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Q and A

Dec 07, 2017; ew.org Asks:

i smell bad...

Dec 07, 2017; vlad Asks:

Have you ever read Story of the Eye? Some really wild stuff goes down in that one, let me tell you. Really off the chain. It kind of reminded me of your writing, only much less realistic. Anyways, I've realized that you haven't been answering questions here that often anymore, and I really hope you return soon. We miss you!

Oct 16, 2017; jazyln Asks:

what is the story tiffany by stacey richter talking about.?

Sep 21, 2017; Gloria C. Asks:

Dear Stacey, I am so sorry to hear about your chronic pain. That must make even everyday stuff challenging. They say that when early humans started walking upright, many of these types of physical problems began (back pain, knee pain, etc.), which you probably know from your interest in cavemen. What do you think is the correlation between being a good writer and a good writing teacher? Can someone who’s just an OK writer be a good writing teacher, or can a great writer be a mediocre teacher? I read that Donald Barthelme never questioned anyone’s storyline, but focused on line editing their language to get that just right, which I thought was interesting.

Sep 05, 2017; titanci Asks:

Your link for the reading of The Minimalist isn't working, just thought I'd let you know. :(

Aug 29, 2017; Michael Henry Asks:

Hi Stacey. How are you? As always, your wisdom and encouragement means so much to me. I will have more to say about dating and my social life in October or December. I am going to follow your tips and recommendations. Here I have a series of questions and problems about writing creative nonfiction, especially the essay. My questions pertain to specific aspects of crafting personal essays. Things I've come up against. I've organized and segmented my post. Genre There is a through line running through works of fiction - be it a play, novel, TV show. A character who yearns, wants, desires. Perfect. Poetry is defined by sound and silence, density and intensity, metaphor and form. The white space means just as much as the text. I like what Janet Burroway says, Poetry is memorable speech. I like this definition. That's our plot of land. No one can take that away from us. That leaves us with Literary or Creative Nonfiction. What is our definition of the genre? What is our plot of land? I like what Dinty Moore says, "Writing the personal essay is like chasing mental rabbits." All good. But you realize you have to enact this on the page. This is probably as helpful as saying show don't tell or raise the stakes. Slogans. In the end, you're always left with the logistics of the work. Point A to B. What is going to appeal to readers and editors? In fiction, characterization, conflict and stakes are pleasurable. But excavating those in an essay doesn't come readily or naturally. As a genre, the personal essay branches out in many directions. Autobiographical meditation, nature science regional eco writing, lit crit, travel and mores, humor, food. If you look across the Atlantic, the tradition of the speculative and philosophical essay owing a lot to Nietzsche. And there are the physician's or scientist's turned essayist: Lewis Thomas, Richard Selzer, Stephen Jay Gould, F Gonzalez-Crussi, Oliver Sacks. Look at the entry The Essay in America in the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. Anything Goes. Where do we start? How do we start? Even an outline doesn't present itself clearly, cleanly. An essay doesn't have the same moving parts as a novel or script - plot points, beats, structure. We consider the journey and change of the characters. There will be a pattern of discovery and decision, connection and disconnection. A pattern of change. An essay is challenging because the conflict and change aren't apparent. Scene construction I'm having trouble writing about myself, my life and memories. I avoid writing about what's close to me. I've never really even tried or come close to writing about my family, personal life, memories. You know I like writing summaries and brainstorming plots. I go cold. How can we avoid the cold? You don't have the neat plot to fall back on in an essay. How do you retrieve memories? How do you write about the past? It might be helpful to step back. How do we start from scratch. How to develop from an image, idea, point, memory, question. The development of an essay is different than a short story. You have to elevate the material. How do you tap into feeling and emotion in your writing? When I'm drafting, a lot of the writing just reads like a journaling. It ends up sweeping, broad, general, vague. Navel gazing If you're not a well-known personality and especially if you're writing a personal essay, then you have to ask yourself how are you going to engage readers? You can write an essay about an illness, a wedding, a date, a restaurant, the history of main street. But you still have to address the question of why we ought to care. Very early on you have to ask how is your essay going to stand out? Fiction can be a screen or buffer between the writer and their surroundings, circumstances, relationships. You have to go deep. That's the most challenging aspect of creative nonfiction. What the writer ought to worry about is: What do I want to say? And how am I going to say it? I've come to believe the how is just as important as the what. How can we avoid “navel gazing” in a personal essay?

Jul 24, 2017; Gloria C. Asks:

Dear Stacey, I am a huge, huge fan of your work! Somewhere you said you don't particularly enjoy teaching. Does that include one-week workshops, like at writing festivals, which don't involve a long-term commitment to daily preparation and onerous grading of lengthy student papers? (amateur short story writer here.) Also, what will you be working on next?

Stacey answers:

Thanks Gloria! Yeah, that's not going to happen. I have chronic back pain, which makes traveling difficult. In fact, it makes everything difficult, so I tend to avoid...I don't know....most things? Yeah, what will I be working on next? Good question.

Jul 16, 2017; hot wet trash Asks:

Hi Stacey,

I'm going to abuse the Q&A format by not asking any direct questions and just kind of saying a lot of things I really want to say about "My Date with Satan" in a stream of consciousness manner. I guess I don't have justifiable reason to say them to the author as opposed to some English professor in an actual essay, but fuck it, I'm going to anyway. Of course I would absolutely love to hear any thoughts you have.

I guess I just want to start by saying your story "My Date with Satan" is really precious to me. It's so knowing and well crafted, with all the warm little details like "pert Liza Minelli eyes" and "vaguely dramatic boy." A few posts below below you said you were going for fairy dust, and I think you really managed to. I'll say this at least, it's on a short list of fiction that silences the obnoxious critical voice in my head.

The first time I read it- for a short fiction class by the way- I was just kind of charmed and blown away, and in particular PipiLngstck joined a running mental list of characters, pretty much always female, fitting a certain archetype. This archetype styles herself idiosyncratically.She is nurturing at the level of personality but never at the level of character. She doesn't take anything too seriously and yet manages to be principled, even industrious at times. She's self-possessed, but paradoxically she' missing something basic about being a person, some emotional core perhaps. There's some aching and some awkwardness in reconciling her apparent "completeness" as a person with this missing thing, especially in the context of relationships with men. It goes without saying that she's very smart.

Others characters fitting this archetype include Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless, Summer from 500 Days of Summer, Sasha from A Visit from the Goon Squad and, strangely enough, my TA for intro to ethics last quarter. So basically characters that are often uncharitably labeled manic pixie dreamgirls. (The only true manic pixie dreamgirl imho is Natalie Portman's character in garden state.) PipiLngstck, Clementine and Summer all face the same sort of external conflict of having to brush off men that fixate on them for superficial reasons, i.e. for the aforementioned illusion of completeness. Clementine says it beautifully: “Joel, I'm not a concept. I want you to just keep that in your head. Too many guys think I'm a concept or I complete them or I'm going to make them alive, but I'm just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don't assign me yours.” (I guess this is actually a bit at odds with PipiLngstck, because even though they have the same attitude and behavior towards men, they identify opposite problems: Clementine doesn’t want to be made a concept while PipiLngstck doesn’t want to be forced to be a “real girl.” Somehow it feels like they’re dealing with the same problem though).

What’s funny for me is I can’t figure out if I’m more like these women or the men pursuing them. I mean I’m male, but I’m also gay. I guess the sensible answer is that I’m neither. The best answer is probably that I’m like Charlie Kaufman (writer of Eternal Sunshine)- fascinated by such women in that obnoxiously reverent way, but maybe more sensitive and comprehending than other men (if I may flatter myself). Honestly it’s a stupid question to begin with. This is a good place to interject and say sorry if I’ve said anything presumptuous or sexist, or even anything that rubbed you the wrong way.

What I really want to talk about is that bit I mentioned about missing an emotional core. I just read “My Date with Satan” for the fourth or fifth time, and while it was just kind of funny and thrilling the first time I read it, now I’m seeing the thematic consistency throughout the story. At the center of it is PipiLngstck’s grasping for some emotional purity. The paragraph beginning with “I just wanted to look wholesome” really gave me pause. I certainly dress as out there as PipiLngstck but I think something similar informs my style choices: I wear argyle sweaters, corduroy, felt ties, thick woolen socks (which they only seem to make for women…) and I honest-to-god have a pair of buster brown shoes. It’s definitely about a sense of coziness and love for me, and about being the kind of soft boy that’s capable of being affectionate in a way that I so rarely am. I don’t know. I’m not going to even bother to try and turn that into a coherent or relevant statement. Anyway I guess the last thing I want to say is I’ve recently become convinced that I have low grade autism and that part where Ivy eviscerates Kitty (“We think she's looking for their feelings. People with her disorder have trouble with emotions.”). That honestly made me tear up this last time I read it.

Anyway, if you got this far, thanks for indulging me.

Stacey answers:

That makes sense to me. I think I would really love your outfits.

Apr 14, 2017; Michael Henry Asks:

Hi Stacey, two parts here: a response/continuation of our last correspondence and a question about how to write endings.

You are right about me being verbose. I could easily cut my post from October in half, leaving the points and questions intact. There is a great deal I was leaving out in the post about the escort. I didn’t write about the music she asked me to play, my bedroom, the three condoms we went through. I did leave out something that's pertinent. I said that I had a very minor panic attack. Yes. But that wasn't the first time I had a physical reaction like that. I have experienced a number of occasions when I've felt out of breath, very upset, on the verge of sobbing, a slight tightening. Overall moody, foggy. I don't want to be overdramatic. These are just feelings that snuck up on me. It isn't because of health problems.

I have conflicting feelings about the massage parlor service and I visited the website. I’ve thought I should try online dating instead. I would rather go on one date then get forty handjobs. I'd be able to have a conversation. A big piece of me has no desire to ever visit a massage parlor or see another escort. I would much rather be in a relationship. But look at me. I can't carry on a conversation. I cannot explain or understand this because it is incredibly irrational and childish.

Here’s an example. I work out at a gym that's close to where I live. As is typical of most gyms, there are a number of individuals that frequent the place. One is a women close my age. One day she came up to me and told me I looked good and she had noticed I had lost weight. I have lost weight over the past two years although not as much recently. This is mostly due to not taking prednisone.Honestly when she started to talk, I didn't know what to say or do. She was genuinely nice. So I said thank you, mumbling, and we parted ways. Everytime I see her, and I see her a lot, I just nod. I think about how much I'd love to just say something. And I'm certain she has a boyfriend so it wouldn't even be flirting but I can't do it.

I don't suffer from anxiety or shyness. If you asked me to give a speech in front of thousands, I'd have no hesitation about doing it. And I even enjoy public speaking, especially if I had time to prepare. Rejection just isn’t a fear or cause of anxiety. I hope to send short stories to journals, online venues, contests. And if the pieces were rejected a hundred times, I wouldn't flinch. But I cannot stand the thought of asking a girl out and being rejected. Just the thought though of starting a conversation is bad enough, let alone the dating aspect. How to explain this? I welcome rejection when it comes writing but not relationships. It's as if I've built up this inability to communicate, flirt, chat.

I also invent stories when I watch porn. I fill in the backstory and the situation of what’s going on in the scene. I really respond to porn when there is a narrative and the girls talk. Straight porn is a real turnoff for me. It’s disgusting, degrading, dehumanizing. I will only watch straight porn if it's the girl dancing or stripping by herself, usually before the intercourse at the beginning. The porn that works for me are girls by themselves or lesbians. I actually love the interaction at the beginning of the scene more than the two girls having sex. I would rather watch gay porn between two men than straight porn, especially if the two guys like each other.

My writing question. How can we write great endings? How do you know where and when to end a piece? You could say the purpose of writing a novel or short story is to write a great ending, to create this world so you can deliver a payload. A lot of writing books say if you are having a hard time composing the end, the problem might be in the opening. How you start shapes and influences how you end. But there could be problems in the middle because you’re building momentum, conflict, stakes. You may have failed to establish a crisis. I don’t feel this way, although I won’t go into detail because I would much rather hear about what you have to say about this topic.

How can we improve our endings? Do you know the ending before you write a story? I don’t believe you’ve addressed these questions before. Do you have any suggestions? Exercises? Best practices? Endings can be difficult, tricky creatures. This is a topic that is woefully neglected. Especially compared to the number of creative writing books out there about beginnings. I do believe endings should aim for the heart.

Stacey answers:

Here’s the best new piece of advice I can give for endings: only write one. It’s tempting to keep ending and ending and ending, and it’s a common problem in first books. I’m talking about codas and where-are-they-nows and summing ups and what-it-all-means, delivered over and over in a summing-up tone. (Lab Girl is a recent book that just keeps ending; to a lesser extent, so is Lincoln in the Bardo, though I loved that so much that I didn’t mind). Multiple endings take away the power of one. One is better.

Girls: being with people is difficult for you, so don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s scary for all men to talk to women they don’t know; for men, the fear of humiliation is stronger than the fear of death, or so I’ve read. But please don’t worry about panic or anxiety. This is a normal part of life that no one wants to talk about but is always going on, like being gassy. In any given place, at least one person is having a panic attack, or is on the verge of one, or is medicated out of one for the moment, I guarantee it. When it happens to you it sucks, but it sucks more if you have the illusion that it’s somehow abnormal or avoidable or unusual.

Practice: I don’t know if socializing will ever be easy for you, but I think you’d do better in general—and that your writing would probably be better—if you practiced socializing in a low-stress setting. I bet it would be great for you to interact with non-threatening (i.e. old) women, before you try internet dating and the like. I know you don’t want to but it’s easier than asking someone out, right? Why not join a parks and rec class or a library class in knitting or mah jong or bridge or scrapbooking or crochet—whatever, of these old lady choices, is the least painful to you? You will probably be the only guy. All you have to do is go and keep going. Try to talk to the ladies. Think of it as low-cost conversation practice. If they ask why you’re there, say you want to learn to knit and you want to practice socializing. They’ll get it and they’ll be proud of you. (I bet you think I’m wrong—try it and see.) Do a little homework. Google “good conversation starters.” And listen. Listen. Practice listening. Go back and forth, talking and listening. I worry, sometimes, that you might be more about output than input. But it’s harder to be anxious when you’re focused on what another person is saying. And, as Dale Carnegie pointed out, people love to be listened to.

Apr 12, 2017; Ashley Asks:

Hi Stacey, I am attending the University of Idaho and am currently taking a course on short fiction. As an assignment, we have been separated into different groups/panels, and I've been assigned to the fabulism panel. I am in charge of talking about your story The Cavemen in the Hedges and I am curious about your thoughts on fabulism (if you have any)... Pardon the broad question, but I am a little out of my element. I am in the process of obtaining my MFA in studio art, but I am taking this class as an elective with the intent that it will help me with my thesis as I delve more into narrative-ish territory... While researching your work, I haven't been able to find much supporting text. I did find something about id/superego/ego... I am curious - did you intend for these themes to come through in this story? I really enjoyed reading this story. I was just reading one of your interviews and you had mentioned that you loved to be surprised and that you love funniness and sorry to be quoting but, "I’m also interested in consciousness and how people explain themselves to themselves—often falsely—which is something that naturally evolves for me out of the first person. A lot of people are good self-deceptors, and I’m fascinated by that." - I really admire these qualities. It's within the range of what I am aiming for in my own body of work. I don't know if your much into visual arts, but here's a link to my website and what I am in the process of working on, www.ashraevaughn.com I really enjoy finding inspiration in creative practices outside of the visual field and I look forward to reading more of your writing. Thanks for your time!

Stacey answers:

Nice work! I like your multiple-hand crochet, and those great paintings! So my thoughts on fabulism involved first looking up “fabulism.” This is what I found: “A form of magic realism in which fantastical elements are placed into an everyday setting.” Wow. That is one dank tautology. Okay, so García Márquez was first author to be described as a “magical realist.” He hit upon his amazingly wonderful style when he began to combine his journalistic chops (he was a newspaperman) with the twists of folk tales (the legacy of his grandmother)—relaying all of this in one, matter-of-fact tone. This was in 1967, by the way, and though it was long before books like Like Water for Elephants and The Night Circus, it was well after the 1922 publication of “A Hunger Artist” by Kafka (a newspaper-like account of a starving artist in a cage); and “The Swimmer,” John Cheever’s 1964 crumbling-realism story of man swimming through his neighborhood; and "Funes the Memorious" by Borges, a factual-seeming account of a man who remembers everything. So it wasn’t new. It was just—I don’t know…surprising? Foreign? En Español? I agree that García Márquez is a great writer and a force to be reckoned with, and his work was probably even formidable enough to deserve it’s own adjective. I just don’t think that’s the same as creating a new genre.

However, I do think that “a form of magic realism in which fantastical elements are placed into an everyday setting” sounds nice. I like stuff like that. I like surprising, apt metaphors that carry some of the force of dreams. I like unpredictability. I like elements of abstraction and exaggeration and interesting perspectives—in visual art, that would be pretty much everything from the 20th century on, right? But as a category, it makes me nervous. Somehow I feel like they’re going to shove a lot of women into it and print a lot of books with all-lowercase letters on the spine and yellow splashes of color! on the cover. That maybe someone out there is trying to take another perfectly worthy subject matter or form or story and turn it into an intellectually drained category of little-lady-fiction, regardless of quality, which is what happened with chick lit. With the birth of the category of chick lit, it was as though love were suddenly a baby bunny of a subject instead of the primary concern of Shakespeare, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and life, and calling something chick lit became a way to discount books by women and to exclude men from their readership. I worry that fabulism is poised to take over another category of human experience—fancifulness, delight, whimsy—and turn it into another ghetto for work by women. Ugh. I’m so sick of men being the only ones who get to say what human life is. Wait, what was the question?

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