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Q and A

Aug 26, 2008; Ellie Fonte Asks:

So - what are you reading lately that's good?

Stacey answers:

I'm reading The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, and I'm reading them twice, because I have two translations and I'm reading each, which is driving me crazy. Why am I doing this? Good question. At first I was bothered by one translation but now I'm bothered by both. The stories are weird and great and almost unbelievably violent, especially considering when they were written. I'm not going to recommend them exactly, because I don't quite understand them. I can't tell to what extent Babel was condemning violence, and to what extent he was celebrating it--like the Quentin Tarantino of his day. Maybe I'm just going to have to learn Russian.

But recently I read a couple of great Jim Shepard collections: Like You'd Understand Anyway and Love and Hydrogen. They're awesome, I loved them--they're strange and funny and addictive. They're sort of like boys adventure stories written by an extremely sensitive person. Those are really good.

Aug 07, 2008; V.L.L. Asks:

Okay...sooo what if there's this 6'2" muscley, piercing-eyed, sir-Lancelot-jawed Republican who pretty much looks like Jack from LOST, only better. And he most CERTAINLY makes your knees weak...buuuuut....he may be a lying, psycho cokehead who hates himself and his tiny, tiny penis. What then, Stacey Richter? What then? Oh yea...and I mean from a WRITERLY standpoint. Not a "moral" or "logical" or "responsible" standpoint.

Stacey answers:

Obviously you're destined to use him up then throw him out. As a writer, I advise you to jot down a few notes about the experience and, as always, to avoid tattoos with proper names.

Jul 30, 2008; My Name Asks:

What do you think about therapy, in general?

Stacey answers:

I think it can help with the craziness within, sometimes a lot, and is therefore a worthy endeavor. I sort of wish someone had told me a few things about therapy before I had therapy so I'll just take this chance to tell you, MN: real therapy, good therapy, can help you figure out how to deal with major shit in a clearer way, and it can help make you more of who you are, but unless you're a happy person to begin with, it won't make you happy. I don't know how I got this idea, but when I first went to therapy I thought it would turn me into some sort of cheerful, high-powered, baby-producing executive lady in a smart suit who loved small talk, precious moments, bridesmaid dresses, and meetings. That's how fucked up I was--I thought it would make me into a robot. Now I know I am destined to be morose, bitter, bossy and lazy, but I no longer date junkies and befriend psychopaths, and I don't even want to.

And another thing, I think it matters who your therapist is, a lot, because it's basically an art. Ideally, it would be someone you can talk to openly (I'm a big advocate of telling one's therapist that their outfit/office/hairstyle gives you the creeps), who you suspect might be smarter than you, who doesn't talk more than you do during an appointment, who you feel an emotional connection with, who doesn't act like a friend or your mother. I think it's worth it to check out a few people first to see which one seems like the best.

I think you probably know if you need therapy or not, but if for some reason you're not sure, or if you can't afford it, there are other routes to self-knowledge. I love the discussion in Julie Hecht's book Was This Man a Genius? about how Transcendental Meditation changed Andy Kaufman from a strange, angry eccentric into a brilliant comedian. But he had to sit and chant his mantra for an hour a day. Still--Andy Kaufman!

Jul 27, 2008; very liberal lady Asks:

Should I bother trying to date a Republican?

Stacey answers:

Only if you think he's really hot, like he makes your knees weak. Otherwise he'll drive you crazy in a bad way.

Jul 11, 2008; Hong Kong Phooey Asks:

Are you married, ma'am? Just wait and see how perfect it is!

Stacey answers:

Whoa there cowboy...I know who calls me ma'am, and I know you know I'm not married because I know who are you are! And I know you're divorced, so the whole karma thing didn't work out so perfectly now, did it? You know Johnny, I can see how maybe you're not made for monogamy, but I still think you're too nice a person to lie and cheat and set yourself up for heartbreak and drama and all that ickiness. So I hope that the next time around, you meet someone who doesn't care about monogamy or at least will have sex with you all the time. If that doesn't work, someday I'll let you in on a helpful little trick for the sexually frustrated called masturbation. It's easy! And it's free.

Jul 10, 2008; Hong Kong Phooey Asks:

Karma? Please. Keeping sex from a sexually driven person is a form of cruelty. The institution of marriage forces to more sexually driven partner to conform to the wishes of the lesser. Cheating saves the marriage because the partner is no longer frustrated. Karma is a deep concept, my dear. There are layers and layers of cruelty in marriage. You sound like Dr. Laura when you pick a most obvious form of fuckedupness and set down the iron judgement of the self-righteous. Well, when you outlaw drugs, up springs a secret market, likewise when you outlaw sex... I gaurantee the institution of cheating is as old as the institution of marriage. Say, karmically challenged, you wouldn't be living in the Northeast would you?

Stacey answers:

Ha! I don't have a problem with fucking around. There's no one I like more than a slut of any gender. But Phooey, hard as you try, there's no way to twist betrayal into an admirable activity. But why bother? If cheating is ancient, and makes sense, and is such a normal part of human life, then why not tell her what you're up to? You could have an open marriage. Then everyone would be jealous of your avant garde relationship instead of thinking you're an asshole.

Jul 09, 2008; Dan Asks:

Hi Stacey, What do you think makes the difference between a good (competent) story and a great story, either in your own writing or others? Thanks!

Stacey answers:

Surprise or novelty or a spark of originality--sometimes it's just a word choice or two--can make all the difference. I think the stories I love the most seem perfectly right and logical while being idiosyncratic, too.

Jul 02, 2008; Voicefully Challenged Asks:

You rock, Stacey Richter. I know this isn't really a question, but thank you for your totally helpful and thoughtful response. Why are there not more people like you working in universities?

Stacey answers:

Shucks. But I'm sure there are great people working in universities. I think sometimes the problem is that it's not until you're done with school that you finally think of the questions you really wanted to ask.

Jun 28, 2008; Voicefully Challenged Asks:

Do you have any suggestions as to how you can get over your influences? By influences, I mean the former teachers and other writers who you admire. I'd like to deprogram myself, if possible. There are days when I sound like other people and I'd like to just sound like myself. On another note, how do you feel about the interrobang?

Stacey answers:

Hey V.C., Tangled Up in Humbert asked a similar question in May of 2007. You may want to page back and take a look at that. But I'm happy to revisit the question and expand my answer. But I'd better talk about the interrobang first. I like it! I always like it when people invent new grammatical things, or no-gender pronouns (hir!). Invention is neat. But, that said, I only really like to see such things on T-shirts or bumper stickers. If I'm reading something, I would like it to be in standard English. I want to think about what I'm reading, not the little black marks on the page.

Okay, voice. It may help to think of voice as having two aspects: one intuitive and the other rational. The intuitive part is the sound of your sentences (and paragraphs and pages) and it incorporates diction, rhythm, syntax, and punctuation. It’s easy to be infected by the sound of someone else’s sentences—sort of like picking up a Southern accent—and like Southern accents, some writers’ rhythms are more contagious than others. The rational part of voice, on the other hand, is what your sentences (and paragraphs, etc.) are about. While rhythm and word choice flow out of you in the moment and so resist intellectual intervention, you have time between writing sessions to reflect on the kinds of themes and situations and characters that are compelling to you. And you should reflect on this by asking yourself what you feel compelled to write about, and why, and by asking yourself what you think is beautiful in literature (or good or magical or kick-ass). These aren’t always easy questions, and the answers will change over the years, but it’s important to locate your artistic territory because if you don’t, a terrible thing can happen. Every time you read a great book, you might think: Fuck yeah, I want to write a book like that! And so you might read a moving, sexy novel about star-crossed lovers in the desert and it’s so great that you decide you want to write one too—when, in fact, you’re not that into sexy love. It may be that you’re more into alienation, drug addiction, and the inability of people to connect. You might have good reasons for being interested in these things too—maybe you’ve have experience with them, or a family member has, or you’ve just always felt like an outsider—or maybe there’s some other connection that has to do with who you are (rather than who you want to be or hope to be).

Asking yourself these kinds of questions and gaining this kind of self-knowledge can help immensely with voice. Because once you know what kind of ideas, characters, situations, or places you want to write about—even approximately—you are much less likely to sound like someone else. Even if you read Raymond Chandler 24-7, if you’re following your own interests and writing a story about a geeky thirteen year old boy who gets his first taste of popularity at tennis camp, it’s just not going to sound like Raymond Chandler. It’s probably going to sound like you with a sprinkling of Chandler, and you might be happy to have him there. Because there’s nothing wrong with a little infection from another writer, as long as you are you and you are talking about the things that rock your own personal version of the world. So, V.C., find out as much as you can about your artistic territory. Even broad distinctions such as: I like male protagonists, or, I love the third-person, or, I can’t stand irony, or, I hate nature tales, can help you figure out where you want to go. And eventually you’ll corral your ideas into a specific area that feels like yours alone. Mine changes all the time, but the central part goes something like: I want to write about suburbia as though it’s a magical fairyland. And even though I share that territory with other writers, I came to it on my own and if I ever feel infected by them, I don’t mind because it only makes it that much easier. But I rarely feel infected.

While you’re thinking that over, I have some other ideas that may help with the intuitive, sentence-by-sentence aspect of voice. The first is to write a few pages first thing in the morning. Get up, get your beverage, write the pages. It can be a piece you’re working on or a special morning piece or your dreams or whatever comes out. Some people feel more like themselves, less self-critical and/or less influenced by others first thing in the morning. You may have to do this more than once.

Also, write a lot. Like, a shitload, and it helps if you don’t care very much about what you’re writing. I recommend doing Nanowrimo, a sort of marathon-like challenge where you write a 50,000 page novel in a month (that month is November). You can Google them. It’s free. Believe me, it’s difficult to sustain someone else’s rhythms and language day after day. I’ve done it twice. If you finish you will feel like a god.

And here's my quickest fix: try going somewhere where you feel somewhat uncomfortable and write descriptions of the people you see there. For some reason it helps to feel uncomfortable—there’s something about social unease that throws us back into ourselves—I can’t really explain that so I’m not going to. Just describe who you see in whatever terms and associations come to mind. Do it there or take notes and go home and finish. Writers often avoid other people: I think this exercise works because in confronting other people—people who can look at you and see you assessing them—you circumvent the churchy, journally, solitary aspect of writing and establish yourself as a person who lives in society rather than in the vacuum of the page. In society, people talk, they say things, they sound like themselves because who else is there to sound like?

Jun 28, 2008; bitch on wheels, four wheel drive Asks:

Are your stories about women who can't be friends autobiographical? Do you have any really, really old friends? Just wondering, BOWFWD

Stacey answers:

1. Hi Bitch! I wish I had some really, really old friends. I'm always thrilled when I meet little old ladies and wish I could forge some sort of tea-drinking friendship where I go over to their houses, help them move heavy objects, then retire to the closet to examine their collection of handbags from the last 60 years. But sadly, I have a really high, hoarse, tiny, laryngitic voice and most people over the age of 50 can't hear a word I say (high frequencies are the first to go). So it ends up that the really old person just keeps saying what and I keep trying to talk more loudly until my voice is gone and the friendship never gets off the ground.

2. I wouldn't characterize any of my fiction as autobiographical, though like most people I've lost friends, been broken up with, lost track of people I love, found new ones, been disoriented by who has contacted me via Facebook, etc. Those emotional experiences--or anything that has a lot of meaning for me--ends up in what I write because that's the point of writing, in my opinion. If it didn't mean anything, it wouldn't be worth the effort. But the actual events are made up. In fact, I almost never go anywhere or do anything so I'm not generating a lot of autobiographical material at the moment.

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