In the Spotlight: Pam Smith
When I first read one of Pam Smith’s short story drafts in my master class, I knew she was the real thing. Read this excerpt and you’ll know what I mean. Her images are sophisticated and her metaphors are rich and potent: I love the lines of light and shadow that fall across the table in the diner; the way the mother’s hands tremble, like an old black and white television; the waitress with that incredible lazy eye! Her writing reminds me of Karen Joy Fowler.
Pam shows you how Jack sees the world at this moment – the shifty space between hope and darkness. He's distrustful, and hyper aware because of this. And she shows us all of this in and through the images themselves. Jack’s consciousness is inside the writing. There’s a strong, deep river running underneath Pam Smith’s prose, and you can feel the current as you read her work.
I live and write in Eastern Ontario. I struggled with my writing until 2012 when I had a chance to work with Sarah. I’ve been focused since then on re-learning how to write and improving my craft. I am currently working on a collection of short stories. I also had the great privilege of being a Story Intensive TA in the fall/winter of 2013.
Handwriting or computer?
Definitely handwriting. There was a time that I wrote exclusively on the computer. Two years ago I started writing first drafts by hand. There is something very visceral about writing by hand. It has helped me get out of my logical headspace and get into my writing headspace much more easily.
Page count or time count?
First drafts or revision?
First drafts. There’s a certain magic to the writing of a first draft that I love. I never really know where it’s going to go.
Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?
Writing solo for early drafts. Writing partner for later drafts.
Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?
Either complete quiet or classical music. I’ll admit to occasionally wearing my silly hat with earmuffs to stifle background noise. It’s particularly handy on winter mornings when the wood furnace hasn’t yet warmed the house.
Why do you write?
I studied English in University but, in the strange way our lives can sometimes turn out, I have spent the last 20 years in the business world. Writing is a kind of meditation for me. It’s a way to leave the analytical and business part of my brain behind and express myself creatively. As hard as writing can sometimes be, it is also a very joyful exercise for me. There is a sense of awe that I feel when I’m in the creative flow state putting down the first draft of a story. I feel connected to something bigger than myself.
How do you make time for your writing practice? How do you handle resistance?
I’m super busy, with four wonderful teenage daughters, an awesome husband and a very (very) busy career. Working full time has its challenges, but if you love something enough, you will make the time for it. I remember reading that Alice Munro used to write in 10-minute spurts at the kitchen table while her children were napping. That gave me so much hope. Making space in my life hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes it meant giving up something else in order to make time for it.
I’ve only recently been able to find the time to focus on my writing practice daily. My daily practice doesn’t always mean putting ink on a page. Sometimes it’s reading with a critical eye to craft and sometimes it involves “moodling” a character or scene. Still, most of the time it is actual writing or revision. It may only be two hours a day, but it works for me. My writing routine involves a cup of tea, a favorite notebook and pen, and an overstuffed chair that sits between two huge windows. When I smell my tea and sit down in that chair, it tells my brain that it’s time to write.
Resistance has been a common theme in my writing life. It’s easy to resist when you have laundry, or emails, or housework that needs to be done. I’ll admit that I’ve used being “too busy” as an excuse many times in the past. It wasn’t until I committed to giving writing an important place in my life that I stopped allowing myself to make excuses. Yes, I’m busy. So what. Alice Munro was busy too. When I feel resistance, I acknowledge that I’m feeling it… and then I move on. Some of my best writing has happened when I pushed through the resistance.
Tell us about your experience with the Story Course. How has it changed your relationship to writing?
I loved the Story Course and would recommend it to any writer, regardless of skill level. Not only is it a wonderful and practical tool in your writing kit, but it also allows you to give yourself an excuse to focus on your writing. There are tools and exercises in it that I’ve never seen in any other writing course. The Story Course has fundamentally changed how I approach my writing. It was an absolute joy to share this course as a TA in The Story Intensive 2013 with the students in my class.
Tell us about the excerpt you are sharing today:
This excerpt is taken from a short story called Plan B. It’s about a 13-year-old transgender boy named Jack (biologically female--born Jacqueline). The main character is struggling to come to terms with the onset of puberty and the unwanted changes this is causing in his body. At the same time, his life has become unmoored and he and his mother are on the move again.
I didn’t initially set out to write a story about a transgender child. In the first draft, the main character was a boy. The story was giving me hints that he was more than “just” a boy, but I missed them. It wasn’t until I ran Jack through Sarah’s 100-sentence exercise in SSM that it became clear. I gave myself permission not to judge the sentences or worry about whether they related to the first draft. I just wrote. Around sentence 65 or 70 things started hitting the page that surprised me. In the exercise the MC basically “told” me who he really was and the story became clear. I understood the shifting and movement that seemed to infuse the story. I understood the emotions that kept creeping up from the MC that weren’t necessarily relevant to what I originally though the story was about. It was an “aha” moment for me that I won’t forget.
Excerpt from Plan B, by Pam Smith
They pull off the highway, and head into Denny’s for supper. They’ve been driving for hours. Against his will, Jack’s stomach growls when he smells the food. They walk past a jukebox to the back of the restaurant and sit in a booth by the window. The sun comes through the blinds making long lines of light and dark across the table and floor. His mother pulls the ashtray towards her and taps the bottom of her cigarette pack until one pops up. Her fingers tremble like the screen on their old black and white TV as she lifts the cigarette to her mouth and lights it.
The waitress, a woman with stringy hair and a lazy eye, walks up to the table and pulls out her notepad, her pen tap-tap-tapping on the paper while she waits for them to decide. Jack almost forgets about being angry as he watches the waitress take his mother’s order. Her left eye is focused on the pad of paper, the other slowly wanders from the centre of her vision until it almost disappears into the bottom left corner of her eye. When she looks up at Jack, the lazy eye pops back to it’s starting point and then begins its slow trek to the left. It’s almost as if her eye is in love with her nose and can’t bear to be away from it for too long.
Jack orders a Grand Slam. When the food comes, he refuses to eat it. His mother’s face looks like a purse turned inside out, and things she doesn’t usually let him see spill out. He knows she doesn’t have money to waste on a restaurant or on uneaten food, but right now, in this moment, he doesn’t give a crap. He’s so sick and tired of being in motion.
A flash of orange as her hand moves through a line of sunlight. Her ring. A perfect mosquito trapped in amber. Small flecks of something else in the amber too, maybe leaves. Sometimes he feels like that mosquito. She digs in her purse, pulls out their map and spreads it across the table. It has dots marking where they’ve been. The chicken pox history of their lives.
“Belleville is here,” she says, pointing at the map. She moves her finger along the snaking line of the highway until she hits a bigger dot. “This is Toronto. I’ll be able to find work there, you’ll see.”
“And Mark? Does he know?”
She still hasn’t taken off her sunglasses. Her voice cracks and she clears her throat. “It’ll be ok, you’ll see. Great even. Like an adventure. I’ve always wanted to live in the city,” she says. She lights another cigarette from the butt of the old one before mashing it out in the ashtray. “It’ll be good for you, you know. Healthy, even. It’ll be easier to fit in there.”
“I was fitting in just fine…” A purplish green bruise is starting to leak out from under her sunglasses and down the side of her cheek. Deep red finger marks are coming up on her arm. So it’s this again.
He sees movement out of the corner of his eye, it’s raining outside. He’s left his window down in the van. He takes a few bites of his food and does his best to swallow.
“Just you and me,” she says. “We’ll do alright, you and me, you know.” She sees him looking at the marks on her arm. She’s quiet for a minute and then she leans across the table. Jack can smell her cigarette breath under the sickly sweet of her perfume. Their noses almost touch. “Never do this,” she whispers. “And never let anyone do it to you.” She stretches her arm in front of him, her fist balled into an exclamation point. “Never,” she says. But then, slow like a cloud moving across the sky, she begins to push the corners of her mouth into a smile. “But I know you wouldn’t, would you?” she says. “You’re a good kid, Jackie. A real good kid.”
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.
What remains with you after reading Pam'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 Pam's? How is it different?
Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Pam!