Archive | August, 2014

An Interview with Sean Ennis

28 Aug
Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which "expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia" according to a review by Largehearted Boy.

Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, a collection of connected stories set on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Ennis is a Philadelphia native now living in Water Valley, Mississippi. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Mississippi and with the Gotham Writers Workshop. His work has appeared in Tin House, Crazyhorse, The Good Men Project, The Greensboro Review, The Mississippi Review, Hot Metal Bridge, LitNImage, Filter, and The Best New American Voices anthology.

In this interview, Ennis discusses staged and real violence, how the real story can be found in repercussions to dramatic events, and why game theory helps explain adolescence.

To read Ennis’ story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase,” and an exercise on plot spoilers, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in the fact that the story puts the characters into two fights. The obvious thing to have done would be for the narrator to have learned a lesson from the first fight and responded differently in the second. But that’s not what happens. In fact, the second fight sort of sneaks up on him. He doesn’t even see it clearly. Did you always handle these fights in this way, or were there other versions of them in early drafts?

Sean Ennis

The structure for this story was a bit of a happy accident.  I had just finished reading a group of great, super-short novels (Ray by Barry Hannah, So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustaffson), so I thought I might try my hand at something longer than my typical 15 page piece, and see what happens if I took my foot off the gas a bit.  My own experience playing soccer for ten years seemed like good enough fodder, and so I thought I’d tell every soccer story I had and see what fell out.  If I had originally approached the subject matter without thinking of it as a longer project, I probably just would have written the one long scene of the boy’s death.

A lot fell out though. Lengthy descriptions of indoor soccer, which is a bizarre game played with tiny goals and enormous tennis balls on basketball courts.  Errant coaches with hard drug problems who couldn’t keep their genitals from falling out of their shorts.  Feral sideline mothers who preyed on teenage referees.  The taste of yellow oranges in November at halftime.  All fine details, I guess, but eventually they felt irrelevant to the piece, and got cut. I didn’t want it to be turned into my lame soccer memoir.

The heart of the piece really seemed to be violence—the somewhat staged violence of the sport, and the real violence of the neighborhood.  On the field, there was, theoretically, some adult who would stop things from going too far.  Off the field there was not, even when their help was requested.

To the point of the narrator learning something, I guess my thought is that there is nothing to be learned.  He’s a coward in the best sense—he doesn’t believe that violence solves problems, or at least that he can use violence to solve problems—but might be surrounded by people who do.  I guess if he’s learned anything is that from now on, there is no one blowing a whistle to stop bad behavior.  He’ll have to manage it himself.

Michael Noll

I also really love the soccer field that you create in Fishtown. It’s not just a poor version of other fields—it’s not really even a field. What I love is how the absurdity of the field seems to change the tone of the story. We start out in familiar territory, familiar descriptions of poor neighborhoods, but then the field alters the scope of what is possible. It’s so beyond the bounds of what we think we know. I wonder if that second fight would have been believable in the story without that gravel soccer field. What do you think? Did any of this occur to you as you worked on the story?

Sean Ennis

This may diminish me as a story-teller, but that field was a real place. I played on it. This probably isn’t a shocker, but is it a bummer when writers say their best details are real?

Sean Ennis' debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Sean Ennis’ debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

And in real life, I think the field was a metaphor. That neighborhood was very serious about soccer. They always kicked ass. They could have come up with money for grass. But it was a rite of passage in Philadelphia to play on that cinder field. We were shocked by it and had no idea how to negotiate it, so we complained and were totally intimidated and then lost. I distinctly remember my dad telling me it was a “cinder” field while we were driving there, and I had no idea what he meant. Had it been on fire?

Something that I think the whole collection is interested in is the idea of real objects out of place in a way that causes anxiety. Expanses of gravel and glass are not strange territory in an urban setting.  But when a hundred yards of them are contained by white lines and called a “field,” there’s something not right. To me, it’s the first clue for the narrator that something universal is off. The adults just shrug about the field.  Just say, sorry if you don’t like the rules, but you must play. For me, this is an idea running through most of the stories in the collection. For a while the whole manuscript was called “Deep Play,” an idea taken from Jeremy Bentham, a British political philosopher. He was talking about instances where players get involved in a game where it is impossible to win, but they play anyway. A lot of young adulthood feels like this, I think. I’m no expert in game theory, and “Deep Play” isn’t the sexiest of titles for a collection, but that superficial version of Bentham’s idea struck a chord with me in terms of the types of stories I was writing.

This relates to the second fight, I think. The natural progression of violence among these kids is that someone is going to be killed; it’s already in motion. Also, the narrator’s team’s manicured field is the place of real danger. Even the brutes from Fishtown understood when a fight was over and won. But the swarming idiots from the suburbs were less equipped to understand the repercussions of their actions.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a spoiler (“The night Roger was beaten to death…”). That’s a move that can really work and can also backfire (in this case, of course, it works really well). What went into your decision to start the story that way? And, how did foregrounding that line affect the way you structured the story?

Sean Ennis

My thought there was to just get that bit of drama out of the way. I think we all know stories about kids who died too early, and, of course, they are tragic, but I was interested in figuring out a way where that death wasn’t the climax of the piece. If the reader knows it first thing, then hopefully something else is going on to keep people reading. In general, I’m much more interested in the repercussions of dramatic events than the dramatic events themselves. Things that seem bad can have positive outcomes and vice versa. So, my hope is that what happens after the death is where the real heart of the story is.

Michael Noll

This is not the only story I’ve read that combines sex and death. First to mind is Stuart Dybek’s story, “We Didn’t.” But the novel Skippy Dies also came to mind. To that end, I guess even the movie Dead Poet’s Society fits the description. What is it, do you think, about sex and/or death that makes it natural to bring them together?

Sean Ennis

This question is probably above my pay grade, but I’ll speculate that there’s something evolutionary about an animal’s interest in these topics.  The ultimate conflict—have sex or die. The echoes of that impulse remain, right?  Freud?  Darwin? Help me out.

I also think for young people these are both concepts becoming real at about the same time.  By the age of twelve or so, most young boys are waging their virginity against their potential death in some stunt.  Before that age, neither sex nor death seem like possible outcomes, or even knowable outcomes. When they both come crashing in: chaos.

In terms of story-telling, a piece needs stake, and sex and death impart this pretty quickly. I’ll be the first to admit that maybe they do it cheaply.  Still, they’ve been staples in story-telling for thousands of years, which suggests readers are usually compelled by it.  All of which to say, I think this story, if it succeeds, is retreading very familiar thematic territory, if only because it is the story-telling I was trained in.

That said, I’m working to figure out how sex and death are no longer the backbone of my stories without becoming a bad version of Carver or Salinger (heroes of mine).  Surely there is a drama in between.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Use Plot Spoilers in a Story

26 Aug
Sean Ennis' debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Sean Ennis’ debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. The novelist Paul Murray actually did this with the title of his book: Skippy Dies. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did Skippy die? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work?

Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase.” It was included in his collection of linked stories Chase Us, and you can read it now at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

The first seven words of the story give away the ending: “The night Roger was beaten to death.” That’s the plot spoiler. A lesser story might depend on that spoiler alone to generate suspense. After all, it’s a powerful statement: Roger wasn’t killed but beaten to death. It’s natural for the reader to want to know what happened. Who was Roger? How did he arrive at such an awful ending?

But those seven words are just the beginning of passage that build suspense in a variety of ways. Here are the first two paragraphs in their entirety:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time.

The initial pulse of suspense comes from “beaten to death,” but that suspense is heightened by the incongruity and mystery of what comes next: “I was out there running, too.” What does this mean? Running away? But what about that word too? He was running with Roger? The sentence makes perfect grammatical sense but leaves a great deal unclear in terms of the scene and what was happening. So, now the reader not only wants to know how and why Roger died but also what was going on in the background. Then, the next sentence introduces the word playground, which we don’t normally associate with beaten to death or beer and wild nudity. Again, it’s important to note that there is nothing literally  confusing about the paragraph. The sentences are not purposefully obscuring the facts. The confusion or mystery comes from not seeing only a glimpse of the entire picture. The narrator cannot explain everything in a few words, in part because it is first-person and therefore imperfect in the ways that all people are imperfect, rather than third-person and capable of omniscience.

The second paragraph continues the incongruity of playground/beaten to death by stringing together kids who “got in fights, smoked” with soccer and the idea that “Seventh grade is a tenuous time.” These are just kids, we realize. They’re playing at being adults but still stuck with the trappings of childhood—playgrounds and soccer.

So, even though the first sentence contains an enormous plot spoiler, the rest of the opening two paragraphs introduce a complexity and confusion that the reader wants to unravel and understand. If you read the entire story (which you most definitely should), you’ll likely find that the plot point of Roger’s death is less important than everything that was going on around it. In other words, the spoiler isn’t really a spoiler at all but a way of directing the reader’s attention toward what is truly important.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce a plot spoiler into the beginning of a story using “Saint Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis as a model:

  1. Identify the most important thing that happens in your story. There are, of course, likely several important points, and the biggest of them might be internal—but internal plot points don’t really work as spoilers. Part of the problem is that even the deepest moments of realization for a character can sound, when distilled to a sentence, like the sentiments of a Hallmark card (“The Things They Carried”: Don’t let grief get you down.). To make a spoiler work, you need plot, which almost always means action and often means the external consequence of some internal turning point. So, identify the biggest plot point in the story.
  2. Write a sentence that states the spoiler plainly. You can’t get much plainer than “The night Roger was beaten to death.” But notice what else that sentence does: it suggest that other things are happening. It’s even a good idea to use Ennis’ first sentence as a template: On the _____ that ____ happened… You want to hint to the reader that though you’re revealing some parts of the story, there are others yet to be found out.
  3. Surround the plot spoiler with incongruities. Some spoilers aren’t really spoiler (A man went to war and died. A couple met in Vegas and got married and a year later they were divorced.) No one is going to wonder how those things happened because of course they happened. You want to provide details that make the spoiler not quite make sense. Ennis pairs “beaten to death” with a playground and wild parties and, eventually, seventh grade. These are things that don’t usually appear alongside a brutal murder. So, fill your first paragraph with details that one wouldn’t normally expect to find alongside the plot point that you’ve revealed. Keep in mind, though, that you’re not searching for opposites. Don’t be blatantly thematic (He died in a maternity ward). Be weird. Be unexpected. Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of Stuart Dybek’s famous story “We Didn’t”: “We didn’t in your room on the canopy bed you slept in, the bed you’d slept in as a child, or in the backseat of my father’s rusted Rambler, which smelled of the smoked chubs and kielbasa he delivered on weekends from my uncle Vincent’s meat market.” Nobody expects to find smoked chubs in a sentence about sex. Allow your imagination to roam. What detail would make the reader sit up and say, “Huh?”
  4. Run with those details. Once you’ve got the plot spoiler in the story (and if it’s a good one), then there’s no doubt that you’ll return to it eventually. It’s also almost inevitable that it will press its face against the pane of your story over and over again. You won’t be able to get rid of it. So don’t feel the need to remind your readers that it’s there. Instead, elaborate on the incongruous details you’ve discovered. Ennis puts a playground and soccer in a paragraph with murder, and it’s the playground and the soccer that the story focuses on for a very long time—except that they’re not just soccer and a playground. They’re soccer and a playground that are accessories to murder. As a result, we pay attention. We want to know how the incongruous details will be brought together.

Good luck and have fun!

An Interview with Janet Stickmon

21 Aug
Janet Stickmon is the author of Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience and the memoir, Crushing Soft Rubies.

Janet Stickmon is the author of Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience and the memoir, Crushing Soft Rubies.

Janet Stickmon is the author of Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience and the memoir Crushing Soft Rubies, which has been used as a course textbook at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, Santa Rosa Junior College and Gavilan College. Stickmon is a professor of Humanities at Napa Valley College and a former high school teacher in Richmond, CA. She founded and facilitates Broken Shackle Developmental Training, a program that promotes the use of healing techniques to help reduce the effects of internalized racism.

In this interview, Stickmon discusses dangers of identifying people as “just human,” her unexpected love of the sci-fi novel Heirs of Prophecy, and hybridity in both writing and community.

To read Stickmon’s essay, “Blackapina,” and an exercise on narrative voice, click here.

Michael Noll

You write, “I longed to identify as ‘just human.’ This didn’t fully capture what I was about either, especially since being both Black and Filipina shaped my human experience.” When I teach an essay like Richard Rodriguez’s “‘Blaxicans’ and Other Reinvented Americans,” one of my students will inevitably say something like this: why can’t we just be people? It’s almost always a white student, and so I’ve come to think of this question as a white question. Yet here you were, with the same idea. Was there a particular experience that made you realize that being “just human” was an insufficient description of yourself?

Janet Stickmon

Actually I never really longed to identify as “just human.” In that line, I wrote, “Though such things were limiting, I never felt so frustrated by racial categories or questions reflecting binary thought that I longed to identify as ‘just human.’” Perhaps I could have phrased this sentence a bit differently. To clarify, I never longed to identify as “just human” even though I did find questions like, “What are you?” and “Are you more Black or Filipino?” to be frustrating and limiting.

However, I do remember when I was around 17 or 18 thinking that clubs organized around ethnic identity undermined integration. Attending my first National Society of Black Engineers (N.S.B.E.) conference during my sophomore year at U.C. Irvine completely changed my mind. There was something extremely powerful about being surrounded by hundreds of African Americans of every shade, every eye color, every hair texture.  For the first time in my life, I did not feel strange, unattractive, or undesirable. Instead of being the only Black person in the room, I was one among many; being Black was the norm; we were the majority. As diverse as the students at that conference were, we still shared a common ethnic heritage that we could detect in each other’s voices, gait, concerns, values, complexion, hair, and more. I felt a sense of relief that I could share certain aspects of my life experience and be understood without offering detailed explanations.

Gradually, with my involvement in N.S.B.E., and other groups, I began to understand that organizations centered around ethnic identity served as a home people of color could return to and have their/our existence validated and supported. In Crushing Soft Rubies—A Memoir, I go into more detail about how other college organizations/programs helped me understand that ethnicity is an integral part of our humanity.

When I talk about racism or multiracial identity in my classes, I also have at least a couple of students each semester who will ask, “Why can’t we just be human,” or make statements like, “People are just people,” or  “We are just one race:  the human race.” I’ve also found that usually these questions/statements are made by white students. Occasionally they come from students who pass for white and/or are multiracial students. Students who say these things are unaware of the implications of what they are saying. They don’t understand that such a mentality fuels color-blind racism. Some of these students believe that if we just stop talking about race or stop talking about our differences then racism (and other systems of oppression) will just go away. Instead, precisely the opposite happens. Ignoring the real differences between groups of people prevents us from seeing the real ways, for example, such differences are used as a basis for giving one group a set of privileges at the expense of another group. If we don’t see difference, we are incapable of seeing injustice clearly, and therefore are not in a good position to end the injustice. Though on the surface, the “just be human” mentality may look and sound appealing and innocuous, it’s actually a fear-based mentality that perceives difference as potentially divisive or something that “complicates” human interactions. Instead of being feared, our differences can be recognized and celebrated. Conversations about our different and similar ways of experiencing the world in terms of ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, disability, religion, and more have the potential to deepen relationships amongst human beings.

Michael Noll

Many people have probably experienced something like this:

“I felt pressured to believe I had to turn on and off each side of my ethnic identity depending on who was around. I thought that in order to be accepted as Black within an all Black social environment, I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant) and leave behind or downplay my Filipino side; when I was in an all Filipino environment I felt that I had to “turn on” my Filipino-ness (whatever that meant) and downplay my Black side.”

You write that you grew weary of these expectations, saying, “I wanted to bring all of me wherever I went,” but this seems easier said than done. Our communities exert a powerful influence on how we see ourselves—who they say, and we say, that we are. If you’re choosing to identify yourself in a different or new way, is it a constant battle with the community? Do your family and friends and acquaintances eventually come around to your way of seeing things? Or, do you find or form a new community?

Janet Stickmon

These are great questions! Yes, bringing all of me wherever I go is easier said than done. Indeed, people always have their opinions about how multiracial people should identify. Personally, I was tired of viewing myself as a fraction and feeling compartmentalized. Changes in how I chose to identify were informed by a substantial amount of self-reflection, research, and interaction with other multiracial people, particularly at conferences. In general, I never formally announced to all of my relatives or friends how I identified.   For some reason, I didn’t feel the need to do so.

With my closest friends and family members, how I identified ethnically was one of many things that inevitably came up in conversations since I shared a certain level of intimacy with them. In such cases, no matter how I identified, there was acceptance and understanding.

In more formal settings, like during a performance, presentation, or class introduction, I explicitly state how I identify. In such spaces, no one has ever confronted me or questioned why I identify the way I do. Perhaps, this was due to the clarity and conviction with which I publicly defined myself. Maybe identifying so strongly discourages people from openly questioning me. (Perhaps, some just prefer to criticize me in private.  Who knows?) It is also possible that some might think twice before questioning how I choose to identify (or before questioning my Black or Filipino authenticity) because I teach both Intro to Africana Studies and Filipina(o)-American Heritage. Though I don’t believe that teaching these histories makes me an “expert” in each culture, I do find it interesting that teaching both of these classes affords me the privilege of not having my authenticity routinely questioned—at least not in an academic setting anyway.

Today, when I share with my students why I identify as Blackapina, my students listen carefully and make a genuine attempt to understand a more nuanced approach to speaking about ethnic identity.  Judging from class discussions and one-on-one conversations, many students, especially multiracial people, transracial adoptees, and those involved in interracial romantic relationships, find it liberating to hear a professor articulate something that reflects some aspect of their own experience. Many of my students, including those who may identify as monoracial, welcome the possibility of embracing a both/and/and mentality to challenge binary thinking.

In response to your question about community, I actively seek out an unofficial circle of support that is made up of the people I confide and trust with various aspects of my personal and professional life. Some may share my way of thinking, while others may not. Those within my circle of support are generally compassionate and have a good sense of humor. This group consists of people of color and white allies with education in critical consciousness and intersectionality. This circle also consists of those of various backgrounds who may not have been exposed to an education in critical consciousness, but have a basic sense of justice and integrity and demonstrate a desire to learn from others and share of themselves. As I reflect upon this, my circle of support seems to mirror my own hybridity.

Michael Noll

I love that you found a model for your identity from a novel—and not some highbrow literary work but a fantasy novel, Heirs of Prophecy, with a main character who was half elf and half human. Was this just a happy accident of your reading, or do you think that genre fiction (especially science fiction, fantasy, and comic books) have something to teach us about how we identify ourselves?

Janet Stickmon

I must admit, my knowledge of science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and comic books is fairly limited.  My husband is far more well-versed in these worlds than I am. Years ago, we used to go to one of his favorite science fiction and fantasy bookstores called The Other Change of Hobbit. He usually knew exactly what he was looking for, while I would wander around the store trying to figure out what book seemed interesting enough to commit to. I happened to stumble across Heirs of Prophecy, part of the Forgotten Realms series. I read the back cover and the words “half elf” and “half human” caught my attention.  I bought it and began reading it right away. It turns out, yes, it was a happy accident.

Heirs of Prophecy is part of the Forgotten Realms Trilogy by best-selling science fiction author Lisa Smedman.

Heirs of Prophecy is part of the Forgotten Realms Trilogy by best-selling science fiction author Lisa Smedman.

I was pulled into this fantasy world set in the country of Sembia, and I wanted to stay. The characters were so believable.  The landscape of Sembia was breathtaking. The author, Lisa Smedman, didn’t just write a story, she painted a world, and I had the pleasure of sitting on the canvas. Witnessing the experiences of the main character, Larajin, gave meaning to my reality as a biracial woman. The extremes presented in this world inspired me to feel the realness of the spiritual force that I could invoke from both sides of my heritage and be able to benefit from both. In the past, I had attended a couple presentations where people talked about being biracial as having double the happiness. However, this book seem to speak to something deeper than possessing double the happiness; it seemed to say I had double the power.  No longer was I seeing myself as one condemned to a lifetime of confusion and rejection for being mixed.  Heirs of Prophecy seemed to create in me this audacity to believe I had special gifts that monoracial people did not have. Indeed, there are some issues with this idea, especially pertaining to exoticism and privileges given to light-skinned African Americans at the expense of dark-skinned African Americans; but I would need to expand on this in another essay. Nonetheless, I felt empowered as a biracial woman through this book.

I tried to recapture that same feeling and search for something just as meaningful in other books in the series but had little success. I enjoyed fantasy, but these latter experiences weren’t nearly as magical or as meaningful as the first time.

Shortly after reading Heirs of Prophecy and a couple other fantasy novels, I became exposed to the work of Octavia Butler and the His Dark Materials Trilogy. Around the same time, I became a fan of Star Trek (The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) and Lord of the Rings. Although I am a fan, I consider myself a novice when it comes to science fiction and fantasy and gained appreciation for these genres through a combination of literary works and cinema.

I think the creation of fantastic worlds have the potential to push, destroy, or bend the boundaries of our reality to cause us to think we are bigger than ourselves and more capable of having a greater impact on the world than we ever imagined.  Science-fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and comic books have the potential to shape our identity and influence our self-efficacy.

Michael Noll

This essay is, in a way, a kind of hybrid, employing scholarly language like “the more one critically examines racial hierarchy and essentialism and their impact on the dynamics between racial groups” and also more informal language and structures:”I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant).” How do you find the right balance between the formal and the colloquial in your writing?

Janet Stickmon

That’s funny that you noticed that. I don’t think I fully realized how much of a hybrid this essay was. The first part of the essay was originally written for a scholarly article on Obama. While writing it, I was on a flight to Chicago and one of my favorite movies, The Adjustment Bureau, came on. Perhaps it was a couple of scenes from the film or maybe its soundtrack that became my muse for that introduction.

Race and the Obama Phenomenon The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union, from the University Press of Mississippi, was edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie V. Williams.

Race and the Obama Phenomenon:
The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union, from the University Press of Mississippi, was edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie V. Williams.

About a year later, I wrote “Blackapina.” I decided to reshape the introduction of the Obama article, use it in “Blackapina” and call it “First Movement: The Intersection” as if it were the first part of a musical composition. I wanted to use it for “Blackapina” because it accurately represented how I felt about the benefits that come from being born from and living within the intersections of life.  Throughout the writing process, I noticed most certainly my use of scholarly language, but there also seemed to be a flow and a pulse to that flow, that seemed to lack the rigidity that often characterizes scholarly writing.  It was as if the writing process itself became a bit of a dance that was magical and majestic at the same time.

I think the hybridity that exists throughout “Blackapina” is a reflection of my own hybridity as a professor.     I have teetered between valuing the language I’ve learned from graduate level education in theology and ethnic studies and valuing less formal ways of speaking. I never want to be too “academic” that everything out of my mouth is so jargon-laden that no one understands what I’m saying. I don’t want language to create a chasm between myself and another. I want it to create greater understanding and connection. I want my students to learn the “academic” language so it can serve as an additional tool they can use when a social context requires it. I discourage students from using it to alienate or impress people. I think if what has come to be accepted as “academic” language does not obscure the meaning that I want to communicate, then I use it. However, if a more colloquial voice expresses what I want to communicate in a way that is more meaningful to the target audience, then I use that. My objective is to use a combination of tools that create the greatest amount of understanding of and connection to the writing. Perhaps then with time, if enough of us continue to use this approach—another way of being bilingual—we can collectively change the face and sound of what is considered “academic” or “scholarly” language.

Another way I try to find balance between these voices is to pay attention to my heart and my intellect.  Lately, I have been toying around with telling stories to evoke a certain feeling. I enjoy sharing and listening to people share their personal stories and when they do so, there appears to be a difference between where they reach from: if they are reaching from their heart first or from their intellect first.  There seems to be greater honesty, rawness, vulnerability when an attempt is made to draw from the heart first. I have great admiration for those who allow their intellect to be informed by their heart—their emotional and spiritual selves. Consequently, I also make sure my intellect is guided by my heart’s needs and wants. I try my best to do this first in my personal life in order to be able to do it later in my writing.  The final product then becomes the hybrid that you see in pieces like “Blackapina” and other selections from Midnight Peaches, Two O’clock Patience.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Bring Other Voices into Your Writing

19 Aug
Janet Stickmon's book, Midnight Peaches, Two O'Clock Patience, is a collection of poems, stories, and essays about the creative power of women.

Janet Stickmon’s book, Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience, is a collection of poems, stories, and essays about the creative power of women.

When creating a narrator’s voice, either for a story or our own voice in an essay, we often struggle to find the right voice. Writers talk about this all the time—they struggled with their work until that moment when they finally discovered their voice. It’s tempting to believe that this voice is a single vein of consciousness and diction and that we’re just hacking away at the rock of our exteriors until we uncover it. But sometimes there is no single consciousness. Sometimes the best or most authentic voice contains different kinds of diction and syntax. If that’s the case, what do you do?

Janet Stickmon demonstrates how to handle multiple voices in her essay, “Blackapina,” about her multiethnic background as an African-American Filipina. The first part of the essay was published as ““Barack Obama: Embracing Multiplicity—Being a Catalyst for Change” in Race, Gender, and the Obama Phenomenon: Toward a More Perfect Union?, co-edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie Williams. It was later incorporated into a larger essay, “Blackapina,” in Stickmon’s book Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience. You can read it here.

How the Essay Works

In her famous essay, “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan writes about a lecture that she had given many times but never in front of her mother. Only then, with her immigrant mother in the audience, did she realize that it was “a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother.”

That is the kind of English that Stickmon uses for this essay. An excerpt was published in a scholarly book. As anyone who’s written an academic, scholarly essay knows, there are expectations for the kind of language that will be used. Here is Stickmon’s first sentence:

People of multiethnic backgrounds are accustomed to existing at the intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities, holding and juggling those spaces in tension.

This is Stickmon’s academic voice, and it would seem that it leaves no room for the diction and syntax that Stickmon might use outside the classroom or lecture hall—just as the voices we create for any piece of writing often seem narrow (purely serious with no room for humor or too smart or too naive or too whatever to leave room for sentences that contradict the dominant voice). Yet Stickmon manages to include other voices.

She starts by inserting other languages. The first is Filipino:

Momma was from the barangay of Labangon in Cebu and left a clerical job to come to the United States—the country she considered the “land of milk and honey.”

The second is a form of English:

Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA and hopped freight trains to California—one of approximately six million African-Americans who fled the oppression of the South during what came to be known as the Great Migration.

With those proper names (barangay of Labangon in Cebu) and (Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA) comes an entire dictionary of words that are rarely found in academic texts:

My biracial experience began with the very basic influences of food and language, eating Momma’s biko and bijon and Da’y’s hoe cakes and hot cakes, hearing Da’y sound “country” and Momma speak Cebuano.

The presence of these new voices has a marked impact on the dominant academic voice. Here’s the next paragraph:

It was 1989 when Momma died and Da’y was put in a convalescent hospital; I was 15 years old. Three years later, Da’y died, and I officially became an orphan, continuing to juggle my dual heritage along with the meaning of life in the absence of parental love. I was tossed around from one social worker to the next, telling my story over and over again, becoming attached to no one. Though the most immediate lifelines to my history were gone, my sense of self was informed by the memories my parents left behind, the Filipino relatives I moved in with, the holidays spent with my African-American relatives, and close high school and college friends.

The language is still addressing the “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities” from the essay’s first sentence, but it’s now doing so in language that isn’t necessarily more colloquial but certainly more understandable to non-academic readers (“tossed around from one social worker to the next”).

The essay even begins to gain a sense of humor (something that scholarly writing is not at all known for). Here is an example:

I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant) and leave behind or downplay my Filipino side; when I was in an all Filipino environment I felt that I had to “turn on” my Filipino-ness (whatever that meant) and downplay my Black side.

Those parenthetical asides—”(whatever that meant)”—almost seem like the commentary of another voice on a sentence that puts turn on in quotation marks. In short, because Stickmon has introduced these different voices in the essay, they begin to form a kind of dialogue with each other—that dialogue, as Chimamanda Adichie has explained in her popular TED talk, is far better than listening to a single, dominant voice.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce and use different voices, using “Blackapina” by Janet Stickmon as a model:

  1. Choose a piece of writing whose voice feels too homogenized. It can be a story or essay sitting in a drawer or in a folder on your computer. Sometimes when we get stuck in a draft, the problem is that we haven’t given ourselves enough to work with. We had an idea that made us begin the story/essay in the first place, and we took it as far as we could. Introducing more voices can provide more grist for our imaginations.
  2. Introduce a piece of information that can’t be told in the dominant voice. This might be something from another culture or language, like the Filipino places and foods referenced by Stickmon. But that other culture/language doesn’t need to from some foreign land. In America, there are particular Englishes for different regions and professions, and with those Englishes come different vocabularies. You can’t talk about tort law or raising hogs or heart surgery or road construction without using the dictions of those fields.
  3. Expand the reference. Stickmon references her parents’ origins in the Phillipines and Louisiana and then builds on those references by talking about everyday experiences (like food) that are associated with them. In your writing, every reference to something outside the frame of the narration is an opportunity to let in other voices—if you’ll let them speak. So, stay with a reference for a paragraph. Give more details about it.
  4. Mesh the reference with the primary voice. We usually reference something because it carries some weight or importance. Use that importance to make the reference a crucial part of the primary narrative. For example, once Stickmon introduces Da’y, she’s able to tell a story about him that connects to the very academic idea of “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities.” Because Da’y is from a difference linguistic world that intersections, the language of that story and its analysis becomes a different language that previously existed—not less academic, as some people sometimes argue, but a hybrid of pure academic language (whatever that means) and something non-academic that is essential to the narrative. Another way of looking at this is as a lens. Very often we start a piece of writing by looking through a particular lens. If you change the lens slightly (by adding characters or changing setting), you also change the story and voice.

This can be a fun exercise. Like Amy Tan, you might realize that you’re speaking different languages or forms of a language without knowing it.

Good luck!

An Interview with Kelly Davio

14 Aug
Kelly Davio is the poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the forthcoming novel-in-poems, Jacob Wrestling.

Kelly Davio is the poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the forthcoming novel-in-poems, Jacob Wrestling.

Kelly Davio is the poetry editor for Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the poetry collection, Burn This House, and the forthcoming novel-in-poems, Jacob Wrestling. She is also the associate poetry editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal and a former managing editor at Los Angeles Review. She lives in Seattle and works as an instructor of English as a Second Language. Her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” was published recently 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.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Theme to Create Structure

12 Aug
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 recent 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 Story 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 Laura Benedict

7 Aug
Laura Benedict's most recent suspense novel, Bliss House, tells a story of hauntings and murder. Her story, "When I Make Love to the Bug Man," was featured in PANK's Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict’s most recent suspense novel, Bliss House, tells a story of hauntings and murder. Her story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” was featured in PANK’s Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict is a suspense writer whose latest novel, Bliss House, was called “eerie, seductive, and suspenseful.” Benedict is also the author of Devil’s Oven, a modern Frankenstein tale, and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts and Isabella Moon. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery MagazinePANK, and numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads and Slices of Flesh. She originated and edited the Surreal South Anthology of Short Fiction Series with her husband, Pinckney Benedict, and edited Feeding Kate, a charity anthology, for their press, Gallowstree Press. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Laura grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and claims both as hometowns. She currently lives with her family in the southern wilds of a Midwestern state.

In this interview, Benedict discusses writing fiction that disrupts the social constructs we take for granted, not knowing her endings as she writes, and imagining everyday encounters as criminal acts.

To read Benedict’s story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” and an exercise on writing seemingly illogical characters, click here.

Michael Noll

This story is amazingly creepy, even when it’s about very real things. For instance, this is my favorite passage in the story:

Fact: Wolf spiders–the females are the ones you’ll see–look furry, but that’s not fur on their backs. It’s their young. Hundreds of them. Mama carries them around with her as she explores her territory.

I love this passage because it shocks me into seeing something familiar for the first time. Or, to quote the essayist Amy Leach, the passage creates “a place whose dimensions make nonsense of your heretofore extraordinary spatial intelligence.” It takes a special eye to notice such details and transform them into lines of fiction. Many people look at spiders and are creeped out, but you’ve created an entirely new creepiness. Is this a skill that comes naturally to you, or have you trained your eye and imagination to see other dimensions of common things?

Laura Benedict

What a lovely thought. I’m so glad you like that passage. I find that fact about wolf spiders strangely—I don’t know—metaphorical. The passage may contain a lot of energy because I discovered a bizarre kind of empathy for female wolf spiders, even though I fear them with my whole being. What practical and efficient parents they are, yes? How odd it is to feel a connection with an arachnid. Of course I’m anthropomorphizing like mad.

A creepy story about spiders feels almost like cheating to me because I’m able to count heavily on the reader’s own sense of dread. From a craft standpoint, I liked the idea of having the woman recount facts in a straightforward manner, almost as if she’s educating both herself and the reader with useful details about her new world and interests.

Skill or training? That’s always a good question. Once I found my material I realized that I had to be able to immerse the reader in whatever world I wanted them to experience down to the last detail. That did take a lot of practice. Every sentence has to move the story forward in some way, or at least be integral to the scene. And if you break the mood, break the scene with something that doesn’t fit, you risk losing the reader for the rest of the story. I reached this place in my work by giving myself permission to not accept what I saw around me at face value, to pretend, to suppose—to stretch those confines beyond the point that was generally acceptable. It’s good to be a little off. You have to be willing to cross that line. Transgress. You have to walk on the other side just enough to be able to confidently tell your reader what another reality might be like.

Michael Noll

On a craft level, you actually tell the reader the irrational act that will occur in advance of it actually happening on the page. Early on, the narrator says, 

“I fled my cheerful, shiny family for the Bug Man. Fit, grinning children with summer tans, good teeth, and stunning green eyes the color of new grass. Relentlessly healthy children. Blonde, enviable children. They greet each day with terrifying vigor: water guns and war games, barefoot races and soccer tournaments.  Robert and I have raised them in the light. They attack the world, ready to rule it.”

On one hand, I can imagine someone arguing that you’ve given away the story. On the other hand, the passage raises as many questions as it answers: Why does she give up her family? Who is the Bug Man? Why does she describe nice things in such an ugly way? I’m curious how you approach a paragraph like this. How do you know when such a paragraph is necessary and when it actually will give away the story?

Laura Benedict

A horror story can be, but is not necessarily, a mystery story. To me, the most interesting part of “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” is not that she ends up leaving her family for a creepy exterminator. It’s how she gets there, the way she changes along the way, what she’s willing to accept and lose. If I hadn’t put that paragraph in the beginning, it would’ve felt too much like an “aha!” story. And I hope my fiction is more interesting than that. I want the stakes to be higher for the reader, and the journey to the end to be worth his time. If I’ve already told the reader that she leaves her family for the exterminator, then he should expect something even stranger by the end.

I confess that I didn’t know until I was writing the last few pages that the story was going to end the way it did. I had no idea what was in the box or what would show up to feed on its contents until she was in the Bug Man’s bedroom. It was a surprise I very much liked, and I hope the reader likes it, too.

Does the description of her family sound ugly? I have the sense that she sees her family and her daily life in bright, hyperchromatic colors. She’s passionate, but overwhelmed with the reality of it all. Life with the Bug Man is strange, but laconic and muted. It’s like an opposite universe. In his world, she’s fecund but passive. By engaging in the very bold action of abandoning her family, she sinks—finally, fatally—into a kind of inaction.

Michael Noll

You’ve written that you’re paranoid and tend to imagine every possible crime that might happen to you or others. Given that, I’m curious about the genesis of “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.” Yes, it’s sort of a Rosemary’s Baby tale about a woman sleeping with a monster. But it’s also a story about a woman who, for no good reason, gives up a happy marriage and family in order to have an affair with an unattractive stranger. I’ve heard other writers say that the key to fiction is letting your characters say yes when the real-life you would run the other direction. Given your paranoia, I’m curious if you are re-imagining all of your everyday encounters, not just the potentially criminal ones.

Laura Benedict

“I’ve heard other writers say that the key to fiction is letting your characters say yes when the real-life you would run the other direction.” What an interesting quote. Now that I think about it, it does ring rather true for me.

This story did grow out of an encounter with a real exterminator—a man I found a little smarmy and not at all attractive. Our house is surrounded by woods, and when we bought it eight years ago it was badly infested with both spiders and mice (we caught 24 mice in the first 6 weeks!). The battle may never be won with the spiders, but we’re down to a couple of mice per year. When the exterminator came out to give us a price on bombing the house for spiders, he terrified me with his horror stories about other houses. I already knew about the way wolf spiders carry their young on their backs, but he shared that he has a female wolf spider in his house that lives in a closet. His girlfriend doesn’t like it, but he said that the spider is allowed to stay because it has lived there longer then she has. That’s an un-inventable detail. Honestly, I couldn’t make that up.

I’m able to envision just about every adult encounter as a potentially criminal event. Some events—like the visit from the exterminator—feed almost immediately into the part of my brain that processes stories. Usually those events concern my or my family’s physical safety (or lack thereof), or are things I’m already worried about.

Michael Noll

One of the traits of horror/gothic fiction and weird tales is that characters often act on impulses that are monstrous—i.e. they cannot be explained rationally. This goes pretty far back, at least to Poe and Lovecraft. Why, after all, does Poe’s Montresor really bury Fortunato alive? And Lovecraft’s Chthulhu stories are almost entirely about normal people suddenly going insane. This is true of your story as well. There isn’t a rational reason for the narrator to sleep with the Bug Man. It’s an act that can have only bad consequences, yet she does it anyway. I’m curious what draws you to this kind of story. Is there something about irrational acts that particularly draws your imagination–and also is particularly suited to horror fiction?

Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict's most recent novel, Bliss House, is "a novel that works as a mystery, a ghost story, and a touching family drama," according to NY Times Bestseller Jeff Abbot.

Laura Benedict’s most recent novel, Bliss House, is “a novel that works as a mystery, a ghost story, and a touching family drama,” according to NY Times Bestseller Jeff Abbott.

We all live inside a fairly narrow social construct with many, many rules. And those rules don’t have a lot of room for obsessions or strange desires. Our contemporary culture has broken down a lot of the rules/walls, and the notions about what is strange or alien or unacceptable have changed quite a bit. But the constraints are still only a little bit wider and rely heavily on convention. With the exception of the clinically insane, we all crowd around a stable, identifiable center.

So we exist in a constant state of tension. The majority of people are able to handle the tension between their desires and their tribes’ demands for conformity with relative ease: Their desires are either easily satisfied, they’re too busy fulfilling their basic survival needs, or they have found some trade-off that makes the relative sublimation of those desires acceptable. But sometimes the tension is too great and they either suffocate or feel compelled—often quite suddenly it seems to them—to give themselves over fully to their desires, and damn the consequences.

Yes, there is a line that characters in horror and surreal fiction transgress that leads them into places that seem insane to other people. The woman in the story cannot help but sleep with the Bug Man and become his concubine. She no longer recognizes the validity of the choice in front of her: stay with her loving, charming family, or follow her desire for the bug man (no matter how bizarre it seems to us—or even to her) to its unknown consequence. She only understands that this is what she must do. Does she understand why? No, not really. There is, no doubt, something in her psyche that has led her to this place, but is it my responsibility as a writer to lay out the reasons behind her actions for the reader? I don’t think so. If I’ve done my job, the reader has enough information come to her own satisfactory conclusion about why the woman has acted as she has—but she’ll also realize that the reasons are completely irrelevant.  That’s part of the horror of the story.

As to my attraction to irrational acts—honestly, I’m rarely satisfied with reality as it’s presented to me every day. Perhaps that sounds strange or greedy or ungrateful. But irrationality and speculation make things a hell of a lot more interesting.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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