Tag Archives: Conjunctions

Elissa Field’s “Still Life with Nixon on the Beach” published by Web Conjunctions

shark elissa field fiction still life on the beachI just had word from Conjunctions editors that my story, Still Life with Nixon on the Beach, which I mentioned in my prior blog (Running on the Grass), has gone live as the featured story at Web Conjunctions  today.

I’ve had the following excerpt on this site, on the page featuring my short stories, for the past months:

At a bar in Crooked Moon Bay, making small talk with a friend who was days away from being married, I watched a woman with long, titian hair lean over a burning candle as she bent close to talk to a friend.  She didn’t know, but in her excitement, her hair fell into the flames.  The friend gestured desperately, trying to stop the girl’s emphatic story.  She finally noticed, her hands rising pragmatically to put out the flaming twists of her hair, squeezing out fire as if wringing out water.  Shampoo, rinse, repeat.

Rereading that excerpt today as I went to post news of the publication, I couldn’t help being reminded of a stream of conversation amongst fellow writers at Poets & Writers’ Speakeasy some months back.

So often, no matter the definition of “fiction,” writers are asked of their work, “Is that character really you?”

Still Life with Nixon on the Beach is an intensely personal story to me — yet also perfect example of why debating fiction vs. autobiography can be so controversial to a writer.

For what it’s worth, I never followed the seasons, island to island.  I never dated anyone named Nixon.  I am not the one who swam from an anchored sailboat to shore, seeing the oversized form of a tiger shark swim beneath her, and the sailor with a parrot sleeping on his shoulder was not this rake.  Yet in the fiber of every detail, this story is still mine.

I do live in the tropics, grew up with my father’s boating history and charter sailed in and out of Charlotte Amalie.  I did in fact lean over a candle once at a bar, my hair catching on fire, and have the band start riffing a song, “To the lovely lady with her hair on fire.”  I did have recurring nightmares about tornados, and also about a man in my house.  I did meet a certain friend in the sleeping porch off my room with a knife up my sleeve.  I did once have a conversation with my father about all the moments in my childhood when I’d needed protection and was startled how little need he felt to load that metaphorical shotgun.  I did find the orange-crayoned letter, I did watch the leather journal being purchased months before it arrived in the mail.  I did find the redemption of a pod of dolphins at twilight, right at the moment I’d lost all faith in my love for someone.

The story reminds me, in fact, of granny square afghans my grandmother used to crochet when I was a child.  She would spin them out like daisies in patchworked colors from odd loose-ends of yarn, only later assembled into the form of a baby’s jacket or blanket for the sofa (which sadly all have been thrown away as tacky remnants of the 70s, which would be oh-so-cool to have now).  So, in the same way, this story is pieced together of collected truths from my childhood through young adulthood, from my first hopes at love through my first disillusionments and my first understanding of real faith in the absence of concrete proof, and is the only existing revelation of an unnerving 6th sense that has too often left me confused if I were knowing things I could not know, or simply imagining things.

It is in that sense autobiographical.

Yet not.

Fiction is still its own invention, its own living truth.  Using details that might be the same granny squares first crocheted, yet assembled to create a new form, pieced together to perhaps make more clear an understanding of the world that was so much less clear when still a mass of untwisted yarns.

An example of how the twisted yarns of a writer’s personal details get woven into a story that is no longer exactly about them, is what got me going on this blog today.  Rereading that excerpt above, I smiled in reminder of where I got name for the bay.  Riding home in the car with my preschool son one night, he looked out the window and said, “Look mom, the moon is crooked!”  In revisions this became, “At a bar in Crooked Moon Bay…”

So, like many of my peer writers, I would say, “No, the life of the main character is not mine.  She is not me.  It is fiction, not autobiography.”  Yet yes, the story is mine.  And I am very proud for it to be live at Conjunctions this month.   I hope you’ll check it out.

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Filed under Seeking Publication, Setting Place Roots, Writing Process & Routine

Running on the Grass

I’ve been happy to say I had a short story accepted for publication, coming out later this month.  Not only was it accepted, but it was accepted by an editor whose accomplishments and taste I admire.  Short of quoting his actual email, I can say I could not have asked for higher praise in the words he used to express pride in publishing the story.

You must understand the relative isolation and uncertainty in which most writers work.  The accepted story was written in parts over a period of nearly ten years.  It is a story of singular intensity — a story I initially wrote in response to the challenge: “Write something that scares you to put on paper.  Write something one would not say out loud.”  I did.  I wrote something that scared me.  And I did it in a way that was unapologetic in not hiding behind any narrative artifice — no gentle introductions, no fluffy segues. (Inspiration for story mentioned here.) It came together as an act of artistry and bravery, but also as a piece that would not fit the needs of all editors as they allocated the limited space in their literary journals.  In its first forays out for publication, it drew praise and near misses, but also confusion over a hurdle I could not at that time see the solution to.

I was a young parent by then.  My husband spent three years slashing his way into a higher paying job in order to support our little family so I could stay home most hours with our son.  Babies take more hours than one might think.  By the second son, I’d given up a freelance gig because of its unpredictable demands.

After years of telling myself that being a professional writer required my willingness to make sacrifices to dedicate myself to my work, I was suddenly feeling guilty over the time and expense the writing had cost — and still no bestseller on the shelf.  This fierce story brought home a near miss from Paris Review and The Sun, praise from Esquire.  But most readers have no idea the number of submissions a work might take to find the right editor, the right publication, at the right time.  The numbers game can become wearying.

At a point, I chastised myself over the near misses.  I assumed those close to me were wearying as well, and began to say: “If I were a football player, no matter how close I’d gotten to the end zone, at a certain point, if I’d never crossed the goal line, it was just a lot of running around on grass.”

Sharing this the other day, a writing colleague said that if they’d had near misses at publications like Paris Review, they couldn’t imagine doubting their abilities.  But it felt like time for some professional humility.  If I sold TVs, my shop would not be in business if sets never left the store with paying customers.  I was willing to consider maybe I was more suited to novel length, and just not a short story writer.   No question, it was a little personal trash talk.  The Army goads, “Go big or go home.”  I goaded myself to either be a writer who crosses that endzone, or own up that I might be just running on grass.

My aunt had a national champion quarter horse when I was young.  Gorgeous, gorgeous mare.  As her trophies mounted, they chose to breed her with an equally gorgeous and accomplished stallion, named Robert Redford.  The filly born was a spectacular, glowing chestnut with a perfect star on her forehead.  Next to her chocolate bay mother, she drew gasps.  She would be a star.  Yet, as time came for her to be saddle-trained, turned out there was something off in her fore-cannons (shins, for non-horsefolk).  They’d work her and fail, and have to take a break, a few months off, then try again.  Try and try again.  My aunt stood beside her, this gorgeous horse she couldn’t ride, and struggled with frustration.

Solution?  Turn the filly to pasture, let her legs strengthen.  Turn her out to run on the grass.

In writing communities, how often we run into young writers seeking advice because they are so desperate to have success now — today, on the day and time they scheduled it, within a framework their questioning families can accept.

But it’s sometimes like that filly.

I was thrilled the day it clicked in my head: the ironic parallel between the football metaphor I used to insult my efforts and the memory of that filly out kicking her heels in the thick grass of a Michigan hillside.

Sometimes writing is all about running on the grass.

We schedule our hours to work.  We hone our skills.  We read and write with professional determination.  We push ourselves to reach that completed draft, then whip ourselves all over again through the real work of revision.  We force ourselves to be humble and brave, at once.  But, in the end, as with life itself, a-ha’s and true insight and seeing the forest despite the trees don’t always arrive on a schedule.

I ran on the grass for three or four years while raising tiny babies, steeping in the mortal life’s experience that parenthood is, without scheduling time to write about it.  And one morning woke up with a full novel spilling out so voraciously that I could type fourteen hours a day and still take months to get it down.  A second novel came nearly as easily.  And one day, a short story.

It reminded me I like writing short stories and I went back to them — no longer with the drudgery of one fatigued by unmet expectations, but with the liveliness of one fresh from a wild gallop in the grass.

I understood clear as day, for the first time, why I had named a character Nixon and how a certain meaning I’d always felt about this one story had never made it onto the page.  I rewrote it.  I sent it out.  Acceptance came in a phone message I received while standing in a circle of my writing students, unable at first to explain my sudden emotion.

So publication this month comes with its own double reward.  This story crossed the end zone, but with the refreshed appreciation that there is something to be said for running on the grass.  There would be no game without it and — whether a running back, a red filly or a writer — that time on the grass is when so much of the thrill and accomplishment take place.

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Filed under Novel Writing, Seeking Publication, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother