Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Natasha Oliver on Blogging and Soul's Road

I might as well be honest. I'm not very good with blogs. Actually, I suck at them. They remind me of diaries, only digital, and purposely impersonal. (I suck at diaries too.) I find that most blogs have nothing to say, or at least nothing to say that interests me. Out of hundreds of posts, I usually find one that's relevant or at minimum, mildly entertaining.

Oh, I've tried blogging. I've had about two or three blogs in the last five years. There was the current events response blog, but that got old really quickly. (I didn't realize just how repetitive the news was until I started to blog about it. It's ridiculous how many Ethic Committee senators sleep with prostitutes or have long-standing affairs and hidden families. And every time I turn around, someone is blowing someone else up, another someone is using children on the front lines to further his agenda, and my favorite: "American Idol is the number one TV show across America! Join us at 9, live, to find out why.")

Then there was the blog about my novel's characters. That was fun, but... pointless if I'm honest. I mean, no one read it--why would they, my novel was a work-in-progress, and let's face it, I'm still a nobody in the writing world.

And finally there was the blog about my pregnancy. I get the chills just thinking about it.

I've followed countless blogs. Mostly literary agents who have a knack for making you think that if you just follow their blog, you'll somehow one-up the competition. The truth of the matter is, they're marketing themselves, and we writers fall for it every time. I mean, if I spend my days reading these blogs, when will I have the time to actually write anything? My experience with agents' blogs is that the only thing you'll find useful in them (that you can't find on the net at-large) is how many aspiring authors they've rejected in a given week. Because they admit their work is temperamental and, in addition to good writing, luck has a huge part to play. (Being previously published and/or having a contact doesn't hurt either.)

So, when I found out that we (Soul's Road) were doing a blog, I cringed--just a little. Luckily, Icess (writingtoinsanity) gave us a prompt to follow to help "non-bloggers" like me find something to write about.

Tax Collector

My short story, "Tax Collector" is about two people who are simply going through the motions of life, trying to make it as least painful as possible. It was inspired by reading a lot of Raymond Carver. His stories felt as if they would go absolutely nowhere (almost a circular feeling to them), but you enjoyed them nonetheless because the characters were real. That's where I decided to start: characters.

Alba came to me pretty quickly. I couldn't pin down her personality at first, so I decided to give them all to her. She doesn't have multiple personality disorder, she is just following her instincts and "trying on" new personalities when she grows tired of the old ones.

Mort and I had a different kind of relationship. We didn't "hit it off" right away. I knew he was older, but it took a while for me to "settle" into him. He was from a different generation, the generation where his parents went through segregated schooling, and so he grew up not trusting "the man", but "the man" was the only employer that Blacks could readily find. I wanted to show that bit of history that was at odds with itself, but not dwell on it.

I knew early on that I was going to poke at the "lack of" separation of church and state, and given that Alba and Mort are atheist and agnostic, respectively, I knew I needed a balance. Catherine (with a "C") was the character I wanted to use to make fun of religion, and so I needed her to go "jihad" on the secular world, and the more I wrote her, the more she took form.

All my characters have a screw loose, and I like them that way. My comfort zone is fantasy or sci fi, and so I pushed myself to stay within the realm of reality (*cough*) and focused on the characters and less on the world around them.

I think what the authors of Soul's Road have done is amazing. I've had the privilege of reading all the stories, and I'm honored to have mine be among them.

Deborah Staley on Soul's Road

When Cody Luff invited me to be a part of Soul's Road, then untitled, I was so honored. Also invited were a number of amazing writers I admire who had all been through the Goddard MFA in Creative Writing Program. I really wanted to be involved, but my challenge was the fact that I was still a student and in my final semester at Goddard. I had a huge amount of work to do to finish and graduate on time. If Cody had not been so generous to work with me on deadlines, I could not have done it.

My contribution to Soul's Road is titled "That Girl." This story is a bit of a departure for me. I am multi-published in novel-length romance and romantic short stories. That said, I had been wanting to write something different. Something "literary" just to see if I could. "That Girl" is creative non-fiction/memoir. It's about a young girl who struggles through illness as a child and then depression as an adult. When I wrote this story, it felt like I was laying my soul bare. It was painful, and I shed more than a few tears. I thought more than once that I couldn't finish the story. I even considered pulling out of the project because I just didn't know if I could publish this story--if I ever finished it. But deep down, I knew that finishing this story was important for me, and that maybe it just might be important for someone out there who may read it. I stayed with this story and finished it to offer readers hope. I am a firm believer that determination and perseverance are key ingredients for fulfilling your purpose in life. In doing so, you might just accomplish something extraordinary despite the struggles and trials. 

Writing allows my soul sing through the darkness of depression. Share your thoughts and advice on the blog today about what makes your soul sing through adversity.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Where Do the Ideas Come From?

I’ve written from dreams and from nightmares.  I’ve been inspired by books and newspapers and images.  Sometimes stories come from nowhere at all.  Writing from life is most complicated for me.  I know infinitely more than I can convey about the characters in my life, the myriad of threads don’t always distill well into themes, and sometimes I am too deep inside of my life to see the story clearly.  I suppose that’s why when it comes to writing, I’ve had the most success taking bits of real life, blending them with imagination, and turning them into fiction. 

My novella, Murmurs of the River, is the story of Magda in Post-Cold War Poland as she searches for the truth about what happened to her mother after her arrest by the secret police.  When giving this elevator pitch about Murmurs of the River, people always want to know where the story came from.  Am I Polish?  Was my mother arrested?  No and no.  But I am the same age as Magda and I lived in Poland during 1994 and 1995, the time the book is set.  In some ways I have a unique perspective on Poland because (despite some great friends) I was an outsider there.  This enabled me to write the grocery store scene you can read at, but I didn’t grow up in Poland and don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about being Polish.   

Regarding the truth of Murmurs of the River—I hope people who recognize pieces of themselves are flattered.  The picture above is of my real skater friends, but the novella is not a memoir and I don’t want it to be one.  As a reader, I always want the story I’m reading to be true.  I find myself Googling characters looking for more details, but ultimately, I don’t want these stories to be factual because it is the perfection of the books that makes the characters seem true and real.  Outside that world, they would be someone else and part of the story I so loved would be lost.  Our time is preoccupied with truth in memoir when perhaps we should be talking about facts.  We all know the examples and I won’t rehash them here.  What I will say is that the best I can hope for is in changing the facts in their memoirs, those writers were trying to speak to the greater truth of their stories.

I cannot tell the story of the Polish experience, it is not mine to tell, but I can tell the story of my fictional character as well as possible and maybe even get close to the truth.  I can only hope Murmurs of the River (and the selection that appears in Soul’s Road) will pique your curiosity enough about Poland and the Post-Cold War era to ask questions and to want to learn more.  I can hope the book will make you less lonely or inspire you to reach out to someone in need.  I can hope you will spend an afternoon simply enjoying the writing I’ve put years into.

Stories come from wherever they damned well please.  As a storyteller, I consider myself lucky to grasp whatever ethereal bits I can before they evaporate and use them to seek out the truth of human experience using whatever details I have to create.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


The writers represented in this collection are all different. The fact that we are all traveling down “Soul’s Road” should in no way imply that we have lots in common beyond our need to journey down it. World views, perception of character, use of language and differing rhythms define us and vary as much as one might expect in any given population. A Goddard College dining table might host a Special Forces vet, a Tarot card reader, a Christmas tree farmer, a Hollywood screenwriter, a dancer, and an enraged poet. Writers all with souls in search of their roads, but as different as different can be. I suspect this never occurred to our dedicated, generous and gifted editor Cody Luff when he agreed to forego publishing in this collection his own profoundly beautiful writing in favor of acting as our editor. His input has been enormously helpful but has come, I suspect, between bouts of having to deal with all these differences and the varied, strongly held opinions they generate in the form of well-crafted missives from cantankerous artists. So as the book comes together and we near publication, as we gaze at the finally approved cover art and at our own work that has so benefited from Cody’s touch, I want to take a moment to express our gratitude, to celebrate and thank him for his extraordinary kindness, talent and effort on our behalf. It has been a wonderful journey.

On Characters---Cody Luff

I once was asked how a writer builds a character. The word “build” threw me. I had never considered my characters to be constructed. It’s a great image. Boards and nails, a mad inventor charging the latest invention with strange energies. The truth is, most of my characters have very little to do with my conscious thought. I don’t build them. I don’t even know they exist until they ambush me.

One of my favorite characters came from a photograph. An old photo, curled edges, dated in blue pen on the reverse. The color was washed away, time making shadows sepia. The photo was of my father, smiling, rifle in hand. A barbed wire fence ran behind, slanting away into sage and sand. I kept seeing a man there, not my father, not a relation but an old rancher, one hand holding the fence taut. How do you see someone that isn’t in the photo? Good question. I’m not sure I can answer that but I’ll give it a try.

A good character shows up like a surprise visit from distant relatives. It’s not easy at first, you  have to share everything with that character. They follow you into the bathroom, stand behind you in the shower and frequently take up most of the couch. They talk too. All the time. They tell you their story, every piece of minutia, every nuance and annoyance. When you try to ask questions, they ignore you; when you try to argue, they pout or hide or worse still, they leave. It sounds like a process that could be cured with some medication or a drive through at the local psych office. But it isn’t so simple. Writers live that way, listening, recording, remembering. When characters show up, we know we have something and when they leave, we beg for them to come back.

Lowe, my old rancher, had a story to tell me about his brother, newly returned from Vietnam. Lowe’s brother sends for his daughter, a half Vietnamese girl who is now consigned to life in rural Montana in the early 70s. It wasn’t a happy story but Lowe needed to tell it and I needed to write it for him. So why did Lowe show up in the photo? I suppose we could say it was something subconscious, a memory or a dream. I also suppose we could step into the metaphysical and say it has something to do with channeling or ESP. I don’t know. I don’t know and that is fine with me. I like finding characters waiting for me in grocery stores or in coffee shops. I like listening to their stories and more importantly, I like writing these stories down. Don’t get me wrong, I argue frequently with my characters. I tell them what to do, kick them around, I’ve even tried to kill a few off but they don’t pay much attention to me. The story happens and I get to be there. Maybe in some way I do build my characters. Maybe I build them in that quiet spot in my mind, that spot that comes alive when I am driving or reading or listening to good music. Maybe they come to me pre-assembled, fresh out of some unknown package, read for their close up. I’m not sure and really, I am happy because of it. I like the surprise. I like the chance at a surprise encounter with a trucker addicted to pinball or a teenage prostitute who has discovered she is a faith healer. After all, the surprise is what keeps the reader, reading and the writer, writing. So if you see someone in a photograph that you know isn’t there, it’s probably because you’re a writer. If they tell you their story, listen. If they tell you to burn down the orphanage---well, I recommend skipping that part and going for an amber pill bottle with an expensive label.

Friday, June 24, 2011

John Schimmel on Soul's Road

The photograph is of the road and parade ground that runs down the middle of Washington State's Fort Worden, the west coast campus of Goddard College's low residency MFA Creative Writing program.   Behind the camera is the row of pre-WWI officers' houses students live in during the residencies.  That road was sort of the Soul's Road for me.  There was the city bus that passed by in a strange near-silence that always put me in mind of the train that ran through the water in the film SPIRITED AWAY.  A totally apt reminder since I always thought Fort Worden was probably haunted and certainly some sort of a spiritual nexus. For my second residency I had a room with a view of the Admiralty Inlet and a fireplace.  I developed a routine that lasted for the rest of my residencies:  I would get up early, make my own breakfast and bring it to my room, write for an hour, spend the day at workshops and master classes and readings and in the commune of writers in the "Servery," then come back for a cup of tea and a fire and another hour of writing.  There was something about traveling back and forth across that road and then the parade ground that had about it a Hogwarts air, like we were traversing some great divide into a magical world to learn to be wizards and draw out our own souls for examination and, on good days, healing.