As promised, here is the writing space of Dennis McFadden, author of the very fine short story collection Hart’s Grove, and participant in this blog’s “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers. You’ll find here, too, an excerpt from another of his wonderful stories.
Dennis: This is where I do most of my writing and watch the sun come up. It’s located upstairs over the kitchen in our old (1857) farmhouse in what was at one time the “working man’s quarters.” Appropriately enough. My muse, disguised here as a cat, is getting old too, and needs her heat lamp now. She lets me know if I neglect to turn it on for her. From the window she watches the birds and rabbits, and fondly recalls the good old days.
Excerpt from “The Three-Sided Penny” (The Missouri Review, vol. 30, no. 4):
In the end they blamed the travellers and closed the book. Old Foley gave in to despair. Friendless before, he was now all but shunned, seen as possessing enough bad luck to rub off on anyone misfortunate enough to give him the time of day. Only Lafferty stood him a pint or two when he could afford it, the Murphy’s not the Guinness. One night Foley shows up dressed to the nines, in his tweed jacket, threadbare but clean, and a fine woolen tie. His best trousers held up by his rope. When asked the occasion he smiled and stood a round. Says he, “I’m after closing a deal,” and he’d say no more on it, despite all the prompting and cajoling, the speculating rampant that he’d found his three-sided penny, in a different pocket from where he’d thought he’d stashed it, the old fool, or hidden elsewhere where he’d forgot in his state that night, or that indeed he’d discovered another. But wasn’t he found next day in his shanty, beside his own donkey Isadora, Cromwell the killer bull suspiciously frisky in the field beyond. He was hanging from the rafter by his rope, Foley was, his trousers dangling loose about his feet.
→Dennis, thanks again! And a reminder to our writer-readers, we are eager to see your space, too, and to read your writing. Guidelines for submissions are at the right. -PMc←
As part of our on-going Conversation Among Writers “Why The Short Story?”, Dennis McFadden takes on Gina Frangello’s questions about the financial implications of a writing life.
Dennis: Man, talk about déjà vu. How many times has something like this happened to you? Standing around at the old writers’ conference cocktail party, having wormed your way into a conversation among a few faculty members, you throw in a couple of comments that aren’t too terribly far off the mark, and they all look at you appreciatively, as they might at a trained seal who’d managed to nose the ball through the hoop. Then they chatter on amongst themselves for a while until one of them asks if anyone’s tried the shrimp yet, just as you’re popping another shrimp into your mouth.
Did I mention my “traditional” career? A project manager with the New York State Department of Health? Not that I can blame Gina. Turnabout is fair play, after all. I wish I had a nickel for every time a bunch of us project managers were standing around trying to have a decent project management conversation when some writer (usually with misbegotten aspirations of someday becoming a project manager) tries to horn in. We might patronize him or her for a little while, but that gets old pretty soon, and we eventually forget he or she is even there.
So I certainly can’t blame her for not noticing me standing here, munching on the shrimp. I’ve never met her, and her rejection slips from “Other Voices” didn’t convey a lot of her personality, but I’m willing to bet she’s a nice woman. So, just to keep the conversation going, let’s take her questions one at a time and see if we can unearth any relevancy for a project manager and part-time writer.
What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? None, now. Not much then, either. When I left college, I was branded a good writer, and I knew two things: I would probably always write, and I would probably always have a “traditional” job. My background was strictly blue-collar, I wasn’t all that far removed from my parents’ Great Depression, and I harbored a subtle but actual dread of ever being in the position of not knowing where my next meal was coming from. A career in writing was every bit as likely as a career in outer space.
Naturally (having been branded a good writer), I also harbored a distant, vague notion that someday I might meet with some writing success, perhaps even enough to be able to chuck my day job—about the same probability as perhaps winning the lottery someday. Of course taking a decade or two off from writing probably didn’t lower the already formidable odds against that ever happening. But when I finally did get around to writing again, I turned to the novel, not the story, a decision that was probably financial to some degree (relevancy, at last!). If that remote possibility were ever to occur, it wouldn’t be because of a short story I’d written, it would be because of a novel. As the wonderful writer Manette Ansay would tell me years later, “I love the short story, but it’s the novel that pays the bills.”
How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? The money I’ve earned from my book and the stories I’ve published in magazines that actually pay in American dollars (Confrontation sprang for forty bucks!) might have almost covered an all-expenses-paid vacation to downtown Albany, but the writing expenses—those conferences ain’t cheap, never mind postage, envelopes, paper clips—precluded my dream vacation. So I’ve resigned myself to being content with the tax write-off.
Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? You mean besides getting up at 5:00, 5:30 every morning? Besides pissing off my wife by going to those conferences nearly every year, then having to eat bad food and read untold numbers of ungodly stories and try to come up with something nice to say about them? And having to try to talk to faculty members and hope they remember I’m in the conversation? Besides all that? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. These are the sorts of sacrifices one has to be prepared to make for the sake of one’s art, aren’t they? Nobody promised us a rose garden.
Oh, you mean financially? No.
Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Many years ago, as I was climbing the bureaucratic ladder, scratching and clawing my way to the middle, I was sorely tempted to just say the hell with it and become a shepherd. As a matter of fact, I went so far as to fill out the paperwork, but that was nipped in the bud when it came to light that I was allergic to wool.
But maybe that isn’t all that relevant to this particular conversation.
Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? As a grandchild of the Depression, I’ve never met an indecent dollar. You know the rest. If you’ve been listening.
What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this one, as I’m not sure mine qualifies as a “writing life,” at least in the context of the question.
But I’m willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.
The harsh realities of economics (I can remember when gas was twenty-five cents a gallon, and the snow was up to here!) mean that I have to keep my day job, so the cons would include the aforementioned early rising (hey, I’m getting older, I get sleepy) and the other sundry aforementioned sacrifices. Of course, the pros were also mentioned afore: seeing your work in print, knowing that someone else besides you is actually reading the stuff, reaping in those glorious forty dollar checks. And writing. The pure, unadulterated pleasure of it. Creating lives where none were before, watching them strut and fret, feeling the goosebumps rising…
I could go on, but I think I’ll go stand over there and munch on some shrimp.
→Stop by our View From the Keyboard series tomorrow and you’ll see Dennis McFadden’s 5:00 AM writing space and his trusty writing partner. Dennis, thank you. -PMc←
John Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
I thank the Swedish Academy for finding my work worthy of this highest honor. In my heart there may be doubt that I deserve the Nobel Award over other men of letters whom I hold in respect or reverence–but there is no question of my pleasure and pride in having it for myself.
It is customary for the recipient of this award to offer scholarly or personal comment on the nature and direction of literature. However, I think it would be well at this particular time to consider the high duties and responsibilities of the makers of literature.
Such is the prestige of the Nobel Award and of this place where I stand that I am impelled, not to speak like a grateful and apologetic mouse, but to roar like a lion out of pride in my profession and in the great and good men who have practiced it through the ages.
Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches–nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tin-horn mendicants of low-calorie despair.
Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.
Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal physical fear, so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about. Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well as of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.
This is not new. The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.
Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit–for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
The present universal fear has been the result of a forward surge in our knowledge and manipulation of certain dangerous factors in the physical world. It is true that other phases of understanding have not yet caught up with this great step, but there is no reason to presume that they cannot or will not draw abreast. Indeed, it is part of the writer’s responsibility to make sure that they do. With humanity’s long, proud history of standing firm against all of its natural enemies, sometimes in the face of almost certain defeat and extinction, we would be cowardly and stupid to leave the field on the eve of our greatest potential victory.
Understandably, I have been reading the life of Alfred Nobel; a solitary man, the books say, a thoughtful man. He perfected the release of explosive forces capable of creative good or of destructive evil, but lacking choice, ungoverned by conscience or judgment.
Nobel saw some of the cruel and bloody misuses of his inventions. He may have even foreseen the end result of all his probing–access to ultimate violence, to final destruction. Some say that he became cynical, but I do not believe this. I think he strove to invent a control–a safety valve. I think he found it finally only in the human mind and the human spirit.
To me, his thinking is clearly indicated in the categories of these awards. They are offered for increased and continuing knowledge of man and of his world—for understanding and communication, which are the functions of literature. And they are offered for demonstrations of the capacity for peace–the culmination of all the others.
Less than fifty years after his death, the door of nature was unlocked and we were offered the dreadful burden of choice. We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to God. Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life and death of the whole world of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand.
Having taken God-like power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, saint John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the word, and the word is man, and the word is with man.
→What more need be said? -PMc←
Vanessa Gebbie is the first of our story writers in conversation to answer the questions Gina Frangello posed in her last post to our series “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers. Just to remind you, here are Gina’s questions: “What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics?”
V: Let me stop laughing before I type my reply.
Money paid no role whatsoever other than a negative one, in my decision to write fiction. Prior to that, I was being paid a small sum now and again to write non-fiction as I was a journalist of sorts—the sort that doesn’t get paid much. That’s not quite fair—I was also owner of a one-woman marketing consultancy, and had been for some eight years. I was earning thanks to that—and sometimes, decent sums.
As soon as I stopped to write, I earned not only nothing, but a negative sum. There were course fees to find. There was the purchase of a computer. Paper. Ink. Workshops. Not to mention the books. Books and more books! And I was no longer adding to the family ‘pot’. But let’s put this into context. I wasn’t exactly a youngster. My husband, bless him, had two rather useful attributes—firstly he was in a well-paid job, and was more concerned with my happiness than my financial contributions. And thus it was that I acquired what used to be called, in the olden days, a patron. I was just married to mine.
Without my income, we had appreciably less money. Even the odd competition win, bringing in a thousand or two in a good year, was laughable when compared with the income I’d given up.
I’d had my various careers. I’d done a languages degree, then worked for the Ministry of Defence in London, had one son, requalified in management specializing in HR, done an MBA, taken on senior management roles, had second son, started up the marketing consultancy… then suddenly, enough of the treadmill! Time to do what I needed to.
My husband (mon patron) pays the bills.
Short fiction has paid me very very little, if we are only talking cash. Publication fees can be measured in tens of pounds. I have been lucky and won competitions—even they don’t pay much—the best was a Bridport second place which raised £1000. ($1657 apparently…) I have two collections out and a text book, with one of the largest most respected indie presses in the UK. They pay no advances. Royalties are tiny. 7.5%. We make a little on the books—can buy them for a 35% discount and lug them round readings, festivals… But know something—I am not a saleswoman. I am a writer.
I wrote a novel. It took me five years to write. Well, from my previous post you will know it was a glorious series of short stories which was bullied into a different shape, firstly because I wanted to see if I could write something longer, and secondly because I had an agent (acquired thanks to a single short story, incidentally…) who wanted a novel to sell. So I am counting the advance I got for that as allied to the writing of short stories, if I may. A decent, not high, but very welcome five figure sum.
Wow. Five figure sum, huh. What, literary fiction? Yeah. But before we get too excited, remember it took me five years to write. That’s (if my maths is right) a cool and not-high four figure sum for each year spent working on this thing. If I take into account the money my darling patron spent on multiple stays at writing retreats (it was written in Ireland) flights and car hire to get there—over the five years…he has just about broken even.
I ought not forget teaching—as if I could. I love doing that, and have had some terrific times—being writer-in-residence at Stockholm University this time last year, for example—working at Winchester Writers Conference in July, running a week long workshop in Ireland next month—a workshop at Bridport in November—teaching pays well.
However. I am a writer, and a teacher when asked, not an academic. Is writing an academic pursuit…now there’s a question?! If I let teaching become a job, I would worry about what would happen to the writing—and am happy to leave it to those who can juggle the demands of both disciplines much more effectively than me.
Financially, I have run very far and very fast to stand absolutely still. By anyone’s measure, for a lit writer, four books in four years must be doing OK, product-wise…but then I read today about a debut author getting £600,000 in a two book deal. I felt sick for a moment. Then I looked at what her novels were about—nothing I could write in a million years…and felt much better. I do what I do and am happy. Just about. It remains to be seen whether I have the reserves to do this all over again, despite the fact that I have a brilliant idea tapping at the windows of my heart…oh what the hell. Writing will see me out one way or another. And there is one certainty. When I do shuffle off this mortal coil, my estate won’t be able to pay for solid oak and brass handles. I’ve ordered plywood.
→Thanks again, Vanessa. There’s a whole lot more about this writing stuff on Vanessa’s website and blog: www.vanessagebbie.com; http://morenewsfromvg.blogspot.com/. You might want to check them out. Next up, Dennis McFadden on eating shrimp with project managers. -PMc←
My half-brother, Wesley McNair, was recently named Maine’s Poet Laureate. On any given day in any given state, this honor is remarkable. But in a state where the governor (Governor LePage, the Republican perhaps best known for telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt”) cut the inaugural poem and choral music from his inauguration celebration because he thinks these art forms are “dry”, in a state where the governor took down from a state building a state and federally funded mural depicting the history of labor in Maine because it does not show the story from employers’ side (some references made to Communism and brainwashing in alleged anonymous faxes), the act of serving as Poet Laureate can be seen as very nearly subversive.
On the surface, Wesley’s poems might look like slices of Americana, and indeed many are small moments in time experienced or observed by ordinary people. But look more closely. There is political commentary here in the celebration of lives often complicated by situations beyond their control: poverty, broken families, false celebrity, politicians, isolation, over-development of the land, commercialization, big cars, and television. Wesley McNair is no Norman Rockwell.
And that makes me proud.
Viki Julian Gonia teaches in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, and writes a column for her local paper. Yep, a paper that still exists. Fighting the good fight. Just about everything interests Viki; she has a very good eye for the everydayness of things, the way the world’s spin affects our daily balance. Her voice is authentic and friendly, her words funny and often slightly barbed. She writes in the comfort of her home.
Viki: I have two main writing spaces in my house. The first, my “office,” is in the basement. When I bought my little house a year or so ago, my first priority was to create a space for writing that was my very own–something I’d longed for, and kept trying to create (unsuccessfully), when I was married. I hired a guy to come tear down some walls and carve a space. I put together cheap bookcases from IKEA and set it all up and then promptly abandoned it. Weird, huh?
I think that I realized that the whole damn house is my very own (the day I closed, I walked from room to room with my arms opened wide and proclaimed, in every space, “MINE!” like a 2-year-old with sharing issues). I didn’t need to try to carve my own space because it’s all mine.
But, just a couple of weeks ago, I reclaimed it. Organized (mostly–I need a little bit of chaos) the piles of papers. Cleared away my son’s soda cans. Swiped the dust from the desktop. I get most of my “business” writing done there, like writing my newspaper column.
Then there’s my living room. Lavender walls and feminine furniture–it’s a girly and comfortable room. I like to sit on the floor with my back against the sofa and a cat or two at my shoulder and a dog at my knee, or at the desk, where I can look up and out to the backyard. There’s nothing in this space that I don’t love. If I were a living room instead of a human, I would be this room.
Something I’ve written recently in this space:
She pours another vodka tonic, turns up the music, picks up items off the display shelves–a glass bottle of the kind he uses to store the Sands of Beaches, which contains a crumpled dollar bill and on the bottom of which has been written “AVJ” and “Tip” and a smudged date, the family golf and bowling tournament trophies. She wonders why he hung the painting of the Old Ormond Hotel near the window, where it would be faded by the sun, and ponders stealing it for herself. She chuckles at the photos he’s printed out of his grandchildren, stuck in cheap frames he’d picked up at the WalMart, and the poster of the U of I football team, her brother, thick-necked, his blue-and-orange jersey tight across his chest, in the second row.
She thinks, oddly, about the strangeness of her father’s idiosyncrasies, about his carefully placed mementos, the lightning rods on the roof of the house–a huge expense to address the fear that he might be struck twice after the time in the 70s when Mother Nature tore a hole in the roof of his business, pushing him further into struggling times. His stacks of books–Wealth Without Risk piled atop Raymond Chandler collections, beneath John Grisham novels. His telescopes and books full of constellations, his need to have things be a certain way not because they look best like that, but because that’s the best way to remember everything he never wants to forget.
→More from Viki on her blog vikibabbles.com. Thanks for sharing your space, woman. Reminder to the rest of you: still soliciting submissions to View from the Keyboard. Guidelines at the right. Oh, and Happy Spring Sphere Day.←