How I Write: Heather A. Slomski, Former Axton Fellow in Fiction
Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.
Our featured writer this week is Heather A. Slomski. She is the author of The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons, winner of the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press. She received her MFA from Western Michigan University and held the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, American Letters & Commentary, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The Normal School, and elsewhere. A recipient of a Minnesota State Artist Initiative Grant and a Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant, she currently lives in Minnesota with her husband and son and teaches writing at Concordia College.
Location: Moorhead, MN
Current project: The Starlight Ballroom, a novel-in-progress
Currently reading: Italo Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics, which, just out this fall, brings together for the first time in the states all thirty four of his “cosmicomic” stories.
1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?
Fiction. Up until recently—short fiction. Currently, I am working on a novel.
2. When/where/how do you write?
I write best early in the morning, starting at about 5:30. I either write at the dining room table (to be near the stove for making coffee and the large windows for watching the snow fall, but only if no one else is awake), in my study, or at a coffee shop. I alternate between these spaces, depending on my mood; however, I tend to go in phases. For example, I’ll write primarily in my study for a few months and then relocate to a coffee shop when I feel stifled or need a change of scenery.
3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?
When I am writing at a coffee shop I use a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to block out conversations and the music that the coffee shop is playing. Sometimes I am listening to lyric-free music; often I am just wearing the headphones and not listening to anything. Regardless of where I’m working, I usually only listen to music when I’m using it as a sort of soundtrack for the piece I’m writing. For example, I listened to a compilation of fifty Ennio Morricone compositions while writing “Before the Story Ends,” the last story in my collection. Listening to this album helped me to create the mood I desired for the story. Even now when I listen to that album it conjures up for me the world of my story. Most of the time, however, I am not listening to music. Wearing the headphones while working at a cafe, even though I can still hear the muffled noises around me, provides a kind of mental block—a shield between the noises and me. I often like a little distraction, but not too much. (This is one of the main reasons I like to work at a cafe; it usually provides a suitable amount of “activity.”) Occasionally, however, whether I’m at a cafe or at home, I’ll listen to some jazz or classical music if the silence is too quiet and if I can find something that fits the mood of the piece I’m working on.
I also use my headphones to listen to my works-in-progess. I use a program called Ghost Reader, a text-to-speech converter, which allows me to listen to my computer (the voice I usually use is “Alex”) read aloud what I’m working on. Hearing my work aloud helps me with my sentence rhythms, pacing, and transitions. Before I began using Ghost Reader I would intermittently read my own work aloud as I wrote, but now I prefer to listen to my computer read it to me. Also, when I listen to “Alex” read sections of my work aloud, I enter this sort of in-between space where I am almost reading and writing at the same time. I find positioning myself in this in-between space very productive.
I also keep a stack of books next to me while I’m writing. These are books that in some way relate to what I’m working on, or books that I feel might inspire me, often just by sitting in a stack at my elbow. Occasionally I’ll open one of these books and flip through it. Sometimes I’ll read a random passage or reread a specific passage for a particular reason. Sometimes I’ll open a book to look at its large structure. If it’s a novel, for example, I might look at the chapter lengths. If it’s a collection of poetry I might look at its sections or parts and think about the philosophy behind this organization. (And of course I’ll read an occasional poem.) If it’s a story collection I’ll look at the order of the stories or also its sections or parts if it is divided up in such a way. If it’s a play, I’ll look at the set description, the list of characters, the lengths of the scenes, the way the dialogue and stage directions are laid out on the page, etc. I love going to the theatre for the immersive experience it offers, but I read plays in part for a different reason. I love the way plays look on the page. I am drawn to the white space around the text, which somehow makes the words more three-dimensional and the actions—even subtle ones—more “active.” I am very interested in the relationship between fiction and drama, and I sometimes like to play with this relationship in my work. “The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons,” the title story of my collection, blends these two genres into a hybrid form.
4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?
I try not to start a story until I feel sure that I have what I need in order to begin. I do think it’s possible, at least for me, to start a piece too early, and maybe not to ruin it but to at least make the process more difficult and less enjoyable. I try not to begin a piece until I have a clear sense of the emotional landscape or mood, equipped with a definite setting, a few key images, and usually a few phrases or lines of dialogue. The emotional landscape is always based on a situation between characters that involves some kind of conflict, even if I’m not exactly clear on the conflict when I start.
On the other hand, I have to begin writing a story before I know too much about it. The act of writing for me is wholly a process of discovery. I discover the story and I get to know my characters as I write. If I know too much when I sit down to write, much of the magic is lost and my writing feels dull. Edward Albee says that he thinks about his plays for a long time before he begins writing them—that he doesn’t begin writing until he knows his characters so well that they essentially write the play for him. While this process clearly works very well for him, it does not work for me. I need the excitement of discovery to breathe life into the words as I write them.
My revision process is pretty standard. When I feel confident enough in a draft, I give it to a few trusted people to read. I am very careful of giving a draft to my readers too early. I need to be sure that I’ve gotten a piece as far along as possible—that I’ve explored what I set out to explore and that I’ve reached a conclusion that satisfies me, at least for the time being. If I give a draft to my readers too early, I run the risk of writing the story that they want to read rather than the story I want to write.
5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
On a draft of one of the first stories I turned in for a graduate-school workshop, Stuart Dybek wrote to me to be careful of being precious. This was in reference to a rather tender story, and in a tender story especially there is a fine line between being “precious” or affectatious and being emotionally honest. This was very important advice for me as a young writer. It helped shape my approach to writing in that I try to write with as light a hand as possible; I try to keep myself, the writer, out of the way so that all the reader sees are the characters and the honesty of their emotions. If a writer is too present, particularly in delicate scenes, the writing runs the risk of coming off as forced, false, affectatious, or “precious.” Of course, there is also the danger of being too distant as a writer. This can result in emotionless prose and characters. The key is to strike the right balance.