Postcards From the Margins: Writing Process Blog Tour!

Vincent Van Gogh's "Portrait of a Patient at Saint-Paul Hospital," October 1889
Vincent Van Gogh’s “Portrait of a Patient at Saint-Paul Hospital,” October 1889

Many thanks to my friend and fellow 2007-8 Loft Mentor Series participant, Chrissy Kolaya, for inviting me to this “Writing Process Blog Tour.” A week ago (April 6) she answered these same questions about her writing process; this week it’s me and Jamieson Ridenhour and Simeon Berry; you’ll find bios of, and links to, next week’s relay-bloggers (Jodi Chromey, Rebecca Kanner, and Margie Newman–three of my most entertaining and talented writer-blogger friends) at the end of this post.

Here we go! 

Question #1:  What am I working on now?

I’m working on a close-to-finish draft of a novel I began several years ago.  We Are What Remains is the story of how the man in the Vincent Van Gogh portrait posted above (Portrait of a Patient in Saint-Paul Hospital) came to have this elusive sweep of light as an essential, and (according to art critics) intentional, element of his portrait. Van Gogh did the painting when he, too, was a patient at Saint-Paul hospital, an asylum for the mentally ill located in St.-Rémy, Provençe.

I also just got a story (“Seizure”) published in Ploughshares (Spring 2014 issue, guest editor Jean Thompson, to whom I am much indebted). My agent, Caryn Karmatz Rudy of DeFiore and Company, is currently reading the story collection manuscript I’ve been crafting, with “Seizure” in its title role.

Question #2:  How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Regarding my novel, the answer to that is a question:  What is this novel’s genre?  I like to think of it as literary fiction, i.e., a well-written page-turner in which plot hinges on the actions characters take when put to any number of physical and psychological tests. One major caveat:  the man in the portrait has to end up in an asylum in southern France in October 1889!  It’s also art-related fiction (think, Girl With A Pearl Earring) and historical fiction, as well.  So: What makes my story different? It has four first-person narrators, one of whose point of view is seen in journal entries.  Many of the physical locations in which the actions of the book occur are derived directly or indirectly from a Van Gogh painting.  You might say there is a fifth voice in the story, that of a fierce provençal wind called the mistral.   Van Gogh mentions the mistral often in letters to his dear brother, Theo, and it influences (much like the storied cold here in Minnesota) the life of everyone in the region to this day.

Regarding my short story collection manuscript, I can tell you this:  I love every other story in the issue of Ploughshares in which “Seizure” appears.  Clearly, what unites all the stories is guest editor Jean Thompson’s sensibility. Publisher’s Weekly wrote this about Ms. Thompson’s new novel, The Humanity Project: “Thompson’s thoughtful new novel ponders the sins we commit in the name of love and our capacity for compassion…Thompson asks what can we actually do to change the lives of others, and investigates the value of good intentions, finding answers in the emotional lives of richly-drawn characters who do what they must–and what they think they must—in order to help the ones they love.”

If my work could differ from others in its genre in this Jean Thompson-esque way, I could not be more satisfied.

Question #3:  Why do I write what I do?

I haven’t always recognized myself as a story-teller.  But my first-and-best mentor, story-teller supreme Sandy Benitez, helped me to see that I was, or that with work and practice, I could be. In books like Sandy’s Bitter Grounds, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, my friend Rebecca Kanner’s Sinners and the Sea, I love how story transports the reader to another world. I’d like to transport my readers, too. I’ve been told I’m good at setting–so wherever it is that I take you, you’ll feel grounded, and as if you were really there.

Paradoxically, another way I like to transport my readers is into realms of the not entirely grounded, the not entirely earthbound. (I was in any of a variety of modes of heaven the day my agent mentioned my novel We Are What Remains and Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River in the same sentence.) No Bible-toting here, no sci-fi or fantasy.  Just an openness to prayer, to the creative power of both faith and despair. I’m happiest in my writing when I brush up against the sacred, when I segue with art, with poetry, with music, with the godly.  You’ll find these in my best writing, too.

Question #4:  How does my writing process work?

You have to get your butt in the chair (although with all the talk of stand-up desks, I might have to modify that mantra).  You have to write the words.  My goal (inspired by my one-time Tin House Writer’s workshop mentor Ben Percy) is 500 words a day. It’s a more realistic goal, I think, in earlier drafts. In these early stages of basically making stuff up, I work until I have two more pages of a story–any story, at this point.  It’s a more difficult goal in revision, which calls for reorganization and re-thinking, but in this phase you still have to get words (new ones, better ones, more linearly oriented ones) on the page.  My best working time is, without doubt, early in the day.  If I haven’t gotten to it by noon, it’s generally not going to happen.

And because morning hours fly, I’ll sign off here but thanks for your attention and be sure to check out the “Writing Process Blog Tour” entries next week (April 21) of the following amazing writer-friends of mine:

Margie Newman holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. Her writing has won a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, a Jerome Foundation/SASE grant and a Loft Mentorship Award. Her publications includeDislocate, Outlook, American Jewish World andJewish Currents and Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature.  Find her blog at

Sinners and the Sea is Rebecca Kanner’s debut novel. It was published by Howard Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, in April 2013. Rebecca is a Twin Cities native and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing from Washington University in St. Louis. Her writing has won an Associated Writing Programs Award, a Loft mentorship Award and a 2012/2013 Minnesota State Arts Board Grant.  Her personal essay, “Safety,” is listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2011. Her stories have been published in numerous journals including The Kenyon Review and The Cincinnati Review. You can learn more about Rebecca, and find links to selected stories, essays, and videos at

Jodi Chromey  is a freakishly tall writer who loves peanut butter, rock & roll, and gin. She calls herself an angry hermit, because it makes her laugh and she doesn’t like to leave the house, where her cat and all her books are. She’s been blogging since 2000 at I Will Dare.  LINK:






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