I have very belatedly found this interview with Bird’s Thumb, which published “The Gray Hours” in 2016. Check it out:
This weekend, I once again found myself writing on a train. My first blog entry on train travel described the cathartic process of writing in response to travel. This entry discussed the space one can create by getting out of town and clearing one’s mind. This weekend, however, the process was an altogether different one, as I was writing under deadline in preparation for the latest issue of AMRI.
Part of me believes that the traveling process will always spark new ideas. Yet, under deadline, one often fails to have this same transformative experience. As I write this blog entry, I am now looking out the train window for first time on my trip. I see the leaves have begun to change. The sun is shining onto my computer screen, yet I am squinting, managing to write still.
I suppose I am discussing the process of production here—and how it might interfere with the need for reflection. Sometimes one requires travel in order to write well, and sometimes one just needs to write. On this trip, I found myself slightly stressed, attempting to finish my work in time for my visit to Amherst, Massachusetts. More than that, I worried my work would not be perfect. Each time I write a review, article, or blog entry, I read it out loud afterwards. Then, I save and close my document, set it aside, and review it a few days later. If it’s a novel or longer piece, I might even set the work aside for a few weeks or a month. This was clearly not an option this weekend. I found myself having to turn in work that had not been given the proper resting time.
In a way this dilemma gets to the very question of writing for art versus writing for commercial value. I used to believe that writing every day would ruin my process. I believed that I needed time to reflect on what I was writing. While I still believe this to be true (the mind certainly needs a break at times), I also believe a writer needs to be capable of producing under strict deadline. If a writer cannot do this, she cannot fully consider herself a professional.
As I am pulling into another station on the Northeast Regional line from Amherst to New York, I wonder how my experience would have been different this weekend had I not been writing under deadline. Would I have enjoyed the ride more? Would I have been in less of a rush to produce a thoughtful review? Perhaps . . . but on the other hand, I can reassure myself with one simple thought: Sometimes a writer just needs to get it done.
One of my short stories, “Backyard Dogs,” was published in Atticus Review this February. Below I discuss the process of writing, rewriting, and finally publishing this story.
I first wrote “Backyard Dogs” the year before I started my MFA writing program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Originally, the story was about a pack of rabid dogs that mysteriously appeared in a brother and sister’s backyard. I liked the story and, as a result, took it to workshop in my very first semester of graduate school. After one slightly eccentric classmate read her letter of praise out loud, the rest of the class proceeded to tear the story apart. It was sentimental, they said. The writing was imprecise. It was not, in short, up to par.
Feeling discouraged, I scrapped the story and decided to develop a new writing process. From that point on, I began experimenting with a style that was tight and carefully constructed. Coming from a journalism background, I had always written in a short, concise manner, but after writing fiction for the past few years, my prose had become sloppy. I worked on honing the skills I already had in order to create a more solid draft.
A few workshops later, I turned in the second version of “Backyard Dogs.” I had rewritten the entire piece. I am not sure the initial draft was a failing one, but that first workshop encouraged me to write something new. The second draft was about a young girl who was allergic to almost everything. Somehow, despite (or perhaps because of) her misfortune, the character is ultimately able to connect with a homeless man who sleeps in her backyard.
Although this draft was not at all like the first, perhaps a few elements remained. I had eliminated the dogs entirely, yet I kept the title from the first draft. Perhaps the tone, too—the sense of isolation and poverty—also transferred over to the second story. This draft, like the first, had a clear sense of space. When I imagined the girl’s backyard, I had a strong picture in my mind of what it looked like.
Like many of the characters I have created, the girl in “Backyard Dogs” is a fusion of people I have met over the years. For example, I once taught a girl who was allergic to nearly everything, including the sun. She couldn’t take pottery classes. She had to work in a particular room in the building and often ate lunch alone. One day, I watched this girl during a fire drill. She was standing in the shadow, her head and entire body wrapped in a special, hypoallergenic cloth. The girl in “Backyard Dogs” has a different personality, yet I was able to use this real-life student as inspiration for this character.
After a few more drafts, “Backyard Dogs” was beginning to take its final form. I ultimately included it in my MFA thesis. It was perhaps the most experimental of the stories I had written during my three-year program. It was also one of the most pressing ones.
This year, it was finally accepted and published in Atticus Review’s “Trespassing Issue.” It took several years and many drafts, but I am now very proud of this work and feel fortunate to have seen it develop over time. I share this story in order to demonstrate the long, often indirect route to publication. Sometimes it takes several years for a story to mature, and that is okay. The first draft of “Backyard Dogs” was not at all like the final one, but without this first draft, I would not have arrived at the short story available today.
You can read “Backyard Dogs” via the link below:
What is it about pets that inspires both readers and writers alike? No matter the writing style or premise, it seems if one is writing about a dog or cat, that story will be published. It’s an interesting phenomenon and one that I have not fully examined before. In some cases, I am appalled by the sort of non-serious fluff that is often published solely because it involves a dog. In other cases, writers have provided us with heartfelt stories that somehow get at the core of why we write.
Some of the more touching classics—Charlotte’s Web, Old Yeller—describe the connection between a pet and his owner. At the same time, these novels remind us that animal life is more fragile than our own, as we often outlive our pets.
One of the first novels I ever attempted (when I was about ten years old) was about a talking dog. I hoped then to voice some of the emotions that most believe pets must feel. Of course, the literary community discouraged this topic—until The Art of Racing in the Rain was written.
In some cases, it seems writing about a pet means exploiting them. I often cringe at books that show dogs dressed in tutus or cats with larger than life, bugged eyes. But, I also find myself wondering why I, like others, are drawn to books about animals. One of the most disturbing stories I ever read, “Ball” by Tara Ison, published in Bestial Noise, explored an obsessive, unhealthy relationship between a woman and her dog.
Still, when I think of the unspoken bond I’ve had with some of my dogs and my current cat, I know there is something compelling that connects me to them. I find myself moved when I try to put into words how and why these animals have been important in my life. Perhaps, the old adage, a dog (or cat) is a “man’s best friend” is correct. Our pets are there for us when our human relationships fail. When I am upset or disturbed, my cat is one of the first to know. At the same time, pets’ lives are short, and so perhaps we write in order to immortalize them. We give words to an unclear connection. Through our stories about cats and dogs, we also reach out to other readers who somehow know and already understand this connection.
In the past few years, I have read two books on introverts, The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney and, more recently, Quiet by Susan Cain. Both books focus on the strength of introverts—their quiet reflectiveness and wisdom—qualities which are often ignored in a more extroverted society such as the United States.
I have spent much time thinking about these books and have been grateful to both authors for providing insight into my own and other introverted people’s lives. As an introvert, I have often felt overlooked or misunderstood. On interviews, I have sometimes felt misjudged as “unfit,” coming across as quiet, reserved, and not the sort of “go-getter” that interviewers suggest is ideal.
When I was in college, I once interned at a local newspaper. My articles included features of war veterans and local public figures. Some of my work even won a local journalism award. When it was time for me to leave the newspaper, the editor in chief brought me into his office. He said, “You have been a really great reporter, but when I first hired you, I thought you would be terrible.”
He went on to explain that he had only hired me because a friend had recommended my work. He believed I needed to improve my self-promotion skills, showcasing my strengths on interviews. At the time I thought he was right (and I did practice these skills), but now I wonder if maybe this editor should have also worked on his own interviewing skills, developing a solution for signaling out talent (he also hired a very bad reporter that year and had somehow failed to weed her out).
Similarly, in class I often found myself with teachers who penalized me for not participating, or they highlighted my quiet temperament in front of others. Some wondered how I succeeded both in and outside of school. For example, one professor was shocked to learn that I had spent a year teaching in Korea. He seemed to suggest that my introverted qualities would have prevented me from traveling at all. While I admit I am often a cautious person, I also enjoy new challenges. I was likewise surprised that this same seemingly extroverted professor was afraid to travel without his wife.
Although situations such as these have often proved frustrating, having read the above-mentioned books—I have begun to feel at ease with my own quiet nature, noting its benefits. I can think deeply on topics that many people may not consider. I am able to empathize with others when most might not understand them at all. As a journalist, I believe I succeeded because I was quiet and, therefore, listened to what the interviewee said. I took careful notes, researched and checked facts, and organized my paperwork before writing. I also learned how to write succinctly and edit my own pieces. I believe skills such as these are actually essential and should be sought after in both the journalism and other professional worlds.
As I have come to feel at ease with my own nature and recognize that sometimes interviews and other situations such as these will be difficult, I have also felt frustrated as a writer—believing publishers, editors, and agents have begun looking for extroverted writers with “personality,” good looks, and the ability to self-promote. As I have previously mentioned, I do believe it is important for writers to promote their own work and submit furiously, but I do not believe the ideal writer will ever be an extroverted one.
While there are certainly extroverted writers out there, most are introverted—as are many artists. Writers need time to reflect and hone their skills. In fact, I once read that the most common Myers-Briggs personality type for a writer is an INFP (introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiving).
It is a mistake to expect writers to create masterpieces and also be outgoing, talkative types with strong personalities. While I believe most of the world understands this, others do not recognize the importance of giving these writers the space and time they need to create. Marketing and promoting their books is essential, but this can only be done after a period of solitude and reflection.
Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Random House, 2012.
Laney, Marti Olsen. The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 2002.