January 15, 2014

How 'How to Be a Man' Was Written

Today I thought I'd give a little background on how How to Be a Man was written.  This is the "Letter from the Author" that is included in the Reading Group Guide.  I myself love reading these things.

Letter from the Author

The stories in How to Be a Man were written over the course of the last fifteen years. Some came hot and fast and did not need much fiddling (“Men Are Like Plants,” “Oranges”) and some were the result of years of revision (“Nose to the Fence,” “Mouse”). The oldest story in the collection is “Snowshoeing,” and its flaws make me uncomfortable, but I love the striving to capture something inexplicable that motivated it. The youngest story is “Dammed,” and it’s a good example of my writing process now—I tend to revise extensively as I go and write a lot in my mind before I put it down on the page. Once I get started, it only takes me a session or two to get it all down.

Authors often get the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve never had a problem getting ideas, and I mourn the loss of the multitude of ideas that have come and gone, unfulfilled. I think there are lots of ideas out there—it’s just a matter of recognizing them for what they are, and when I’m writing—not blocked—the ideas come thick and fast. I may start with a voice, which happened with “Men Are Like Plants.” I was lying in bed trying to go to sleep, and her voice came to me so strongly I risked my husband’s displeasure—he hates it when I stay up late—and got up to write it down. I wrote most of that story in one sitting. What prompted “Revelations” was a contest a couple of years ago that had to include the year 2010. It got me thinking about the end of the world and Revelations, and so I wondered what a modern-day devil might be like. “Snowshoeing” started with the idea of conveying that feeling of separateness that sometimes comes upon a couple, that realization that you can’t always take your partner for granted. “Oranges” arose in one sitting on a plane coming back from a writer’s conference, the result of guilt over abandoning my kids for a week. “A Dangerous Shine” is based on a real incident that took place at the Buckhorn where I bartended. And on it goes.

Putting together a collection is tough. The idea of revising so many stories at one time and the nakedness that will result from other people seeing them all together is enough to stop the hardiest souls in their tracks. And what order do you put them in? Do you treat them like a mix tape—starting with an attention grabber, turning it up, taking it back, orchestrating peaks and valleys? Or do you arrange them on merit only, putting the best ones first? My protagonists are of different ages—should they be organized by age? I ended up putting what I think of as my best stories first and last, but then also taking into account the mood of the story. I tried to start with some positive stories and then place some of the darkest stories toward the end. I also tried to group them tonally, thematically, and by protagonist, so “Mouse” and “Oranges” are together because they’re about young girls dealing with their parents. “The Body Animal,” “Revelations,” and “Dammed” are together because they’re about the body and violence and alienation. “Wanting” is last because it’s a strong story but it also is historical, while all the others are contemporary.

I’ve always loved when authors tell the story of the story, and so I thought I’d choose a few and talk about how they came into being. “How to Be a Man” was written in response to “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” by Junot Diaz. I had long resisted writing a second-person story because it seemed so cliché—the young writer thinking herself so edgy, taking such an avant garde point of view. Then I read a couple of kick-ass second-person stories, and it began to work on me: Why couldn’t I write one? Then I heard Edwidge Danticat read Diaz’s story and I was hooked. The story wrote itself fairly quickly until I got to the ending—well, the first ending where she becomes a whiskery-chinned old batty. I stopped there. But I didn’t like that ending. I didn’t want her life to end that way. I wanted her to have a chance at happiness. Then I thought, why can’t I have two endings. I’m the god in this little world. I can do whatever I want. So I added the second ending. “Wanting” is another story I wrote in response to a story. Growing up in the West, I had strong Hemingway tendencies—clipped sentences, withheld emotion, huge psychic distance—and so to try to remedy that, I decided to take a great story that was a little more lush to imitate it in sentence construction, paragraphing, even down to where the dialog rests. The story I chose was Karl Iagnemma’s “Children of Hunger.” So I tried to maintain the feel of his story and mimicked it as closely as I could in my own story. It was a very helpful exercise, I think, and I really like the results. “Mouse” began as a writer’s exercise at a conference workshop presided over by Steve Almond. He had good advice about the mouse-killing scene: “A little blood and gore goes a long way.” I later expanded the scene into the story.
I will always write short stories. They are harder than novels, in a way, because they require the precision of a diamond cutter. They have to be so much more concise, clear, compact, and well-written than a novel. In a novel, you can get away with pages of loose extraneous stuff, while a short story must have no fat. And I love reading short stories. I think we’re in a renaissance of good short-story writing, and for that I’m very thankful.

Happy reading!

– Tamara Linse, Laramie, Wyoming, 2013

Print and ebook versions are available for purchase at these and other online retailers.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about how it was published, and Friday I’ll give you a teaser about what’s coming down the pike in the future.


eLPy said...

Nice post! I like getting the background on some of your stories and the book as a whole.

While I'm only published in poetry I've got a novel in the works and some short stories I'd like to send out. I know what you mean about short stories being more difficult to write. I've had a lot of ideas that I thought started as short stories but part of me is intimidated by them as such because the idea just grows and grows until I'm wondering just how could it fit in a short story format? I came up with a story a couple of years ago inspired by a run and I'm still trying to perfect it here and there. First I thought it needed more detail then coming back to it at the end of last year I decided that actually it was fine centered on the main point of the story. So yes short stories are challenging!

Thanks for telling us about your process for ordering. Again, something I can relate to and underestimated before I had to do it with my poetry book. Sounds like you had a lot of different elements to focus on. I wonder now that you've published the book, are you happy with your story order?

I have to give you props as well for having the commitment and dedication to your stories to still have the older stories and for following your inspirations and not letting them get away.

Thanks for giving us a closer look inside the author's mind/life! I also like reading about the stories behind the stories.

Hope it does well!

Tamara said...

Thank you! I've always liked getting the inside scoop on other writers' processes. :-) Makes me feel a little less geeky. Ha!

If the story grows and grows, it might be a novel, and you might naturally be a novelist. Or maybe not. And another thing I love about short stories is they teach you craft in a way a novel doesn't.

I bet (ordering of poetry book)! If not moreso. Yes, I am still happy with the story order. The only thing I've thought about was whether I should have included one or two more stories, but then it's long enough. :-)

Isn't it weird how stories has seem so calcified and you couldn't think you could change them, but then you get in the right frame of mind or try a new approach and it opens them up for you again?

I hope yours is doing well!


eLPy said...

Strange how much we writers have in common at the same time that we are so, so different!

Writing stories is definitely an art within an art with more art within. I challenged myself once to write a short-short-story and promised I would submit it somewhere. But no, I didn't even though it was a treat to write. I tacked on another promise - that is now broken - as a result, to try and write other short-shorts.

I too had moments where I wanted to add more poems to my book, then I'd take some out, then I'd think well maybe I should put that one back and add this one too. I printed the book out and spread all the individual poems out in front of me on more than one occasion. So I very much understand what you went through.

It is crazy how different we might feel about our stories from one day to the next.

Thanks for sharing!

Tamara said...

Oh, short-shorts are so hard! It's definitely not my length! I tend to be short story to novel length - I'm interested in development - so short-shorts are a bit too challenging for me. But at least I know my weaknesses. :-)

It is so crazy how our feelins change. I'll write a story and it'll be the greatest thing. Then I'll get done and the more time that passes, the more I'll fear it sucks! I'll be convinced. Then I'll go back and read it and think, you know what? It's not half bad!

Thank YOU, eLPy!