Blog Hop: What I’m Writing and Other Burning Questions

First – a big shout out to one of my favorite teachers from the Johns Hopkins MA program, Leslie Pietrzyk, for tagging me to participate in the blog hop.  Leslie is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day.  She’s written and published dozens of short stories, but two of my favorites are “Ten Things” and “I am the Widow.” Consider yourself warned — these two short stories pack a punch and they will haunt you for a long time to come. Leslie blogs at Work-in-Progress (

Here’s how the blog hop works: literary bloggers answer the same four questions about our writing process and invite more bloggers to participate, so that by the end of the year every literary blog on the Internet will feature a variation on this theme.

Take a look at Leslie’s post, which describes the new novel she’s working on:

At the end of my post, I will tag four amazing writers  who will post next week.

And now, for a little info about me…

What am I working on?

I’m working on a novel I’m calling Persimmon, named after the fictional Oklahoma town where the story is set.  Here’s my attempt at an “elevator pitch”:

Haunted by her tumultuous childhood with alcoholic parents, Sunnie Baker escaped her small Oklahoma town as soon as she could, and has been on the run ever since, taking a series of jobs in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  Her life among other ex-patriots — a cycle of high-adrenaline work and party-fueled nights — is upended when her aunt Brenda urgently calls her home to help locate Sunnie’s missing father, Woody.  There have been a string of racially motivated killings in northeastern Oklahoma, and Brenda is worried that Woody, a half-blood American Indian, may have been the latest victim.  Once home, Sunnie is confronted by her half-siblings, who are barely out of their teens and already in a world of trouble, and very much in need of the sister they feel abandoned them.  As Sunnie returns to the landscape that shaped her, and the people she left behind, including her first love, Andrew, she must choose between finally facing the long-buried tensions that surround her family or continuing to run.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think of this novel as part of a genre I’ll call “literary American Indian.” Most of my published short stories, and certainly this novel, are part of the literature that is written by and about American Indians.

My influences are Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, and Stephen Graham Jones’ book Ledfeather. Each of these writers uses setting/region as a major force in the story.  Leslie Marmon Silko focuses on the Pueblo and the American southwest; Sherman Alexie writes about Spokane Indians who live either on the reservation or in nearby Seattle; Louise Erdrich centers her stories around the Ojibwe; and in Ledfeather, Stephen Graham Jones wrote about Montana and the Blackfeet Indians. I’m enrolled Caddo and grew up in Oklahoma, and can add to the existing literature in that respect.

Additionally, while Sherman Alexie uses the theme of identity in his work, his focus is on the struggle of the Native person living in both the Indian and non-Indian world.  Identity is a major theme in my novel, and probably something I will visit again, but the slice of identity that interests me is the question of who is an Indian.

Why do I write what I do?

(Shameless self-promotion to follow.)

Sometimes I write a story because one of my friends or relatives said something funny or insightful.  Take my story “Northern Louisiana Sublime.”  I was in a crowd of cousins from Oklahoma and Louisiana and we were laughing about how our grandmothers, all of whom are sisters, used to push us in the lake to swim while they finished supper, saying they would “keep a watch out for gators.”  This would never happen today!  I intended to write a funny story, but midway through the second draft it took a dark turn, which made it all the better in the end.

I had a friend who was pregnant with her third child and feeling stressed and wanted a cigarette.  I’ve never been a smoker, but I certainly understand cravings (hello pizza, ice cream, chips, and fries!) and the tension between desire appropriate behavior spurred “She Remembers.”  (One really must be careful when speaking in front of writers!)

When I learned about the government’s forced sterilization of Native women in the 1960s and 1970s, I had to write about it.  I’m honored that “Who Killed the Sparrow,” a story about a painter who was forcibly sterilized, will be published in Gargoyle Magazine later this year.

Other times I write to explore something that’s on my mind.  I’m fascinated by growing older, roads not explored, unfulfilled dreams, and what happens when two or more dysfunctional people interact.

How does my writing process work?

I’m suspicious of rituals and unwilling to be dependent on conditions that must be met before writing can take place. It’s hard enough to find at least forty-five consecutive minutes and I wouldn’t want to throw any additional barriers to writing, such as a special pen or drink or level of quietness.

Lately I’ve experimented with writing first drafts with pen and paper, because that’s what Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding, said helped him finish his novel.

I begin with an idea and a blank screen or, lately, blank paper and pen, and then I just go for it.  I’m quite comfortable with the idea of a “shitty first draft” that Anne Lamott talks about in her book Bird by Bird.  In fact, it’s fun to take a blank paper or screen and spend some time, and later have 5-7 pages of something.  Each time I approach the project, I write until my time is up, or I’ve done all I can do in that session.

Once it’s on paper, I read it aloud, move stuff around, and add and delete until it resembles a complete scene or chapter or story.  Then I do that some more.

Once I’m sick of the material, or can’t see it objectively, it’s time to hand it over to one of my first and trusted readers.  I can’t stress enough the necessity of finding a few trusted readers.  You need people who will push your writing and have the skill of careful reading and honest and good critique.  I’ve got my husband and a few trusted friends, most of whom I met through the Johns Hopkins program.

The final step is submitting. I know too many super talented writers who are afraid to share their work.  You’ve also got to be smart about submissions, to know the journal/editor and what they like.  When I was looking for a publication home for my recent story “Peyote Spirit” I specifically looked for a journal that would be interested in a story about an American Indian man and that also included a talking peyote plant.  When it’s time to submit my novel, I intend to be very targeted about agents/publishers.

That’s it for me!

I’ve tagged four friends for next week, listed here in alphabetical order:

Isaac James Baker has worked as a freelance writer, editor and newspaper reporter, and he is currently chipping away at a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University. His first novel, Broken Bones, is now available in e-book and print formats. It’s based on the month he spent in a psychiatric ward for people with eating disorders. He blogs about “Reading, Writing & Wine” and contributes to the daily wine blog Terroirist. Follow him on Twitter @IsaacJamesBaker. When he isn’t writing, tasting wine or tending his vines in Central Virginia, Isaac can be found chasing cold surf around the East Coast.

Melissa Bertolino has been told she’s good at putting words in other people’s mouths, which is probably what led to her career as a copywriter, ghostwriter,and storyteller. She’s into yoga, pop culture, her kids, and she never met a glass of Prosecco she didn’t like. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona (don’t judge).

Callie Leuck is a writer, dancer, tea-drinker, amateur photographer, and Oxford comma enthusiast. She is a recent science-medical writing graduate of the Johns Hopkins University. Her current city of residence is Indianapolis, IN. She blogs at

Sheryl L. Rivett is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at George Mason University. She holds a BIS in Women’s Studies in Communication from George Mason University and an MA in creative nonfiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University. Currently, she serves as the blog editor for So to Speak:a feminist journal of language and art, and works with GMU professors to edit and organize a forthcoming textbook on managing integrated healthcare systems. The textbook includes her interviews and profiles of national healthcare leaders. Sheryl has taught creative writing as a Sally Merten Fellow, in homeschooling cooperatives in the far west suburbs, and composition at the Northern Virginia Community College. She is most interested in the intersections between truth and character that can be found in both fiction and nonfiction and enjoys experimenting with form, bending genre to new shapes to fit her stories. She has been previously published in This I BelieveSo to SpeakMidwifery Today,Quail Bell Magazine, andOutside In Literary and Travel Magazine. An essay of hers appears in the anthology (t)here: Writings on Returnings. She is the author of Mothers & Midwives: Women’s Stories of Childbirth and lives in Philomont with her family. She blogs at




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