Tag Archives: Dagoberto Gilb

Coen-Esque, You Betcha!

“A little less Fargo and a little more Raising Arizona,” an editor wrote to me once about a story in which I’d killed off one of the characters.

The old church I used as a model for the "old Lutheran Church" in the story "Dearest" was torn down long ago. This is the Catholic Church in Bruneau I grew up attending, although I also went to Sunday School at the Protestant Church up the street, since they had way better music and cookies.

The old church I used as a model for the “old Lutheran Church” in the story “Dearest” was torn down long ago. This is the Catholic Church in Bruneau, Idaho, I grew up attending, although I also went to Sunday School at the Protestant Church up the street, since they had way better music and cookies. It was fun to conceive this story in Bruneau and then pick it up and move it to Moorhead, Minnesota. I moved it back and forth a couple times and finally decided that Moorhead in Clay County worked the best for the story purpose.

First the editor buttered me up by saying that my story reminded him a bit of the Coen Brothers.

I was ready to put on hot pink lipstick just at the thought of my work reminding anyone of those guys, whose work I highly admire.

The film analogy was an especially apt one in this case, where I’d veered the story in too dark a direction for its overall tone. That comment stuck with me and has been a reminder of my tendency to write dark endings, whether or not they’re the right one for the story. The dead character was brought back to life in the aforementioned story, and the story was better for it.

But I keep having to learn the lesson over and over again with each new story. Recently, the Dogpatch reviewed a story of mine, which is due out this month in Clover: A Literary Rag, the gorgeous letterpress magazine published by the Independent Writers’ Studio.

In the small town in which I grew up, there was a guy we kids were afraid of for no justifiable reason I’ve ever known. My friend Cynda and I would ride our bikes really fast past his house on the way to school. That became the seed of the story “Dearest,” which started as my way to understand why we kids needed a monster to be afraid of, and why it was also fun to be afraid.

The Bruneau Canal in Idaho, where I originally imagined the character in the story would walk. I swapped it for the Red River that separates North Dakota and Minnesota, as a more believable place for the character to lose her money in the wind.

The Bruneau Canal in Idaho, where I originally imagined the character in the story “Dearest” would walk singing a tune about two cowboys who meet the devil. I swapped it for the Red River that separates North Dakota and Minnesota, as a more believable place for the character to lose something she couldn’t retrieve by jumping into the water. It was hard to lose the Bruneau Canal, since I grew up playing alongside it and swimming in it, but the expanse of water needed to be wider and faster moving for the scene to work.

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Filed under Notes from the coffee shop

Can A Colonoscopy Make You a Better Writer?

We’ll try anything, won’t we?

Climb mountains, light candles, drink tea, drink beer, light candles, smoke dope, give up sex (now that last one’s just dumb).

It’s important to take advantage of any personal circumstance. Your best friend’s husband is having an affair with his ophthalmologist—“OMG, that animal! How could he do that? There, there, let me get you a nice cup of tea and a tissue and you sit right here and let it all out so I can take notes for a scene I’ll write later.”

When the celebrated writer Dagoberto Gilb suffered a stroke, he started writing about it, literally before he regained use of his right hand. The story “Please, Thank you” first was published in Harper’s and then in his latest collection Before the End, After the Beginning. It opens with him regaining consciousness in the hospital and includes a bit where he explains about typing entirely left-handed and how that affects his writing. The story is amazing and powerful and makes me cry when I read it. He’s such a show off.

Nonetheless, newly fifty years old, proudly joining the ranks of the middle-aged, I’m ready for my seminal-sparking physical and personal challenge. What I get is a colonoscopy screening.

I go to a dinner gathering where everyone at the table has already had a colonoscopy. I can’t even have an original disease. I don’t think that’s very fair. Do you think that’s fair? Continue reading

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Filed under Howling at the moon

The Back(hoe) Story

kobelcoYou will write a story.

The character will have some really physical job—banging nails or pouring concrete.

Driving a backhoe. For weeks, all you will see are backhoes.

You will ask your writing mates to read the story. They are seasoned writers and editors, familiar with your work, and you trust them to give you great input.

Meanwhile, you will sell the story to a lit magazine. When your friends show up with pages of notes, you will say, “Thanks, but I already sold that story. Would you like a beer?”

backhoeBeer, because the character in the story you just sold drinks beer after he punches out. And because you owe your friends several beers for screwing them over, even if not on purpose.

They will drink all of your beer and also have their sweet revenge.

Because no short story is perfect (unless Dagoberto Gilb wrote it).

Your friends will drink your beer and eat the kiss-up pizza you got for them, while they tactfully point out all the things that are still wrong with your story that’s going to get published.

You will go to bed but not sleep a wink over that tired phrase you used in the third paragraph. You’ll get up and write a long e-mail to the magazine editor asking if you can change a line or two, and how about that part where instead of going to the library the character goes to see the Dakota who runs the junkyard? What if tension isn’t building quickly enough in the front of the story, so can you cut some lines to get to the dramatics quicker? And the epiphany is implied but not obvious. Is that okay or should you add a line at the end to clarify?

You will not send the e-mail for fear that the editor will agree to the point of changing her mind about publishing the story.

You will instead e-mail your friends and apologize profusely for not waiting to receive their advice before sending off your story. Your flawed little story.

Your friends will forgive you, because they are classy and wonderful and truly your friends.

You will feel alternately joyful and embarrassed that your flawed little story will soon be in print.

You will vow to never, ever make that mistake again or to treat your friends so poorly.

And you will keep writing, because that is all you know to do, and now all you see are girls with suitcases.

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Filed under Notes from the coffee shop

Collection of Cool

Hello from the Dogpatch!

Noticing a comment online about rereading and rewatching favorite stories, put me in mind of my all-time favorite author appearances caught on video. I’ve watched these clips numerous times and am excited, amused, moved, and inspired at each viewing. I hope you enjoy!

Dagoberto Gilb

Dagoberto Gilb

“Stupid America”: PEN/Hemingway Award winner Dagoberto Gilb speaking and reading at Librotraficante Caravan Tucson AZ:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lFKk1AuJF4

CoverDrOlafAwesome dramatic readings: A group of actors performing brief text from various works of fiction, including the opening of Dr. Olaf van Schuler’s Brain by Kirsten Menger-Anderson, from Sally Shore’s The New Short Fiction Series:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTrQ7-Egqcc

A true classic: Steve Almond on “Africa” by Toto at Tin House Magazine’s 10th Anniversary celebration:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3fxkhWZbx0

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Steve Almond

You can read Steve’s “Why I Write Smut: A Manifesto” from his latest set of six tiny and gorgeous books called Writs of Passion.

Junot Diaz

Junot Díaz

Wisdom for us all: Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz díscussing his process at the 2009 National Book Festival:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Gu91htmDpM

Happy writing,

XO Laurel Leigh

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Filed under Howling at the moon

Scene Questions

We all can probably remember a particularly vivid and effective scene from a great story. The unmasking scene in Junot Díaz’s story “Ysrael.” The riot scene in Dagoberto Gilb’s book The Flowers. The opening scene in Mary Karr’s Liars’ Club. The death of Father in Peter Rock’s My Abandonment. Most scenes by Antonya Nelson. The ending of The Grapes of Wrath. Shakespeare’s classic Nunnery Scene. Haven’t we all thought—if I could write a scene like that, it would be a truly spectacular scene.
We came up with some questions to keep in mind as you write, and you can probably think of a lot more.
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  • What is the story genre in which this scene will take place?
  • What defines the story world in which the scene dwells?
  • What are the writer’s rules for the story world? Continue reading

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Filed under Craft