Author Concise Essay Featuring Guide Insight Lecture Nine Original

Debra Spark’s “Finish It, Finish It: Options for Ending a Story” appears in the winter 2018 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses her writing process, her struggle to balance creative work with her professional life, and her penchant for interviewing writers.

Garrett Hazelwood: I understand that “Finish It, Finish It: Options for Ending a Story” had a former life as a craft talk, and it’s clear that in composing it you’ve drawn from myriad sources: personal relationships, your teaching, conversations with other writers, literary criticism, and quotes. Did you collect these fragments here and there until the connections became apparent? Or did the idea for the piece inspire the bulk of the research and collecting? Can you tell us a bit about your process in that regard?

Debra Spark: I teach in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, so each year I have to give a lecture or offer a class for about a hundred students. It is a low-residency MFA, so the school meets twice a year in intense ten-day sessions of lectures, classes, readings, and meetings. I go once a year, in July, and I typically start to get nervous about what I am going to write around February. I am not entirely sure why I tried to write about endings for the summer of 2017, but I do know that two of the people who often lecture in the same semester that I do—Robert Boswell and Charles Baxter—have the knack of making their craft essays both craft essays and something more. Boswell’s pieces are often also personal essays (he has a lovely one about his mother, another great one about how he met his wife) and Baxter’s are often cultural critiques (he has one about contemporary agendas in communication and the implication for dialogue in fiction). I wanted to try that myself, so pulled personal material into this lecture, since my friend’s death was so much on my mind.

GH: You’re doing a lot of genre blending in this essay, combining memoir with literary criticism and a discussion of craft. But I was particularly struck by your inclusion of interview excerpts, which bring a journalistic element into the mix. What motivated you to reach out to the authors? How did those conversations eventually shape the piece?

DS: The interviewing is a bit of a tic of mine with craft essays. I have taught at Warren Wilson for twenty-two years, and I have turned most of my lectures into craft essays. The first set are collected in a book called Curious Attractions, and I’ve got another set that I am just now beginning to shop around. Normally, I come up with my own idea for a lecture, but my second lecture dovetailed with a request to write an essay for a fiction anthology on “triggers” in fiction. Basically, an essay about how people get their ideas. I had absolutely no thoughts on the subject, so, as I joked in the eventual essay, I “got on the horn” with my writer friends and made them answer the question. I embroidered their answers, and then I had my essay and my talk. Since then, I have often chosen to interview the writers I am writing about if I know them, or if I know someone who knows them. Only, sometimes people won’t talk, because they are dead. Damn that Chekhov! In the case of this essay, I had pretty firm thoughts about the stories before I called the authors, but then the authors’ words wildly illuminated the pieces for me.

GH: You teach, direct a creative writing program, write for a magazine, produce a steady stream of books, publish regularly in literary journals, and edit: How? What are your writing habits like? And how do you manage to juggle so many projects at once? Do you sleep?

DS: Of course, I am flattered by this question, but I have had a long, long stretch of really struggling to produce any fiction. The nature of the publishing world is that a book can come out years after you actually wrote it, so your productivity looks other than it actually is. Also some of the productivity is related to my work situation. I have three part-time jobs. I’ve already mentioned that I teach at Warren Wilson for one semester. I am three-fifths time (odd, I know) at Colby College. As of this year, I no longer direct the creative writing program. But I am on the freelance staff of a media collective with several magazines in Maine, so I write at least two articles a month for them, typically about homes. I also tend to say yes when I get any other article or book review opportunities, simply because I like learning new things. So, a chunk of my publications (house articles, the annual craft essay) amounts to me just earning a living. The part that is “creative” and is “my” work is much, much harder for me, in part because I feel like I need to clear the decks of my “for money” work, before I can do the creative pieces. (Any writer will tell you this is a bad way of working.) I only have one creative piece going at a time, though many abandoned drafts of things.

That said, I DO have insomnia, but I don’t get up and write in the middle of the night. I just fret about writing! And then I find it close to impossible to get out of bed in the morning. Alas!

GH: Apart from the authors you discuss in “Finish It, Finish It: Options for Ending a Story,” who are a couple of the writers you consider to be masters of the ending? What do you most admire about their endings?

DS: I had a Warren Wilson student who wrote on this subject, and I remember her looking at Elizabeth Strout’s “Pharmacy” and Robert Stone’s “Helping,” which both have terrific endings. What my student observed in her essay, and what I admire in these stories’ endings, is the way the putative ending of the story (the end of the narrative or the plot) is not the end of the story, because the “real” story, the deeper story is somewhat different. So the ending has the effect of recontextualizing the whole and making you realize you were reading about something even bigger than you thought. Related to that, I like endings that manage to throw in something new at the end, as part of the recontextualizing.

An example might be The New Yorker’s most read story of the year: Kristen Roupenian’s uncomfortable dating story “Cat Person.” It ends with one character calling another character a whore in a text message. That word is a perfect piece of punctuation to a story, in which both man and woman are performing for one another. The idea, when you first read the story, I think, is that with that word, you learn the man’s true colors, his identity never having been fully clear in the story. But in rereading the story to teach it tomorrow, I noticed that the first thing you learn about the woman is that she flirts for tips at her movie theater job, i.e., she acts sexual for money. It’s that reflexive flirting that gets her into the bad dating situation in the first place. So, in a certain way, the man is saying something true about her, though it is also completely untrue. In online conversations about the story, people seemed to focus on how it was an indictment of the man, which strikes me as too surface a read of the story. Rather, it is so clearly an indictment of both characters and also of our present sexual moment, which leads both sexes into such false feelings, self-deception, and inauthenticity.

GH: What are you working on now? Any upcoming publications we should keep an eye out for?

DS: I am in the very early stages of a novel that is an Upstairs, Downstairs version of Maine with three narrative lines that coalesce around paintings that are stolen from a summer home on an island off the coast. The narrative lines focus on a middle-aged art appraiser from Boston, a boy who gets sent to a therapeutic boarding school in the north of Maine, and an early twentieth-century painter and his descendants. As I mentioned briefly above, I finished a book called And Then Something Happened, which collects my most recent craft essays, and am shopping it around now. Still not sure what its fate will be, though. Fingers crossed!

Debra Spark’s most recent novel is Unknown Caller. She teaches at Colby College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Garrett Hazelwood is the editorial assistant at The Southern Review. He was the 2017 recipient of the Kent Gramm MFA Award for Literary Nonfiction and his work was recently anthologized in Eclectica Magazine’s twentieth anniversary anthology of speculative fiction. He’s currently writing a novel and at work on a book-length essay about the usefulness of pain.

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