Interview with Frances Phillips - Summer School.
Please note: This is an archived interview with Frances Phillips.
The sold-out SSM Summer School program ran during the summer of 2012.
It is my pleasure to introduce you to Frances Phillips, my longtime student and the new TA for Story Is a State of Mind Summer School. Class starts July 23rd. Space is limited!
Q: Frances, your story, No Street Called Crow, was this year's first place winner in the Little Bird Writing Contest. Congratulations again! Can you share a bit about this story, behind-the-scenes? How did you come to write it?
Thanks, Sarah. It was a real honor to win Little Bird Stories II. I have to say, though, that writing No Street Called Crow was a strange experience. I often respond to the prompts that you tweet, but one, in particular, totally grabbed me: “Write a story that takes place in a subdivision. Write it in the 1st person plural POV.”
I had only recently “discovered” the “we” POV, when I read, and was absolutely haunted by, Zsuzsi Gartner’s The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion – which also takes place in a subdivision. Without realizing the connection between the prompt and the story, I sat down to write. I wrote No Street in a day (it’s short, remember) and revised it the next. Then I sent it off. A couple of weeks later, I saw the connection: not only was Zsuzsi Gartner to be the judge of Little Bird, but she had written the story that had inspired the prompt that I had used. I was a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth. I didn’t want to seem as though I was copying Zsuzsi. But I was! It turns out that yielding to that initial urge to write the story was the right thing to do. I was shocked and thrilled to see that it had been selected, and by Zsuzsi Gartner of all people.
If anyone wants to hear my personal thoughts on the seductive and infuriating – er, challenging – nature of that particular POV, they might want to join our Story Is a State of Mind summer school group. There will be dish.
Q: You really have refined your style over the years. In your recent work, I can now feel your voice shining out of your sentences. I have my own ideas about how you've done this, but what would you say?
My style has changed quite a bit. I think I notice it more than anyone. Mainly, what has happened – and you can take a lot of the credit for this, Sarah – is I have learned to get out of my own way. Once you remove the mediation and the filtering from your writing, and give yourself permission to go a little nuts (in your lessons, you call this “drift”) all you are really left with is your own voice.
And what especially strikes me about this is that the transition felt so natural. I was there all along. My voice was there the whole time. I just had to get rid of the muck. And the actual writing is a lot easier this way. Now I don’t add the muck – or, I add less of it to start with – so I don’t have to spend time and energy removing it.
I have tweaked all aspects of my writing, it turns out. The revelations I’ve had around dialogue alone could fill a page. That may sound radical, but I can say that every change I have made – consciously or not – has served to amplify the energy of my work as a whole. And in a way that feels organic to me.
Q: What do you love about short fiction – as a reader? As a writer?
As a reader, I am drawn to the directness of the short story. I have a poetry background and will always love the punch of a poem that takes a stand – that makes a declaration – in one fell swoop. Stories often have the same effect, but the reader can also go on a more extended journey in the pages of a story. The experience is prolonged, but not to the point of exhaustion or exasperation, as it can be in a (less than stellar) novel. I feel strongly that every narrative has a natural length, be it poem-, short story-, or novel-length. That being said, I also think stories are amazing because they can marry the best qualities of both poetry and the novel.
Also, as a reader, I love that I can sit down with a story and generally finish it in around the same time as it takes me to finish my mug of tea. Double the pleasure.
As a writer, I love short stories for many of the same reasons. I want to have readers feel the way I feel when I’m reading the best short fiction. I want to pull the reader utterly and completely into this little world I have created – and then release them. Just like that. The reader can go on with his or her day, reminded of the story, preoccupied with it, obsessed with it. As a writer, that is my dream. And short stories, with their economy and force, are the perfect device to get closer to it.
Q: I asked you to be my TA for Story Is a State of Mind because I know you're going to give writers smart technical advice, thoughtful feedback, and challenge them in all of the best ways. But what about you? What are you most excited about?
There is so much to be excited about. I am lucky to have participated in several e-courses you have offered in the past, and I am intimately familiar with Story Is a State of Mind. I have frequently revisited favorite lessons when I need a nudge or even a kick in the pants. To shift roles now, and guide and nurture a group of enthusiastic students – using a platform as evolved and sophisticated as Story Is a State of Mind – is just such a treat. I’m really looking forward to it.
The truth is, these groups can be transformative. Words seem to fly like the speed of light on the wiki, and the discussions can be electric. Sharing assignments and conversing from the common ground of the writing writer is exceptional. Discovery and deepening of your own practice is rapid fire. I can say that, because I’ve been there. Who wouldn’t want to be witness to that?
And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I am excited about what all the energy and dialogue will do for me as a writer.
Q: Who is your ideal student? Who do you want to register for Story Is a State of Mind summer school?
My dream student is curious, thoughtful, engaged, and – most importantly – generous. In my experience, generosity is an important component of any class. But in a writing course, where so much can be at stake, generosity to others – as well as to ourselves – is paramount. It is the secret ingredient, the special sauce, to getting full results.
The good news for me, as the TA for Story Is a State of Mind, is that the act of registering for the course is in itself a demonstration of these ideal characteristics. Anyone who spends their money, and more importantly, intends to spend their time eating, sleeping and breathing short stories for seven weeks (because that is what you will do!) has already said to me: “I am here. I am ready to work. I will make the most of my experience.” And Presto! We are writing. And that is what we have come together to do.
Frances will be teaching the Story Is a State of Mind Summer School beginning this July 23rd, 2012. Spots are limited.