In the spotlight: Heather Debling

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Oh, the joy that is in the details! Read Heather's excerpt and travel with her protagonist, Barbara, to a sound-and-colour drenched carnival procession in Argentina. Go ahead. Let yourself forget where you are right now and succumb to the sound of those gold jangling bells, the clinking of beer bottles, and the "languid brassy sound" of trumpets.

To the lovely souls who have sent me emails to ask about showing vs. telling: pay close attention. This is what showing, not telling looks like.

What I love about this piece - beyond the obvious, of course (the talc-covered hands, beribboned flowers in the pile of stones, floating flakes of spray foam!) - is how Barbara's uneasy state of mind is characterized through the description of everything she sees. Heather creates the tone of the story (and Barbara's consciousness) in and through writing what Barbara sees — and how she notices it. In this way, we get to feel the way she does: bewildered, overstimulated, unsteady, frightened, curious, and blessed.


Heather Debling

Meet Heather

Heather Debling is a playwright and fiction writer based in Stratford, Ontario. Her fiction has appeared in The Antigonish Review and Room. Her play, The Maple Leaves, a WWI drama based on real-life concert party groups, premiered at SpringWorks, Stratford's juried indie theatre and arts festival, in May 2013.


Handwriting or computer?

A mix of both. Handwriting for my freewriting and initial exploration of a story. Then I switch to the computer when I start intensely working on the first draft.


Page count or time count?

Time count.


First drafts or revision?

I love the first drafts. It’s probably when I’m happiest in my writing. But I’m trying to learn to love revision.


Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

I’ve been fortunate over the past couple of years to develop a really supportive writing community, and though most of my drafting is done solo, I know that the support of those other writers really enables my own work because they offer encouragement but also push me to be braver and more authentic in my work.


Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

Headphones and music. I usually have a playlist for each story – songs that speak to the characters or theme.


How do you make time for your writing practice? How do you handle resistance?

I started a daily writing practice in June 2012. I’d wanted to be able to write every day for several years, but I struggled with actually doing it, with sitting down in the chair and staying there and writing when I wasn’t inspired.

A lot of factors contributed to me finally being able to make that commitment, but the biggest push was something I read in Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer. One of the tasks she assigns the reader is to schedule writing time each day for a week – just 15 minutes – and she says once you’ve decided on that time, you have to show up. She writes at the end of the chapter, “If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. You resistance is actually greater than your desire to write.” It was precisely the tough love I needed. If I wanted to be a writer, if I wanted to call myself a writer, I needed to start showing up every single day.


What's the best advice you would give a new writer?

Say yes.

That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past couple of years. I used to be committed to my writing, but I was also very timid about it, particularly my playwriting. I didn’t really put myself in situations that pushed me out of my comfort zone. But eventually I started saying yes to opportunities that part of me was really terrified of, but which I knew deep down were things I needed to do to take the work further. I even pushed myself to self-produce one of my plays at a local indie theatre and arts festival even though I had no experience and all my ideas about ‘putting on a show’ were influenced by old Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies. Saying yes has helped me refine my skills, learn a great deal about presenting (and marketing) my work in an authentic way, and connect with a much wider community of artists. And it’s also made me braver within the writing itself.

So I would advise new writers to say yes to any and all opportunities that come your way that you feel in your gut are right for your work. Say yes to opportunities that scare and excite you. Say yes to possibility.


Tell us about your experience with Story Is a State of Mind. How it has changed your relationship to writing?

Story Is a State of Mind has absolutely changed my relationship with writing. It’s helped me focus on the process, not the product. It’s given me permission to just enjoying writing. And it’s brought me to an incredibly supportive community of writers.


Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today

This story came out of Lesson Two in Story is a State of Mind. Almost immediately after reading the prompt to start a story with the title “The End of Snow” I had an image of a Canadian woman in Argentina trying to buy a chicken and winding up with five because she couldn’t communicate properly. That woman turned out to be Barbara, a middle-aged woman who runs away to South America for a year to avoid winter only to find herself in the middle of a record-breaking cold snap. After finishing the third draft I changed the name of the story to “Somewhere Warm, With No Snow.”


Excerpt from Somewhere Warm, With No Snow, by Heather Debling

Just before deciding to settle in Mar del Plata, Barbara had headed to the north for carnival, eager for what she thought would be a smaller, more authentic experience.

It was unlike any procession Barbara had ever seen. Most of the people wore old, faded t-shirts, jeans or khaki shorts, their faces, arms, and clothes stained with a chalky powder, but mixed in among their drabness were men dressed in colourful devil costumes, harlequinesque figures, the strips of orange and blue and yellow and red overlaid with rounded mirrors encased in a stitched diamond of sequins. There were small gold jangling bells on the edges of their jester-shaped tops and running down the sides of their trousers. Some people played drums, others clanged out the beat on long-necked beer bottles. And there were trumpets, a languid brassy sound that everyone but Barbara seemed able to settle down into.

A crowd had gathered around a large pile of stones. Flowers sprouted out of the centre, the blossoms entwined with brightly coloured ribbons and streamers, the stems watered with upturned liquor bottles. An elderly woman supported by two young girls stepped forward and left some long leaves at the base. Next, a middle-aged man knelt, his hands pressed against the rocks as others revelers came forward anointing both him and the pile with wine and beer.

The man standing to Barbara’s left seemed a bit shaky on his feet. She pulled slightly away, not sure if he needed help or if he was just drunk. A small girl ran up to the man and pressed her talc-covered hands onto his belly, giggling as he staggered backwards. He raised his hand, Barbara thought at first, to strike, to swat at the child like some troublesome fly, but instead he blessed her, making a trembling sign of the cross in the air above her head.

A woman tapped Barbara on the arm. Her hair was caked with talc, and Barbara could see she'd hastily wiped the powder from her glasses, bits of white pushed to the outside edges, smudgy fingerprints across the centre. The woman gave Barbara a broad smile. She waved her hands like you do when shooing chickens. Go on, go on, she'd flapped, urging Barbara forward. Barbara shook her head shyly. The woman frowned, and Barbara held up her hands, cupping the empty air as if to say, But see? I have nothing to give. The woman shrugged and went forward herself. She knelt down, kissed the stones and then rose, her arms held up to the sky, joining the swaying jumble around her.

Someone sprayed the crowd with foam. It floated through the air like big, fat snowflakes, clinging to people’s clothing, their hair, their eyelashes. A flake landed on the inside of Barbara’s wrist. She touched it with her index finger, and it melted, leaving a dry, flaky residue on her skin.


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 Heather'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 Heather's? How is it different?

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


My Invincible Summer Guide (for this winter).
Trust yourself.

9 comments

Heather this passage is stunning. What remains for me is the noise and clatter of the crowd, and Barbara's uncertainty in the middle of it all. And the colour. What works about this passage is that I forget that I am reading and you put me in the crowd. I see gold, and a organized chaos in the movement of people, and hear clattering bells. Amazing. I think my writing practice is similar to Heather's in that I love knowing that a group of supportive people are behind me even though writing is solo act, and that I am aware that the "yes" of taking chances is so crucial to writing authentically. Where we differ- she has broken through to achieve an amazing discipline in her commitment to daily writing...and I am still working on it! Thanks for sharing this piece!
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You can't help but admire Heather. Not only her writing practice and dedication but also her skill in telling a story make me feel awe. Her ability to imagine a scene and bring it to life is amazing. Things I could write, things I would never even think to write, and she makes the so real, even never having been to a place or experienced them. This is evident in all her writing, not just in this story, which was, I think, the first one we workshopped together. Her play takes place during WWII, and you'd swear, from the skill she exhibits, that Heather was actually there. She researches, applies everything she's learned to her writing. She understands how to use details and her empathy and compassion make her characters people you know. In this excerpt, Heather gives us only a glimpse of Barbara's character through how she observes what's happening around her and how she responds to the other woman. But this glimpse is so strong it's enough to enable us to say what Barbara's like, even to guess what struggles she may deal with in the story as well as what resolutions may occur by the end. My practice differs almost entirely from Heather's. I'm so close to that description where my resistance is stronger than my desire to write. I do not have a regular writing time. I don't keep my ideas organized or use a cork board to help track ideas. Heather is SERIOUS about her goal to become a published writer, and this is evident in the fact that her stories are getting accepted wherever she submits. She can produce on demand, as is evident in her showing up for our writing group and for Miranda Hill at Humber. She is just one writer I can totally get behind because of how much she works to be successful, but also because of her skill. The only way I'd say we're the same is that we both like to pull out palpable details in our stories. Heather's one to watch. I'm telling you now.
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Pardon my errors and inarticulate writing in the comment above!
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This excerpt is so delicious, so rich -- I want to eat it! But that's often how I feel about Heather's writing. She's so skilled at writing just the right thing so an image explodes in your head and you see or smell or hear exactly what's going on for her characters. It literally takes a word or two before the entire scene takes shape before my eyes when reading Heather's work. I love it. I deeply envy (in the friendly way you envy someone you adore and love) Heather's commitment to her writing routine. I'm more apt to slip in and out of writing routines, and find that when I lose a few days, I lose more momentum than I realize and starting back up again is tough. Heather is my role model in this, though. She makes time for her writing, giving it actual space in her life like it needs (and deserves), and I REALLY want to find that kind of communion with my own writing routine, too. She keeps me pointed towards that goal just by being so consistent with her own work. Rock on, Heather -- you're such a genius at what you do! xo
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Lindy McLean

I was immediately there - in the crowd, in the moment. I could hear the bells, see the colours, hear the music. Brilliant Heather, as always!
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Stacy Gardner

Loved it Heather - as usual I felt swarmed and warmed by all the intricate details - that always resonates in your work and its easy cascade of fragrant, but firm language.
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Virginia Debling

My gosh Heather...I want more...Barbara is so brave ....so proud of you...
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I have to read this book now. I am Barbara. I just spent four days in Puerto Rico, seeking warmth and inspiration. It was not enough. I want to return to life in the tropics. It's my home and I should never have left. I want to escape from my life in Nashville, winter, my ruined marriage. Now I want to know how Barbara transforms because she does seem on the verge of transformation. Thank you for this excerpt.
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Heather Debling

Thank you all for your lovely comments!
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