In addition to being an accomplished writer, you are also a professor at Harrisburg Area Community College. Could you describe what a typical day teaching and writing looks like during the semester?
Of course, since most of my teaching responsibilities relate to writing and literature, there's a great deal of reading involved—not only before class but also after. I read student assignments—especially as it relates to creative writing—fairly constantly.
I do make a point of keeping a strict schedule for my own writing—generally early mornings. The other thing I do is treat my creative writing classes as an opportunity to explore my own ideas as well as my students’. For example, I actively participate in writing prompts, impromptus, and assignments that we complete in class. This helps me to exercise my writing skills along with my students. It also reinforces the notion that all writers—no matter how seasoned or how experienced—start at the same place, the blank page.
Ultimately, I find that setting a writing schedule and sticking to that schedule as closely as possible gives me the time I need for my own work.
On your website, you mention that you teach additional writing workshops aside from those at the college. What are these workshops like? What expectations should writers who attend them have?
Much of that, of course, depends on the expectations of the organization that has invited me. Sometimes, I'm simply asked to give a presentation on an element of short fiction—imagining characters, imagery and setting in my work, elements of "place," etc. If I'm specifically asked to conduct a workshop, it involves a number of working exercises—perhaps a series of writing prompts or visualization. In one workshop, I set up stations that were designed to work with specific senses—smell, sound, touch. Then participants wrote for a certain period of time based on their reactions to that sense. Writing while listening to Puccini, for example.
I do like to design workshops that allow a great deal of discovery for the students and for me. Discovery in so important for the writing process.
"Dust and the Moon," your story in volume XXXV, centers around the narrator's quest to find God. What did you want readers to get out of your story? What was most important to you as you wrote it?
You're right about the central character's quest to find God. But even more so, he finds himself struggling with Christian mythology as well as the illusions and/or reality of the desert. So he brings with him a number of preconceptions—about Organ Pipe, about his beliefs, about the wilderness, his faith, his survival instincts.
Of course his faith is questionable from the start. Don’t forget that he’s equipped with trail mix, a bottle of water, and a “half-bible.” Yet I completely understand the sense of spirit, the sense of the mystical he feels in this place—the voices of the desert blending with the sounds of civilization. Until they become indistinguishable from one another.
Could you explain how you went about writing this story and what your routine for writing short stories is in general? For example, do you brainstorm then draft, or do you have a different method of writing?
First of all, all of my stories begin by being drafted out by hand in a notebook. Usually, I will fill an entire book with first and second draft material before I even approach the keyboard. Since "Dust and the Moon" is part of a longer collection of short stories it, like the other stories, emerged from a sense of place—the American southwest.
The other element to this collection that drove all of these stories is the idea of mythology. The desert areas of Arizona and New Mexico lend themselves to a certain level of American mythology that must be questioned by the characters who experience the reality of the region.
Once I have the characters for my stories fully realized in my own mind—and on the page—I begin to watch just what they discover as they follow their journeys.
As part of the research for this story, my wife and I took a wonderful trek through the American southwest a few years ago, trying to follow as much of old Route 66 as we could. What an amazing combination of Americana and native land, restoration and decay. It’s a surprising and paradoxical world. This helped to move this collection along once I returned home to my studio.
What do you believe are some challenges of writing short fiction? Did you encounter any difficulties while writing this story?
One challenge is where to begin. Without the luxury of time and space that a novelist has, I must determine where the story begins. This means that I may write pages and pages of work for the story that never make it to the final draft. What is the situation—that single moment important for this one character? Then it's a question of what happens next. Which details of the character’s journey support the focus of the central struggle? Everything else has to be eliminated. For the character in "Dust and the Moon," much of his initial arrival, back story, and acclimation to his surroundings has to give way to his initial action—setting out on his own into the desert.
Could you elaborate on how you were able to develop the narrator's characterization in such a small amount of space?
For my stories, visualization is extremely important. Remembering, imagining, seeing precisely where he is within the story. I think it's the very narrow focus of these details that helps me to capture his actions in such a short piece. I try not to be distracted by the "big picture." I'm interested in the actions of the moment. And of course, because I do tend to focus so narrowly on the character's actions, I never know how it's going to end because I never look that far ahead.
Poets & Writers has noted your favorite writers as Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Russell Banks, and Katherine Anne Porters. What draws you to their work? How do you believe they have influenced your writing?
At one time, I feel like I was always trying to emulate Carver in my writing—using a very short and, in some ways, detached style. Sometimes I was successful but not very often. I love both Banks and Munro, although I imagine my current work begin closer to Banks’s sensibility than to Munro's. At the same time, my latest work is much more fleshed out in detail than my previous work, so I think of both authors as having a great deal of influence on where my writing is going.
Are you currently working on any projects you would like to share with our readers?
I'm currently working on a new collection of short stories that takes place in the northeast. The first story, "The Onion," will be appearing in the fall issue of Quiddity. It's a story that struggles with the illusory nature of truth and fact. I'm looking forward to working on this collection throughout the fall.
The Worcester Review would like to thank Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt for contributing to volume XXXV and for participating in the online blog series. You can click here to visit his website.