Writing the Midwest: On utilizing humor

February 5th, 2019

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On utilizing humor:

Matt Mason: I love humor because it helps draw people in, disarms them, they come closer to you and don’t notice the mallet you’re holding behind your back until it’s too late.

Rebecca Adams Wright: Humor is such a natural defensive response. We’re all aware of when we’re laughing so we don’t cry, and we talk all the time about “black comedy” and “gallows humor.” I think humor plays a similar defensive role in fiction. Satire, especially, keeps violence and anger and grief just palatable enough that we won’t turn away. My most humorous stories are almost always the darkest, probably for that blade-dulling effect. It’s a balancing act for sure. The writer needs to be sure the humor is appropriate to the situation, keep a story funny enough to avoid melodrama or simplified pathos without overwhelming the emotion behind the comedy. I think about this balance while in the process of revision. Not so much while I’m drafting, because humor has to bubble up naturally. Force it onto the page, think about it too much, and you’ve already failed.

Kathryn Harrison: I don’t know how anyone without a sense of humor puts one foot in front of the other. I don’t know any reader who would put up with unleavened difficult-and-dark. And I’m the first among them—the first person I want to amuse is me. Because sometimes I have to laugh at what’s happening to me, on the page if not in the moment.


Writing the Midwest: On rejection

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors.
Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find
inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You
can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On rejection:

Richard Russo: I’m not sure you ever really do overcome rejection or failure. Sometimes it’s possible to accept them and learn from them. Mostly they’re beside the point. You failed? So what? It happens. In fact, it’s supposed to happen. They didn’t like your story? Okay, write another. Maybe they’ll like that one. You internalize what you know to be true across the entire spectrum of the arts; the more you practice, the better you get. (“I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”)

Jamel Brinkley: Try not to get too bent out of shape about rejection. My book was rejected by the vast majority of publishers who looked at it. If possible, try to choose an agent and an editor whom you instinctively trust, who push or nudge you as necessary but always show respect for you and your work and understand what you’re trying to do. Have people in your life who are also going through the same process you are, or who have gone through it. They will understand the very particular challenges and anxieties involved in the process. Regardless of what is happening, good or bad, keeping writing and reading so you stay connected to the fundamental joys that made you want to be a writer in the first place.

Kodi Scheer: I wish I’d known the amount of emotional resilience required for this gig. If you want readers or strive for publication, which most of us do, the amount of rejection you have to endure is soul-crushing. Yes, writing does take a little bit of innate talent, but mostly it takes perseverance. I know some very talented writers—more talented than I am—who haven’t published because the few rejections they’ve received have been difficult for them. The lows can be tough to deal with, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.


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Writing the Midwest: On unconventional techniques and approaches

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On unconventional techniques and approaches:
Dan PopeWhen the coffee shop closes for the evening, I have another, very odd, method of composition. At home, I turn on my piece-of-crap 2005 computer and call up a blank Word file. Then I turn OFF the monitor and take my keyboard (with a 30-foot extension) into the next room. By going into the next room, I can avoid (1) the awful humming of the computer and (2) the spectral appearance of the words on the screen and the concomitant temptation to change or erase said words. Then at some point, maybe an hour later, I’ll go back to the computer and push print and examine the words that spew forth. There will be many misspellings, of course. I’ll mark up those pages and send them off to that same typist [an individual, who types that material into his or her computer for a fee, then emails it to me for corrections, additions, etc.] for proper word-processing. You’d think that this would be a huge waste of time, but try it! Try sitting in a room with just a keyboard and your thoughts. I find it to be freeing and fruitful. If I had the screen on, I would be able to see what I was typing, of course, and I would be tempted to mess up a good sentence or paragraph. Instead, I just keep going forward. Is this weird? I’d be surprised if there is anyone else in the same hemisphere who works this way, with his or her screen off. I’m willing to admit that this is all very strange and ridiculous behavior.
Halee Kirkwood: I keep a notebook near me whenever I read. If a writer is doing something I admire, I attempt to pin down how exactly they astonished me, and then make a writing prompt for myself based on the techniques I noticed, whether that be on the micro or macro level. I don’t always make it to the prompt immediately, but I know it is there for me to try if I ever do hit writer’s block. I’ve also consulted my humble Tarot deck for inspiration on plot or theme or character development—there’s a wonderful book out there called The Creative Tarot by Jessa Crispin that revolutionized the relationship between creativity and intuition for me. Highly recommend!

Ira Sukrungruang: I’ll let you in on a secret: sometimes, if I’m really into my writing, I need to have something over my head. Like a hoodie, or a blanket, or if I’m home, I pull my shirt over my head and look at the screen though the head hole. Don’t mess with me then. The outside world is white noise. My brain is on the page.


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Contributor Spotlight: Kai Carlson-Wee

Kai Carlson-Wee author headshotKai Carlson-Wee’s piece “Splitting a Forty With Ant B” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

I grew up in a small town in Southern Minnesota, called Northfield. There was a railroad yard and a river downtown. My neighbors sold antique cars and flew POW flags in their yards. It was sort of this historic town that had an air of Americana. During high school my family relocated to Fargo, North Dakota, which was a much different vibe. Very conservative, blue-collar, and extremely cold in the winters. In my imagination, the prairie around Fargo became synonymous with depression and diabolical forces, while the rolling hills and cornfields around Northfield became symbolic of a rosy nostalgia. Most of the poems in my first book are written as a kind of elegy for the Midwest, but the elegy is two-sided, and there’s a ton of tension around leaving and returning home. One part of me loves the Midwest and will always consider it home, but another part is still bitter about the way I was treated there and associates the landscape with conservative attitudes, god-awful winters, and mental illness.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

I love the subtlety of the Midwest. When my friends come to visit they have this impression of “Minnesota Nice” and assume everyone is sweet and earnest and maybe a little bit slow. They’ll leave a party saying how nice people were, how hospitable, and I’ll be laughing inside because, while it’s true that Midwesterners can be nice, they can also be the shrewdest, most cutting motherfuckers you’ve ever met, and will be cursing your firstborn child with a casual smile or a subversive compliment while you chew your lefse. If you don’t know the culture, you’ll assume everyone is being generous, but if you know how to read innuendo you realize everyone is communicating in myriad ways below the surface. As a writer, this is great material and it’s equally thrilling and terrifying to watch.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

Place is usually a kind of anchor in my poems. I like to think of poems as short films or photographic compositions. You have establishing shots and background elements to conduct a mood, the way painters use under-painting to convey dimension and depth of character. Landscapes are sort of like under-paintings for me, but I’m not super interested in what people call “poetry of place” or “regionalism.” The style here can quickly become list-heavy and reliant on catch-words that are supposed to signify authenticity. Being from Minnesota, I might use descriptions of cornfields, lakes, loons, laddy slippers, cheatgrass, etc., and the poems are supposed to feel more ‘real’ and ‘lived-in.’ I write autobiographically about the places I’ve been and things I’ve done, but I don’t write to make a record, I write to transcend reality. What’s interesting to me about poetry is the energy created between lines, turns, and swervings. Wild combinations and contrasting desires. I use landscape in poems as a point of departure, an illusion of reality the poem is always trying to escape from.

Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

Traveling is my main inspiration. It doesn’t matter if I’m hopping trains or just biking around the city, I get stoked on movement. I like poetry that has energy and feels urgent. When I travel and describe things as they’re happening, what some people call “immersion poetry,” or “documentary poetry,” the language has a quality of momentum. When I started writing Rail, I made a conscious decision to create a voice that was young and on the move, always leaning a little bit forward. If I ever run out of things to write I just take photographs, film some stuff, go on a little vacation. If you write entirely from your imagination, or if you imitate other writers, there’s a chance you can run into writer’s block, but if you write from experience and pay attention to your own voice, I don’t see how you can ever run out of things to say.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

Everyone has their own way, but for me, writing feels finished when it doesn’t stick. I’m always writing toward a specific feeling, and the flow of a poem is very important to me. I want the feeling to build and gather momentum as the poem unfolds, and I want this to feel inevitable, like water gathering speed before a cliff. If this is happening effectively, the rhythm keeps moving and rolling forward. It doesn’t matter how long or short a poem is, I just keep working until I can read it effortlessly and there’s a feeling of weightlessness at the end. I want a feeling of gravity, like a river gathering speed and going over an edge.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

Larry Levis. I could name a few favorites, but Levis is up there. He opened a door for me when poetry was feeling predictable and limited. In his later work he developed this expansive style of riffs, ruminations, stories, and voice. It’s like T.S. Eliot grew a heartbeat, started writing fiction, and took psychedelics. You can lose yourself in a Larry Levis poem the way you can lose yourself in films by Tarkovsky and David Lynch. His poems create ripple-effects that widen as themes develop and even as a whole collection develops. Other folks I would mentioned would be some Minnesota heroes like Robert Bly, Bob Dylan, and the photographer Alec Soth.

What’s next for you?

I recently put out my first book of poems, Rail, so I’m touring for the next couple years with that. I’m also working on a series of short films based on the poems in the book and I’m starting a book of nonfiction.

Where can we find more information about you?

You can check out my website (www.kaicarlson.wee) or follow my Instagram.

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Contributor Spotlight: Scott Onak

Scott Onak author headshotScott Onak’s story “L3 Loves Hudson” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

I was born and raised just outside of Chicago, went to school in mid-state Illinois, and have spent the majority of my adult life in the city—as have my parents, and their parents. The region has given my writing, more off the page than on, its earnestness, its humility, and its quiet, stubborn endurance.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

One aspect, at least around Chicago and a large part of Illinois, is the lack of elevation, and how it would change your mindset to live among mountains instead of prairie, or to be able to look down on towns. I sometimes think that’s why Chicago rose, and why cities rise in flat places, to give us some high distant mark to focus on. What an anomaly, especially when flying into and out of O’Hare, to see this abrupt assembly of buildings.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

I went out West for grad school, and there I was able to write about Chicago and discovered from that distance what visuals remained, for whatever reason: driving up the entrance ramp onto Lake Shore Drive, heading downtown, when the skyline is lit in a wall before you, the lake on the left in total darkness. Or the beach on summer evenings when the air still remains so hot, in the soft aftermath of sunset. These found their places in the novel I was writing at the time.

Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

Where the writing gets done varies, but I usually seek out noise, coffee shops, just enough distraction around me to create a private sphere. Consistency is best, routine essential, but I give myself the room not to force it, to know when I need to recharge. Reading helps with blocks. Often if nothing is happening on the page I realize my reading has slackened, and I need to replenish the store.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

Feedback from a trusted reader + putting a draft away (a week, a month, longer) + the continuing experience and practice to develop a sense of when I’ve reached the core of a story, when it’s had its say.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

One of them in Virginia Woolf, for her audacity, because her books grow more and more ambitious, constant challenges to herself, and for her exploration and sensitivity to time, both as a device and subject, which also occupies a lot of my own work: the passage of time, the longing inherent, the inevitability.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a new novel set in San Francisco and very much enjoying the process, which is different from the previous one. I’m also writing a short story set there, though it’s a historical piece, which is new for me. I spent some time in San Francisco years ago and apparently I need and am ready to write about it.

Where can we find more information about you?

www.scottonak.com

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Interview: Joe Kapitan

Joe Kapitan author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Marisa Frey talked with author Joe Kapitan about his collection Caves of the Rust Belt, how to link the fantastical and the real, what “caves” are to him, & more.

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Marisa Frey: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Joe Kapitan: Um, pretty much everything. Other than four years spent in the military, my entire life has been spent here in the Midwest—most of it in the Cleveland area, plus my college years in South Bend, Indiana.

MF: The stories in Caves of the Rust Belt are character-centric, diving into one person’s experience in each story. What was important to you about approaching the writing this way?

JK: I try to keep Tim O’Brien’s advice in mind when I write. He said that good fiction has both imagination and emotional gravitas; that it must engage both the mind and the heart. And the only way to the “heart” is through characters, whether likable or unlikable, heroines or villains. In a lot of my stories, especially the stranger ones, characters become the link between the fantastical and the real. So many great writers do this: Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Colson Whitehead, George Saunders. Saunders’ classic novella Pastoralia is a great example. The outrageous premise of the bizarre amusement park only works because it’s tethered to the real world through the normal human problems of the characters: getting along with difficult co-workers, and being the parent of a sick or drug-addicted child.

MF: The “caves” in Caves of the Rust Belt are sometimes physical and sometimes emotional—a sinkhole, characters who get laid off from their jobs, murky and unreliable memory. How did you come to the title? What are “caves” to you?

JK: That’s a very insightful point, and one that eluded me for quite a while. I originally sent this collection out in a different form, under a different name, not even labeling it as a collection of Ohio stories. What a mistake. It collected a dozen rejections. Once I decided to repackage and re-brand it, so to speak, it dawned on me that the idea of “caves” was so pervasive in many of the stories, from literal sinkholes and pits and the shifting earth’s crust to metaphorical “caves” of depression and loneliness. That’s what caves are to me: dark and unknown voids, where you’re bound to encounter fears.

MF: Your stories have a gritty edge, often giving off an air of desolation and hopelessness. What was it like to write them?

JK: I believe there is something fundamentally Midwestern about the dogged pursuit of the positive amidst the negative. In my lifetime, Cleveland has battled a polluted lake and a burning river, political corruption and civic bankruptcy, economic downturns, vacant buildings, the vacant faces of addicts and the urban poor, and (until recently) chronically underachieving sports teams. Any glimmer of positive news—young people flocking to the city to live! Hosting a political convention! Cavs win 2016 championship!—is splashed across the front page of the news because we crave it. Q. What gets us through the nasty winters here in Cleveland? A. Knowing how great the summers are here. So to answer your question, it didn’t feel different to write this way. I just felt real, and normal.

MF: Caves of the Rust Belt is a collection of short stories. What appeals to you about this genre?

JK: I guess I love that short fiction is so approachable. I think that’s how most of us experience life each day—as a series of short stories or flash-fictions. When you see an ancient, one-armed man selling hot dogs at the ballpark, or a well-dressed woman standing at the highway exit with a cardboard sign asking for money, don’t you start to build their back-stories in your mind, even subconsciously? I know I do, and I don’t think at novel-scale. I imagine in snippets.

MF: What does your writing process look like?

JK: Disorganized and anemic, mostly. I have a full-time career and a family, so my writing consists of the time-fragments I find in the liminal spaces between those larger spheres of my life. Most of Caves was written during lunch hours at work, over a period of years. It’s a hard way to write, because I feel time-pressured and it’s difficult to find the “zone” under those conditions. I look forward to the day when I can flip the script and set aside dedicated writing time.

MF: You’re also an architect. How does that work its way into your writing?

JK: I’m a very visual person, so my writing ideas often come from visual cues—an imagined scene, or one from a dream. I guess I always look for the structure beneath my writing, too, just like a building. I need to understand the framework of a story and how it will support what I want to do, and those frameworks can be orderly or fragmented, whichever best serves the overall design.

MF: How has your writing changed over time?

JK: The biggest change I’ve seen in my own writing is that I’m now more trusting and courageous about my voice and my choices. Over the past several months, I’ve heard two veteran writers, Benjamin Percy and Matt Weinkam, say the same basic thing—that you need to learn the rules so you can break the rules. That message really resonates with me. It’s like becoming an architect. You must go through a training period and pass a standardized licensure test, not so you become homogenous or an automaton, but so you can learn the appropriate limits of expressing your individuality. So you learn how much you can break the rules before it all comes crashing down around you.

MF: What’s next for you?

JK: I’d love to finish my novel, but at the rate I’m going, it will take another decade. I keep telling myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint. But it’s a marathon I didn’t properly train for.

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Joe Kapitan writes from a glacial ridge line a day’s march south of Cleveland. Besides being a proud two-time Midwestern Gothic contributor, his short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared or will appear in The Cincinnati Review, Booth, PANK, Wigleaf, Hobart, Notre Dame Magazine, and others. His collection of Ohio-based short stories, Caves of the Rust Belt, will be published by Tortoise Books in October 2018.

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Contributor Spotlight: Jen Ippensen

Jen Ippensen author headshotJen Ippensen’s piece “Centennial Seamstress” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

I grew up in the country outside a little unincorporated town called Worms, Nebraska. I remember doing a census during elementary school, and if I recall correctly, the population was 26. Although I’ve also lived in cities, as an adult, I’ve lived and worked in several small towns throughout Nebraska. What strikes me is what’s missing: things like anonymity, conveniences, and diversity associated with more populated places. I spend a lot of time thinking about what people in these circumstances endure, what they long for, and what they discover when they branch out.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

Growing up in the Midwest, I think I’ve always had some awareness of the instinctive politeness developed in those from middle America, including myself, but as I’ve become more observant, I’ve found there’s a lot more to being Midwestern Nice than that. Sometimes when I’m with people from other places, I notice that I read a room differently than they do. Midwesterners, if we choose to be, are attuned to the subtle vibrations that stretch out on a tension-filled string between two tight-lipped smiles, the messages exchanged through a glance, a turned shoulder, the touch of a hand. So much is communicated through what isn’t said. I suppose we’re often considered passive aggressive. But what’s interesting to me is that we bite our tongues and repress our desires—until we don’t. Stories bubble up in tiny, seemingly-benign interactions and, of course, in those moments when the dam breaks.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

Those moments—images, feelings, events—that lodge themselves deep within let us know we have something to explore, something to discover, something to say. If I consider an experience that’s stuck with me or sink into a moment that’s been on my mind, I might find a truth to investigate, reveal a story to tell. In this way, memories are exceptionally important.

Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

I’m inspired by all kinds of things: what I read, see, hear. I make notes and deposit potential ideas in the back of my mind where I like to let them roll around for a while. I tend to do a lot of thinking and feeling before I do much actual writing. Then, when I sit down to write, the computer can paralyze. If I’m feeling too judgmental about my work, I turn to writing longhand. I like the way it feels, scratching words out on paper, and for some reason it frees me from the self-imposed pressure of getting it right.

When I’m struggling with a problem in a story, I try to wrap myself around the character or situation as I’m falling asleep, and sometimes I’ll wake in the night with a solution rapping on my brain. I love to write late at night or even in the middle of the night when my schedule allows it. If I’m having a hard time writing, I also turn to water: shower, bath, swimming pool, whatever I can find. My children recently invested in a fairly sizable tank for their goldfish, so now I have the continuous sound of the filter waterfall trickling into the tank. It’s nice. I wake to that sound and it makes me feel like maybe I can make words happen. Once I get something down, I revise and revise and revise. Occasionally, it’s tinkering, but much of the time my revisions are so extensive a final draft looks nothing like the first draft. I have to write my way to understanding my characters and their situations, write my way to understanding what it is I’m trying to say. For me, that usually takes a lot of words and a lot of time.

My writing group is also extremely important. They challenge, support, motivate, and inspire me. When I’m with them, it feels like home. I believe writers need to spend time with other writers to maintain both our creative energy and our sanity.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

I wish I knew how to tell when a piece of writing is finished. I could probably revise forever, or at least second guess myself forever. But when I think a story is close to finished, it helps to set it aside and come back to it later, sometimes much later. If I find myself wanting to read it aloud, that’s a good sign.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

It’s impossible for me to choose one favorite author. I’ve loved so many writers and books at different times in my life. And I turn to different authors, books, stories, poems, plays, or essays for different reasons. That being said, I admire pretty much everything about Lorrie Moore and I especially love Birds of America: the characters, language, humor, heart. When I read Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior I was captivated by the details; I approached detailing in a whole new way after reading that collection. When I think about strong voice, I always think of Quincy Troupe’s poetry collection Transcircularities because the first time I read it I kept turning to my husband and saying “listen to this.” I was the same way with Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me. I just had to read some of those words out loud. I’ve spent a lot of time with Stuart Dybek’s “Nighthawks,” especially the “Transport” section where he incorporates so many literary devices; it’s magical. I could go on and on. Some of the work I’ve seen published online lately is incredible too: “Annihilation” by Celia Bell (Virginia Quarterly Review) and “All of Us Animals” by Annie Frazier (Longleaf Review) come to mind because it feels like every word works so hard.

What’s next for you?

I have a number of short stories that need revision attention and some new ideas I’m wanting to explore soon.

Where can we find more information about you?

You can check out my website www.jenippensen.com and follow me on Twitter @jippensen.

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Contributor Spotlight: Laura Dorwart

Laura Dorwart’s piece “Ohio” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

I currently live in Ohio, where my husband is a professor. Half of my family is from northern Michigan, where they live now, and my husband’s family is from the Midwest as well (Iowa and Nebraska). I appreciate the Midwest for its simultaneous hardiness and tenderness and its embrace of ambivalence, and I think a lot of that comes out in my writing.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

It’s a study in contradictions, at once dense and awash in empty space. In some spots, it’s also one of the most affordable regions in the U.S. in terms of housing, which seems a bit banal to mention but is really key to the dynamics here, and the life we can live here that we would absolutely not be able to anywhere else.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

We recently drove through Friend, Nebraska, where my husband’s great-great-grandfather was a doctor and his great-grandfather was a dentist, and I was obsessed. I wanted to write several novels based in Friend. You can imagine a whole constellation of parallel lives in the Midwest, one in each town. I’m very into constellations and parallels, and ice cream. There’s always very good ice cream here.

Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

Manic and impulsive (seriously). I don’t think I’ve ever found my ideal writing environment, but if I did, it would involve a lot of coffee and twinkling lights. And slightly haunting rainforest sounds. Something at the intersection of café, children’s museum, haunted house, and spa room.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

When I’m spent and exhausted, I turn my attention to something else, and usually that turns into a new project.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

I can’t pick just one, but I love authors whose work is fleshly and primal: Lidia Yuknavitch, Roxane Gay, Kathy Fish, and Kathy Acker come to mind. In terms of poetry, I love Judy Grahn and Victoria Chang.

What’s next for you?

We have an 11-month-old daughter, so that’s kind of a perpetual “next.” I have pieces coming out in Riggwelter Press and elsewhere, and am working as a full-time freelance writer. It’s going surprisingly well.

Where can we find more information about you?

My website is www.lauradorwart.com, and my Twitter handle is @lauramdorwart.

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Contributor Spotlight: Stacy Boe Miller

Stacy Boe Miller’s piece “I Might as Well Start at the Beginning” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

We lived in a tiny Wyoming town when I was a child but had to drive to South Dakota for everything: shopping, fast food, the hospital I was born in. My grandparents lived in Indiana, so a couple of times a year we drove what then took 22-25 hours across the Midwest. I would watch all those fields and towns go by year after year and I spent many wonderful summers in Indiana. I spent my middleschool years in a town fifteen minutes south of Indianapolis. My childhood was made up of time spent in Wyoming, South Dakota, and Indiana. I always felt like I was living on some border of the West and the Midwest. My husband got his PhD from the University of Minnesota, so we spent four wonderful years in student family housing in Minneapolis with our three kids. We loved living in that city.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

This is a complete generalization, but I have always felt the people to be so hardy. It is probably the winters that lead me to feel this way. And the wind. People deserve

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

I have been so surprised to find how much I write about the place I grew up. I consider the place I grew up to be more Western than Midwestern. Wyoming is a very western place in a lot of ways. I write about the landscape and culture a lot, even though I haven’t lived there for decades. It really shaped me and shaped my family. I don’t think I would have the perspective on it that I do though if it weren’t for the time we spent in Minneapolis. Forty percent of the population in student family housing was from outside of the US or Canada, so I built real long-term relationships with people from all over the world. I have traveled extensively, but that doesn’t always include hours and hours of listening to peoples’ stories. I don’t think I would write (or live) the way I do had I not gained such a global perspective. I will always be grateful to Minneapolis for that.

Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

Right now I’m entering the third year of an MFA Creative Writing program. During the semester a lot of my writing comes from prompts or assignments. I also have three kids and own a really small business. I sneak in writing whenever I can: after they’re in bed, while they are all asking me questions, while dinner is in the oven, etc. My focus is poetry, and sometimes that feels more manageable because I can think about one poem and hold it all in my head as I do other things. I keep a notebook in my purse all the time, I take notes on my phone, I try to get out on walks or runs so that I can be without the distractions of family. I do not get up and write at the same time every day. I never have, and I probably never will. I’m finally okay with that.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

I never know. And then if I do reach some magical place where I think a piece of writing is done, I know all I have to do is show it to someone, and they will suggest an edit. This goes for both poems and non-fiction. There are moments when I think to myself, I want the world to see this piece in this state. I guess that’s as done as it gets.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

This is the hardest question for me to answer. I spend a lot of time reading women poets, Laura Kasischke, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Natalie Diaz, Donika Kelly, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Alexandra Teague . . . I could keep going.

What’s next for you?

I will be working on my thesis this year, which will be a book of poems. I’m really excited about this. I have fantastic mentors and a really talented cohort. I am also slowly working on a memoir. The piece you are publishing is what I wrote when I envisioned the first chapter. When you accepted it, I thought to myself, “If someone wants to read the first chapter, maybe they would want to read the whole book!” So thanks! Stay tuned.

Where can we find more information about you?

Working on an author website, eventually, but for now you can find me on Twitter. @stacyboemiller

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Interview: Jamie Wendt

Jamie Wendt author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Jo Chang talked with author Jamie Wendt about her poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, the significance of religion in her work, being an English teacher, and more.

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Jo Chang: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Jamie Wendt: I was born and raised in the north suburbs of Chicago. I spent four years in Iowa at Drake University getting my Bachelor of Science in education and my Bachelor of Arts in English. I also spent some time in Nebraska for the University of Nebraska low-res MFA program. After college, I returned to Chicago, where I currently reside. The city has such an amazing literary culture. I am enjoying raising my two kids in such a diverse environment.

JC: As a graduate of Drake University in Iowa, and a current resident of Chicago, can you speak about what the Midwest means to you, and how the region has influenced your writing, if at all?

JW: I am very much a product of the Midwest. I love Chicago and cannot see myself living anywhere else. My street is lined with more trees than the suburban street I grew up on. Chicago has so much natural beauty mixed with stunning artwork and architecture, and it has so many characters and unexpected images that make walking through my neighborhood part of my writing process. When I was in college, Iowa had a big impact on me as well. Going back and forth between the Chicago-area and Des Moines during college helped me figure out who I am. Iowa is beautiful and my experiences there occasionally pop up in my poetry. I was often the first Jew that my classmates ever met, and it caused me to read dozens of books on Judaism in order to answer their many questions. Those books caused me, in turn, to fall in love with Judaism as a lifestyle instead of simply a religion. While my new book, Fruit of the Earth, does have a handful of poems set in Chicago and Iowa, the book focuses more inward on my personal grappling with my community, my faith, and the moving on through stages of life.

JC: As a high school English teacher, do you feel like your relationship with your students has influenced your development as a writer?

JW: Being a teacher is such a rewarding challenge on a daily basis. I have often been inspired by the stories that my students tell me. As a teacher, I try to get them to realize that writing is an outlet to help them make sense of their experiences and to own those experiences. I want my students to realize that writing can help them figure out what matters to them most and that by writing well, they can gain the power of influence and persuasion. I have always wanted to be more than a “teacher who writes” and now that my book is being published, I feel like I can define myself as a “writer who teaches.” I like that, and I hope that my students see that it is possible to do what you love in your free time while having a very fulfilling career.

JC: Your pride for your Jewish heritage shines through in your essays on Jewish writing, your contributions to the Jewish Book Council, and your forthcoming book, Fruit of the Earth. Can you speak about this relationship, and what personal significance it holds for you as a person and writer?

JW: When I think about places that have personal significance to me and that also recur in my poems, the Jewish home is the place that keeps reappearing. Everything that I do throughout the day, from food I eat, to the Jewish artwork and mezuzot throughout my home, to the prayer I say before bedtime as well as the interactions I have with others and the books I read, they are all somehow connected to my Jewish values. Writing “Jewishly” is subconscious for me. Jewish images recur throughout my poems because they are such a part of my daily life. I have been writing book reviews for the Jewish Book Council for many years, and I treat those reviews somewhat as donations to the continuation of the Jewish literary tradition. I want to be a part of the conversation, whether it is through a book review, a poem, or an essay, many of which can be viewed on my website: jamiewendt.wordpress.com.

Fruit of the Earth book cover by Jamie Wendt

JC: Fruit of the Earth explores displacement and division as it travels between the Old Country and the Promised Land. Can you explain how you gathered inspiration and research for this book?

JW: Writing poetry helps me make sense of my life, even though I’m rarely conscious of what a poem will focus on or where it will end up until I go back to revise. But oftentimes, I am writing about Jewish experiences, which Fruit of the Earth revolves around. Israeli culture is very inspiring to me. I’ve been to Israel four times, and whenever I arrive home, I find that my writing returns to the beauty of Israel, whether it’s the land and the sea, or something simple, such as the appearance of Jewish garb on so many people, or the initial strangeness of picking up hitchhikers, which is normal there. The sand seems to get everywhere: your toes, your hair, your towels, your pockets. There is just so much sand from the Mediterranean to the desert, and the land literally sticks to your skin there. And then, freedom and war are so intertwined and complicated, and the histories are enormously thick and layered. I feel a much stronger connection to the land of Israel than to America. When America makes politically atrocious decisions, I am disgusted. I talk about it; I protest. But when Israel does something that I find appalling, part of me feels personally responsible simply because Israel is the Jewish country. Israel is the place mentioned on nearly every page of Jewish prayer-books and it’s the country whose news I read daily. I try to explore and understand my Jewish heritage and roots through many poems in Fruit of the Earth. I am very interested in the way that personal moments, whether mundane or significant, intertwine with the political.

JC: Your first collection of poetry, Fruit of the Earth, debuted in 2018. Can you describe the process and your feelings as Fruit of the Earth’s publishing date drew near?

JW: It took me about five years to write and revise Fruit of the Earth. Many early drafts of these poems were part of my MFA thesis for the University of Nebraska. I’ve removed poems, heavily revised many, added others, played around with the order over and over again, and each time I changed something about it, I would submit the manuscript to a contest or open reading period. In late 2017, I printed out the whole manuscript for probably the dozenth time and laid the poems all over my living room floor, experimenting with a new order. I ended up creating five sections. Soon after I switched the order around, I submitted it to Main Street Rag Publishing Company, and they accepted it. I was thrilled, of course! There have been a high number of pre-sale purchases, so while my book was slated for release in September 2018, it was actually released on July 30. I’m very excited about hearing from readers about their thoughts on my poems, and I’m looking forward to participating in many readings.

JC: What does your typical writing schedule look like when you are working on a project? How do you allocate your time spent drafting and editing, but also to tasks such as your day job and personal obligations?

JW: Making time to write is one of my biggest challenges, mostly because I have two young children. Typically, I spend about four hours writing on weekend afternoons when my kids nap. I’m a teacher, so having summers off helps me focus more intently on a specific project and I am able to write more than I do during the school year. But due to being busy with my kids, my time is only available in short blocks, so I always create a goal for myself during the specific window of time that I have on a given day. My goals usually include something like, “write a new poem” or “revise two poems from last month” or “provide feedback on my writing partner’s poem.” I am often inspired by reading poems, so I always read before I write, usually for about twenty minutes. I rarely take notes or draft in a notebook; although, occasionally I will create lists of images surrounding a particular place or subject. I like to just get right into a poem by typing and letting my subconscious guide me through a first draft.

JC: What’s next for you?

JW: My book tour! I’m so excited about the release of Fruit of the Earth and to have the opportunity to read and discuss my poems with audiences around the Midwest. Please check my website for event details! In terms of future writing projects, I have been writing many poems lately on pregnancy and early motherhood as well as poems about my family’s connections to Chicago. I am excited about the possibilities for these poems, but I am focusing most of my energy right now on Fruit of the Earth. Please view sample poems and purchase information at this link to my publisher’s site: https://mainstreetragbookstore.com/product/fruit-of-the-earth-jamie-wendt/.

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Jamie Wendt is a graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha MFA program. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Drake University. Her debut poetry collection, Fruit of the Earth, was released in July 2018 from Main Street Rag Publishing Company. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals, including Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, the Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children. Find her at jamiewendt.wordpress.com.

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