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2004 Writers' Forum
Elliott Bronstein

Elliott Bronstein, writer of short stories, grew up in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. After college he traveled extensively in Europe and South America, before settling in Seattle in 1980. He is a longtime board member of Red Sky Poetry Theatre.
Interview with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 9, 2004, Elliott and Belle discuss composition, performance, storytelling, writing techniques, revision, craft, art, voice, youth writing, community, and more.

photo credit: dean wong
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
36:15 / 14.5 MB
EB "So, I have a question for you…"
[excerpt from A Match Made for Heaven]
BR




Thank you very much. That was Elliott Bronstein reading [A Match Made for Heaven]. A short short story, yes Elliott? I understand there's kind of a revival of that form, if it ever went away, or a greater interest in it because of the internet. Apparently people don't mind reading on a screen if it's not too long.
EB Bite-sized pieces.
BR Yes.
EB This is actually the first page of a much longer story.
BR

Oh, I'm always doing that with people's stories. I'm satisfied with these arbitrary endings.
EB Maybe I should end it then. Maybe I should take the cue.
BR





You're a fiction writer which, I as a poet assume from what I've experienced of attempts to write fiction, it seems to require a lot more hours of sitting at a keyboard or sitting with your pen and paper than writing poetry does. And you have at least a full life apart from writing fiction. I mean you have a day job and raised two beautiful daughters and… how do you find time to write?
EB





To be honest, I don't write that much. But then, in a sense, I never did. I think that when I started raising a family I realized to my joy it was the perfect excuse. Now I didn't have to feel as guilty at not writing. Story writing does take a long time, but I'll have to take your word for the comparative because I don't write poetry so I don't know how long that takes.
BR


Well, it can take many drafts but it doesn't require you to sit at a desk quite so long I don't think. You can do a lot in your head. How long does it take you to write a story?
EB













It takes me months. This, the story that I'm working on now, and I've just read the first page to you, it'll be about 15 or 20 minutes long in the end. I've been thinking about it-I should correct myself. It takes me months to think about it, then it probably takes about two months to write it. And most of that time is spent futzing around and proceeding really painfully paragraph by paragraph, bit by bit, until gradually it starts to become whole. Finally I'll have a first draft, a bad first draft, and that's when it starts to get fun for me and also much faster. Because once I've got the basic thing down, then I can see where all the holes are (well, not all the holes, I always miss many holes), but I can see where the flaws are, I can start nipping and tucking. That's when it becomes easier for me. The beginning part is just extraordinarily difficult. I'm a bad first drafter.
BR






I recognize all those things. I mean sometimes when I write the first draft of something I almost can't believe I'm getting anything written, I feel like I have jetlag or I feel clouded and confused… but as soon as it starts being revision it's a lot more fun for me too, or something I can always do and get engaged in. So you think it takes so long just because of the necessary thought of bringing the thing into focus, and making it whole?
EB



















I need a story. I need to actually see the thing, see the thing complete. I need to picture the characters, hear what they sound like, picture what they do, not necessarily begin with a physical description, something like that but, I need to know what it is that happens. You know, we all talk to one another, you get together with a friend, they tell you a story about a third party and the story comes out pretty much whole. I have a tremendously hard time getting to that point. Because until I know what these people, these characters, have done, I can't write a word. 'Til I write a word of course, I don't know what they've done. So it just kind of blurbles forward. It's the worst, sort of constipation, I guess, and gradually pieces emerge. Once I have an idea I think about it a lot as I go through the rest of my day; while I'm riding my bicycle to and from work I'll suddenly have an idea, I'll stop and write it down. And gradually I have a ton of notes. And I think I'm doing fine, I think I'm making real progress. And I sit down to write, and I still don't have the faintest notion of what the thing sounds like, of what the tone of it is. Because I'm a very, I think I'm a very oral writer. I have to hear what it sounds like. And until I get that sound I'll just go over and over the first couple of sequences.
BR




I noticed the orality of your writing when you talked about the length of your work. You said it'll be twenty minutes, rather than pages. You're thinking about it in terms of performing, reading it. Are your stories written for performance rather than primarily publication?
EB





Well, they're written for the printed page, but these days and for many years now, I've primarily performed them, reading them in public, and have had almost no publication, so I think I've started thinking of them in terms of time, even though I still work on them as if they were great literary works that would only appear on a page, in some 19th century volume.
BR

Well, you primarily write short stories and there aren't very many places that publish very many short stories anymore really.
EB There are some. They don't seem to want mine too much.
BR I don't think you spend very much time submitting them either.
EB

I don't spend a ton of time. I have a small select envelope of rejection notes.
BR



Well, it gets pretty discouraging. Does it change your stories, that you can count on the fact that they're going to be read, they're going to be performed, people are going to receive them that way? Does that make them any different as stories?
EB









It makes them possible. Because if I don't have a deadline, a reading scheduled three or four months in advance, I'd probably just remain frozen in that note-taking phase. And never really force myself to punch it out. Part of the lessons I've learned, some of the lessons I've learned over the years have had to do with writing non-literary work through my succession of day jobs. Which have all involved writing one way or another, and from those occupations I've learned a few helpful hints. I think if I'd known them, if I'd know these hints when I was younger and had all the time in the world, I might've managed to turn out a few more.
BR And this is hints about writing, tips for clarity and style?
BR


















Well, no. How to get the thing done. How to get that draft on to the page, on to the screen. Because… I don't know if it's the same with you, when you're stuck with the first draft of a poem and you're suffering that constipation and you can't get it out, you don't know where to start, nothing's coming. There's little tricks that, you get old enough I suppose you can learn them. How to break a large impossible task into a number of smaller, somewhat more possible tasks. To break a scene down and just talk your way through it as if you were your own teacher, your own guide. Ask yourself, 'Okay, what needs to happen in the next quarter of a page?' The characters need to get to a certain point in their dialog or you need to have such and such transition piece. And then it starts to emerge. 'Oh yeah, I need to let the reader know' —and I do still think in terms of a reader rather than someone sitting in an audience— 'I need to let the reader know that so-and-so has made a phone call to the other person.' And once I hear myself say that I think, 'Well that's not so hard, just write a sentence that says that, essentially.' And gradually something begins to emerge.
BR




I do recognize that too … I have a student right now with a symptom I identify with a lot, but it's as if, she's been working on a work that is everything. It means so much to her and it means so much that there's nothing it isn't, and she can't complete it, you know.
EB










Yes. When one has so many… There's a book out now, a discussion of the many perils of having too many choices in life. And I think as artists, writers face that abyss sometimes. There's too much at the beginning you want to say. Your characters are capable of an infinite number of actions, you need to pick one. Any maybe this has been my problem over the years, I am obsessed with their picking, with my choosing the right one for them. Choosing the exactly right line of dialog that A says to B. And it's only when I give myself a break, cut myself some slack as a writer, as a drafter, and just say 'well, put something down, worry about it later.' The log jam starts to free up.
BR

Have you ever considered writing a novel? Or is the short story your form?
EB




I started trying to write a novel. Back in my late teens, probably ran all the way to my mid-twenties. I had a grand design for the great Canadian novel, and I couldn't do it. I failed spectacularly over a number of years. It was an interesting experience, in fact out of it emerged a short story.
BR Sounds like my novel.
EB




I came to short stories because I realized I couldn't do what I was trying to do, I needed to teach myself to write. I needed to teach myself some basic lessons. So I stepped back, I said 'well let's do something smaller and see how it goes.' It came out alright and I've stuck with that ever since.
BR

Well, it goes with your advice to break the task into discrete smaller, do-able bits.
EB Yes, break one's writing career into discrete bite-sizes.
BR



Well I too had a failed novel—and people just don't recognize what heartbreak that sentence represents—which kind of turned out to be, I'm not sure if I turned it even into a short story, perhaps seven pages of poetry came out of it.
EB







It was an extraordinary moment. I had been working on this thing for about eight months, and this was years ago of course before computers, so it was in a very crabbed long-hand, because I was overseas and didn't have access to a typewriter. And I was leaving the place that I'd been living for about eight months. Sat down to read the manuscript, it was the first time I'd cracked it open from page one. I found myself after a page or two, skipping, starting to skip, saying "I'll read that part later."
BR Bad sign.
EB



This sounds a little slow, let's get to that good part that I remember. And then it suddenly flashed on me that I was skipping a lot of pages and I realized 'Well, if I can't read this, nobody can.' And that was when it all, when the heavens opened up before me….
BR







It's so interesting how it's not intentional, I mean, in my novel, my thing was that static description would be beautiful, like a poem, you know, rooms were evoked, and things, and everybody would say, "But where's the story? Where's the action?" And I feel like I can't even see action, I mean, I just don't know what that is, and so, that's why I can't write narrative. Do you know how—I guess you don't, from what you've already said, you don't know how this story will end as you've begun it?
EB





I don't know exactly how it will end. I know probably about three quarters of the way through I'll suddenly flash on it. I have a pretty good idea of where it's all going. And I know the structure of it, and I've even got most of the scenes blocked out. What I have to do now is really start sketching it in and doing some primary colors.
BR



Since you think of your stories being read aloud, almost like a poet, I mean you're thinking of the sound, of a voice embodying them, is there a relation between writing and music for you? I think I've heard you speak of that?
EB














Yeah, for me, I always think of writing and music as part of one larger godhead, I guess. One larger artwork. There is a sound—and I think this would be true even if I weren't doing public readings—there's a sound to each narrative and I think that's true for all of us, just as when we talk to each other and tell each other tales, tell each other something that happened that day at work, or tell a story that we heard about a third party. When somebody tells a story, it's not just the facts of the case. What's really happening, what rivets us, if it's a good tale, is the voice of the teller. And that's why you might have some dull sounding person ruining a good yarn, and some vibrant lively voice reading out of a phonebook and holding you to your seat. Um… I've never been able to play music, I can't sing, but I like to think that when things are really soaring, when I'm doing a reading that's really going well, it's almost, it's as close as I can get to singing.
BR





I've always kind of resisted this concept of voice as so important, you know, like, "Have you found your voice or not?" But, how does that finding happen? Do you feel that that's an important development for a writer? That there is such a thing as finding your voice? Or is it a gradual process? Or is the voice different in every story?
EB















For me I think the voice is different in every story, although I suppose that if someone were to look at them all, read them in succession, they'd probably discern something that I can't, a sameness that I think is not there. I think if you ask how important is it to find your voice, my likely response is, 'I'll let you know when I do.' In fact an old friend many years ago, I'm embarrassed to think how many years ago, asked me that very question, and I didn't quite understand, I was so young at the time I didn't understand even what he was asking. The voice that I'm talking about is the voice for each particular tale, the sound that it has, and that sound kind of connects visually with the way the paragraphs lay out on a page…. I don't know if you ever do this with printed words, even with the newspaper, is to look not at the actual words but simply to look at the configuration of paragraphs, and get a feel for what's on there simply from the graphic look of it. I think you can often, 'cause that visual will give you clues.
When I'm reading fiction, somebody else's in a book, I can tell what's going on just by how the paragraphs are broken up. And that's a rhythm, that's like in music, when the main instruments cut out and you're left with a bass line and a drum throbbing for ten, thirty seconds. And then instruments start coming back in, and you can do that on a page, and when it's working it's wonderful.
BR







Yes, well I think that's very close to the way poets look at line breaks. Yes, I'm glad to hear you say that about voice. You know my solution as a poet is finding the voice for each poem and assuming that my voice is my limitation, that I can't help but have one so I don't need to worry. This focus on voice that one encounters sometimes… how would you feel about somebody if they said, 'Oh, I found mine.' And then it would be a sort of a static thing, you'd have a voice…
EB





Well, certain authors clearly found theirs. Dickens found his voice. I mean here's a writer who could simply churn it out. Page after page, chapter after chapter, hardly every revising much, making it up as he went along because he was publishing it as a serial. He had his voice, it's almost like a belief in God. You envy somebody for having it, but you can't imagine actually possessing it yourself.
BR

Yes well, quite right. And one could only be in awe of that voice. Not very many others that one could name, but some.
EB And there already was a Dickens, so who needs a second?
BR


Well, and it sometimes seems just to mean the definiteness of a point of view within the work, a sort of clarity of the attitude, kind of the tone of it.
EB







Right. And that's what I mean by voice, the tone of it. And it can be… all of us as writers, and I don't think there's a huge difference between poetry and prose in the final analysis, it's all art, it is all music, it's all song. It always comes down to a series of choices: this word or that word, this phrase or that phrase, long line, short line, bit of dialog, bit of description. In the end we're all craftsmen making some finite calls on how to shape the piece. And those small decisions create that voice.
BR



A teacher once said to me that, if a tone of a poem was alright, then everything else was. That that was the thing that reflected the unity and that everything was working, and I think that's true. And that's kind of the voice that you're talking about.
EB Yeah.
BR

Did you come from a literary family? How did you get this enthusiasm for writing, or when did it begin for you?
EB












I think I always had an enthusiasm for reading, and I mistook that for an enthusiasm for writing. I always read, I loved reading, and at one point, I think I might have been eleven or twelve, I decided that I could do this too, I could create something that could be in a book for other people to read. I've always thought that but really, I think for me the pleasure, and this is probably what threw me off for so many years as a young writer, what I really strove for was, to have written something. Past perfect tense. In other words, done. I'd get to hold up the manuscript and say, 'Well, I did it. I did this.' The actual process of writing has been so difficult, so unrewarding much of the time that I can only believe that I was confused as a younger person and mistook wanting to write with wanting to read.
BR And yet you still write.
EB










I still write. Yeah. There was a time when I'd almost thought I'd perhaps even given it up. But I still do like to produce these things, and once I get a first draft, then it does become fun. And by the time it becomes rolling, then I'm rolling, I'm having the time of my life. I don't know why I do it, but it is a wonderful thing. I think I like to do it simply to be part of that community and to be part of that activity, because I worship the written word. I worship great literature the way some people… the way some people believe in God, I guess. I really believe in art. It's important, and to play a part in that endeavor, even that miniscule, pathetic role, in a sense, is something.
BR




It's said that we're moving from a print-based to a screen-based culture, and getting images off a screen is very different from reading and creating them internally, when you get them off a screen they're there externally. Do you see this as a kind of threat to this written word that you believe in so much?
EB














Probably. I suspect that 100, 150 years from now, written prose and written poetry will both be somewhat of an anachronism—still around, still loved by some, still influential. In fact to the extent that they become an anachronism a century from now, they may even yield more of an influence, because of their stature as an original art form. But I do think we're moving to an image based culture, we've arrived at an image-based culture. I think movies now are what novels used to be. I don't mourn that, 'cause I like movies… I think it's probably inevitable. And there's nothing wrong with that. If you look at the history of written art, or any art form, be it dance or painting, there have been changes over the centuries. And at any given point, if you had stopped an artist, tapped her on the shoulder, and said "what do you think about this change?", he or she might've been afraid of becoming an anachronism. That's just the way of the world.
BR












Some people would argue back that when you create images internally, you're creating a sense of interior space, which is really our sense of ourselves. And the whole sense of oneself as having a mind that's deep and has things buried in it, and that to relate to images on a screen which are created for you, kind of implies a metaphor of the self which is shallower, and has… You know, when I remember the sort of Berkeley intellectuals I grew up around, you know many of them were involved in long-term psychoanalysis, and the sense of self as deep, that those people had, even myself, now, would run out of self in analysis in a year or two. There just doesn't feel, you know-and so, in that way-I've just been interested in that idea. It seems, maybe a graver concern than you're saying. Do you have a response to that?
EB















Yeah, maybe I'm more optimistic than I sounded a minute ago. I think you're right. I think there'll always be that peculiar pleasure that cannot be received any other way, of pulling a volume out of a pocket or a bag, opening it up, and immediately disappearing. You can't do that-I mean, I suppose thirty years from now one could carry one's own little 3-dimensional DVD player and you pop it open and start watching The Godfather, but it won't be the same. I think the difference, the fundamental difference is that voice. Because when you open a book and start to read to yourself, it's a conversation. It is intensely personal. You do imagine a lot of it, but there is that voice, it is someone talking to you, someone whispering in your ear, and there's nothing that can equal that. A movie, a visual image, a moving image is a fantastic thing, I love them, but it's not the same. You can only get that, you can only get that still voice in your ear from a book or from something written down.
BR



Yes. And there is something written down inside of every movie, just about. So that's still another way to think about it. I know you're on the board of Red Sky. I think you're one of the founders of Red Sky?
EB


















I wasn't a founder, I just showed up on the first day, and it was the first time I'd ever read. This goes back to, I think, 1981, Memorial Day Weekend, I believe. I had never read any of my stories in public. I think I had sent a few of them out, and gotten them back, rejected. And Don Wilson, who was the person that made up Red Sky, had come into where I worked in the Market a few days before, wanting to put up flyers for this reading. And I thought, well, I wonder what that would be like, to read one of these things aloud. I'd never… I'd done a little bit of theater in high school/college days, so I always liked the notion not of being an actor, but I wasn't afraid of standing up in front of a crowd, I could do a speech, I could do that sort of thing. So I thought, well, maybe I'll sneak downtown. And I did sneak downtown. I didn't tell the people I lived with where I was going because I was embarrassed, I was shy. And showed up, read my story, people clapped—liked that sound. The sound of clapping is excellent, immediate gratification, and I just kept coming back. And, gradually as an organizing body emerged, I found myself on it, because I'd been around since the start.
BR







Well I've only been around Red Sky Poetry Theater for the past five years, but I find it psychologically healthier to be reading my work as I'm writing it, making it sort of a day to day business, instead of having it as a secret in a drawer somewhere, you know that's kind of this secret pride or something that had grown up inside of me, even though occasionally things of mine were published, usually it was places that nobody I knew, knew they were. So that's what I like about reading at Red Sky.
EB


















It's a neighborhood gym for writers. Red Sky has survived all these years when so many other great reading series have burst on the scene and then folded their tents a year or two later. I think the reason Red Sky has survived is because it does one simple thing week after week: it offers an open mic, it offers a feature. It doesn't do slams, it doesn't… it simply provides a stage for people to come and try a few things. I think all of us in Seattle who are part of a larger writing community, many of us have gone down to Red Sky for a time, gotten tired of it, stopped going for five years, shown up again one night. It happens to everybody, but the nice thing is that this venue is still there, so that when a new writer, whether he or she is 20 or 50, someone who has been trying to write and needs to get it out of that drawer, when that person reads in the newspaper about open mic, they can just pop down and check it out. And it's a valuable service. And that's why I'm proud to be a part of it, even though I'm not a poet and don't read a lot of poetry. You know, it's always been there for me, it's been the place where I've read most of my pieces. And I'm really grateful that a venue like that exists.
BR




And it's a very different way of learning what needs to be corrected, what works and what doesn't, than sitting in a writing workshop at a university, with maybe 15 people commenting on your work. You can really feel it when you're reading aloud, if it's being understood or not.
EB







Yeah. Example: the piece that I read at the beginning of this interview, which is just the first page or so of a story, I have never read this whole stretch aloud, and even as I was going through it—and I've worked on this for hours, I've labored over each bit of dialog, I thought I'd gotten it—as I was reading it I heard, "Well, this is terrible, you can't tell who's talking, you know it's not breathing." And I would only discover that by reading it aloud.
BR

I am agreeing that I recognize the experience of somehow having worked something so that I would think it would have no leaks.
EB

Yes, yes, "We've caulked this baby," and then it springs a thousand leaks. Yeah, right.
BR


Well, our time is running out Elliott, but it's been wonderful talking to you today, and I really look forward to hearing the rest of your story when it's… twenty minutes long.
EB When it's written.
BR I've been talking to Elliott Bronstein. Pleasure to have you.
EB Thank you. A pleasure to be here.
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