Today Artist Strong is pleased to interview Creative Spirit Matthew Brennan, an author and freelance writer/editor.
Matthew Brennan earned his MFA in fiction from Arizona State University. He is a novelist, translator, short-fictionist, screenwriter, and freelance editor, and his writing has received several awards and fellowships, including Colgate University’s Lasher Prize. More than forty of his stories and literary translations have been published in anthologies and journals, including The Superstition Review and The Copperfield Review, most recently in Pure Slush, Fiddleblack, The Eunoia Review, Recess Magazine, and the Red Rose Review. He serves as an assistant fiction editor for both Speech Bubble Magazine and the Hayden’s Ferry Review, and is currently based in the Pacific Northwest. You can learn more about Matthew and his writing on his website: http://matthewbrennan.net
Artist Strong: Hi Matthew! Welcome to Artist Strong. How did you come to realize you wanted to be a writer?
Artist Strong: What is flash fiction? How did you get involved in writing flash fiction?
I’ve written well over a hundred of these fictions over the past two years, but I hadn’t set out to write for this form. After studying some experimental writing, I decided that I wanted to write a collection of small pieces or moments, each of which took place within a small duration of time. I decided on a cup of coffee. I came to realize from within the project that these “momentary fictions,” as I was calling them, were actually flash fictions. Having written about seventy of these and published more than twenty, I’m just beginning to look at them as a complete collection. I’ve also begun three or four other such themed collections.
Artist Strong: Do you have a particular system for writing? For example, I have heard some writers hold to a strict schedule of a certain number of words or pages of writing per day while others work for a number of hours at the same time every day…
Matthew: Ideally, yes, I would, and for short periods of time I have kept such schedules. For a while in graduate school while I was working on my first novel, I would sit down and write on a kind of schedule, aiming for a certain number of hand-written pages, or more often wanting to get through a certain scene. But over the ten years that I have been writing, I’ve gone from college to working retail to grad school to working three jobs and now to a freelance career, and each of these comes with certain time constraints. Right now, I have to juggle freelance editing contracts and tutoring students with my writing, and have to carve out spaces for when I can write: an hour while my wife is at the gym, when a student cancels a session, etc. I’m hoping to have more sustained writing time over the summer. For now, I write when I can, and I try not to worry about word counts and page lengths because I find that such concerns will pull me out of the creative space I need to be in, and I write more and better if I just let it happen.
Artist Strong: Do you have any strategies for moving into your “creative space?”
Matthew: I used to have more of a writing routine than I do now, in part because recently I’ve been less able to be picky about my writing time, taking what I can get. But I do find that, like athletes’ superstition, having a routine does help get into the rhythm of writing. For a long time, I did all of my writing by hand in notebooks, sitting with coffee in cafes, listening to music. And the music would go in phases of what was working – classical, metal, filmscores, rock, etc. But the most important thing for me was not being at home (where everything is familiar and I have a to-do list), and not being at my computer where there was the internet. I have since begun writing on a computer because it’s faster, but I still prefer writing by hand.
Artist Strong: What inspires you to write?
Matthew: Anything. Everything. Some of my favorite work has happened during or in response to travel, but a sudden rainstorm while running errands has triggered a story, too. I learn a lot about the fictional people and places I create by observing life around me, and any little detail about a person or place or interaction can be the trigger for a new story or enrich a scene. But my goal in writing, especially with the more concise forms, is to create the illusion of real life, not actually to recreate it, so certain details work better than others. Beyond that, it just happens.
Artist Strong: What do you mean “create the illusion of real life, not actually to recreate it…?”
Matthew: All writing is artifice. Fiction, of course, but even non-fiction aims to recreate the impression of something real – it’s unlikely that the writer actually remembers how a certain conversation happened word for word, so there will always be an artificial or invented component to it. Fiction is even more this way because invention is the whole point. And yet, however artificial the work may be, it is designed to give the impression of reality. Especially with dialogue: in a novel, you will never watch the characters go through the pleasantries of meeting each other (Hi, Hello, How are you?, Good, and you?). Good, evocative dialogue has to be more efficient than that, and while demonstrating what people naturally say on the surface (mimicking real life), the words also have to be building character and advancing plot at the same time. But this latter component the readers are never meant to see. So the writer is aiming to create an illusion, a sleight of hand that what is being said is real life, while under the surface the writer is actually pulling the invisible strings of the story. However realistic the dialogue may seem, the writer never intended to recreate real life exactly, but only the illusion of that so the reader won’t see the inner workings of the storytelling.
Artist Strong: Which work brings you the most pride?
Matthew: It may sound odd, but I am always proud of the stories that work, the flash fictions that achieve a turn at the end (novels have a climax, short stories a crossroads, flash fictions have a “turn” where something changes). I never know the end of a story or book when I begin writing – I don’t outline or storyboard – so when the piece arrives at something meaningful at the end, I am always pleased and a little surprised. Beyond that, there are certain stories that I invest more of myself in than others: the ones that are inspired by real events or people in my life, or the ones for which I delve into research. I tend to hold those in higher esteem, too. Similarly, I tend to be more proud of my book-length work than of one specific short piece because I have made a greater investment in that project.
Artist Strong: How would you define creative process? How does creative process inform your work?
Matthew: My work hits what may be a unique balance between concept and meaning, between idea and creation. One small struggle I hit early on while deciding what to write next was, there are so many people and so many stories in the world, how do I decide what story to tell? Who do I write about? It seemed overwhelming for a moment. That’s why I like to work from themes in flash fiction – a collection in which every story takes place during a certain kind of moment, a cup of coffee for example. It helps narrow and focus my inspiration and creativity. This may also be why I like retelling fairy tales and classics into our modern world. So I begin with a general theme, which then leads me to a way in which, say a cup of coffee again, might be used by a character. That will then allow me to begin the story. The character, the plot, the turn all then develop as I go and I find both meaning and the rest of the idea in the process.
As far as my actual in the moment writing process goes, the only way I can describe what I am doing while writing is: listening. I don’t do what many writers do and “churn”: write and write and write, and then go back and figure out what happened and what it means later. I believe that what comes later on in a story is shaped by what has come before, and I want that entire process to be organic. So I don’t throw down ideas roughly and say, Oh I’ll come back to that. I take the time in the first draft to write it the way I want it. Listening comes into play because when I enter my creative zone, the words that I wrote down on the page speak to me first, and that internal, subconscious (etc) muse, so to speak, is how I know a story is ready and moving. If that isn’t happening, after some work, I often won’t continue the story that day.
Artist Strong: Have you ever experienced writers block? How did you cope?
Matthew: A long time ago. But at a certain point I realized that writer’s block is just a state of mind, which ends up getting in the way of itself: as soon as you understand that and stop worrying about being blocked, you’ll be able to write again. This is different to me than having a story that isn’t moving, or speaking to me, and when that happens, I’ll either go back and reread parts of the story to get back into it, sit and think through parts of the story, or if I have to, take a break. But once a story has begun, I find it somewhat rare for it to just stop in its tracks. So the answer now is no, I don’t get writer’s block.
Artist Strong: What has been one of your largest challenges as a writer? How did you overcome it?
Matthew: After many years of studying the craft of the short story and writing short stories, I wanted to write my first novel, still in grad school, knowing that there I would have a strong community of writers to offer support. The problem was that I had never written a sustained fiction piece longer than about forty-five pages, and worse, I didn’t have a story to tell. So I spent several months writing a longer project that I knew wasn’t going to work as a book, but I didn’t have another story to tell yet. Ultimately, I was visiting my family over winter break, my mind completely off my writing, when the story that is now my first novel came to me. So what I “did” here was to give myself some distance from the stress of finding that story, and then was able to recognize the difference between the kind of story that is twenty pages and one that has the longevity to be three hundred.
Artist Strong: Is there any advice you would offer to other writers or would-be authors?
Matthew: The number one advice I always give to writers and aspiring authors is to keep reading and to keep writing. Creativity isn’t something you can just do, in the way you can mow a lawn or build a house – something physical. It takes a different kind of hard work. Some of what I’ve said here, like the part about listening for the words I’m writing, sounds easy, but the truth is that you have to be in practice for that to work. The more I write, the easier the next writing becomes. Having written my first novel, my next one comes a little more naturally; having written dozens of flash fictions, more of the ones I start now reach a satisfactory end. Like anything else – athletics, music, etc. – practice makes perfect, and the only way to stay good at writing is to keep doing it. But you also can’t write in a vacuum, so read what other writers are doing, and make sure you get out into the world so you have something real to write about.