Showcased Writer: Coleen Muir

Interview by Gina Warren

Coleen Muir

COLEEN MUIR is finishing up her final semester in the Creative Writing Workshop at University of New Orleans and working on completing a collection of short, lyric essays that center around her family and home. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre and Silk Road Review; her essay nonfiction essay, “Home,” was included in volume 6, issue 2.
Read “Home“.

The Interview

GW: How did you get the idea to write this story? Was it one of the images that hit you, an overarching want to capture the theme that you portray here, or something else entirely?

Coleen Muir: This essay originally wanted to be an essay about the afternoon my father had to take the barn cats to the animal shelter. Yet, as I began trying to write about the situation, I became more and more aware of the context of it – why did he have to get rid of the barn cats? This led me to begin describing the setting, and also created the destitute tone. Loss was a big element of this piece, as was desire. The desire to keep the cats, but also having to rid the barn of them. Desire, pushed up against the idea of loss, becomes the piece’s tension, though I wasn’t conscious of that while writing.

GW: The narrator steps away from being a character in this piece. Why did you choose to pull yourself out of the story?

CM: Rather than choosing to take myself out of the piece, it just never occurred to me to put myself in, at least not as a character. I approached the essay in terms of images, which made me an observer. Of course, I’m there, in the “you” form, as narrator. I appear while walking outside to observe the rain, for example, and while observing the dead bird with my sister. So I guess I’m a behind-the-scenes sort of character, but I don’t give myself a “section.” My primary role, or function, in the piece seemed to be best-suited to that of an observer.

GW: I thought that the use of second person was an interesting stylistic choice, but one made with prowess; the transition to second person was seamless and provided an intimate sense of immediacy. Why did you decide to incorporate this point of view in the way that you did?

CM: I think “you” enables the narrator to speak of a situation she has lived through without focusing on herself in the telling of it. The “I” tends to force a narrator into commenting on the images, or taking a stance, or to be an authority in the piece. Removing myself from the piece eliminates that problem, and hopefully allows the language and imagery to speak for themselves. This essay isn’t about me, but it’s about my family (and countless other families, I imagine) who have experienced “going without.” I think I was interested in creating a landscape, as well as specific images, which spoke to the experience of what it is like living without money, without options. To write this in “I” would have made this an essay about me – my story. I would prefer for readers to flip through the images and interpret what they see without wondering about how to fit my, the narrator’s, story into it.

GW: One of my favorite aspects of Home was the syntax and how it affected pacing in various parts of this narrative. Shorter sentences juxtaposed with longer ones, such as in the first section starting the piece and the ninth section about rain, slows the pace and directs focus. “We find ourselves surrounded by pasture and telephone poles. Leaves. Scraps of metal and strips of lumber piled against make-shift sheds. Everything waits to be put to use.” How did you view the relationship between syntax and pacing when you were writing this piece?

CM: Syntax is probably just as important to me as what I’m writing about. I see the two – syntax and content – as inseparable, really. I want to make striking images, but the only way you can make striking images is by creating striking sentences. So, for me, I look at writing as similar to composing. Listening to the rhythm of each sentence. I often read back through the lines, over and over, motioning my finger along to their rhythms. I also often read poetry before I write, which inspires certain rhythms.

In “Home,” the search for good language helped me discover the essay, in a sense. “Mayflies live just one day, dying to fuck,” has a nice rhythm to it (I feel), but at the same time, speaks to that element of loss and desire. At first, I only had the line, “Mayflies live just one day,” which felt incomplete to me. So, to carry out the rhythm, “dying to fuck,” I was able to incorporate more substance to the sentence and bring it to a deeper level. If I allow myself to search long enough for the right words and rhymes, images and verbs will surface, and sometimes, they lead me in directions I wouldn’t have thought to go.

GW: There is an easy movement of Home as the focus shifts from different images and individuals, such as Mother doing dishes, Father attempting to revive dead cars, Sister smoking cigarettes, the barn cats that cost sixty dollars to spay, and the rain pounding against the roof. How did you structure this flow? Was it a conscious progression of images, or did the piece seem to progress more organically as you were writing it?

CM: Sometimes, when I don’t know how to begin an essay, I begin writing sentences that aren’t connected to each other, but that try to capture an image that I’m interested in exploring. This essay grew out of a series of images I associated with my parents’ home, which started off as a blank page of random sentences, but sentences that spoke to me in such a way that made me want to further explore them. Those sentences led me into writing the small vignettes that create the essay. And since the essay lacks a specific narrative thread – one single story from start to finish – I had to rely on tone and imagery to make the readers invested in this place and these people.

GW: Authors who write creative nonfiction have an incredible ability to push specific themes and tones by the details they select. How did you choose the particular images and details which color Home so fully and specifically?

CM: Like with sentences, I try to linger on images, mentally, before I write them down. For example, I can remember exactly how that black bird looked after it hit the window that day, but, to write about it, I had to go back in my mind to that day, step out the door with my sister, and find myself standing barefoot in the yard, and looking down at the bird before I could recount the its turned head, its legs, feathers, all that. The pebbles surrounding it. I guess finding the right images is a process of meditating on the experience long enough until you find yourself back in it. Once I’m back in the situation – once I feel like I can bend down and literally feel the bird’s slick feathers beneath my fingertips – then I feel confident in rendering the scene. The details will be there, and it is just a matter of choosing which ones I decide to write down.

Tammy Dietz: “Everything I Know I Learned from Shoplifting”

TAMMY DIETZ, nonfiction editor for Silk Road, is a writer, instructor, and instructional designer. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals including Bringing Light to Twilight, a critical examination of the Twilight book series, and The Legendary Online Journal. She lives with her husband and children near Seattle.

Her nonfiction piece “Everything I Know I Learned from Shoplifting” appears in bioStories.

I’ve always wanted to write about my experiences as a shoplifter, but I’ve avoided the subject for both obvious and less obvious reasons. Obvious: It’s a little embarassing. Less obvious: I didn’t know how to do it and I held no interest in writing a self-indulgent, preachy confessional. The truth is, I’m not proud of being a thief as a child and young adult. But I don’t think my experience is unique (just a hunch) and for me, it took exploration of this morally questionable terrain to develop a sense of responsibility about it. There is something very American (where fortune favors the brave) about my experience, and when I found that angle, I also found the heart of the story.

Showcased Writer: Steve Edwards

Steve Edwards

Interview by Gina Warren.

Steve Edwards’ story “A Writer’s Story” took first place in Silk Road’s recent Flash Fiction Contest. Edwards lives in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. His memoir, Breaking into the Backcountry, is the story of his seven months of “unparalleled solitude” as the caretaker of a wilderness homestead along the Rogue National Wild and Scenic River in southern Oregon. He is now at work on a nonfiction book about his grandfather’s appearance on the cover of Life in 1942.
Read “A Writer’s Story“, winner of Silk Road’s Flash Fiction Contest.
The Interview

GW: What was your inspiration for writing Twelve Hour Shift? Was there a particular moment or image that catalyzed the rest of the piece?

Steve Edwards: This story originated from an NPR 3-minute fiction contest writing prompt: “Begin a story with the phrase: ‘The nurse left work at five o’clock.’” And because I love short short stories that gain momentum through repetition, as well as stories that subvert traditional narratives (stories like “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid or “The School” by Donald Barthelme), I started thinking about other people who might be leaving places at specific times. The movement from hour to hour, and image to image, became the driving force of the piece. As far as a particular moment, I don’t know. I remember composing some of it—the lists of different people—in my mind as my wife and I drove to the supermarket one day. By the time we got home it was almost finished.

GW: There is a sense of circularity to Twelve Hour Shift, which begins and ends with a nurse and her son. To get to that point this piece shifts through various other characters (the mayor, the Kawasaki workers, the rabbi, the writer stopping time). How did you choose to define and select these other characters?

SE: Once I had the idea for the piece, the only thing I really knew was that each character had to be different from the last, and that the story would have to be packed to the gills with images, emotional tones, banal things, wondrous things, tiny details and broad generalizations. The circularity you mention—I think that a story like this one benefits from some kind of simple structural integrity. If I’m going to skip around from person to person, image to image, then I’m at least going to give a reader something to hang on to. For this story, that meant going through the hours. Five o’clock. Six o’clock. Seven o’clock. Until finally we arrived back where it had all started, with the nurse. Ultimately I think I was looking to achieve a kind of a balance, and a kind of fullness, and a sense that the story mimicked the strangeness and randomness of daily life.

GW: What authors do you read? How has the literature you expose yourself to affected your own writing?

SE: I can point to two main sources of inspiration for my short short stories. As an undergrad, I used to love to read surrealist poems, especially those of James Tate and Charles Simic. I loved the way they played with language. I loved the way they twisted meaning and made me see the world differently. And I spent a lot of time—back when I first began to write seriously—studying how they used images to create tonal shifts, those subtle shifts in emotion that when taken together added up to something much larger, something revelatory.

The other source I should probably mention is teaching. When I first started teaching, I used to like to read students short short stories from the Sudden Fiction series. I wanted students to really hear the stories, their pacing and voices, their rhythms. As the years went by, after reading the stories out loud so many times, I began to internalize all that. So by the time I saw down to write stories like “Twelve Hour Shift” and “A Writer’s Story,” all I really had to do was sit before my computer and listen to the story suggest itself.

GW: In A Writer’s Story the narrator admits that he would write down every word of a memory that threatened to slip away, “not to remember but to imagine how it might have been different if words could have helped us.” Where does the capacity of words to “help us” begin and end? Can words be a reprieve?

SE: This is a wonderful question, and I want to be careful with my response. I think what that line gets at is that though the events of the past cannot be changed, how we think about and understand the past is always changing. Memory evolves, perspectives shift. Something could happen today or tomorrow that completely revises how you think about yesterday. For the narrator of this story, his past might be painful and he can’t escape that. He can’t escape the fact that, as a writer, even his fictions are informed by his personal pain. But through the honest contemplation of his characters and their lives—and through the meaning he makes between their lives and his own—he is somehow able to transcend the stories of his past in order to tell a new story. In that respect, words are very much a reprieve. They can lead to forgiveness, understanding, compassion. At the same time, however, no matter how enlightened he becomes he still can’t go back and change the things that hurt him. He can’t fix the past. So there are limits to what words can do to help, and of course words can also do great harm (despite the claims of the old nursery rhyme about sticks and stones). I think this narrator, in the end, is trying to figure out how to be hopeful in the face of this dynamic. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that this narrator, because by his nature he can’t help but be hopeful, is trying to figure out how to respond to the very question you have posed. Where does the capacity for words to “help us” begin and end? Sometimes what helps and what hurts can feel so similar.

GW: A Writer’s Story intertwines the stories of a mother, a daughter, and a father with the narrator’s own mother and father, then ends addressing the reader. “Perhaps this is why in all the stories I write—and maybe in all of yours—there is a mother and a father, and pain, silence, and yet also a word or two that makes a difference, an unlikely tenderness of heart, because despite every hurt you or I endure, some part of us holds out hope.” How did you decide to bring in these multiple narratives of the mother, daughter, father, of the narrator’s family, and of the audience that endures hurt? What is the importance of all the stories we tell ourselves and others?

SE: Like a lot of my stories, “A Writer’s Story” began with that first simple sentence: “In this story there is a mother and a father.” I heard it in my head over breakfast, and I returned to it later that afternoon when I sat down to write. I had no idea where it was going to take me, if anywhere, but I liked its quiet authority and the way the present tense worked to create a sense of something happening in the moment. And as I wrote along, I just kept listening and writing things down. Not that it was easy, of course. I think it’s taken me years of struggle and failure—years of writing sentences and scratching them out—to learn how to be receptive to my own voice, to trust it.

The whole story came together in a little over two hours, and by the end I was completely surprised by its shape, and by the turns it took. I secretly suspect that much of what I write, like the writer in the story, is an attempt to somehow fix the past, or to comfort myself through trying to understand the random things that have hurt me. Like the struggle I had with math in middle school. Like the young girl my wife and I met a few years back, whose father had died in a helicopter crash in California. I mean, what do you do with details that have for some reason lodged themselves into your memory? What do you do with unresolved pain? And I guess I wanted to really invite the reader into the depths of those questions, so toward the end of the story I leaned a little on the second-person. After all, it’s not just writers who tell stories. We all do. And those stories we tell—that’s who we are. We live those stories. We’re at their mercy.

GW: How vital do you think this “part of us [that] holds out hope” is to people as human beings? What about to individuals as writers?

SE: I think Faulkner speaks to what I want to say better than I could ever hope to. So here’s a slightly edited excerpt from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

“I believe that [humanity] will not merely endure: [we] will prevail. [We are] immortal, not because [we] alone among creatures [have] an inexhaustible voice, but because [we have] a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is [our] privilege to help [humanity] endure by lifting [its] heart, by reminding [it] of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of [its] past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of [humanity], it can be one of the props, the pillars to help [us] endure and prevail.”