We’re so happy to have Elizabeth Stuckey-French joining us at the Ball today! Deb Eleanor was lucky enough to be on a panel with Elizabeth at the recent Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago, and she can vouch that Elizabeth is smart, funny, and talented as heck. Today Elizabeth has some great advice for aspiring writers, and she’s giving away a copy of The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady to one lucky commenter!
Elizabeth Stuckey-French is the author of two novels, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady and Mermaids on the Moon, as well as a collection of short stories, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa. With Janet Burroway she is co-author of Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft. Her short stories have appeared in The Normal School, Narrative Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, Five Points, and The O’Henry Prize Stories 2005. She teaches fiction writing at Florida State University.
Advice for Aspiring Writers from Mr. Franzen n Me
The great Jonathan Franzen recently said this about writing in an NPR interview: “It’s absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsayable.”
I couldn’t agree more. As writers, each one of us must say the unsayable. Amen.
Mr. Franzen went on to describe some of his unsayables, but I won’t mention them here because they won’t help us much, because the thing is, what’s unsayable to Mr. Franzen is not going to be what’s unsayable to us. What we writers must do – and this is the hard part, the really hard part – is to honestly ask ourselves, “What are my unsayables?”
This is something nobody else can tell you. You must figure out, for yourself, what you feel you should never write about because you fear that you could never find the right words or because you just want to move on already, damnit, or, more likely, because you’re ashamed and don’t want everybody knowing how base and vile, how absolutely human, you really are.
That we want to hide from such things is understandable, of course. How do we hide from them? Well, one way, I think, is to throw everything else in front of our fears so we don’t have to directly face them. We piddle around, sorting through boxes full of fluff masquerading as important stuff. Boxes labeled, “A weird story that could be sold to the movies and make me rich!” Or “A lyric nature poem I would write if I were a good person.”
Sometimes I can get through these boxes to the real stuff by giving my unconscious a kind of Rorschach test. I take my pen in hand and poke around in my own dark attic. I ask myself tough questions and answer quickly, before I have a chance to think. Right at this very minute, what am I most afraid of? What’s the worst thing that could happen to me at this point in my life? What makes me sadder than anything? Happier than anything? What could I not bear to lose? What could I never write about in a million years?
Of this last, I’ve noticed, with some embarrassment and shame, that whatever I publicly say I’ll never write about has a way of coming back like a gremlin and announcing, “Of course you’ll write about me, fool.” And before I know it I’ve turned around and done just that. Instead of lying after the fact, I lie before the fact.
Here’s one example of this shameful behavior. A few years ago, at the NonfictionNow conference in Iowa City, I gave a presentation on a panel called Writing About Disabilities. I spoke about my older daughter, Flannery, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is basically high-functioning autism. Here’s a quote from that presentation:
“One thing that bothers me about much of the recent Asperger’s fiction is that the writers, apparently because they’ve taught somebody with Asperger’s or been around an Aspie or read up on the syndrome, now feel like they can write from the perspective of a character who’s affected by Asperger’s. This is something I would never try to do, and maybe I envy them their audacity, but it also seems more than a tad presumptuous.
The tipoff, I suppose, should have been in the never followed quickly by the envy, but I didn’t hear it. Soon after I wrote that essay I began taking notes for my novel The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, which has two Aspergers teenagers in it. Soon, I realized that I felt compelled to try to write from their point of view. Anxiously, guiltily, and on the sly, I dove in, telling myself that I wouldn’t show anybody the results, that it was just a backstory exercise that would help me understand my characters better. Turns out that those chapters in the book are my favorites. It was incredibly liberating for me to write them, and the writing taught me something important, something I’d forgot. Characters must be and can be human beings first and Aspies–or whatever–second. Those two characters both have Asperger’s Syndrome but they are also different from each other, their own people.
Okay, so why don’t we writers just figure out what we need to say and say it? Well, it ain’t that easy. The unconscious is balky and shy and sometimes needs to be mollified and coaxed into the open. And then there’s the actual writing part, which is always hard work because there is never a blueprint, a sign directing you from point-A to point-B. You must find your own way. This is when craft becomes important, applying seat of pants to chair is important, filling the page is important.
But if you skip the self-examination part, you are liable to write something that is technically proficient yet forgettable, something that you knew all along you could say rather than something you never believed you could.
Thank you, Elizabeth! Ladies and gentlemen, that is some great writing inspiration from a master of the craft. Hope you’re taking notes! (Or maybe just bookmarking this post.) Read on to learn more about The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, and leave a comment to thank Elizabeth for joining us and enter to win a copy!
The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady is based on an actual event. During the late forties and early fifties, more than 800 women, told they were taking vitamin “cocktails,” were given doses of radioactive iron as patients at Vanderbilt University hospital.
My novel begins in 2006, when Marylou Ahearn, a fictional victim of the experiment, is now 77. She is still grieving over her daughter’s death, from cancer, decades earlier, when she discovers the whereabouts of the doctor who gave her the “radioactive cocktail” during her pregnancy. Accompanied by her Welsh corgi, Buster, and disguised as “Nancy Archer” (the heroine of the 1958 movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), Marylou moves to Tallahassee, Fla., where Dr. Spriggs lives with his daughter, menopausal Caroline; her husband, Vic Witherspoon, who’s contemplating an affair, and their children: 18-year-old Elvis-obsessed beauty Ava; 16-year-old science geek Otis, who’s secretly building a nuclear breeder reactor; and overachieving, attention-deprived 13-year-old Suzi. As “Radioactive Lady,” Nance creates trouble for the entire family, but her revenge plans mutate after discovering the old doc has dementia, and she starts becoming a bit too fond of all of them.