On the choose-your-own-adventure style and the “breakdown of control”
Samantha Edmonds is featured as one of the all-star contributors in the inaugural issue of the SFWP Annual, a new release from the Santa Fe Writers Project whose debut on October 1 in print and eBook format everywhere books are sold showcases some of the spectacular work highlighted in past issues of the SFWP Quarterly, SFWP’s online literary magazine that has been running since 2002.
Her Annual-featured essay, the choose-your-own-adventure piece “How to Be,” was first published with Issue 3 of the Quarterly in the fall of 2015. Liesel Hamilton, book reviewer for Phoebe and creative nonfiction editor of So to Speak, called Edmonds’ story “the backbone” of the Annual, its driving question – whether one can resist being a writer if that is her core – holding the other stories accountable to its creative framework.
Monica Prince of the Santa Fe Writers Project asked Edmonds a few questions to help us learn more about Edmonds and her work.
Monica Prince: Where are you from? Where do you live now?
Samantha Edmonds: I grew up in Southwest Ohio, in a mid-sized town full of sculptures and southern roots. After college, I moved a whopping forty-five minutes to Cincinnati, a city that I love. That is and always will be home, but in August 2017 I moved to Knoxville to study at the University of Tennessee. It still feels new some days, but I’m starting to settle in. It has a totally stellar local used bookstore.
MP: How did you first get involved with writing? What has shaped you as a writer?
SE: Yikes, this is hard to answer – the truth is, I don’t quite remember. It’s been something I’ve enjoyed ever since I was a kid, writing stories on wide-ruled notebook paper during church services (which will be familiar as a scene from “How to Be” in the SFWP Annual). My best friend and I also wrote a lot stories together growing up, which was a big influence on me. I loved reading from an early age – tearing my way through chapter-book series with dozens or hundreds of titles, like Pony Pals or Animal Ark or Phantom Stallion – and I think it’s only natural to want to write stories when you spend so much time consuming them.
My entire education has been about cultivating my writing. I didn’t become serious about writing until college, where I felt like I found a yearning and urgency to my work that had been missing until that moment. I met some really amazing people and had life-giving discussions in classes and read great books and finally started to challenge the assumption that if I said I was a writer, writing would happen automatically. Instead I started wondering if it was, actually, something I wanted to put work into. I decided it was. The relationships that I formed with my professors, the stories I’ve been introduced to in classes, the experience of workshopping with my peers in each program, all of that has influenced me and turned me into the writer I am today. Before that, I didn’t have a concept of myself as a writer beyond wanting to be one. My education has shaped my spirit, style, and voice.
Teaching has had a great impact on my relationship with writing, particularly when I’ve taught children’s novels like Henry Huggins and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to middle schoolers. I became a writer first and foremost because I loved to read as a kid, and as a teacher, it is such a delight to get to re-expose myself to that same wonder I felt then. Because so much of my reading outside of teaching kids is required reading for classes – which I admit are books I don’t always want to read – having a job that reminds me why I’m in love with books in the first place is a great thing for keeping my relationship with writing alive.
MP: What are you working on now?
SE: I’ve just finished a short story collection called A Preponderance of Starry Beings, based off my MA thesis. I’ll be shopping that around soon. And I’m also at work on a novel, which I envision as a literary science-fiction hybrid.
Right now, I’m really into the short story form, and story collections over novels. I love fiction that is shelved in the literary section of bookstores, but isn’t as realist as that label would lead us to believe. Depending on the genre it borrows from, this kind of literature has several names –magical realism, domestic fabulism, posthumanism, futurisim – all of which I really enjoy.
MP: Who are your favorite authors? What inspires and interests you?
SE: Oh, so many, so many. I tend to talk about them in term of favorite works, rather than authors, but here goes: Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics is hugely influential to my story collection; Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle never fails to leave me breathless; I also love Jenny Offill, who has two novels, Department of Speculation and Last Things, both of which changed the way I think about writing. Amber Sparks, too, is consistently a favorite of mine. Oh, and Margaret Atwood. Oryx and Crake is my favorite of hers. I love authors who write stories that walk a line between literary and other genres (science-fiction, fairy tales, etc.), that feel ethereal or otherworldly but in which I can still sense a beating human heart.
My favorite things about writing – visual language, unexpected sentences, lyrical prose. Reading other writers using stunning or arresting language is what most draws me to write my own stories. I feel most inspired when I am reading or writing something that allows for a lot of unusual descriptions, or when I can be very specific in my images or representations of things. I am fascinated by writing that can take something so ordinary, like growing up in a small town or describing a human that looks like all other humans, and make it seem unfamiliar through the voice of a character who, though they may live in this world, see it as a magical or ethereal place. I’m interested in stories that do that thing, you know, that make the strange seem excruciatingly human or, better still, the familiar seem strange.
MP: In your own words, how would you describe your writing style? What is your writing practice like?
SE: I usually begin with a voice or an image and go from there to create atmosphere and yearning, and hope to find the story after that. Since I sometimes feel paralyzed to start in front of a blank Word document, I also tend to write a lot of my early drafts by hand in a notebook first. I don’t regulate the notebook-writing time. I scribble sporadically when I have an idea for a new scene, or a few lines that sound true to a character’s voice, sentences I think have a nice lyricism or imagery to them, maybe some dialogue. I don’t think about plot much at that stage. When I’ve collected enough tidbits to try to piece them together into story, then I pull out my computer and start typing, see what I’m maybe onto.
Because of my irregular class and teaching schedule, I don’t dedicate certain times of day. When I’m typing a draft for the first time, I like to write in the mornings, or at a coffee shop, as many do, but I don’t regulate it very strictly, especially if whatever I’m doing in my notebook isn’t done cooking. But even without formal, set-aside writing time, I’m always up to something, carrying that notebook around everywhere and scribbling whenever I get the chance.
I tend to write slightly fantastical/non-realist fiction. Science-fiction hybrids. Magical or weird stuff. “How to Be” in the SFWP Annual in this case is an exception, because it’s realism. On my best days, I hope to be emulating the same style I see in the authors I love: a tendency toward lyricism and imagery, literary but with a magical or futuristic flair. I like sentences and passages that are beautiful in their own right, in addition to being revelatory about character or story. Voice really matters to me, and images, a richness in prose that lends itself to something out of this world, even if the story is supposed to be realist.
MP: Speaking of “How to Be,” it’s an amazing, creative piece, written in the choose-your-own-adventure form. What inspired you to experiment with this particular form? What was the process of writing it like, and how does this process compare to writing other forms?
SE: First of all, thank you! I didn’t set out to write a choose-your-own-adventure-style story, but I’m glad it happened. I’ve always been a fan of that form. I thought the aspects I liked about it – namely the sense of control over a narrative that can’t actually be controlled – would thematically lend itself really nicely to what I was exploring in “How to Be”: the choices one makes in becoming a writer or a person and the consequences that result from those choices, yes, but more importantly, I was thinking about the ways that sometimes, no matter what you choose, there are always going to be circumstances that decide things for you (or feel like they will, even if they don’t).
I also wanted to experiment with writing an essay the way you would a story. Essays sometimes are criticized for not being as “free” or “creative” as stories, because you don’t get the chance to “use your imagination” and your work is bound by “what really happened” or whatever. I wanted to challenge that by writing something that didn’t look like an essay, so I needed to have a point of view that wasn’t first-person and I didn’t want to write in the usual paragraph format. Enter choose-your-own-adventure.
I felt really vulnerable writing “How to Be,” because it was the first time I’d written something so blatantly not fictionalized. But I think it’s worth writing the thing that scares you, or that feels too raw to be looked at. And writing in the choose-your-own-adventure style helped me to overcome that fear of exposure, because it turned this story around and made the reader the narrator, and put some necessary distance between the story and the author. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun to play with structure and form – paragraphs are boring sometimes, but a choose-your-own-adventure is exciting!
I do this less these days, but when I wrote “How to Be,” I was really into experimenting with structure in my writing, and trying to find ways to weave narrative and story into something that looks and feels different on the page than normal paragraphs, which I was tired of back then. And a choose-your-own-adventure for a true story felt like a great experiment. Like, could I give the illusion of choice in a story about a life where certain events had to happen? The choose-your-own-adventure style felt like a way to showcase something that was recognizable yet felt specific to my experience. I think unusual forms like that can give new life to old subjects in really rewarding ways.
MP: What do you want readers to know about “How to Be”?
SE: In “How to Be,” even though it’s described as choose-your-own-adventure, there is only one ending. A reader can choose different middle passages and may take various routes there, but each time you read it you will always end up in the same place. That breakdown of the choose-your-own-adventure form, which is really a breakdown of control, feels really significant to some of the larger questions being asked in the piece: How much choice do we really have when making decisions? How much of our lives are predetermined and how much can we deviate from that?
MP: Changing gears a little bit here, what do you feel are the benefits of an independent press?
SE: There are far too many benefits of an independent press to list here! The way I see it, the independent presses are releasing some of the most daring, electric, and arresting fiction out there. They’re doing things other publishing markets wouldn’t dare. And the relationships someone can make with an independent press, that’s so meaningful. Editors work so closely with their writers, and help to connect them to other like-minded writers, and reach new audiences, and really cultivate a thriving literary community—and those communities are so, so important, maybe the most important thing, to me especially, about surviving as a writer.
MP: Do you have any advice for other writers?
SE: Write your obsession. That might sound corny, but it’s one of the most lasting pieces of writing advice I was ever given. I was first introduced to the idea of a “productive obsession” in an undergraduate class when we read an article about obsession being good for creativity by Eric Maisel. I was introduced to it again years later when I read The Voyager Record by Anthony Michael Morena, who thanks someone in his acknowledgments for encouraging him to “write about what obsessed [him].” I love that so much. I find the idea of turning your writing into your passions and interests (your obsessions), and trusting that the words and the story will follow, to be a perfectly simple and tremendously hopeful approach.
Visit Samantha Edmonds at her brand-new website, where you can find her forthcoming and published work, and follow her on Twitter @sam_edmonds122. To get a better sense of how her essay “How to Be” will startle and understand you, read the full piece right here. Support the SFWP Annual online at Amazon or at a bookstore near you.
Edmonds’ work can be found in numerous journals and literary magazines, including Bustle, The Indiana Review, Monkeybicycle, Midwestern Gothic, Boston Literary Magazine, and Pleiades. Her short stories are also forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Day One, and Phantom Drift. Edmonds received her dual BA in English literature and creative writing from Miami University of Ohio and her MA in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. She is currently a fiction MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee, where she writes, teaches, reads for the literary journal Grist, and conjures new ways of how to be.
Monica Prince is the 2017-2018 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in poetry at Georgia College & State University, and her BA in English Creative Writing at Knox College. She currently writes and reviews for the Santa Fe Writers Project, as well as reviews and edits for Aquarius Press. Her work can be found in MadCap Review, The Sula Collective, The Shade Journal, TRACK//FOUR, and others. Her choreopoem, Sestina: A Black Woman in Six Parts, will premiere in April 2018 in Selinsgrove, PA, where she teaches, writes, and performs.