Flash Fiction: for writers, readers, editors, publishers, & fans


The Energy Within: An Interview with Carol Guess

con­duct­ed by Nic­hole Beard


carol1.jpgCar­ol Guess is the author of ten books of poet­ry and prose, includ­ing Tin­der­box Lawn and Doll Stud­ies: Foren­sics. She is Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at West­ern Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, and lives in Seat­tle. Find her here.


A lot of writ­ers have the bad habit of com­par­ing them­selves to oth­er writ­ers whom they deem bet­ter. Have you expe­ri­enced this? And if so, what advice could you offer a bud­ding, yet not-so-con­fi­dent writer who has this bad habit?

Thanks for inter­view­ing me, Nic­hole, and thanks for these excel­lent ques­tions! Your first ques­tion makes sense to me, but com­par­ing myself to oth­er writ­ers isn’t one of my bad habits. (I have plen­ty of bad habits, just not this one.) I try hard to remind myself that my strug­gle is per­son­al, and that I’m pri­mar­i­ly com­pet­ing with myself. I want my next book to be bet­ter than my last book; I want to chal­lenge myself to evolve as an artist. Oth­er writ­ers are a source of inspi­ra­tion, encour­age­ment, and ener­gy. Of course I do strug­gle with jeal­ousy, but not around the work itself. I think my jeal­ousy is usu­al­ly cen­tered around pub­lic recog­ni­tion, awards, and praise. And my jeal­ousy of these things, or writ­ers who acquire these things, is just petty—a bad habit, true. It’s a dis­trac­tion from the dif­fi­cult work of mak­ing art, which for me is a pri­vate process that’s trans­lat­ed through pub­li­ca­tion and per­for­mance into com­mu­ni­ty build­ing.

My recent engage­ment with col­lab­o­ra­tion (poet Daniela Olszews­ka and I just wrote a book togeth­er) has real­ly helped me see this, so that’s my first piece of advice: try col­lab­o­rat­ing with anoth­er artist, so that you cre­ate a shared, rather than com­pet­i­tive, mind­set. Anoth­er piece of advice is to focus on find­ing joy in your process. If you’re hap­py with your own progress, and take plea­sure in mak­ing art, you’ll be less inclined to pass judg­ment on your­self or oth­ers. Yoga helps me with this, so a final piece of advice is to estab­lish a rou­tine in anoth­er discipline—running, knit­ting, car­pen­try, cook­ing. Leave writ­ing behind for a while, and be an expert or a begin­ner in anoth­er field.


In flash fic­tion and prose poet­ry, how do you deal with com­pres­sion? How do you describe com­pres­sion?

I love mak­ing things tiny and per­fect. It gives me plea­sure to focus on detail, so com­pres­sion comes nat­u­ral­ly to me. In fact, for years I was told by writ­ing teach­ers to make my work longer and more plot-ori­ent­ed. I thought com­pres­sion was a bad thing, and fought against it in my writ­ing for a long time. It was such a release when I final­ly gave in—when I real­ized my bad habit was actu­al­ly a skill!

I describe com­pres­sion as win­now­ing something—a sto­ry, an image, a char­ac­ter sketch—down to the most intense ele­ments of mean­ing and music. The work must still make some kind of sense, but leave gaps for the read­er to fill in the mys­tery. It’s inter­est­ing that the form of yoga I prac­tice, Bikram, is all about phys­i­cal com­pres­sion. You don’t stretch, you compress—you curl inward. It’s sexy and chal­leng­ing and metaphor-laden. For me there’s so much mean­ing in the phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion of curl­ing inward—it looks vul­ner­a­ble, but feels strong—as well as the release that fol­lows.


Is there ever a point at which you give up on a sto­ry? How does a writer know when to let a sto­ry or an idea go? Should a writer even do this to begin with?

Good ques­tion! I do have a fair share of false starts, but I usu­al­ly make use of them lat­er. I hang onto most of what I write, and see it as ingre­di­ents for the next project. For exam­ple, one of the prose poems in Tin­der­box Lawn was a failed short sto­ry, stalled at sev­en pages. I com­pressed it down to one page, empha­siz­ing the most impor­tant ele­ments of the nar­ra­tive.


Do you have any spe­cif­ic suc­cess­ful, effi­cient edit­ing tech­niques to share?

Com­press! Do away with as many words as pos­si­ble, but save all of your ear­li­er drafts. It’s also use­ful to con­sid­er whether seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed poems, sto­ries, or man­u­scripts are real­ly parts of the same larg­er work. In my most recent book, Doll Stud­ies: Foren­sics, I incor­po­rat­ed bits of an ear­li­er unpub­lished man­u­script. I pared the ear­li­er man­u­script down from 80 pages to about 20, and made those 20 pieces into a sec­tion of the book called “Depar­ture Lounge.”


A lot of writ­ers who sub­mit to jour­nals and read jour­nals, and even this blog, are MFA stu­dents. What advice would you offer an MFA stu­dent who feels his pro­fes­sor doesn’t like or encour­age his work? How impor­tant is it for a writer to have an MFA?

Thanks for ask­ing such an hon­est ques­tion, Nic­hole. I don’t think every writer needs (or can afford) to get an MFA. I see the MFA as pri­mar­i­ly a teaching/professional degree. That is, it’s not so much about becom­ing a bet­ter writer as about becom­ing a bet­ter teacher, edi­tor, aca­d­e­m­ic, and crit­ic. All of those skills are use­ful to writ­ers, so yes, the MFA is a very use­ful degree. But the end goal of most MFA pro­grams is to place stu­dents in some kind of teach­ing job, or link them to an academic/professional cir­cuit of some kind.

I have an MFA (con­fes­sion!) and it was use­ful to me because I got teach­ing expe­ri­ence, and learned some­thing about the pol­i­tics and prac­tices of acad­e­mia. It didn’t improve my writ­ing at all, and in fact I stopped writ­ing alto­geth­er for about a year after I grad­u­at­ed. I was real­ly dam­aged by my professor’s detach­ment, by a few of my peers’ arro­gant and cru­el remarks, and by the inces­sant crit­i­cism of the (very harsh) work­shops I attend­ed. But that’s just me. I’m an intro­vert; I’m a lon­er; I’m sort of (hap­pi­ly) odd. I learned to write by read­ing and by writ­ing all the time. I mean, hours and hours a day, when­ev­er I could, what­ev­er I could. I learned to write by study­ing bal­let very seri­ous­ly as a young girl and rec­og­niz­ing ear­ly on that dis­ci­pline was instru­men­tal to the kind of artist I want­ed to be. And I learned to write by falling in love, as I still do, with par­tic­u­lar books—wanting to talk to those books in print, want­i­ng to join that com­mu­ni­ty.

The best advice I can give any emerg­ing or begin­ning writer is to stay true to your­self, to believe in your aes­thet­ic and your goals. If a pro­fes­sor treats you poor­ly, try to have com­pas­sion for them. Remem­ber that they’re human, and are prob­a­bly just strug­gling with some human worry—a divorce, trou­ble pub­lish­ing, ill­ness, depres­sion. Ground your­self in what­ev­er inspires you out­side of the pro­gram; don’t let the pro­gram be your whole life. And stay close to oth­er writ­ers who are gen­uine­ly kind, smart, and thought­ful in their cri­tiques. Be that per­son for a begin­ning writer, too—it’s real­ly empow­er­ing to under­stand that you can be the men­tor you didn’t have.


FF.Net Author’s Note

Beard.jpgNic­hole Beard is a grad­u­ate of Rose­mont College’s MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing pro­gram. She received her BA in Inte­gra­tive Arts from Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty where she pub­lished arti­cles for a stu­dent-run arts & cul­ture jour­nal. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her first nov­el.

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