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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, Nancy Stohlman

Malcolm Spector on Finding French Inspiration and Advice for Writing Spouses

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We are thrilled that Malcolm Spector will be accompanying his wife, Nancy Ludmerer, on our flash fiction retreat to France next June. Malcolm and I chatted about all things French: authors, music, cooking–and Malcolm even has some advice for spouses of writers:

Nancy Stohlman: You have spent lots of time in France! Have you been to the region around Bordeaux? If so, what would you say makes it special? If not, what are you most looking forward to?

Malcolm Spector: I lived in Montreal for many years teaching at McGill University.   My conversational French is fairly good if a little rusty.  I have spent quite a bit of time in France over the years.  In 1975-76 in Paris as a Fulbright scholar, I taught sociological methods to attorneys at Paris II.  Nancy (Ludmerer) and I have done some touring in France, in Paris, Normandy, Brittany, the Ile de France, the Dordogne, and in the south.  Many years before that, I spent some time in Burgundy.

I have not been to Bordeaux, but it is the most famous wine-producing region in France. I hope there is an opportunity to visit a winery or to learn about some of the wines of the region, and sample them with local breads and cheeses. Otherwise, I would like to explore the forest, the countryside, possibly nearby towns, either on foot or by bicycle (I could buy or rent one.). I would welcome the opportunity to join other spouses or partners of writers in some of these activities. I’m also an amateur flutist.  I might bring my flute and some music and spend several hours a day practicing and working on some new repertoire.

Nancy: You’re a flutist! Is there a particular composer you are drawn to? French, perhaps? Debussy? Satie? 

Malcolm: Johann Sebastian Bach is my favorite. He wrote beautifully, but not that much, for the flute of his day.  Many of his unaccompanied works for violin and cello have been transcribed for the flute.  I have transcribed some preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, originally written for keyboard, for flutes and other woodwinds. After Bach, the string quartet literature is my favorite.  Many composers wrote their best chamber works for the string quartet.  Beethoven comes to mind.

France has a special relationship to the flute.  The modern flute was perfected and rationalized by Theobald Boehm and presented at the Paris Exhibition of 1847.  Although Boehm was from Bavaria, his flute and all modern flutes are called “French-style” flutes.   Once the modern flute was perfected, many more composers wrote for it, including many French composers. For better or worse, much of this literature is too challenging for amateurs like myself.  All flutists practice some of the daily exercises of Paul Taffanel and Philippe Gaubert, professors at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Nancy: Many people like to immerse themselves in the writers of the region when traveling. Who is your favorite French writer?

Malcolm: One of my favorite authors is Marcel Proust.  I might immerse myself in his work, but this time in French.

Proust of course was Parisian and his character vacationed with his grandmother in Brittany, where Nancy and I visited the very hotel where the narrator stays with his grandmother.  One of Balzac’s main characters, Lucien Chardon de Rubembre  (from Lost Illusions and A Harlot High and Low) was originally from Angouleme, which is nearby.  I might have to revisit Balzac and Angouleme, where it appears there is a museum devoted to comic books.

Nancy: In that case, react to one of my favorite quotes by Proust: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.

Malcolm: I have also seen this translated as: Mystery is not about traveling to new places but about looking with new eyes.  Of all the 3000 pages of A la recherche, the most intense and moving passages, for me, are things that the narrator sees happen.  I mention only two. First, at Balbec the narrator first sees “the little band” of girls, including of course Andree and Albertine, galloping along the boardwalk, their nostrils flaired, their muscles rippling, totally at ease with their bodies, vaulting over deck chairs and anyone in their way.  It is not just that Proust describes this action, but that it is the narrator who sees it happening, and it goes on for pages and pages.  The second is a moment when Swann tells Mme de Guermantes that he will not be able to be her guide on a trip to Egypt in the spring, because, by that time he will have died from a fatal disease.  The narrator is in the courtyard and observes this scene.  For a brief moment, the duchesse is transfixed, but then she turns and runs upstairs to change out of her “horrid” red shoes into black shoes while her husband brays at her that they will be late to some event.  As powerful as these scenes would be anyway, the “seeing” of them takes them to another level.

Nancy: I also hear you are quite a cook! Do you cook French cuisine? Our retreat hosts are former French chefs and have run restaurants, so you may get a chance to do some French cooking. What would you most like to learn in the French kitchen?

Malcolm: Cooking is one of my passions. I love to work with vegetables, soups, stews, and garden to table.  Also, we eat a lot of fish.  I have volunteered in a kitchen where we cooked for over 100 people and I learned a little how to do things on a large scale.  More of that would be great, including going to the markets to shop.  I lived in Italy for several years and my go-to methods are Mediterranean if not strictly Italian. Perhaps there is some setting where I could learn something of the regional cuisine, perhaps by volunteering in a kitchen.

Nancy: You’ll be accompanying your spouse, Nancy Ludmerer, on this retreat. What’s it like to be the spouse of a writer? What advice to you have for other spouses of writers?

Malcolm: As the spouse of a writer I have seen:  the writer’s need for isolation and solitude in order to concentrate; the drumbeat of rejection irregularly interrupted by acceptance and publication; the discipline of patience for revision, rethinking, and editing over many drafts; the tremendous value of having fellow writers with whom to talk and work; how writing to prompts, submission deadlines and competitions can stimulate new work; how, even non-writers, like a spouse can occasionally make a helpful suggestion or edit; and best of all, how the writer  turns the experiences of everyday life into the greater truth of fiction.

Nancy: Thanks for sharing a bit about yourself, Malcolm! We are looking forward to getting to know you in person next June!

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P.S. Our French Connection Retreat is currently sold out but we are accepting people on the waiting list.

Consider joining us in 2020 for:

Writing Wild in the Blue Zone of Costa Rica retreat in March

or

High Altitude Inspiration in Colorado retreat in August!

Interviews, Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized

On Finding Time to Write: A Conversation with Nancy Ludmerer

 

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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.

France
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.

Our French Connection Retreat is now full but we have space available in our March 2020 Costa Rica or our August 2020 Colorado retreats.

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. 

Interviews, Uncategorized

A Virtual Gallery Exhibition: Jeffrey Spahr-Summers interprets Grand Lake 2019

Creative people are usually creative in multiple ways. On many of our retreats, we are lucky to have amateur or even professional photographers and other visual artists sharing some of their non-word-related creations as well, and in Grand Lake we were thrilled to have the artistic eye of Jeffrey Spahr-Summers interpreting our mountain sanctuary. Below you’ll find our first “Virtual Gallery Exhibition”, which represents only a small sliver (link to more below). I find it visceral, trippy, surreal, sometimes seeming to actually vibrate, in moments channeling Van Gogh and Monet. Truthfully I can’t find an adjective that really sums it up: gorgeous, stunning, amazing…none of these do it justice.

When I asked Jeffrey if he wanted to caption the photos he said, “Let them speak for themselves.” So…without further preamble: ENJOY!

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And a slideshow!

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Check out more of Jeffrey’s work (including his amazing words!) at

 

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers Photography

And join us August 19-23, 2020 for our return to Grand Lake, Colorado!