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Interview with Grant Faulkner

Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month and co-founder of the literary journal 100 Word Story. His collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures, was published by Press 53, and two of those 100-word pieces were featured in Best Small Fictions 2016. His collection of essays on creativity, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Prompts to Boost Your Creative Mojo, is forthcoming in October 2017 by Chronicle Books. His short stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, The Los Angeles Review and Five Points, and he has published essays on the creative process in publications such as the New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest and The Writer. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

We sat down to talk about Grant’s many projects, the merits of brevity and clogging. And we also share a new story by this expert of the 100-word story for our September tree-themed issue.

Flash Frontier: Let’s begin with your new book, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. Can you share with us how the idea of this book came about, and how long you’ve been working on it?

Grant Faulkner: Over the years, I’ve talked to a number of writers who succeeded at NaNoWriMo and were creatively galvanized by the experience, but sometimes they had difficulty keeping that creative momentum going all year. Many writers face this challenge, of course. It’s one thing to start a novel or finish a rough draft, but it’s quite another thing to finish a novel and work on it and/or other writing projects throughout the year.

I believe everyone should prioritize creativity in their lives and make it a daily practice, so I wrote these 52 short essays to serve as motivational reminders of different ways to live a creative life, be a writer and realize your creative potential. I wrote the book in a year or so, but I’ve actually been thinking about these topics for several years, if not a lifetime.

FF: In the introduction to your new book, you note that society does not necessarily reward us for being creative. I wonder if you can elaborate on this more here?

GF: I think when most people say, “I am a writer” or “I am an artist”, they’re likely to experience resistance or negative judgments somewhere along the way. Perhaps the worst moments are when someone’s face falls into a vacant expression. They just don’t know how to respond to such a thing.

I don’t know why that is. Maybe some envy others for claiming their creativity, for doing something they might not be brave enough to do. And then sometimes they resent that you’re not working a practical job that will allow you to purchase a nice car, a nice house. There is more pressure in society for people to have nice cars and nice houses than there is to be creative, which is so sad.

Rarely does anyone say, “Oh, you’re writing a novel. What an amazing, daring task that is! You must be dedicated and determined and hard-working! You must be attentive to the poetry and nuances of life. You must be a thinker!”

It takes bravery to be a writer. You’re generally not rewarded financially. You have to show up and write every day, usually in utter solitude, and then face questions from friends and family such as, “Are you published yet?” I recommend that you banish the quest for external rewards and seek your reward in writing the story itself.

FF: How did your own experiences impel you toward National Novel Writing Month, known as NaNoWriMo?

GF: When I first did NaNoWriMo in 2009, I was at a stage in my writing life where I’d been doing it for years, and I was too ensconced in my creative process. I suppose I was in a rut. I asked myself whether I chose my creative process or whether it chose me? In other words, I wondered if everything needed to be questioned, if it was time to shake it all up and experiment.

Also, I had two young children at the time. I was frustrated that I didn’t have more time to write, and my list of novel ideas was growing faster than the pace of my words on the page. I thought it would be a great idea to just plunge in and write under different circumstances – to write with abandon, within the pressure of a constraint of time, and with speed.

That experiment paid off because I found that I took creative risks that I wouldn’t have ordinarily taken and learned new approaches to writing. It’s also been an amazingly effective way to keep moving forward on a number of writing projects – kids’ soccer games and all!

FF: And while we’re talking about NaNoWriMo, we note that as of 2016, you saw more than 8 million words written in that month. That’s a lot of words – and from all over the world, from the US where it began to Europe to Micronesia to Kenya to New Zealand. How has the project changed since its early days?

GF: Oh, people wrote much more than 8 million words. More than 300,000 people participated in 2016 – and more than 400,000 people did if you include our Young Writers Program. Billions of words were written.

In most ways, though, NaNoWriMo hasn’t changed that much, other than its widespread popularity. When Chris Baty “accidently” founded it in 1999, he wrote with 20 or so of his friends in a café. Community is still the heart of NaNoWriMo – online, in the write-ins that nearly 1,000 volunteers organize around the world, and in the writing gatherings hosted by more than 1,000 libraries, book stores and cafés.

We break down the mythology of the solitary writer. It takes a village to write a novel. People tend to be more creative with others, even it’s just sitting alongside strangers in a café. Chris and his friends took that creative spirit of community even further. They did a variety of motivational competitions together, such as word sprints, which are still a big part of the NaNoWriMo experience.

Also, writing with others – letting other people know that you’ve set out to accomplish a big creative act – builds in a system of accountability. Your friends will ask you how your novel is coming, so you feel pressure to finish. And then writing with others is fun. The act of writing needs a little playfulness and whimsy because there’s obviously plenty of anguish involved in it. Everything we do flows in some way from that first year Chris and his friends wrote novels.

FF: “As long as we are writing, we are cultivating meaning.” You state that in your new book. Do you believe that is the same for all arts? Do you think artists above all others are the ones cultivating meaning in our world? Can you elaborate here a bit more?

GF: Humans are wired to be creative. Just walk into any preschool, and you’ll see kids cavorting in the act of making things, whether it’s fingerpainting, singing or dancing. We’re all artists to some degree. Unfortunately, as we get older, the muscular, brutish and demanding forces of practicality tend to enter our lives and elbow creativity out of the way – or outright bully it into submission.

So it saddens me when I hear people say, “I’m not a creative type” or “I’m not a writer.” We make meaning of the world, of ourselves, through the stories we tell. Stories function as our telescope, our microscope, our wide-angle lens, our Ouija board, our thermometer, our test tube, our owner’s manual and much more as we walk through the world. We all have a story to tell, and each story is important because it’s a unique gift that only one person can tell.

So, I believe that everyone needs to prioritize creativity – in order to cultivate meaning. Too many people think “other people” are artists instead of realizing that they, too, are artists.

FF: You have 52 ‘pep talks’ in the book, ranging from creative urging to pragmatic advice. If you could name five that are most essential, which would they be?

GF: NaNoWrimo introduced me to the value of a word-count goal and a deadline – function as creative midwives. You don’t have to write 50,000 words in a month. What if you decided to write just 6,000 words in a month? That’s only 200 words per day. Most people can do that. And if you do that for twelve months, you’ll have a good-sized draft of a novel.

Within that daily rigor, though, it’s important not to forget the value of playfulness, so I have several chapters on topics like bringing improv acting into your writing, embracing “the absurd” just for the sake of it or getting out and literally playing. How long has it been since you’ve done a somersault?

Such playfulness inspires “failing better” – number three on my list, for those who are counting. Writing is largely about failure. A writer is like a baseball player who hits the ball 30% of the time if he’s a good hitter. Karen Russell says her final draft only includes 10% of her first draft. That’s because she’s experimenting and working through all of her misses on her way to a polished novel.

Part of the process of “failing better” includes how to persevere through rejection. Rejection can ironically be your friend, helping you to hone your skills and refine your story even more. The main thing is to develop thick – slippery – skin and keep going.

And then there’s number 5: success. There are many different ways to define it, so it’s important to consider what writing really means to you, whether that’s publication or something else. It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to reach mastery in any field, so the main thing is to keep writing, keep practicing and make your life a celebration of the creativity within you.

FF: You address ideas around inspiration, such as the idea of the muse and the idea of the shoshin, the ‘beginner’s mind’ in Zen Buddihism. Can you provide some insight as to your own muse (as varied as it may be) and also examples of your own experiencing embracing the ‘beginner’s mind’ when you set about writing?

GF: I’ve never thought much about my own muse, but when I do, I realize how many forms it takes. Sometimes I write in a direct conversation with another person, especially if there’s someone in my life whose spirit and style captivates and inspires me. Sometimes I write in conversation with myself. And other times, I write with the voices of my favorite authors guiding me. I’ve written many stories with the rhythms of James Salter’s sentences in my mind – or Marilynne Robinson’s, or Denis Johnson’s and others. I’ve had a lifelong obsession with Leonard Cohen, and I love when I can hear the timbre of his words in my head. I’m always reading a book of poetry because I like to be influenced by Emily Dickinson’s dictum for poetry: “tell it slant.”

Per the “beginner’s mind”: my favorite era of writing was the very beginning, when I wrote stories just because I wanted to write. I wasn’t immersed in this world of publishing and career matters, which can perniciously eat their way into the truth of your words. Your career – any quest for recognition and status – can be a blood-sucking parasite on your imagination and your soul.

When I first started writing, I loved how it was all such a pure exploration, how open I was to trying things just for the sake of trying them, like kids fingerpainting. So I try to remind myself of that feeling. I like writing as if I don’t know any rules and don’t have any true expectations of the story becoming good enough to publish. In fact, sometimes it’s good to sit down and write just to have fun, with no end goal, no desire to have the words attach themselves to your ego or career.

FF: About your collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, you write: “We live in odd gaps of silence, irremediable interstices that sometimes last forever.” Is that space the place where a lot of your flash fiction and micros originates?

GF: Yes, I find all of the odd gaps of silences in life so entrancing, and also often disturbing. Life isn’t a round, complete circle – it’s shaped with fragments, shards, snapshots, tiny gems, tickles, pinpricks, etcetera. The brevity of flash is perfect for capturing the small but telling moments when life pivots almost unnoticeably, yet profoundly.

I was fortunate enough to stumble on Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms when I was very young, and I’ve been thinking of her definition for her pieces ever since. Tropisms refers to the biological word for the physical turning of living organisms in reaction to an external stimuli. Sarraute sees these subconscious pulses as fleeting and often indecipherable, so we are unable to comprehend them when they happen. I love short shorts because they’re perfectly equipped to capture tropisms, the odd gaps of life.

FF: Here at Flash Frontier, we keep it trim at 250 words. Tell us about going a step further to the 100-word story. Pros and cons? Loves and hates?

GF: When I first started writing 100-word stories, I could never get them below 150 words. I’d trained myself to be a novelist, after all. It took a lot of practice, but what I learned was how the constraint of the tight little box of the form, sparked a different kind of creativity. One hundred is an arbitrary number, but I always find that the story is better once I get it to 100 words. Unlike longer forms, I have to scrutinize every word, every sentence, and distill the story to its essentials. It still amazes me how often I find a flabby phrase or an unnecessary word when I’m carving these pieces down.

I don’t have any cons or hates. Each form of writing, whether it’s a sonnet, a novel or a haiku, invites different possibilities. I’ve never seen a form of writing that didn’t offer an interesting opportunity for expression.

FF: Let’s talk about flash in the era of Twitter. You state in your essay, ‘Going long, going short’: “Flash allows literature to be a part of our everyday life, even if we are strange multitasking creatures addled by a world that demands more, more, more.” How do you reconcile the non-stop barrage of information we face in the Twitter age with the idea of creating something beautiful? Everything we create is not beautiful, that is: some of it is, well, just noise. Tell us how you embrace the age of Twitter and keep your head. How do you keep focus on the beauty, the creative?

GF: It’s interesting to me how we’re all grappling so deeply with social media both personally and as a culture. I’m fascinated by how many cocktail or dinner party conversations veer toward people’s feelings about social media – and how deep our need is to reckon with it. Social media has nearly eclipsed the weather as the ultimate communal topic. It’s as if our minds have been taken over by an overwhelmingly beautiful, interesting and fun lover, but she or he is too much, too crazy, too everpresent, too demanding. We feel we’re ruining ourselves even as we reach out with yearning again and again.

That said, we’re also living in the golden age of writing because more people are writing more words than ever. It can be wondrous and magical. I often stop in my tracks when I encounter a Facebook post or tweet that holds absolute truth and was obviously written from the heart. Like a good story, when a writer writes with heart and vulnerability, we connect to the story in a profound way. We all have a responsibility to try to be as beautiful on social media as we are in our stories. I wish more people held their tweets and posts to a standard of beauty and generosity.

FF: Can you speak a bit about the range of style you see at 100 Word Story? I know from reading its pages we find stories ranging from dark humour to serious contemplative reflections to moments of the absurd. Do you think shorter and shorter lends itself to such variety?

GF: We do see it all, which has been interesting. I’m always so pleased when someone does something surprising with the form that I could have never anticipated. I don’t think the shortness of the form leads to such variety. I think a variety of approaches speaks to the magnificence of people’s creativity, just as there are such different approaches to all forms.

FF: Your friend Paul Strohm wrote a memoir in 100-word moments. Have you tried the same?

GF: I haven’t written a memoir in 100-word stories, but I’m writing a type of memoir through brief pieces, snippets of thoughts and experiences. I was inspired years ago by Czeslaw Milosz’s ABC’s. It’s a wide open form where you tell stories according to the letter of an alphabet. For example, under A you might write about Alchemy and Alabama. Under B you might write about Bingo and Big Foot. The letters of the alphabet serve as prompts, a way to tell the story of your life in a different narrative pattern.

FF: What’s next for you?

GF: Not to be overly dramatic, but I’m now at an age when I can see mortality rising its head on the distant horizon and winking at me flirtatiously. Time is short, in other words, so I feel a greater urgency than ever.

I just finished a novel that’s now with my agent, The Letters, which is a flash novel of sorts. It’s an epistolary novel, a tragic and forbidden love story where one character continues to communicate with his lover through letters that might or might not ever be sent. I also have a collection of short stories with my agent.

I’m nearly done with the first draft of a novel based on my experiences with my high school debate team, which was essentially the “Bad News Bears” of the debate circuit. Debauchery and decadence, love and death – and dramatic debates. I’m also working a new book of miniature essays, 365 Creative Meditations, which is an extension of Pep Talks for Writers, but more poetic and spiritual. And then we’re putting out a collection of the best 100-word stories we’ve published in 100 Word Story in spring 2018 with Outpost 19 Books.

Beyond that, I have an entire file full of more novel ideas than I’ll ever be able to write. I prefer to live forever.

FF: And you are a professional clogger…? Tell us more!

GF: I’m the strangest professional clogger on the circuit. I only give rare performances. Usually to my family late on a Friday evening. If you walk into the kitchen on such a night, you’re likely to find an empty bottle of wine or two. I’ve yet to meet anyone who is a better drunken clogger than me, but I accept all challenges. I also tap dance.

Thank you, Grant!

Readers can find out more about Grant’s new book on Amazon and more about the author on his website.


A new story by Grant Faulkner, for this month’s tree-themed issue:

Skins

If only we could go out back, like when we were kids, and smoke and fool around under the trees. We listened to our parents’ parties, their ashtrays filling up with butts, rumblings of laughter. Why did they want us to grow up to be like them? They didn’t think we’d mingle with evil. They didn’t anticipate inclinations toward torpor. We imagined the husbands loved the wives, boxer shorts and JC Penney bras. But we knew so much more, mosquitoes biting our skin. We knew it’s best to stay out of the way, even if there is no way back.


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