Our fiction co-editor JD Fox recently had this exchange with Rebecca Fishow, our Issue #16 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her writing process, her approach to style, and her development as a writer through her reading.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I had been trying for years to write fiction inspired by my sister, who enlisted in the U.S. Marines right out of high school. The stories she told me, and my observations of her, always fascinated me. The experiences of female military are underrepresented (dare I say unrepresented) in fiction, so the idea of starting to fill that void was a motivation.
What do you hope readers take away from it?
Nothing in particular, other than maybe a deeper understanding of the possibilities of human experience.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on revising a collection of short stories. I’ve also got a novel in the works, and I’ve been writing some shorter surreal flash fiction/prose poem pieces, which have been a lot of fun.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
I’ve received so much amazing writing advice, especially from professors at Syracuse University, that it’s difficult to pick out one best piece. It’s probably, simply, that in order to be a writer, you have to write. Also, everything here. I met Junot Diaz briefly at his recent reading in Montreal, and he told me to go easy on myself. I think that is essential advice for any aspiring writer – don’t beat yourself up about where you think your writing should be, or by comparing yourself to others.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?
My process varies from story to story, but for my more realist writing, I tend to mill ideas around in my mind for a long time before I get anything down on the page. I usually start with an event, character or “big-picture” question, that feels so important I can’t let it go. I quietly obsess over it for a while. The story doesn’t really get going on the page until I find a voice or rhythm that seems to complement the initial idea. It can takes years of false starts to find the right voice. When I’m on the page, I’m happiest when I have a sense of an endgame to work towards, without quite knowing how I’ll get there – finding the route is the exciting part.
For other stories, usually more surreal pieces, I begin writing entirely based on music and “feeling,” without much of an idea about anything. The writing goes fast and it’s almost meditative. Although I’d like to, I don’t keep regular writing hours. I’d like to write every day in the morning before work, but it doesn’t always pan out. Editing has always been tricky for me (so many decisions!) but the best advice I’ve gotten, from the amazing professors at Syracuse, is to take off the writer hat, establish some distance, and edit as reader. It’s easier to kill your darlings that way – you can’t be precious or sentimental. My thesis advisor, George Saunders, talked about a pleasure meter – when reading your story, try to identify when the needle on the pleasure meter is spiking towards the green, and when it’s dipping into the red. Revise based on that.
What is the first story you remember writing?
I wrote lots of stories in elementary school about cats and family vacations, and hippies. I really liked hippies. My first attempt at a “real” short story was as an undergraduate. It was about a dissatisfied writer with relationship problems. Enough said.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer?
Almost everything I read, that I enjoy (be it fiction, poetry, or nonfiction) teaches me something about the possibilities of writing. I fell in love with literature back in middle school because of Sylvia Plath, J.D. Salinger and E. E. Cummings. I’ve been influenced by writers who use free indirect speech, especially Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I’m really drawn to the flexibility this narrative style gives writers to be intimate with one character, while at the same time free to move around among perspectives. Reading so-called “dirty realism,” like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, anything by Raymond Carver, and Mary Gaitskill’s early work, has given me permission to write about subjects that aren’t pretty, or clean or nice. Magical realists, like Haruki Murakami, Aimee Bender and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, show me that creativity is a blessing, and that possibilities are endless if you write with confidence and don’t explain too much. In graduate school, a fair amount of attention was paid to language writers like Amy Hempel, Christine Schutt and Gary Lutz. That was important to my desire to pay close attention at a line and word level. Recently, I’ve been devouring books by female writers (Lucia Berlin, Anne Carson, Eileen Myles, Kate Atkinson, to name a few), which feels important to my sense of self, as a writer but also a person.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about bad workshops, but I’ve always been really lucky. When I was a grad student at Syracuse, my cohort was completely professional and helpful. No one ever said anything like, “This isn’t my style, so I’m just not going to respond.” In the best workshops, participants don’t dismiss work that doesn’t appeal to their personal aesthetics – they provide feedback that works towards what the story is already doing, rather than trying to rewrite or redefine it. They also leave morality and personal beliefs at the door, and focus on what really matters – the craft.
There is a distinct cadence in much of your story, making descriptions stand out and giving rise to a strong voice. Can you talk about your lyrical influences and your approach to style?
For this story, the cadence and voice really came first. I’d been trying, unsuccessfully, for a while to write a story about a female Marine. I’m not even sure where the cadence of this story came from, it was probably a reaction to a specific mood I was in at the time. I sat down and wrote the first draft in a couple hours, and was already pretty satisfied with it. I think once I found the rhythm, I wasn’t so concerned about the timetable of the plot, or how to get one scene to transition into the next, so the writing didn’t drag. The rhythm turned out to have a lot to do with the meaning of the story.
This story is particularly lyrical for me, a lot of my writing isn’t so heightened. But I’m generally receptive to writing that has a lot of energy and momentum – in fiction, writers like Dylan Thomas, or the beats, like Ginsberg and Kerouac, but even writers who have subtler lyricism too. I was very into reading poetry for many years and I think that left a big impression on me. Maybe it’s weird, but dance has contributed to my approach to style. Sometimes I think of a story as a choreographed number – I think about where the music and movement picks up and settles down, and about when it’s time for more dancers to shoot in from the sides. A dance stage is this room with a lot of moving pieces, a lot of sensuous stimulation, and a story.
There is a short but provocative taxi scene that is open to interpretation. Please talk about its significance.
I’d prefer to let the readers decide its significance, but writing the scene felt like the narrator entering a heightened experience that could only be possible within the realm of an already incomprehensible/absurd reality.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
Probably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh.
What is your ideal creative weather?
My ideal creative weather is the same as my ideal anything weather – perpetual sun, perpetual warmth.