Nancy Stebbins is a psychiatrist who lives in College Station, Texas. She has an MFA from Pacific University and is working on a novel. She is the current president of Brazos Writers, and a staff editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. Her short stories and flash have appeared in several online and print journals, and are listed on her fiction page.
Nancy’s Critical Introduction for Pacific University MFA in Writing
First though, I’d like to make sure you all know how much I appreciate you: my advisors, workshop leaders, and the other faculty I never got to work with directly, for the knowledge and wisdom you pour into your craft talks and workshops. Shelley, Colleen and Tenley for your dedication and patience. My fellow students. Thank you all so much.
I originally titled this talk “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch,” because I had been pondering transitions in my work, experimenting with making them less and less explicit, especially after doing Pam’s famous writing exercise involving the three memories. At one point I shared with Kellie that this felt foreign to me, as I’d always been a “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch” sort of writer. And while this has been an important element in the novel, I’d like to officially change the title of this talk to A Tilted World, because I think it has a more overarching meaning.
It has been difficult to narrow down the sort of writing that resonates most with me, because my favorite works seem to have little in common. I love magical realism, Southern Gothic, metafiction, and works that exhibit a wry humor. My favorite writers have included such diverse people as Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Peter Taylor, and Carson McCullers.
Kellie used a fascinating phrase early last semester, as we were talking about genres: she spoke of writing that “tilts toward” the magical. I began to think about how the works I love don’t rebuild the world, but instead tilt it just a little through magic or humor, or the odd juxtaposition, all of which cause a sudden shift in understanding, a reframing.
I think this also explains my love of flash fiction. Kellie, who puts things so eloquently, wrote the following, when I described my struggle in flash fiction over how loose or tight to make connections. She said, “Flash fiction is an inherently eccentric form, because abbreviation and distillation automatically tilt even the most realistic of situations.”
It’s not difficult to trace the origins of my leanings towards these sorts of works. When I was two, my infant brother almost died of whooping cough and I was sent to stay with my grandparents, who had moved away from our small town to build a house deep in the woods near Huntsville, Texas.
Going to my grandparents’ house was like stepping into an alternate world. By choice, they had no running water, no electricity. Behind their house was a field that blossomed with bluebells and a pond where my grandfather and I fished with cane poles. Even as a small child, I was allowed to wake up at four in the morning to drink coffee with him. This grandfather was both a hero and a jokester, and often I couldn’t tell which was which: He promised to put a wasp in the pocket of the doctor who had given me a shot of antibiotic. He also taught me how to spell my name when I was three: ROTTEN. Some of the things I think I remember are so fantastic that I have to question them now: I picture him swimming back to shore holding a cotton mouth he had killed in the water.
My grandmother was both very religious and humorous. Side-by-side on her small bookshelf were Hemingway novels, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and her collection of Christian romances. She liked to read to me from a book of fairy tales. One story featured a tiny prince who rode around on a butterfly. In the evenings, when it was cooler, my grandmother and I would walk through the yard to admire her bachelor buttons and her roses, and when we’d see a butterfly, she’d casually mention that it might contain our tiny prince.
There was always a sense of story, and I eventually wrangled most of them out of her and my mother. My grandfather’s first wife and one of their children had died in the flu epidemic, and he spied my grandmother in a train station when she was about nineteen. She and two of her brothers were traveling to west Texas. The story goes that he caught one glimpse of her and then ran around peeking in cars to find her again. Over her brothers’ objections, my grandmother gave him her address, and later he wrote to her, enclosing a picture. For a reason that has never been entirely understood by anyone but my grandfather, it was his brother’s picture.
They married, but my grandfather’s domineering mother would not let the new, young daughter-in-law raise my grandfather’s one surviving child from his first marriage. And yet, as a midwife, this woman—my great-grandmother–delivered all nine of my grandmother’s children.
On Friday, Jack (Driscoll) talked about memories and how they make us who we are. If you think about it, who we are determines what we remember, which determines who we are. All of the memories I’ve spoken of were experienced by a painfully shy, but precocious child, one who was sensitive to all the contradictions around her.
As an undergraduate, I majored in languages, and fell in love with latin American literature, the magical realism, for its “tilt” on reality. When I began to write in my mid-thirties, I wanted to create these sorts of works, but didn’t know where to start. My early efforts were clumsy, over-the-top stories, full of clichés and gimmicks.
My first semester at Pacific, I had no clue who to request for an advisor, so I left it up to Shelley. She assigned me to Valerie Miner, which turned out to be fortuitous. When I think of that spring, the things that most stand out are the specific assignments Valerie gave: she taught me how to make a concrete revision plan for stories. She recognized my habit of reaching for gimmicks and clichés, and urged me to reconsider it. She was gentle and accurate, and sometimes humorous with her feedback. About one story, she wrote, “Nancy, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many similes in a single story.” But her biggest gift was pushing me to write flash. Valerie had her ulterior motives: being a faithful attendee at student readings, she said she was tired of fiction writers not having stories that fit within the time limits.
One last thing Valerie encouraged me to do was to write an essay on “why I write.” Here are some excerpts from that essay:
I write for the love of language, having always adored words –their sounds and nuances. I have little talent for the spoken word—speech doesn’t flow well for me, things often come out halted and wrong. So to me, writing feels like being a footless person who is able swim despite being unable to walk. I write because of the fiction I admire—an amazing coming together of story and prose and character. I love the unusual that is understated, the ordinary magical and the magical ordinary.
My second semester, I had the opportunity to work with Bonnie Jo. By then, my interest in flash fiction had grown and I knew Bonnie Jo wrote flash. In fact, in a recent online workshop covering the Rosemetal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Bonnie Jo was listed as a notable writer of flash fiction, along with Steve Almond and Robert Olen Butler. And although Bonnie Jo doesn’t tend to write magical realism, she was happy to let me explore it. In her feedback and responses, Bonnie Jo demonstrated how to think about stories. Here are some quotes from her letters:
You are sitting on a good first draft, and now you have to make it work in the most subtle and beautiful way possible.
Gosh, writing is hard work, isn’t it?
Please don’t be afraid to break Iris’s heart. Break it a little bit on every page.
And I was never happier than when she wrote, in response to one particular story:
You are now officially a magical realist and a short-short writer. (With your help, that story is in the current issue of Saint Ann’s Review.)
The biggest gift Bonnie Jo gave me was sharing how hard a writer—even a writer as talented as she is, has to work. She also preached the value of close writer friends and I’ve been so fortunate to make such friends who I hope will be lifetime critique partners in Sue Staats, Heather Sapenfield, and Loranne Brown. (And if you want to hear the popup princesss story, you can ask any of us.)
Continuing with the theme of magic and subtlety, I compared the work of Karen Russell and Kelly Link that semester. Both women write work which tilt toward the magical. I discovered that, for me, Kellie Link has an easy way of entering into her stories, no matter how far-out they eventually go. Here’s how she starts “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” begins: “This guy Soap is at a party out in the suburbs. The thing you need to know about Soap is that he keeps a small framed oil painting in the trunk of his car. The painting is about the size of a paperback novel.”
My third semester, the essay semester, I worked with Brady Udall. My goal was to get the damned essay out of the way and get back to fiction. Brady’s goal was for me to write a respectable essay. He held my feet to the fire and made me rewrite, until I was convinced I’d be the only student in history to fail the essay semester. In the end, I read and re-read some works that gave me invaluable insights into my own writing. We corresponded a lot about a writer’s identity, debating things like what it meant to be a southern writer. Brady also told me to keep writing flash, whatever else I did, because he could see that it energized me.
The problem was, I wanted to get back to the novel. It was that semester that I rediscovered Pete Dexter’s, Paper Boy. It struck me that many of Dexter’s short, energetic sections read like flash and this was so inspiring.
I had the idea of writing a novel to include flash-like sections as well as incorporating some retold Bible story flashes I’d been writing. I alternated between excitement at the idea and feeling that it was impossible and ridiculous. Luckily, my final semester, I was able to work with Kellie Wells, who was very encouraging about the novel.
Jack also said the other day, “We need models, which is why good teachers direct their students in that way.” Well, Kellie directed me to a world of literature I hadn’t known existed, and which was a perfect fit for what I was striving for. (She’s so smart.) Kellie and I have agreed that, as the book progresses, I’ll need to figure out how the flash relate not only to the surrounding pages, but what the series of them mean in the context of the book as a whole. I’m going to read a section from the novel and one of the flashes.