Beautiful Sentences & Interesting Lives

Claire Robbins

Fiction co-editor Grace Safford recently had this exchange with Issue #44 featured fiction writer Claire Robbins. Here’s what Claire had to say about form in fiction, writing complex relationships, her approach to revision, and more.

“This is How you Get Off Food Stamps” is a unique, powerful, important, and dynamic piece. What inspired you to write this story?

Thanks for your kind words about my writing. I have to say that this piece is embarrassingly close to my reality—but fictionalized, so I guess that was my inspiration! At the time I wrote this piece, I had also recently read Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, and I think that shows up in the how-to form and in the use of the second person.

The form of “This is How you Get off Food Stamps” is clearly important to the telling of this story, and makes the work more personal and poignant. How did you decide on the list format for this piece? In addition, form, one could say, is more often experimented with in poetry than fiction. Would you encourage fiction writers to experiment with form?

Form is so exciting! I wrote this piece while taking a class called “Artifacts in Fiction” with Thisbe Nissen while I was in the MFA program at Western Michigan University. Writing the piece as a how-to, even though that form ends up being pretty arbitrary, helped me write a longer story than I had been able to write before. Since writing this piece, I have been able to write other long stories, but previously I tended to write very short flash pieces. Writing in short sections helped me move the story along and take jumps in time, while still focusing on language, which is really important to me.

I would encourage other writers to experiment with form and genre if it interests them. Experimentation is how art and innovation happen, but if a more standard short story form is working magic for you, keep that up too. There isn’t one right way to be innovative.

Another definitive and unique direction “This is How you Get off Food Stamps” takes using the second person perspective. Why was it important to you to tell this story in second person?

I think the second person POV here is doing two important things. First, I’m interested in how the second person can be used as a sort of stand in for first person. Because this piece is so close to my lived experiences, the second person helped get me through the discomfort of writing about myself. I would call it maybe a displaced first person. The POV here also builds empathy in this piece. Often terms like “welfare queen” or even “single mother” function to other people or create an us vs. them mentality, but my hope is that the second person here works to explode that othering.

When I first read “This is How you Get off Food Stamps,” I remember getting to point 104 (the moment with the mother and the geese) and audibly gasping. The connection between the mother and the main character is complex and tense, and this moment just nails the head in the coffin in terms of their relationship. How did you come to writing this moment? In addition, do you have any advice for our readers on how to write effective complex relationships?

I think you have to go into writing relationships with the idea that people are complex, but that they come into the story with wildly different experiences and beliefs, and they fail miserably to understand each other’s motivations. This moment where the mother buys the geese probably comes out of personal frustration about people’s ideas of who deserves help and the idea that people who get help are expected to act grateful for whatever they are given. Maybe that family needs more than geese. Maybe they want to be able to move freely across borders, or access higher education, or live lives free of violence and poverty—things some of us take for granted. Writers should write characters compassionately, but they shouldn’t be afraid of having characters who act in horrible ways or do things that are clearly not right.

This story is clearly socially important. People everywhere can relate to the struggles and burdens of your main character. What did you want people to think about/come away feeling after they read your story?

I wanted readers to think about beautiful sentences and interesting lives. Fiction isn’t the best way to change the world, but I would hope readers might consider that all people have rich interior lives, desires and dreams. Hopefully everyone reading this already believes all people deserve to eat, earn a living wage, and live lives free of violence.

Can you recommend to our readers any other short stories, essays, or poems you’ve recently read that you think tackle social issues in an effective way?

Diriye Osman is phenomenal! Jess Arndt has a short story collection titled Large Animals that you should read. I was also blown away by Simeon Marsalis’ novel, As Lie Is to Grin.

At Mud Season Review, we’re big supporters of the importance of revision/editing. We grew out of a workshop, after all. What’s your revision process? Do you have any personal editing tips for our readers?

I tend to revise as I write, going over what I’ve already written and then writing a little bit more before I go over everything again. It’s really slow. I have also written things in a pretty solid first draft before going back and editing the entire thing a couple of times. Either way, I probably spend more time editing than actually writing. Stepping away from a piece for a time helps me sometimes, but I think writers should use the process that works best for them.

In your bio, you mention you teach college writing. What do you think is one of the most important writing lessons you’ve taught to your students?

More people should be talking about how the labor of adjunct faculty is exploited. It’s really a crisis, and administrations act like taking a part-time teaching position is just a stepping-stone to a tenure track position, but the reality for most of us is that it is not. I try to teach my students that writing doesn’t come naturally to anyone, that it is learned through the hard and sometimes rewarding work of reading and writing, and that no one is more or less because of the command of standard English they come into college with.

Lastly, what are you working on now?

Mostly, I’m trying to forgive myself for not having the time and energy to stick to a writing schedule! I am working on an essay about driving for Lyft, and a coming of age novel about a queer missionary kid.

Claire Robbins

Claire Robbins serves as the creative non-fiction editor for Third Coast Magazine, holds an MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University, teaches college writing, and has published work in Nimrod, Muse/A Journal, and American Short Fiction.

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