Strong writing advice often comes in snippets ––– small bits of wisdom that cuts to to quick. Often they're easy to remember, though perhaps, not quite that simple to implement. I'm thinking of Emily Dickinson's words, "Tell the truth, but tell it slant." One afternoon in early April, 2017, I enjoyed speaking with three friends and contributors to our very first issue (Issue No. 1 - Summer 2017), Ben Janse, Sean Damlos-Mitchell, and Andrew Jimenez, who were living together in a three-bedroom duplex in Bed-stuy at the time. An except from the interview appears below, wherein Janse, Damlos-Mitchell, and Jimenez ––– individually as well as collectively ––– reflect on their growing pains as writers, and offer small insights into a few of the lessons that they've learned along the way.
All of our best,
March Second, 2020
Isaac: Do you remember the first poem you wrote?
Sean: The first poem that I wrote? No. I have no idea. I’ve actually been finding a lot of old poetry on my computer that I just had no idea that I had written, and I don’t remember when I wrote it.
Isaac: It’s fun to do that, right?
Isaac: I found something that I wrote in 2011, and I came across it last night because I was searching for something else, and I found that, and it’s sort of . . . you’re reading yourself, but it feels like you’re reading someone else who hasn’t figured out the things that you’ve figured out.
Sean: Yeah. I feel very removed from it, and I wouldn’t want to go back and try to edit it or change it, because it came out of just a completely different person.
Andrew: I kept a journal all through middle school and through the first couple years of high school every day, and sometimes I go back and read some of that stuff. And it’s really weird because I’m thinking, oh, I can see a little bit of who I am as an adult in there, but there’s so many other things that I’m just confused about, that I haven’t sorted out yet, and so it is really weird, because it’s somebody who you know really well, but who isn’t you.
Isaac: That’s right. That’s a good way to put it.
Ben: Yeah, I found a lot of old writing when I was going through my old stuff a couple of years ago before my dad moved. And it was just so depressingly bad.
Isaac: The writing?
Ben: The writing.
Isaac: But was it comforting at all, to read it?
Ben: So the early childhood stuff is kind of cute and nice, but teenage stuff it’s just . . .
Andrew: It’s so bad.
Ben: I was just so depressed that it ever came out of me that I feel like I might never write again.
Andrew: It’s embarrassing.
Ben: And then I threw it all away. I feel like writing is one of those things where you improve by leaps and bounds.
Ben: You don’t gradually improve, so I feel like everything that I did was really really bad, until it was good.
Isaac: Did you notice a time when it turned?
Ben: Yeah, I remember the first good short story I wrote, and I thought, oh, I this is what good is. I thought the stuff that I had written before was good, but I suddenly understood something about writing and fiction. There are just so many mistakes that you make. That’s why I think writers take so much longer to develop.
Andrew: It’s really easy to make mistakes.
Ben: Yeah, and just mistakes of taste and style, of clichés ––– and you're not even aware of the mistakes you're making. You're not even sure how to make sentences work, in a lot of ways. I remember something that I used to do, that you see in a lot of amateur stuff, when we had to read a lot in workshop, is that someone gets confused between using beautiful words, words that can connote beauty, versus actually having beautiful writing. And so they’ll use words that have a lot to do with light, and they’ll use the words “beautiful,” and “shimmer,” just words like that a lot, but that doesn’t actually make your writing beautiful.
Isaac: Are you sure it doesn’t?
Sean: There’s actually a list of words too, where if you put them in any writing it’s automatically beautiful. It doesn’t matter what else is going on.
Isaac: Just put more beautiful words in there!
Andrew: There are a lot of words like “esoteric,” and “ephemera” that I remember. There were these words, maybe it’s a grad school thing, but you'd see these words come up over and over again, and they'd be meaningless. Instead of just writing concretely about what you were trying to express, the stories would include these other words that had no meaning.
Sean: So you didn’t like my short story, “The Esoteric Ephemeral Nature of Light”? Is that what you’re trying to say here?