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.

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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.

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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

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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. 

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High Altitude Inspiration: Four Days in the Rocky Mountains with Special Guest…..

 Join us in August 14th – 18th, 2019 for

High Altitude Inspiration:

Four Days in the Clouds in Grand Lake, Colorado

Just Announced: Special Guest Randall Brown!

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Rise above your normal vantage point. Put your head in the clouds. See what inspiration waits for you when you take the birds-eye view, perched above Grand Lake and nestled in the grandeur of nature and the majestic Rocky Mountains.  

Commune with your fellow writers in a rustic, peaceful setting. Clear your mind. See the big picture. Open yourself to inspired creativity and expansion. Take your writing to new heights with us this August in Colorful Colorado.

Join us for an all-inclusive four-day retreat with two group sessions each day (including craft talks, generative writing exercises, workshopping sessions and one-on-one mentoring as well as plenty of inspired individual writing time), three delicious locally-sourced meals per day, sunset group writes and a final evening literary salon in the stunning chapel overlooking the lake. 

Now with a special BONUS session with renowned flash fiction writer and teacher Randall Brown! 

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in theBest Small Fictions 2015 & 2017 & 2019The Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, and The Norton Anthology of Microfiction. He founded and directs FlashFiction.Net and has been published and anthologized widely, both online and in print. Recent published work includes the novella How Long is Forever (2018)the poetry chapbook I Might Never Learn (2018), and the flash fiction collectionThis Is How He Learned to Love (2019).  He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College.

Hope you can join us!

More info here:

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K.B. Jensen: On Books, Bucket Lists, and Dreaming Big in Italy

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Kathy Fish and I are excited that fellow Denverite K.B. Jensen will be joining us in Casperia, Italy for our first European flash fiction retreat! I chat with K.B. here about books, bucket lists, and what it’s like to be bi-cultural, among other things:

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?

K.B. Jensen: To tell you the truth, I suck at that lately, which is why I’m excited to jumpstart my writing this spring with the Italy retreat. I definitely struggle to find the time to write these days, and I want to get back into the routine.

Writing a book is like putting together a puzzle, you have to keep chipping at it. The easiest time I ever had of it was when I was a stay at home parent and my kid was a baby and took naps. I never knew if I’d have thirty minutes to write or two hours, so I wrote my first novel like mad during her naptime. But now she’s older, and I work as a professional editor, publishing consultant and ski instructor, as well, so the writing time has become scarcer. What has been helpful has been to give myself permission to write and to write early in the day while my eyes are fresh. I recently literally wrote myself a permission slip for writing one hour daily. Lately, it has been mostly journaling and poetry, but it feels good, and it’s like playing the scales on a piano.

I also enjoyed doing challenges like FlashNaNoWriMo, where you write a short story a day. That was really helpful, Nancy. I love your prompts. Thank you for sending them daily in November.

Nancy: You are so welcome! And I relate SO much to the writing-during-naptime and I LOVE the permission slip! Can you tell us about your relationship to flash fiction?

K.B. I’m not married to it. I play with all sorts of lengths and genres. But I do love flash. It’s fun and playful. I also like writing concisely. I was a journalist for fifteen years, so I love brevity and getting to the point quickly.

Nancy: So what piece of your own writing are you most proud of? Where could we read it (if it’s available)?

K.B. That’s like choosing between children. I’m really proud of my books. Painting With Fire is more popular generally since it’s a murder mystery, but A Storm of Stories is probably my favorite child of the two. Both represent different times in my life with Painting With Fire drawing from all the crime stories I wrote as a newspaper reporter, talking to all those cops, neighbors and family members of victims. It is fiction, but it’s true to life.

A Storm of Stories is definitely more literary, poetic and metaphorical. It’s a complex book. I didn’t even realize I was writing it the way I was, but the themes just fit together into a bigger story. It’s a novel full of short stories with two strangers trapped in a car in a whiteout storm telling each other stories to stay alive. The stories all have the themes of love, craziness and impossibility. And then there’s the story and mystery of the two storytellers, as well. The things our stories reveal about us, what’s real and what’s made up. Storytelling can be so intimate and revealing. These main characters don’t know each other, but they do.

I also have an award-winning short story that’s speculative fiction about a woman who turns into her grandmother overnight, but I haven’t actually published it yet. You can find samples of A Storm of Stories and Painting With Fire on Amazon, if you want to get a feel.

Nancy: Since you have published several books—what are some of the most important things you have learned from that process?

K.B. Don’t publish in a vacuum. Never publish alone. I didn’t make that mistake, thankfully. I had a lot of help. I know a ton about publishing now that I wish I knew when I first started. I could write a whole book on that question. To sum it up? Go big. Dream big. Market big. Have a team.

I also learned to not be so scared. Weirdly enough, even after working as a journalist for magazines and newspapers, I used to be terrified of people reading my fiction. When my first book came out, I told myself no one would read it and that made me feel better. It was comforting. After 70,000 people downloaded it, I freaked out a bit, then let that fear go. So I have learned not to be scared of sharing fiction. I am still nervous about sharing poetry though. I guess I have it weirdly compartmentalized. At my first live-lit event years ago, my hands shook so badly, you could see the paper flutter. Hard to imagine now.

Nancy: That is such amazing advice, especially about fear. I agree–fear only holds us back. So proud of you and looking forward to seeing more in Italy. Have you been to Italy before? What are you most looking forward to?

K.B. I have always wanted to go to Italy. It’s been on my bucket list, but this is a first for me. I’m looking forward to meeting some cool fellow writers, getting some writing done, refocusing and being inspired by a beautiful country.

Nancy: React to this quote by Richard Branson: “The most talented, thought-provoking, game-changing people are never normal.” Are you “normal”?

K.B. Hell no. I’m definitely not normal. That’s a nice quote in that it spins it so positively.

Maybe that was why I was so afraid of sharing my fiction for so long. I was afraid people would read it and think I was crazy or weird. Then I realized, I am a little crazy and fairly weird, and that’s okay. Who wants to be normal? I like weird people too. Interesting characters.

Nancy: I agree! Okay, finally: Tell us something we don’t know about you?

It’s strange, in America, I feel Danish. In Denmark, I feel American. My dad hails from Copenhagen. He didn’t teach me any Danish as a kid. Maybe he wanted me to be American. I rebelled and learned it in college. After I learned, I recorded my grandfather’s World War II memories on tape on long distance calls, but they are all in Danish. I’d like to do something with those stories, as well one of these days, but the prospect of translating all that Danish is intimidating. One day. Another item on the bucket list. Maybe it will be historical fiction or true vignettes about his experiences. I’m not sure.

Nancy: Thank you so much for chatting with me, K.B.! I’m counting the days until our Italian retreat! Until then, where can we find your books?

K.B. You can find my books at:

A Storm of Stories

Painting With Fire

K.B. Jensen is an award-winning author, fiction editor, and publishing consultant with My Word Publishing. Her first book, Painting With Fire, an artistic murder mystery, hit the bestseller list for crime novels on Amazon and has been downloaded more than 70,000 times. Her second book, A Storm of Stories, veers into more literary territory with themes of love, craziness and impossibility. K.B. grew up in Minneapolis and moved from Chicago to Littleton, CO., with her husband, daughter and rescued border collie/lab mix. In her spare time, she enjoys teaching downhill skiing, writing poetry and traveling the world. For more information, visit www.kbjensenauthor.com.

P.S Our Springtime in Italy retreat is Sold Out, but we have room in our Flash Fiction Summer Camp (Colorado) and our just announced Writing Wild in Costa Rica 2020 retreats! Find out more:

Flash Fiction Summer Camp in Colorado: August 14-18, 2018

Writing Wild in Costa Rica 2020: March 21-27, 2020