weird words with Teresa Stenson

Teresa Stenson lives in York, England, where she balances her day job as a ghostwriter with her own creative pursuits. Her short stories have been published by The Bridport PrizeThe GuardianFairlight BooksLitroPopshot MagazineMatchbook and Jellyfish Review, among others. She is working on a collection of linked stories and can be found on Twitter @TeresaStenson.

Our former fiction editor, Cathy Ulrich, asked Teresa a few questions about “What kind of”, published by Pidgeonholes on December 5, 2018.

ULRICH: I love tiny stories like this that pack such a huge punch. Did you go in with the intent of writing a micro, or is that just how the story turned out?

STENSON: It’s just the way it turned out. This story has a long history: I actually started writing it twelve years ago, and although there have been a few different versions, which I’ll talk about in a moment, none of those versions ever went over 200 words. It was always an intense snap-shot.

ULRICH: Some people find second person difficult to write in, but the voice here is so natural. Did you ever consider trying it from first or even third person?

STENSON: I’m so glad the voice works for you. I’ve written this story in all the persons! It’s semi-autobiographical, so the very first draft, written in 2006, was in first. I wrote it as a kind of therapy piece, I think, but because it was so personal I wanted to put some distance between myself and it, so, maybe as a form of protection, I rewrote it in third.

Soon I was kind of sick of it: you know those insecurities you get about a piece which is from an honest place — that it’s too indulgent, or navel-gazing, and I was probably thinking too much about what the reader would get from it, and all of that was bound up in a feeling and fear of exposure. And also, I just didn’t know what I wanted to say with it yet. It looked finished but it wasn’t finished, and it took time away to know that.

Cut to Summer 2018 and I was compelled to revisit it. It must have been time. I’ve always liked the duality of it: that it’s about having an experience that seems outside of you, or who you believe yourself to be. I liked the visuals of the mountains and the sea, and how they contrast with the experience on the floor.

I shook off the hesitations about it being too personal and gave myself permission to say what I needed to say. Maybe I needed to be 37, and maybe it needed to be 2018, for me to do that.

Rewriting the piece in second person came naturally; it just happened as I reworked it, and I added the first person parts too. Why I did that makes sense now — it’s as if me, as a 37 year old, is talking to the 20-year old who had that experience. I feel as if we’re having a conversation.

ULRICH: I am not a fan of one-sentence stories usually, but the build and build in this to that final image — “more that you are atom-split” — just destroys me. Did you always have this ending in mind?

STENSON: The weird thing is that I hadn’t really noticed it was one sentence until I read your question! That sounds insane, I know. Probably I did know, but it wasn’t obvious to me, somehow. It might be because of the to-and-fro between the second and first person parts, which links to what I was saying about it being a conversation between me-now and me-then. Those earlier versions of the story were not one-sentence pieces, they were actually made up of very short sentences.

As for the final line – that only came as I revised the piece this year. I guess it was an acknowledgment of how divided I felt by this experience, and writing about it, and how many fragments there are of us, how obliterated we can be by an experience, even when we’re complicit in it. I was trying to make sense of what was going on for that 20-year old me in the story, who was a little lonely and lost — despite all of her independence and outward strength (backpacking alone in Europe, without a mobile phone, going from place to place with little planning) and yet she still found herself going along with something because she thought she should. (Note use of third person, even now!)

ULRICH: I think a lot of us can relate to that feeling of being half one thing, half another. What divides you?

STENSON: So many things … and this is something I’ve embraced as I’ve got older, and  recognized as a strength.

I’ve always been drawn to the grey areas, the between bits — like most writers, I guess. A big section of society seems to prize people who are really sure about things, above those who are curious about things. We use “sitting on the fence” as an insult, when actually, being able to see all sides of an issue and ask questions is a gift and shows openness and consideration. I tend to be wary of people who are very black and white in their views, and those who are heavily into defining themselves and their personalities.

There is a practical way to answer this question too: I earn my living as a ghostwriter so in that way I am frequently divided as I pretend to be someone else every working day — on paper at least. My main client is like the opposite of me: and I love writing as him — it’s very freeing.

In essence I think we all divide ourselves into a multitude of roles, some chosen, some conditioned. Maybe they collectively make up the whole of us, or maybe there is a underlying “us” beyond all of that which is out of definition. I think we don’t always know, or have to know, who we are, or what we think about the world. I think who we are can change day by day, moment by moment.

You can read Teresa’s story, “What kind of”, here.

 

Logo by: Robert James Russell