Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Melissa Goodrich’s fiction piece, Little Ghost
Sommer: All great stories affect us emotionally, plain and simple. The greater the emotional connection, the greater the story. And it’s anyone’s guess as to how a writer accomplishes that (a little bit of magic, I say; a whole lot of truth). “Little Ghost” is one of those stories. Lately, I’ve heard educators talk about how many Gen Z-ers are afraid of “catching feelings,” preferring to keep things casual and shallow. I’m not sure this is just a Gen Z phenomenon. Do you have any thoughts or advice for writers on how to access the courage to feel deeply while they craft, and then to write those emotions?
Melissa: Emotional resonance is everything. That feeling when your heart is actually pressed down on like a piano key. And to be honest, there is not a time we are NOT experiencing emotion. Even sitting still, calm and upright, has a feeling. So for me it’s about awareness and a kind of muscle memory—how does the body behave when it experiences anxiety, frustration, joy, etc. I kind of let my body return to that emotional space while I’m writing, or sometimes that emotional space is already revving when I sit down. I just try not to censor it. You are allowed to feel what you feel.
Sentiment is not real emotion, really; so I don’t think anyone writing emotionally from a place of honesty can fear falling into oft-maligned sentiment. But what do you think? Did you struggle with this issue as you wrote this story?
Honestly, I just use myself as a test subject. I want the story to work on ME first, to not feel sentimental for ME as a reader. I drafted this story out-loud actually. I was driving home from Costco and told a story as a voice memo. So it had this round-the-campfire-on-the-spot-storytelling quality because I couldn’t just click away from a word doc and fool around on Twitter. I had to take the story somewhere, and I couldn’t overthink it because I was driving. I had to stay alive and keep the story alive. When I got home, I listened to it. It wasn’t bad. I was ready to go to the page.
Was this story always a flash story or did you find yourself editing it down from something longer? Probably because I’m no good at them myself yet, I’m always curious as to how successful flash stories are born. They still seem like a mystery to me. I’d love some enlightenment from you, if you’ve got any!
I think many writers have a form or length that comes most naturally to them. When I first read Octavia Bulter’s stories in her collection Bloodchild, for instance, they were the stories of a novelist—you could just tell. The stories felt like early chapters. Their worlds were vast. And then there’s flash writers who pull you in and out like a stitch and that feels most natural. Right now, I’m really at home in that quick space. I want to see how big my arms can stretch but also how fast I can move. Does that make sense? As a writer, I’m not a lingerer. I always start short and usually stay short. For me the hard work is grounding, making the work longer, the foundation thick. Which means all of us have our comfort zones and our little tricks to get out them. For me, one of my tricks is to ‘write past the ending.’ In my early drafts, I usually end a scene or two before the story does. So I just have to plow forward in the dark.
The language is stunning in this story, and haunting. I also love the sparseness, which paradoxically seems to fill all the story’s spaces with a humming, mournful presence. As you wrote, were you aware of the pull between writing too much and too little?
Thank you, Sommer! For a story about ghosts, I wanted it to feel sparse. Isn’t a ghost a kind of emptiness or emptying? For me it felt ghostly to have quiet little details and short, soft sentences. Let’s take a couple sentences at the end of the story for example: “My daughter and I, we walk down the road together, the moonlight turning us clear. A car drives through us. I hold my little girl’s hand like a sealed letter. And we never disappear.” Part of what’s spooky for me about these lines is that they’re SO simple. And ghosts are kind of spooky because they just don’t abide by the rules—you can’t touch them. They have their own reasons and logic for coming and going. That ending moment would feel off if it was overwritten, with every little detail, “My daughter who is 9 in ghost years and has eggshell white hair that I can see through…” ugh. I’m bored and kind of distracted already. I just want to see the ghosts walking down the road. I don’t want to describe how their necks and dresses and legs are translucent—I want one metaphor: “the moonlight turning us clear.” I think there’s an art to brevity. And it lets me trust my reader to do the work of filling in the details. I want to concentrate on giving them a story and a mood.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
There’s this wonderful piece about trying to get 100 rejections in a year by Kim Liao that I love to share. Instead of thinking of rejections as a sign of failure, Kim suggests you see them as proof of TRYING—proof that you are taking risks, sending out new work, submitting to journals that intimidate you maybe. And then each rejection is sort of a badge of honor. Stephen King said something similar in his book On Writing, that he used to literally pin his rejections to his wall until they were so thick the pin couldn’t hold them.
For me, reframing what a ‘rejection’ means is everything. Often, it means a piece isn’t ready. But also a rejection is proof that I am writing, that I am putting myself out there. I also really treasure a kind rejection letter—when an editor takes the time to write a personal note and to submit again, that feels almost better than an acceptance.
Thank you for doing this with me, and congratulations!
Thank you, Sommer! I appreciate all your thoughtful questions!