Many thanks to the amazing Karen Stefano, author of The Secret Games of Words and a forthcoming memoir, Vigilance, for inviting Nancy and me to take part in her wonderful podcast series. Here, we talked about all things flash fiction, about our flash fiction retreats, and did a “mini workshop” of our own flash stories. Have a listen!
Hi Leslie! Nancy and I are so excited that you’ll be joining us in gorgeous Breckenridge in August for our retreat! What has been your writing workshop/retreat experience in the past? How do you find ways to honor your writing in your day to day life?
I am so excited to meet Nancy and work with you again, Kathy. My workshop experience has always been positive and nurturing. I feel like the most important feedback in critique groups is not the editing issues (there are always a couple editors in the group), but content feedback where a particular aspect of the piece may not be clear to the reader. I appreciate when someone takes the time to really read the piece and says, “I wasn’t sure about this thing” or “maybe this could be clearer.” This feedback gives me the opportunity to go back and think about changing or adding (even one word) to clarify and make it readable. I feel like I have become a better reader through this experience, and I try to give feedback as a reader, not an editor. The best way I can think of to honor my writing is to keep coming back to it. Making time to write and to continue to develop the craft of writing. I take quite a few workshops specifically to make time to write.
I agree so much that the best way to honor one’s writing is to keep coming back to it. And the huge value of peer feedback as well! Please respond to this quote by Martha Graham:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
I love this quote. I feel like action comes from engaging others. Whether it is literary, visual, or performing, art engages and creates a connection within. Words evoke empathy and emotionally connect a reader to the piece. Empathy inspires action. I just finished the novel Forgotten Country, by Catherine Chung. The depth of her characters was so engaging for me, I became emotionally invested in the family. I think that is why I write Flash. Flash, to me, is like an explosion of emotion that stays with you long after you have experienced that initial moment.
Flash as an “explosion of emotion.” Wow, I love that, Leslie. Thank you! Can you tell us what is your favorite story that you yourself have written (“favorite” doesn’t have to mean “best” or more successful or whatever). And why is it your favorite?
Most of my pieces are based in memory so I have a close connection to each. I have recently tried to focus on complete fiction. I have found that adding a fantasy element into a real situation gives me an opportunity to stretch my mind. I have recently written a piece about a siren who falls in love with a human who dies, of course, and she is left to live alone. I focused on the emotional element of loss and anger but also added the mystical elements of a Siren.
Have you been to Breckenridge before? What are you most looking forward to as a writer retreating to this incedible place?
I have not been to Breckenridge and am looking forward to the scenery. I hear it is beautiful. Mostly, I am looking forward into immersing myself into writing. Living the life of a writer without the distractions of the day job. Many times I will feel a need to write that is stifled by the day job.
Is there something we don’t know about you that you’re happy to share? 🙂
I love sappy 70s songs (Andy Gibb, The Carpenters) and Murder She Wrote.
Ah, this is great! Thanks so much, Leslie! August can’t get here soon enough!
Leslie Archibald is a graduate of the University of Houston, majoring in English, Creative Writing with a minor in Women’s Studies. She currently works at a full-time office position while continuing to write and edit part time. Leslie is the volunteer coordinator at Writespace, a local Writer’s organization in Houston, Texas and is the winner of the 2017 Spider Road Press’s Spiders Web Flash Fiction Prize for her piece “Sherry Baby.”
Kathy Fish and I are thrilled that Jan Saenz will be traveling to Colorado this August to retreat with us! I chatted with Jan about writing, flash fiction, and collecting weird objects:
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?
Jan Saenz: It used to be so easy. I’d put the kids to bed, kiss the husband goodnight, sit on the couch and write like mad. The night would disappear and before I knew it, the sun was up and I was driving the kids to school in a stale, zombie state of mind. Those were the days.
I don’t know if it’s age or pressure or what, but nowadays retreating involves so much more premeditation. Literally. I have to sit and stew before I write. Coffee is a much. Quiet helps. I see writers in coffee shops on their laptops and I’m like, How are they doing that? And how do they manage to look cool while doing it? I look like a psychopath when I write. I talk to myself. I suppose that’s my most common retreat, mentally playing out scenes throughout the day. Listening to the flow of dialogue, saying it aloud. It’s looney.
Nancy: Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?
Jan: I was a crap student in school. Slow reader. Bad speller. Creative writing was something I could do, but was never encouraged to do. I don’t remember teachers or professors ever saying, “Be brave! Forget the rules, ignore standards—write like you are in a dream.” Maybe that’s why I like flash. It feels free and rebellious. And the limited word count has a way of making the story feel almost dream-like. There’s a real art to it. I like working in the attitude of flash. Do what you want, but be picky about it. Say it all, but be brief. I love Puberty by Kat Gonso. V-Card by Meghan Phillips. The Hollow by Kathy Fish. That’s just a few.
Nancy: What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Jan: “Write the book you want to read.” It’s a common quote, but for good reason. I went through a (miserable) phase about two years ago. For some reason, I could not write anything without first considering what a reader would want. I would change certain details in my stories so they would be more “acceptable” to a wider audience. I cut curse words. Toned down sex scenes. Worried about female likability. That shit did nothing but kill my writing. Nowadays, I try to focus more on editing the execution, not the personal taste. Because the taste is mine. Haha.
Nancy: What piece of your own writing are you most proud of? Where can we read it (if it’s available)?
Jan: Paper Darts recently published one of my pieces. It’s the weirdest, coolest feeling when editors you greatly admire come back and say, “Hey, I really liked this.” Like, wait what? You get so used to rejection, acceptance starts to feel foreign. You can read it here:
Nancy: React to this quote by Frank Capra: “A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.”
Jan: I think most artists have a certain intuition when it comes to their craft. When inspiration pops up, they automatically recognize it. They study it. Obsess over it. And if they’re lucky, they’re able to follow through with it. Make it into something special. But there’s got to be a back-up plan, you know? I can’t sit around waiting for “hunches” or creative intuition to set in. I’ve got to live my life and experience things outside of writing. Otherwise my work suffers. It doesn’t evolve.
Nancy: Tell us something we don’t know about you?
Jan: I collect things. It’s weirdly therapeutic. Chess boards. Religious items. Afghan blankets. Old photographs of horses. Teeth. The list goes on, and yes it gets weirder. My best friend and I are really passionate about aesthetics in homemaking…that sounds so pretentious, but I swear we’re just giggly moms who geek-out at Goodwill. We have an IG account called Hoardhouse Vintage. If you like eclectic home decorating, check it out:
Jan Saenz is a writer and serial thrift shopper. She has work in Paper Darts, Bending Genres, and is currently working on her third novel, a dark comedy about amateur drug dealers and the female orgasm. She has a doctorate in useless pop-culture facts. For more information, visit www.jansaenz.com or follow @jan_saenz
The lovely Gay Degani is joining Nancy and me for Create in Costa Rica in January. We’re so excited to work with her and everyone! (Note: Though it’s filling up, some spaces in the Costa Rica retreat are still available.)
Hi,Gay. You’re joining us in Costa Rica in January to write, commune, rest, explore in an exotic space. We can’t wait! Can you talk a little about how you honor your writing time and your creative life in other ways? (it’s okay to talk about how you struggle with this too if that’s the case!)
2017 was a difficult year for me and I don’t think I’m alone in my reaction to the political situation, the number of shootings (my daughter was at the Las Vegas concert), and the sexual harassment revelations. Also for me, my desire to write another novel has made me come up against my own brand of angst.
However, being part of the online writing community has been a writing “life-saver” for me. It saved me in 2007 and it’s saved me in 2017. What I’ve tried to do to counter my lack of productivity last year is to make certain the same thing doesn’t happen in 2018 by signing up for classes on-line and retreats like the one you and Nancy Stohlman are putting together. With a Barrelhouse class and one with One Story completed, I’m already hard at work in 2018. It’s important, I think, to surround myself with as many like-minded people as I can, and writers make up my tribe.
Respond to this quote from Natalie Goldberg:
“Writing practice brings us back to the uniqueness of our own minds and an acceptance of it. We all have wild dreams, fantasies, and ordinary thoughts. Let us to feel the texture of them and not be afraid of them.Writing is still the wildest thing I know.”
I love Natalie Goldberg. Her books and tapes (yes, back then it was audio-tapes) gave me permission to be a writer. For so long I believed being an writer was a god-given gift and if you had that gift, you couldn’t help but write, no matter the odds.
Spending time to write always felt selfish to me. Something I would, of course, make myself do if I had that “GOD-GIVEN GIFT.”
But I always had other things on my agenda and they seemed so much more vital to my everyday life–kids, a husband, lists of errands–and I did them. The result was very little time to write, and since I didn’t feel irresistibly compelled to put words down, I thought I must not have that “GOD-GIVEN GIFT.”
But this concept is so so wrong. Yes, a person does need some amount of natural talent, but so much of developing that talent is believing you have a right to spend time honoring it, letting it breathe, and accepting that what you write doesn’t need to be perfect the first time around, and that it’s okay to let the act of writing take up chunks of your life.
Natalie Goldberg helped me see how to negotiate around my two great lacks–of confidence and of craft–by doing “morning pages.” Performing this early communion with myself allowed me to wrestle with questions on paper rather than in my mind where I could so easily push them into a dark corner. I owe as much to her as I do to the on-line writing community.
What is your favorite flash you’ve written (not “best” or “most successful” necessarily, but the one you love the most) and why?
I don’t know if I can really answer this. Each one that finds itself written is a little piece of my heart and my life. They are like children, some easily delivered and others full of pain.
And I never know what will resonate with others. Some of my pieces I feel are struggling so hard to grow up and I worry and nurture and almost give up, but then they do something to make me proud–like getting published. The ones I sense will go out there and slay dragons come back defeated. Like many mothers, I can’t pick favorites. Each feel special to me in their own way.
Is there something we probably don’t know about you that you’d like to share?
I feel as if my life is an open book. If you read my stories, you will glimpse many different aspects of “me,” though none of those are all of me. You are what you believe in, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, what’s hurt you, what’s made you stronger.
Oh, I love that. It’s so true and wise. What are you most looking forward to in Costa Rica?
You, Kathy, and Nancy, and being with other writers on the trip. This is what I need and crave. What most writers need and crave: To be with their tribe, if only for a short period of time.
Gay Degani is the author of a full-length collection of short stories, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She’s had four flash pieces nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Glass Woman Prize. She blogs at Words in Place.
Holly Lyn Walrath will be joining us this summer for Rendezvous in the Rockies in Breckenridge. She graciously allowed me to ask her a few questions to find out a bit more about her life and writing and her forthcoming poetry chapbook, Glimmerglass Girl, from Finishing Line Press (available for pre-order April 9th!).
We’re so thrilled you’ll be joining us for a writers’ retreat in Breckenridge this summer! What are your thoughts on honoring creativity and/or creative play? How important are these to you?
I think a lot about Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at the National Book Awards (http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Index-NBFMedal.html) where she says “Resistance and change often begin in art.” Honoring creativity to me means staying true to who you are as an artist and not chasing the market. This is so hard to do, because as writers we need to self-promote. But to me, the moment when we break free of the external world and instead let the internal world guide our process is the moment when we are capable of true art that will enact change.
When I feel a piece is enacting change in myself, that’s when I know it’s working. That’s what I strive for in creativity—break through, surprise, unsettling, resettling, a quiet dawning of realization.
You described your recent (amazing) flash in Fireside Magazine, entitled “knick knack, knick, knack” as one of your own favorites. Can you talk about the process of writing it and why it’s one of your favorites? I love that first line by the way…
I think the title of this piece is one of the best I’ve written so far, a nod to the old children’s rhyme, This Old man. Conceptually, I was inspired by the work of Hayao Miyazaki and his use of the Japanese tree spirits called Kodama, which appear in his film Princess Mononoke. But the piece is mostly drawn from the personal experience of struggling to put aside the demands of a parent. I’m interested in stories that put a new twist on the Mother-Daughter story. My own Mom has pretty much never known how to handle my creative side. I wanted to acknowledge that we don’t all have great relationships with our mothers, we don’t all want to follow in our parent’s footsteps.
Respond to this quote by Dani Shapiro: “If I dismiss the ordinary — waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — I may just miss my life… To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories—to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing — is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives.”
Oh man, how do I struggle with this! Lately my schedule has been cram-jam full of lovely writing-related things that make me happy and give me a deep sense of purpose. But I’ve found it really hard to turn off lately, to explore the small, quotidian pieces of life that make it worthwhile on a deeper level.
The only way I’ve found to recapture this lately is going out canoeing with my husband. We paddle out on Armand Bayou and there’s always a moment when the water quiets, we slip away from the shore where people are picnicking and playing with their dogs, and everything we left behind sinks into the stillness. Cranes and vultures circle the sky, gators lurk in the shallows, and that’s how I turn off the rest of the world.
Anything else you’d like to share? Something we probably didn’t know about you?
Pre-orders for my first chapbook, Glimmerglass Girl (Finishing Line Press), start April 9th. This chapbook is a series of illustrated poems about femininity. Information on my website: Holly Lyn Walrath
If you’re a writer, check out The Weird Circular, my free e-newsletter full of curated submission calls and writing prompts.
I have subscriber-only content on Curious Fictions if you want to leave me a tip!
A lot of people don’t know that I worked in finance for three years. My mother is still disappointed that I quit that job, ha. Now I’m a freelance editor, but I still get random phone calls from my family asking for advice on money matters.
Well, we’re glad you pursued writing (and editing) instead! Thanks so much, Holly, and best of luck with your upcoming poetry chapbook!
Holly Lyn Walrath is a writer of poetry and short fiction. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Magazine, Liminality, Crab Fat Magazine, and other places. She is a freelance editor and volunteer with Writespace, a nonprofit literary center in Houston, Texas. She currently resides in Seabrook, Texas. Find her on Twitter @hollylynwalrath or at hlwalrath.com.