left over.

In writing “Strong is the New Sexy,” though, I wanted to take a more straightforward, serious approach to this topic. Cathartic as it is for me to write humorous or wry poems about The Unreal Woman, it was important to me to work up the courage to speak bluntly about body image and disability. I may be hyperaware of how few people write about the disabled body in the literary space, but it’s a topic that feels to me like one of the last literary taboos, and I wanted to, if not break it, at least chip artfully around its corners.

Michael Noll

In the first paragraph, you’re learning to swallow again and watching hang gliders through the window. This contrast between weakness and strength is carried through the entire essay. At one point in the essay, you juxtapose the statements, “Strong is the new sexy” and “grave weakness.” Did you start with this structure or discover it as you put images down on the page?

Kelly Davio

I did begin with the rough structure in mind. I find it amusing that we speak so much about strength as an essential attribute, especially with regard to living with illness, yet the name of the disease I live with–myasthenia gravis–quite literally means “grave weakness.” That seemed like a fruitful contrast to examine.

Beyond that fact, the form almost seemed to give itself to me on a platter with the unlikely scenario of daredevils hang gliding right in view of the hospital complex (I suppose they’re in the right place if anything goes amiss with their sport). I mean, you can’t make this stuff up! Here are these folks who presumably have health enough to spare, dangling themselves on nothing but air currents, and then you have this group of patients shuffling around in our sweatpants. The only things separating our groups were some large windows and a big gap in circumstance. I liked the idea that I could use this contrast between images of health and disability to work up to the view of acceptance that I put forth in the end of the essay.

Michael Noll

The essay is full of short paragraphs that make quick leaps of logic. For instance, you write this about the therapist: “The most important thing, she tells me, is that I don’t quit eating. Sometimes, people just give up, she says. She looks at my chart again, and asks how much weight I’ve lost in the past few months.” The leap from giving up to looking at your chart is striking. I think I actually paused after I read it the first time. The leap happens without any mechanics. You don’t say that she looked at you worriedly or that she advised you to eat more. There are so many ways that this moment could have been expanded, so many other pieces of seemingly pertinent information that could have been added. Such brevity is often difficult for fiction writers, but you’re a poet. What effect do you think your experience with the distillation and density that happens in poems has on your approach to writing an essay?

Kelly Davio

Most of us have probably experienced the phenomenon of trying to get the spirit of an incident on the page, and adding, elaborating, and decorating that incident for fear we haven’t gotten it quite right or communicated it fully. The problem with that impulse to keep renovating the image is that, the more you add, the more you dilute.

Poetry has a wonderful way of teaching the importance of getting the image right rather than piling on additions; when a poem begins to over-explain by even a word or two, the entire piece falls apart. Poetry has taught me to think through everything I put on the page before I put it there, and to approach everything I write slowly and attentively so that I can avoid the impulse to over-elaborate out of fear that the reader won’t grasp my meaning.

I should also note that I think the positions of the body are often more revealing than dialogue tags, and I tend to use body language in lieu of tagging whenever I can. What we say verbally is only a fragment of what we communicate, and when you excise the “he saids” from your writing, you give yourself room enough to suggest many of those subtleties in a small amount of space.

Michael Noll

In her essay, "Strong Is The New Sexy," Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they're not real women.

In her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they’re not real women.

The essay ends with you watching the gliders. Unlike at the beginning of the essay, you write, “I don’t look away. I have to admit that they are beautiful.” This is a pretty interesting statement given the connections you’ve drawn between the gliders and the ideas of strength and “real” women, which means women with curves. We tend to think in terms of empowerment, the belief that whoever you are, however you look, is good and beautiful. This is especially true with women’s health issues. Cancer survivors compete in triathlons. But that’s not really how this essay ends, and it’s certainly not the advice that you’re given by your doctor. In your case, your body attacks strength and effort. How do you reconcile this paradox: we don’t really have a philosophical place for an illness and a “real” body like yours?

Kelly Davio

Empowerment is a tricky business. Culturally, we have been making some tiny strides toward greater body acceptance for women, but it’s usually a corporate money-maker like Dove’s questionable “Real Beauty” campaign that features nothing but visibly able-bodied women who still fit highly conventional standards of attractiveness. We still have supposedly health-focused television shows that revolve around the entire premise that fat people need to be shamed and monitored into losing weight. And yes, we love to see cancer survivors compete in triathlons! But we sure don’t do much for cancer patients when they’re not “raising awareness”; do we cover our coughs on the bus so that the chemo patient doesn’t catch our germs and become seriously ill? No, unless somebody’s looking inspiring, we have little time for her. We like it when the arc of someone else’s story bends toward us. We like people to look like us, act like us. We have a low tolerance for those people and those bodies that don’t reflect us and underwrite our opinions about the world.

But let me tiptoe off my soapbox and get back to the question at hand. Part of what I wanted to say in this essay is that, over time, I’ve realized that body acceptance is a whole lot more than adopting a sassy attitude as though I’m in a Special K commercial—that’s a cheap imitation of actual acceptance. To me, body acceptance is the choice to allow my body to be as it is and others’ bodies to be as they are. It’s not just about my getting over the embarrassment of walking with a cane when I need to be on my feet for a long time, or coming to terms with all the visible side effects of my medications (though those have been big steps for me). It’s also about stopping the train of envy and judgment; body acceptance means refusing to look at someone else and say “I wish I had your…” or “you’d be so pretty if…”. It’s the radical idea that you and I are both good in and of ourselves, and that no one’s goodness diminishes another’s.

That’s what I mean when I say that I admit the hang gliders are beautiful—I’ve come to a place where I no longer feel envious of their beauty or their health. Just as I can live in this body and call it good, I acknowledge and enjoy their goodness, too.

First Published in August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Theme to Create Structure

22 Nov
In her essay, "Strong Is The New Sexy," Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they're not real women.

In her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” Kelly Davio argues that shifting the image of ideal female beauty from thin to curvy still leaves some women feeling unreal and unfeminine.  Art Credit: Mark Armstrong

For some writers, structure comes naturally. They have an innate compass that allows them to chart a course through the jumble of experiences and memories in their minds, forming a narrative arc from the chaos. Others of us, though, can spend all day writing and still find nothing but a mess on the page. No matter how interesting the individual paragraphs or sentences or story, until those things are placed within some structure, the essay won’t work. The question is this: How do we find that structure?

Kelly Davio’s essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” offers a primer in giving structure to our experiences and ideas. It appeared in The Rumpus, where you can read it now. 

How the Essay Works

The essay plants several flags in the ground and moves back and forth between them. The first flag is found in the title, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” which clearly presents one idea that will recur within the essay: for a woman, being strong is desirable. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess that this statement suggests another, different idea: for a woman, being thin is sexy and desirable. Davio makes this connection explicitly:

The product of a generation of girls who grew up with the specter of anorexia stalking our friends and siblings, I was told that “real women have curves” as though it were a mantra.

These two ideas alone are probably enough to fuel an essay. In fact, you’ve probably read an essay like that before. But Davio is interested in moving beyond binary positions of “strong vs skinny” because neither describes her, and she, of course, is a real woman. So she plants a third flag in the ground: “The name of my disease translates directly from the Greek and Latin to ‘grave weakness.'” Due to the nature of this disease, she’s lost the muscle memory required for eating and must relearn it with the help of a physical therapist:

The most important thing, she tells me, is that I don’t quit eating. Sometimes, people just give up, she says. She looks at my chart again, and asks how much weight I’ve lost in the past few months.

Davio has shifted the conversation from “strong vs skinny” to “Strong is the new sexy vs grave weakness.” In other words, what if a woman is thin not because she wants to be but because she has no choice? These are the flags (strong/sexy and grave weakness) that Davio moves between. Each section of the essay is focused on one or the other or on the tension between the two:

  • The first section introduces the image of Davio relearning to eat while looking out the window at hang gliders.
  • The second section introduces a Pinterest image of a curvy woman in a swimsuit and the idea that “being healthy and fit is so much more important than being skinny.”
  • The third section returns to Davio learning how to eat and adds the dimension of unwanted weight loss.
  • The fourth section explains the consequences of losing weight and, as a result, the markers of femininity: Davio feels that is becoming “less and less of a real woman.”
  • The fifth section gives details about the physical effects of the “grave weakness.”
  • The sixth section shows Davio trying to cover up these effects.
  • The next two sections finally make explicit the juxtaposition between strong and weak.
  • The final section returns to the hang gliders, with Davio admitting “that they are beautiful.”

By planting the thematic flags of the essay so clearly, Davio gives her imagination and memory a structure to work within. Everyone has sat in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices; those scenes in this essay could have been generic. But because Davio knows (or her unconscious knows) that she’s writing about strength and grave weakness, she focuses the waiting-room scene on images that touches on those ideas: particular images on her phone, the hang gliders outside the window.

By knowing what the essay is about, Davio also knows which details to use and which to leave out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create structure with theme using “Strong Is The New Sexy” by Kelly Davio as a model:

  1. Choose your topic. What are you going to write about? It might just be a story or memory that’s been running through your mind. You might not know what it’s about. That’s fine. The important thing is to have something definite in your mind, some concrete experience or detail.
  2. Identify what your essay seems to be about. If you told someone the story/memory/detail, what would they say it’s about? Or, to put it another way, what is the usual version of your essay? What would readers expect it to be about based on the title? Davio’s essay would seem, from the title, to be making a common argument about female body image: that strong/athletic/curvy is better than making oneself skinny through self-deprivation. Even though your essay might not be about this expected thing, it’s useful to know what is expected. It gives you something to react against.
  3. What is the essay really about? Perhaps you’ve had the experience of telling someone you’re story/memory/detail and they say, “Well, here’s what’s going on with you.” If they’re right, it’s enlightening. If they’re wrong, it’s infuriating. The best essays often develop from the need to correct an idea or fill in a missing gap. Davio’s essay is adding necessary dimensions to the strong vs skinny debate. What does your essay want to add to the ideas that readers already have? How can you say to your imaginary reader, “No, no, it’s not about that at all. It’s about this?”
  4. Plant your flags. Identify the different positions/ideas present in your essay (perhaps conflicting in your essay). Do it in a word or two. Davio uses “strong/sexy” and “grave weakness.” How can you distill your argument to a couple of words like that?
  5. Write scenes/sections around each flag. One way to think about structure is as “theme and variation.” How many different perspectives can you offer on the flags that you’ve planted. For strength, Davio 1) shows images of female beauty from her phone, 2) shows people who are healthy and actively flying hang gliders, and 3) gives context (“the specter of anorexia”). She does the same thing with grave weakness, showing various aspects of what that means in physical terms and their mental effect. For each of the flags you’ve planted (the one or two-word phrases that explain what the essay is about), write a scene from a story or build a paragraph using an image or detail. To change metaphors, how can you filter your memories through these phrases to see what comes out?

At some point, you’ll find that you have enough scenes and sections, and your job will be to order them. That will be easier if they share a similar focus and direction.

Good luck!

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

17 Nov
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Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Indiana Review, Word Riot, Requited, Voices de la Luna and elsewhere.  Born to parents of African-American and Sicilian decent, she is the fiction editor of Apogee Journal and BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. She is also the co-literary coordinator of the Mixed Remixed Festival, held annually at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Esme-Michelle is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a recipient of fellowships from Callaloo, Kimbilio, and Columbia University.

For a writing exercise about describing objects in a room based on Watkins’ story “Xochimilco,” click here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses writing from a child’s point of view, ordering a description of place, and finding a setting that can convey the complexity of Los Angeles.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be biracial—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

Originally posted in February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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