Guest Blog: Open Waters III

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Courtesy of Laura Tansley and Micaela Maftei

This is the third of four fortnightly guest blogs by collaborative authors Micaela Maftei, based in Victoria, British Columbia, and Laura Tansley, based in Glasgow, UK. Both writers completed Creative Writing PhDs at the University of Glasgow, where they met. They have gone on to co-author short stories and continue to do so from opposite sides of the Atlantic, with their forthcoming short story collection soon to be published by Vagabond Voices. They are truly contemporary transatlantic literary women. Read on to find out more about their process!

 

The particular and shared time, space and place of collaborative writing

Many writers, deliberately or not, consciously or not, write what they know, and write of where they know – this is often especially true when a writer leaves a place and subsequently sees it from a new vantage point. For all that we believe our co-written work features a voice that is distinct from our individual voices, when we each sit with a piece, the triggers and images that come to mind are often influenced by the myriad experiences, memories and associations that come from our personal past.

In The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham writes that “men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they are born, the city apartment or farm where they learned to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read…these are things that you can’t come to know by hearsay”. If the self is a great mix of ingredients, many rooted in early life, it’s a certainty that as co-authors what we imagine as we create a story, and the associations connected with it, will not always, and perhaps will never, be exactly the same.

What we imagine in our minds when we write (the places and people and images that we, with or without awareness, have in mind when we create the fictional), is not necessarily something we share with each other as part of our creative process. But it becomes apparent when we consider our understandings of these stories that we often have very different spaces in mind as we write. The geography of the sleepover setting in ‘The Reach of a Root’ is both specifically an old friend’s house from Toronto, and simultaneously a second cousin’s from Malvern. And even when the space we imagine is similar, the ways in which it’s encountered can be different. In ‘A Change is as Good as a Rest’, when the character Jess tries on underwear in a pretentious clothing store, one of us imagined the wooden-panelled cubicles of mid-Twenties experiences of the Buchanan Street Urban Outfitters, while the other mentally returned to hundreds of teenaged trips to the Urban Outfitters next to Toronto’s Eaton Centre. Even ubiquity has contextual specificity. These differences don’t seem to affect a reading of the story because the stories retain a narrative and spatial logic, but what these examples highlight is that despite our creation of a third voice, and even though we would agree that we know and can relate to each other very well, having developed an understanding of what we think and imagine and how we each see the world around us, that even in collaboration, the worlds we create as writers can remain specific, precise, fixed in the past and often, therefore, unknowable.

Our shared experiences are sure to influence our process, although it’s impossible to know at this stage, or perhaps ever, to what extent they have impacted on our work. The spaces we shared in Glasgow (a flat, a PhD cohort, friends and trips around Scotland), may have played a significant part in terms of our compulsion to explore collaborative writing, and perhaps influence and inform the third voice we produce in our co-written short stories. And these four years together will remain incredibly significant to us, but in the course of our respective tenures as writers, these experiences represent an increasingly small amount of time and a more and more distant part of our shared history. As we come to the end of one creative project together, the prospect of a new endeavour emerges, as does the question of how our writing will develop together when we now spend so much time apart. One of us will shortly join the other in parenthood, and we wonder if this experience will bring new opportunities to explore what we share, and what separates us.

What we do have are creative touchstones; a growing mixtape of stories we have shared with each other when either of us comes across something that might be pertinent to our collaborations, or just in general as part of our shared interest in craft. These include, amongst others, ‘An Abduction’ by Tessa Hadley, ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been’ by Joyce Carol Oates, Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity and recently, the impossible to ignore (for a hot second) ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian. These pieces swim around us as we write, informing us and bringing us closer to an understanding of what we hope to achieve in our writing together; even while we know that how one of us sees a story – as in how we visualize the events, but also how we understand its significance and meaning – will almost certainly never fully match the other’s. The same is true for our own collaborative writing. But we hope this conflict gives our writing a striated edge that at times tessellates and at others makes for an uncomfortable fit, highlighting the contradictory and conflicting experiences of women’s experiences, as well as drawing attention to our collaborative craft, which feels both singular and plural, thrilling and unnerving, routine and constantly developing.

By Laura Tansley and Micaela Maftei

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Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Anzia Yezierska

**Remember to join our #TLWBookChat on #ForgottenTLW on the 28th of February**

In the lead up to our online book club on the 28th of February, we’re posting about overlooked transatlantic woman writers, and today I’m going to talk about Anzia Yezierska. She was born around 1880 in Russian Poland and emigrated to the United States in 1890. She grew up in poverty in the Jewish immigrant community of Manhattan’s lower East Side, one of nine children.* She left home at seventeen, rejecting the expectations of her deeply religious father about the ‘appropriate’ roles for women in society. She held down a series of manual jobs while studying, and eventually gained a degree and pursued a career as a writer.

Issues of gender, identity and poverty permeate Yezierska’s writing. Her first book, a collection of short stories titled Hungry Hearts (1920), was well-received. It was quickly turned into a Hollywood film, boosting Yezierska’s reputation as a writer and earning her a significant sum of money. She published prolifically throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, but her work became less popular and fell out of fashion in the 1940s and 1950s. She died in 1970 in relative obscurity, having published just one book in the last forty years of her life (Red Ribbon on a White Horse, 1950).

Shortly after Yezierska’s death, Alice Kessler-Harris arranged the first reprinted edition of Bread Givers (1925) in 1975, and Persea Books went on to reprint copies of many of Yezierska’s other works over the coming years. Public and scholarly interest in Yezierska has grown steadily, as new generations find inspiration in her words.

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Sketch of Yezierska, 1921 [image from Wikimedia Commons]
While much of Yezierska’s work is autobiographical, this is arguably most true of Bread Givers. Yezierska’s protagonist Sara Smolinsky is fiercely independent, and ready to take advantage of all the opportunities available to her in the so-called ‘New World’:

“Thank God, I’m not living in olden times. Thank God, I’m living in America! You made the lives of the other children! I’m going to make my own life!

[…]

“My will is as strong as yours. I’m going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me. I’m not from the old country. I’m American!”

Bread Givers, ch.VIII

The presence of such a strong-willed female protagonist is refreshing, especially for a novel of this period. It skilfully questions the realities of the American Dream, while simultaneously raising issues concerning identity and cultural assimilation. The tension between the old and new is drawn out through the relationship between Sara and her parents, who prevent her from truly escaping from the restrictions imposed by her religious and cultural background. And, while the novel was once criticised for its use of vernacular and colloquialisms, the value of such rhetorical techniques is now lauded by scholars and the public alike, for adding to the novel’s realism.

Given recent discussions about gender and women’s roles in society, Bread Givers remains astonishingly relevant to a modern reader. Indeed, perhaps Yezierska’s greatest talent is presenting such a vivid and accurate portrayal of a very specific community, yet enabling readers from diverse cultures and backgrounds to find value in her writing.

Yezierska’s first collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts, is available to read online. It’s well worth dipping into if you want to get a feel for her writing style and the themes she engages with in her writing.

 

By Sarah Thomson

 

*Biographical detail taken from Alice Kessler Harris’s foreword and introduction to Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, Inc. 2003).

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Lorine Niedecker

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Photo courtesy of The Operating System

Remember to join our online book club on #ForgottenTLW on Wednesday 28th February, 7pm – 8pm, on Twitter.

This week’s Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women blog focuses on the North-American modernist poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-70) who, towards the end of her life, established a number of vital creative connections with British-based writers and publishers.

It is worth pointing out, first of all, that although Niedecker’s poetry was little published during her lifetime, and often undervalued by her peers, it has since been the subject of extensive critical reassessment, and has been exhaustively excavated and collated, most notably by Jenny Penberthy for her authoritative Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (2002). In this sense, Niedecker is perhaps more of a famously forgotten writer than a forgotten one, but the story of her life and work remains fascinating, as does that of her long-term struggle to find an audience for her work, and of its late but enthusiastic reception amongst poets and publishers based in Britain: Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press, Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Society, and Roy Fisher’s Fulcrum Press.

As Jenny Penberthy notes of Niedecker’s biography, “[h]er life by water could not have been further removed from the avant-garde poetry scene where she also made herself a home” (1). Born and brought up in Black Hawk Island, a marshy area of rural Wisconsin where she remained for most of her adult life, Niedecker described her childhood as filled with “twittering and squawking noises” (Penberthy, 2). The sensitive musicality of her work – comparable to that of two of her British friends, Basil Bunting and Ian Hamilton Finlay – may channel the sound-world of her upbringing:

I rose from marsh mud,

algae, equisetum, willows,

sweet green, noisy

birds and frogs

 

(Penberthy, 170)

After dropping out of a literature course to tend to her sick mother, Niedecker married in 1928 and became a librarian, publishing a small number of poems during the late 1920s informed by the imagism of writers like H.D. (a fellow transatlantic woman writer), and early Ezra Pound. From the early 1930s onwards – the depression having cost her both her job and her marriage – she was inspired by Objectivism, beginning an intense correspondence with Louis Zukofsky from the parental home to which she had returned. In 1933, Niedecker visited Zukofsky in New York and they became lovers. She fell pregnant with twins, but Zukofsky pressured her to abort. Niedecker’s long poem-sequence “For Paul”, written mainly across the 1950s, is addressed to the son whom Zukofsky went on to have with Celia Thaew, and seems shot through with a subdued grief to any reader familiar with Niedecker’s life (she died childless):

Paul

now six years old:

this book of birds I loved

I give to you.

I thought now maybe Paul

growing taller than cattails

around Duck Pond

between the river and the Sound

will keep this book intact,

fly back to it each summer

 

maybe Paul

 

(“For Paul”, Penberthy 137)

Niedecker’s first collection, The New Goose, had been published semi-privately in 1946. Contra her reputation during her life as a naïve, rural savant, it incorporates pithy responses to national and international politics. However, these are filtered through a modernist-folk idiom owing as much to the vernacular speech-rhythms of her local community and the anonymous proletarian poetry of the “Mother Goose” songbook as the modernist literary collage of Pound, Zukofsky and Marianne Moore; it is also acutely sensitive to local as well as global events:

The brown muskrat, noiseless

swims the white stream,

stretched out as if already

a woman’s neck-piece.

 

In Red Russia the Russians

at a mile a minute

pitch back Nazi wildmen

wearing women.

 

(Penberthy, 109)

Expanding on these forms and motifs, by the end of the 1950s “For Paul” had grown into a projected second collection, “For Paul and Other Poems”. But Niedecker struggled to find a publisher, perhaps because her most regular creative advisor Louis Zukofsky was deeply uncomfortable with some of the content, perhaps simply because of the pressures of the various day-jobs – including hospital cleaning – through which Niedecker was forced to support herself. A marked note of solitude and frustration creeps into these poems:

What horror to awake at night

And in the dimness see the light.

                             Time is white

                             Mosquitoes bite

I’ve spent my life on nothing.

 

(Penberthy, 147)

At the same time, the poet Hannah Brooks-Motl suggests that in its formal ambition, “For Paul” represents “a turning point for Niedecker”, taking her from the minute, incidental poems of The New Goose to “the open-ended sequences such as Lake Superior that mark her late period.”

At this point, Niedecker’s biography starts to intersect with those of various poet-publishers based across the Atlantic, and we sense the emergence of what Peter Middleton calls “the British Niedecker.” Her most significant contacts in this regard were the Edinburgh-based poet Ian Hamilton Finlay and Jonathan Williams, a native of North Carolina whose Jargon Society imprint operated, as Ross Hair states, “from two remote locations: Highlands, North Carolina and Dentdale in England’s Yorkshire Dales” (2). Both Williams and Finlay operated at the geographical and artistic fringes of what is now called the British Poetry Revival, a period during the 1950s-70s when younger British poets turned against the conservatism of the Movement poets (Philip Larkin et al) and embraced early twentieth-century literary modernism, emulating its development by their North-American contemporaries, poets of the neo-objectivist, Black Mountain College and New York schools.

This transatlantic dynamic has often been described with reference to the esoteric, high-modernist aesthetics of poets such as J.H. Prynne. But it was the vernacular, folksy aspects of Niedecker’s idiom that appealed to Finlay and Williams, both of whom thought of themselves, in certain ways, as outsiders in this new modernist poetry scene. Niedecker’s My Friend Tree (1961), illustrated with faux-naïve woodcuts, was one of the first publications of Finlay and Jessie McGuffie’s Wild Hawthorn Press, Finlay having been enraptured by The New Goose after receiving a copy in 1961. Though My Friend Tree was a different and far smaller publication than the one Niedecker had envisaged, she was buoyed by the attention, and embraced her status as ‘folk poet’ with a newfound confidence. She seems to pay homage to her new friend and correspondent in “Letter from Ian”:

Aye sure

a castle on the rock

in the middle of Edinburgh

 

They floodlight it—

big show up there

with pipe bands

and all

 

Down here along the road

open your door

to a posse of poets.

 

(Penberthy, 207)

Across the remainder of the 1960s, interest in Niedecker’s work finally grew. In 1965, Williams offered to publish the manuscript of “collected poems” that Niedecker had prepared, although the chaotic state of Jargon Society finances held back the publication of T&G: The Collected Poems until 1969. In the meantime, the London-based press Fulcrum, operated by the South-African poet Stuart Montgomery, and the most financially solvent and ambitious of the new British modernist poetry presses, published another collection, North Central (1968); in 1970, Montgomery would bring out an expanded collected poems, My Life by Water: Collected Poems, 1936-1968.

In 1963 Niedecker had married again, moving with her new husband to Milwaukee. Her financial security allowed her to dedicate the last seven years of her life to writing full-time, and to travelling more widely. Her work began to appear in magazines with increasing frequency, and to take on more expansive and ambitious forms. Late, extended sequences such as “Lake Superior”, “Wintergreen Ridge”, and “Paean to Place” enfold biographical detail with precisely conveyed botanical, geological, and cultural awareness of place and landscape, all with Niedecker’s distinctive, lithe musicality. It would be wrong to depict the last ten years of her life as a period of final, unmitigated success. She remained, as her poems suggest, on the outside of things during the 1960s: “I see no space-rocket/ launched here/ no mind-changing// acids eaten” (“Wintergreen Ridge”, Penberthy 255). But she did develop a network of intense creative friendships, becoming the benign matriarch of what Ross Hair calls an “avant-folk” community, linking up the rural peripheries of North America and Britain. By the time of her death – of a cerebral haemorrhage, on New Year’s Eve 1970 – Niedecker was just beginning to establish herself as one of the most original poets of the late-modernist era.

By Greg Thomas. His forthcoming book on Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland is being published by Liverpool University Press.

References

Hannah Brooks-Motl, “The Lives of Lorine Niedecker.” Poetrysociety.org, originally published 2013.

Ross Hair, Avant-Folk: Small Press Poetry Networks from 1950 to the Present. Liverpool University Press, 2017.

Peter Middleton, “The British Niedecker.” In Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, edited by Elizabeth Willis, University of Iowa Press, 2008.

Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works. Edited by Jenny Penberthy, University of California Press, 2002.

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Blog: Open Waters II

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Courtesy of Laura Tansley and Micaela Maftei

This is the second of four fortnightly guest blogs by collaborative authors Micaela Maftei, based in Victoria, British Columbia, and Laura Tansley, based in Glasgow, UK. Both writers completed Creative Writing PhDs at the University of Glasgow, where they met. They have gone on to co-author short stories and continue to do so from opposite sides of the Atlantic, with their forthcoming short story collection soon to be published by Vagabond Voices. They are truly contemporary transatlantic literary women. Read on to find out more about their process!

What we say and what we do: opening up public and private spheres

We knew that we had recurring concerns, ideas and themes that swirled through our work, but it took our publisher at Vagabond Voices to point out how often our stories feature – or even hinge on – movement between the public and the private. We recognised this immediately, and took to it – as something significant, something to explore, build on and reflect on. As we gather up our pieces to consider how each will sit next to one another, we are also beginning to consider the scrutiny our up-to-now relatively private process may receive in a public sphere. In this project, the private becomes public, and what is becoming public has always been closely connected to private, personal things.

 

In our stories, private concerns are often refracted in public performances, with characters exploring or choosing to ignore their motivations in actions that have both minor and major consequences. Our characters also move between public and private spaces: business-orientated buildings in a near-future cityscape reveal rooms buzzing with personal transactions; a shared house after a burglary is no longer a haven; a lapsed resolution forms the basis of a new, sexual relationship, in which outsiders are invited in. The geographical spaces that we occupy as collaborative authors, Glasgow and Victoria BC, are personally experienced – by both of us. As residents we know these places intimately, but we also know each other’s spaces to a greater or lesser degree – from visits, from description, from images, from stories. We share the exploration of settings, language and cultures in our writing, finding the places where overlap creates something complementary and where divides produce dramatic conflict. As two women producing short fiction which is predominately concerned with women’s lives, the public and private take on additional facets as we explore the less-visible narratives of sexual, professional and relational changes women experience, the confusing and vacillating moments that are marked simultaneously by progression and regression. We also wonder how our public experience of authorship will be marked, if at all, by this frame. Notions of the public and private are, therefore, both a thematic concern of our writing and an acknowledged aspect of our creative process.

 

For so long, this writing has been shared yet personal. It’s been a way of communicating with each other. For at least one of us, it’s been a thread, a fragile, crucial thread that stayed constant when other writing fell away. As much as we’ve moved on from shared studies, jobs and addresses, co-writing has been a way to stay close to what we have in common And it’s also been a way to move forward, to develop as writers, researchers, people. As writers, using language and particularly fiction to try and work through problems and move towards understanding feels very natural and very appropriate, but in these stories it’s often been an intensely personal process.

 

So what does it mean to open it up into a public space, both in terms of publication and, more generally, in terms of discussing and sharing our work, for example in a conference presentation? Some parts are easy: the logistics of the back-and-forth, say, are easy for us to discuss. Other parts seem trickier – do we owe the reader anything that a single author wouldn’t? Do we need to acknowledge the circumstances of authorship in any way beyond the names on the cover? Why or why not? What, if anything, do authors owe readers, and does that involve anything different or additional for us?

 

The pieces themselves, as they are edited and shaped, are moving from individual journeys, many with strong personal memories attached to them, to parts of a more public whole. All published authors must see their work going through this process, but we’re wondering if and how co-authorship adds to this in any way. In the context of performing a reading, or an interview, the presence of two voices can influence perception, especially if we have different appreciations of what a piece might ‘mean’ or how it should be understood. In a way, this speaks to the experience of a readership – any readership beyond two will have a multiplicity of ways of reading and understanding a text. And yet perhaps a multiplicity right from the ‘source’, from the point of creation/authorship, is more unusual.

 

The thrill, the fear, the joy and the worry come in part from opening up the private to the public. In a way we don’t have it the same as others – we open up to each other every time we start writing something new. We have the safety of another worldview, another set of hands on the keyboard, before anything gets sent out into the world. And yet this also offers up another dimension of the private-public relationship for discussion and examination. It’s unpredictable: how can we prepare to occupy this new space when we aren’t sure what the parameters might be? We can only shape our experience from the inside, and understand that from the outside this will, hopefully, be read in unexpected and exciting ways.

By Micaela Maftei and Laura Tansley

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Clarice Lispector

Lispector 1Courtesy of Wellcome Trust

Remember to join our #TLWBookChat on #ForgottenTLW

In the lead up to our online book club on the 28th of February, we’re posting about overlooked transatlantic woman writers, and today I’m going to talk about Clarice Lispector. She was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in western Ukraine, as a result of her parents’ belief that pregnancy was a cure for syphilis in women. Her mother died of the disease ten years later. By this time, the family had fled anti-Semitic violence, and moved to Brazil, where Clarice studied law and became a journalist for government press, Agência Nacional. She went on to marry (and later divorce) a Brazilian diplomat, and re-crossed the Atlantic, living in Italy, the UK, and Switzerland, working in a military hospital in Naples during World War II.

In 1959 she returned to Brazil and took part in protests against the Brazilian military dictatorship that lasted twenty years. During her lifetime she wrote nine novels, multiple short stories, articles, journalism (published in Brazil and Portugal), children’s literature, as well as translating Agatha Christie, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allen Poe into Portuguese. I’ll talk about a few of these books below, and include links to some of her short stories at the end of the blog.

Lispector 2

At the age of twenty three, Clarice Lispector had published her award-winning debut novel Near to the Wild Heart (1943). Influenced by James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the novel follows Joanna, and opens with child-speak and memory impressions:

Her father’s typewriter went clack-clack… clack-clack-clack… The clock awoke in dustless tin-dlen. The silence dragged out zzzzzz. What did the wardrobe say? clothes-clothes-clothes. No, no. Amidst the clock, the typewriter and the silence there was an ear listening, large, pink and dead.

This passage gives a sense of Lispector’s continually evolving and experimental voice. She claimed that when composing Água Viva (1973) she literally wrote down everything that came into her head, whether it seemed profound or dull. The result is an interior monologue that replaces chronological sequence with the ‘instant-now’, reaching for the ‘beyond-thought’. Her writing can be difficult but rewarding to read, and this may be a reason that her work is often neglected. That she has been neglected is evident when Colm Tóibín describes her as ‘One of the hidden geniuses of the 20th century’.

Despite this apparent invisibility, she has received high praise from critics and other writers. Her biographer Benjamin Moser calls her ‘The most important Jewish writer since Kafka’, The New York Times Book Review says that she is ‘The premier Latin American woman writer of this century’, and writer Elizabeth Bishop confesses in a letter to Robert Lowell that, Actually, I think she is better than JL Borges’. The most Lispectorian response to her writing is that of feminist theorist Hélène Cixous who says that Clarice Lispector is ‘what Kafka would have been had he been a woman, or if Rilke had been a Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine. If Rimbaud had been a mother, if he had reached the age of fifty. If Heidegger could have ceased being German.’  I’ll close with Lispector’s own words about her writing. Here is the epigraph of her novel The Passion According to G. H. (1964):

To Possible Readers

This book is like any other book. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly – even passing through the opposite of what it approaches. They who, only they, will slowly come to understand that this book takes nothing from no one. To me, for example, the character G. H. gave bit by bit a difficult joy; but it is called joy.

Likewise, I find that Lispector’s writing brings me a difficult joy, but it is joy. Try her for yourself by reading ‘Report on the Thing’, a surreal report on the nature of time, advertising, and an electronic alarm clock. We also have an exploration of entangled feminist and animal ethics in ‘The Hen’ (1964), and a short story called ‘Clandestine Happiness’ (1971). For more on her life and works see this interesting article on Lispector in Vice.  I hope you, too, find joy in Lispector’s writing.

By Saskia McCracken

 

Guest Blog: Open Waters

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Courtesy of Google Maps

This is the first of four fortnightly guest blogs by collaborative authors Micaela Maftei, based in Victoria, British Columbia, and Laura Tansley, based in Glasgow, UK. Both writers completed Creative Writing PhDs at the University of Glasgow, where they met. They have gone on to co-author short stories and continue to do so from opposite sides of the Atlantic, with their forthcoming short story collection soon to be published by Vagabond Voices. They are truly contemporary transatlantic literary women. Read on to find out more about their process, with links to their fiction!

Open Waters

If we were to meet in the middle, we’d need to fly for around 7 hours to somewhere near the edge of Newfoundland. Maybe just off the coast and still in the ocean. Somehow the idea of meeting in open water seems fitting when we consider collaborative short fiction and our process; it is a vulnerable place, a little risky, and requires commitment to cooperation in order to anchor ourselves in this in-between space, to prevent ourselves from drifting too far in either direction. And yet we’ll always feel that pull of the circulating stream that reaches out to each other and then away from each other, bringing us together while keeping us separate. It is a constant negotiation.

 

RE: Same City, Different Maps

From: Laura Tansley

Mon 30/01/2012 13:49

To: Micaela Maftei

 

Ok well I’ve added something, see how you feel.

I think we could have two simultaneous storylines, with different styles, and go back and forth till we’re done?

Unless you hate it, or would be embarrassed to associate yourself with it, but I think I quite like where it’s going (even if I’m not quite sure where it’s going).

 

Revealing the messy, possibly underwhelming and maybe even incoherent starts of a piece of writing to each other made us pre-emptively self-deprecating to begin with, probably to protect ourselves; but also, on reflection, offering opportunities to opt-out demonstrates the respect with which we regarded each other’s writing and time. As we understand more about our process now, we see that this significant factor of our continued collaboration has become an essential, acknowledged feature. If that mutual respect ever went away, or morphed into reverence or disregard, it would, we suspect, fundamentally undermine our process and practice. This is not only a personal position but a professional one. We respect, first and foremost, the story being created. This is the water underneath us that we manage, coax and manipulate. It is what gives us drive.

 

Our earliest efforts at co-writing came in the form of two voices, two storylines. The piece ‘Blind Spots’ emerged, and was published in Tip Tap Flat (Freight Books, 2012). If we’d talked about it much at that point we’d probably have described it as something like combining two narratives written by two people, structured into one story. This was also when we were physically closest together, living in the same city and having significant overlap in terms of where we worked and studied. Over time and geographical distance we have developed a blended voice, one which works towards the creation of something that only happens when we write together; a voice distinct from our individual work. As we’ve moved farther away from each other, we’ve had to become more mindful of our process and how it shapes our writing, as we’ve experienced the work becoming more singular, one voice telling one story. As time passes we become more comfortable entering each other’s words, until what emerges is the product of a shared voice rather than two voices in one work, as in the piece The Reach of a Root.

 

Moving countries and adding individual projects and commitments to our lives, both personal and professional, has encouraged us to become better listeners, sharper readers, more attuned partners. We use a call-and-response method for every piece. One of us begins by sharing a paragraph, maybe just a sentence, in a Word doc with an arbitrary name, sent via email. This might be a scene or a question. We pass it back and forth, adding and building slowly, moving back to the start to edit and shape once there’s enough to work with. Occasionally we discuss a theme or starting place – let’s consider the particular misery and thrill of adolescent relationships; is this character moving towards self-harm, and what does that mean to us – but often we just wade in and let the rhythms of the piece drive our direction. Whatsapp keeps us connected in between emails, keeps us sharing articles, ideas, schedules and a sense of where we’re at with each other. We’re familiar now with when our time zones sync up to allow instant chatter.

 

Across this personal, practical and literal divide we have explored what connects us and what separates us in stories that consider the forms, structures and processes of short fiction. As we begin to gather our work into a collection, we are also now faced with considering how readers will respond to this duality, how we might perform a collaborative voice, how we might launch a book from one edge of the Atlantic and one edge of the Pacific, and how we might respond to the question, ‘why?’.