Kathy and I are thrilled that Nancy Ludmerer (and her husband, Malcolm) will be joining us for our French Connection Retreat in June 2020! She shares some of her thoughts about writing (and some of her beautiful stories!), flash fiction, thankfulness for deadlines, and even a surprising fact below:
On Finding Time to Write and Creating a “Retreat” to Do So
For 20-plus years (beginning when I was 40) I pursued writing while I was also a single mom practicing law full-time. During that period, it was hard to find time to write. I frequently took weeklong workshops (away from home) where workshop participants would produce one or more pieces daily, whether flash fiction or the beginning of a longer work. Those workshops gave me drafts that I could then work on “in my spare time” when I returned to my life as a lawyer and single mom. When work was lighter, or my son was at summer camp or visiting his dad, I still found it hard, given the number of distractions, to sit down and write. What kept me in my chair was deadlines. Self-imposed ones worked occasionally but the best was a competition or a workshop or a deadline set by a journal (whether for a theme issue or simply “the quarterly issue”). Those deadlines forced me to carve out the time to get the work done.
Now – as of April 2018 – I have retired from the law (and my son is 33), but the need to set deadlines hasn’t really changed. I DO have more flexibility than I used to in that I can work for five uninterrupted hours if I want to – although distractions remain. (For some reason, the refrigerator has become a major one, and in our one-bedroom apartment, it is barely a few feet from where I work.) For me, developing the discipline to write every day remains my biggest challenge. I let myself “off the hook” on days when I am polishing or submitting work, or reading in order to write. But the challenge remains.
My Relationship with Flash Fiction
My relationship with flash fiction began in the mid-1990’s in a workshop taught by Pam Painter at the University of Vermont summer school. I had heard that Pam was a terrific teacher and the course she was teaching happened to be in flash fiction (and was held while my eight-year-old was at summer camp), so I said, why not? Pam was indeed a wonderful teacher and mentor and the students were engaging and smart. The next summer I followed Pam to the Kenyon College summer writing program, where I would return year after year, frequently after that to study with Nancy Zafris. The discipline of having to turn out one or two flash fictions a day was hard and exhausting but also confidence-building, as were a number of acceptances that followed. After that I would explain my affinity for flash fiction by observing that as a full-time lawyer and single mom, I could still manage to polish and perfect a piece of flash fiction, whereas this was much harder for me with a 15 or 20 page story. I love conciseness in story-telling and particularly enjoy the challenge of taking a story of however many words – 1500 or more – and reducing it to 300 or 500 or 750 words for a competition or flash fiction journal. Some of my favorite short-story writers are masters of these short forms (as well as longer works) – from Chekhov to Joyce to Kafka to Paley to Lispector to Tillie Olsen– so I take inspiration from these writers as well as my contemporaries.
Best Piece of Writing Advice
Here I must give a shout-out to Sonia Pilcer. Sonia happens to be one of only two people in the world whom both Malcolm and I knew BEFORE we knew each other. (The other is a judge in NYC.) Malcolm actually dated Sonia for a while (I did not) before becoming the godfather to her son, but both of us met her when she was teaching classes in the writing program at our local YMCA, the West Side Y. Sonia would assign weekly prompts to the students in her class and on the first day of class, write on the blackboard in huge letters: WRITE. WRITE STUPID. WRITE UGLY. WRITE. Both that advice, and the sheer volume of stories that I was required to produce in classes taught by Pam Painter, Nancy Zafris, and others (including Sonia), helped to dispel the feeling that you had to produce something “good” every time. It is still nerve-wracking to be among a new group of writers, especially writing to prompts. Will I produce anything “good”? Will they think I am “good”? But I try to cling to that advice, understanding that writing is a craft that you get better at by doing, even doing “badly” – whatever that means.
Piece(s) of Writing I Am Most Proud Of
This question is probably the single reason it has taken me so long to respond your interview questions. How can I choose? Isn’t it like asking someone to choose her favorite child? Moreover, it’s difficult to separate my own perceptions from the reactions of readers. I will answer with a few stories, and hope that’s okay. Among flash fictions, I am particularly proud of “How Are You?” (published in Vestal Review). Next might be “Learning the Trade in Tenancingo” or (most recently) “After Happiness”. I also have a special place in my heart for “Morris and Cleo” which was a runner-up for (and published by) The Brighton Prize; “Clementine,” short-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize in 2018; and “Tiffy” (Fish Anthology 2015); however, these appear only in print. It’s easier for me to answer this question for my longer stories: “A Bohemian Memoir” published both online and in print by Litro is probably the piece of writing I am most proud of that is not flash. It is told from the point of view of a wineglass. But I am so indebted to Kenyon Review for publishing “The Ham Theory” that I must mention that story as well. It was published in print and then republished by KR Online several years later. And I should mention one more story among the ones I’m proudest of. Here it is, published on the Retreat West website as a runner-up for one of their themed competitions.
I’ve been to France four times: first, as an undergraduate; and then three times with Malcolm. The first two trips turn up in my fiction: my undergraduate experience is reflected (a bit) in a story coming out this month(!) in The New Guard review, a full-length story called “The Spirit of the Staircase”; and my first trip with Malcolm (to Normandy and Brittany) shows up in a flash fiction in The London Reader called “Honeymoon in Bayeux” (although in real life it wasn’t our honeymoon). I am looking forward to taking the workshop in exceptionally beautiful surroundings; to great food and wine; to finding new stories and new friends; and to exploring places in France where I haven’t been before, including Bordeaux, where we will stay for two nights before the workshop, and Arcachon, on the sea, where we will stay for two nights afterwards.
“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect” ~ Anais Nin
Writing is definitely a way to give meaning to experiences that might otherwise seem random or meaningless. It is, as the quote suggests, a way of stopping time and turning what is hard-to-grasp and fleeting into something tangible and even permanent. Several of my stories have their genesis in my experiences as a single mom; others in the experience of caring for elderly parents. In each case, I hope to go beyond the experience itself “in the moment” to extract or uncover something deeper that, while not necessarily universal, will be relatable beyond my small sphere.
Something you don’t know about me
I practiced law at a large NYC firm for 33 years, where I was “technically” “part-time” (ie., Mommy track instead of partnership track) but worked very long hours. The “deal” was that I would not have to travel for cases, as many lawyers were required to do for weeks at a time. That meant that even if I worked late at night, I would be there in the morning when my son, Jonah, woke up. I found this to be even more important when he was a pre-teen and teen than when he was an infant and preschooler! Although many of my clients were large corporations or other lawyers (in later years, I specialized in representing attorneys accused of legal malpractice), my most satisfying cases were often my pro bono representations: representing prisoners with mental illness or their families, victims of domestic violence, immigrants, Holocaust survivors, and even a woman politician accused (wrongly, in my view) of conflict of interest. Law was neither my first love nor my passion, but it enabled me to raise my son comfortably while meeting and helping people of many different occupations and backgrounds.
Thank you for your patience in reading the above non-flash responses and looking forward to the summer!
Nancy Ludmerer’s fiction appears in Best Small Fictions 2016, New Orleans Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Masters Review’s ‘New Voices’ Series, Sou’wester, Litro, Flash Frontier, and other journals and anthologies published in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands and Argentina as well as the U.S. Her flash fiction has won prizes from Grain, Night Train, Blue Monday Review, Retreat West, and River Styx, and three of her flash fictions have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her essay ‘Kritios Boy’ (Literal Latte) was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2014. She lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and their cat Sandy, a rescue from Superstorm Sandy.