Author Spotlight: Frances Phillips

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I have been in the south of Spain this month, with three other writers, on a self-directed writing retreat. We are all working in different genres – poetry, essays, a memoir, and a novel (I'm the novel).

I have been writing in this little hamlet all month. I have been writing in this little hamlet all month.

While packing for the trip, I listened to a Radiolab episode about wrestling and Don Quixote. A scholar spoke about Cervantes; my palms started to sweat. I had just been daydreaming about a new narrative structure for my book, and I'd forgotten about the playful brilliance of this classic novel. I dropped an unfolded sweater into my suitcase, and reached for my journal to get my ideas down right away. And I marvelled at the tiny synchronicity: Don Quixote takes place in the part of Spain that I'm in, right now.

A small coincidence. But when I'm writing, I gratefully receive all the clues I can get. These sorts of things are like arrows in the sand – just enough "aha" to make me feel like I'm on the right track. Just enough affirmation to keep me going if I feel doubt. If you love noticing creative synchronicities too, you will love this month's beautiful Author Spotlight.

Frances Phillips is my original TA, the co-creator of The Story Intensive, and a guest teacher in the program. Below, she shares an excerpt from a mysterious middle draft, and a wonderful short essay about synchronicity and writing. You may have read some of her work already, in fact -- her story, "No Street Called Crow," won first prize in the Little Bird Contest in 2012!

Dig in, and share your creative coincidence stories in the comments, please. Frances and I would love to hear about them!

(By the way, the deadline for Little Bird is in 5 days! If you are submitting this year: GOOD LUCK!)


Meet Frances

Frances Phillips Frances Phillips’ story “No Street Called Crow” won the Little Bird Contest in 2012. She is the co-creator, with Sarah Selecky, of The Story Intensive.


Handwriting or computer?

A bit of each. No one would accuse me of being overly streamlined or organized in my writing. In the category of handwriting I am including everything, down to the scraps of paper that I frequently make use of: some of my favorite ideas ferment in my car’s cup holder on receipts and the backs of envelopes. I always have several notebooks going at once, being too lazy to find a specific one when it isn’t right at my fingertips. Scene ideas, images, bits of dialogue and research notes go into these, as well as the occasional freewrite. Anything longer than a few sentences I write on the computer. Right now I’m using Scrivener for the novel I am working on, and I’m loving the way it allows me to create discrete vessels for scenes and then move them around really easily. It gives me a sense of calm and control where I know, deep in my heart, there can’t—nor should there—be one.


Page count or time count?

Again, a bit of both. I can write for two and a half hours at a stretch and then I start to fade. If I have 1,500 words before then, I consider myself done for the day. If not, then I stay put, because without the time count, I’m done for. Luckily the two goals typically converge.


First drafts or revision?

First drafts, no question. The mere mention of the R-word makes me quake. Of course, I always end up doing significant revisions, but they are by far the least pleasant part of the process for me. But a first draft always follows an envisioning stage that can take days, weeks and sometimes months. I write sentences and block scenes in my head obsessively. I wait for signs (see my thoughts on synchronicity, below). Only then am I excited and confident enough to start clacking away.


Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

I am fortunate to have found a few dedicated editors whose brilliance, wit and generosity continually astound me.


Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

Music is a big part of my writing ecosystem. I wear big noise-cancelling headphones even if I am home alone and there is no noise to cancel. Something about lowering them onto my head makes me feel like I’m putting on my thinking cap. As I’m starting to write I listen to Bach’s Cello Suites. Some people think they were written as studies, or exercises, and I like the way they conjure those initial phrases in me. I also love ambient music, so I rotate among a stable of artists who create (mostly) wordless songs: Nils Frahm, Helios, Brian Eno, Ólafur Arnalds. Lately, though, I’ve been listening to Grimes on repeat with good results. My novel has a young female artist protagonist and to me Grimes’ music is smart and fresh and completely addictive: all the things I imagine for my character.


On Synchronicity

There are so many things I love about writing. Even some of the most ostensibly unpleasant things about writing I have come to love: I used to be ashamed of the sheer length of time I need to write something—it’s appalling, really—but now I cherish those hours and the calm and introspection they bring to my life. I feel lucky to be a writer.

As befits my regard for efficiency, though, I do have a favorite fiction-writing hack that I think all writers should practice: synchronicity. Those charming (and beguiling) moments when coincidences happen around you and you feel as though they are telling you something. When I began to write fiction seriously, I occasionally noticed events that were both deeply meaningful to my work and otherwise completely random—events that appeared to me to be connected by something other than causality. I think you probably know what I’m talking about: small things, like you are introduced to someone in real life who has the same (quirky) name as your protagonist; or larger things, like you pass a pile of books in the garbage and the one on top is an out-of-print treatise on whatever obscure topic that same character is an expert in. My favorite is catching quotes from the ether that speak directly to whatever fictional issue I am wrestling with that day. These signals reward me with both a better understanding of myself—what is important to me—and a better understanding of my work. And the best part? I’ve done absolutely nothing.

Winning the Little Bird Contest was the happy sequela of synchronicity. I had just finished reading Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and was particularly taken with a story called “The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion.” It was hilariously biting without being cruel and left me raw with longing for the characters’ plights, and envy at Gartner’s writing. It was strange in that it was told from the perspective of a communal “we,” as were two other stories in the collection. A few days later, one of Sarah’s prompts popped into my inbox: Write a story that takes place in a subdivision. Write it in 1st person plural POV. Well, I hadn’t until then written anything from one of Sarah’s lovely prompts, but I felt compelled to respond to that particular one. I even had an idea: I would write about a group of women relocating to a New Jersey suburb from India. I wrote the story that day (I know—it’s never since happened at that speed) and then forgot about it. Weeks later, Zsuzsi was revealed to be the judge of the Little Bird Contest. On a lark—ha!—I entered the story and to my great delight, won.

There’s also a kind of micro-synchronicity that goes on in our minds as we write. Virtually every writer I know has the experience of unconsciously repeating words or images. And these echoes, as annoying and intrusive as they can be, can also be full of meaning—another entry point into the truth of our stories. Dani Shapiro calls these “tics,” “a road map to our most hidden and sensitive wounds,” and advises writers to take notice when they show up, slow down and “press against the bruise.”

Uncanny coincidences seem to happen to everyone. The trick is to pick out the signals from the noise. And there’s a lot of noise out there. Synchronicities may seem outright silly to some, amusingly odd to others, but for me, they are a delight, and I love the idea that my writing might actually provide an answer to, or at least an outlet for, the meaning behind these coincidences. They are gifts, and I cherish them.


Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today.

I’ve been working on this story on and off for almost a year now. It’s in three sections and this excerpt is from the opening, which is in second person imperative—a POV I hadn’t attempted previously. It is also a “How To” story that initially drew from the style of the great Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help stories, but then veered off into its own distinctly painful and tormented world.


Excerpt from "Aequanimitas: Or, How to Fall Out of Love", by Frances Phillips

Fret that it has come to this. Knock once, gavel-like. When no one answers, turn the jangly brass knob and go in. Detect an odor of clove cigarette and peppermint, cozy and vivid. Just as you had pictured, all the furniture is dark, high gloss and generously sized—but cheap. Factory-made antiques for old people. The rest is straight up cliché, what with the crudded-up, stringy kilim on the rubbed-out divan. A divan—there’s no other way to put it. He always was sort of an old person. Born old. Not chronologically, but in his disposition. The elbow patches and tortoise-shell glasses in college, the perfectly scuffed brogues in grad school—one sole loosened and flapping around under his foot like a tortilla. But you had sort of liked that about him.

Admit you’re impressed. It’s nothing if not adult. He always wanted to be a shrink and now he is, and he isn’t about to let his office create any confusion in the matter. Acknowledge his success and admire his achievement. Catch yourself and quickly stretch out the rubber band you are wearing around your wrist. Pull it as far as you can. Snap!

Go over to the family photos on his desk and pick one up. Both hands because it’s substantial: a big pewter frame with grapes and foliage pressing out from it. Nothing but the best for the wife and kids. You give them your full attention. Soak them in. They’re ugly. Down to the last one. Wait, that’s not fair. The wife’s almost passable if you squeeze your eyes halfway shut, blur your vision a smidge. There’s some bloat and sagging of the skin around the jawline and neck to be sure, but all told, nothing too scary. Especially for someone living under these conditions—with him—all these years. Clearly she’s a survivor.

The kids are another story. There’s definitely something wrong with them. The shape of their faces—no, their heads—is off. Too big or too much forehead or something. A boy and a girl, around twelve. They could almost be identical twins. (It’s not good to look like identical twins if you’re a boy and a girl, in your opinion.) Crater-faces, like your ex was around that same age. But he had nothing to do with that. They are his stepchildren. His wife is a widow, her husband was a Marine and died in Fallujah. All this was in the wedding announcement: way too much information, you think. The kids are pale for living out West. The air is thin, your breathing is definitely compromised and your heart is racing. So little oxygen, so close to the sun, you think it would be hard not to get a tan. They’re probably using a stratospheric SPF—way higher than necessary.

Ugly, the lot of them. But happy ugly.

Enough about them. You’re here for retribution. Resolution, you mean. Closure. Emotional ease, he once called it, reaching out and tucking a strand of hair behind your ear.


Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.

Discussion:

  • What remains with you after reading Frances' work?

  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt — and more importantly, why it’s working?

  • How is your own writing practice like Frances'? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Frances!    


Photo credit (top): Thibaut Tiberghien on Unsplash.


Humility and chutzpah: how to revise.
The Vulnerability of Submission

14 comments

I often will use what I call the 'mouth test' when I read, which translates into feeling the author's words, tasting them, as a palpable experience in my mouth. Your words Frances made my mouth feel full and satisfied. Your prose were both lyrically rich and textured. I found myself giggling aloud a few times, as well as nodding in agreement as you named things that I had experienced but had never named. Thank you for sharing your words. Thank you for being brave and trusting your work and your readers enough to show us the middle! Best, Susan
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I adored Frances' winning story, so it's a delight to get to read more of her work. The scene is so grounded in the sensory that in no time at all, I'm standing there with the protagonist, and feeling more than a little like her quiet, supportive friend who patiently listens as she [unreliably] describes how terrible her ex's new life and family is. She is a narrator who is both brilliant and untrustworthy, which is intoxicating to me as a reader. (And why I love Lorrie Moore so much.) Synchronicities to me are like candy falling from the sky. I try to remember to just open my mouth and chew chew chew. Seeing Frances honour the significance of these occurrences is very validating for me. Just the start I need to a day heavily focused on revision. Thanks, Frances!
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Struck by synchronity. Have ignored in past, then looked longingly at it from the corner of my eye. Now I am learning to recognize it & hope in the future to embrace it without shame. In the story remember the cheap furniture & wierd children. Will his clients notice the cheapness? Will the children interrupt the narrator?
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I loved this. I was just about to give up on my book project because I have been writing everywhere and anywhere. Reading Frances' article made me realize that I am not the only one to write and formulate in my head and to have scattered pieces of paper. Thank you for the this wonderful article.
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Tracy Picha

Love all the conflicted feelings of the narrator captured here. I feel that's achieved beautifully with the details Frances Phillips has placed: that heavy photo frame -- takes two hands to lift... A burden? a reminder? to the narrator that this new-ish family is established. It has weight. The narrator's in conversation with her/himself, so we get to learn lots of juicy stuff: how she's battling her own thoughts at times (brilliant to bring that internal dialogue into vivid reality with that wrist-worn rubber band!) and how those thoughts also have free reign, with sometimes comic effect. This narrator can say harsh things, and we readers can enjoy the bad review s/he's giving while suspending judgement about whether we like her/him or not. All I know is I'd like to know this character more ... Thank you for sharing this much.
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William Geuss

These paragraphs challenge this reader to decide or wait and discover who is seeking to escape cupid's bonds from whom. At the point I reach the paragraph clarifying the protagonist's goal, enough suspense has built to offset my impatience at floating unguided through the opening paragraphs that introduced me to the milieu and sketched a few features of the past relationship with her antagonist. The quality of the writing would keep me going--and I gotta find out why she was invited to this wedding!
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I love a lot of the images here. The gavel-like knock and the kids being pale for living out west. I also like the thought about it not being good to look like twins if you're dealing with a boy and a girl. I love the sly humor and the richness of how much of the characters is shown. I have read more second person writing recently and, while I found it off-putting at first, I now like how it involves me more closely in the story and creates the feeling of being much closer to the narrator even than with first person or third. Thank you so much for sharing!
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Robin Young

What remains with me here is the feeling of impending. Impending doom, action, or intention. The idea that the narrator herself may not know exactly why she is there or what she is going to do. But a message is about to be sent and something more about her is going to be revealed by how she acts next. There is a sense of judgement and of course that last line points to intimacy that may or may not have been appropriate at the time. It feels as if a lot of time has passed, but that the inciting incident is fresh in the mind of the narrator. "Fret that hit has come to this" seems to indicate past rebuffs and an impasse reached, at least in the mind of this character.
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I loved this excerpt. It immediately grabbed me and sucked me in, and I want more! :) - what remained with me was her writing style; excellent flow, and sharp. When someone writes like she has done, you can tell that they have an intelligent sense of humor, I've found. I also want to know why the main character is there, in her ex's office/home. - what's working is the slow rise of information. What I mean by that is, I love the way the excerpt reveals important tidbits along the way: oh, she's entering this guy's space - she's obviously got some bitterness or other lasting negative emotion toward him, because she studied the photo of his family and picked them apart - then you learn he is her ex. The bread crumb path is really well done (which isn't an easy feat!)
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Frances, thanks for sharing! I want to know more of this story right now. That's always the catch with these middle drafts. Earlier today I read something about the benefits of varying sentence structure and thought, "I wish I could do that" and here you do it so effectively. So many little shots reset my attention: "detect an odor," "born old," and then the long sentence about elbow patches. So nice. I also really like all the action suggested so succinctly at the end. That switch of retribution and resolution made me think of so many possibilities.: murder, affair... Finally, kudos for writing in 2nd person. I lack your courage.
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Purabi Das

This excerpt gripped me and I want to know more. At first I wasn't sure about 2nd person POV writing but then as I started to read I realize that in our daily lives we also constantly think this way, at least I do. So why not write in the same style? The innuendos in this piece provoke my imagination because I like the way this piece has linked show and tell to a great level. Thanks so much for sharing, Frances.
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Thank you for your kind words, Susan. Giving a name to things that many of us experience but don't necessarily talk about is probably my biggest goal in writing. I also love passing tests, so thanks for the 'mouth feel' distinction! --F
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The scattered bits, to me, are just as important as the "actual" writing: they're just not as predictable. I think of them like the guests that drop by (at first you may grumble at having been interrupted, having to find a pen, etc.) versus the ones you set a time and date to meet. Less predictable but equally valuable.
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I love the interpretation of the frame's weight, Tracy. I hadn't thought of it--and the images it holds--as a literal burden to the narrator, but that seems spot on. I also agree that having an opinionated, outspoken narrator can give the reader the liberty of sharing or countering their observations. It can add a lot of nuance to a situation, which I love.
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