Fiction Writing as a Way of Life was an event sponsored by the Blackburn Series at Duke University on Wednesday, November 7. It featured Maria Kuznetsova and Lucy Corin who are left and right, respectively, in the title image. I love the title of the event: Fiction Writing as a Way of Life. Yes, Way of Life. Live it and breathe it. It was an undergraduate event, and the room was full.
Maria graduated Duke in 2008, got an MA at UC-Davis and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2017. Lucy graduated Duke in 1992, got an MFA at Brown and is Professor of English and Creative Writing at UC-Davis.
Maria’s first novel is Oksana, Behave! forthcoming from Penguin Random House in March 2019.
The story starts and ends in Kiev, Ukraine (where Maria was born) and explores the life of a strange immigrant girl to the U.S. who has a sense of not fitting in. It’s both fierce and comic.
Lucy’s most recent collection of short stories is One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses from McSweeney’s.
At times charming at times challenging always intriguing, this series of flash fiction opens up a fictive space that is weird and wonderful to move through.
After Maria did a 10-minute reading from Oksana, Behave! Maria and Lucy discussed their work then invited questions from the audience.
Here are the questions the aspiring writers in the room asked:
Fiction Writing Question #1: Where do you write?
Maria: In a coffee shop. At home it’s at my desk, then maybe I’ll move to the dining table. By the time I’m sitting on the floor with my laptop on the coffee table I’m pretty much doing Facebook.
Lucy: At first I had the superstition that I needed to write at a particular time of day, with the light just so, a scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. When my dog died, I was worried I couldn’t write because he had always been there with me. Then I realized that writing did not occur because of the particulars of my surroundings.
Fiction Writing Question #2: What kind of writer did you think you’d be and how does this differ from what you turned in to?
Maria: I thought I’d be a serious writer. It turns out I’m less serious than I had originally thought. I may get serious one day, but for now, no.
Lucy:I knew I wanted to be a fancy artist. I just didn’t know what kind. In having chosen the path of the writer, I have not exhausted my interest in fiction.
Fiction writing Questions #3: Who do you read?
All questions about writing are worthwhile. This one is particularly worthwhile because in order to be a good writer you have to read good writers. Here’s are their picks:
Lucy: I like to read books above my level, a good example being Horatio Castellanos Moya‘s Dance With Snakes.
Fiction Writing Question #4: How do you read?
Maria:I can’t read without a pen in hand.
Lucy: I read different books in different ways. I’m a very slow reader and may read one sentence, look up and think about it then move to the next sentence, look up and think it.
Fiction Writing Question #5: How did you get your first short story published?
Maria: I looked up literary journals and followed submission guidelines then started sending stuff out.
Lucy: I made it a game with my fellow grad students in my MFA program to send as many stories as we could to The Quarterly, which was famous for promising to respond in a week. Then we’d compare our rejection letters. “Oh, look at the nasty one I got from Gordon Lish!”
In the beginning writers experience constant rejection. It’s easier for me to get accepted now because I have a better sense of when my story is finished, when it feels authentic.
Fiction Writing Question #6: Did you try writing something safer like non-fiction in order to have a stable income?
Maria and Lucy both questioned the idea of ‘safe.’ Nevertheless the spirit of the question was clear.
Maria: I can’t not write fiction. I came to realize that if my writing didn’t go anywhere, then okay, I’d do something else to pay the bills. But I’d keep writing.
Lucy: I have made every choice in my life to maximize my writing life. If that has meant living in a crappy place at various times in my life, then so be it.
Fiction Writing Question #7: How do you take criticism?
Maria: It’s painful to hear that you weren’t done with something when you thought had finished it and now had more work to do on it. But you have to put aside ego in order to have artistic growth.
Lucy: I have observed that the more secure you get in your own work and the more you know what matters in your work, the better you can hear criticism and decide whether it is apt or not.
The event was followed by a dinner which included their writing mentor at Duke, Melissa Malouf.
I love to hear authors talk about their own work, and I found both Maria and Lucy very inspiring.
For more advice on writing, visit my complete guide on writing a novel.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen