Our fiction editor, Robin Lauzon Parker, recently spoke with Shannon Reed, author of Issue #5’s The Buddhists. Here’s what she had to say about her process, her inspirations, and what she’s working on now.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I had taken my laptop to the park near my house to write on a warm spring day. The setting itself, where I could hear kids yelling and see couples exercising, provided the inspiration for my story. The saying that Tim shares at the beginning of the story is one I think about frequently. I encountered it in Anne Lamott’s writing, and I’ve always found it both beautiful and incredibly frustrating. I wanted to explore what it might mean.
What do you hope people take away from “The Buddhists”?
That there are many kinds of blessings, and that they come in many forms. Several people have told me that they don’t like Amy or Tim but they recognize themselves in them, and that’s a pretty good take-away, too.
What are you working on now?
I have several short stories that need to be revised and submitted. I’m working on an essay about pathological liars. I have a book review due soon to the newspaper for which I write. And I’m always at work on my novel, which is about the Johnstown Flood, which killed over 2,000 people and destroyed much of my hometown in 1889.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
I’m in an MFA program, so I have received loads of good advice about writing. But the one thing I always come back to, and which I try to get my students to grasp too, is that it is so much easier to rewrite than to write. Just get something on paper. Anything. That’s the worst of it. The other best advice I have received is to accept criticism as a gift rather than as deflating. Someone cared enough about your work to try to help you improve it: what an amazing gift!
Can you describe your writing process for us?
…Just get something on paper!
Kidding, but that is a major goal. Sometimes I deliberately sit down to write when I “only” have 15 minutes or so, just to churn something out. I try to write every day, and I also like to have a variety of projects going (as the answer above shows). I rarely suffer from writer’s block, but that’s really because I’ve got so many plates spinning. I can generally ignore something that’s bugging me and pay attention to something else while time and my subconscious work on the troublesome stuff. I generally try to write as cleanly as possible, sometimes going back repeatedly to review my work as I write–it’s the former high school English teacher in me. And I write to a conclusion, even if I don’t think it’s a great conclusion. Then I try to approach the piece the same way I look at my students’ work and ask myself, what’s working here? What isn’t coming together yet? I’ll often draft it a few more times, and then ask trusted friends and colleagues to look over it and give their feedback. And, finally, before I send it anywhere, I read it aloud to myself, which inevitably helps me locate dozens of small errors that often make the difference between a piece’s rejection and acceptance.
What is the first story you remember writing?
I was a playwright before a writer of fiction, but I do remember writing a story in college, about two women on a road trip. I don’t remember where they were going, or why. I suspect it wasn’t very good. But it did win an award from my college’s literary journal, and then I submitted it to a very good (waaaay out of my realm) literary magazine. The editors sent a little note on my rejection letter, which basically has kept me going for the last 20 years.
What author gives you inspiration?
The writers I read with my class, mostly because those are the ones I really study in depth, but Anne Lamott and Flannery O’Connor especially. I really love Thornton Wilder’s work, too. He wrote my favorite play, Our Town, and many other wonderful plays and books, which sadly do not get much attention these days. I also like Karen Joy Fowler, Thomas Cahill, Sarah Vowell, Ann Patchett and Bill Bryson a lot. But I have to say that I’m more likely to be inspired by the work than the writer. Many people have written a few amazing things, but few people write only amazing things.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
I used to teach preschool, so the list is long. But I have to particularly shout out Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I was a moody kid, and this was a book that I related to! My mom and I still reference it sometimes: “We had lima beans for dinner and I hate lima beans!” Who doesn’t feel that way at times?