Q & A With WWLA’s Ravishing Leslie Parry

Leslie Parry, graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,  will be teaching the Beginning/Intermediate Short Story Writing Workshop starting July 27, 2010.  Since way back in early 2010, she’s graced WWLA with her presence and gusto, and has now graced us with these delectable A’s to all our Q’s on writing, reading, critique, and cheese.

WWLA:  What are your 3 favorite short stories (and if that’s impossible to answer, what 3 short stories do you find to be the most masterfully executed)?

LP:  Among my many favorites are “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, “From Where I Sit” by Nancy Zafris, and “Crazy Sunday” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

WWLA:  You’re working on a novel right now. What do you do for yourself to keep an idea that you may have had a really long time ago vital? Do you ever find that you’re racing with the fear of obsolescence?

LP:  I’ve found that any project becomes more vital and fascinating the longer I’m with it.  The only time I really get stuck is when I’m too unwilling to let go of my original idea, too much of a pouty dictator to let the narrative evolve.  Nothing I’ve completed looks the way I initially envisioned it.  But that element of surprise is what I love most.  Writing is often a frustrating and time-consuming process, but never a boring one.

WWLA:  Creative Writing hasn’t always been an academic field of study– writers were, in the past, often schooled in some other subject and had the “innate gift,” or whatever skeptics of pedagogical creative writing practices seem to say. Why do you think people have become more open to the idea of creative writing as something that can be taught? What do creative writing workshops provide that pure erudition in, say, English Lit can’t?

LP:  Writing workshops will always have their detractors.  We’re besotted with the myth of romantic genius, this idea that artists are divine conduits, that they don’t actually work except in inspired, supernatural bursts.  But writers don’t arrive fully formed.  They have to practice.  Many people romanticize the process; they don’t want to accept that there’s a technical aspect as well as an imaginative one, that writing is a craft as much as an art.  Much of the anti-workshop rhetoric strikes me as antiquated or ill-informed.  Any committed writer can learn and practice the technical aspects of the craft: point-of-view, structure, scene, etc., as well as the elements of grammar, syntax, and diction.  And while you can’t give someone an imagination, hopefully you can give them the resources to tap into their creativity in a rewarding way.  Ultimately a writer who has discipline, stamina, and the right balance of conviction and humility will succeed no matter what route they take.  That said, unlike formal English classes, which might emphasize theory and context, workshops offer the opportunity to discuss literature from a writer’s point of view.  It’s the process, not the product, that is emphasized.  Tracing the writer’s steps through a story, identifying the sentence or image that either reveals a character or propels the plot forward — I find these conversations endlessly gratifying, and always instructive.

WWLA:  What’s the funniest compliment you’ve received about your writing? The funniest critique?

LP:  The ones I remember were criticisms disguised as compliments, or vice versa.  When I was in film school, I screened a short movie that I’d worked on for months.  When the lights came up, there was a strained silence, followed by some uncomfortable throat-clearing and paper-rustling.  Finally one girl ventured (reluctantly), “The, um…  the credits?  They were… good?”  Everyone, grateful to have something nice to say, agreed immediately.  What ensued was a desperate conversation about “how perfectly timed the names were!”  How the acknowledgements weren’t too short — or too long!  How the fonts were pretty!  I tried to be polite, but I knew exactly what they were saying: the movie was terrible.  And, in hindsight, they were right — the only thing I had any talent with were the words.

WWLA:  Do you find yourself conceiving of short stories first through beginnings, middles or ends? Does your way of storytelling ever seem to mirror personal patterns?

LP:  I always start at the beginning — inspired by some line of dialogue, an image, a throwaway anecdote I heard on the bus — and work my way through to the end, like a sleuth on a case.  It’s hard for me to characterize my way of storytelling, since most of the time I’m not fully aware of what I’m doing or why I’m doing it.  In person I’m pretty laid back and even-tempered, but I wouldn’t describe my writing that way.  My wild streak is reserved for the page.

WWLA:  You say you may, on occasion, serve gourmet cheeses during your classes. That’s wonderful. If you’d like to say a few words about cheese, this page is your oyster.

LP:  I don’t know anything about cheese; I just buy what the hot dude at Bristol Farms tells me to.

–Interviewed by Moze Halperin (the Intern)