Our fiction editor Grace Safford recently had this exchange with Jillian Merrifield, our Issue #36 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her writing and revision process, workshops and creative writing pedagogy, and the inspiration for her short story “Here, There Be Dragons.”
What inspired you to write this piece?
“Here, There Be Dragons” is part of a series of stories that loosely revolve around Abby, a character for whom space, and the navigation of space, are an important part of daily life. For this particular piece, I was interested in exploring the way that another person might read Abby’s behavior and what that says about that character—which is how I got to Simon.
This piece was an odd one for me in some ways. I usually have a story in my head for several days before I write anything, but this one just arrived and wrote itself. In a similar vein, I often find myself struggling with titles, but “Here, There Be Dragons” came right away and never changed through the three drafts.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write?
The short answer is no. There are conditions under which I write better: at night, on the computer, alone, at home, after a story has already been bouncing around in my head for several days. But then of course there are times when I’ve sat down at a busy coffee shop, and writing a particular story has felt like exactly the thing I should be doing in that moment, and writing goes like a dream. The latter experience is closest to what happened with this story.
As a writer, how important is revision to your writing process? How many drafts of your story, “Here, There Be Dragons” did you write? Did the story change from your first to final draft?
Revision is huge, for me, and reading aloud is especially important to my revision process—I think I do the best revision if I’m prepping a piece for reading publicly, as that brings out some ruthlessness that I have trouble accessing otherwise.
“Here, There Be Dragons” had three distinct drafts, and while I certainly wasn’t thinking about it at the time, they loosely followed the drafting that Anne Lamott describes in “Shitty First Drafts”: there was a down draft, an up draft, and a dental draft. I originally wrote the piece while doing a residency at Sundress Academy for the Arts, on the second day of a weeklong stay. The second draft came fairly quickly, as I wanted to read the piece at the Holler Salon that Friday. That involved fleshing out some scenes and cutting others. After that I put it down for a while, and the third draft came a couple of months later, after the story had been workshopped, and was mostly about fine-tuning. The story’s plot didn’t change significantly across the drafts, but as I revised I got to know Simon and Dana much better and changed the language quite a bit.
The main character, Simon, is a struggling architect living in Chicago who likes to draw abstract portraits of people’s homes. That is a very specific character. How do you as a writer put yourself into the mind of such a character? How do you tap into the life of someone who is so different from you?
Well, there are some basic things that made it easier—I’m from the Chicago area, for example. I also worked for a couple of years as an architectural draftsman (to supplement my community college adjunct gig). Ultimately, neither of these things let me actually know the character Simon, but knowing some of the basic mechanics of his life certainly made for a comfortable starting point. It took some time and writing to get to know who he was beyond those basics and to figure out what he wanted, exactly, to come of his interactions with Dana and Abby.
The dialogue in your story is so realistic. I was personally taken with how real everyone sounded with their sentence fragments and interjections into their own speech. Is there a “secret” you can share with us on how to write realistic dialogue and hone this craft?
First, thank you! I try to pay a lot of attention to dialogue because I’ve found over the years that nothing kicks me out of a piece of writing faster than wooden dialogue. A few things have helped me. Several years back a professor at DePaul, where I got my MA, told me that dialogue between characters works best when it strikes glancing blows, reflecting the fact that characters have different reasons for engaging in dialogue. That same professor also recommended that I read Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext. The advice he gave me couldn’t save the story I was muddling through at the time, but it’s guided me through many dialogue scenes since.
On a less craft-y level, I’m a pretty quiet person, so I have a lot of time to listen, whether it’s to friends I’m hanging out with or strangers in public or podcasts while I’m walking my dog. I like to think that’s helped my ear for dialogue quite a bit. And, perhaps embarrassingly (or perhaps not), I just love watching thoughtful TV and movies. I like to think there’s a lot to be learned from those genres about how dialogue sounds and what can be done with those sounds, if you’re willing to spend some time thinking about how your experiences as audience can be activated when you sit down to write.
You left the story on a cliffhanger, letting the reader forever ask the question “Will they or won’t they?” about Abby and Simon. How and why did you make that choice to leave the story in such a place of ambiguity?
To me, what happened beyond the final lines wasn’t what made Simon interesting—or at least, it wouldn’t add to Simon or Abby’s interest. Far more important to the character, and ultimately the story, are all the little things that Simon does in the lead-up to that moment, the things that he does that he thinks mean caring but perhaps don’t to other people.
In terms of education, you’ve taken a step beyond most writers in completing an MA in writing, and you are currently earning your PhD in English studies. Do you believe these degrees have benefited your writing as a whole? Are there aspects of writing you believe can’t be taught in the classroom?
There’s no doubt in my mind that graduate study has been good for my writing. It’s a luxury to be able to surround myself with other writers who also care deeply about their work, and it’s certainly a privilege to have this sort of exchange be my primary occupation for the past few years. With that said, there are costs. Graduate study is pretty awful for your finances, unless you have a stunning assistantship/aid package. I’m also somebody who has a hard time balancing work that has a deadline (reading assignments, papers) with writing regularly, and so I actually write and submit less than I did before I started my doctoral studies. But it’s been the right choice for me. I’m a much better writer now, I’m much better at talking about writing now, and I nurture a sort of idealistic excitement for creative writing pedagogy that I doubt I would have ever found if not for graduate school.
With that said, you don’t need a classroom for growth as a writer or meaningful exchange. You just need passionate people who want to share and learn and grow collaboratively—people who come with good intentions. And graduate school certainly doesn’t guarantee an arrangement like that.
To add to that, there are all kinds of things that you need, as a writer, that come from outside the classroom. You have to have the ability to self-start your writing, which is something I wasn’t sure I had until I took two years between finishing my MA and starting my PhD. Classrooms can teach you many things, but in my experience lasting, intrinsic motivation to write can’t be taught—at best, a classroom might inspire this, or encourage it. And while classrooms are excellent opportunities for learning about how people deal with weird power imbalances and relationships, which are great for fiction, you have to get outside of classrooms and see real people interacting in the real world about real, not-classroom things to be able to write different stories.
All of this is to say: the classroom forum is useful, but you don’t need a classroom for a forum, and classroom participation and deadlines are no replacement for participation in the world and sustained, individual engagement with writing.
Do you have any specific writers, authors, or books that inspire your work either stylistically or thematically?
I went through a huge George Saunders phase a few years back after hearing him read at DePaul. I wouldn’t say that he directly inspires my work (anymore, anyway—there was definitely a phase), but there’s something about the experience of reading his stories for the first time that is still important to me. Somehow, his work didn’t feel like a stable, unassailable artifact in the way that, say, Flannery O’Connor’s work always had. For the first time, I felt like I could be reading a piece and simultaneously empathizing with the act of authorship.
Things that I’ve read that inspire me in specific and lingering ways that immediately jump to mind: the title story of Emily Fridlund’s Catapult does a remarkable job of making the familiar unique and moving; Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs is stunning in its ability to tease out sedimented anger and frustration; Gwen E. Kirby’s “Shit Cassandra Saw…” tells a story I would never think to tell in a way that I find devastating; the images in Meg Day’s poetry haunt me.
What are you working on now?
I’m taking a theory class on transhumanism this semester, and while I knew when I enrolled that I would love it, I didn’t anticipate the way that it would energize my writing. It’s loosened up some blocked creativity, which feels amazing. Right now, I have a few stories somewhere in the first draft stage. They’re all loosely connected by the themes of dwelling, technology, and legacy—individualized approaches to the sorts of ideas we’ve been talking and reading about on a more global scale in class.
In a way, those themes could also bring us right back to “Here, There Be Dragons,” and yet I don’t think of these pieces as alike in any way.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?
Perhaps, rather than best or worst, I might give a memorable and personally important one? My first graduate workshop was a novella workshop, with the novella workshopped in halves. During the workshop session for the first half of my novella, the instructor told the class that what I had produced wasn’t a novella, and after class she asked me what I was going to do to make it work. I was terrified—I was young, I had imposter syndrome—and I stammered something incoherent about having a plan. I wrote the second half as I had intended to, and when it was my turn for round 2, the instructor began the class by saying that she’d been mistaken before. Obviously, that was gratifying. But I think most of us have stories about times that workshop was gratifying. The reason I remember and still care about this workshop has nothing to do with being right or trusting my own work, though. It’s because the experience taught me so much about the power dynamics in writing workshops—something that’s still of deep concern to me today as I research and write about creative writing pedagogy.