Conversation & Creation: Four Fiction Authors on their COVID-Era Writing Process

On a Sunday afternoon in September, I find myself with a precious thing: several hours of uninterrupted time to write. I sit down, Word document open in front of me, long-running, ramshackle list of short story ideas sitting in my lap (okay, fine, they’re on my phone).

An hour later, the only thing on the page is still just the cursor.

It is no secret that writing — which is often difficult anyway, for a multitude of reasons — has come with a new set of challenges during the era of COVID-19. We’re in a strange, stressful, overwhelming, and isolating time. Despite the many thinkpieces and op-eds I’ve seen proclaiming that quarantine is the perfect time to work on that side hustle or finish that novel, I want to say loud and clear: it’s okay if it’s not that linear, not that simple, not that easy

This is all I can think about as I face off with my blank Word document. I find myself wondering: what does COVID-era writing look like for other writers? What can we learn about our own processes as we learn about others’? After all, the writing community is still a community, even as it’s gone mostly virtual. Why not just talk to some writers about what it’s like to write in these uncertain and demanding times? 

So, I reached out to four short story writers: Kim Magowan, author of the must-read 2018 short-and-flash fiction collection Undoing; Jerilynn Aquino, whose stunning short stories have graced the pages of Passages North, Longform, and our very own So to Speak; K.B. Carle, whose masterful, often form-bending flash fiction is widely published in journals such as Jellyfish Review, CRAFT, and Black Warrior Review; and Anita Felicelli, author of the unmissable short story collection Love Songs For a Lost Continent (2018), and judge of our 2020 fiction contest. I asked them some questions about their “pandemic process” (a term that is far more catchy than it has any right to be) — and I think there is something to be learned from their insights and the advice they offer to other writers. 

What has your writing process looked like during quarantine, or the “COVID era”? 

K.B.: My writing process during the COVID era is sporadic. Some days, the inspiration is there and all I have to do is put pencil to paper. Other days, I find myself motivated to write but end up staring at the blank page for at least 30 minutes. Something I’m definitely learning during this time is to accept the fact that some days, the words just aren’t there, and that’s okay. I may not like it — and I really don’t like it — but I never want to force a story onto the page especially before it’s ready to be written. I have spent my time in quarantine getting reacquainted with time, learning to relax, and writing at night when I have a story that just won’t leave me alone.

Anita: I’ve always written every day because I have an urgent need to write. But with my young kids homeschooling while I tried to get paid work done and struggling with chronic illness, I had to steal little moments of creative time throughout the day and at night. I was still writing every day, but it was broken into five minutes here, ten minutes there. I’d type a scene quickly on my computer and also take notes on my phone while cooking and teaching and caregiving. My fiction writing time was unbelievably crunched and fragmented, and I also suffered from bouts of hopelessness much more frequently than usual, but the desperation of needing to write words everyday also forced me to make the most of the minutes that I was able to snatch.

Jerilynn: Pretty miserable, to be honest! I’d be lying if I said I managed to get much done this year. Actually, between my mother’s unexpected death last year, moving from Philly to Oklahoma the month after she died, and then the pandemic happening, I think I’ve managed to complete one whole draft. My writing process this year involved starting countless new pieces, not having access to creativity, crying, lying around feeling hopeless, and telling myself I’ve somehow lost my “talent.” I gave up too easily by telling myself I was broken and would never finish a story or publish again. Admitting this, I feel kind of embarrassed. Sounds so self-pitying and pathetic. [Editor’s note: it does not!] But the only way out of that pit was to give myself grace, and one thing I would have really appreciated was seeing more writers talk about how they stood in their own way, talk more about their disastrous failures. And so, what the hell!? This whole year has carried some real Tower card energy for me, the country, the entire world. Who cares if I wasn’t writing? Anyway, I’m writing again now. In the past month, I’ve finished two flash drafts.

Kim: I’m a professor, so I get the bulk of my writing done during summer and winter breaks. (The whole reason I started writing flash in the first place is flash fiction is the only kind of new writing I can reliably do when the semester is on). For the first couple of weeks of quarantine, which started early in San Francisco (March 12), I wasn’t writing much at all — just doing a lot of stress-submitting. Then the first stories I wrote were all COVID anxiety stories. I didn’t much want to write them, but it felt like the only thing I could cough up — story-hairballs, story-suitcases clunking down the baggage carousel chute. My college had to pivot (like the rest of the world) to online remote teaching, which I found draining and time-consuming. When I finally wrapped up my grading in May, I began to write in earnest, somewhat desperately, and I’m proud (and a little startled, when I look at the Word files) to say that I wrote about 80 pages since May (my productivity has ground to a halt again, now that I’m teaching three classes). Looking at the stories, I see that certain repressed feelings have flared up under the stresses of the dumpster fire that is 2020. For instance, my father died in January 2019, and I see in my recent work a lot of grief and mourning.

What is, typically, your process for writing flash fiction or a short story?

K.B.: The first step in my writing process is to find a spot with a view. I spend several minutes calming myself and my mind, letting go of anything causing me stress so that I can be in the moment while writing. I also seek inspiration from the views outside. The animals outside my window such as deer, groundhogs, and birds often find themselves in my stories. Having a window view also allows me to keep track of time. Sometimes, I become so involved with the story I’m working on I don’t realize the sun has set until I look outside!

After finding my spot that has a view, I tend to write the first draft all at once. I have tried to write them in pieces but this technique doesn’t work for me, the story becoming lost after I leave it alone for a few days or even a few hours. The first draft is usually a mess, even after I type the story, though I have gotten lucky a few times and gotten most of the story out on the first try. I can sometimes tell how promising the first draft will be by how nervous I am about it. The stories that have worked, stories that reveal themselves during the first, second, or third draft, are also the stories I’m most nervous about. Those are the ones I send to my first readers along with: “Hope you enjoy and if you don’t, don’t tell me!”

However, most of my stories need trimming, have warts in the forms of misspelled words, comma splices, and paragraphs that meander from the story’s main theme or plot. I would describe my editing habits much like I describe my writing process: sporadic. I often distract myself from editing by writing something new, signing up for another workshop, or attending a virtual reading. I like to live in the moment, especially while writing, enjoying a story for what it is and being thankful that this piece of writing exists. But don’t worry. I’ll get those edits done soon enough … tomorrow … maybe.

Anita: Often my short stories build off an image or moment that occurs at the end of a narrative. It haunts me until I need to write about it. In the initial drafting, I try to figure out how the characters got to that final moment, and why it’s important, why I’ve gotten obsessed with that moment. I used to imagine the entire story in my off-hours and then write a first draft in one fell swoop or maybe two stretches, but over the last few months, I’ve been writing a short scene a day and feeling my way mostly in the dark, not knowing anything but the moment I’m fumbling — er, writing — towards. I mostly revise stories after they’re all written down, though while cooking or caregiving, a thought might occur to me about a scene and then I’ll fix it the next chance I get. Occasionally in revision I see that I was obsessed for a reason I didn’t understand in the first go-around, and rewrite scenes to fit my new understanding.  

Jerilynn: I think my process changes from piece to piece. Sometimes, I’ll start with leftover scraps (lines or scenes) that didn’t make the cut of other drafts of things. In other words, I save everything I edit out from other stories if it’s a line I really love and want to save for something else. In that case, I start with those lines or scenes and build the story around them. I often surprise myself this way, finding out things that are important to me that I hadn’t noticed before — things that have had an impact in my life, or things that keep coming up in my writing.  Other times, and especially if I’m really excited about the idea or I just have a bizarre stroke of luck where I know exactly what I want to do and how to do it, I just sit down and start from the beginning. I am not a pen-and-paper first drafter, although I admire those people. I just don’t have the patience. However, I do keep a notepad with me. If I’m working on a particular line, for instance, I will handwrite it over and over until I think I’ve gotten it right. Also, hardly any of my stories end up being the stories I had originally intended to write. I think a lot of writers have this experience.

Kim: My process for writing flash is to slap the first draft down in one sitting — I need to see the full shape of the story puddle out, raw and messy. My revision process is all about chiseling. I get story ideas in the most random ways: sitting on a bus, looking out the window, I saw a lurid orange door (that turned into my story “Useful Information” that Smokelong Quarterly published, that was in Wigleaf’s Top 50. I first drafted it on my phone). In another case, a title (“Mrs. White in the Ballroom with the Lead Pipe”) woke me up in the middle of the night.

Have you written about the pandemic or quarantine/distancing at all, or found it seeping into your writing/content in some ways? 

K.B.: So far, I’ve only written one story that directly references the pandemic. The story itself is told through dialogue in the form of an interview. I’m not sure if I want to keep heading down this path or not. Other than that, I’ve found inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement and the passing of Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Common themes inspired by the life and career of RBG and the Black Lives Matter movement that have seeped into my writing are family, sexism, alienation, racism, and empowerment.

Anita: I haven’t consciously written about the pandemic — I think of writing as a way to exit the pandemic. But when I’ve sat down to revise the stories I’ve written since March, I’ve been repeatedly surprised at just how much the dark emotions of the pandemic, the fear and isolation and loss and dread have infected each of these five stories. My emotional state has driven my narratives without my consent or intent. Perhaps most of all, the shaken, vulnerable feeling that we’ve lost our way, that we’re lost and rudderless, that everything we’ve ever loved in this world is under threat, will never again be as it was, animates everything I’ve written recently. However, I’ve also tried to remember that all through world history people have felt this way and worse; some of us were just lucky not to feel so visceral a sense of losing the world before.

Jerilynn: I have not written about the pandemic or quarantine at all. I think I’m going to need a lot more distance from this year, to gain some perspective, in order to draw something from the pandemic that might be interesting to write about. That’s usually my approach to writing about a traumatic event, anyway. I haven’t even written about my mother’s death yet. I feel myself getting closer to coming up with something to say about her now. But I’m nowhere near ready to have something to say about this year, especially when we’re still in the thick of it. 

Kim: Ha, yes (see answer #1). I couldn’t help it, even though I knew perfectly no editor would want to read them. Most of them aren’t published, but trampset did publish this one, “Distancing,” in which the pandemic figures as background. In other stories, COVID would seep in (“seep” is a perfect verb, thanks) as a reference — for instance, the sign I see all over San Francisco: “I wear my mask to protect you, you wear yours to protect me.”

Do you have any advice for flash and short fiction writers facing writer’s block during this time? 

K.B.: If possible, I would suggest signing up for a generative online workshop. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the workshops I’ve taken during the COVID era. However, if taking a workshop is not possible at this time, I would recommend attending a virtual book launch or reading. Listening to writers read their stories, talking about their writing process, and sharing ideas about different topics always inspires me to keep pushing so that, maybe one day, I’ll be the one giving a reading or celebrating the launch of my book. Virtual launches and readings are also a wonderful way to meet new writers, to hear new stories, or to gain a new perspective on a topic you might shy away from writing about in fear that the story might sound cliché. I’ve listened to several stories about love and the dissolution of relationships. The various ways these writers put their unique spin on relationships specifically always leaves me in awe.

Anita: I think it’s important to be gentle with yourself during this time and let your imagination absorb what’s happening without expectations for how the work should go as a result. What’s happening during quarantine will probably flower in what you imagine if you’re feeling intensely about it, but there’s no need to rush these circumstances onto the page or into a story. I don’t think having a productivity mindset is good for the imagination in general, but it’s probably particularly unhelpful for story writing during this time of public anxiety and upheaval.

Jerilynn: Give yourself time. You are not broken. Maybe you’re traumatized. Maybe you’re just having a hard time. Try to write and let yourself be a shitty writer. Or maybe you really do need a break. Take that break as long as you promise to come back. If you really want this, it will happen. One thing that helped me was to somehow find a way to hold myself accountable. It wasn’t about punishing myself if I didn’t come through, but about earning something that I wanted. I might spend that hour mostly thinking, but at least I devoted one hour to the writing. I let myself feel good about that. 

Kim: If I waited to write until I felt inspired, I would barely write anything. I make myself do it, particularly since I have time pressures (those academic breaks). When I feel stuck and the well is dry, I jumpstart by doing what Michelle Ross, Yasmina din Madden, and I call “flashathons.” We schedule 4-6 hours marathon stretches, send each other prompts every hour on the hour, and generate a lot of raw material. Many of those stories are pure crap, but seven of them this summer ended up turning into stories I published. Many of our prompts come from flash we send each other to inspire each other (“here’s a breathless sentence story; now write one”), so that would be my main advice: read, read, read! Reading a story I love is food for my brain, and gives me ideas about something new I want to try (like a triptych, or an anaphoric flash). I am deeply ambivalent about writing — I both love it and loathe it; I am pure about reading (I always love it! Hence my job, as an English professor). So reading can be a way to trick myself into writing.

Speaking of reading: what’s a piece(s) you’ve enjoyed lately that you want to recommend to our readers? 

K.B.: Some of my favorite reads from the past six months include:  [First Name] [Last Name], We Picked These Products Just For You by Ellen Rhudy in HAD; Extinction by K-Ming Chang in Jellyfish Review; The Third Woman by Neela Vaswani in Waxwing; Unfortunate Deaths from Our Graduating Class, 1994 (Compiled in 2019) by DeMisty D. Bellinger in Pidgeonholes; and The Day her Husband Died by Rudri Patel in Milk Candy Review.

Anita: I read and reread Jamel Brinkley’s “The Let-Out” in A Public Space maybe twenty times in late spring because I loved it so much. It’s about a guy who is attracted to a woman at a let-out and discovers, while dancing with her, she’s his father’s old mistress. There’s so much psychological movement within the story — it’s a remarkable story, full of upended expectations.

Jerilynn: There’s an essay by Natalie Lima entitled “For a Good Time, Call” up at Guernica. I’d been following her on Twitter for quite some time without, admittedly, having read much of her work before this year. But then I attended a reading she hosted at AWP in San Antonio (right before the world shut down) and I just was… hearts-in-eyes-emoji the whole time. As a Latina, I felt so seen in that literary space, but I digress. Reading her work is an experience. I love the straightforwardness of her writing, and still, it carries so much depth and weight. She makes it look easy. Sometimes when I’m reading a story or essay, I feel encouraged, like, “I could totally do that… right?” But I’m no Natalie Lima. (Psst — Natalie Lima also happens to be the fiction contest judge for So to Speak this year!)

Kim: Oh, my, tough question — I read so many stories I love, for Pithead Chapel, for teaching, and for pleasure. I’ll limit myself to two. There’s a story forthcoming from Pithead Chapel by Hananah Zaheer, “Lovebird,” that is one of my favorite things we’ve ever published — it’s a gorgeous, harrowing, breathless sentence story. And somehow I had never read this amazing flow-chart hermit crab by Alex McElroy until quarantine began, and I was digging around for examples of hermit crabs for my upcoming Flash Fiction class. It’s so brilliant and cold-blooded, we watch a grieving father being manipulated by HR, which wants him to buck up and return to work. I love hermit crabs, but they can’t just be clever add-ons; the form needs to serve the content. It does in this case, brilliantly.

Where can our readers find more of your work?

K.B.: Jellyfish Review recently published my story entitled,“This is a Story About a Fox.” I love this story because it’s one that surprised me. My friend, Elizabeth Burton, will tell you it’s very rare for any of my stories to have a happy ending so for this story to reveal itself to me was a wonderful surprise!

Anita: My short story collection, Love Songs for a Lost Continent, and Chimerica: A Novel. I have three short stories coming out this fall. One of these stories, “Time Invents Us,” is in the fall print issue of the magazine Alta, but I don’t know if it will publish online before this interview. [Editor’s note: a piece by Anita, “Amrita,” was just published in Midnight Breakfast.]

Jerilynn: My story, “Anybodys,” is probably one of my favorite published pieces. You can find it in So to Speak’s 2019 contest issue. That story was so fun to write and is so fun to read to people. I am very proud of it, and couldn’t be happier with the home it found! It’s also probably my most fictional piece while still being so very true to my lived experience. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @jl_noaqui.

Kim: One of the stories I’m most proud of is this one in Booth. I should warn parents of teens, though, this one may stress you out!

 


 

About the interviewees

Jerilynn Aquino is a second-generation Puerto Rican writer from Philadelphia and New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Passages NorthLunch Ticket, and So to Speak as finalist for the 2019 fiction contest judged by Pam Houston. She received her M.F.A. in Fiction from Temple University, and is currently pursuing Creative Nonfiction at Oklahoma State University. You can find her on Twitter @jl_noaqui.

KB photo

K.B. Carle lives and writes outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is the Associate Editor at Fractured Lit. and Editor at FlashBack Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Jellyfish Review, The Offing, Mineral Lit. Mag, CRAFT Literary, CHEAP POP, and have been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. She can be found online at http://kbcarle.com

Kim photo

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Booth, Colorado Review, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapelwww.kimmagowan.com

Anita Felicelli is the author of CHIMERICA: A NOVEL and the story story collection LOVE SONGS FOR A LOST CONTINENT. LOVE SONGS won the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Anita’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Alta, Midnight Breakfast, Air/Light, The Massachusetts ReviewTerrainThe Normal School, Joyland, Kweli Journal and other places. Her nonfiction has appeared in Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon Catapult, and the New York Times (Modern Love)She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. She’s on Twitter @anitafelicelli.

About the author

Kyra Kondis is the editor-in-chief of So to Speak, and is an MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University, where she is at work on a short story collection. Her recent work can be found in Atticus Review, Okay Donkey, and CHEAP POP. Her flash fiction has been featured in the Best Microfiction 2020 and the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Stories of 2020.

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