Guest Post, Gregory J. Wolos: Dear Story

Gregory WolosDear Story—

It’s over between us. We knew it would come to this, and the news that you’ve been accepted by a new lover is a bittersweet reminder of what we once meant to each other.

It’s with an effort, Story, that I remember our first days together: you showed up at the back doorstep of my awareness—naked, untamed, willful—dangerous! You entered my life as a vague notion, a possibility. How could I resist falling passionately and obsessively in love? For weeks I could think of nothing else but you. Friends knew—they saw it in my inwardly turned eyes, my inattention to their conversation. “Not again,” they warned, shaking their heads. They know me to be a destructive lover.

And they were right—I followed my old patterns. It wasn’t enough to cherish you as you came to me—I had to try to change you. I insisted that you look a certain way: with fierce demagoguery I controlled your language; you spent time only where I allowed; only those individuals I chose for you were permitted inside your paragraphs. Worst of all, nearly every time we met I questioned your size. Trim down, I commanded, tighten up—what will others think? Yes, my lost love, I confess, how you appeared to others was always a priority—when they appraised you, what would they be thinking of me?

Can you believe that I was only searching for your heart? Can you believe the paradox of my love—my efforts to improve you were intended to prepare you to be loved by someone else.

Then, Story, you were nearly done. How old the new looks in retrospect. The truth is, in our last moments together, even as I straightened your seams, swept your hair from your eyes, and corrected with a finger wag the last imperfection of your speech, I was already forgetting you! “Finished” is a cruel word, dear Story. I sent you away, and you didn’t object. I forgot about you, until your new lover wrote: “Is Story available? We love her and want to feature her in our pages.” And without a moment’s pause I’ve given you up. It’s a formality—our end was born in our beginning.

It will be months before I see you again, Story. Our names will be paired, but you’ll no longer belong to me. My eyes will scan your glittering new font and narrow, justified columns, but I won’t read you. I’ll have archived your heart. Acquaintances will quote you to me, and I’ll look at them, confused. “Who?” I’ll ask. “What?”

I’ll be listening for the backdoor laughter of a new lover.

So, Story, adieu—forgive my fickleness—even the brief flirtation I’ve shared with this letter has cooled. It’s all part of the game.

Your Author,
Gregory J. Wolos

Guest Blog Post, Monica Petersen: The Art in the “Shitty first draft”

SFDTaken from Anne Lamott’s essay in her book Bird by Bird, the “shitty first draft,” or SFD, tries to make the most difficult step in writing easier. The concept is simple: write everything you can all at once and get it on the page. In her words, “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper” (25). Don’t filter yourself, or you will never get past the first paragraph. I have always hated writing my first draft out of fear of that it will be worse than a 5-year-old’s first book report. Even Lamott recognizes her fear that if something were to happen to her, she would never have the chance to go back and fix her SFD.

The SFD is important to me because it transformed the way I write. My first draft is supposed to be bad, so it’s perfectly OK if it is. The worse the draft is, the better actually because it means I have more to work with to make it perfect. After chucking everything onto the page, the ideas are there, and only need tweaking (or maybe entire paragraph upheaval) to get it where I want the work to be. The point is the SFD provides a starting place when you didn’t have one before.

After the SFD, I spend the rest of my writing time editing it, stripping the work to its barest bones, and building it back up again. I have a tendency to overwrite (and by tendency I mean 1000 words over the limit on a paper). My SFD usually contains at least double the words allowed and is plagued by repetition. My writing process consists of paring that overwriting down day after day to get it under the limit—condensing sentences, and clarifying ideas.

The same thing goes for my fiction pieces and this post. I can write pages of text, giving me paragraphs to work with. Because of all the prose I have, I can cut down the bad, horrible, and not-so-good stuff and allow the best float to the top. I can take out an entire scene to a story, or rework a character’s personality when I realize I want her to be angry with the world instead of happy to be alive. The SFD provides a canvas and base to build upon and create a better piece.

Have you ever used an SFD before? What other significant tools have you used to make your writing process easier?

The Shape of the Eye, Memoir by George Estreich

George Estreich, poet and author of “Shape of the Eye”

Issue 7 contributor George Estreich recently published a new memoir, The Shape of the Eye, in which he describes the blessings and challenges of raising his daughter Laura, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Estreich is known for his book of poems, Textbook Illustration of the Human Body, which won the Rhea and Seymour Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books.

While writing Shape of the Eye Estreich was faced with new challenges, both technically and personally. Having a strong background in poetry, Estreich found writing a memoir to be both a foreign and familiar experience: “When I wrote poems, I was mainly concerned with language, line by line and word by word […] In a way, I was still writing poetry, trying to get each sentence right, to find the right word and metaphor and form. At the same time, those formal choices became part of a larger goal.”

Creative nonfiction can have its own challenges, especially when the topic is so personal. Estreich commented on that intimate quality of Shape: “It’s odd to have written so much autobiographical work, in poetry and prose, because I think of myself as a private person. So there was a tension between necessary truth-telling and privacy. Also, if one is writing about people one cares about, and one acknowledges that true stories can do harm to relationships, then writing and family are in tension too. Storytelling is an ethical act. I don’t have a formula for resolving these tensions, and I don’t think there is one, but these issues were never far from mind.”

Despite the challenges creative nonfiction presents, Estriech found that, “in writing nonfiction prose about Laura, [he] wanted to be, in a small way, an agent of change.” Estreich goes on to say, “I wanted to raise questions about what “normal” meant, and to raise the question of who counts in our society. More specifically, I wanted to oppose a complex and singular portrait of Down Syndrome to the generic, medically ratified portrait that most people know.”

Estreich’s memoir has received attention from both the medical and literary fields. He has spoken and presented excerpts of the novel at the Willamette Valley Down Syndrome Association, the Spring Creek Conference on Nature and the Sacred, and the World Down Syndrome Conference in Vancouver. Estreich remarked: “I don’t know what effect Shape has had, but I hope it’s been positive. I do know that the responses to the book so far have been very gratifying, from other parents and from medical professionals. I’ve spoken to a number of medical audiences, and am always glad to have the chance to answer questions and have the necessary conversations. In general, I’ve found an extraordinary amount of goodwill, which reflects the goodwill Laura seems to inspire in person. This isn’t to say that attitudes don’t have a long way to go, about Down Syndrome or disability in general. But as a writer and a father, I’ve been very happy with the response to my book so far.”

The Shape of the Eye is a finalist in the 2012 Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction and has been nominated for a Reader’s Choice Award (you can vote online for the memoir here). You can read an excerpt from Shape of the Eye and find out more information on George Estreich’s webpage.

Advice from Wingbeats Co-Editor, Scott Wiggerman

Wingbeats, photo courtesy of Dos Gatos Press.

If writing better poetry is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, then you’ll want to take a look into Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen’s new book, Wingbeats. Wiggerman and Meischen, an SR contributor from Issue 7, have compiled the wisdom and advice of 58 poets in order to create exercises that showcase the poetry writing process.

As a poet and former Poetry Columnist for the Texas Writer, Scott Wiggerman is no stranger to the world of  poetry. He has conducted a number of workshops for the WLT Poetry Study Group and his work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Wiggerman found he kept returning to poetry staples, like The Practice of Poetry (edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell), for reference, but what he really needed was something new that applied the same variety of techniques. Wiggerman writes that he was looking for something that “combined exercises and essays by poets who actually teach, both academics and non-academics, this time.  Since it didn’t seem to be forthcoming from anywhere, I asked my partner about creating and publishing such a book. I foolishly thought it would be a project that I could handle alone, but David came on board as co-editor almost immediately, thank goodness!”

From the simplest activities to the more involved tasks, Wingbeats provides aspiring poets with exercises along with real poems that show what these look like in action. “We wanted to create a book that poets would actually use, and I wanted a book that would work well for poets both in MFA programs and those, like myself and several of our Wingbeats contributors, who learn the craft of poetry on their own or through the occasional workshop,” wrote Wiggerman.

Wiggerman and Meischen’s new book not only covers standard poetic techniques, but also new strategies for revision, collaboration, and inspiration. If you’re looking for some hands-on experience in writing poetry, Wingbeats is a great resource.

Wiggerman also recommends that aspiring poets seek out workshops and writing groups for guidance: “The absolute best way to learn how to write is to write–and many books or MFA programs can ‘teach’ you this. But it takes feedback as well, and for this, one needs someone to share his or her work with. Of course, it also helps tremendously to read poetry. One of the adages of writing is to ‘show, don’t tell,’ and while Wingbeats does tell, it also shows through poem after poem. It’s the way I like to teach my workshops, letting poems speak for themselves by showing how they’re done.”

You can learn more about Wingbeats on the Dos Gatos Press website or on their new  Facebook page.

Forthcoming: Meg Pokrass

How short can a short story be? Meg Pokrass asks – and answers – that question in her fiction, which often takes the form of flash-fiction and micro-stories. Though her stories are short, they pack the same emotional punch that can be found in a lengthy piece of a prose. She delivers her characters and narrative in compact, meticulously chosen details. For example, in her short-short story “The Big Dipper,” about a young girl trying to navigate her adolescence by purchasing a four-foot-deep pool for her backyard, she conveys a great deal of personal information about her main character’s background in a single sentence. Referring to her mother, the narrator divulges that “Now that Dad has his own place and his bi-polar disorder, she had all kinds of new expressions.” Some of her shortest stories are only between 90 and 100 words long. In this compact form she writes of mother-daughter relationships, adolescence, sexuality, insecurity, and identity.

In her review of Meg Pokrass’s recent collection of short stories, Damn Sure Right, Tessa Mellas compares Pokrass’s flash fiction to the “richest morsels of chocolate. You can’t inhale them by the fistful.” This description does Pokrass’s stories justice; her fiction demands that you stop for a moment after reading, that you take in every single detail individually to get the full experience of her micro-narratives.

We asked Meg Pokrass to share her writing process, in particular what inspired the short story that will be appearing in Superstition Review Issue 8, which will launch in December. Click here to view the video that gives us a glance behind the scenes.

Visit her website at http://www.megpokrass.com

The Steps to the Story

I cannot count how many times I have been asked what my writing process is. It must be a writer’s most frequently asked question right up there with “Where do you get your inspiration from?” and “How do you spell (insert any word here)?” Because of this, I decided it would be worthwhile to compile a list of steps based on my own writing process and a few friends’ processes.

Please realize, these steps have been made with a longer, prose style type writing in mind but can also be applied to poetry, plays, academic writing, or anything else involving words.

Step One: Idea

To start writing, you must first have an idea of what to write about. Obviously. The unobvious part is where you obtain the idea. Inspiration can come from anything from a dream, to a lived experience, to a passing billboard. Sometimes ideas drift slowly, seeping into your brain in small waves of images and words. Other times, ideas creep up, grab you firmly, and yell “Write me now!” Regardless of how the idea presents itself, it’s a good idea to write it down.

Step One Point Five: Plan

This step can sometimes be skipped, and other times be labored over more than the actual writing. It really all depends on the author and the complexity of the story. Starting a plan can sometimes be as difficult or even more so than writing the story. It’s usually good to start with an outline of major events and a page of character bios. From there, fill in as many details as you deem necessary until you are comfortable enough to start writing.

Step Two: Write

The best and the worst part of the steps. On the one hand, your idea is realized! On the other hand, it will take countless hair pulling, pencil sharpening, teeth grinding, sweating, coffee consuming hours to make that idea real. Ok, so writing isn’t always that bad. A lot of the time, writing is fun! Either way, I find it best to sit down and write out the idea all the way through. Obviously, not every idea can be hammered out in one session at the computer but it is still best to write the story from beginning to end. Some writers like to go back and edit as they add more. I caution against that for the simple reason of many times you will get stuck trying to perfect the beginning and lose interest in finishing the story. If you have a hard time making yourself write all the way through, considering signing up for NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month takes place in November with the goal to complete a 50,000-word novel between 12:00 am November 1st and 11:59 pm November 30th.

Step Three: Read

You’ve sat down and slammed out 20,000 words of brilliance. Now is a good time to go back, read it, and add more if you wish.

Step Four: Edit

Some writers hate this step. More loathe it. Personally, this is my favorite step and I believe it is the most important. Anyone can write, but it takes a true artist to do it well. This is where editing comes in. Take a fine-toothed comb to your work. Start with spelling and grammar and work your way to tone. A professor once told me if a single word has no function in your writing then throw it out. Be your biggest critic and edit away!

Step Five: Use Your Friends

That’s what they’re there for! Use away! Hand them a copy and make them read and review it honestly. If your friends are only praising your work, you may be that great. Or you may want to consider giving your story to a mentor or joining a writing group.

Step Six: Repeat

Repeat Steps Three, Four and Five as many times and in whatever order you want until you are happy with your work. It may not ever be perfect, but it can be finished. When you’re comfortable, stick a fork in it and send it out to be published or frame it and hang it on the wall. Whichever you prefer.

Remember, these steps don’t work for everyone. But if you’re faced with a monster of an idea and aren’t sure of how to approach it, you can always try following them.

Lit-ercise: Starters

As many writers will tell you, one of the hardest parts about being a writer is writing every day. If you don’t force yourself to write every day, even for a couple of minutes, then you may find that weeks have gone by without you having written a word. But sometimes the hardest part about sitting down to write every day is coming up with something to write. Trust us, we know. So, here are some prompts to help you put pen to paper. Happy writing.

What do you do when you procrastinate?

Describe what happens when a pacifist and a passive aggressive get into an argument.

Describe the first place you lived when you moved out of your parents’ house. What was the first thing you did after moving in? What did it smell like? Was there traffic outside your window or chirping birds?

Complete: He stood in front of the mirror for a moment. He adjusted his tie. A long thread was poking out from the end of his cuff and he carefully pulled it loose. He stood in front of the mirror and smoothed the front of his jacket. He frowned into the mirror and began taking off his jacket. He was halfway in to a new pair of pants when there was a knock on the door. They were early.

Just Write

Britney Gulbrandsen is an Interview Editor at Superstition Review. When not interviewing authors she spends her time reading, writing, crafting and spending time with her family.

I’ve recently been asked the question, “How do you write?” The question has been posed several different ways, the language varied depending upon the person asking, but the message remains the same: what is my process for writing?

Well, my first reaction to this question was, “I just put my pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard, depending upon my mood—and write.” But I wasn’t going to get out of the question that easily. So I examined my process more closely to think of what my method actually was.

Here is what I came up with:

  1. Sit down with a blank page looming in front of me.
  2. Turn on some light music (my writing playlist on iTunes).
  3. Stare into oblivion.
  4. Check my email.
  5. Update my Facebook status.
  6. Turn to my list of ideas or my list of things that inspire me.
  7. Check my email again.
  8. Finally begin to write.

Now I know that sounds like a joke, but ninety percent of the time, that is actually what I do when I sit down to write. But the real depth of my process comes from the tips I’ve gained and learned from experience.

My Tips:

  1. Read as much as I possibly can. I’m a firm believer that the more you read, the better you will write.
  2. Read the genres that I want to write, as well as many others. I read everything: novels, short stories, poetry, essays, memoirs, magazines, newspapers, articles, blogs, etc.
  3. Keep pieces that inspire me near my writing desk. When I’m feeling a lack of creativity, I turn to one of them.
  4. When an idea comes to me, I write it down immediately. I’ve learned through experience that I won’t stop and write things down in a notebook I carry with me. It just won’t happen. But I do have an app on my phone that allows me to write notes to myself as well as to make checklists. So when I think of something intriguing that might work itself into a story, I quickly type it into my phone. Then I transfer it to paper later on when I have more time.
  5. Develop my characters. This is crucial. Characters will transform the story. When writing a longer work, such as a novel, I get to know my main character(s) before I begin to write. I go through every detail until I feel that, in a way, I have become my character. This means that I work through the character’s hobbies, fears, dreams, motivation, favorites (movie, book, food, song, store, activity, etc.) most tender memory, what he/she would grab in a fire, every aspect of what that character looks like, each personality trait, and much more. I want to get to know my characters from the inside out. Generally, most of this information won’t make it into the actual story itself, but it will help me understand my character so I will know what he/she would do or say in a certain situation.
  6. If I need to stop writing before I finish the story, I go back and reread the past few sentences or so before I sit down to write the next time. This helps get me back in the mindset of my story and characters.
  7. I write down everything that comes to my mind. Lots of things won’t make it into my final draft, but none of that matters now. Something raw—even a list of sorts—can help lead me to some revelation later on. The first write-through is for ideas. It’s all about getting the story out.
  8. Let go of whatever ending I have in mind if it just doesn’t work. I once had this “grand” idea for a short story that I had created from beginning to end in my mind. When I finished actually writing it, I realized the ending didn’t work. My character would never do what he did in my story. So I erased that portion and let my character guide me based on what he would actually do. The ending is so much crisper and realistic now.
  9. Revise, revise, revise and then be done with it. I’ve learned that I can always make changes to my work. In my mind, it will never be good enough to get published. I may think it’s ready, but if I put it away for a week, take it out, read it again, I will inevitably find something to change. But at some point, enough is enough. It’s time to try to get it published.

I’m learning more and more every day. Each time I sit down to write, I learn something new. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is to just write.