A Sampler of Writing Advice from Glimmer Train

Glimmer Train is one of the top literary journals specializing in short fiction, with several lucrative contests throughout the year. Their online newsletter includes links to brief interviews with their published authors. Here, a sampler of some thoughts on writing, from their latest issue:

Rolaine Hochstein, the winner of their February 2009 Very Short Fiction Award, encourages authors to resist the oversimplifications of the marketplace in her essay “Life Class”:

…I would tell you to ignore the advice I read recently in a magazine for writers: A writer should be prepared to tell his story to the editor in three sentences (or was it three words?). If you can’t do that, says the editor, don’t even bother to submit the work. Boy, do I disagree! If you can tell your story in three sentences, why write it?

I write like a painter, going over the story draft after draft, adding color, changing shape, bringing in light and shadows (chiaroscuro, to labor the metaphor). A dab here, a highlight there, a new insight and, of course, constant wipeouts of segments that don’t belong. All these brush strokes, all these layers, all these drafts. All this time. Three sentences? Uh uh.

Maggie Shipstead reminisces with fondness and satiric wit about the cultural contradictions of Orange County, where she spent her childhood, and notes the importance of letting time pass before writing about raw subjects:

Nominally Episcopalian, my high school, like much of Orange County, was overrun by a vocal crowd of Evangelicals. My calculus teacher got up at a senior banquet and told the class of 2001 that he might not witness the apocalypse, but we certainly would. We would see the rivers of blood and the gold-crowned locusts with faces of men and the Whore of Babylon and everything. Girls wore rings symbolic of promises to remain virgins until they married. Students were encouraged to leave Post-It notes to God in the chapel. Intolerance was tolerated. Conspicuous consumption was exalted. No one could be bothered to recycle. As a smug adolescent agnostic, I found these beliefs and practices both laughable and infuriating. So I left.

Orange County followed. Orange County, right around when I went to college, was suddenly everywhere: in the movie Orange County, the TV series The O.C. and Arrested Development, the reality series Laguna Beach, and so on. The flurry of interest still hasn’t entirely died down. Surely the gold-crowned locusts with faces of men must now be upon us because we have witnessed the Bravo reality series The Real Housewives of Orange County, which, coincidentally, takes place in the very same gated community where I grew up. The series is a useful Exhibit A when I’m describing my teens because it showcases the oblivious, self-righteous decadence that kept me in high dudgeon during those years. Just watch one episode, I say. You’ll see. Recently, while passing through my old stomping grounds, I saw the O.C. distilled to its purest form: an enormous black Hummer H2 weaving in and out of traffic on the northbound 405 with the license plate “4BLSSD1.”…

…As far as the craft of writing, all my blathering about my hometown and high school boils down to this: don’t write angry. Sleep on it for a few years or a few decades. If you’re writing about someone or somewhere only to prove how silly and despicable that person or place is, your written world will have the flatness that comes from small-heartedness. A story should not be a means of carrying out a vendetta, but perhaps a story might be a way to lay one to rest.

Finally, the widely published fiction writer and essayist Thomas E. Kennedy insists that “A Writer is Someone Who Writes”:

Of all the rewards you get or do not get as a writer, the single most important reward must be the act of writing itself. Surely every serious writer has experienced this reward when she or he is working at top end—when you are in perfect harmony with the place your words come from, the place where your stories are waiting to be told. I do not want to seem mystical about this, but in my experience that is a sacred place, and entering it is the closest thing I know to a spiritual discipline. No reward—money, fame, publication—is greater than the privilege of gaining entry to that place.

Finally, and closely connected with that, a word about the words. Henry Miller once said that if you don’t listen when the Muse sings, you get excommunicated. The fastest way to a writer’s block is to be super-critical of the words that are offered up from whatever part of our mind, soul or body that the words are offered up from. A writer has an impulse to write something but generally, in my experience, does not know what he or she is going to say until it is said. To berate and reject the words that are being offered up to you even as they are being offered up is to insult that in you which is most important to you as a writer, that place where the spirit becomes word and takes form.

On that topic, a personal observation: I’ve been to the marvelous AWP literary conference three times now (2004, 2008, 2009), and amid all the panels about what to write, how to revise, where to get published, how to get a job, etc., etc., I remember wishing that more people would talk about why we write. Or, perhaps even more important, why we don’t write. What sustains or interferes with our keeping the faith? What is the purpose of writing?

That moment of “perfect harmony” Kennedy talks about is pleasurable, but chasing it is a recipe for despair. I used to get confused by the search for that high, thinking that if I wasn’t feeling it, the writing wasn’t good. Plus, for me, I don’t think it comes from writing per se, but from what I’m writing about. Writing is like dreaming, and some dreams are better for you than others. I abandoned one of my novels-in-progress last year because it couldn’t rise above what Shipstead calls “the flatness that comes from small-heartedness”. Whatever its literary merits (and excerpts from it had won several prizes), it felt like a spiritual dead end.

As for my other novel-in-progress, my characters and I have moved out of the manic-depressive romance phase and into something like a steady marriage, and one benefit of that commitment is that I don’t ask “why write?” as often as I used to. I write because I love them, and I’m learning to love the parts of myself they come from. But I’d still like to hear how other writers resolve doubts about their vocation.