Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Dustin M. Hoffman’s fiction piece, The Ouija Board Inspector
John: The premise of this story—an overbearing psychic at the Ouija Board factory—is fabulous. Do you remember where it came from? Where do you get your inspiration for writing?
Dustin: I have to give credit to my pal Jason Teal, editor of Heavy Feather Review. We were chatting about horror stories, and he joked about me writing a story about a Ouija Board factory, as if this would be my inevitable take on a horror story since I write about blue-collar work so much. That joke rolled around in my head for about a year. From there, from a year of mulling, the “we” collective point of view popped in to give it structure, and then the overbearing psychic you mentioned showed up as a way to focus conflict. It was a bit of a mental assembly line, with Jason Teal acting as my foreman to start the line, and then the pieces rolled along after.
Were the Greeks onto something with the idea of muses? Are there spirits out there that whimsically bestow art on us, or is it just something boring like the subconscious? And if it’s the latter, why does it so often seem to be uncooperative?
I tell my students if they wait for the muse, they’ll never get anything done. I’m a big believer in treating writing like any other job—showing up every day and putting in the labor. And even a day where nothing gets written is progress. For me, at least, I have to force the muse, and, yeah, it’s uncooperative. Most days are painful writing days, but I know if I don’t put in the bad days I won’t get any good ones.
Maybe it’s the subconscious. Ralph Ellison talked about slipping into a dreamlike state in writing, but he also noted that we study craft consciously so we can be a bit more lucid in the dreaming. I like this, the idea that when we write we teeter between conscious and subconscious. With gathering inspiration, for me, it’s about being very conscious of my world, constantly hunting for story ideas even when I’m at Chuck E. Cheese with my kids or when I’m reading or even when I’m sitting through a boring faculty meeting. Because, you know, Jason Teal won’t always be there to deliver a story idea.
When I look at my own writing, I am often unable to really pinpoint the origin of things. They just seem to appear from out of nowhere. The same is true of writer’s block—if nothing is there, it doesn’t seem like there’s much I can do to fix it. Is this true of you as well, or do you have a more systematic approach than I do?
Drafting terrifies me—making something out of nothing. It’s so impossible. To help ease this anxiety, I allow myself to write really shitty first drafts; Anne Lamott’s great advice holds true. In the primordial pool of word spilling, story somehow manages to emerge. It seems a little like magic every time.
But, yes, a system helps. I scribble notes at any fleck of an idea. Right now, there are eleven blue sticky notes surrounding my writing desk with story ideas on them. That way, I can’t claim writer’s block for the lack of ideas. There’s always some scrap waiting, even if it’s just a two-word idea. I have these on my phone’s notepad, too, but I like the visual confrontation of the sticky notes. I also make myself write at least 100 new words every day. It’s such a small amount that I can actually sustain this, and I’ll usually write a lot more once I get going. I’ve tried making myself write 500 or 1,000 words daily or write for at least an hour a day, and I just can’t sustain that while I’m teaching full time. This 100-word goal has been kind to me with its low stakes. In the summers, when I have more time, I try to give myself regular hours, 9:00 – 2:00, which is what Gabriel Garcia Marquez once reported working in an interview, and what he’d do from 9:00 – 1:00 was erase everything he’d written the day before.
Whose soul would you embed in a Ouija Board, and why?
Marquez wouldn’t be a bad choice. Donald Barthelme seems like he’d have fun on a Ouija Board. I could pick their brains for writing advice, and they’d probably tell me the same thing: just get back to work.
This appears in your story collection, No Good for Digging recently published by Word West Press. Can you tell us something about this book?
No Good for Digging is a collection of weird, experimental stories, most of them flash fiction. A lot of the stories are about working people doing manual labor, a subject that continues to haunt me me after I spent a decade painting houses in Michigan. But this book also dips into surrealism and fabulism. This story, in fact, serves as a kind of bridge between the gritty realism of blue-collar work and fantastical absurdity. I wanted both of those forces very present in this book working lives. After all, what’s more absurd than going to work and doing the same thing over and over again for thirty or forty years?