Learn the stories behind my stories as I give updates, discuss literature, and share writing advice. Find all my writing at www.tylerdunning.com.
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Follow the Fox

Monthly Newsletter

October 2013

My past month, as is necessary in the writing process, surrendered to long hours of literary creation. I seldom traveled, I socialized little. My days consisted of 3 to 6 hours of writing, and in light of grad school application deadlines, I had to turn from writing cherished travel essays (Burning Man being the last one I allowed myself to finish) to a focus on fiction (specifically a 40-page writing sample of The Alcoholic Angel). I am feeling more confident in my applications at this point but still have a lot of work to do (like take the dreaded GRE in less than two weeks).

I faced two tough literary rejection this month: one being from a journal I was really hoping to be published in and another being a fellowship I poured a lot of time and energy into. But rejection is an intricate part of this business, so I looked to what could be learned from the situation, recognizing rejections are opportunities for growth and never failures to be had.

I have infinite room for growth. And this is what inspires me to continue creating.

I'm keeping my words short this month because I have an interview with a friend I would like to share with you now.

The Day of Creation:
Interviews about Art

with Seth Williams

Self-proclaimed a lazy poet, Seth Williams is anything but the given description. I have known this man as a coworker, a roommate, a fellow adventurer, and one hell of a nacho maker—he works hard in any endeavor he chooses. But I also know him as an adamant artist who pursues his craft with purpose and intention.

An English student at UC Berkeley, Seth continues to put words on the page that move and inspire (much of Seth's poetry can be found here). Because of this, I approached Seth to be a test subject for an interview section of the newsletter. He kindly obliged and this is what ensued:

What is art? Are you an artist?

Shit, I don’t know. I hold a pretty simplistic view of art, subscribing to the grade-school conception that art really means whatever it means for you. What art is for you should come from the deepest part of yourself, and if it honestly does then despite what the art snobs might say, it’s best not to deny your initial feelings toward a creation: if something affects you and strikes you as creative, then it’s probably art to you. It doesn’t have to be an elevated concept.

For me, art is whatever happens when I put a good deal of creative labor and emotion on the line for something, even if it might otherwise seem “trivial” (in relation to the things that I’m expected to be spending my time on); similarly, when I see something that feels purely creative and that appears to be an expression of something deeper within the creator, I generally consider it art. I’d say that I am an artist based on my definition because I relatively often sit down to create things (generally poetry or fiction prose) out of the emotional state that I’m in, or else just out of a sudden rush of creative energy.

What does the creative process look like for you?

My creative process strangely thrives when I’m far too busy to be adding more things onto my plate, much less things that benefit only my creative expression. Despite the workaholic in me initially protesting vehemently, the thrill and the emotional and creative release of whatever it is I’m creating eventually raptures me, and then the workaholic in me refuses to give it up. I came to the conclusion recently that the projects I’ve invested myself in the most tended to coincide with the busiest times of my life: for instance, a year ago I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which meant writing a minimum of 50,000 words of a story between November 1st and November 30th.

I can’t explain why, but for some reason the pressure of the rest of my life acts as a sort of steam propulsion for my creative process: I usually feel the least creative when I have nothing else going on, and I end up rising to the greater challenges when I have literally everything else going on. Maybe it’s rebellion to life, which I suppose art does very well.

What inspires you to create?

Everything. As someone who writes creatively at least once a week, I have to grasp for anything, really, that will help me produce something that’s emotional and/or interesting on the page. So I get inspired by everything from the barrage of literature coming at me in my classes down to interactions with the crazy-ass people that lurk around Berkeley. I like people-watching, noticing what people do and say around me, and incorporating their nuances into my writing. Traveling is another one of the major influences, which I’ll discuss a bit later. I also really look to pop culture beyond just literature.

Was there a distinct moment or catalyst that set you on this trajectory?

I remember my love of writing creatively spurring more from a phase in my life than a particular moment or event. I’ve been writing non-academically since I was about sixteen, mostly in personal journals during my teenage years. I think this awakened a general love for writing, but when I really decided that I’d like to pursue writing as an art, and possibly even a profession, was when I was maybe nineteen or twenty. My all-time favorite piece of literature is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

More than just the story, I found that I really like Rowling’s style of writing: her narrative voice never fails to completely capture me, and the darker tones of her stories as well as the undertones of politics, human rights, and depression, among many others, has ultimately been my greatest inspiration to write. This became the first bit of literature that I ever saw as more than just a story, and I think being awakened to it as I was coming back out of my teenage years also gave me the epiphany that I could use my own writing as Rowling uses hers. I began writing my first short stories in that phase (I use the term “short story” loosely for that point in my creative writing: they were really just vague scenes, descriptive settings, and little blurbs outlining ideas for plots), and I’ve never stopped writing creatively since.

Do you wrestle with doubts or fears? What does this process look like?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I think my ego is manic-depressive because I’ll go through times where I feel unstoppable and like I could publish anything if I work hard enough on it, but then I’ll sink into what, probably the majority of the time for me, are times of utter dejection. My poetry and my fiction are two different stories here, though: with poetry, I feel more confident for whatever reason. I think the fact that I don’t take my poetry as seriously in that I’m not really working toward becoming a “professional” poet makes submitting to publishing a lighter ordeal for me. But the prospect of writing a novel and publishing it, because I do hope that one day I can be a “professional” novelist, becomes really intimidating when I really think about it. I think I doubt my ability to do it not because I don’t think I can write well enough, but because I doubt my ability to get my shit together and put in the editing power to make my writing good enough. I’d say that what keeps me motivated despite these doubts, however, is the idea that maybe once I’ve finished school I’ll have more of the tools and the time needed to finally finish a project. Also, keeping myself reading has been an important factor in overcoming my doubts: discovering new books and authors always reignites the flame in me to write something of my own, so just sitting down to pleasure-read helps me deal with my self-doubt a little.

Poetry is arguably the most difficult literary form to achieve success in. What keeps you motivated in this endeavor and what advice would you give someone pursuing the same thing?

My relationship with poetry is weird in that I never once considered “being” a poet when I started writing; and yet from the moment that I wrote my first real poems in a creating writing class like five years ago it’s been like this nagging cough in my creation process. For a while I would just write poetry because sometimes it made me feel cool, and sometimes it made me feel creative when I was too lazy to take on a larger project like a new story. By now I’ve taken a poetry workshop class, I’ve been in and out of a few informal poetry workshop groups, and I’ve begun searching for my poetic voice, which has also made my poetry a bit more “serious,” I guess; but honestly, I still don’t see myself as a poet. It’s always been about being a novelist for me, and I feel more motivated in that endeavor even though I’ve written much more poetry than prose lately. I will, however, continue to submit my poetry to publications, and if I end up with a solid poetic voice out of it maybe I’ll consider putting together a book of poetry. And I’ll certainly always write poetry, I think: I’m kind of just stuck with it.

I think the advice that I would give to someone pursuing success through poetry would be, ideally, to write more poetry than you can possibly know what to do with; yet realistically, to set your standard of success. On the first point, write poetry ALWAYS if you want to come to actually sell it. The more I write it the more I begin to feel around for consistencies in my poetic voice, and I think that’s an important thing to have down before you start putting together books and such. And despite my having written poetry a bit more over the past few years now, I still feel really far from having my voice figured out. Also, seek out every opportunity possible to workshop your poetry, and to read your poetry at public readings. On the more realistic note, I say check your idea of what success means because if it’s ultimately making money, I’ll just remind you of what you probably already well know: unfortunately there’s not a great market for poetry today. There are some excellent professional poets today, but it’s a pretty slim number. I don’t mean to say that hitting it big with poetry is impossible, or that it’s not worthwhile to try, because I think whether or not you’re making a living off of it, putting your poetry out into the public sphere is the most worthwhile thing you can do. But just go into it knowing that a starving poet is probably starving a lot more than a starving novelist in today’s literary culture. Of course, your conception of success can mean anything, and if it means simply getting your work published then I think you have great chances as long as you work hard at honing your craft: the key is submitting at every chance you get to every possible publication (even if it’s one that will probably never be seen by more than a small community of people - for instance, the only publications I’ve made it into are a community college literary magazine and like the third issue of a small San Diego literary journal which, even if they become big eventually, will still mean that very few will see the early issue with my poem in it; but despite this knowledge, it’s still a thrill and a major creative boost to have gotten published at all).

What experiences have best helped you develop as an artist?

I’ve seen quotes and interviews from writers who say that the best way to get material to write about is by traveling, and by putting yourself in situations that almost guarantee hardship, heartbreak, or general discomfort: they argue that it’s ultimately these that make the best stories or poems. I don’t know if I wholly agree with this for helping every writer, but I am forced to agree with it in my case. I’ve used a lot of the things that I’ve observed while traveling (people, places, situations) in my writing quite a bit, and I still write poems that reflect certain vivid emotions that I remember from my experiences.

Are there ethics in writing about others?

If we’re talking about writing about a real person semi-biographically, actually using their direct actions or words, then I’d say yes. I think I would avoid exposing another person’s specific bad decisions, or something that they would really be ruined by having made public (unless they really deserved it - like if we’re talking about serious injustice, in which case I’d think exposure is the most ethical thing to do). But if we’re talking about writing a real person’s attributes into a fictional character, I don’t think ethics are as important. Most of my fictional characters have been molds of qualities I’ve observed in real people, and in the more unlikeable characters there’s really no way of drawing the unlikeable qualities back to anyone in particular. I think in that sense fictional characters are rather important tools for making moral arguments, or else just arguing what’s cool and what’s really not cool to do in any particular circumstance. This, to me, makes them ethical tools because they aren’t exactly pointing fingers at specific people, but rather at the shitty things that people in general do.

What is your favorite negative emotion?

Passive aggression. I really try not to use it in life, as I know how annoying it is, but I can’t help but find it funny to observe. But particularly, I think it’s fun to write a passive aggressive character because it generally involves a lot of sarcasm and really strange, attention-seeking actions.

What character or story haunts you?

A young adult science fiction novel called Feed by M.T. Anderson. The setting is a future American middle-class society where those who can afford it are microchipped to basically be able to perform all the functions of a smartphone within their heads. The plot itself is basically a love story told from the perspective of a teenager, quite brilliantly to make it evident through the narration and dialogue just how dumb everyone in this society has become thanks to the technology in their heads. But from somewhere sort of beneath the plot of the story come these glimpses into what a social hierarchy not unlike today’s would look like in this hyper-commercialized, robotic future society. It really provokes a lot of thought not just about the rapid technologization taking place in our own society, and the materialism surrounding that, but also about how the lower classes are affected by such rapid change (and the fact that these allusions are really peripheral in relation to the plot makes them all the more uncomfortable to deal with, with the consequence that the reader is sort of forced to think about the ugliness of their own social structure). I recommend it: it’s an easy read, and is just as entertaining as thought-provoking.

What are your fears? Do they materialize in your craft?

I’ve always been deathly afraid of failure. This affects my work in many ways: the obvious is that it prevents me from completing most of the stories that I’ve begun (I probably could have written several novels by now with all the stories I’ve begun but never finished). I know that sounds counterintuitive, but fearing failure, rather than motivating me to complete a work so that I don’t fail at completing it, causes me to abandon works before they become too time-consuming because I fear that they simply won’t turn out as I originally hoped. But as far as showing up within my craft, I think I definitely write a lot of characters who are afraid of failure: this often gives characters dispositions of insecure pride, general apprehension, self-consciousness, and shyness. In fact, I think most of my protagonists have been passive in some way, or at least afraid of fucking something up, which I think is also why I’m self-conscious about my prose stories: they often feel too much like me. My poetry, however, is often much bolder; it speaks its mind more. But a lot of my poetry revolves around fear in a general sense, so in a way my fear does materialize through it, but in a more fearless voice.

What is your ideal title for a book?

The Green Tribes is a title for a story that I created about a year ago which I hope to turn into a book or series eventually; I like it, so no one steal it.

Do vices fuel your creativity? If so, what is your poison?

I’m not a smoker, drinker, drug-user, or gambler by any means; but I do think that moral vices play a part (and should play a part) in a good story, so it’s important to have experienced them in order to write a well-rounded character. I’d say I write characters and poetry that feature greed and lust more than most other moral vices. Temptation has always been a big theme in my writing, I think, and I imagine it’s because that’s a vice that I’ve always been self-conscious about.

Thank you for subscribing and thank you for the support! Please keep reading my stories, keep “liking” them (even if you don’t), and keep sharing them. The more support I have now, the more leverage I’ll have later when I start approaching agents and publishing companies. Until next month, love & tear-gas riots.
Copyright © 2013 Tyler Dunning, All rights reserved.
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