Keeping the Work of Literature Alive

Casey Lefante

Our fiction co-editor, Kathrin Hutson, recently had this exchange with Casey Lefante, featured fiction writer for Issue #37. Here’s what she had to say about employing the second-person point of view, writing about politics, her revision process, and more.

 

What inspired you to write this story?

I’ve spent most of the last two years working on my novel, thus sorely neglecting the art of the short story. Last summer, I found an old story I’d written in graduate school, and the character’s voice shocked me. I didn’t recognize it as something I’d written because it sounded so unlike what I normally write.

I remembered that my professor had given us that writing assignment with the specific purpose of writing outside of our experiences. This discovery prompted me to attempt writing a story about an experience outside of my personal history. In the span of about a week, I wrote the first draft. While the story is similar to my other works in that it deals with a young protagonist trying to make sense of her world, it’s different in that it approaches this through issues that aren’t within my personal history. In a way, this gave me more freedom to explore this girl and her world. Now that I’ve written this story (and read Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties—wow!), I’m inspired to continue working on the short story form. Even though there are similarities to working on a short story and a novel, the process and outcome are totally disparate, at least for me. It’s a different art form.

 

“Honey Bee” is written in the second-person narrative point of view. This is the least common of all narrative POVs in fiction, and rarely is it done as successfully as in “Honey Bee”. What made you choose to write this story in the second person? Is this style of writing normal for you, or was it a challenge to explore?

Second-person deserves more love! I first encountered it in Lorrie Moore’s “How to Be a Writer,” and I fell in love with it when reading Moore’s “How to Be an Other Woman.” Inspired by this newfound love (like, I was ready to buy second-person a nice dinner and take it out dancing; it was that serious), I wrote a second-person story for my fiction workshop in grad school. That story ended up finding a home in Zone 3, and it was included six years later in an anthology.

When I read it again, I remembered how fun it was to write in second, and I decided to try it again with my next story. Something about second-person feels very freeing for me. It’s more distant than first-person and more intimate than third. It forces the reader to play an active role in the story, which fosters the writer-reader relationship that’s so important in keeping a work of literature alive. I find that I write differently when I write in second person: the words are sharper, the images are more direct, and the character’s voice just punches off the page. As a point of view, it’s often relegated to a gimmick, but I think it has way more to offer. I challenge all of you to try it!

 

Do you feel like this is a fundamentally political story at heart, or is it just a human story?

I think that’s up to the reader to decide. One of the beautiful things about writing is that it has two lives: the life the writer gives it and the life the reader provides. My intent wasn’t to write a political story but rather a story about what it means to question and grieve and search, desperately, for some kind of meaning when one’s world seems to be falling apart.

The adolescent characters in the story aren’t consciously acting in any political way. They’re acting in learned and socialized ways, and those actions are complex. For instance, the protagonist wants a connection with Sienna, but it’s because she’s subconsciously viewing her as a token replacement for her brother. The sister misses her brother, but she doesn’t understand his experience enough to avoid resenting him for his actions. Both girls love their brother, but they are unable to understand his experience. Instead of talking about their grief, they each retreat into tragic attempts at gaining control over a life they’ve just realized is uncontrollable. In that sense, I’m more inclined to define it as a human story, but I don’t think the labels need to be mutually exclusive.

 

This piece broaches multiple societal, social, and sometimes political discussions. Have you experienced any of these things personally in your life? What made you decide to blend them together from the perspective of your main character?

One thing I struggled with in writing this story is that I haven’t experienced much of this personally. More than once, I worried whether I should even tell this story, whether I even had the right to tell it. Much of what I’ve written here is not based on things I’ve experienced personally but rather things I’ve seen people close to me experience. That said, I have been an adolescent girl, and I have felt lonely, and I have felt grief and guilt. I’ve questioned my faith and looked for an identity and kept silent when I wanted to speak. In many ways, I was scared to workshop or submit or even show people this story. Doing so became a personal challenge to open myself up and write about the conflicts that I sometimes shy away from discussing. These conflicts, both internal and external, are universal, and they often present themselves most directly during adolescence.

 

What do you hope people take away from this story?

I hope the story will encourage readers to talk to their families and friends and try to understand each other’s positions. Some readers will agree with the sister that the brother should have done something differently, and some readers will reject her for even thinking this. I’d like for these readers to have a conversation about that. Not every reader has to agree with what my characters have done or what they personally believe, but I would like to start the conversation.

The sisters don’t talk, and when they don’t talk, they make assumptions about each other and end up hurting not only each other but themselves. One of the biggest problems we have today—and I’m not absolving myself of guilt in this—is categorizing people as conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, feminist or non-feminist, faithful or unfaithful, etc. We shut ourselves off from even trying to understand each other, and when we do this, we deny humans their inherent complexity. My primary hope is that I’ve succeeded in showing a snapshot of one character’s experience, one that, regardless of the reader’s beliefs or convictions, might inspire thought or conversation.

 

Could you describe your writing process, including: Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work? What is revision like for you? How do you know when a piece is finished?

This is sort of a long answer, so if you’re not into reading the whole thing, here’s the most important part: I drink coffee while I write. Coffee is essential. Coffee is magic. Coffee is life.

As for the longer version: the one constant in my writing process really is the presence of coffee, so most of my writing happens in coffee shops. I do sometimes like to write at home, but I find that I like the energy of writing in a public space. I don’t really buy into the idea that writing is a solitary art. If it’s too solitary, where’s the inspiration? Where’s the sense of community? Community, to me, is one of the key elements to succeeding as a writer, and I’m incredibly fortunate to belong to a community of writers, teachers, and artists who support, inspire, and promote one another. I also have an incredible network of family and friends who support me even when what I write might not be what they would normally like to read. For all of this, I’m grateful.

The biggest problem I run into with my writing is finding the time to do it. As a full-time teacher, it can be difficult to put aside my grading and lesson planning to focus on writing. I love my students and coworkers (seriously, they’re the best), and I’ve always had a decent work ethic, so I’ve struggled with the balance of working for others versus working for myself. What’s worked best for me is setting aside a certain time on the weekend, such as a Saturday morning, as time devoted to writing. I treat it like an appointment, and I don’t bring any grading with me. When I have school breaks (such as summer or winter break), I set aside more structured time. If anyone reading this is a teacher who is also looking for the time to write, I assure you that it took me about five years of teaching to achieve this balance, but I did eventually find it.

In the past couple of years, I’ve been focusing mostly on my novel, so when I found the old story exercise while cleaning, it inspired me to start writing short stories again. I’ve started writing down little bits of inspiration when it hits me, and then when I sit to write, I start by writing continuously without editing or stopping. Sometimes it starts with a conversation between characters (no dialogue tags, no actions, just conversation) so that I can get to know them. Sometimes it’s just one massive paragraph of a character’s internal thoughts. Always, my first draft is character-driven and includes many internal thoughts, some of which never make it to the final draft because it’s just part of the process of figuring things out.

As for revision, it’s hard for me to know when it’s done. Usually, it’s just a feeling I get, a feeling that I’ve said what I want to say in the best way that I can say it. That’s not a very helpful response, is it? I’ll think of something more concrete and, I don’t know, print it on a banner and fly it across the continental US or something so all of you can read it. Keep your eyes on the sky, friends.

 

What are your thoughts on writers using their voices for social justice in these times? What do you see as the role of writers in times of war or political unrest?

If you look at any time period in any culture, the path to change has been through art. I used to teach a condensed version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize speech that was printed in my eighth graders’ literature textbook. In it, he says, “literature, as one of the most sensitive, responsive instruments possessed by the human creature, has been one of the first to adopt, to assimilate, to catch hold of this feeling of a growing unity of mankind.”

Thus, literature has the power to unify us; according to Solzhenitsyn, writers also have a responsibility to recognize this power and support this unification. He goes on to say that writers have the responsibility to write truth in their work, which will then dispel society’s falsehoods. While I agree with this, I don’t think we can judge writers for not writing about social issues. However, if someone has the gift of words and can use it to encourage conversation or promote change, then she should consider doing so. My personal hope is that, by writing about human experience in an authentic way, readers will reach personal truths that might encourage conversation and foster positive change.

 

What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?

Many of my works have dealt with the experience of girlhood, particularly in the adolescent years. Adolescent girls are some of the most vulnerable people in a society that often pegs them as superficial, image-obsessed, and weak. In reality, these young women are intelligent, critical thinkers who examine life through unique lenses of experience. My students and former students inspire me daily, and I’ve learned more about adolescence through teaching than I could have learned in any other way. I’m very interested in writing about platonic female friendships as well because this is a relationship that is sometimes neglected in literature. I like to think of my novel as a love letter to female friendship because it centers around two best friends who meet in high school. It also deals with themes of loss, self, immigration, and—oh, there’s a pattern. I’ve become predictable!

 

Have you ever workshopped your pieces? If so, what was your most memorable workshop experience? What’s the importance of feedback for you? How do you incorporate it (or not) into your work?

While working towards my MFA in the Creative Writing Workshop at UNO, I participated in workshops at least once a semester. One of the reasons I love the CWW so much is because it fostered a strong sense of community outside of the classroom. Every Monday night after fiction workshop, we went to a bar called Parkview Tavern and continued the discussion. Those nights at Parkview are my most memorable “workshop” experiences because they allowed for an informal discussion not only of the work we had just workshopped but on writing in general. A few of us even met there on Monday nights during the summer to workshop stories or novel chapters (we also drank beer because, you know, it was a bar). My experience in the MFA program exceeded all of my expectations, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Maybe it’s because I started the program the year Hurricane Katrina hit, or maybe it’s because the program is just that good, but there was always a sense that my classmates, professors, and I were in this writing game together, and we needed each other to survive.

Workshopping is one of the most rewarding and frustrating experiences for a writer, and I think it’s something that every writer should experience at least once, even if it isn’t in a formal writing program. That said, there does come a point where you have to place more trust in yourself. A year or two after graduation, some classmates and I started a group called The Big Table Workshop, which we modeled off of the MFA workshop while keeping things more informal. More recently, I joined an online writing group comprised of CWW graduates, and they have been instrumental at keeping me to task. I also have a standing writing date with a CWW friend twice a month; we meet, talk about writing, and then get into the business of working on whatever piece is at the top of our priority lists. Actually—FUN FACT!—it was during these meetings that I wrote, revised, and submitted “Honey Bee.” So, it works, y’all!

When you find the right readers—readers who listen to you and read your work with the purpose of making it a stronger piece rather than simply making it what they want—is crucial. Feedback is important, but you can’t just incorporate everything a reader says because there will be another reader around the corner who suggests the opposite. So it’s really about learning who to listen to and who has your best writing interests at heart, and I’m fortunate to have attended school with so many writers who fit this description. I really can’t say enough about UNO’s MFA program. It made me the writer I am today, and it’s given me so many important friendships that have helped me grow as both a woman and a writer.

 

What has the process of submitting your work for publication been like?

Overall, the process has been positive. When I first start submitting my work back in 2007, I taped my rejection letters to a wall next to my desk. Then I ran out of wall space, and I thought that this was perhaps not the motivational tactic I needed. Everyone says to develop a thick skin when it comes to rejections, and I’ve gotten much better about that.

After all, there are so many factors involved in getting published, and it’s not always about the quality of the work. It can come down to the editors’ personal preferences, the journal’s style, the next issue’s themes, and so many other factors. When it comes down to it, it’s just about getting the words on the page and sending those words out. The biggest difference between a writer and a writer who publishes is that the writer who publishes stays in the game.

I’ll also reiterate the importance of community when it comes to rejections. It’s important to have support for those moments when you feel like you’re maybe the worst writer ever and no one will ever love you, so you should just move to the mountains wrapped in a quilt you made out of rejection letters. It’s those moments when you need a friend (whether it’s a fellow writer or just your best friend who’s a dentist or pharmacist or NASA engineer or something) to come to your house and lift the stiff rejection quilt off of your sad, dejected writer body so you can go get some chips and queso. Submitting is super vulnerable; it’s like that dream where you’re walking around naked and can’t find any clothes. And even when it’s fiction, even when the story has nothing to do with your or your life, it’s still, in many ways, a representation of you. So it’s scary, but it can also be so, so rewarding. Because if we keep our writing to ourselves, who does it benefit? If no one reads your work, how can it live its full life? So submit, my friends. Submit, submit, submit.

Casey Lefante

Casey Lefante earned her MFA from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, where she also taught freshman composition and ESL for two years. Her work has been published in Third Coast, Zone 3, Slush Pile, The Atlantis Now, and The Burlesque Press Variety Show, as well as in the anthology Monday Nights. In 2011, she was short-listed for the William Faulkner novel-in-progress award, and she is currently at work on a novel. She lives, writes, and teaches in New Orleans.

Comments are closed.