Tag Archives: Heather McHugh

Working Backwards

28 Jan
View of Elliott Bay from Lower Queen Anne.

View of Elliott Bay from Lower Queen Anne.

I haven’t posted story snippets to this blog in a long time, but I had such a wonderful time this morning at a generative workshop for the Jack Straw fellows, I wanted to share one here. We discussed our writing concerns and what we’re dwelling on now, and the general theme among us all had to do with connecting dots and making leaps. Kevin Craft, our curator, then offered this concept he learned from Heather McHugh about hypotaxis and parataxis–the causal-oriented and the free associating, waking logic and dream logic.

Then he pitched the Story Spine exercise, which originates from improv. It’s a basic exercise offering a rigid structure for a story that is then written quickly, using free association. The stakes are low. I used the basic plot of the novel I’m working on now, which made the exercise feel somewhat mechanical, though the final step seemed to open up for me a more expansive way of seeing the ending–something I will continue to ruminate.

Then Kevin asked us to do the exercise in reverse. I decided not to write from my novel and just let myself go. This version of the exercise was very fun. And I can see why you need to go forward first, to feel the mechanics of an unfolding story, and why thinking backwards can allow the writing to get wilder. Here’s that backward story I wrote:

And ever since that day, she held that stone in her mouth before bed, as a reminder. Finally, she chose a slick green stone on a rocky beach strewn with sea vegetables. And because of that, she went to the coast, to look at something wild and open and to fill her lungs with salt. Because of that, she felt all tied up in a box, a sensory deprivation tank. Until one day she crouched in on herself into the tightest ball. And every day she tried to be smaller and smaller. Once upon a time, she didn’t want to be seen.

One month into this program, and it is already so helpful and generative and amazing.

“Old Boyfriends” in Propeller Magazine

2 Dec

My short story “Old Boyfriends” is in Propeller Magazine this week. Here’s how it starts:

It’s four p.m.: the sun is gone.

Sandra, a graduate student in archaeology, lurches forward with the bus along Avenue du Parc.

“This roof’s all bone,” Sandra says, rapping her knuckles to her skull.

continue reading

Back in my MFA program at the University of Washington, I took two “creative writer as critical reader” classes (my favorite classes from the program) one after the other, in poetry with Heather McHugh and then prose with David Bosworth, my adviser. Heather brought in a translation of Anton Chekhov’s story “Gusev” that she’d been working on with Nikolai Popov, a prose-bone to throw at the small contingent of prosers in her class. At first, I bristled against the story, feeling disoriented in its dark, suffocating setting. But the ending was wonderful and the more I read it, the more I loved the whole thing. I loved seeing how the story opened up with Gusev sinking in the ocean among the sharks and the pilot fish and how the light in the sky shifted to green, to violet, to gold, to rose. In David’s class, we were invited to choose a short story that we wanted to study deeply and either imitate or take its structure and themes and write a story we’d already been wanting to write within that structure or launching off of it somehow. I chose the latter, among other things making Gusev’s ship into Sandra’s city bus and kind of letting the story take over from there. Dan DeWeese, the editor of Propeller, had a couple wonderful suggestions that ultimately took the story away from the exercise and made me excited about the story all over again, since writing that first draft back in 2010.
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