Interviews

On the Expansion & Resonance of Flash & More: A Chat with Chelsea Stickle

Photo by Gail Werner

Nancy and I are excited that Chelsea Stickle will be joining us for our High Altitude Inspiration Retreat in Grand Lake this August! Thanks so much, Chelsea, for taking some time to chat with me. First, what attracted you to the idea of coming to the retreat in Grand Lake?

I can get mired in the day-to-day and sometimes a shake-up is exactly what’s needed. I’ve only been writing flash seriously for about a year, so four days filled with writing and instruction sounds ideal.
What do you love and/or find challenging about flash fiction?
As a reader, I love feeling like I’ve experienced a whole life, a whole world in less than 1,000 words. There’s a feeling of completeness, expansion and resonance that hits harder. As a writer, I love getting to the point. You can’t mess around in flash fiction. You’re in it. How are you going to get out?
What piece of your own writing are you most proud of? Where could we read it (if it’s available)?
I have a story called “Household Extractions” in Five on the Fifth. I spent years trying to tell this story and I kept failing to get it right. I took a Bending Genres class with Bud Smith that was about writing in short bursts, which forced me to stop over-thinking it. I ended up writing for much longer than I was supposed to, but I finally wrote the story I wanted.
Wow, I love this. You allow the strangeness of it to just be. You don’t pass judgment or editorialize for the reader. That makes it all the more effective to me. I’m so glad you linked it as I’d not seen it before. No wonder you’re proud of it! Very strong writing. 
I’d be interested in your thoughts on this Amy Hempel quote, Chelsea:

“I have an increasingly open sense of what a story is. Why not make room for more instead of being restrictive? There are so many kinds of stories! Any time you hear someone say, ‘That’s not a story,’ I think you should question the person, not the story.” ~Amy Hempel

I’ve been reading slush, so I have to admit that I’ve said, “That’s not a story” recently. Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t be a story, but that it isn’t a story yet. There has to be something that differentiates it from an anecdote or a detail. A list of errands can be a story, but there has to be an emotional, core need pushing through. (For example, a post-breakup to-do list would be very revealing.) If you can do that, then anything can be a story.

Totally agree and I bet Amy Hempel would too!
Is there anything strange/funny/quirky/odd/special about you that we wouldn’t know and that you’re happy to share? 
I have loose ligaments, which means the joints that hold my bones aren’t as firm as they could be. So my bones slip out of place. Something’s almost always partially dislocated. It’s not the kind of thing you can see when you look at me, but my joints can make a lot of noise. I could write a symphony with all the cracks, clicks and thunks. So hiking sounds cool, but I’m going to stay inside.
Ah, “somethings almost always partially dislocated.” We won’t make you hike then! But very much looking forward to working with you in lovely Grand Lake this summer, Chelsea.

Chelsea Stickle writes flash fiction that appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish ReviewCleaver, The Nottingham Review, After the Pause, Five on the Fifth, Crack the Spine and others. She lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.

Note: A few spaces remain for our August High Altitude Inspiration Retreat in Grand Lake Consider joining us and allowing yourself to be inspired and energized in a gorgeous setting. 

Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Flash From Scratch: A Revision Exercise

Sometimes we’ve nitpicked and tinkered our work to death and it still isn’t right. Anaïs Nin says, “Intensive correcting may lead to monotony, to working on dead matter, whereas continuing to write and to write until perfection is achieved through repetition is a way to elude this monotony, to avoid performing an autopsy.”

Once our editing starts to feel like an autopsy, like a Frankenstein of parts stuck together (particularly if we have been working on it for a long time), then the best and quickest way to tackle revision is to write it over, from scratch, without looking.

1960s-business-man-hands-hovering-vintage-images

If that sounds like a huge waste of time, then be grateful you’re writing flash fiction! I give this same advice to all writers, and I have rewritten entire novels from scratch. For real.

Rewriting without looking, while initially infuriating, works wonders, especially if you are stuck. Why? Because all the good stuff from that first draft will make it into the second draft. And all the stuff that was just so-so will improve in the rewrite. Almost magically.

Consider how it works in the visual arts There are often dozens of pre-sketches, studies, and “running starts” at an idea, maybe second, third and fourth attempts at a famous painting. In the Dali museum there are multiple renditions of the melting clocks, for instance; rather than obsessing over one single canvas he made dozens of attempts and filled dozens of canvases until he hit on the famous versions we recognize today.

I remember the first time I had to rewrite without looking. I had a creative writing teacher in college who liked us to compose drafts by hand in class, and then at the end of the class we had to rip out those pages in our notebooks, turn them in, go home and write it over again!

What?!!

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But because we had no choice, we’d all go home and rewrite our drafts from scratch. Surprisingly, the second version was almost always better. Once we quit resisting the process, we discovered that the rewritten drafts were an organic improvement, a maturation of our original ideas, containing all the best parts of the first draft. And all the stuff that was initially weak would automatically improve in the rewrite.

This process works especially well for flash because you can usually rewrite a draft in one sitting. But the process works for everything—poems, novel chapters, scenes, essays, as I said even a whole book at its most extreme. Jack Kerouac rewrote his book On the Road from scratch three times before he hit on the version we read today. A photographer will shoot the same subject hundreds of times to get just one perfect shot.

And as a bonus, when rewritten all at once, the narrative voice of a story will have a natural cohesion, something that may have been missing in a previous version, particularly if it was composed over a long stretch of time or at various intervals.

So for this reason, I suggest closing that document, opening a new one, and rewrite it from scratch, without looking or reading the first draft.

When Hemingway was asked why he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times, he said, “To get the words right.”

Interviews, Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized

For the Love of Practice: Chatting with Jeff Burd About Baseball, Hybrids and High Altitude Inspiration

Kathy Fish and I are excited to work with Jeff Burd this summer at our High Altitude Inspiration retreat in Grand Lake, Colorado. Jeff and I chatted with me about teaching, hybrids, and baseball as a metaphor for writing.

Jeff B

Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?

Jeff Burd: I’m fortunate enough to be a high school teacher, and I’ve taught a creative writing class for the past 13 years.  I am many times writing along with my students, and sometimes use their insights in the editing process.  I am frequently surprised by what they come up with.  So that helps me find time somewhat consistently.  Otherwise, I keep a writing date for myself at a certain time and in a certain place throughout the summer.  Beyond that, it’s catch as catch can.

Nancy: I can relate–sometimes being a teacher is the best way to also be a writer! Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?

Jeff: I’d start with my relationship with poetry.  I’ve spent countless hours over the last fifteen years studying poetry, writing poems, transcribing poems, none of which is to say that I’m a particularly good poet (or even average).  But the skills I’ve developed feed directly into my writing of flash.  The two genres share a lot of common ground, and I’ve found a lot of joy in working in a hybrid form.  I’ve been working lately on transforming old poems into prose poems and microfictions.

Nancy: Yes, there is a lot of crossover, which is so exciting! What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Jeff: Two pieces, actually:  1.  Ray Bradbury said to have fun writing your first draft, because drafts 2-11 are going to be hell; and 2.  Jack Ridl says you have to love practice if you’re a writer, the same way a basketball player loves to be in the gym or merely shooting baskets in the driveway.  Everything you write is but practice anyhow, so if you’re not loving it, why do it?

Nancy: I especially love that quote by Bradbury–perfect. What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?  Where can we read it (if it’s available)?

Jeff: I wouldn’t say it’s the one I’m most proud of, but this microfiction is one that is probably most significant since it opened a door for me and got the ball rolling with some very nice success I’ve experienced in the last two years.  I purposely wrote one of the most obnoxious things I could think of and was going to chalk it up to fun and practice when the final image came to me in yoga class the morning after I had written the first draft.  I sent it off to a handful of publications on a whim, thinking “fuck it if they don’t like it, I had fun with it!”  It was picked up for publication within 12 hours.  You can find it here:

http://www.kysoflash.com/Issue8/BurdLastTime.aspx

Nancy: Congratulations! Now since I know you are a baseball fan, react to this quote by Babe Ruth as it pertains to your writing : “Never allow the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game!”

Jeff: Krikey, I’ve “struck out” 95% of the time with my writing!  If I was in fear of that, I could never write.  But there are reasons to play the game other than publication.  My  goal has always been to be the best writer I can be, so even the strike outs get me closer to that goal I can never really reach.

Nancy: Have you ever been to Grand Lake before? What are you most looking forward to?

Jeff: I haven’t been to Colorado for a long time, so I look forward to returning and spending some time there and enjoying the beauties of nature.  I will be stand-up paddle boarding the titular lake at Grand Lake a few times, and probably head to Red Rocks for a concert one night.  I hope I find the time to write!

Nancy: Oh there will be time to write, I promise! Last thing: Tell us something we don’t know about you?

Jeff: I won The New Yorker cartoon caption contest #377, waaaaaay back in 2013.

Nancy: Ha! Thanks so much for chatting with me, Jeff! We are looking forward to retreating with you in Colorado this summer!

Jeff Burd is a graduate of the Northwestern University writing program. His publications include The Baseball Research Journal, Imitation Fruit, BULL: Men’s Fiction, KYSO: Flash, Mount Hope, Soliloquies Anthology, Third Wednesday, and Dislocate. He was judged a winner of the First Memorial George Dila Flash Fiction Contest, and his nonfiction writing A Familiar Problem, a Familiar Face was recognized by Mensa as Best Unpublished Novel.  Mr. Burd lives in Gurnee, IL, where he spends his time exercising, reading, writing, working in the kitchen, cheering for the Chicago Cubs, and watching Tottenham Hotspur. He works as a Reading Specialist at Zion-Benton Township High School in Zion, IL.  

UPDATE: There are 4 spaces left for our High Altitude Inspiration in Grand Lake retreat! Find out more

Uncategorized

On Happiness & Choosing the Creative Path by Chris Bowen

Writer/chef Chris Bowen joined Nancy and me for our first ever flash fiction retreat last summer in Breckenridge. (Read Nancy’s interview with him here.) We’re thrilled he’ll be joining us again in Grand Lake this August. We thank him for sharing his reflections and insights on his creative path since Breckenridge.

 

It was nearly a year ago I took part in Nancy and Kathy’s inaugural Breckenridge, Colorado writing retreat. It’s been three or more years since Nancy invited me to Denver for the first time, reading for the FBomb reading series then and even further back, it’s likely been ten years or more since I first met her at a reading in NYC.

But life wasn’t always this much fun. Just recently last year, I lost faith. I lost faith in my career as a chef, living and working in an isolated part of Pennsylvania at a college for almost three years, having left my family and anyone I knew two hours away in Cleveland for corporate salary.

Life isn’t always fun, but it damn well better be meaningful.

Moving home to Cleveland then and taking less responsibility with my employer last fall, I was determined to ‘take a step back.’ I had turned to Nancy in Breckenridge even that summer on where my life was going, the fact that I was so unhappy and had been for awhile. I still remember the gray, weather-worn wooden picnic table we sat at in the mountain backyard when I told her that, the kind you look for rusty nails sticking out of before you sit. The heat of the afternoon sun. I had joined the retreat to cook for authors and attendees and aside from sitting in on a couple craft talks between prepping meals, this conversation was the only thing I ever needed.

We talked about happiness, France, doing things by and for yourself. Because anyone only has so little time. Between the talk, it was clear I needed to re-evaluate my life somehow. So, I ended up moving home to find retreat in the only thing strong I really knew I could: my family.

Six months in, I’m a part-time student finishing my bachelor’s degree, but more importantly,  have settled in Denver near those mountain. And writing.

There’s something intimidating about these vistas, how they were formed, how strong they are, how difficult it is to reach them as if ghosts just out of reach.

‘If you can’t inspire yourself, how can you ever expect to inspire others?’ they whisper to me.

I think of the ending to Robert Redford’s movie, ‘A River Runs Through It,’ his voiceover at the end:

“Eventually, all things merge into one and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops, under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

I see mountains every day. They remind me of how little I am, how short of time we all are. I don’t know if I’ll live here forever or climb a mountain, but I do know whatever I choose, it will be because I wanted to and because it made me happy.

Christopher Bowen is the author of the chapbook We Were Giants, the novella When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed, and the non-fiction, Debt. He blogs from Burning River and has traveled throughout the U.S.  

Note: A few spots remain in our August High Altitude Inspiration Retreat in Grand Lake. Consider joining us! We’d love to have you.