Masterful relaunch

Dateline: January 15, 2011

Seaside, Oregon

Today, the graduating cohort of Pacific University MFA in Writing celebrates the completion of  two years of hard work.  The ladies of fiction–Loranne Brown, Heather Sappenfield, Sue Staats and Nancy Stebbins–formed a very practical support group during these two years.  We’ve served on each other’s thesis committees.  We read each other’s work, laugh together across long distances, shore up each other’s spirits when exhausted by the insatiable demands of our beloved mentors.  We look forward to applauding each other’s successes in the years ahead.

Known privately as the Pop-up Princesses–“because every book should have a pop-up edition”–we’ve relaunched our blog to reflect the gravitas of our MFAs. Don’t expect us to be serious all the time, if ever, as we continue to share laughter and thoughts on the writing life.

Left to right: Heather Sappenfield, Loranne Brown, Sue Staats

Flash Factory Event

For the two hundredth week of Flash Factory contests, Richard Osgood has put out the word to all Factory members far and wide: we are aiming for two hundred stories this week. There are three prompts–a picture prompt, a five-word prompt, and an open prompt (which isn’t really a prompt at all). My goal is to submit three flashes this week. So let’s get to writing!

That Certain Tilt

I’ve had the opportunity to work with Kellie Wells for my final MFA semester. She’s a pretty amazing writer, and brilliant. Earlier in the semester, she used an expression that made a big impact on me: she was speaking of stories that had a magical “tilt.” It dawned on me that this “tilt” summarizes the writing I’m drawn to–and the works I hope to produce. The sorts of works that give the reader a surprising glimpse of the world at a different angle. This might happen through the employment of magic, the fantastic, humor, surprising juxtaposition or word choices., to name a few of the possibilities.

I was thinking about that while reading Kellie’s story, “Gathal Dethloff, Mother of Murder,” in this month’s issue of The Collagist. To me, her choice of words delivers sly little suprises. For example, at one point, when meeting an woman who is described to be as large as a grand piano, the narrator says, “’Hello?’ I said to Gaythal Dethloff, insufficiently.” That surprising adverb delivers.

I suggest you read it for yourself!

“Gathal Dethloff, Mother of Murder,”

Combinatorial Play, Part II

This week’s prompt at the Flash Factory is “twilight.” Sometimes a story comes right away for the prompt, but that’s unusual. More often, the prompt has to roll around for a while and see what other ideas are attracted to it. Memories and other things are “filtered” through the lens of the prompt. In a way, it’s sort of like the process of clustering, only not on paper.

So far, the ideas presenting themselves are:

1. A nudist wedding my husband arrived at, not knowing it would be a nudist wedding.
2. Insect repellent
3. Bagpipe music (it actually was a hand fasting).
4. A framed T-shirt, which reminded me of the “in case of emergency, break glass” type of alarms.

That’s the fun thing about flash: a few ideas like this, and it almost seems to write itself. We’ll see…

Combinatorial Play

Damon Knight, in Creating Short Fiction, says that a single idea does not make a short story. Two ideas do. That might sound simple enough to be practically useless, but it resonated for me. A second idea can shake loose a single idea, provide perspective, allow for a different sort of exploration and interplay. Maybe that’s why prompts involving unrelated words are so popular.

I wonder if the process is similar to Einstein’s idea of combinatorial play, which (besides its mathematical meanings) seems to imply putting two disparate things together and looking for new meanings. When I Google the term, lots of “think-better” sites come up, as well as the book, Understanding Italo Calvino. Are any of the other princesses familiar with this concept? Able to shed more light on it?

Gravitas. Gravity. Gravitas.

I just found out this morning that my flash, “Gravitas. Gravity. Gravitas,” won the July prosetry contest at Moon Milk Review. Here’s a link:

Gravitas. Gravity. Gravitas.

Busticate: More Word-Of-The-Day Fun!

Today’s word of the day from is “busticate,” a transitive verb meaning “to break into pieces.”

The dictionary at Yahoo links from this word to a discussion on mock-Latinate formations, concerning the word “absquatulate,” an intransitive verb meaning to abscond, to die, or to argue.
They say:

In the 19th century, the vibrant energy of American English appeared in the use of Latin affixes to create jocular pseudo-Latin “learned” words. There is a precedent for this in the language of Shakespeare, whose plays contain scores of made-up Latinate words. Midwestern and Western U.S. absquatulate has a prefix ab-, “away from,” and a suffix -ate, “to act upon in a specified manner,” affixed to a nonexistent base form -squatul-, probably suggested by squat. Hence the whimsical absquatulate, “to squat away from.” Another such coinage is Northern busticate, which joins bust with -icate by analogy with verbs like medicate. Southern argufy joins argue to a redundant -fy, “to make; cause to become.” Today, these creations have an old-fashioned and rustic flavor curiously at odds with their elegance. They are kept alive in regions of the United States where change is slow. For example, Appalachian speech is characterized by the frequent use of words such as recollect, aggravate, and oblige.

And here’s the link:

Jane Austen’s Fight Club

In the same refined vein as the Bronte Sisters Action Figures:

How do I keep forgetting this?

Whenever I discipline myself to make my first writing of the day a journal entry, which includes thoughts, dreams (if I remember them), free writing, ideas, and a goal for the day, my productivity improves tremendously. Seems simple enough. So how do I keep forgetting.

Are there rituals that you find helpful in your writing.


Remember Pam Houston’s talk at residency?
Of course you do!

She spoke of understory being the gap in the narrator’s reliability (what the narrator can’t or won’t tell us directly, may not know he’s telling us indirectly) and what we come to understand about the story, and how Pam–the writer–looks for evidence of that gap in her early drafts and develops them.

I’ve thought about that this week while critiquing flash factory stories and have found myself wanting to describe how that “something” under the surface makes a huge difference in a story. Maybe the next step will be to “sneak up on” the understory in my own stories.


….And there were many thoughts, of course. Here’s the conversation that ensued:

Author: Nancy
Subject: understory

I’m puzzling over understory, especially while critiquing stories this week for FF. Tara L.’s stories are so rich in understory, they’re like an archeological dig.

How do you guys think about it? Was Pam’s way of thinking about it helpful to you?

Author: Heather
Subject: understory

Pam’s craft talk was tremendously helpful for me. It hit on exactly what I am working on and struggle with in my own work. The same is true for what Mark Spragg said about not allowing his characters to be caricatures, about not letting himself be glib with his character’s actions and in his writing. Loranne can probably attest that John Rember is masterful at modeling how to
discover it on your own, at showing how to filter out the static to see the action or meaning lying beneath. After a week, I FINALLY figured out the understory in my short short “Sweet Caroline,” and geez it was hard. But I feel it’s so much richer now, her motivations so much more real and believable.

What is it you’re puzzling exactly?

Author: Nancy
Subject: understory

I’m probably making it too hard, or maybe too simple: wanting easy-to-follow rules for recognizing when it’s there. It’s easier to see in other people’s stories.

I think sometimes I don’t know what the understory is, and it ends up feeling muddy or vague: too spread out.

Would you share what Caroline’s understory is? Can you condense it to a statement?

Author: Heather
Subject: understory

Well, on the surface, Caroline is out for revenge because her sister and former boyfriend are getting married, but she is also trying to let loose, to stop being “sweet,” and to do this in a very public way. To show them all that she’s not nice. That was the story before this week, and I kept feeling like I wasn’t getting what it was trying to show me. Then I realized that the understory lies in Stone’s mother, and Stone recognizing that his mother and he are awful, that it’s not that Caroline’s too nice, it’s that they’re too mean, and he cares for her too much to subject her to that. I added scenes and phrases to highlight Caroline recognizing this as well; I had her recognize the understory with the reader. Then, I let circumstance create a loss of that, but Caroline doesn’t get it. The reader should (I hope), and this adds one more layer of understory as Caroline becomes worse than/conquors them all The new version’s attached. I hope you see it. It’s still a little rough and needs smoothing. It seems simple, but I had smoke coming out my ears trying to figure it out.

Author: Loranne
Subject: understory

I don’t think there are any easy-to-follow rules for recognizing understory, Nancy, especially in really short pieces. In my experience with short stories, it’s usually been an ah-ha moment after drafts of bumbling around looking for it. I think it’s much easier to know, recognize, and maybe even set up in advance in a novel (although there, too, it may not become evident until p. 300 — then I go back and build it into pages 1-299).

I too don’t want to miss a thing you’re all writing this semester, so just attach when you’re ready for input, tell us your deadline, and if we can’t just then, we’ll let y’all know. (I was speaking for myself so I guess that was a royal “we”.)

Author: Sue
Subject: understory

I love how we all approach this: Heather and Loranne with clear analysis and understanding, Me (and possibly Nancy) not so much. I’m more of the Huh? It means that? school of understanding just what my understory is, although I always know, for sure, that I have one. And, oddly I always start with an idea or emotion I want under the narrative, but when I’m done, I usually have several, sometimes not the one I started with, and then I can’t pick out exactly what it is. Which is why it feels so “muddy, vague, and spread-out.” I wish I had Heather and Loranne’s clear way of looking at things!

For instance, in that last story, I wanted to write about a suicidal person and how this admission messes with the lives of others. But, I think now, the story is about love, obviously a deeper and much more complicated emotion, especially given the facts of what happens in the story. Or, it may be about anger. Or, maybe, anger and love.

Yes, send all stories you want eyes on, and also, if you want, share edits/reactions from advisors. My packet isn’t due until the 27th, so I have some breathing room, and reading time!

Author: Nancy
Subject: understory

I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s confused. My mind is spinning with concepts like “aboutness,” “subtext,” “understory,” “theme” or “story argument.” But maybe it is easier with a novel?
For instance, I’ve known for a long time that a recurring theme in my novel is projective identification, and every piece I write, now, that concept seems to magically appear, even if I’m not trying.

Author: Sue
Subject: Understory

Aren’t all those concept names really, essentially, the same thing? Which would be the meaning of the story, that which is other than the plot.

Also, Nancy, what is “projective Identification?”

Author: Nancy
Subject: Understory/Projective Identification

Projective identification is when Person A believes X about Person B, or treats person B as if X is true, and Person B begins to act like X.

Author: Heather
Subject: Understory

I think subtext and theme are separate. That subtext often functions to strengthen or deepen the meaning of theme, even by contradicting itself. Maybe underplot, or undermotivation. But never underpants.

I don’t think we’re so different in how we write our stories. I have an idea on the surface and a sense of tone, and I write to convey that, then step back and see what seems to be speaking or wanting to come out below the surface. That’s the cool discovery part. Where you say, “Now why did I have her do that?” and then I look deeper. I’m reminded, here, of the packets from Bonnie Jo where she writes, “Now I wonder what this means?” or “I wonder why this happens?” I took those to mean she was puzzling/pointing out understory.

Nanc, is this helping at all?