What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer…
At first glance I read this as Mentos®, a candy with whom, if we’re being completely honest, I have a very complicated relationship – that crunchy exterior, that minty soft interior: savor or chew, savor or chew?? And don’t even get me started about their ad campaigns (exhibit A). I often work in libraries and these sort of Wild Study Breaks of Minty Excess are not really what your average library patron wants to stumble across in the stacks. But it could be that I’m patronizing my library all wrong – it wouldn’t be the first time.
However, after I put my glasses on, I had what is commonly referred to as an “Ah-Ha! Moment” as I realized you’d asked me about Mentors®. In my humble opinion, Mentors® are as important to writers as minty fresh breath is to slatternly library patrons and I’ve been extremely lucky to have both in my life. Though in my case (as well as the cases of millions of others, writers and non-writers alike), even more important than Mentors® have been Employers®, as I quite like being able to afford to feed myself on a semi-regular basis.
Sometimes you’re lucky enough to meet a Mentor® and an Employer® all rolled up into one. For me, that person was Joyce Barlow Dodd, the director of Ohio University’s Spring Literary Festival who hired me on as an assistant during my time as a BA and MA student in OU’s English department. To say that she saved my life would not be hyperbolic as without that job and her many kindnesses to me, I would not have been able to afford tuition, books, food, or rent. And <bonus!> I had the pleasure of meeting an incredible assortment of writers, too numerous to name individually here, but whose works and words shaped a great deal of my thinking as a reader and fledging writer. (Though upon graduation, I promptly quit writing in favor of teaching middle and high school English for the next fifteen years, but that, as they say, is Another Story…)
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?
When I’m stuck or uninspired, what doesn’t help is anything involving a computer screen, though good luck trying to tell my monkey brain that. What does help is a change of scenery, which could be as simple as staring out my window and into the windows of the people who live across from me. Oh my wacky neighbors and their crazy hijinks! But on the days, (many days, now that they’ve caught onto me) when they have their blinds drawn, the best imagination kickstarter I’ve found is to take a long and destination-adverse walk, a.k.a ”wandering without aim.” I am a whiz at aimlessness. Zero navigational skills but great endurance.
Are there favorite writing exercises or prompts which you use regularly & will share?
I am a failure at prompts because of a) my inability to follow simple directions (Imagine you are on a sinking ship. Now describe it!) and b) a pernicious stubborn streak (Sinking?? Fuck that!!), genetic traits that hindered my repeated attempts to get into the Gifted and Talented program at my elementary school, despite my very large IQ (well, to be honest, more like my very large head. My hat size by age 9 was the stuff of myth and legend; my IQ, not so much). But I do scribble a lot of “What If” lists, a.k.a. “Disaster Scenarios and Preparedness Plans. ” If one were to study my stories (as I hope one, say Harold Bloom perhaps?, might), one could trace each plot line back to a very Clear and Present Danger-scenario facing us all. Serial Killers! – check. Mitt Romney! – check. Talking rodents running amok! – check, check, and check. I’ve thought through ‘em all and then some. Lots and lots of thinking, usually in conjunction with aimless wandering.
Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing?
I know what my characters sound like before I know who they are. A line of dialogue, often a malapropism based on something I’ve just misheard or misread, pops into my head, spoken by a particular voice that then works his or her way into fuller being by taking whatever actions in whatever settings where this particular voice might utter this particular thing. If I had a therapist, I suspect she/he might order up a full psych-panel on me re. these voices, but as I can barely afford Mentos® much less mental health services, I instead just write it all down and see where the voices take me and for the most part, it works out.
What’s the best writer’s advice you were ever given?
“Amuse yourself.” At least, I think this was meant to be taken as writer’s advice…it was dark and the details are hazy.
Please talk a bit about the other parts of your creative life… what you love to do and wish to do more of…
I’m currently taking a beginner’s Spanish class, though honestly I would probably be a much better student if I didn’t consider it as part of my “creative life.” I like to approach each Spanish class as if it’s a two-hour casting call for the World’s Greatest Telenovela , but because of my limited (muy limited) proficiency, I am often forced to ad-lib, making up words on the spot to go along with my (él jazz) hand gestures, much to my Spanish teacher’s chagrino. See? Right there. “Chagrino” is not actually Spanish for ‘chagrin.’ Stuff like this drives my teacher loco. Muy muy loco. But I love it, I really do. I think it’s been helpful for me to take a break from English, even if it means sounding like él nutjob. Or especially if it means sounding like él nutjob.
Please talk about the process of writing your collection Julie! anything here you want to say…
I didn’t actually realize that I had a “collection” until Stephen Marlowe at Foxhead Books asked if I would consider submitting a manuscript for their consideration. Up to that point, I just had a box full of “stuff” that some kind editors had seen fit to publish mixed in with “stuff” that other kind editors had seen fit to not-publish. As I did not want to have to explain my box-system to a potential book publisher, I did what any self-respecting writer would do — I bluffed big time and then spent several panicked days trying to compile a “collection” out of “stuff” that rapidly became known to me, and my closest neighbors, as something far less “savory.” What have I gotten myself into? I wailed to the largely indifferent writing gods as I struggled to find a common thread, a thematic link, a plausible order to the chaos contained within The Box. In the end, I selected nineteen stories of various lengths, points of view, and subjects that together told a story of a life. To be clear, it’s not a linked collection (though those are super-popular and if you happen to be working on one, well-played, oh savvy writer!) and the life it tells may only be visible to me. But so it goes. All jokes aside, I’m very happy with the result and overjoyed that Foxhead Books decided to take me on, warts and all.
Anything about your new works, stuff you are currently working on… in your life and/or writing life.
I am working on something longer that I’m probably going to need a bigger box for soon.
What is next for you?
A lot more aimless wandering, I suspect. And as many Mentos® as my budget will allow.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.