Monthly Archives: November 2013

“The Dare” by Rachel Unkefer

picture of Rachel UnkeferI entered my first short story contest in 2009 on a dare—and won. Until then I never considered submitting a story for publication. I thought of myself as an unpublished novelist, not a writer of short stories. Since then, I’ve had four more stories and a poem published. But this is not a story about publishing. It’s a story about the dare.

A few months earlier, my writing group had launched a non-profit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia, called WriterHouse. The deadline for the annual fiction contest sponsored by the local free weekly newspaper was approaching. The competition was popular because it was judged by John Grisham. The seven of us in our writing group, now the board of directors of the nonprofit, decided it would be good publicity for our fledgling organization if one of us won the contest. So, on a dare, we all submitted stories.

A few weeks later, Grisham made his decision. My story won first place, and third place went to a story from another member of our group. The first sentence in the article announcing the winners was:  “It may just take one to read a story, but it takes a community to inspire a winning entry.”

That opening sentence perfectly captured the spirit of what had happened. I was inspired to do something I hadn’t thought of doing because a group of us were doing it together. Certainly founding WriterHouse, a writing community center, is not something any one of us would have undertaken alone. A writer’s voice can carry far, but it carries farther when it is amplified by community.

In the five years since WriterHouse was founded, dozens of our members and students have been encouraged by their instructors and fellow writers to send their work out, and dozens have been published, some for the first time. Writers who had never dreamed of reading in public have stood before audiences and shared their work, and then come back to do it again and again. The best writers are full of self-doubt and anxiety, which can silence them if they let it. Sometimes we need a push from a friend to take ourselves where we need to go.

At WriterHouse there is a Science Fiction/Fantasy group that meets monthly. In between, they stay in touch using an email list. One day a new member of the group wrote an email about having just read an article that convinced her she was a terrible writer. She was about to quit writing. Within five minutes there was a flood of responses from the rest of the list. “Keep trying,” they told her. “Don’t give up. We’re here for you.” The rest of the group hardly knew this woman, and yet they wanted to boost her back up onto that high wire and hold her steady until she could balance herself once again. Reading those messages made me proud to have been a part of bringing those writers together.

It’s not easy to find other writers who will support us. There are those whose first question is “what’s in it for me?” rather than “how can I help?” There are some who only want to be admired and told their work is perfect as it is, who don’t understand the difference between support and uncritical validation. But out there somewhere is a community for every writer who is sincere, honest, and generous. If your town doesn’t have an organization like WriterHouse, consider taking a writing class at a community college, starting a book club, or running an ad on Craigslist. It may take some trial and error to find fellow writers.

Don’t settle for a group that doesn’t nurture you and your art. But don’t expect it to be free. You must be willing to extend yourself toward others as well. Sometimes you will give much more than you get. But if it’s the right group, they will be there for you when it’s your turn. They will commiserate with you when you receive rejections. They will celebrate with you when you receive acceptances. They will tell you when your writing needs more work. They will laugh when you write something funny, and they will shed a tear when you have written something moving. Most of all, your community will dare you to be your best.

Rachel Unkefer, President and Founding Member of WriterHouse, was co-founder and CEO  of a technical bookstore chain, Computer Literacy Bookshops, in Silicon Valley. She is currently looking for a literary agent for her first novel, A Useful Life, (which was a quarter-finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) and working on the  second draft of her second novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Crab Orchard      Review, Prime Number Magazine, as well as other publications. She has received        fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Writers in the Heartland.

Author Contact:

The View from My Chair

Also of Interest:

Writer House Blog

 National Novel Writing Month

 

 

An Interview with Sheryl Louise Rivett

 

 

 So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art

 

Sheryl Louise Rivett is the blog editor at So to Speak, a George Mason University literary journal. She is also a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Mason, where she is working with two members of the Mason Health Administration and Policy faculty to edit and organize a forthcoming textbook on managing integrated healthcare systems in today’s ever-changing environment. She enjoys reading the inspiring work of leading thinkers and administrators in healthcare and providing creative support to the project. She holds a BIS in Women’s Studies in Communication from Mason and an MA in creative nonfiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University.

As a Sally Merten Fellow, Rivett taught in the public schools and Fairfax County libraries. She has also taught creative writing in homeschooling cooperatives in the far west DC suburbs, as well as composition at Northern Virginia Community College. In addition to teaching, she has served on the advisory board for the Virginia Board of Medicine, worked as a lay health counselor for disadvantaged women in Loudoun County, and has formed grassroots organizations that focus on women’s health. Rivett’s essays have appeared in numerous publications, and she is the author of Mothers & Midwives: Women’s Stories of Childbirth

 

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

RIVETT: The complexities that are inevitable in life: our relationships; our life events and our responses to them, whether tragic or joyful; and the ways in which people persevere and adapt; the way in which luck affects so much.

The voices of the past. Nothing is more inspiring than examining old photographs and trying to imagine a story behind the one-dimensional image. As a young child, family photographs taken in the towns and cities that my ancestors made their homes fascinated me. I’d wonder if the two women in the photograph had a strained relationship or an easy one; whether the man seated with his son, who I’d heard was a drinker, had a soft and redeemable side; whether the stout, stern woman who always wore a grimace loved to bake. When did the little girl holding the brown and white dog first realize that her mother had asked her father to leave, that she no longer had a father to tuck her in at night or attend her school events like most of the children in her Midwestern neighborhood in the 1940s.

I also feel a responsibility to the stories that have been entrusted to me along the way. For instance, I worked on a psychiatric unit when I was an undergraduate, and the patients often shared their life stories with me. I was an easy conduit, sitting behind the counter working as the unit secretary or sitting in a chair in front of the elevator to “monitor” any patient who tried to leave. (It seems kind of funny now. How would I have been able to do anything?) The elderly patients were the ones who would surround me while I sat at the elevator. I found so much truth in the lines of their faces and the depths of their eyes; they experienced so much despair over their handicapping behavior and idiosyncrasies. One man used to sit and pick imaginary peaches. He was depressed that the family farm, a peach orchard, had been sold. He sunk into dementia, where he imagined he could still pick summer peaches on his Virginia farm. Many of their lives had been quite remarkable, but society had shifted in such a way that their families couldn’t care for them because of their neurological illnesses and resulting behaviors. They were lonely and spun stories for me throughout my eight-hour shifts. My college textbooks remained unopened on the table beside me. I never found the time to open a book.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

picture of the author Sheryl Louise Rivett

 

RIVETT: I love the drafting process! In fact, I’m most comfortable there. I can lose myself for hours in a story that I see in my mind, guided by intuition about one or two characters. During the drafting process, I do sentence revision constantly, and I read sections out loud, so there’s minor revision happening even as I’m jumping into the heart of a story. More serious revision is something I do best when my initial pieces have had time to breathe, to rest in a drawer or in a folder on my laptop. Once a piece has had time to rest, I find I develop a different relationship with it. It’s as if I’m meeting an old friend for coffee and we’re catching up. I’ve changed, the way the piece feels to me has changed, and we become reacquainted; our relationship deepens when I dive back into it and mold it with fresh eyes attuned to revision. I can better see where to cut the fat, where to expand, and whether there’s a better way to tell the story when I’ve had time away from it.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

RIVETT: First and foremost: relationships, whether a mother and daughter, a husband and wife, or simply a chance encounter between two strangers. I’m fascinated by the way in which people affect one another and the ways in which life changes for a character, whether for the better or for the worse, because of a relationship with another person.

But medicine is another, equally important, theme in my work. I see medicine as an art that can be practiced badly—or with revolutionary results. What one generation deems genius, might be the next generation’s nightmare. In modern times, it seems to me that medical rhetoric is often definitive. Take this medication for this. If you have this disease it means X. Have a complaint? We have the answer, but don’t ask questions, we know best. We have entered a time when questioning and mystery and mistakes are not a part of the rhetoric—at least in terms of what is communicated to the public or to the patient. And so I think modern society is ill equipped to cope with illness on a real and authentic level. Finding stories that examine those real and authentic moments—or conversely, the panic when they don’t exist—is a focus in my writing.

I find the questioning and creativity inherent in the art of good medicine to be interesting, whether in modern times or in the past. Medicinal herbs and homeopathy, ancient forms of medicine like shamanism. Equally fascinating are the botched beginnings, like lobotomies and other early psychiatric practices. Where have we erred and what have we gotten right? What have we forgotten or discounted out of arrogance? How has this enhanced or devastated a person’s life? A family? A community?

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

RIVETT: So many teachers! From my sixth grade teacher Mr. Donovan to my first college composition teacher Judy Straffin. More recently, I’ve had the fortune of learning from Tim Wendel, Bill Loizeaux, Ed Perlman, Suzanne Fierston, Susan Richards Shreve, Alan Cheuse and Helon Habila.

I consider Helon a mentor as well as a teacher, and I’m fortunate that I’ll have the chance to work with him as my thesis adviser at Mason. I think every writer has a unique method for gathering story and finding the inspiration to express it most creatively on paper. Helon is the mentor who understands what I’m trying to do with my writing and who gives these quiet, generous nuggets of advice that fit just right, propelling me farther down my path as a writer.

All of my mentors and teachers have fanned the flames of my creativity and offered necessary challenges and advice. I’m grateful to them all.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

RIVETT: Trust your vision. Trust your instincts. Especially in the beginning. Write it through to the end before considering major revision. Only listen to trusted readers who understand your work.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

RIVETT: Lately I’ve been expanding a rough story into a full-length novel. The main character is a young, single woman who lives in Washington D.C. during the 1950s. Her narrative shifts back and forth between her current life and memories of her childhood with a mentally ill mother. The other major characters who narrate parts of the story are the two women who have had the greatest impact on her life: the adoptive mother, and the biological mother who gave her up. It has what I consider feminist themes in that it examines women’s tough choices during several different decades. And it includes an examination of psychiatry in the middle of the 20th century.

I plan to return to a nonfiction project I started some time ago under the guidance of Bill Loizeaux, when I was in the master’s program at Johns Hopkins University. The project, a memoir, deals with a health crisis, the possibility of inter-generational illness, the environment, and a quest for healing. It will be my last semester in the Mason MFA program, and Steve Goodwin will be serving as my mentor on the memoir. I’m excited to revisit the material and commit to a final form.

I will be working on both book projects at the same time, which I’m sure will be challenging, but I find that writing nonfiction gives me a necessary reprieve from fiction and vice versus. I enjoy jumping from one form to another. When I do, solutions for the other form typically appear in my consciousness. It’s a very synergistic process.

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                                       Author Contact:

 So to Speak

sherylrivett@gmail.com.

Photo Credit:

                                     Alyssa Polcek-Peek

 

 

An Interview with Teresa Burns Murphy

Book cover for the Secret to FlyingTeresa Burns Murphy is a talented writer and (happily for me) a dear friend. Her debut YA novelThe Secret to Flying, published by TigerEye Publications in 2011, is told from the perspective of an adolescent girl named Donita Tosh and explores the intricacies of the mother-daughter bond. For Donita, growing up poor in a small Arkansas town during the 1980s is difficult enough, but having a mother with a scandalous reputation makes her life practically unbearable. Donita’s mother has always told her the secret to overcoming obstacles is to release everything that weighs her down. Yet her mother’s association with a succession of unscrupulous men is a weight Donita can’t quite shake. When her mother refuses to divulge the whereabouts of Donita’s father, Donita begins to believe the malicious gossip circulating about her mother. Once Donita learns the truth about her father, she is stunned by her mother’s resilience in the face of crushing adversity.

 Alan Cheuse, book commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and author of Song of Slaves in the Desert, describes The Secret to Flying as “a distinctive tale that starts with a keen sense of narrative and deep insight into human relations, and just keeps going.” Richard Peabody, prolific writer and editor of Gargoyle Magazine, describes the novel as “part Harper Lee, part David Lynch,” adding that “Teresa Burns Murphy juggles a full menu of toxic bells and whistles—shotguns, rape, extortion and more—in her debut novel. Teenage Donita navigates the slaloms of adolescence in small town Arkansas circa 1982. She rattles the bars of her caged life trying to escape while struggling to solve the puzzle that is her mother, find the father she never knew, and come to grips with a tangled web of imperfect love. Donita suffers a few close calls before discovering that forgiveness, more than understanding, is what the heart craves most. Murphy takes us along for the ride and brings us back high on adrenaline and very much alive.”  Montage of Recent Publications

Murphy’s writing has appeared in Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock Press, 2012), Academic Exchange QuarterlyGargoyle MagazineInquiryPulse Literary Review, Science TeacherSouthern Women’s ReviewTHEMA, the Washington Post, and Westview. She won the 1996 WORDS Award for Fiction and was a semi-finalist for the 2005 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.  Her short story, Halloween Gifts,” was a finalist for the 2006 Kate Braverman Short Story Prize, and her poem,Geometry Lesson,” was a finalist for the 2009 Janice Farrell Poetry Prize. Originally from Arkansas, she currently lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C.

 

Teresa Burns Murphy, Author Photo by Margaret Murphy HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

BURNS MURPHY: I am inspired by people and their stories. Everybody has a story. I grew up in a culture where storytelling was as natural as breathing. I listened to family stories, work stories, Bible stories, and survival stories. The potential for drama lurked in each facet of everyday life. Later, I read the works of writers–Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers—whose stories resonated with me.

When I was an MFA student at George Mason University, I had the privilege of studying with a wonderful writer—Richard Bausch. I had read his short story, “What Feels Like the World,” and was so inspired by it. In that story, he does what all good storytellers aspire to do; he delivers each literary element in a way that elicits the maximum emotional impact. By the time readers get to the last word, they know everything they need to know about the characters through the details Bausch has sprinkled through the narrative. Upon absorbing these details, readers feel the protagonist’s pain as he watches someone he loves confront an everyday obstacle that for other people is no big deal, but for her is everything.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

BURNS MURPHY: Post-it notes and yellow legal pads are scattered all over my house when I am composing a piece, so I can jot down ideas as they arrive. After I have written a draft, I type it and then I print it out and go over it numerous times, making changes. Often, the story doesn’t work and whole parts of it have to be rewritten. Once that is done, revision begins again. This procedure repeats itself over and over and over again until I have a draft I can present to others to critique. I find drafting extremely energy draining and revision energy producing. Once I have that original blob down on paper, I can begin to shape it. The shaping can go on endlessly, so eventually I either give up on the piece or send it out into the world.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

BURNS MURPHY: The most important theme in my work is letting go. The theme is present in almost everything I write. In The Secret to Flying, the main character’s mother tells her she must release everything that weighs her down. Metaphorically, Donita must be able to release the negativity in her life if she is going to be weightless enough to “fly.” In another novel I have written, two characters, a middle school boy and his grandmother, are overweight, and they feel that the extra weight is keeping them from leading the lives they want to lead. So they let go of the weight.

Though I can’t be totally sure why this theme recurs, I have a pretty good idea. When I was growing up, I was always encouraged by older and wiser members of my family to hold on to the positive and release the negative. My mother even sang me the lyrics of the Johnny Mercer song, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” a time or two, particularly the lines—“You’ve got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative.” Another reason is more straightforward. I was a chubby kid; and, one day, I decided I didn’t want to be chubby anymore. So, just as some of the characters in my fictional stories have done, I literally let go of that extra weight.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

BURNS MURPHY: I have had so many fabulous teachers and mentors—my family members as well as my teachers from elementary school through graduate school. However, one teacher, Susan Richards Shreve, stands out because she did for me what all good mentors do. She put me on a path to get the encouragement I needed to keep writing.

When I completed the thesis for my MFA, which was a novel that eventually became The Secret to Flying, I gave it to Susan. I was so nervous while I waited for her to read it. I remember going to her office at Mason after she told me she had read the manuscript. She is a writer whose work I admire, and she is a very kind and generous person, but she can also be fierce.

When I came into her office, she looked at me with her piercing brown eyes, handed me the manuscript and said, “I love it.”

I was over the moon!

Later, she gave me a list of agents, and I sent the manuscript off to them. Some of them expressed interest in the manuscript, but they ultimately declined it. Through it all, Susan continued to encourage me, but I was a bit disheartened. Then, I saw an ad for the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, so I emailed Susan to ask her if I should send my manuscript to them.

Very quickly, she replied with a two-word email, “Submit it!”

Though I didn’t win the Peter Taylor Prize, I was a semi-finalist for it, and the director sent me a very encouraging letter. A few months later, I got a phone call from a man who had published some of Peter Taylor’s work, and he invited me to send him the first few chapters of my novel. Then, he asked for the entire manuscript.  He ended up not taking it because his company doesn’t publish young adult novels, but he was very supportive and even gave me the name of another publisher he thought might be interested in the novel. Those experiences kept me going through some pretty lean times.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

BURNS MURPHY: Keep listening to other people’s stories, all the while observing them for the details that remain unspoken. Keep reading other people’s stories. And, keep writing. Then read the stories you have written out loud to yourself and consider whether or not the characters would have presented themselves in the way that you have presented them. Authenticity is essential to writing stories that stir the emotions of others and leave a lasting impact.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

BURNS MURPHY: In recent months, I have been writing short creative nonfiction pieces for a former student’s gratitude blog. Writers tend not to be the happiest people in the world, and I read that research in neuroscience has indicated that being grateful can help people be happy. I wanted to see if that was true, so I started writing about the people in my life for whom I am most grateful. In that blog post, I wrote about how my mother helped me study for a class with a very difficult teacher when I was a little girl.

My mother was typically a stickler for good grades, 
but when those C’s began appearing on my report card, 
she told me to do my best and not worry so much about the grade I got. 
Even when the C’s dropped to a C- during one grading period, 
she didn’t reprimand me.

“I don’t want to make a D,” I sobbed 
as I handed her the offending report card.

“You won’t,” my mother reassured me. 
“I’ve got a plan for improving your penmanship.”

My mother’s plan was for me to copy her handwriting, 
five pages each weeknight for the next six weeks. 
If I completed my work before my favorite television shows 
came on after the evening news, I could watch them. 
If not, those Beverly Hillbillies would have to 
exasperate and outsmart the city folk without me. 
The cast of Lost in Space would have to escape 
the villains of the cosmos without this 
small earthling cheering them on. And worst of all, 
I would miss the antics of that adorable sheepdog in 
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. 
Desperate to go to places where there were no
 mean third grade teachers, 
I filled up those five pages night after night 
as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley droned on 
about the escalating war in Vietnam 
and the rising racial tensions at home.

You can find all of Murphy's "My Mother's Emmy Award Winning Moment" 
at Your Daily Dose of Gratitude

 Author Contact: Teresa Burns Murphy, author photo by Margaret Murphy

 www.teresaburnsmurphy.com

 http://www.linkedin.com/pub/teresa-burns-murphy/23/956/781

 https://twitter.com/teresalmva

 Photo Credit:

 Margaret Murphy


Necklace by Varda Avnisan