In the Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Linda Downing Miller
In The Field is a series devoted to highlighting the writing life and artistic process of our contributors.
- Tell us about your short story in Volume 20. How did it come to be?
A threat of violence at my daughters’ school ended as a non-event, but the idea that we now have to face such things—with official communications and potentially life-or-death consequences—left its mark. Through the eyes of the narrator in this story—Threat Response–, I found myself exploring that lingering threat, in different circumstances and with very different outcomes. The piece went through many drafts, but the second-person point of view came from the beginning. I found it essential for this narrator, to enable her to speak through a deep sense of guilt and admit other ugly feelings.
- What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
I had English teachers in high school who encouraged my writing, and I had the foundation in a love of reading and language. I’m kind of a late bloomer in becoming a real “writer” generating my own creative work. In hindsight, I think parenthood sparked that need to write for me. The world became more amazing but also weightier. I felt greater responsibility and inadequacy. One of the first pieces I wrote for myself as an adult was about taking my two-year-old to her first day of preschool on September 11, 2001, when news of planes flying into buildings began seeping through the radio.
- How has writing shaped your life?
I studied journalism in college, held jobs in communications, and worked as a freelance writer. Writing fiction and creative nonfiction—beginning with a blank page and no instructions—reignited my enthusiasm for learning. I took creative writing classes and ultimately completed a low-residency MFA program (at Queens University). Beyond the insight into craft and the helpful deadlines, these experiences connected me to a new community. I’m continually inspired by my fellow writers, and the opportunities I’ve had in the last few years to teach creative writing classes in Chicago have been some of the most rewarding “work” experiences of my life.
- What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work?
I love short stories and their power to reveal the strange and poignant aspects of human behavior. Mary Gaitskill’s collection Because They Wanted To gets at bleak topics with surprising humor and captures feelings in an incredibly physical way. Lori Ostlund’s collection The Bigness of the World inspired me to write my first fan email. I still fall in love with single stories by unfamiliar authors in literary journals—and get excited when The New Yorker delivers a piece by Rivka Galchen, Yiyun Li, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Tessa Hadley, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, George Saunders, and more.
From a process standpoint, I discovered Ron Carlson Writes a Story and Alice Mattison’s The Kite and the String last year. Carlson’s book is deceptively simple but for me both validated and articulated the sentence-by-sentence process of getting a first draft down. Mattison covers more territory, sharing the underlying philosophy of letting the imagination lead. I recommend any writer struggling with the publication side of writing read Mattison’s sane and compassionate last chapter, “Revising Our Thought Bubbles.”
- What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’m submitting a completed short story collection to a few contests and small presses, and I’m writing and revising new stories. I attempted—and think I pulled off?—my first story with an omniscient point of view. Other recent pieces have had a more humorous tone while somehow allowing politics to creep in. I think about writing a novel—I think I should write a novel—but that’s the desire for publication talking and not my creative impulse yet. I’m trying to let my imagination lead.