Facts & Fiction

A conversation with Elizabeth Stuckey-French

June 11, 1998

When Elizabeth Stuckey-French says she admires William Trevor for those stories of his in which the subjects are "funny and awful at the same time," she is confirming the fact that we often recognize in others' work what we aspire to in our own. Both of Stuckey-French's Atlantic stories, "Junior" (April, 1996) and "Electric Wizard" (June, 1998), certainly deserve the praise she gives Trevor's work: each story hinges on an awful situation (an attempted murder in one, a suicide in the other), yet although both are funny and almost lighthearted, neither lapses into being coy, farcical, or sarcastic. That this balance is difficult for any writer to achieve makes the accomplishment impressive; that Stuckey-French has been writing for just over ten years makes it even more so.

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

A graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, Stuckey-French has been living in and around Iowa City ever since she earned her M.F.A. She has been a social worker, a writing-test specialist for ACT, and a creative-writing instructor in public schools and universities. Now she writes full time with the aid of a James A. Michener Fellowship. The recipient of two other grants, including an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, Stuckey-French has published stories in various literary magazines and in the anthology New Territory: Contemporary Indiana Fiction. This fall, with her husband and two children, she will move to St. Lawrence College, in New York, to teach fiction writing.

Elizabeth Stuckey-French spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.

You didn't start publishing your stories until the late 1980s. How long have you been writing?

Off and on throughout my life I have written stories that I would then put in drawers, or show to my parents or teachers, who would say, "That's nice." I didn't think much about writing them. I certainly never thought of it as a career. But after burning out as a social worker I moved back to Indiana, where I'm from, and got a job writing feature articles for the Purdue news service. I liked interviewing people and finding out about them, but because I hated having to stick to the facts, and kept wanting to make up dialogue, I knew journalism wasn't for me. That's when I started taking courses in Purdue's M.A. English program, and as soon as I took a fiction-writing class I was hooked. I'd always liked writing stories, but I'd never revised before -- it just hadn't occurred to me that you could make stories better by revising them. But once I started I couldn't get away from the computer. I've never been so obsessed with anything in my life. I knew right away that it was what I wanted to keep doing.

How have your different career endeavors -- among them social work and teaching creative writing -- affected your writing life?

Being a social worker was exhausting and frustrating, because I didn't get to see much progress. And being privy to the most intimate details of people's lives was not something I wanted all of the time. But in a way social work led me back to fiction writing because I was preoccupied with figuring out what made people tick. It's nice not having people in my office wanting something from me; instead, I get to make people up and have things turn out the way I want.

I love teaching fiction writing. Aside from actually writing, it's what I like to do best. Granted, as a teacher I pour a lot of creative energy into other people's work, but I like talking about writing, reading and discussing stories with my students, and watching their stories develop.

You have taught creative writing to students of all ages. What changes in creativity do you notice as people get older?

I recently finished teaching fourth graders here in West Branch, and I was completely amazed by how they instinctively know what a short story is -- their stories had conflict, some sort of crisis moment, resolution. They all read theirs aloud, and I did too. They easily told one another what they liked and didn't like -- and they all had suggestions for me. I was shocked. I had been afraid that they weren't going to be able to say anything.

People seem to lose that ability as they get older. To generalize: eighth graders are still imaginative, and their work is fresh, but they don't want to critique other people because they don't want to be critiqued themselves. Undergraduates are very self-conscious, both about writing and about giving feedback. Adults -- at least those I've taught in the Iowa summer writing festival -- know that they need to be more imaginative and more open to suggestions, so they're working on it, and in that way are easier to teach than undergraduates. Somewhere along the line people lose the ability to write a story so easily, though, and have a harder time telling people what they think about their work. It's too bad.

Just listening to my three-year-old daughter make up stories has taught me even more about writing. When she makes up a story she runs around the house talking to herself. She has to be in motion. Elements of the story will have to do with things we've done -- the characters go to Cape Cod, say, just like we did. And the characters will be from books we've read to her, as will lines she likes, and she'll include things her daycare teacher has said, or things that she's overheard adults say, and then the rest she'll just make up herself. Listening to her makes me realize that this is the way a lot of people write stories -- using things they overhear, and things they've read, and things that have happened to them. But I think it's funny that my daughter runs while she makes up her stories. I haven't quite figured that one out. Sitting down to write something does sometimes feel like a big effort -- like you've got to gear yourself up for it, even if you're just sitting there. So somehow the running must help her.

Maybe once she actually learns how to write her stories down she'll stop the running?

Yes! Adults get more and more self-conscious. She could care less. She does her "writing" in public.

You have twice been published in The Atlantic; both stories feature girls just on the cusp of their teenage years. Why have you chosen to write about this age? And what writers, if any, do you turn to for inspiration when creating young protagonists?

I end up writing about girls that age because although they're vulnerable and still doing childish things, they're also capable of learning. And they're shocked at how stupidly adults can act. I often write about wise kids and childish adults. I don't mean that kids are little geniuses, just that they see things that adults don't always see.

I don't consciously turn to any particular writers when I create these characters. I turn more to stories people have told me about their kids, and kids I've known myself, rather than books. But I really like the young people in Alice Munro's and William Trevor's stories. Trevor writes about kids and old people and teenagers with an uncanny accuracy. Some of his stories are just howlingly funny and awful at the same time, which I love. Both writers are great at dialogue. Their stories have given me permission to let my characters say and do anything. I hope I have subconsciously picked up on some of the things they do.

In his essay "Poetry and Ambition," Donald Hall writes, "At sixteen the poet reads Whitman and Homer and wants to be immortal. Alas, at twenty-four the same poet wants to be in The New Yorker." Do you agree that the idea of getting "published" receives undue homage?

People do focus too much on getting published. When I teach eighth graders, even fourth graders, they're asking, When am I going to get published? How can I get this published? Some people think that once you get published everything is set forever, but that is not how it works. Once you are published you don't feel any more worthy as a person, or as a writer, and you don't feel like you can just kick back and rest on your laurels for the rest of your life. You have to keep writing -- and you have to keep getting up to change the baby's diapers. Life goes on.

I just finished reading a really funny story by Flannery O'Connor called "The Crop." It's something she wrote when she was at Iowa, about a writer writing a story that she wants everybody to like and that will get published and get a lot of attention. It's funny because it really shows that whole process of trying to figure out what might be the best subjects to write about, even though you have no interest in these subjects, and know nothing about them. Trying to write that way is deadly.

The only reason to write fiction is because you feel compelled to do it. I mostly teach adults now, and I get a lot of students who are wanting to dabble in fiction, which is hard for me to understand. Writing fiction is such a strange thing to do: inventing characters and having them talk to one another is such an odd way to express yourself. If you don't feel compelled to do that as a way of making sense of the world then I would suggest trying something else.

What is your assessment of creative-writing programs?

It's important to decide what kind of program you need. Some people would do better with a small program; I felt like I wanted the challenge of a bigger one. And it was challenging to try to hold on to my moorings. Those with a businesslike attitude seemed to do best, as did those who were older and had more experience. The people who didn't do as well were those who were just taking a vacation from their lives. And then there were those who had been told they were geniuses their whole lives, and then suddenly realized that other people were just as good, or better; they tended to flounder and drink a lot. (I did some of that myself.)

It's easy to get sucked up and spit out two years later, at which point you find yourself saying, "What happened?" If your expectations are in line with reality I think you can do pretty well. You have to let things roll off your back. Some people who are really good writers never write anything after they leave because they are so beaten down by the criticism. Other people just keep on working, and they're the ones who are publishing and actually doing something with their writing. The real writers don't let anything stop them. They just keep writing.

There's a debate of sorts going on in our Facts & Fiction interviews about whether you should "write what you know." Annie Proulx thinks "it is the most tiresome and stupid advice that could possibly be given"; Tim Gautreaux tells his students to "write about what goes on in their own backyards." What do you think?

I'm not really sure what it means to "write what you know." And I usually don't give dictums like that to my students. I try to respond to stories on an individual level. It's important for students to write about things they feel really engaged with, rather than just telling them to write what they know. Besides, just as my daughter's story-making process illustrates, stuff comes from everywhere.

I had an eighth-grade student who wrote a story about a plumber who visits a boy's house. For no apparent reason the boy and the plumber start wrestling on the floor. Then they get into a knife fight, and then the boy pulls out a gun, and then the plumber pulls out a gun, and the boy shoots the plumber. The student thought it was a great story, but it was like a bad cop show on television. I told him to try something else because this didn't seem like anything that was important to him at all. He grumbled around a little bit. Then I had the students go to downtown Iowa City, which is crawling with weird people, and observe somebody and then come back and use this person in a story. When this same student went into Hardee's to buy a coke the clerk shook his hand. The student told us this and we all rolled our eyes and said, Oh, that's interesting. But then he wrote this story about a clerk in Hardee's who had ESP and was able to tell everything about somebody by shaking their hand. It was just a wonderful story. Although a lot of the details were probably out of his own life, I wouldn't really call that writing about what he knew, because he was inventing a great deal. Clearly it triggered something in him which made him much more engaged and prompted him to use his imagination. That's what I try to focus on with students.

Thus far you have published only short stories. Are there any novels in the works, or are you a short-story writer through and through?

I love short stories. I started writing a novel last year when I got the Michener Fellowship, because I felt like I should, but I dropped it halfway through a rough draft. Trying to write a novel was hard. I'd tell myself that I was going to write for two hours a day, and then I'd find myself looking at the clock every fifteen minutes. I quickly went back to stories. With a short story I can sit down and write something in a couple of days, and then go back and revise for as long as it takes. But with a novel you have to make things up every day, and you never know if it's any good.