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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

 

Interview with Rachel McClain, Runner Up

Today, we're talking with Rachel McClain, who won 3rd place honors in the WOW! Women on Writing Spring Flash Fiction contest.

Rachel McClain is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom currently living in Los Angeles but has vowed to find something to love in every new place the Air Force sends her family, even if the next place isn't so sunny. She was recently selected as an honorable mention in WOW! Women on Writing’s Winter Flash Fiction contest and has short stories published in Fuselit and in the forthcoming Cup of Comfort volumes for Breast Cancer Survivors and for Military Families. She has just finished work on her first young adult novel.


WOW:
Congratulations, Rachel, and welcome to The Muffin. Your story, Ode To A Grecian Urn, really hit home with me for several reasons. Can you tell us about the inspiration for your story?

Rachel:
This one came to me after some time of being blocked and I’d read a list of prompts, one of them about finding something on a kitchen table that didn’t belong there. I was dealing with some medical issues of my own and having to sit on crinkly paper on medical tables and in E.R. waiting rooms watching all kinds of patients walk by, young and old, creating their back stories in my head. The two things just meshed: the prompt and the experiences I was going through.

WOW:
That's amazing! The two experiences fit together so well. My husband passed away five years ago and his request was to be cremated. I understand the man in your story wanting to keep his wife close by. How did you go about finding a way to combine the elements of grief and the symptoms of Alzheimer's?

Rachel:
First, let me express my deepest sympathies for your loss. I can only imagine the pain that must be associated with such a thing. There is so much emotion tied with the idea of aging. When we are young, we think of growing old together as some sort of joyous thing but in a bittersweet way, like a romantic ideal. But, the idea of love gets twisted a bit when you throw the realities of aging into the mix, especially with something like Alzheimer’s. We want to believe that we’d never forget ourselves, what makes us who we are in our hearts or who completes us, but would we? When we do, would we grieve for the loss of not only ourselves, but for the loss of our partner all over again…again and again? I wanted to find something that would represent this loss in a physical way. I wanted it to be very real, something tactile and inescapable.

WOW:
Thank you. You do an outstanding job of making the situation realistic. I see so many themes intertwined to create the final product. What message do you want readers to take away from your story? What advice can you give a writer who likes to incorporate multiple themes in her stories?

Rachel: This is one of the reasons that I love flash fiction so much. While it's important to tie it up and not leave everything open-ended, you can do so much with so few words, explore so much and leave so much to the imagination, open so many doors for your readers. It's like imagining a road through the woods and taking a reader along with you, and while you stay on one road, you point out that there are a bunch of pretty paths veering off to the side, and some dark ones too. So, all that can be in your narrative in flash and you can tie some of it up, or leave some of it open. I think my main message, or the path I stayed on, has to do with commitment. It's about not forgetting who we are now and who we were when we were at our best and made our best promises to ourselves and each other.

WOW:
That level of commitment shows throughout your story. On a personal level, you've made a commitment to fine tuning your craft. You won Honorable Mention in another WOW! writing contest. Any advice to writers about what makes a good contest submission?

Rachel:
Cut. Cut. Cut. Oh yeah, and cut some more. Write your story in the first draft without thinking about anything except getting it out, and then cut a third of it. It sounds harsh but cut at least that much on your next draft. Someone once told me that and I didn’t believe them. I thought that it would be impossible; all my words would be too important. Of course the tree needed to be verdant, green and lush with vegetation. Right? Wrong. Not only does cutting make for a good contest submission, it makes for tighter prose and all around tighter writing. Your writing can still maintain your voice, your beautiful language and be tight. If the words, scenes, dialogue, etc don’t move the story forward, make a point, have some intrinsic narrative voice or say something to a reader other than you, they don’t belong. And, unlike me, never submit it the same day you write it. I’m terrible about that. I just get so excited about finishing and being certain that it’s “done,” that I can’t wait. I sometimes think I should tie my wrists so I don’t hit that send button too early.

WOW:
That is great advice! I'll have to see if I can follow it! Have you taken any writing classes? How did your writing career begin?

Rachel:
I haven't taken any formal writing classes, unless you count my English degree. But, I've been writing here or there, all my life. My current career began when I got out of the military to raise my son. I felt a little lost without the job I'd dreamed of since I was a little girl, which was the military. And, while the other job I'd always dreamed of, raising my child, was fulfilling, I felt like I needed something else. I started journaling and getting creative again, and bang, it hit me that this is what I should be doing with naptime. Screw the dishes. It all snowballed from here.

WOW:
I certainly relate to the snowball effect! You are part of a military family. Do you incorporate parts of your travels into your stories or use any experiences as inspiration?

Rachel: Yes, definitely. It’s hard not to. You meet so many interesting, wonderful and not so wonderful people when you travel and move all the time. There are certainly characters in this nomadic life of ours. I’m sure one of these days someone will come up to me and be either flattered or horrified to recognize themselves in something they’ve read (hopefully meaning I’ve been widely published). Plus, a family like mine gets to see so many wonderful and interesting places and have such a wide array of experiences. It’s like a treasure trove of ideas sometimes, even just for background details.

WOW:
That is great fodder to build upon! I imagine you've used some of those details in your stories. You are published in several anthology series. Do you have any secrets you'd like to share about what editors are looking for in a story for these types of publications?

Rachel:
It pays to know who you are submitting to. If you are submitting to an inspirational series, don’t write a story that’s got a downer ending, even if the rest is uplifting, and expect to be selected. I suggest that if you are trying to get into an anthology series that has been published before in other volumes, read them, or at least selections thereof to get an idea of what they are looking for. It just makes sense to know your market. If you don’t think you’ve got time to read, then you really don’t have time to be a successful writer.

WOW:
That's very true! Good writers are also good readers. It's a matter of balance. What's your writing routine like?

Rachel:
First, I turn the baby monitor down so I can’t hear my son crying. Just kidding. Seriously though, my son is eighteen months old, there is no real “routine” except carrying a notebook and a pen around with me. I jot down notes when ideas strike me and revisit them when I have time to explore them more fully. The closest thing I have to a routine is the few hours I get in the afternoon when he naps and that usually consists of a soda on the end table, my laptop and the sofa, with a comfy pillow behind my back and me just banging away on the keyboard until he wakes up. Sometimes I’m typing so fast my fingers are flying and some days, it’s dead silence because really, the mouse is just trolling eBay and I’m blocked. But then, three days later, I’m flooded with ideas again and I’m begging my husband to take my son to the park when he comes home so I can have extra “mommy time,” which really means writing time, to get all those words out of my head.

WOW:
Great! You seem to have found a balance between your family and your writing schedule.

Rachel:
I waited my whole life to meet my son. I can’t put it more simply than that. But, I also didn’t realize that I waited my whole life to meet the person that being a writer has made me. So, sometimes it’s hard to balance those two desires: wanting to hang out with myself and wanting to bang on pots and pans with my toddler. Truthfully, banging on pots and pans usually wins. He’s going to turn fifteen one of these days and stop wanting to hang out with me. That will be a sad, sad day. But, one thing that doesn’t seem to happen is the influx of ideas. There are drier days than others, but the ideas come back nonetheless. So, if I bang on pots and pans more than I write every day for a while, I think that’s okay. So, right now the balance weighs more heavily in favor of family. I think that shows in my writing, which often has a lot to do with family. For now, I try to make the simple commitment that I write every day and if that means some days it’s only a few minutes, so be it. So, long as I’m happy and my family is happy, that’s all that matters to me.

WOW:
I agree! When you find something that works, stick with it and keep everyone happy! What projects are you currently working on?

Rachel:
I’ve just finished my first young adult novel and I’m alternately going through the motions of trying to find an agent and berating myself for believing that it was good enough to send out in the first place. It’s an educational and fun process if you can take the pain! I am also working on short fiction and have finally joined the almighty blogosphere (http://thelaundryfairy.blogspot.com/) after much prodding.

WOW:
Thanks, Rachel, for taking time for us to get to know you and learn more about your writing. Again, congratulations!

Rachel:
I’d really like to thank WOW, the staff, Angela and Annette, the judges, Wendy Sherman and Seal Press for putting on such a wonderful and supportive contest. It’s an honor to be a part of community of such writers.

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Check out our latest personal essay contest, sponsored by skirt! books:
http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/contest.php


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