Stranded: the evolution of a story

Everyone remembers their first time. The first time a story they wrote is accepted for publication. Even though, as a journalist, I'd had fifty-odd articles already published, when my first short story was finally accepted for publication I felt a rush of emotion. Was I happy? Yes, because writing fiction is much more personal than writing a commissioned article. But most of all I was relieved. I finally had a publication to add to my pathetically brief literary CV, and I was now eligible to apply for all those grants and retreats only available to published authors. It immediately validated all the hours I had spent slaving at my desk. Because the sad truth is that no one (friends, family, colleagues) takes you seriously as a writer of fiction until you have something published. A book would be better, but I'm working on that!

Getting my first story, Stranded, published has not been easy. I first wrote it in 2008 when I enrolled in a Gotham Advanced Fiction Writing course while I was living in New York. I started with an image I'd had in my head for a while: while riding on a train in Sydney years earlier, I sat next to a young Asian man in a suit. He spread his hands across the briefcase on his lap, and I remember the beauty of those hands. They were delicate, manicured—a piano player's hands. I was struck by the intimacy I felt staring at his hands—a moment of intimacy between strangers in a public place (although he never acknowledged me, nor do I think he even realised the weirdo next to him was staring at his hands).

Even in its earliest stages, the story I wrote had very little to do with the real-life moment that sparked it—although the theme of intimacy between strangers remains. Stranded opens with a Japanese businessman discovering a blonde hair on his suit one day. He removes it, goes to work, and is surprised to find another (or the same?) blonde hair on him later that day. The second discovery causes the businessman to reflect on the affair he'd had with a young woman who'd prostituted herself for money and gifts (a phenomenon known as enjokosai in Japan), making him think about how the affair had abruptly ended.

I did a rough draft, got lots of helpful feedback from my Gotham classmates, did a revision that my teacher, Michael Backus, thought was a big improvement, but then I was stumped. A lot of people had a problem with the ending. I like story endings to be suggestive rather than didactic, but it's hard to achieve without coming off sounding vague and pointless.

I put it aside for several months, and over the next few years I went back to it again and again, reworked it and sent it to other people to read. The writing became clearer and more polished, and a lot of people thought it was good. But the problem of the ending and the significance of the hair in my story came up again and again. I wanted the repeated appearance of the hair in Stranded to allude to the randomness of life, but it seems that, even though life is random, in fiction, randomness doesn't work. I eventually put my artistic concerns aside, bit the bullet and added a plot line that explained the appearance of the blonde hair.

In 2011, I started to send it out to different publications and competitions in Australia. I thought I had a good shot at some of them, so was crestfallen when the rejections rolled in, one after another. Even though I'd heard from other now quite famous authors that they also had dozens of rejections before they were finally published, I was still crushed when it happened to me. The failures felt personal—it was as if they were rejecting me.

At the same time, I was editing the story and writing different endings. I started to keep a spreadsheet to keep track of all the publications/competitions I was sending it to. It seemed like I had sent it to twenty places before it was finally accepted, but in reality I only sent it to five:

The ending was a persistent problem, and I now realise it was because I wrote the story without a "message" in mind. I shied away from writing a short story with a message or moral, because it struck me as fake, and I wanted readers to make their own interpretation of the story. But now, after reading a lot of guidebooks on writing and critiquing a lot of stories, I realise that nearly all good stories have some sort of a message—but the best ones have a message that's hidden in the story and isn't obvious.

I finally decided to write an ending that cast a sort of moral judgement on the Japanese businessman, Mr Takeda. I personally preferred an earlier ending I'd written, and Kris agreed with me, but I decided to take a risk. I sent it the inaugural Margaret River Short Story competition minutes before the 5pm (in WA) deadline on New Year's Eve 2011, and didn't think about it for a while. I had toughened up as a writer, and no longer expected success. So I was delighted to get an email seven weeks later saying my short story had been shortlisted in the competition, and would be published in an anthology put out by Margaret River Press. A couple of weeks after that I received a phone call saying that I'd been awarded second place! Interestingly, the editor who chose the stories and awarded the prizes, author and Edith Cowan University academic Richard Rossiter, commented about my story that "in spite of the ending"... there is "little sense of moral judgement for Mr Takeda's transgression":

Set in Japan, Christine Piper’s Stranded is a tightly written account of an affair between an older man, Mr Takeda, and a (much) younger woman, Naoko. He pays her for both sex and company. They have little in common except for one thing. As Naoko says, ‘We’re two loners, aren’t we?’ The title brings together the erotic elements of the affair—a strand of blonde hair, representing the sort of woman who is probably not available to Mr Takeda—and the conclusion. Mr Takeda is on his way to see Naoko with an expensive Christmas gift, a Hermès bag. He is very excited by his purchase and the anticipation of seeing his young lover, but the world changes when he catches sight of himself in a display window: ‘a greying man holding a brightly wrapped gift’. This is a very economical story with a strong sense of character and place. It interrogates the values of appearance and surface, with little sense of moral judgement for Mr Takeda’s transgression—in spite of the ending.

READ IT

You can read my short story, Stranded, in the fiction anthology Things That Are Found In Trees and Other Stories (Margaret River Press, 2012). It's only $13.99 plus $2 shipping: www.margaretriverpress.com/catalogue/fiction/things-that-are-found-in-trees-and-other-stories

Or you can buy it in eBook format for $4.09: www.kobobooks.com/ebook/Things-that-found-trees-other/book-3J6kiRvkb06dLR5v9hh__g/page1.html?s=Dr9IM1dqb0KcFjoZyQpxEQ&r=1

LAUNCH

I'll be doing a short reading at the Sydney launch of Things That Are Found in Trees and Other Stories.
Where: Gleebooks (upstairs, 49 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe) When: Saturday July 7, from 4pm RSVP online: www.gleebooks.com.au/default.asp?p=events/2012/jul/Launch-A-Taste-of-Margaret-River-an-afternoon-of-food-and-wine-and-literature_htm or phone: 02 9660 2333 What: Double launch -- the fiction anthology Things That Are Found in Trees and Other Stories & the cookbook Chefs of the Margaret River Region... because fine fiction and fine food go so well together!

Inside the Iowa Writers' Workshop summer fiction course

Someone recently asked me to write about the "inner workings" of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the summer program in particular. As I recently wrote an acquittal report for the funding I received from the Copyright Agency Limited (www.copyright.com.au) to attend the special 3-week May session in fiction at Iowa, I thought it might be of interest to others thinking of applying for this course in the future. What I've written is fairly dry, but I have gone in to some detail about what goes down during class. I hope it's of some help:

Structure of the course: There were 10 students in the course, and during the three weeks we met as a group with our teacher twice a week (on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 2pm to 5pm). Our first group session was a general introduction session, but in the following five sessions we workshopped students’ stories. At each session we workshopped two students’ stories (up to 35 pages or 10,000 words each), meaning that each student only workshopped once over the three weeks, for a little more than an hour each (about 1 hour 10 min). The student handed out copies of their story in the session that preceded their scheduled workshop, and in that time we were required to read each story at least twice, then write a page of comments to give to the student. (I was happy with the feedback I received on the 8,300-word novel extract I workshopped—although I would have liked more detail in some cases, overall I thought everyone's observations were quite astute.) Each week, the teacher also handed out essays about the writing process that we then spent discussing for 20-30 minutes in the following class.

My favourite part of the course was the round-table discussions we had when workshopping students’ stories. Although I have since learned it is par for the course for creative writing workshops in the United States, it was the first time I had been in a creative writing group where the author has been a “fly on the wall” while others are analysing his or her story. (My experience at creative writing courses in Australia has been that participants direct questions at the author while discussing his or her story.) During the one hour in which we dissected each story, the author was not allowed to say or ask anything. This is an effective mode of operation as class participants are less likely to verbally censor themselves and more likely to enter into a deep discussion about the story’s themes. At the end of the hour, the author had about 10 minutes to ask specific questions.

My fellow students: One of the most rewarding aspects of attending the course was finding a like-minded group of writing peers. The 10 students in this year’s course were an impressive and diverse group of people, including: a New York Times journalist who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2008 for investigations done in China; a New Zealander currently teaching at a university in Oman; a Vietnamese-American completing his PhD in English literature; a former Beijing journalist who immigrated to the United States 15 years earlier; a retired engineer; and a current student of the Master of Fine Arts (creative writing) course at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Our teacher: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is known for the calibre of its teaching staff, and the teacher who taught our three-week course, Lan Samantha Chang, was no exception. Lan Samantha Chang is the author of two novels and one novella/short-story collection. She is also a 1993 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop since 2005—the first woman and the first Asian-American to hold the position.

The fact that Lan Samantha Chang was teaching this year’s Special May Summer fiction session was a huge drawcard for me, as she has written a historical fiction novel (Inheritance, 2004) loosely based on her family’s experience, and she is also well placed to advise about publishing opportunities, fellowships and further training in the US.

During the workshop sessions, Lan Samantha Chang was adept at leading the class into deep discussion about each student’s story. Although she was incredibly busy organising the Iowa Writers’ Workshop 75th Anniversary Reunion (to mark the 75th year since the start of the Workshop) on June 9 to 12, 2011 http://iww75th.uiowa.edu/reunion.html, Samantha Chang put aside time to meet each student in our course for a one-hour one-on-one session to discuss any problems or queries we had. During my meeting with her, we brainstormed possible plot ideas for my novel together. I also inquired about the value of me applying for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Master of Fine Arts degree in the future (after completing my doctorate at UTS). She said if I had published a book there would be no point in applying for the MFA at Iowa, adding that she thinks I will be able to publish my novel in a few years’ time.

Being part of a tradition: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the oldest creative writing course in the United States (it was established in 1936, although “verse-making” was taught at the University of Iowa as early as 1897) and possibly the oldest in the world. Because of the Workshop’s long history, during my three weeks studying at the Workshop I was buoyed by the knowledge that I was part of a creative writing tradition. I spent hours perusing the bookcase in the Glenn Schaeffer library that contains all 3,500 published books by former students of the course, included those written by esteemed alumni such as Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, John Cheever and Michael Cunningham.

I was also able to use the University of Iowa library facilities and borrowed Master of Fine Arts theses written by previous students, including Paul Harding (2010 Pulitzer Prize winner), Robert Olen Butler (1993 Pulitzer Prize winner), Jane Smiley (1991 Pulitzer Prize winner), Australian author Nam Le (2010 PEN/Malamud Award winner) and John Irving (author of The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules). The most impressive was Flannery O’Connor’s thesis, which she wrote in 1947 at the age of 22. O’Connor is widely regarded as one of America’s best short-story writers, and when I read the stories she wrote for her Masters thesis at Iowa I was astonished by the complexity and maturity of her voice, and the difficult themes (such as racial discrimination) she chose to tackle at such a young age. At 22, she had the voice of a much more mature, experienced writer—and this realisation both inspired and daunted me.

Literary tradition in Iowa City: Although I was slightly apprehensive about staying in what I thought would be a small Midwestern town, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Iowa City is a fairly cosmopolitan city of 70,000 residents with a vibrant literature and arts culture. It’s the sort of place where people read Penguin classics in the park and have The Wall Street Journal delivered to their homes. Iowa City is also one of four UNESCO “Cities of Literature” worldwide (the others are Edinburgh, Melbourne and Dublin), meaning literature, drama and/or poetry play an important role in the city (http://cityofliteratureusa.org). When I wasn’t in class, I attended readings at the famous Prairie Lights bookstore (www.prairielights.com), which opened 1978, and perused the shelves of the three second-hand bookstores located downtown.

Activities outside class time: As 70 per cent of the students in my course did not come from Iowa City or nearby, we spent a lot of time in each other’s company and continued the workshopping process outside of class. We also spent time at the grungy Fox Head Tavern, known as the favourite haunt of Writers’ Workshop students and teachers.

Negative experiences: It is difficult for me to name negative experiences that arose from my attendance at this course, but if any it is related to the inadequacy of information given to me before the start of the course. Despite calling the university a month before my arrival, I still encountered difficulty trying to discover information such as the cost of the course, the exact day the course would begin and end (I only discovered this after arriving in Iowa) and how many face-to-face hours the course involved—I was transferred to four different sections of the university during my phone call but was still unable to have all my questions answered.

I gratefully acknowledge the funding I received from the Copyright Agency Limited (www.copyright.com.au) that allowed me to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Graduate Summer Program Special May Session in Fiction.

Iowa Writers' Workshop

In creative writing circles, the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa is known as the writer's Mecca. Why? Because it's the top-ranked Master of Fine Arts (creative writing) program in the United States. Here, I talk about the process of applying and being accepted as an international student in the 3-week creative writing program.

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