What I've learned from reading Lisa Moore.
We were alone on the island, at your parents' cottage. Oil lamps at night, the darkness collapsing like a tent. The day before I left, during supper, my mother and I couldn't look each other in the eye. I watched her try to jerk a speared beet off her fork. A hard cube, brilliant magenta drops splatting the white plate. Shortly after my father died I left her to go to art school. I had been home two weeks and I was leaving again for Georgian Bay. But she let me go.
—The opening paragraph of "Sea Urchin" by Lisa Moore
It's no secret that I adore Lisa Moore's writing.
The first time I read a book by Moore, I underlined all of her sentences and copied them in my notebook, wishing for her style. I was astounded by the way she could evoke such an intense emotional atmosphere through image alone. I felt the feeling of each scene in my heart, my stomach, behind my eyes. Her metaphors made me ache.
The passage above is from her first book of stories, Degrees of Nakedness. I teach this story in The Story Course in Lesson Five. I give writers this story to show them how they can write a plot by focusing on scene, instead of using often-unnecessary summary narrative to explain things. I want it to shake them up a bit, and often, it does. She's an unconventional writer. She takes risks. She gets away with things in her stories that make some readers uncomfortable.
Most Story Is a State of Mind students agree: Lesson Five is where the magic happens. Is it a coincidence that Lisa Moore's story is studied in the most magical lesson? Probably not.
All writers work with magic in one way or another. They make scenes appear out of thin air, after all. But Moore is a master: the bare emotional ferocity of her writing makes it stand out.
I'm absolutely THRILLED that she is the judge for this year's Little Bird Writing Contest. (I literally jumped up and down when she accepted our invitation.) The contest opens next week, on Tuesday, April 26th.
Put this date in your calendar:
This year's Little Bird Salon is happening on Sunday, May 1st, at 11am Eastern time.
[Note: The 2016 Little Bird contest is now closed. You can read the winning stories here. To listen to a recording of the Little Bird Salon with Lisa Moore and other Little Bird Salons, sign up for our Free Resources.]
This live call gives you a chance to speak to Lisa Moore in person before the contest deadline, and ask her about your writing practice, revision, how to end a story, how to title a story… anything at all, it's up for discussion!
The call will be recorded, and the recording will be sent to everyone who signs up, so get on the list, even if you can't be there live.
If you submit a story to the contest this year, your story will be read by Lisa Moore. I don't have to explain why you simply have to go for it. Right? Because if you have that feeling in your chest — that fire-fizz mix of fear and excitement — that's a big green flag, waving at you.
Write your story. Submit it! Once you sign up for The Little Bird Salon, start thinking about your writing questions for the call. To help you get started, here's some food for thought.
These are things I've learned from following Lisa Moore's career closely:
1. Make every sentence count.
Often novelists say that writing a novel is "luxurious" compared to writing short stories, because you can ease up on the sentence scrutiny when you're writing a novel. You can, you know, meander more, from chapter to chapter. Clearly, Moore disagrees. In her fiction -- short and long -- you can feel the quality of attention that she pays to every sentence. She doesn't skip over a syllable: every word is considered. This makes for a vivid literary experience: you feel very present as you read.
2. Start your story with a "sharp stab of emotion."
I can't remember when I heard her say this, but I memorized her words instantly. It explained why her stories were so striking to me, so embodied. You recognize true, honest emotion by the way it can skewer you with feeling. This feeling can be evoked in every image you write -- if you can keep feeling that feeling as you write. The sharp emotional experience will then be transferred, through image, to your reader. Boom.
3. Let your scenes be potent.
Colour, smell, taste, texture, sound: put it all in. Go all the way. Go deep. Saturate your scenes with rich sensory detail. Permit yourself to go further than is comfortable. In your feeling, the emotions will rise.
4. Resist manipulating your scenes.
Let your scenes tell the story without you interfering too much. This is a much more powerful way to tell a story, because this way, your reader lives inside the story, instead of hearing it second hand, through explanation. (If you want to learn more about how to do this, see The Story Course, Lesson Five).
5. Be brave.
Explore your vulnerability on the page. Get out of your comfort level. Write grief, rage, fear, doubt, confusion, joy and love. If you are afraid to do this, even better: do it anyway. I believe that Lisa Moore's first book was titled Degrees of Nakedness for a reason.
If you haven't read Lisa Moore yet, get started now! You can order her books directly from her publisher, House of Anansi.
This is an incredible opportunity -- all writers are invited to the free call, especially if you are planning on entering a story for The Little Bird Contest this year.
Photo credit: Bojan Furst