Author spotlight: Melinda Burns

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 I love The Story Is a State of Mind community — our writers and teachers are some of the most thoughtful and talented people I know. Today, I'm delighted to introduce you to Melinda Burns!

I met Melinda at the Story Is a State of Mind writing retreat in Tuscany, at the Lemon Tree House, in 2015. We worked together for two beautiful (and intense) weeks, and I was taken by the sensitive and intelligent way she spoke with the other writers in our workshop sessions. The mysterious middle draft she shares today is an excerpt of a story she worked on at the retreat.

Read her beautiful essay about why she writes, and an excerpt of her alluring short story, "The End of Snow," below. There's an opportunity to leave your comments for Melinda — if you're moved to do so, please let her know what you liked about her essay, or how you relate to her writing practice.

The energy of this story pulses deep and quiet, like the heart of a large animal hiding (hibernating?) under four feet of snow. You don't know when it will rise… but you hold you breath as you keep reading. Enjoy!

Love,

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Meet Melinda

Melinda Melinda Burns is a writer and psychotherapist in Guelph, Ontario, where she also teaches workshops and mentors writers in fiction, poetry and memoir. She is revisiting a novel that she completed three years ago, revising poems for a collection, and writing whatever short stories come her way. She was a TA for the Story Intensive last fall.

 

Handwriting or computer?

Handwriting first always, for the feel of the pen, the sensual contact with the letters and the paper. Then computer for clarity and revision.


Page count or time count?

I am loosely disciplined in my writing. I build writing time into my week but I don’t require much beyond showing up. I recognize resistance as fear and the inner critic —“This isn’t any good” “Nothing will come of this.” It’s easy to lose faith in a new enterprise, or feel daunted by feedback that points the way to a higher level. My counter to that is only looking to improve the story or chapter a small amount at a time, towards more clarity, accuracy, simplicity.


First drafts or revision?

Revision, for sure. I love having something to work with! In the first draft I let everything in, not knowing what’s going to be important. Revision, for me, is largely cutting out what doesn’t need to be there, the overwriting where I haven’t trusted the reader to get it. I take those parts out and the whole springs clear like a tree freed of dead branches.


Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

I’ve set aside Wednesday and Friday mornings for years now just for writing. I go out to a café to be away from the distractions of home and phone and e-mail. I like the burble of conversation around me that I don’t have to respond to as I slip into the world of my story. Lately I’ve been going to a community “Writing Room” upstairs in a bookstore/café, on Monday mornings from 9:00 to noon. I love the creative atmosphere of the fourteen or so writers, all at our separate tables, tapping or scribbling away, deep in creative work. There is no talking, no interaction beyond a blackboard where you can put your goal for the morning if you choose to. The place says to me, “You are welcome here. You belong.” I also have two “writing buddies” that I show things to, knowing they will tune into the intent of the story and what could make it better. This is invaluable.


Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

Quiet at home or at the Writing Room. Music and other people’s conversation in cafés.


About Writing

I write to live my life at a deeper level, to take what I live through and mine it for stories and poems that extend and deepen the experience. I write fiction to imagine beyond my own limits, to other lives, other points of view, other circumstances; to extend my sense of being human. I write because nothing gives me more pleasure than to capture something in a poem, experience something in a story, find words for something glimmering on the edge of my vision.

I think there’s a temperament that writers have, a kind of outsider perspective that comes from feeling different, “overly” sensitive as a child, someone who notices things not everyone does and tries to make sense of them. With all that there’s so much that can be learned and practiced: staying in the point of view of the character, using concrete details to set a scene and reveal character, and especially an attitude of openness to the mysterious process of finding the story as you go along.

In being a TA for The Story Intensive and in teaching my own classes, I’m so impressed and inspired by my students’ tenacity and vulnerability. Each one is taking steps to do this thing they love so much, fielding all the other demands of work and family to make room for this most tenuous and elusive of endeavours. What I try to teach and to practice in my own writing is: to have faith in your material and the characters who come to you with their story; to trust that the story is there and worth telling and to hold through the times when it seems to fall apart knowing that this is a necessary stage toward the true story; to stay close to the details and see what develops; to collaborate with the story you set in motion and uncover it together.

I recently joined a six-month playwriting workshop. It’s been a revelation, using only dialogue and physical action and interaction to tell a story and move it forward. As one inclined to interior musing and description and the sparkle of a good metaphor, I’ve been challenged to use other tools and sharpen my skill with them. It’s like working other muscles and it enlivens my fiction. I also joined a poetry workshop to practice concision and the dimensions of sound and rhythm.

Right now, I’m reading Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad and I’m in awe of her facility with words and her ability to get inside an outsider’s mind and world view. Also, David Constantine’s In Another Country whose title story was made into the movie 45 Years. Two very different writers with very different styles. Constantine’s prose is packed with subtle insight and I love his supple use of language and the way a single phrase conveys so much.

My relationship to my writing is long term, with a definite commitment to stay in touch through regular meetings but not a lot of pressure. I appreciate its longevity and perseverance all these years. It blesses me and enlarges me and challenges and rewards me. It’s a way to keep company with myself and surprise myself.


Tell us about the excerpt you’re sharing today.

This story came from a title suggestion in Story is a State of Mind. The title led me immediately to an image of a woman and a man in small, remote cabin up north. It’s taken a while for the story to find its way but the “100 sentences” exercise brought it more into focus. I set aside the original story and wrote from the 100 sentences which cut the story by half. There’s still work to do but I’m liking it more.

Excerpt from “The End of Snow” by Melinda Burns

There was no clock, no time at all, it seemed. Dana stared out the window at the unvarying expanse of snow. The sun glaring down directly overhead told her it was about noon. She had lost track of the day. The fire crackled in the grate. Behind her at the long trestle table, James worked, making little sounds of effort or satisfaction as he fitted some minuscule piece to some other one on the miniature table he was making. A piecrust-edged table, he’d told her, when he was designing it, hunched over a table at the restaurant where she’d worked in the city last summer. She’d brought him a panini and a cup of coffee and both were cooling as she passed by again.

“You make furniture?”

“Miniatures,” he said. “For high-end craft shows and collectors. I’m figuring out how I can attach a gate leg to this piecrust-edged table so the top can fold down.”

How delightful, she’d thought. How charming to lavish such care and precision on something so essentially useless. Like writing stories. Which she wasn’t doing that summer after her English B.A. qualified her for this job at a not-high-end restaurant. He’d left his name and phone number on the bill and three months into dating, he asked her to move in with him. She thought he meant his apartment and she was more than ready to give up her cramped bachelor’s (his had a balcony!) but it turned out he meant up here, to this dollhouse of a cabin that seemed to pinch in on her more each day.

She drummed her fingers on the window pane. A folder full of half-hearted stories and poems waited for her on the couch by the fire but she couldn’t settle. She was thinking about the tracks she’d seen yesterday, outside their bedroom window. Heel pad and ball of foot, five little holes marking the claws. Leading from the forest, and then, two deeper indentations right at the window as if the bear had stood up and looked in at them. She hadn’t told James. “Right, a bear,” he’d say. “In the middle of winter. Don’t worry, there are no bears roaming around here now,” and she’d have felt like a girl, all nervous and foolish.

Last night she’d dreamed the bear had come again and she’d gotten out of bed and gone to the window. Her hand had mirrored its paw on the cold surface of the glass. The bear large and black, looked back at her, hot breath fogging the window, snow limning the edges of her fur.

James was humming now, something he did when the work was going well. Once it had been comforting, like a refrigerator coming on; now it was like a mosquito she wanted to swat.

She grabbed her coat from the hook by the door, stuffed her feet into boots, pulled on her wool hat.

“I’m going for a walk,” she called, opening the heavy wood door.

“Umm…” James said not looking up as he guided a tiny piece of wood to its perfect place.


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 Melinda's work?
  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt — and more importantly, why it’s working?
  • How is your own writing practice like Melinda's? How is it different?

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


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A publishing dilemma, demystified!

21 comments

JoAnn Findley

I like the specific and brevity built into scene but do not understand why he is building this table she seems to think is useless? I like the suspense of the bear.
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Sharon Blom

I like the way the woman's feelings are presented without explicit words. She is intrigued by the man at first but then becomes irritated by his mannerisms (e.g. his humming). She feels useless as a writer but seems to blame the man for this. Now she's off for another adventure - seeking out the bear by going for a walk alone. I like that the reader can read a lot into this story!
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ShiraMusicant

There is that possibility of a bear encounter as Dana goes outside to walk, at the same time as there is a building tension inside the little cabin that threatens to explode. Well, maybe not explode, but something! I am left with the sense that something is about to happen and this sense is heightened by James' intense focus on a small detail. I think that really works--that his vision is so narrowly focused while the reader has a sense that something big is about to happen, especially right when that little piece of wood gets guided into "the perfect place." Part of me wants to shake him and say "wake up James!" I also like the sensory information that contributes to the aliveness of this scene and some of the tension: fire crackling, James humming, fingers drumming, sun glaring. Dana's character is also being revealed through the description of the scene: the unvarying expanse of snow and the pinch of the cabin--we see these things through her eyes. I look forward to reading more Melinda!
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Fran Turner

I loved the dream and her mirroring the bear. In a few paragraphs I got to know Dana and James, their backgrounds, their personalities and the status of their relationship from dialogue, from Dana's internal world, from James's comments and from the great details of the worlds inside and outside the windows. There is a sense of something like a time vacuum--from the opening sentence and then what it feels like inside the cabin.
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I want to know more. The casual details build suspense. The female character is looking for something and seems discontent while James seems perfectly content in the details of his work. The female seems to be irritated by this. The bear is intriguing. I also enjoy writing by hand, quiet or music by myself to write. But, I enjoy the first draft and the flow of ideas more than revision. I like the idea of writing in a coffee shop or cafe. Activity is occurring, but it's nothing I need to tend to and I can feel more productive amid others' productivity. Thanks for sharing this.
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Karen Levine Egee

The contrast between James' content absorption in his craft and Dana's restlessness and inability to settle into hers, instead seeking out more and more risky adventure, and her frustration with herself and with him around this contrast comes through vividly and sticks. I am in awe of, and inspired by your writing practice! I have been feeling more like Dana lately but now I'm going to try 2 morning blocks! That sounds do-able!
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K.D. Miller

Gorgeous essay and story excerpt, Melinda! I definitely want to read more. Congratulations on coming into your own and getting the recognition you deserve.
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Thanks, JoAnn. He's building it for a craft fair for miniature furniture. Melinda
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A time vacuum. I like that, Fran. Melinda
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Exactly, Susan. That's just what appeals to me about coffee shops, my own productivity amid a buzz of other activity. Perfect for disappearing into a fictional world. Melinda
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Routine is a writer's friend, I think, Karen. A way to protect our time and make room for what we most care about. Melinda
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Thanks, Kathleen. As a mentor and inspiration to me, your comments are very meaningful and encouraging. Melinda
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Melinda Burns

I didn't realize all my comments were coming in as "Anonymous"! It's me writing them!
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Awesome, Melinda! I really enjoyed her mirroring the bear at the window, and her wanting to swat him like a bug for doing something she'd loved initially. And lots of sensual detail. And the tone. And and and ...
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Stephen D. Forman

He makes miniatures... ...and lives in a "dollhouse of a cabin." Bravo!
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Wendy Vaughan

I love that I am already entirely drawn in to want to know Dana more, and I'm worried about her going out for a walk on her own if there is a bear nearby.
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Robert Lyon

Like James crafting his table, you shape each layer of the narrative and fit them oh so snugly together. I look for sentences I might want to tighten, words I might want to excise, but find none. "dreamed bear had come again -- hand mirrored its paw -- cold -- bear large and black, looked back -- hot breath -- snow limning her fur" Her(!) fur. Dana, the dream bear, hugely sensuous, snowed out and wanting in, has to walk beyond the snow, because some pieces James won't ever fit together.
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Melinda Burns

So true, Robert. Thanks for your astute reflections.
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Bridgit Albrecht

Great title, Melinda!
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Gerry O'Farrell

She’d brought him a panini and a cup of coffee and both were cooling as she passed by again. I am trying to figure out why I like this sentence, and that it is the ending of the paragraph. I think it is because I am filled with images already, so early in the story - I can see so much of them and how they met for the first time. Sparsity of words, abundance of image. Melinda you bring the reader into the story with ease.
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Melinda Burns

"Sparsity of words, abundance of image." I love that! Thanks for the observation, Gerry. Melinda
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