Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Q&A with Margaret LaFleur, Generation XYZ Contest Winner

Every quarter is a lot like Christmas Eve. It’s a gift to be able to discuss with a writer what’s dazzling in her work, what can be done to bring it closer to what it wants to be. Critiquing this issue’s Generation XYZ Contest winner, “This is Just Temporary,” was like getting the perfect gift. How I felt after the last sentence is something I get to keep. It was a pleasure asking Margaret what guided her story.

Q: What was the inspiration for “This is Just Temporary”?

A: I worked at a restaurant in high school (though not the Olive Garden). A couple of my good friends also worked there, and I remember it rather fondly. I had never seen myself as a “lifer,” one of the employees that stays for years and years. It was a surprise, then, when a friend did move back after college and returned to work there. So that was the initial inspiration.

I should also add that of course Sharon isn’t based entirely on that single friend. I actually thought a lot about the girls I was close to in high school as I wrote it. We’ve all faced disappointments and heartbreaks in ways that have surprised us, I think, which is really what I wanted to write about.

Q: Describe your writing process. How did the story change as you wrote it? What were some of the most important revisions you made?

I wrote this story during my MFA program, so the writing and revision process was decided for me a little bit. I submitted a rough draft and a revised draft to my workshop one semester and then set it aside for a while before I went back to it to include in my thesis. In the first few drafts Sharon was actually quite mean spirited. She’s still a little mean, now, but as I spent more time with the story I think it became clear why.

In the original draft it was Christmas time, and it was pointed out to me in workshop that the holidays may not be the right occasion. Everyone goes home at Christmas, after all. So I moved it later in the winter, when things have really gotten ugly and there’s no cheer or houses strung in lights. That was a seemingly small change that I think made a big difference. A couple people also told me to pull the first paragraph from where it was languishing in the middle. It was one of those perfect suggestions that opened up the story in a great way.

Q: There are many paths to becoming a writer—of making enough money and finding the time to actually write. In many ways, “This is Just Temporary” addresses the difficulty of knowing what is next in life. What do you know about becoming a writer that you didn't necessarily know before?

A: Writing is as hard as everyone says it is. There was a point when I held out the secret hope that once I just started writing in earnest, it would become easier. That surely my next story would be as brilliant on paper as it was in my mind. This has never happened. Not to me or to anyone I know or have ever heard of. I lost that hope about the time I became convinced that it really was easy for everyone else, and they were all just putting on a show. I'm not sure when it was that I started to realize that no, we are actually in the trenches together, but it helps immensely to believe that we are. I see that happening in “This is Just Temporary,” too. It is easy to be caught up in the idea that we are the exceptions to the rule instead of finding comfort in being so much like everyone else.

Margaret LaFleur’s work has appeared in Stone’s Throw Magazine and at The Millions. She recently graduated from the MFA program at the University of San Francisco and currently lives and writes in Upstate New York. You can visit her on the web at margaretlafleur.com.

Stay tuned for a recording of Margaret LaFleur reading “This is Just Temporary”!

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