I am sending you lots of love in such a difficult and uncertain time. I’ve been thinking a lot about the painter, Mark Rothko, who said that abstract expressionism really came as a result of artists needing to say something that had never been said before. Basically, when the world changes, art changes.
So in all this uncertainly, there is something you can do: make art. The world needs artists more than ever in times of crisis. We are the visionaries. I’ve always said that I have no idea how the non-artists in the world handle their emotions! If I couldn’t journal, write, sing…I don’t know what I would do. We are lucky. We have our art.
So to that effect, Kathy Fish and I are going to do a morale-boosting, free 30-day FlashNano-like event starting tomorrow, Monday, March 16, for everyone sitting home in front of their computers and ready to write. We’ll be posting daily prompts (many recycled from FlashNanos of years past or from our retreat “prompt envelope”) on our website (no need to sign up for anything, we are just going to keep it simple), so we hope that this strange time can also be productive and inspiring.
We can’t control the crisis but we CAN control what we do. So let’s make some art. Please be safe and stay healthy and look after each other.
The stories in Kim’s Chinquee’s new collection, Wetsuit, are the barest of wisps, impressionistic in their minimalism and yet dense with implied meaning. Each one is a gem, deceptively simple but hiding entire, barely concealed worlds in the silences. With each revisiting you discover the truth: that the stories are shadowboxes that continue into infinity, a magician’s hat with no bottom.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, explain this book in six words:
Kim Chinquee: Water. Swimming. Food. Animals. Motherhood. Men.
NS: I’m super intrigued by your titles, which are very often a seemingly random phrase pulled from the story that becomes the title and then suddenly isn’t random at all. Talk about your process with titles. Does it change the story for you?
KC: Absolutely! Titles are so much fun. A title can inform a piece, and can also turn it on its head. I’m always experimenting with titles, whether removing the first sentence of a story, and using it as a title. Or sometimes I’ll choose the last sentence, or one from the middle. Or perhaps the title is a word in the story that repeats itself. When I studied with Mary Robison, she recommended (to me and other students) closing our eyes and randomly pointing to places (on the physical copies of) our stories and opening our eyes and imagining the words and phrases (where our fingers landed) as potential titles. That’s a fun exercise I share with my students a lot. Sometimes a title can have nothing to do with the text of the story and can give that entire piece a different meaning. I think I have a few stories with titles like that.
NS: Your stories are very sculpted—sometimes down to almost an impressionistic wisp. I often find myself rereading them several times, as they are slight but extremely dense, sometimes deceptively so. How do you know when to stop? Do you think flash writers ever go too far?
KC: It’s possible to go too far, of course. But one can always save the latest drafts and rearrange the words, add them back, etc. I struggle with writing longer work because I’m always cutting.
NS: Water is a theme connecting these stories, from puddles to steam to oceans to ice. Talk about your connection to water and why it ripples through this book? (By the way I love your picture of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon on the cover!)
KC: Thank you! Pier Rodelon designed Wetsuit (and my books Oh Baby, Veer, and Shot Girls). And (in speaking of titles): I had several other titles of the book before deciding on Wetsuit (I think maybe MILK was one.)–and when I saw the cover, I realized Wetsuit was the one that best “suited,” and included mostly pieces pertaining to liquid and/or water of some form. And I added some words and lines to some of the pieces so they would better fit the overall theme. So, the theme of water was kind of accidental, I suppose. Or something that I didn’t see until later. I had been swimming a lot and doing triathlons when I was writing these pieces, so it makes sense to me now that I was writing a lot about water.
NS: The narrator seems consistent through many of the stories, and we get reoccurring images tagging back to other stories. Was this an intentional weave or a happy discovery? And if intentional, how you would distinguish this collection from, say, a flash novel? Or is it?
KC: It probably was a bit of both intentional weave and happy discovery. Some of these pieces were written long ago, and some were written during the same timeframe and in consecutive order. When compiling the collection, I ordered them to have some sort of arc, and/or storylines that connect and speak to each other.
NS: On that note, your beginning and your ending are also circular, with one image from the end hooking up with the initial one. It gives a certain sense of spiraling around and around a life. Can you about your circular concept?
KC: Thanks for noticing that! My editor and publisher Kathryn Rantala suggested ending on that last piece “My New Skin,” which I thought was kind of brilliant. I suppose, when looking at it now, I like to think it’s a metaphor for the front crawl or the breast stroke, the circular motion and the constant movement that keeps one not only moving forward, but afloat.
NS: About 2/3 of the way through the book your stories start to get super short and extremely dark. It feels like both a shift, a deepening, a quickening, and also, consequently, like the climax of the book. Can you talk about your design and intention with this purposeful pondering?
KC: As I was compiling the collection, it seemed natural to me to put these pieces closer to the end of the book, I suppose like a climax. I was afraid that if I included them near the front of the collection, they might discourage the reader, and that some content before might give them more context. I suppose it’s a lot like writing a novel. Wetsuit feels, content-like, or at least the way I compiled it, much like how I put together my first collection, Oh Baby.
NS: You have been an important voice in the flash fiction movement for a long time, and you’ve authored many books, including Shot Girls, Pretty, Veer, and Oh Baby. How is this book different than your others?
KC: Ah! Good question. I was about to talk more about this in the previous answer. I like to think Wetsuit holds a bit more hope for its main protagonist, and that there is maybe more maturity and depth. The son of Wetsuit is older, an adult, and there is a longing, I think. Artistically and aesthetically, Wetsuit is much like Oh Baby, imo. Veer was compiled as a collection to celebrate the venues where the pieces appeared (and where I’ve published most regularly): NOON, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Willow Springs, Story Quarterly. Pretty was published (as a prose poetry collection) with White Pine Press, under different editorship and is told in three parts. Whereas Shot Girls (also with Ravenna Press) includes mostly longer stories, of women working in “service,” including the military, and it includes a few flashes.
My next collection will also be published with Ravenna Press in 2020! It’s tentatively titled Snowdog. (And involves a lot of snow. And dogs.) Though I tend to change my titles a lot!
My novel-in-flashes, Battle Dress, will be published with Widow + Orphan House in 2021. I wrote the pieces in Battle Dress in consecutive order, while I was running a lot of local 5K, 10K races. So, there’s a lot of running and repetition in that book. Kind of like running the same kind of races (with different results) over and over.
I’ve also written a couple of “non flash” novels, and am currently revising Pirouette, which takes place in Boston, with alternating points-of-view of three protagonists and their experiences during the Boston Bombings. I’ve also started a new book called Stray Voltage, which is mostly about cows.
I probably write flash fictions with the most consistency and frequency, especially when I’m in the midst of teaching and doing administrative work. So, when compiling Wetsuit, I drew upon the flash fictions in my inventory, and put them together in a kind of collage.
NS: Congratulations! I’m looking forward to all of these! Wetsuit is published by Ravenna Press. Talk about your path to publication?
KC: Ravenna Press published my first book Oh Baby in 2008; I had such a great experience with Ravenna, and continue to publish with them. Kathryn Rantala is a great advocate and supporter of my work. I believe we have a mutual respect for each other and I love working with her.
NS: What advice would you give someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
KC: Read a lot. Write your story. Collect advice and keep what’s useful. Pay attention to what’s happening around you.
Looking into the darkest parts of humanity with compassion and honesty, the nuggets in Len Kuntz’s This is Why I Need You are keyholes into the quiet desperation of your neighbor, the painful tragedy of your lover, and the exquisite experience of being human: both pain and wonder, horror and redemption. Kuntz overturns the dark stones and pokes at the wiggling decay with a loving, careful, but unflinching bedside manner. He faces the wound of humanity, pulls out the poisoned arrows, and lets us see the rupture. And in seeing it, somehow, we are healed.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in six words.
Len Kuntz: Stories for broken and imperfect people
NS: I’ve read several of your books, including Dark Sunshine and I’m Not Supposed to Be Here and Neither are You, and they all have that searing “Len” quality: you love to break our hearts, and we love you for it. How is This Is Why I Need You different from your other books?
LK: Honestly, I think the only thing that is different are the stories. The voice is pretty much the same. People still struggle with their problems. Characters get hurt. The only slight difference is the last linked twelve stories are a little bawdier than I usually write.
NS: You have a character, Jess, that continues to show up in multiple stories but isn’t (I don’t think) the same exact character. Can you speak to Jess as a literary device? Is Jess more of an archetype or an everyman/everywoman?
LK: Names are important, and maybe even more so in stories. But they can trip things up, claim too much attention or even mislead the reader. I like Jess when you need a name for reader convenience, yet the name itself isn’t crucial to the story. I also like the quasi asexual quality of the name, how Jess/Jesse could be female or male.
NS: Many of these stories have a little thematic or imagery “hook” into the story before or after like literary chain mail. Were the hooks intentional in the writing or in the arranging process? Did you have to manipulate them or were they already apparent?
LK: I almost never know what the story is going to be about. I just start with the first sentence, and if I like the sound of it, or the weight or potential of it, then I move to the next sentence, then the next, and so on.
NS: The last 12 stories in fact are linked more overtly, like self-contained flash sequence connected by the 14th of each month. Any significance with the 14th?
LK: Yes, it’s a linked flash-novella. That was born out of a really cool project Matt Potter (PURE SLUSH) created where he took 30 writers and assigned us a date. Mine was January 14th. Then from there we had to continue through an entire year—Feb. 14th, March 14th all the way to Dec 14th. Matt is a terrific editor and all-around great guy. He published all of our pieces in an anthology through PURE SLUSH then separately printed each of our novellas into our own private book. He titled mine My Uncertain Search For Myself, which I thought was brilliant.
NS: Have you thought about writing a book that was more intentionally threaded, a flash novel or novella?
LK: I have briefly, but now that you’re bringing it up I’m thinking about it more. My best friend, Robert Vaughan and I spent a couple of months where we each challenged ourselves to write a poem a day, so we ended up with something like 120 combined. We’re going to paginate them into a manuscript and hopefully find a publisher.
NS: Your characters are often hiding secrets, summed up perfectly in this thought: “All your life you think you know someone and then you discover you don’t. That must be how it is when neighbors learn the insurance salesman in the rambler ends up being a serial killer.” Can you talk about this impulse in your work? Should all writing aim to expose?
LK: Secrets are fascinating, don’t you think? We all have them, and we all have secrets that are kept from us as well. As material for writing, secrets are brimming with possibilities. I don’t necessarily know if all writing should aim to expose, but it should jolt you in some way. When I worked in the corporate world, I used to say that, as a leader, when you’re through talking to someone you should leave that person feeling as if a warm mitt had been imprinted on both their head and heart. You should leave them stimulated, their mind buzzing, and their emotions stirred. I think that’s what any type of writing should do.
NS: This metaphor seems to describe your work perfectly: “…like those wicked weeds that look plain until you touch them and invisible needles sink into your skin.” Would you say your writing is like those invisible needles?
LK: Hopefully, and that’s nice of you to ask. I tend to write about the tough stuff in life because we’ve all been through our share of it, and if I’m able to portray things authentically, yet hopefully, I think the reader can identify with the writing, even when it hurts.
NS: You publish both poetry and prose, although this book is prose. Can you talk about your own crossover? Where are you most comfortable?
LK: I love writing anything short, sometimes very short. Novels, especially tomes, bogle my mind. I’m in awe of how an author can write about tedium without making it tedious.
Poetry is probably my favorite form. You can do so many things with it.
But mostly I just enjoy starting small fires, pieces that (hopefully) pop and spark and bring out some sort of emotional depth, then get out of the room.
NS: This is Why I Need You is published by Ravenna Press. Talk about your path to publication with this book and/or your experience with Ravenna.
LK: Kathryn Rantala runs Ravenna. I’ve still never met her yet I feel as if I have. She put out three books by Kim Chinquee, one of my idols and virtual mentors. On a lark, I sent Kathryn a note asking when their submission window would open because the site said Closed. She wrote back that they’re always open for writers they like and to send something, so I did that very night—a poetry manuscript and This Is Why I Need You. Kathryn was a delight to work with. She’s just a lovely person through and through. If I could, I’d put out all my books with her.
NS: Anyone who follows you or your work knows that you are incredibly prolific. What is your secret?
LK: Truthfully, I’m just incredibly lucky. I get to write full-time, every day. So many writers have jobs and have to squeeze in 20 minutes of writing here or there. But I do write really fast. Usually a story will take no more than 15 minutes. The other thing that helps so much is finding great authors who use language in surprising ways i.e, Sabrina Orah Mark, Steven Dunn, Heather Christle. I’ll be reading their book, and a phrase or certain word will spark an idea, and I’ll put the book down every other page, vomiting out piece after piece. Lastly, a bath with bubbles and wine works wonders. Really. I’ve written some of my favorite things in the tub.
NS: What advice would you give someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
LK: Of course, it depends where they’re at in their writing journey. For a novice, I would say, study the craft as if you’re studying to get a Master’s degree. Ultimately, write what moves you, what brings you joy after you’ve written it. Then get extra sets of eyes on your work before submitting. Plead for honest feedback and don’t be offended or hurt if some of what they say isn’t what you wanted to hear. Write you best book. It’s going to out-live you.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
LK: I love writing and I love writers of all kinds. I try to be a good literary citizen to my tribe. It all feels like such a gift.
NS: Links to buy the book or other promo links:
I have a blog where I post new writing, or something of that ilk, every M, W, Friday without fail. It’s at lenkuntz.blogspot.com. My last two books are on Amazon.
NS: Thank you for playing, Len!
Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State, and the author of four books, most recently the story collection, THIS IS WHY I NEED YOU, out now from Ravenna Press. You can find more of his writing at lenkuntz.blogspot.com
I’m bored the kids whine as soon as summer begins. Boredom seems bad. And it’s so easy to fill the empty spaces with a million easy-to-reach options: from food to electronics to conversation. “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean!” say the Ghosts of Restaurant Managers Past. Empty time seems wrong somehow.
But let me suggest, after putting it to the test myself, that the real key to finding inspiration no matter where you are is a healthy dose of Holy Boredom.
I’m writing to you now at the end of my sabbatical. (After 10 years of teaching college I decided that I was giving myself my own sabbatical!) And I’ve discovered that even on sabbatical, once the initial excitement wears off, it’s easy to get bored. My budget wine-cellar-turned-apartment has no television. Internet is spotty and unavailable altogether once I leave my apartment. But it took me about a week to discover this because, of course being someplace new makes you want to walk, explore, snap pictures. Which is why inspiration, real inspiration, did not arrive for me until week 2, when I’d explored all the crannies, eaten at all the restaurants, took all the pictures, and finally found boredom.
Holy Boredom—that place of nothing-ness where everything already lives.
My guru is always (gently) reminding me that I need to meditate. I try. I have an app. I schedule it in my normally busy schedule, in between A and B. But the real point of mediation, as I understand it, is to quiet the mind, to silence the honking horns of urgency.
Holy boredom is to creativity what meditation is to the mind. Intentional stillness. Wide open space with no agenda. We think we’re so busy because the outside world is always pushing down on us (insert job, obligations, etc.) But also we do it to ourselves. We keep our mind busy, spinning, distracted. it’s not until you reach a place of actual boredom that inspiration, that deep inspiration, can shyly arrive.
So it’s not the table with the view by the sea that creates the inspiration—it’s the wide spaces of nothingness you create around the table. Staring out a window with no agenda. A long silent walk (with no phone). Room for boredom without the usual distractions: music, television, conversation.. It’s from that deep stillness your most original ideas can finally bubble to the surface.
As a disciplined person, one who normally uses all time available with military precision, scheduling in boredom seems, well, silly. But the good news is that this can happen here, now: you don’t have to travel anywhere to create pockets of holy boredom—they already exist, we just fill them so fast we don’t even see them: whoosh! Gone. So this summer, if scheduling “writing time” seems too intimidating or exhausting, why not just make room for a bit of daily boredom in those spots that you usually fill with blur and noise and see what bubbles up instead?
To Your Success!
PS: Maybe find a Boredom Buddy to keep you accountable?
NANCY STOHLMAN: Clowns, Flash, and Lounge Metal | interviewed by Zack Kopp ED PAVLIĆ: If the Dead Could Speak | interviewed by Ken Walker MICHAEL JOYCE: The Telling Falls in the Full of Time | interviewed by Erin Lewenauer
Widely Unavailable: Northrop Frye Unbuttoned | by Richard Kostelanetz Remembering Tony Hoagland | by Mike Schneider Black Market Reads: Ross Gay | by Lissa Jones The New Life | a comic by Gary Sullivan
Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely | Andrew S. Curran | by John Toren The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai | Ha Jin | by Patrick James Dunagan Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World | Tosh Berman | by Christopher Luna Native Enough | Nina O’Leary | by Christina Schmid Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport & Hugh Kenner | Edward M. Burns, ed. | by W. C. Bamberger The Poem Electric: Technology and the American Lyric | Seth Perlow | by Christopher T. Funkhouser An Informal History of the Hugos | Jo Walton | by Ryder W. Miller
Passing | Nella Larsen | by David Wiley Instructions For a Funeral | David Means | by Erin Lewenauer If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi | Neel Patel | by Cindra Halm A Student of History | Nina Revoyr | by Julia Stein The Secret History of My Sojourn in Russia | Jaroslav Hašek
and Sentimental Tales | Mikhail Zoshchenko | by M. Kasper Everything Under | Daisy Johnson | by Micah Winters Coldwater Canyon | Anne-Marie Kinney | by Eric Aldrich
Sight Lines | Arthur Sze | by M. Lock Swingen Kill Class | Nomi Stone | by Jason Ericson The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos | Dionne Brand | by John Bradley Mitochondrial Night | Ed Bok Lee | by Jeremy Flick Fake News Poems | Martin Ott | by Erik Noonan A Memory of the Future | Elizabeth Spires | by Paula Colangelo Suspension | Paige Riehl | by Denise Low Waiting for the Wreck to Burn | Michele Battiste | by Denyse Kirsch
R. Crumb’s Dream Diary | Robert Crumb | by Jeff Alford The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth | Ken Krimstein | by Michael Workman
Tommy Dean: What was your process of crafting this collection together? There’s seems to be a shift from the constant narrator around page twenty-one to twenty-two with the list of circus performers. Was this intentional? What effect were you hoping for?
Nancy Stohlman: Oh yes, very intentional. And even more so in the work I’m doing now—I teach that there are many ways of approaching a collection. One way is to look at it like a “greatest hits” album of work in an order that is rhythmic and pleasing and that is perfectly alright. But I tend to go for the “concept album” approach instead, allowing the juxtapostions of story against story to create another layer of white space and give birth to a second layer of story. It’s my favorite part these days.
I’m a big believer in writing retreats. Even if you write every day, it’s important to periodically dive more deeply into your work for a sustained amount of time. But sometimes a week-long retreat isn’t possible or maybe it is possible but it’s too far away and your writing relationship needs an intervention right now.
Enter the solo writing retreat weekend.
I’ve been doing mini solo writing retreats out of necessity for many years, and I like to think I have just about perfected the micro condensed, inexpensive yet highly effective solo writers retreat. Don’t get me wrong–while it’s absolutely amazing to give yourself the gift of an official retreat, MUCH can be done in a solo weekend or even daylong retreat if you do it right.
Here is my mini retreat formula and some guidelines:
1. You must get out of your house but you shouldn’t go somewhere too interesting. Some of my most productive mini writing retreats have happened at a friend’s empty condo or the cheapest Travelodge or Motel 6 I can find. The point is to stay in your room and write. Bad weather is a bonus.
2. You must be alone. No visitors. Non-negotiable.
3. To really dive deep you need one entire 24-hour period, so I recommend you arrive at your retreat spot the day before if you can so you can wake up ON your retreat. If Saturday is my retreat day, I check into the hotel on Friday after work.
4. Take food with you lest you be tempted to go out exploring. Food should be simple, relatively healthy, easily available, and not overly interesting, food that won’t put you into a junk food/sugar coma (and needing a nap) but will keep you from needing to interrupt your work and go out to eat.
5. Try to avoid alcohol (and other substances), and sugar until you have FINISHED your retreat.
6: Beware of cable television and internet surfing, both of which are distractions on retreat as they are in real life. Consider only checking the internet during designated times (I give myself 10 minutes at the top of each hour).
Here is what a mini weekend retreat schedule looks like for me:
Friday: Take overnight bag and computer with me to work and drive to location right after. Check in. Go to closest grocery store and buy food for the weekend. That night: Spend 1-2 hours rereading my work so it’s fresh in my mind and percolating in my dreams. Go to bed early so I can wake up early and begin.
Saturday: Retreat Day Morning: Wake up and start writing. Eat and do a good 2-3 hour chunk of writing before noon. Lunch Break: (no more than 1 hour). Weather permitting take a quick walk to get the blood pumping. After lunch: another 2-3 hour chunk of writing. Late afternoon/early evening—At this point if the work has been going well I might take a few hours off. Take another walk or maybe eat a quick dinner out. Maybe take a nap if needed (but set alarm!). Evening: Another 2-3 hours of writing after dinner. Night: NOW watch bad cable, eat sugar, drink wine, and decompress. Sometimes if I’m feeling particularly accomplished I’ll go to a late movie.
Sunday: Wake up and get at least one more 2-hour chunk of writing in before checking out.
Go out to celebration lunch on the way home. *Very important to celebrate your successes!
If you’ve been doing the math, that’s somewhere in the range of 9-13 hours of writing in less than 48 hours! That’s A LOT of writing. And as a bonus you will probably also get good, extended sleep, lots of self-reflection time, and maybe a dip in the hotel hot tub. You will leave feeling accomplished and in motion with your writing and you will wonder why you haven’t done it before…and whether you can pull it off every month.
Maybe you can????
To your success!
PS: Let me know how this works for you!
PSS: AND if you also want to come on a longer retreat with me and other writers, consider 4 days in the Rocky Mountains in August or a week in Costa Rica in March 2020! Find out more