- Embrace cliches
- Don’t write what you know.
That’s two pieces of writing advice you won’t see everywhere. They are from Scott Gould, award-winning short story writer and novelist. Scott has now crossed into memoir with Things That Crash, Things That Fly, which chronicles the startling and sudden break-up of his marriage. How was it, I wondered, turning the unsparing writer eye on your own character, your own actions, your own real people? We got together for a chat.
Roz I’ll talk about your memoir in a minute, but first let’s discuss your other books. You have Whereabouts, a novel, and a set of linked stories Strangers To Temptation. There’s also The Hammerhead Chronicles, another novel coming later this year. What unifies your work – any themes, approaches, types of character?
Scott The first two are unified by time and place, both set in the US South and in the early 1970s. Why the early 70s? That’s when I was 12 or so (yes, Roz, I’m old) I was deeply affected by coming of age in that period of time. I remember so much from that era—the music, the social and political unrest, the crushes and the slow dances with the girls who were the object of aforementioned crushes—and that place…the humid, rural, silly and proud South. (Proud for a lot of the wrong reasons, I might add.)
Hammerhead is still set in the South, but it’s contemporary. I think I’ve mined my 1970s dry.
I guess what unites those books is my desire to look at a world and its flawed characters (flawed physically or emotionally or spiritually) and see how they navigate their own tiny spaces in that world. I like following them around and seeing if they can clean up and survive the messes they make. (That’s close to a theft from Faulkner; I think he said something about following his characters around. Sorry. But like Picasso said, “All art is theft.”)
I like taking clichés and stereotypes—like the Southern pick-up-mobile-home-hound-dog—and flipping them on their ear. I’m not one of these people who despise clichés. I actually love them because they give me something to experiment with.
Roz What an interesting way to think about cliches. Yes, I get that. All cliches start from a truth, a recognisable and resonant truth. Before an idea becomes a cliché, it is briefly the wisest thing in the world.
Scott Clichés exist because people have developed this universal idea of what something means. If I can flip it or etch a new aspect onto it, then I’ve made something entertaining. I think that will be real apparent with Hammerhead. There’s some wild stuff going on in that novel, lots of cliché spinning.
Roz So: your memoir, Things That Crash, Things That Fly. How was the transition to writing about your own life?
Scott It wasn’t a transition as much as a flipping back and forth over the years. And a great deal of my fiction is autobiographical. You can really see that in Strangers to Temptation. But I believe all fiction is based in some shade of the truth. Even if you’re writing about some fantasy world or some post-apocalyptic nightmare, and let’s say a character who limps and you want to describe that limp to the reader, and you suddenly think: “Hey, my uncle Jake used to have a limp. I’ll describe the way he walks.” That’s reality blended into fiction.
Roz I think it goes beyond small details. To make a story real, we draw on our experience of behaviour, personalities, emotions, relationships. The characters we most want to write are the people we want to understand.
Scott I always tell my students, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you know well enough to lie about.” That’s a mantra for my fiction writing. So I didn’t just turn off the fiction spout and start writing the memoir. The two are related, don’t you think? First cousins maybe.
Roz Indeed I do. When I published a collection of personal essays (Not Quite Lost), I realised they were the origin stories for my fiction.
Scott I had been thinking about writing the memoir for years—not right after I was separated and divorced, but a couple years after that, I started thinking: “I need to write this down. It’s got all the elements of a good story. Loss and desire, a fall and a redemption of sorts, darkness and light, tragedy and humor. Lots of interesting juxtapositions.”
Plus, I needed to do it for my heart. It was somewhat stitched back together, but the stitches were getting frayed. I remember thinking that if I could write it down and make it into a piece of art, I might come to some new understanding that would be healthy and healing. That was probably a foolish idea, but art has erupted from sillier beginnings.
Anyway, I think the book really took flight (pun intended) when I was awarded the teaching fellowship to go back to Italy and research a WWII pilot who was killed. I recall making a late-night, probably bourbon-fueled deal with myself: “If you get this fellowship and go back there and put yourself through that gauntlet of memory and anxiety, you better damn well get a book out of it.” Well, I did win the fellowship and I kept my promise to myself.
But I wasn’t writing the memoir steady, from start to finish. I would write some, then put it away, because it was too damn hard to face sometimes. Then I would get mad at myself and pull it back out and arm-wrestle with it again.
In the meantime, I was writing stories, and sending them out and trying to work on novel manuscripts. I guess I’m a juggler. I like to have a lot of things in the air. I was constantly in transition between fiction and the memoir. And that may have not been a bad thing. I wanted the memoir to have a definite arc to it, so maybe working on stories simultaneously was good for maintaining the idea of a narrative.
Actually, I’ve never really thought about that connection between the two. Thanks, Roz…
Roz The subject material is frank and honest. And very involving. I shared your certainty that the relationship could be salvaged, the many moments of surreal awkwardness, the sense of inevitability and disappointment. Were there many drafts before you reached this one?
Scott For better or worse, I’ve never had an issue or problem with writing extremely honestly about myself. In the Prologue to Things That Crash, Things That Fly, when I say, “I will tell you anything you want to know,” I really mean it. I think it’s the duty of any writer to be brutally honest with the reader. As a writer you’re trying to bridge the gap between your words and the reader’s emotions. And if you don’t develop some sort of trust with the reader, you’re doomed to fail.
Roz It’s the honesty that creates the relationship with the reader, which makes the narrative feel like a special encounter.
Scott And you achieve a level of trust by delivering information to the reader in a crafted way. Your use of specific detail, handling of point of view and narrative stance, characterizations…all of these craft elements (and many more) web together to make this comfortable, honest, safe place for the reader to exist. And that place is the story you are trying to tell. God, is this making sense? I feel like I’m blathering.
Roz Not blathering at all. This is a good definition of the power of prose – inviting the reader into your emotional sensations.
Scott I remember the early drafts of the memoir possessed the wrong tone. It was too whiny and too mean-spirited. And I knew it. But I still existed too close to the story. That’s why I needed some years between first and final draft. I needed to find the correct emotional connection between me and story, one that the reader would understand and allow.
Roz When I’ve helped writers with memoirs, they’ve often needed quite a bit of midwifery, coaxing them to look more deeply, to excavate further. Sometimes to forgive themselves.
Scott I always tell my students, when you’re writing a personal essay or a memoir, you are a character in the piece. There’s a difference between the ‘I’ that writes the story and the ‘I’ that lives within it. Put the ego and the fear and the anxiety aside, and treat that person in the story like any other character in a piece of writing. Tell the readers exactly what they need to know about that character.
If you can create separation between I-the-Writer and I-the-Character, it helps with the level of honesty, I think.
Roz Inevitably, a memoir has to involve other people who are also in vulnerable situations, in this case your daughters and ex-wife.
Scott I resisted for many drafts pulling them into the story. I suppose that was because they had already lived through the trauma and I didn’t want their characters to go through it again. I know, very weird and probably therapy-worthy. But a very well-known writer, who picked this memoir as a runner-up in a book contest, told me I needed more of my daughters in the story to make it work. So I dialed up their presence slightly, but carefully.
Roz I liked your delicate approach – they aren’t named and they’re seen mainly in glimpses. But it was enough. What lines did you draw about how you’d involve them?
Scott I was very selective in the scenes they appeared and very precise (I hope) in the way I used their appearances.
Roz Did they see the manuscript?
Scott They’ve known about the book for years, but they haven’t read the manuscript. Actually, as I write this, I’ve just mailed them copies. I’m a little anxious about that.
Roz I also thought the book ended in just the right place.
Scott Endings are always hard, right?
Roz They’re hard enough with fiction. Even harder with non-fiction. Life doesn’t just turn off. You could keep going for ever.
Scott I tend to adhere to something I heard the novelist John Irving say. He said that when he begins a novel, he always knows the last line. It gives him a compass heading as he navigates the twists and turns of the narrative. So when I began this, I knew I wanted to stop when I returned from Italy. I wanted that bit of homecoming, and I wanted my daughters there. That seemed like an logical emotional destination. Of course, the epilogue gave me the opportunity to expand the ending slightly and tie up some loose narrative threads. But for all intents and purposes, the story ends when I arrive back home after the Italy journey. That felt right, felt like the narrative circle was closed.
For a long time, the structure was wrong. I kept experimenting. I had an agent who wanted me to do some weird time-warp, Quentin Tarantino thing with it. And one agent who turned me down suggested I rewrite the book as a novel. (It was a disaster.) A hugely important moment for me was when I read this amazing memoir by Sonja Livingston called Ghostbread. It’s told in very short chapters. I was captivated by that idea of a very staccato rhythm. I thought, I can do that. I can break my story into tiny fragments, all of which add up to the total emotional experience of the story. And that’s what I did.
Roz You have three titles releasing within a short time – Whereabouts was last October, Things That Crash is this month and The Hammerhead Chronicles is coming soon. Was that deliberate?
Scott Whereabouts appeared last October from Koehler Books, this memoir in March from Vine Leaves Press. The novel that was supposed to come out in June from the University of North Georgia Press, The Hammerhead Chronicles, has been moved to February 1, 2022. (They want to wait until the pandemic is over so we can visit bookstores and stuff.) And I just found out I won a short fiction contest sponsored by Springer Mountain Press, and that collection of stories, Idiot Men, will come out this August.
Roz Wow, you can’t be stopped.
Scott It’s kind of strange and wonderful that all of this is happening at once. I don’t have any explanation for it. I’ve been grinding for a lot of years with nice, but modest results—stories in wonderful literary magazines and anthologies—but nothing on the book front. Then I hit my early 60s and the floodgates opened.
Some of these manuscripts had some age on them and I rewrote. Some were new.
I don’t really worry about publication. I love seeing my work in print, but I don’t set out with the goal of publication. I enjoy the process and I enjoy practising my craft. I enjoy taking a tiny speck of an idea and turning it into a fully-developed story.
I don’t mean that I love writing. Writing is hard and soul-crushing and exhausting…but, man, when you get it right, when you work the process and the craft takes over and you create a story when one didn’t previously exist? That’s a good day.
Roz It makes it all the soul-mining worthwhile. So how did you come to each of your publishers?
Scott I had writer friends who published with them or I researched them on my own or I read a book and said, “This is really good. Who’s the publisher?” I kept my eyes open and did my due diligence.
Roz Do you have a literary agent?
Scott No. I’ve had an agent at various times, and it never amounted to anything.
Roz Same here. I’ve had two. Each time, it was a confidence boost, and I felt I’d made the grade, but I didn’t fit the markets they sold to.
Scott I’m sure agents are wonderful and necessary for a certain type of writer…but I don’t seem to fall into that category, which is fine. The world is a big place and there’s plenty of room for everybody.
Roz Do you have any tips for submitting to literary journals? Has being published by them helped you get deals for longform work?
Scott A writer friend told me that if you aren’t getting rejected twice a day, you aren’t doing your job. I took that to heart. I submit relentlessly, realizing that I’m going to get hammered with rejections. I don’t take it personally. When a story is rejected, it doesn’t bother me if I know the same story is out to another eight or nine magazines. I’m a grinder. I put my head down and keep moving forward.
Roz Was your family creative and artistic or did you create your own path?
Scott Growing up, my family wasn’t super artistic, but my mother was an avid reader and insisted we always have a book in our hand. (I remember in the sixth grade, my parents let me stay up all night, one a school night, reading Robinson Crusoe, cover to cover.) So I was always interested in books and stories and language, which led to me being an English major in college (when I realized my basketball career was over and I wouldn’t be the next Larry Bird). In college I took a couple of creative writing courses and I was doomed to start chasing stories.
Roz Have I remembered this right… during Things That Crash, you were working in advertising. Was that useful in your creative writing, or even a welcome antidote?
Scott I took a too-long foray into the advertising business. Being a copywriter taught me how to be clear and concise and fast. But I eventually had to get out and return to teaching and writing stories. I thought, If I have to think up another clever, 75-word way to convince somebody to open a free checking account, I’ll jam this pen in my hand. I think some of the precision in my language comes from those years in copywriting.
Roz You teach creative writing. What level/age group?
Scott For the past 17 years, I’ve been teaching creative writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, one of the nation’s only public, residential high schools for the arts. I teach creative nonfiction to high school juniors and seniors (usually 16-18 years old), and they are amazing. They have such energy and such seriousness of purpose.
Roz I want to linger on that phrase: ‘energy and seriousness of purpose’. Creative people never lose it. This is why I love them.
Scott I love talking with them about images and structure and intent and craft. Some of them continue their writing careers. Some don’t. But they ALL leave with an appreciation for language and the power it contains.
Roz The arts are something we never truly master. Even if we are teachers ourselves, there’s always more to learn. Where do you do most of your learning?
Scott I’ve been writing for a long time, Roz, and every day I wake up and realize I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And I consider that a good thing. You see, as writers, we’re always apprentices, and if I ever get to the point where I think I’ve got it all figured out, I hope somebody is standing nearby who can slap me back into reality.
Roz Give me some amazing final words!
Scott You will never figure out the perfect way tell a story or build a character or construct a scene, because the world around you constantly shifts, constantly brings new factors into the narrative equation. The important thing is that you always try. Sit in the chair, respect your craft, chase the language around the page and do the best you can. Keep grinding.
If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.