Briana, as our featured contributor of Issue 11, was kind enough to partake in an interview conducted by prose editor Jessica Schloss. Get to know Briana, her writing process, and the inspiration behind The Hopeless Father’s Guide to Average Daughters in the interview below.
Why do you write? Is writing just a hobby for you, or is it something you wish to pursue professionally?
I once told a man with a camera that I write to prove that I have emotions, and I utterly regretted it the second the sentence came out of my mouth and was committed to a memory card. Describing why I write is impossible in the sense that it’s rambling and full of uninformative “You know?”s, but I’ll try to explain with a bit more coherence here since I have text to sort out my thoughts.
My immediate thought is that I write because I have no choice. Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” It’s an incredibly accurate statement. Not writing just isn’t an option that’s available to me. A good 99% of the things I write will never see the light of day (and thank god for that, because most of it’s terrible—as every writer discovers about their work very quickly), but I write them because I feel compelled to say something for myself, not for other people. Sometimes it’s a story and sometimes it’s a single disconnected sentence, but I have to write it down either way. It’s like a photographer who sees potential pictures all around them to the point where it’s practically a subconscious cognitive process.
That’s where the “You know?”s come in. I’m sure people do know the difficult-to-explain feeling of permanence, of something being too ingrained to ignore—whether it be for writing or music or computer science.
I am a firm believer in the idea that one doesn’t have to “pursue” writing to be a writer. I hope to publish a volume or two one day, but I’m actually placing my academic focus on the sciences at the moment. Writing isn’t on the backburner, though, so I wouldn’t call a hobby. It’s right next to the rest of my goals for the future, mainly because I know that I’m not going to stop writing anytime soon, and I might as well not lie to myself and say biology is more important to me. I could never do any science again and be happy if I could still write—but I would be happiest if I could do both, and I don’t see why it’s an either/or situation.
How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
“The Hopeless Father’s Guide to Average Daughters” in particular is actually fairly different from the majority of my work just in form. I generally don’t write in second person perspective, and most of my writings could be loosely classified as magic realism as opposed to the clear realism of the Guide. It’s similar, though, in regards to subject matter.
I’m one of those writers that focuses on relationships. Characters create the story not the other way around. I usually have no idea where a story is going to go when I start writing, just a strong idea for a character and a few vague situations they’d be in. The Guide is actually a perfect example of this, as it’s nothing but the characters of the father and daughter in a few vague situations.
One of my pet peeves is people focusing too much on our differences. Different race, different gender, different class, different age—different life that some other contrary group just can’t begin to understand. That idea is reflected in my writing: I focus on what makes us similar. The Guide focuses on a particular family with stories specific to them, for example, but it also focuses on the typical, the universal—not fully understanding your children, feeling like you’re always a step behind. I often find myself writing odd relationships, seemingly disparate people being brought together by realizing that they have something in common after all: passions, grievances, inspirations, loneliness. To go back to the first question for a moment, I would say that another reason I write is to feel close to other people, to spread the idea that difference does not automatically mandate conflict or guilt.
Is this a part of a bigger piece? You mentioned a different guide at the bottom. Is that something you’re planning to do/already working on?
It was ultimately an experiment in voice and form, as I haven’t written in second person POV or changed up the creative format of my writing all that often. I’ve always found second person an interesting perspective capable of creating a strong connection—even stronger than first person—if done well, but the problem is that it’s incredibly odd and difficult to do well. I do hope that I’ve made some progress in working within that perspective with the piece I submitted.
This was intended to be a stand-alone piece for that experiment, albeit a much longer one. Originally, I had around fifteen categories that I wanted to write (Affection, Willing Displays of; and Clothing, Inappropriate among them), but I didn’t want the piece to overstay its welcome and picked what I thought would be the most effective scenes to focus on, with imagery I particularly liked. I do often return to old work and most likely will return to this one to continue the guide or move on to the next, but at the moment it’s not my priority.
What are you presently inspired by—things you are reading, listening to, or looking at to fuel your work?
For the last year, I’ve been trying to read more magical realism since that’s one of the genres I think is the most interesting and the one I work in the most. The two most recent books—both short story collections—I’ve read in that vein are The View from the Seventh Layer and 20th Century Ghosts. I highly recommend both of them, and reading them has helped me define my own voice in the genre. Pop Art from 20th Century Ghosts I thought was beautiful in particular. It’s really the height of magical realism story telling in my mind right now. Read it now.
On a more general note, two of my consistent inspirations are Spoon River Anthology and the Ben Folds/Nick Hornby album Lonely Avenue. Spoon River tells the story of a small town through poetry from the perspectives of the dead, and it’s an amazing web of world building and complex character interactions. Lonely Avenue is full of songs written by a novelist, so it makes sense that I would love it. Nick Hornby’s got the art of the character vignette down pact.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively since you first began writing?
My first attempt at a story was a shameless rip-off of the Golden Compass, which is not a book capable of being copied without others spotting the imitation immediately. As that story shows, I was much more fantasy-oriented in the past, but I’ve gradually been shifting toward the more realistic. I became less concerned with worlds and plot and more concerned with people and interactions.
Other than the basic content of my work, I felt that I’ve always struggled between intricacy and simplicity in language. I don’t fully know what my voice as a writer is quite yet, but I like to think that I have a more concrete idea—tending toward the short and lyrical as opposed to the more purple language, which can be beautiful, just not when I write it.
What is the hardest part about writing?
For me, the first sentence is the most difficult part of any piece. I’m under the impression that the very first sentence should say something about the story as a whole, provide some kind of insight into what will happen once you turn the page. It’s difficult because even if I have a full story in my head, or at least the potentials of a full story, I can’t write any other scenes until I get the “perfect” first sentence. It takes quite a while to write a complete, edited story. A good 90% of the time it takes is dedicatedly solely to writing first sentence after first sentence until I find one that sparks.
I often joke that I should just switch to prose poetry because it’s all the parts that I want to write and none of the parts I don’t. With fiction, there’s a challenge to write chronologically because of that. Chronological writing entails not skipping to something “more interesting,” which is how I have to write a story that I intend to finish because otherwise it would just be an incomplete draft full of disjointed scenes with pretty imagery. I think this is perfectly fine for casual writing—the minor kind you crank out just to write something that day—but it can be an issue for more serious pieces.
I guess I can boil those down to: the hardest part about writing is actually writing, writing all the way to the end with the beginning and middle filled out too. Of course, this is just me. Every writer has their own idiosyncrasies that often make the act seem impossible and rituals that they think will make their work better.
What is the easiest part of writing?
I don’t think any one aspect of writing can be considered easy. “Easy reading is hard writing” after all. I would say the easiness of writing depends more upon the situation than the writing itself. There are times when inspiration strikes, when the perfect strings of words seem to come with no effort at all and there are pages and pages of them. Those are the easiest moments—the most enjoyable, and the most productive, and the most uncommon.
I mentioned before that prolific writers are similar to prolific photographers in that they see their work in everything. Words come easily—words inspired by conversations you hear and the environment around you—but you have to find a way to put them together into something coherent. I make writing sound unpleasant here, that those sparks of inspirations are the only pleasant things, but creating a world and characters is enjoyable in of itself, even if it isn’t “easy” in every sense of the word.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I’m not a fan of giving advice about writing—it implies that I know way more about it than I actually do and that my methods are some universal rule that will work for everyone involved. I don’t believe that’s the case, but I’ll try to give advice from my personal experience and hope it helps.
Three things: write, do what you can to improve, and write for yourself.
The first bit is obvious but the one I think is most important. To be a writer you actually have to write things. If you want to be a good writer you have to write things a lot. As I’ve previously stated, I (and every other person who fancies themself an author) generate mostly drivel. And that is fine, because writing is a progressive action—the more you do it the better you become. The drivel is practice, and practice will eventually lead to something as close to perfect as you can personally get.
The second point ties into the first: work to improve. The thing all writers have in common, to me, is that they’re never as good as they’ll be in the future. I’m sure there are people in the world who are aspiring writers but who just have no eye for it. They can improve, but they’ll never be “good.” But I feel that most of them are good. Just not as good as they can be, with more practice and experience under their belt. So don’t stagnate—do what you can to consistently improve. Join a club, get a mentor. Constructive criticism is your best friend, because it makes you better in the long run.
Lastly, you have to write for you. I’m not talking about vanity projects and ego-fests that smack of self-indulgence. I’m referring to the basic integrity. I am writing to please an audience—a boring story is a boring story no matter the integrity behind it, and that should be avoided. But I’m writing, first and foremost, because that’s what I want to do. During the process of writing, it belongs to you and no one else. It’s yours for that entire time up to the point where you hand it to someone and it becomes theirs. But it was yours first. I suppose it’s one of those “journey is more significant than the destination” scenarios.
Where can people see more of your work?
I’m relatively new to the world of published literature (so read: nowhere), but I do plan on sending out more of my work to multiple literary journals this year. So people will just have to keep an eye out in the future if they’re interested.
Here’s a big thanks to Briana and all of our Issue 11 contributors!
Paige E. & Jessica S.