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Against Shame: On Writing Every Day – Chelsea Stickle

“Write every day.” It’s some of the most common writing advice. I was fourteen the first time someone told me that. She told me to wake up early every day before school and write before the outside world could influence me. She meant well. And while that advice may be good for some people, it is the exact opposite of what works for me. I’m a night owl who thrives late at night when everyone is asleep, and I can think without interference. I need the day to wash over me first. Whatever sticks is important.

Which is to say that all advice about process is bullshit. If you’re still figuring out your process, try different things until you find what works for you. If something works for you, do it. If it doesn’t work, forget it. But I did come here to give a little advice. You know what to do with it.

I have a “build it and they will come” philosophy regarding stories. You don’t have to write every day. Daniel José Older hasan excellent argument against the obligation here. In my case, writing every day is detrimental. It forces me to push out a story that may need more time to build. As Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” My forced stories never live.

Writing every day leads to burnout for me. Thinking about stories is just as important as the writing itself. Since rooting out bad advice and the culture of “write every day or you’re not a writer”, my writing has become more natural. I suffer less. I’m less inclined to complain about how hard writing is, though some stories are a headache no matter what. Drenching your creativity in shame is not the best way to get something out of it. Shame shuts down the creative pathways when you’re trying to open them. The time you spend beating yourself up about not writing enough can be better spent doing literally anything else.

If I run into a problem with a story, I triage. Did I start writing too soon? Am I starting in the wrong place or focusing on the wrong thing? Is there something I don’t understand about the characters and/or the story that’s necessary for the telling? Did the story inch into one of my blind spots without my noticing? Is there something I need to understand about myself? Am I too much in my own head? Do I need a break? Food? Water? Sleep? A walk? Then I get myself what I need. Even if that thing is a blockbuster starring The Rock. I know my brain is always working to solve the puzzle it created. Cutting myself some slack is sometimes the best way to trick my brain into giving me exactly what I need. I play the long game, and acknowledge that not everything is in my control. The story takes as long as it takes. And that’s okay.

If all else fails, I think back to what my Sarah Lawrence don Mary LaChapelle told me when I couldn’t figure out how to fix a project and no one seemed able to help me. She said, “Maybe you’re not ready to tell this story.” She was absolutely right. It was a relief to hear. I wasn’t ready. I quit writing for two years after that. Mostly because of burnout. When I started writing again, I finished that project.  

How does this process differ from procrastination? I’m honest with myself about what I need. I know when I’m bullshitting myself. I’ve burned out before. A lot, actually. I’ll run myself into the ground if given the chance. Ultimately, I want to write. I see my job as not just writing but making a hospitable home for the stories that show up at my door. When I start to hear a story in my head—that urgent voice demanding to be heard—that’s when I start writing. It’s my job to be open and ready to listen.

 

Chelsea Stickle lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Her flash fiction appears in Jellyfish ReviewCleaver, Pithead Chapel, Okay Donkey, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others. She’s a reader for Pidgeonholes. Read more stories at chelseastickle.com/stories or find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.

Interviews

Nicholas Cook on Flash Fiction, Writing Retreats, & Creative Inspiration

Nancy and I are absolutely thrilled  that Nicholas Cook will be joining us in the French countryside for our French Connection Retreat in June. Nicholas took a few moments to chat with me about writing and writers, creativity, and flash fiction.

Hi Nicholas! Have you ever done a writing retreat before? And what are you most looking forward to in France?

I did a workshop in Taos, NM last year with Robert Vaughan and Meg Tuite. It was a blast, and I made some good friends and even managed to get a story from the workshop published. As for France, I’ve never been before so I’m looking forward to all of it, but mostly the chance to work with Kathy and Nancy, especially as I am interested in flash novel(la)s.

What inspires you creatively?

I find reading other peoples works inspires me the most. Otherwise, music, walking the dog, traveling, re-reading books.

Aw, I love this photo of you and your dog. I get the same creative boost when I’m out with my dog as well. Can you share a piece of writing of your own that you especially love and/or feel most proud of (and talk a bit about why?)

“The Eclipse” which was published in Lost Balloon in 2017. This story was a finalist for the 2018 Best Small Fictions and a Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction contest honorable mention. This is still one of my favorite stories of mine and one of the few I can go back and read and not cringe over. The story came together easily and was inspired heavily by the story Pool Night by Amy Hempel, who I was re-reading for the hundredth time. I like it because the voice and character are very different than what I usually write.

I love this story, Nicholas. I remember reading it when it came out. It does remind me of Amy Hempel’s work, quiet but powerful. No wonder it was recognized. What books or short stories have you read many times, and what draws you back to these works?

I will re-read every piece of flash written by Claudia Smith until the day I die. She was one of the first flash authors I really “got” over a decade ago, and her work still resonates with me (the voice, simplicity and economy of words, and emotion). Other flash authors I love are Cathy Ulrich, Kathy Fish, Kim Chinquee, Meg Pokrass, Tiff Holland, Casey Hannan, Robert Scotellaro, and so many more. As for novels, “Why Did I Ever” and “One D.O.A…” by Mary Robison are essential reads and I re-read them in some form once a year. Mary Robison has one of the most distinct and captivating voices and is a huge inspiration to me. I find I think like a lot of her characters (although maybe not so exaggerated, I hope).

Thank you for the mention! I feel the same way about Claudia Smith Chen’s, work and Mary Robison is an all-time favorite writer of mine, too.

Forgive me, but I always ask this question: Is there something funny / interesting / weird / wonderful about you that you’d like to share? 

I’ll have been traveling around Europe prior to and after the workshop as I’ll be on a twelve week sabbatical from my job. I’m excited to see what inspiration that brings! Maybe I will stop writing about the southwest and deserts.

Nicholas Cook’s fiction has appeared in Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, Unbroken Journal, Bath Flash Fiction Award, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for Best Small Fictions 2018. He lives in Texas.

Note: Our French Connection Retreat sold out very quickly (you may get on the wait list for it though!) Check out our other upcoming retreats in Costa Rica (there’s a VERY special limited time discount you might want to jump on) and Grand Lake, Colorado. 

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Know anyone who could use a half-price writers’ retreat? Special deal on Writing Wild in Costa Rica!

Limited-Time Opportunity for a Half-Price Flash Fiction Retreat in Costa Rica, March 2020!

With the purchase of one all-inclusive retreat package, get a 2nd one for half off!

Invite a friend to join you for our Writing Wild in Costa Rica Retreat March 21st-27th & gift them with the half-priced fee (as low as $725 all-inclusive) OR register together and split the savings! We can only extend this deep discount to the first TWO pairs of writers to register. If interested, act soon! 

Your all-inclusive fee includes:

  • Six nights accommodation 
  • Three Delicious, Ayurvedic Meals Per Day
  • ALL workshops + One on One Consultations
  • Airport Pick-Up & Drop-Off
  • Final Night Celebration & Salon Reading Under the Stars
Samadhi Suite

“This retreat EXCEEDED all my expectations. Gorgeous location, perfect weather, delicious food & friendly, accommodating staff. I’m a flash fiction writing newbie and learned so much from everyone. I will carry the knowledge and wonderful memories with me forever!” ~Lucy Merklee

More About Writing Wild in Costa Rica
All-Inclusive Fees & Accommodations
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We’ve also just opened registration for our 3rd annual Colorado Retreat. Check it out: High Altitude Inspiration in the Great American West for August 19th-23rd! 

Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

“How is Crafting Microfiction Like Getting a Boat Inside a Bottle?” by Jayne Martin

The lovely and talented flash / micro writer, Jayne Martin, will be joining Nancy and me (again!) this summer for our French Connection retreat outside of Bordeaux, France. She also took part in our retreat in Italy last May AND our debut retreat in Breckenridge in 2018! We love Jayne and we love her writing and are so excited about her new collection, Tender Cuts , which comes out November 4th (pre-order from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.)

Jayne graciously agreed to share her microfiction wisdom in the guest post below. Enjoy!

How is Crafting Microfiction Like Getting a Boat Inside a Bottle?

I have no idea how anyone gets a boat inside a bottle. I’m still trying to figure out how all those people get inside my television. But I do know a bit about writing microfiction. And a touch of mystery is a big part of it.

“It’s what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power” – Toni Morrison

When writing micro, what I describe as stories under 300 words, leaving room for the reader to participate is crucial. To do this, the writer needs to think like a painter, encompassing strong imagery. Our brains are wired to respond emotionally to sensory details.

As a child, I enjoyed lying on my back on the lawn and staring at the clouds as they morphed into angels, butterflies, even sharks. Look! There are his teeth. That’s not a shark, a friend might dispute. That’s a wolf! And who’s to say who was right? Imagination, interpretation – they’re as unique as our DNA.

Tender Cuts (Vine Leaves Press, 2019)

When crafting microfiction, whether it’s a 25-word story or 300 words, the writer needs to engage the reader’s imagination, encourage their interpretation, and give them a fully realized character whose life continues far beyond the constraints of the story. Here is one of the shorter pieces from my new collection of micro, “Tender Cuts.”

Working Girl

Found upright at the curb in the chill of dawn, the single blush-tinted stiletto was the last footprint she would leave on this earth, its mate too quick to step into the car of another faceless stranger. Tiny hands press against a window and wait for her return.

Only 48 words, but what can we gather about this character? Consider the color of the stiletto. It’s not black or red, it’s blush. She still has a softness about her. She was snatched in a way that indicates violence. Likely, she hasn’t yet developed the street instinct to tell the harmless from the harmful. She hasn’t been doing this for long. Consider the “tiny hands” waiting for her return. She’s a mother. Consider the circumstances that could have led her to this state of desperation in order to provide for her child.

I could have written that all out, but doing so would have stripped you of having your own experience of the piece. A micro, even more so than longer literary forms, must leave the reader having had an emotional experience. Otherwise, it risks being just clever. And in writing microfiction, clever is the booby prize.

Jayne Martin lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she rides horses and drinks copious amounts of fine wines, though not at the same time. She is a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions nominee, and a recipient of Vestal Review’s VERA award. Her debut collection of microfiction, “Tender Cuts,” from Vine Leaves Press, is available November 4th. Visit her website at:  www.jaynemartin-writer.com

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Backwards and in High Heels: The Challenges of Writing (Really Good) Flash Fiction*

The quote, attributed to many, and paraphrased by Ann Richards, goes: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

So imagine this for flash fiction writers. We must do everything that longer form writers must do, only in a much tighter space. We are constrained by brevity.

Perhaps “constrained” is not the right word though. From a different perspective, perhaps the word limit is actually—liberating.

Hear me out.

With so few words at its disposal, flash fiction lends itself beautifully to innovation and experimentation. All those extra words we must do without force flash writers to find other ways to create a fully realized story, complete with emotion, movement, and resonance. The “constraints” imposed necessitate boldness, risk-taking, and originality.

But first let’s right dispense with the notion that since it’s so short, flash writing is easy. It is not. Nothing worthwhile is.

If you’re new to the form or struggling with it, here are a few things you might think about and try:

See what happens when you eliminate transitions and bridges from paragraph to paragraph. The result is a segmented or mosaic structure. Here, in a series of connected or very loosely connected very short pieces, the writer creates meaning in the jump cuts and the white spaces. In a sense, encouraging the reader to collaborate. (See my segmented flash, “A Room with Many Small Beds” published in Threadcount Magazine.) 

When you take disparate elements and bump them up against each other, you create new meaning. Poets do this all the time. Which takes me to my next tip.

Read poetry. Read lots and lots of poetry.

See what happens when you simply keep the pen moving. When you allow a story to spill out in one long exhale, not allowing yourself to editorialize or explain. Maybe you have a very emotional story you want to tell, but you keep stopping yourself, and the only way out is through. Maybe, for this particular story, you want to be all up in the reader’s face. Try writing what I call the “breathless one paragraph flash.” Read “Friday Night” by Gwen E. Kirby published in Wigleaf, a story that manages to be both funny and deeply moving.

OR cast aside all “rules” and borrow a completely different form to tell your story. See this innovative stunner, “Vagabond Mannequin” by K.B. Carle published in Jellyfish Review (and drafted in my Fast Flash workshop). 

It’s all about getting the words down. You can futz with it all later, but the best way to get better at this challenging form (to be a Ginger Rogers of the literary world) is to simply write it. Lots of it. Play. Experiment. Invent. Take the form and run with it. Make it your own. And read, read, read.

*(Note: This piece was written for Mslexia Magazine’s newsletter in advance of their 2019 Flash Fiction contest, which I am judging) There’s still time to enter! The deadline is Sept. 30th. Go here for more details.)