In our continuing series about the Kirkwood Literary Prize, founded in honor of James Kirkwood (There Must be a Pony!, A Chorus Line) who started his writing career in the Writers’ Program, we bring you a Q&A with fiction writer Emily McLaughlin. Emily won second place for her story Because My Father Thought He Was Bob Dylan, which intertwines memories that a girl has of her father with the music and moodiness of Bob Dylan.
Writers’ Program: Tell us about your winning piece. How did it develop? How did your workshop contribute to its growth?
In Mary Otis‘s short story class last winter, she assigned these stimulating weekly writing prompts that required me to play with some new voices. A particular exercise reminded me of a character I’d been tossing around in my head for a while. I envisioned this character as an endearing yet completely dysfunctional alcoholic who, in a sort of delusional way, clings to an idealized life through his obsession with an icon of the sixties, and disconnects with his own family, denies the mundane reality of what his life has actually become, or not become. But I didn’t have a story for him. The concept of inheriting psychiatric conditions has always interested me, and I’ve attempted it in other stories and poems, but it’s never worked quite right. With this story, I decided to amalgamate the character with that concept. I chose the Bob Dylan theme because it required the least amount of googling. My own father is a big Dylan fan, which my sister, my mother and I loved to give him a hard time about. When I was younger, I found Dylan’s music really funny, I don’t know why, and I don’t know why we teased my poor dad so much, because I’ve evolved into quite the Dylan aficionado myself. So it’s that jocular family bashing that sparked the idea for the title; I had every intention to make the story humorous, but it somehow developed into what I’ve been told is a rather sad piece. Because the story uses a retrospective narrator and meanders back and forth in flashbacks, I had a hard time figuring out the structure. It drove me crazy. I wanted it to read the way memory works, kind of erratic and disarranged. I was surprised when Mary not only understood but supported it, and gave me some good notes on how to reorganize the narrative for clarity. If she hadn’t, I probably would have chalked the whole thing up as a mess and tossed it out.
WP: Which courses have you taken? What instructors?
I’ve actually only taken two short story workshops at UCLA. The first was with Mary Otis last winter. I followed up with another one this summer with Antoine Wilson. I read an excerpt of Mary’s before her collection [Yes, Yes, Cherries] came out, and I read Antoine’s new book [The Interloper], and wanted to learn from both of them. I can’t recommend their classes enough. They both gave such thorough notes and are quite humorous instructors. Mary uses her unique exercises that provoke thoughts for stories you never thought you had. She is able to listen to a story once, and immediately pull out the most compelling bits of humor, or character, to further develop. Antoine has profound insights into the sentiment of a piece, and has that great knack of precisely nailing the problem and its fix. And both seemed to know the stories I was trying to tell, better than I did. I was really lucky that Mary caught what I was trying to convey in the first draft of “Because My Father Thought He Was Bob Dylan”, so I felt more confident in its substance, to keep on hammering it into something that made sense.
I actually (naively) did not even know that the UCLA Extension program taught creative writing. I knew they had a big screenwriting program, and I think I was googling “creative writing classes in LA” last year, or looking on craigslist, and the program popped up. I’d been drawn into the black hole of the Hollywood industry and felt so gypped, that I’d lived in LA for two years and had missed out on eight quarters of fiction writing classes that I would have been involved in if I knew they existed. At the largest continuing education program in the country none the less. That’s when I signed up quickly.
WP: Tell us a little about your writing process.
I’m a jotter and a scribbler. I jot down notes on the oddest pieces of paper which are all over my desk at work, and at home, and in my car, and so of course I lose half of them. I usually get an idea about an emotion between two characters, or a particular image that I can’t seem to shake unless I materialize it. I think the details come before the plot, which isn’t the right way to do it. I should work on that. Everyone says to write every day, which I used to beat myself up over not doing, but now I’ve just accepted that at this point in my life, I simply can’t. Classes are fantastic because they give you deadlines, which usually means I hibernate the two weekends before my story is due and lose a lot of sleep. I definitely work best (in most aspects of life) under extreme anxiety provoking time sensitive pressure. And for me, writing comes in spurts. I have a lot of ideas and a great urgency to write at times, then I can go a month or two with the scribbling, but I don’t sit down and open up a blank word document for a while. And I actually really enjoy rewriting, much more than the first draft. I don’t like first drafts at all.
WP: Any advice for your fellow writers?
I know I have doubted myself because I think that the stories I have to tell aren’t important enough, or aren’t innovative enough. I think I stopped writing for a while because I felt I should be writing about something cultural, or political, or making somewhat of an intelligent statement. Writing about teenagers felt trite. But I realized that you have to write what you really want to write, because only you can communicate the emotion in that certain way. That sounds a little maudlin, but the more classmates and writers I’ve met, the more I realize that it’s true. And if you aren’t writing, keep on reading. Read your way out of it.
WP: What’s next for your writing?
Well, I feel like I’ve been in this MFA application bubble for the past three months. I’ve applied to a number of graduate programs in fiction writing for Fall 2008. For the past few months, I’ve been diligently working on my manuscript submission, so I’m actually excited to start another story fresh. I’m thinking a short-short. I have to wait until April to see where I get accepted, and then go from there. But the main reason I’m applying to MFA programs is to submerge myself in my writing, with teachers and a writers’ community, full time. I’d like to complete a collection of linked stories.
WP: Anything else you’d like to share?
So far, the teachers and fellow students I’ve met through UCLA have been invaluable. Working a long day job, and trying to write on the weekends, and finding time for other things like friends and laundry, can definitely be frustrating. The connections I’ve made through UCLA have helped me a great deal in a several ways. Enrolling in Mary’s class was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
An Excerpt from Emily McLaughlin’s Because My Father Thought He Was Bob Dylan
Sometimes, on a normal night like that, he went on drives for hours, days. Sometimes, he wanted me with him and I was not always quick with an excuse. He told me stories in those car rides. Without stories, he didn’t have much else to say. “Jesus, when your mother walked into a room, it’s like the music stopped. One time, at my cousin’s wedding, a ways back, Subterranean Homesick Blues came on. We were the only two dancing, your mother and me, and I swear, I could feel the room hold its breath.”
I could see him slide right onto the shiny floor like he was Dylan himself, throw his heels to the sides and drag my mother behind him by one arm, I could see the two of them bopping around, dancing for a crowd drunk off wine and the idea of true love.
I was created one of these nights, the product of an open bar and a 1965 Billboard hit. I thought of him as the young Dylan, the hair, the sunglasses, the crooked smile. I saw him sitting before a campfire, the bellbottoms and long beard, drumming his rhythm into the night.
According to my mother, a few days after she gave birth to me, he drove his motorcycle into a tree in broad daylight. The nurse carried me into his room, and he lay there, his arms in slings attached to the ceiling, his leg casts up in metal holders.
“I’m not kidding,” she said, when she told me, “Both of you, same hospital, different wings.”
According to my father, he said that the smile on my face smoothed the cracks in his bones over and glued his body back into one piece. Then, when my mother rolled him back out into the world, she screamed at him for days and days until his ears fell off beside the wheelchair.
“You need to work on your metaphors,” I told him, “Sometimes, you don’t even make sense.” He laughed then, a hard laugh that rolled through all of him on the inside before it came out, and I hiccupped and roared with him, until I thought about something else, and then we both were quiet. Still, the motorcycle sits out in the yard, behind the shed, rusting the story down into the dirt.