The Fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What writing strategies do you teach your English students? How, if at all, do you incorporate those in your own writing?
Beth Sherman: When I teach Creative Writing, I tell my students that crafting stories is similar to juggling several different elements at once – character, plot, dialogue, setting, temporality, etc. It’s difficult to do because most people tend to focus on one area, for example, dialogue, and they forget about everything else. The trick is to weave all these aspects of the story into a pattern, almost as if you’re stitching together a quilt. The best writers do this seamlessly; you’re not aware of it. For everyone else, it requires numerous drafts and constant attention to language, in other words, writing, re-writing, and then re-writing some more.
I sometimes get overly attached to the words I’ve typed on the screen. I don’t want to jettison them, even if doing so will benefit the story. So I created a file called “Overmatter” and I put phrases and whole paragraphs I’ve cut there; that way I feel like I haven’t lost them entirely.
RR: Both “Adephagia” and “The Blue Cup” deal with some very weighty topics (eating disorders and sexual assault). What draws you to write about these darker subjects?
BS: There has to be some kind of conflict in most stories, which propels the action and keeps the reader interested in what’s going to happen next. My conflict is usually generated from within by characters anxious about various unexpected and unwelcome events in their lives, situations they can’t control, circumstances they haven’t foreseen.
Sexual assault on college campuses is very much in the news today because of the so-called “rape culture” that is fueled by alcohol and is so pervasive across the country. I had read several accounts of young women being raped at private universities, where they were later ostracized and made to feel ashamed of coming forward. The young men who attacked them (many of whom were college athletes) ended up being protected by their college administrations. It got me thinking about the random nature of the assaults – how you could go to a party with friends, believing you were going to have fun and have your life changed inextricably forever.
The eating disorder story is part of a series I’m working on about mythology. For some people, food is an obsession and at its core, my work always involves people who are fixated on something, whether that involves love or family or work or an intangible desire that they want but can’t have.
RR: The reverse structure of “The Blue Cup” manages to capture both the horror and mundanity of the narrator’s experiences on the day that she was sexually assaulted. What inspired you to frame your story in this way?
BS: I kept thinking about the fact that the unnamed narrator of the story didn’t know what was about to happen to her, how she probably went over the sequence of events in her head dozens of times, replaying it over and over again, hoping for a different outcome. I’ve read articles that said victims of sexual assault sometimes blame themselves erroneously for what has happened to them and I imagined this young woman thinking, “if only” I had gone to the movies instead of the party, “if only” I had talked to another guy instead of Jake, “if only” I had stayed home and finished my English paper, “if only” I hadn’t taken a drink from the blue cup. She did nothing wrong. But each random step she took brought her closer to being attacked. So I had the idea of telling the story backwards, for her to make sense of it and process it that way, ending with her waking up in bed, happy and content, like it was going to be the start of any other normal day.
RR: Both “Adephagia” and “The Blue Cup” deal with underlying issues of control and the loss thereof. Is this something that you have experienced in your own writing?
BS: Writing is about control, to a large extent. I always think of it as a balancing act between your creative right brain side and your more logical left brain side, which has to take all those craft elements I talked about before into consideration. I’m definitely more of a left brain person. I don’t like to get messy on the page. I’m always going back and re-reading my sentences, fixing things, editing. My background is in journalism, so I’m used to a good deal of structure in my writing. Sometimes I think I should be listening to my characters more instead of telling them what to do! That’s me wanting to drive the bus. But at the end of the day, it’s really a combination of the two. Someone famous (I forget who) once said that writing is like driving down a dark road with your low beams on. You can’t really see that far ahead of you and I suppose that’s true.
RR: You write in many different genres, such as poetry and mystery novels. What appeals to you about the short story form?
BS: The short story is actually my favorite genre. I love reading them and I love writing them. Because I don’t have all that much space, I can capture a moment in time or a quick snapshot of a character’s life much more easily and deftly than in a novel, which requires a greater investment. (Each of my novels took at least a year to write). Unlike a poem, I don’t have to worry about each word being absolutely gorgeous and meaningful. For me, the best short stories are like great cupcakes – quickly consumed, colorful, memorable, and satisfying.
Beth Sherman appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 4.1.
Beth Sherman received an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in The Portland Review, KYSO, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Sandy River Review, Blue Lyra Review, Panoplyzine, Sun Star Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal and Gloom Cupboard and is forthcoming in Delmarva Review and Joyce Quarterly. Her poetry has been published in Hawaii Pacific Review, Hartskill Review, Lime Hawk, Synecdoche, Gyroscope and The Evansville Review, which nominated her poem, “Minor Planets” for a Pushcart Prize this year. She has also written five mystery novels.