‘Writerly Redemption’ Paved with 100-Word Stories

Jane_McDermottMeet Jane McDermott, author of Look Busy: One hundred 100-word stories by and for the easily distracted, published by Fourteen Hills Press. McDermott’s work runs the range of styles and moods, from the darkly comic to the unabashedly romantic. Each is meticulously wrought and fully formed—and has a killer ending line.

Find out how McDermott’s career in copywriting might just have fed into her success as a flash fiction master, what it was like to write and have published a collection of flash, and what she is working on now.

Jane, we love your book. Tell us about your writing life. Did you start writing as a child?

I was an infant writer, actually.

We knew you were a genius!

My father sold typewriters. He worked for Underwood, which became Olivetti. Family lore has it that I was typing from the time I could sit up, which was about six months. So, I was writing before I even had language!

As a little kid I was always writing stories. When I was 7 or 8, I put out a newspaper that I called The Town Crier. I used carbon paper to make copies and then went door to door to sell them for a nickel, to my mother’s horror. It was a short-lived enterprise; I probably made 25 cents.

You were born and raised in Boston. How did you end up in California?

I had theatrical ambitions, which took me to London for a few years. I thought, ‘Where can I go that would give me 3,000 miles of distance from my family but keep me in the same country?’ I looked at a map and thought, ‘San Francisco seems to satisfy that.’

I earned a BFA in filmmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute, and then managed to parlay that into a career in marketing and communications. I worked for an agency for a long time where we produced videos, slideshows, and other materials. I wrote both scripts and ad copy.

After I left agency life, I worked for the University of California Office of the President as a copywriter and then became a manager of marketing planning, where I managed staff, crunched numbers, and so forth.

How did you fit in your creative writing during this period?

I really didn’t. It was a black period. I couldn’t write and I even had trouble reading. But I kept up my subscriptions to Poets and Writers, and at the back of an issue one day I saw a call for 100-word nature-based stories. I thought it kind of sounded like a spec, which is something I could do. It sounded both specific enough and open enough, so I gave it a shot. I surprisingly had a very easy time doing it. So I sent that off and never heard anything from them.

But I started doing 100-word stories exclusively for a while, almost as a therapy. My road to writerly redemption, if you will, has been paved by these 100-word stories because I finally felt more confidence to do other things, such as take early retirement from my job at U.C., try doing some work for the U.S. Census Bureau, and then eventually return to school in 2012 to earn an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University.

You nearly have that degree. What is it like within an MFA program?

I was looking for some kind of validation. I had been sort of writing in the wilderness, and I wanted a sense of where I fit in, in the great world of writing. It has really exceeded my expectations, both the quality of the teaching and of the student body. It has been a superb experience, even though I am older than a lot of my cohorts’ parents!

Did you write Look Busy during this time?

No, I had already written the whole book before I began my MFA. It had actually been rejected at about six publishing houses. I almost didn’t submit it for the Michael Rubin Book Award at Fourteen Hills Press. But then I looked up Jacob Appel [the judge], and I thought he might get this. Also, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I’m surprised your book was rejected from these other publishers, frankly. It seems like you really get the short form.

I think the marketing writing background really helps. That’s what the 100-word form is: ‘How else can I say this, and still say what I want to say?’ That’s a copywriting skill, where one is always thinking, ‘Okay, too many words, or not the right words. So, how else can I do this?’ I also have no problem with throwing something away if it’s not working.

What I like about the form is that it allows the reader to take it wherever she wants to go.

What was it like putting together your book?

I am really thankful for the editors of Fourteen Hills. They asked a lot of questions about the stories, and I realized that it was not necessarily about the stories themselves but the proximity of them to each other. It was a little too call and response. So then I spread the stories all out on the floor and completely re-ordered them. Totally rearranging them helped so there wasn’t the same sort of predictability to it.

I never planned on writing a collection. That only happened when I realized how many stories I had! That’s why they are numbered. They never had titles to begin with. The only one that did was the first story, that nature one I mentioned. It was called “Deer vs. Headlights.” But it’s ‘Ninety-Nine’ in the book.

The title “Look Busy” comes from office life, where you could sit all day in front of a spreadsheet, or walk down the hall with a file folder, and everyone would think that you are working. Whereas in the course of an eight-hour day, probably about 45 minutes of actual work happens. The rest of the time it’s coffee, checking email, talking to everyone, getting ready for lunch, going to lunch, coming back from lunch… .

Describe your writing process.

I write longhand and type. It depends on how it comes to me. If it comes to me in a kind of paragraph, I try to key it in just to make it easier for me. But I have stacks of notepads by the millions. I like notepads versus notebooks because then I can tear out the pages and re-order them. But I end up hiding things from myself constantly because I will make a note of something and then I can’t find it. Also, I write down lots of snippets of conversation. Eavesdropping is a pleasure of mine because people say the most amazing things. The writing process always leaves me so grateful that I can make a whole out of whatever comes my way.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel, which is a very different world. It’s about young gays in their 20s in San Francisco in the 70s, and what happens to them over the course of 30 years. But it’s also turning out to be equally the stories of the people that they meet along the way. It happens at a very pivotal time in gay history. It starts before AIDS, goes through the whole AIDS period, and ends right at the threshold of legalized same-sex marriage.

I didn’t want to be a one-trick pony, or ‘that’ writer who only writes 100-word stories, although I still write them.

Do you have any stories of your own that are special to you?

The crazy yoga story.

Do you have any advice for flash fiction writers?

I’m not sure I would even advise anyone to think of himself or herself as a flash fiction writer. I think any writer should just do whatever comes out and find the format they are comfortable with. Every writer should give short form a shot, though, and not be afraid of it.

Read three of McDermott’s stories, including ‘the crazy yoga story’, her very first flash-fiction piece, and Faith, a brand-new piece published in 100 Word Story. Learn more about Jane at her website.


Photo Credit: Lynn Mundell

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