Behind the Words: Lee Stoops

Posted by on Feb 21, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Lee Stoops HeadshotLee Stoops write with an emotional vulnerability that draws all readers–whether or not they’ve experienced a similar situation–in to the world he creates with his words. He is a father, a husband, an editor and a writer. Check out his flash essay “The Only Scars I Choose” here.

 

 

 

Erin: “The Only Scars I Choose” is about the loss of your daughter, Bennett. Did you find it difficult to write about such a huge life event in so few words?

Lee: Yes. To date, these words are the only ones I’ve been able to write about losing her. That’s not to say I haven’t tried or that I don’t want to. I’ve wondered what keeps me from finding words.

For this piece, the access happened via the subject: scars. Looking at the events through that lens, it was still nearly impossible for me to write. In fact, the first version of this essay, while the same length, was written in second person because I could not put myself in it without stalling. It was originally titled “The Scars You Choose” and it was written in present tense, opening with the line “Your skin is a shield.”

The economy of words was not, in this case, a way to explore each word’s power. Writing about Bennett is different for me than talking about her. I don’t shy away from talking about her. I think silence, specifically in grief, can be both dangerous and dishonoring (though, unnecessary or ill-considered words can have the same effect).

In that, while this short essay begins to honor Bennett and illuminate some of what losing her means to me, it’s really more of a write-around, a way to start writing about her.

 

I’d love to know more about how this essay originated. So much is covered in under 750 words: teenage acne and insecurities, the loss of a child, the birth of a child, getting tattooed. Did one subject influence the others or did you sit down knowing just what you planned to write?

The tattoo artist explained to me, when he began his work on my forearm, that the inkless needle he would use to etch a barrier into my skin would also create a kind of invisible scar around the one made visible by the ink’s staining.

What fascinates me about tattoo is that it requires a changing of the skin’s property to work – the ink is not enough by itself. It has to be knitted into the skin, it relies on the scar to make itself permanent.

The essay itself was not so much a goal as it was a result of my sitting in that chair thinking about the idea of a scar. What it is both as literal tissue and as metaphor.

When I sat down to write after I got home, I couldn’t hold posture the way I usually do while at the keyboard – the inflammation had spread enough that I could not rest my elbow on the armrest of my chair. So, as I started writing about the forming scar, I was in a place of pain. The progression was fairly natural.

I tend to look at things in terms of cause and effect, and in working backward, the pattern of injury/scar/change (whether literal or metaphorical) made itself clear.

I remember sitting in a lecture about braided narratives in grad school. I was totally engrossed by the idea that one could take two disparate ideas and formulate an essay or narrative that would eventually bind them in some inextricable way. I’ve since realized that this idea, like many, only works when it happens naturally, as that’s how we tend to look at our lives. All that to say: yes, the subjects here can’t help but influence each other.

 

“The Only Scars I Choose” is flash creative nonfiction. Is most of what you write in this genre?

This is actually one of only a few very short pieces I’ve written, and even fewer of them are nonfiction. I spend most of my writing time in longer short stories and essays. Which is why I occasionally write in this format – the exercise in economy of both language and premise usually refreshes something from which I’ve fallen away while I’m working on longer narratives: drive.

 

Tell me about your writing habits. What are you working on now?

I spend a lot of time staring off into space. When I am able to actually put my fingers on my keyboard or wrap them around a pencil, I might get a few lines in before I go back and begin reworking them.

I have a hard time not editing while I write. A writer friend once told me that writing is like throwing clay, and that the first draft is really just making the clay. To me, that might be the best metaphor (both for its literality and frustration) for what we do as writers, and I’m constantly trying to throw before my clay is ready.

When I’m practicing my better habits, I get up early. With two small kids at home, and my wife and both working, there aren’t many windows. I make some coffee, and if it’s a good writing morning, I usually don’t drink it. If my cup’s empty by the time my kids wake up, I know I didn’t write as much or as well as I’d hoped. I sneak little bits of open time at the office to work on revisions, book annotations, etc.

Because I worry I’ll only ever tell the same story over and over and over again if I focus on a single project, I’m usually working on two to four things at a time. I’ve found if I’m writing something new and revising something I put aside for a few weeks or even months, both pieces benefit.

I’m also researching and writing a novel about our fragile existence and how we regard what comes next. I’m extremely superstitious about sharing what I’m working on until I’ve a cogent draft, so I won’t share much about what this book is just yet. I will say it includes insects and displacement.

 

You’re a fiction editor for The Citron Review. How does your editing influence your writing? How does reading fiction influence your creative nonfiction?

It keeps me engaged in my own work. I tend to write more fiction than non, and in reading submissions and editing work for other writers, I’m often reminded of how much I enjoy this field. While we’d all like to compare ourselves to someone we respect and admire, the truth of it is, no two of us is the same, and getting to see so many different approaches keeps front and center, for me, the great truth that we all get to go it our own way and still keep tight in our community of influences.

Fiction’s my first love in storytelling because of the freedom. Granted, there’s responsibility to the story, to the characters, to the reader, etc, but in fiction, we can create (and sometimes maybe even solve) problems. There’s an element of narrative invention that’s not available in nonfiction. Structurally, however, I’ve found that fiction can offer a lot to nonfiction. In that, I notice in my own work (especially the longer essays) that I tend to move away from straight nonfiction formats and follow the form of story. Storytelling for me started at a young age, around literal campfires. Mostly, those stories were true (if exaggerated), but I fell in love with the format – the rising of tension, the raising of stakes, the mystery, the reveal. Those elements, so common to fiction, usually end up in my nonfiction.

 

If you could recommend only one book on craft to our readers, what would it be?

If you’d asked me this a year ago, I’d have said Stephen King’s “On Writing.” And, while I’d still consider it essential (though, I have to offer a caveat here: I’m not big on craft books as I think the best way to learn writing is to read more than you write, and to write a lot with great care to your own process while considering what you can identify as succeeding or not in others’ work), a good friend pointed me toward a beautiful (and, I believe, also essential) book on creating imaginative fiction: Jeff Vandermeer’s “Wonderbook.” You open that book and hours will disappear.

 

If you could eat dinner with any 5 literary characters, who would you invite? Also, what would you serve them?

Wow. Any five? Hmm.

  • Piscine Patel from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
  • Inigo Montoya from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride
  • The Grandmother from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find
  • Atticus (he’d likely bring Jem and Scout) Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Cat from Dr. Suess’s The Cat in the Hat
  • (Bonus uninvited and surprise guest would be Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian)

It would be a roll-your-own sushi dinner.

 

Erin A. Corriveau is an emotional archeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her writing has been published in (em): A Review of Text and Image, Revolution House, Lunch Ticket, Paper Tape, Shoreline Literary Arts Magazine, The Fall River Spirit, and RedFez. She is the co-founder and editor of Spry Literary Journal. Her blog, Reinventing Erin, is her outlet for ruminating on the minutiae of everyday life.

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