Short Story Challenge: The Woman in the Woods

Thursday, January 31, 2008

My first official short story challenge selection is The Woman in the Woods by Ann Joslin Williams. I came to Williams by way of "Cascom Mountain Road," a story published in Story Quarterly, issue 42. There are many, many good stories in that issue but I was so entranced by that particular story, that I immediately sought out more.

Williams' collection did not disappoint. Okay, it disappointed a little when I discovered that the story I'd fallen in love with wasn't in this collection. But then I started reading and immediately became enamored with the new characters and all was well again. The stories in the collection are all set in the mountains of New Hampshire and follow a brother and sister through their lives. The collection is centered on David and Kate and in the first story we learn that they lost their father when they were children and that Kate lost a young son, and with it, her marriage. All together, the collection paints a collage of these lives, through their adolescence and the discovery of new love, through the eventual loss of their own loves, marriages, and children. Taken individually, each story is a beautiful moment in time.

"Before this day there were many other days, like the day Jeff Driver found the beagle lying dead on the trail, and how he wrapped the dog in a blue blanket, carried it to them like a baby. Or when Peter Lorde drove his big truck through the little poplar trees to make a road, and how they popped as they broke and flattened under the tires. Or when her mother and father held each other and circled the living room to the beat of a scratchy blues record, and how he lifted her and stood her on the table and held her hand so they danced like that, with him below and reaching up to her."
Williams' writing is rich with imagery, creating a world I found myself never wanting to leave. These are not just the stories of lives, but the stories of extraordinary lives. Whether it's a woman that's part deer or a cult hitching a ride on the back of a comet, there's an element of the extraordinary in every story. But it's not flashy. It's handled with such subtlety that you may lose it among the stunning prose.

I loved this collection as much as the original story that turned me on to Williams. I highly recommend it and I hope there will be more stories from Cascom Mountain one day.

January Reading


  • Second Glance by Jodi Picoult
  • Step Ball Change by Jeanne Ray
Short stories (inc. collections)
  • The Woman in the Woods by Ann Joslin Williams
  • "Cascom Mountain Road" by Ann Joslin Williams
  • "Year's End," by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • "My Old Man" by Melissa Bank
  • "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine" by Melissa Bank
Notable nonfiction
  • The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez
  • Postitively Fifth Street by James McManus

More About Morning Writing

Friday, January 25, 2008

Courtesy of Gordon at After the MFA: How to Write First Thing in the Morning.

For me, writing first thing in the morning is about focus. Years ago, a visiting writer told our seminar that the first thing she did in the morning was the thing she ended up doing all day long. Thus, she chose to start her days with writing rather than emailing forwards amongst her friends.

I've noticed that days that start with the internet often have the productivity sucked right out of them. For some reason, the internet can become all consuming for me, and not in a good way. I have squandered hours searching random crap on the internet. And trust me when I say that at the end of the day I am no better off knowing that Beck is a Scientologist or that I can ace the Facebook "Do you know your states?" quiz.

Whereas if I write for an hour or more before I check facebook or google reader, I have a much better chance of avoiding massive time suckage.

The article has a lot of good tips about getting up and getting writing. I suspect it's not even limited just to writing. If you're like me and wondering how to be more productive in your day, give it a read. The 4 a.m. wake up time won't be happening for me, but I can vouch for many of the other tips.

Apologies, again

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Apologies again to my two blog readers. Once again I am hopelessly behind with bloggage. But I have a good excuse. Instead of writing blog entries, I've been busy on the first draft of a story. I finished said draft yesterday. It's strictly in shitty first draft stage right now, but I'm proud of it. Proud because this is the first short story in two, maybe two and a half years, that I have actually completed. Tomorrow I'll beat myself up over having so little to show for the last couple of years, but today I'm going to enjoy the moment.

Also, I've finally found a writing schedule that seems to agree with me. I've been getting up and going straight to the coffeeshop in the morning. No passing Go. No collecting $200 (or even $20 from the ATM). I go straight to work and once I'm there, I make myself keep going for X amount of time. If there are people out there that still believe the writer's life involves sitting around the house and scarfing bon bons while watching The View, waiting for the muse to strike, let this be evidence to the contrary.

That said, today I'm sitting around the house, eating bon bons and watching The View.

No, but I am taking a one-day reprieve from fiction writing in order to attend to the laundry, the cooking, the grocery shopping, and all the other errands (and bloggage) I've neglected. Tomorrow, it's back at the coffeeshop bright and early.

Money, Meet Mouth

Saturday, January 12, 2008

It's been a while since I've taken any sort of reading challenge (I think the last one was my 50 book challenge in 2006, which I barely managed to pull off) so when I heard about the short story reading challenge, deciding whether to be involved or not was a no brainer. I write short stories; therefore I should read short stories. Plus, it's kind of on par with my decision to read more things that I should have read whist getting my MFA and studying fiction again. So I signed up.

My choice is Option #5, the "build your own" option. Of course, I'm borrowing from the other options and incorporating that I read more authors that I have not read before.

Books I am planning to read:

  • The Woman in the Woods by Ann Joslin Williams
  • Best American Short Stories 2005 edited by Lorrie Moore
  • Collected Stories by William Trevor
And before you say it, yes, I know the fact that I haven't read any William Trevor is a sin. I am working to redeem myself.

That's a start. I'm not going to plan anything beyond that. Instead, I'll be following the short story challenge blog and looking to other lit blogs to find other new and noteworthy stories to read. Suggestions, of course, are always welcome.

If you're one of the two people reading this, then I want to challenge you to take the challenge as well. If you're hesitant, try Option #1: reading 10 short stories by 10 different authors over 2008. That's not even a story a month! If you're more daring, try one of the other options. Either way, let's help make 2008 the year of the short story.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Frog

Friday, January 4, 2008

Frog. (v) to frog. The act of "ripping" out already knit stitches by removing them from the knitting needles and unraveling the stitches. In some cases, you merely "frog" a few rows back to fix a mistake. In more extreme cases, one may "frog" an entirely knit sweater to reuse the yarn.

Back when I learned to knit, after I'd made my first uneven garter stitch square thing, I started becoming a perfectionist about knitting. A psuedo-perfectionsist rather. Simply put, I hated to frog and would do just about anything to avoid it. My strategy? To turn a blind eye to glaring errors or dissatisfaction with the pattern. I kept knitting only to end up with an unwearable sweater or a scarf that would get sent to Goodwill.

The reason for this particular bout of crazy was that one of my first overly ambitious projects had been a mohair lace scarf. Being a beginner, I'd made a lot of mistakes and had had frogged to the extent that the yarn had become a frayed mess. The scarf never got made and for the next several years I avoided both mohair and frogging.

About two years and two drawers full of unwearable knits, I was talking about my dissatisfaction with the pullover I'd just completed. The gauge seemed off. The waistline decreases had a few mistakes. It didn't fit me right. Overall, not good.

"Frog it," my knitter friend told me. "It's only yarn. Besides, you can use it for something else."

And it clicked. Don't know why it took me so long, but right then I thought, She's right. It is only yarn. So what if I spent two weeks knitting it if I don't like it? I went home and frogged the pullover. I raided the unused knits drawer and salvaged yarn from three other projects. For the final liberation, I pulled a wrap off the needles that they'd been on for three months. I'd hated the yarn and was only halfway through. Part of me thought, What are you doing? You've spent three months on this, just go on and finish it, but the other part of me slapped that crazy knitter upside the head and began winding the yarn. And that's how I learned to stop worrying and love the frog.

However, even though I've been a writer for longer than I've been a knitter (or maybe because I've been a writer longer than I've been a knitter) I've never been able to apply that lesson to writing. When it comes to writing, have the same problems, I don't want to "frog" any of my stories. This is part of why I handwrite first drafts. The computer seems too final to me and when I handwrite something I know I'll be rearranging and revising as I'm typing it in. And, in remembering that, I can allow myself to write a shitty first draft. But even doing that, I can get pretty grouchy about having to "give up" any part of a draft that I've spent time and energy on.

Today was a good example of that. I spent about three hours in the afternoon working on a draft of a still incomplete story. I recently read Ron Carlson's book on story writing and am trying to observe his credo -- stay in the room -- as much as possible. And so this afternoon I stayed in the room. And stayed. And stayed. And I ended up with a good five or six pages. However, I'm also trying to observe Carlson's other credo about listening to what the story tells you, and I swear to God that at least five or six times I heard the story go, Oh hell no, you aren't doing THAT. But I persevered and at the coffee shop this evening, I realized that of the five or six pages I'd written, I had maybe three paragraphs that were usable.

I know that's part of the writing process, and I've come to accept that there are entire stories that sometimes just have to get out on the page so that one gem of a line can be used elsewhere. I deal. But that doesn't mean I can't be grouchy about it. Anyway, as I was ripping pages of my notepad I thought about how a story is only a bunch of words. They can be rearranged and reused elsewhere. Maybe even in this story, but definitely not as they are and not right now.

I've met a few writers who claim to start fresh on each revision by completely rewriting the story from scratch. I envy that. Even though I do a lot of revision, I can't claim to ever throw out the original draft and start fresh. I envy the writers who can, though, and I wonder if it wouldn't be a good exercise to rewrite one of my more complete stories without ever referring to the original or even the latest draft. Could be interesting.

So why not try it? It's that part of me, that crazy knitter part from before, who is thinking, My god, what a waste to completely undo everything that you've worked so hard on. Leave it alone!

I think it's time to slap that crazy knitter upside the head.