Mini-Interview with Megan Pillow Davis

pillow davis new headshot

Why do you write flash? What makes it different for you?

I started writing flash because I felt like I’d lost something in my writing. In myself, too, to be honest. I’d had some very demoralizing experiences with critique where professors saw nothing of value in my work, and I lost a lot of confidence in my abilities. I would write these 25 and 30-page stories that had interesting moments and interesting characters, but they would just wander all over the place and eventually disassemble all over the page. I would write and write, and after I’d write, I’d cry in frustration. And so I stopped writing. I didn’t write for five years. I had all this old work stored on my computer, dozens of stories that just sat there, but I didn’t write anything new or submit anything for publication for a very long time. For a while, I honestly thought I wouldn’t ever write again.

And then, as I always do in times of stress and sadness, I started reading. And I discovered flash. Well, rediscovered it, really. I remember picking up the copy of the first book I bought when I moved to start my MFA program – The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction: Fifty North American Stories Since 1970 – and re-reading Donald Barthelme’s “The School” and thinking oh fuck yeah, I love this piece. I love what he’s able to do in such a compact space. I’ll bet there are a lot of other people out there doing this. And I thought maybe if I focused on compact writing, on compressed narrative, it could teach me a few things about writing longform fiction. So that’s what I did. I started following journals and reading who they were publishing. Some of the first pieces I read were pieces by Kathy Fish and Cathy Ulrich, and I was astounded by their work. So I just read more and more, trying to learn, trying to figure out how to approach this genre that I knew very little about, and then I started tinkering around.

What I discovered by reading and writing flash was that for me, longform had become such a laborious process, a lot like the process of childbirth (I have two kids, so this isn’t just hyperbole here). When I was writing longform fiction, I would get so stressed and so focused on the end game, on gritting my teeth to just get through, that I often missed honing those critical connections that the reader needs in order to invest in the piece. But then I discovered that for me reading and writing flash is for me like a single contraction: pure pain, but also pure beauty and joy, and the intensity of it is so powerful but so brief that I can just give myself over to it completely, let my mind and my body steep in every single word. When I read a really great piece of flash, I don’t just think about it for days or weeks afterward. I feel it for that length of time too, the same way my body can still feel the reverberations of those contractions from childbirth when I think about them: I remember what I was drinking when I read a piece, how it tasted, what the light looked light in the room, the sound of my breath as it caught in my throat when something in that piece tore me open or made me laugh. And while I did learn a valuable lesson about longform from writing flash – which is that, just as with labor, longform is a series of well-synchronized contractions that propel a person along to a moment of impossible revelation – I also discovered that I loved flash not just for what it taught me about longform but for what it was in its own right. And now, I’m devoted. Flash taught me a better relationship to and understanding of longform – instead of gritting my teeth through it, I’ve learned to pace myself, to pay attention to the details, and to love it despite the pain. But flash? Flash is where I give myself over to the pain, where the pain brings me joy.

What’s your writerly lifejacket: character or plot?

Characters always come to me first. I’m a people-watcher and very curious about why people do what they do and how we react and respond to those decisions. When I start thinking about what motivates a character, the story usually springs from those motivations. I would love to be one of those writers for whom a carefully-constructed plot comes easily, but I was not blessed with that particular skill.

Writing style: Quick and messy or slow and precise?

Both, actually. I’m a very quick and messy drafter. For a flash piece, I’ll usually sit down and have a working draft in an hour to an hour and a half. But that’s after thinking, usually for weeks, about what the story is about and how it will come together, and then it’s followed by weeks and sometimes months of laborious revision during which I sometimes end up rewriting the whole damn thing. I wrote my story “We All Know About Margo” in an hour – and then spent a month and a half in a frenzy of rewriting, reworking the beginning and ending multiple times and switching POV several times, among other things. I like the freedom and fluidity that writing quickly affords me, but I know I can’t get a piece to read exactly how I want it to without spending a lot of time in revision.

What element or part of your “real life” do you think most influences your writing?

My Ph.D. program and my kids. Both have taught me incredible time management skills and discipline. They’ve taught me to write in 30-minute increments and even sometimes in 10-minute increments, when necessary, and to still make progress. They’ve taught me to trust in my ability to do thorough research, but they also remind me that I’m never going to be an expert on everything, I’m just going to learn a whole lot about one little sliver of the world, and I need to trust the other experts to guide me in my understanding of the rest. Most of all, they’ve taught me to survive on very little sleep, which frankly is the only way that a Ph.D. student with two young kids is ever going to get any creative writing done.

If you could recommend a few flash stories or writers, who/what would it be?

This is always such a difficult question to answer because there are so many writers I fiercely admire. But in addition to Kathy Fish and Cathy Ulrich, whom I always read, and the work of the women of color writers I talked about in a recent SmokeLong Quarterly interview, I’ve also been floored by writers like Allie Marini, Marisa Crane, Josh Denslow, Kathryn McMahon, Christopher Allen, Kim Magowan, Emi Benn, and Jennifer Fliss. These are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head, though. I’m sure I’ll wake up at 3 a.m. thinking of at least a dozen more names I should have mentioned.

What story of yours do you wish got more recognition?

I don’t really think I have one. I know that probably sounds ridiculous, but I haven’t been back to publishing for very long – my first piece in a long while was published in the spring of 2017 – and since then, I’ve had work accepted at some amazing journals, been nominated for some awards I honestly never thought I’d get nominated for, and most of all, received tons of support from the writing community. So I feel very lucky. Instead of sending you to another story of mine, I’d say instead seek out a writer you’ve never read before, especially somebody emerging, and read them instead. If you like their work, share it, and please tell them it meant something to you. The people who have taken the time to do that for me, those are the people who kept me writing. They’ve made up for all the years where I felt like my work didn’t matter. Right now, there are tons of brilliant writers out there, maybe even reading this, who are racking up the rejections, who feel like their one or two publications this year didn’t get much traction and didn’t have an impact, and they feel very alone. Some of them are wondering whether they’re really cut out for this gig, and they’re thinking about quitting. I know because I was them. And more than anything, they need someone to see their work, to love it, and to let them know. They need that recognition and the encouragement that comes with it. I hope more than anything that we can give it to them.

Bio:  Megan Pillow Davis is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and is currently a doctoral candidate in the University of Kentucky’s English Department. Her work has appeared, among other places, in Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, Memoir Mixtapes, and Mutha Magazine, has been featured in Longreads, and is forthcoming in Collective Unrest, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, Longleaf Review, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. She has also been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best Small Fictions. Megan is currently revising her debut novel, has begun work on her second book, and is completing her dissertation. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her family.

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