Dispatches | December 18, 2013

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Today’s Working Writer is Alexander N. Miller.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m currently living in Jamaica, Queens, New York. I’ve lived here for about two and an half years. It’s a tough city to live in, and I live with family. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, but my parents moved to Coral Springs, FL when I was about one, so I say I am from Florida. I grew up in Coral Springs (Ft. Lauderdale area) and attended Florida International University where I majored in Biological Sciences until I found my interests in that major waning. I changed my major to English Literature in hopes of training myself to be a fiction writer. I had the idea that I would be a writer, and use my English degree (or just my degree in general) to do whatever I could or had to do to support writing fiction.

After graduating, I wrote for a luxury magazine in Miami as an editorial intern for some months before getting a phone sales job. I realized there I was by no means a salesman, and left, unwisely taking another phone sales job. That was also short. I contemplated going into the military for a good while, and abandoned the idea after considering the absurdity of their requirements (only in some areas). After my military campaign, if I can call it that, is when I moved to New York. At the time it was May of 2011. I needed to get working fast, so I took an internship with a small marketing company. I was greeted with surprising unprofessionalism at the internship, and it’s sort of continued with every job I’ve had thereafter. I then began working for a gym at the same time, and then stopped interning to take a job with JPMorgan Chase as a research analyst. That job involved a lot of client research and looking over legal documents. I learned about people with great detail just from looking at paperwork. I never had to speak to customers of the bank, only co-workers.

So, I had two jobs. I liked the extra money, but it did weigh on me, and I noticed that’s what New York City can do — weigh on you, and drain you. It’s like you’re a bottle being passed around among a group of thirsty friends — eventually all the water will get low or disappear.

I currently work at a radiology facility in Manhattan in reception. Similarly, I learn a lot about the patients that come in because I have to screen them prior to their examinations, and I also read their reports after they are read by a doctor.

I read a lot — mostly fiction. Sometimes I read non-fiction when I find an interesting topic. It was reading that made me want to write. While in college I found myself reading when I was supposed to be studying, and I suppose that’s what got me to change my course of study. I read whenever I can, but lately I’ve stopped reading on the subway because it’s harder to concentrate and really get into a book. I reserve lighter reading (magazine or newspaper) for the subway.

I try and write before the sun goes down, but sometimes I have the urge to put something down at night. I used to be a night-writer but I shifted because I wanted to do other things at night, like watch films (I’m a film-lover), and read anything that grabs me, or things recommended to me.

 You say you have learned a lot about people from your various jobs reading legal documents or talking to people as a receptionist, do these interactions influence your writing?

I would say the jobs I’ve had, specifically the ones you’re asking about, have not influenced my writing yet. I think they take time to sit in me and sink. I’m finding they need to be memories before they can become prose. Anything I’ve tried to write as its happening turns out crappy and I can’t take it. I let things germinate a while.

Daily interactions influence my writing more. Work relations play a part in influencing my writing, of course, but no recent work experience, or any work experience within the past two and a half years really. When I talk to people, I pay attention and try to be aware of everything that person is saying or doing. It’s just how I am, and it works great when a memory makes its way to the front of my mind and maybe I write about it. Maybe I don’t. If I do write about it, maybe it sits there and I never go back to it. Sometimes I keep working on it and I find I want the characters to say something. Then I have a story of some kind. It takes some playing around. The playing around with things comes from writing everyday, or as often as possible.

 You say you write every day. Have you always been so vigilant? What are the advantages of being so dedicated? Is it ever hard to balance with your day job?

No, I have not always been writing every day. I used to write only when I was inspired or felt like I had some story to write. Sometimes if an idea popped into my head I would just write the idea down and continue to think about whatever I was thinking about prior to the idea coming. It’s not good to write like that, at least it’s not good to write prose like that. It takes this constant trying to get it right.

To this day, there are times where I’ll skip days because I traveled for a day or two, or for days. When I have finished drafts of my novel (currently working on) I’ve taken a break and just wrote in my journal or played around with other ideas just to keep writing. So, for the most part I write every day. For every draft of my novel, while working on each of them, I wrote just about every day. I didn’t pay attention to word count, but I was happy with about a 1,000 words per day.

The advantage of writing every day, whether it’s on a manuscript or just writing just to write, is that you get practice letting ideas flow. I get a better understanding of how I write. And it’s like practicing a sport. If you don’t do it, it won’t work out so well when you want to do it well. I find I’ve gotten better at writing by writing as often as possible. The reading helps just as much, if not more than the writing. The more I read the more experience I get with what writing looks like, and how the writer helps the reader imagine what’s happening in a story.

I balance writing by putting it first most of the time. I know I have to go to work I work to play bills, and work can be fun too, but it’s not as fun as writing. The accomplished feeling isn’t the same. A person can love a day job too, and perhaps love it just as much as the writing, but the activity isn’t the same for me. I love writing much more than any day job I’ve had, and it’s the reason I changed my major to study literature back in college. Writing is also a job — a job I haven’t made money from yet, but still a job. I can put writing second only when it involves the immediacy of money to live (eat, but clothes, transportation), which a day job provides.

Besides writing fiction every day, you’re also quite an active blogger. How does blogging fit into your writing process? 

I’ve tried to balance the two things — writing fiction, and blogging about writing and sometimes posting things I write. It’s really difficult. Sometimes I think I should just talk about everything else but writing, and let the writing speak for itself.

Sometimes I’ll post a short story I’ve written, or a short story I like from another author. I’ll use my WordPress as a sort of journal sometimes, but I’ll keep it less personal than my actual, physical journal. I use a little notebook as my physical journal, and I only write in that journal at home. I don’t take it with me because I don’t want anyone to read it. It’s the only place I express everything in my head without limits. If I’m going to be any place for a long time (4 or so days), I’ll take it with me. If it’s a weekend trip, I’m leaving it at home. I can write about anything that was on my mind when I get back tot he journal. At least then the thoughts will have had time to sit and I’m ready to put them down.

So, I guess I’ll say that blogging may not fit into my fiction writing process, but it serves a good way to express my thoughts on writing. It’s also a good way to keep up with people that read my blog, kind of like a way to connect with the world, because writing is a reclusive activity, and that’s one of the reasons I like it. Sometimes I have to get out though, and away from the computer to see actual people.

You say you’re working on a novel but also occasionally post short stories on your blog. Which length do you feel more comfortable with? Do you explore similar themes in your short stories and novels or are they totally different?

I’m actually working on a collection of short stories along with the novel. The collection of short stories is with a good friend right now, being critiqued, and then he’ll give it back to me. Some of the stories have been rejected, and one has actually been published in an indie lit mag (Zouch Magazine), and some I just post on my blog just to put out there. I feel much more comfortable (now) with writing longer form stories. I don’t think I’m a good short story writer, but I’ll still write them. I don’t think I’m a good poet either, but I still write those too. Short stories are so hard to write, in my opinion. You have to do so much in a short amount of space, and many readers have short attention spans. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just how it is. I like to set the scene, and I like reading novels that set the scene, even if it seems mundane, or drags on. The more color the better the overall story will be. I know there are other writers, past and present, that favor the short story and say nothing is wasted. Novels are journeys. They aren’t quick.

I don’t know if there is any differentiating in the themes I cover in short stories and novels. I would say novels involve many themes lumped together. Novels (good ones) usually don’t have one theme. They have many. That’s one of the things I don’t like about short stories and short story writing. Although short stories are great and fun, they lack that wholeness you get from a novel. Short stories can only touch on certain things while making the reader look or see the one thing they are trying to show. The novel gives you the air and space to breathe in concrete details and characters with great depth, because it has the room and time to. I take nothing away from either form. They are both beautiful.

What specific themes does your fiction explore? 

I’m still young, and figuring things (this writing thing) out, so I keep theme open. I follow Thomas Pynchon’s quote “Get too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page.” Also I don’t necessarily end up writing about what I originally intended to write about. The novel I’ve been writing (the one I keep mentioning) started out somewhat different than the story it is now, or the story it has become rather. I’ve come to realize the first draft is your piece of crap outline, and you go forward from there, polishing and polishing, shaping and shaping.

In regards to theme — I just explore what feels natural. I’ll call it “humane themes.” I like to explore humane themes. I have a story, so I tell it. I have a character, so I tell that character’s story. What comes out and what happens to that character is just what happens. Like I said, I follow what Pynchon said. I think he’s right. I don’t like when I write and it feels contrived. I felt that way about East of Eden. It was an excellent novel, but the writing was contrived, partly because it’s meta-fiction with Olive’s son telling the story. Ray Bradbury said you should just write and not think about it, which sounds hard, but he’s another great one that I agree with (somewhat). He said don’t worry about intellect. Your intellect will show in your writing. I’m sure you’ve heard about him taping to his typewriter “Don’t Think”.

How do you reconcile writing without thinking with the editing process? Doesn’t the polishing process interfere with this?

Regarding writing without thinking, I think it’s really hard to write like that. That Ray Bradbury quote is something to strive towards though. I’ve closed my eyes and let my fingers just go on and write. I know it could be colossal shit I’m writing, but at least I’m writing. I know I can always go back and edit, and I know when I finish the draft and actually do go back and edit, I may or may not fix it. Who knows? It may not need fixing.

I try not to worry about how good the writing is on the first draft. If I worried about how good it is on the first draft, it would take forever just to write a single paragraph when I know I can pump one out pretty quickly. The manuscript can really flicker to life at times, and that’s what I look for in a book I read, so I think it’s the same when I’m writing a story. I’m like most people in the sense that I hate my own writing, or I think it’s crap on the first draft. There may be some things I like, but overall it just doesn’t feel all the way good, or right, when I’m writing the first draft. I majored in English in college. Not that it matters entirely with editing, but it’s more important that I’ve always been a reader, and that’s what’s going to help me when it’s time to edit. I’ve read enough to know what is working for me, and what I’ll truly want to cut. I have faith in my own judgment. After I’ve finished with it, someone else needs to read it to see what I’ve missed or lend another perspective.

I have to have faith in my own judgment, and I have to believe in my abilities as an editor to make something I’ve written much better. I not only read for enjoyment, but to understand good storytelling. Having the skills and the tools to make things better with editing is what allows you to write that garbage first draft without stopping often. You can just let your mind flow when it needs to, and you do it again day after day. One day you finish. You have a draft.

Throughout this discussion, you’ve said you’re always a reader first. What books have most influenced your writing?

 This is the hardest question to answer because I have to look through the books I’ve read now (the most recent ones). I think the books I’ve read in my leisure in the last two and a half years have been the most influential.  I have been most influenced by The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway for his simple description and making me feel like I been to Spain, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon for it’s daring plot and daring style (you have to keep readers on their toes), and Sula by Toni Morrison for her poetic writing and themes she explores.

 You can read more of Alexander at his blog, The CMILLERPROJECT, or follow him on Twitter @AMiller002.