Saturday, November 7, 2015

Flight of a short story writer: Andrea Vojtko

My desire to write has been part of an evolutionary process stemming from my admiration of literary writing and writers when I was in high school and college. Literary works elevated my spirit and offered a different way to perceive life as opposed to that evoked by the bleak landscape of the coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania where I grew up. Poetry, especially, was inspiring and I memorized a hundred poems after the Irish poet, Padraic Colum, lectured on “Poetry as an Oral Art” at my college, Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania, and challenged everyone to do this. I highly recommend this to all; it’s a great comfort while standing in a store line, waiting for the Metro or getting an MRI in later life. There is something about a beautiful phrase, an insightful thought, a unique point of view or a poignant reflection that lifts my frame of mind to a nobler plane.

While I was in college in the ‘60’s studying Math and Physics with the expectation of a good job and my ticket out of the depressed area of Pennsylvania in which I lived, I began reading the Saturday Review of Literature every week at the suggestion of my college English teacher. This periodical became an important part of my intellectual life and my love of writing and attraction to the life of a writer. The reviewed books that appealed to me most were those I felt were alive and moving; I was always looking for my own literary discoveries such as James Agee, James Baldwin or J.D. Salinger whom every college student at that time considered her own personal discovery.

The Saturday Review often had stimulating articles on writers’ lives along with reviews of their literary works, and I believe this stayed with me; i.e., I saw that others too had an interior life that they valued and nurtured. I especially liked the Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner.  Many of Tennessee Williams’ plays were being filmed at this time with the great Geraldine Page in prominent roles. I also enjoyed the Theater of the Absurd playwright Eugene Ionesco. In my early 20’s my first writings were plays in this absurdist mode. This may be why so many of my short stories now have so much dialogue.

I have long believed that poets are special people blessed by the gods; someday scientists may find a DNA marker for poets. However, one can develop writing skills to create short stories, which is my writing domain, although this probably requires a certain personality type. Short story writers explore the solitary person at a significant moment when he or she gains some new insight about the human condition. This is far different from novelists who create characters and see where their characters lead them in the process of writing, although their characters also can have lofty reflections about life. When I conceive a short story, I first have an idea in mind and then think through the entire story before I even start writing. Many times I think through these stories in the middle of the night when I wake up and can’t fall back to sleep.

Ideas for short stories occur to me as I go through the day; I recognize short story material every time something out of the ordinary happens or I observe something that seems incongruent. I jot down these ideas in notebooks I have around my house or on a slip of paper if I’m away from my house. Since I am a birder and naturalist I often observe oddities while on birding field trips; I wrote several stories about birding and birders as a result. Nothing cries out for a short story like birders focused intently on finding a bird but oblivious to other activities around them.

I’m intrigued by the idea that many people are consumed by an esoteric interest or activity. I’ve written short stories that include a Civil War reenactor who also builds dioramas of Civil War battles in his basement, a man who collected, restored and sold hubcaps as his occupation and a man who lovingly restored a large cross from a church steeple he found. Generally my ideas are based on an observation that I then take a step further. Once I was attending a choral society’s program in a small church and noted in the program that one of the tenors was a woman, an unusual occurrence. During the concert and afterwards I imagined all kinds of scenarios based on this single fact and wrote a story called “Jubilant Voices” which emphasized how this could upset someone’s world. I’m also drawn to write about mystery in life, something for which science has no answer as yet, and how many people yearn for certainty as if they cannot get on with life or death without it. I’m fascinated by eccentric people, those who are different and those who feel alienated from ordinary society.

Writing is a solitary activity, so writers must have a high tolerance for being alone. But it is also an enriching pursuit whereby one can make something from almost nothing, much like painting or drawing. At the most basic level with only a pencil and paper an artist can draw or write a whole world of activity which can be shaped exactly as the artist wishes, unlike real life. And this artistic capacity can be a constant companion throughout one’s life.

The short stories I like best are those that leave a lasting impression, those that I want to read over. “Shiloh” by Bobbie Ann Mason is a favorite of mine because it includes eccentric characters at a desperate point in life with one character having the strange notion that if only her married son and his wife were to visit the Civil War battlefield site, Shiloh, this will somehow save their marriage since she and her husband had such a satisfying visit there. The metaphors jump off the page. There is an underlying poignancy within this absurd story elevating it to a literary gem.

I also like when a writer creates a character with a forceful and unique voice and manages to retain that voice throughout, such as Truman Capotes’s, “My Side of the Matter,” or Eudora Welty’s novella, “The Ponder Heart.” The voice is so strong in both these stories I often re-read them. They inspire me to pick up my pen and start writing.

The two short story writers that I have benefited from the most are Flannery O’Connor and Frank O’Connor. They share some common theories about the art of the short story and the art of fiction. In his book, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, Frank O’Connor suggests that the novel is about “normal” society, whereas, the short story is about a character on the fringe of society: the lonely idealist, the artist, dreamers, spoiled priests, and people who don’t quite fit in. The short story has no hero. I subscribe to Frank O’Connor’s short story theories as described in The Lonely Voice.

Flannery O’Connor has written the purest kind of short stories where not one word, more or less, is needed; her stories are perfectly distilled. Her characters are vivid, stark, grotesque, generally unlikable but always fascinating; you cannot look away. She believed that stories defy analysis, that what she is saying in the story cannot be said any other way and it takes every word in the story to give the meaning. I have reread her stories repeatedly since my college days and am sure they have a significant impact on my writing.

I create most of my short stories from my imagination although there is often some element from my own experiences in my stories, some more than others. I don’t like basing a character in my story on myself because the character is apt to be flat or wooden due to an inner censor. The same thing may happen if a character is based on a parent or child. I’ve been in enough writing workshops to see that this is a strong tendency in all writers. An instructor may suggest that a writer should change some aspect of a character and if it’s a real-life character the writer often protests that the character is not like that in reality. But a writer has to be willing to change anything in the story to improve it, even her own mother’s personality.

I have written stories after each of my parents died in the hope of preserving some part of them, but I realized that I didn’t know my characters very well at all because I saw my parents through a daughter’s eyes. I knew all about their life in the family but not so much about how their friends perceived them or what they chose not to share with their children. So, ideally, it’s best to develop characters from imagination; this will permit changing them at will to serve the story.

When I read literature I want to discover new insights into how humans behave and why. Even though Shakespeare may have borrowed the plot for many of his plays, he developed his own characters and changed them to dramatize moral truths about the human condition in his very insightful way. Modern works of literature are perhaps more accessible than Shakespeare but they provide that same resonance when they move us. I would like to evolve my writing to touch on some of these age-old truths but realize that short stories are limited in scale and scope and can only give us glimpses at why we behave like we do.

One of my favorite stories from my writings, “Swirling Above Her Head,” tells the story of Ida Pilcher, a blue-collar worker in West Virginia, who is inexplicably followed around by a flock of vultures. She is a practical woman, not given to imagination, so the puzzling behavior of the vultures is particularly unnerving. I offer several explanations for their behavior but I like to leave it as a mystery because Ida’s challenge is to learn to live with uncertainty and accept that everything is not black and white.

I felt I was in my element writing this story because I have a reasonable understanding of birding as well as characters like Ida; I grew up in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania with people not so different from Ida. However, when I was workshopping this story at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland a number of my colleagues insisted that I must tell them why the birds followed Ida. I felt the point of the story was to get Ida to recognize that there are mysteries in life that she must live with. The story wasn’t as outlandish as it sounds because a flock of vultures once followed me around while I was hiking alone on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. I explained this later to several birding experts but they had no idea why the vultures followed me. Obviously I jotted this idea down in my writing notebook for future use.

Thus far, I have taken all of my short stories through a workshop process. In particular I’ve attended about 25 workshops at The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland starting in the 1980’s. When I am taking a workshop I write every day from three to six hours. I edit my stories incessantly, some even after they are published, creating a new version. I don’t know how writers managed before word processing, but I would guess I’ve edited some stories 30 times or more.
I write literary short stories and do not write or read genre fiction. The writers that inspire me are literary writers and my goal is to emulate and learn from them. I have read widely in both fiction and non-fiction but I do have favorites. Besides the writers I’ve already mentioned, I like to read fiction that has a sense of place, particularly in settings having to do with nature or the American West such as Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories, Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Ellen Gilchrest is a favorite of mine for her many humorous characters and stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams and Victory over Japan. Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is one of my favorite humorous novels. I believe the Irish have a special gift for literature and I love James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney and others not as well-known, such as Sean O’Faolain and Patrick Kavanagh. I had a real fascination with Virginia Woolf in my youth and read everything she ever wrote, including all five or six volumes of her letters and diaries plus a few biographies.

Other non-fiction authors that have had a major impact on my thinking are Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong. I have read Joseph Campbell’s Transformation of Myths Through Time many times. I also depend on Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare to help me through Shakespeare who remains unsurpassed in his understanding of human behavior.

My own writing plans include the publication of my book of thirteen short stories entitled, Stories for Birders and Other Observers. Five of the stories concern birding, birders, or nature; the remaining eight are on a variety of eccentric subjects. Most of my stories have some humor included within the dilemma of the story. Although it’s important to me that my stories be literary it’s also important that they be accessible to a wide audience.

I’ve spent a whole career of almost 40 years in the physical sciences, computer sciences, and data communications, the last 20 as a project manager; I have my Master’s degree in mathematics from George Washington University, my Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Misericordia University in Pennsylvania. I habitually took courses in writing, painting, and nature studies on weekends. After I retired I added genealogy to my primary activities. But along the way I had many other interests and obsessions, such as opera, traveling, history, and a number of others. These varied experiences have given me many rich ideas for my short stories.

I think each writer looks at the world from her own perspective given her background and how she’s adapted to unique circumstances of life. In my case I look for incongruences in human activity and find humor in them; this makes even life’s difficulties more bearable. The ability to observe the world in this manner is the greatest gift I receive from writing.
[Editor's note: Stories for Birders and Other Observers is now available at Amazon HERE]

Copyright©2015 Andrea Vojtko