Next Chapters is a biweekly feature spotlighting graduates of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, which has been running since 2010.
Novel Incubator Year: 9
Current Project: There Is No Bear on Our Lake, literary fiction
What writers have most influenced your writing?
Margaret Atwood, for unflinching insight, reckless imagination, killer zingers, and patience.
Jesse Ball, for existentialism that achieves both beauty and kindness.
Miriam Toews, for literally taking my breath away and offering free master classes in holding attention one sentence at a time.
Ocean Vuong, for metaphors that set the bar and a conscience that refuses to compromise.
The Nolan brothers, for coming damn close to mastering time.
Christopher Pike, for making a frightened gay teen fall in love with a vampire femme fatale.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Too many things: an astronaut, a sorcerer, a singer, not-a-grown-up, a really, really humane human, and a time traveler. I suppose writer is a fair approximation of those aspirations, so well done me. This assumes, of course, that I am no longer a child—debatable. If indeed I am still finding my way back from Neverland, I’d say when I finally do grow up, I want to be George Saunders—the thoughtfulest of wizards.
What is your greatest struggle on the page? What would others say is your writing superpower/strength?
Writing requires us to do, simultaneously, all sorts of contradictory things. The most essential of these is to believe maniacally until the imaginary comes to life, then to subject our hallucinated newborns to unflinching skepticism. I think my greatest struggle is straddling these emphases without falling into the abyss between them: learning how to offer my work to others, reclaim it as mine, offer it again, and still keep it for myself. On the page, this probably manifests in overwriting and abstraction and total confusion for the reader. Boy can I go on about blah blah blah…wait, what the hell is he talking about? (Obviously.)
As for superpowers, if Marvel movies have taught us anything—doubtful—it’s probably that our weaknesses are so often the excesses or consequences of our strengths. I think my collaborators would say the flip-sides of my failures are my wild and ambitious ideas, my command of language, and signature—seeing what a story is about. Or maybe they’d say that’s all nonsense, in which case my real strength is a capacity for self-delusion. But for a writer, there are worse superpowers!
What strategies do you use when you’ve hit the wall?
- Lower the pressure: the wall only gets bigger when I have to climb it now.
- Switch it up: the wall crumbles when I ignore it. The best way I’ve found is to work on other writing, a different section or another story altogether, reminding myself no single piece must succeed, and many are beloved. (This last, I know, is damn hard.)
- Mantras: the wall hates to hear things like No one has to read what I write today and The best thing I’ll ever write is the next thing and Just tell it to me like it’s bedtime.
- Colleagues: the wall is alone, but I am not. No writer should be without trusted collaborators who can remind them they’ve climbed the wall before and found beautiful things, and who freely share each other’s failures and triumphs. (Thanks, Novel Incubator.)
- I remind myself that to be human is only to be a storytelling animal, that there are no writing prodigies, that all of us are down here in the dark sharing torchlight, and that the only way to explain why doing this work matters is more words—so write some.
If you could ban one word or phrase from the language, what would it be?
Why load a gun with only one bullet when the zombies are everywhere??? How cruel.
I guess I’ll shoot In my personal opinion.
Bang. Dead. God that felt good.
Now the rest—takeaway, self-care, very unique, reality television, and countless more—can eat me.
John McClure is an amateur baker, musician, and crackpot who spends most of his time debating dead and made-up people. He hopes to acquire more magic powers someday. His short fiction has appeared in Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine, and he’s currently finishing a novel in verse about a family, a cabin, and a maybe-maybe-not-imaginary bear.