Aubrey Hirsch talks Doctors and Writing
A couple of months ago I read an article over at Flash Fiction Chronicles titled, Dating Advice For Writers. It was by Aubrey Hirsch, and, as the title suggests, Aubrey relates writing to dating. I came away from that article totally agreeing with her take on it. I’ve since read a couple of more of her articles and have enjoyed what I’ve read. Wondering when she would have another article for Flash Fiction Chronicles I posted the question on Gay Degani’s wall on Facebook that quickly became a conversation to where, lo and behold, Aubrey Hirsch chimed in. Thus, an interview was born.
So, without further delay, Herbie poked Aubrey with his famous needles and began drawing blood. Sit back and enjoy.
AJ: Who is Aubrey Hirsch?
AH: Aubrey Hirsch is a native of Cleveland, Ohio, which should tell you a lot right there. She’s a writer of fictions and little essays and the occasional poem. She is also a teacher. She likes to think of herself as the Dr. House of the short story, diagnosing problems and finding solutions in an occasionally gruff but somehow lovable way. That nickname has not caught on. Aubrey is of medium height and medium build and has medium brown hair. She is very good at Dr. Mario, but not very good at driving a standard. She loves desserts but hates when they are overly fancy. She will not, under any circumstances, drink beer. She likes science and math, and likes people who like science and math. When she was in college, her boyfriend killed her pet hamster by accidentally stepping on it. He cried and she forgave him. For five minutes after she finishes a draft of a story she is the happiest person on Earth, sure as she’s ever been that it is absolutely the best story anyone has ever written in the history of the universe. Then the glow recedes and she can actually get to work. It really bothers her when people refer to themselves in the third person.
AJ: The Dr. House of the short story? Okay, you need to elaborate on that.
AH: Well, writing workshops are a lot like hospitals. No one brings their manuscript to the workshop because they think it’s functioning perfectly. They bring it in because there’s something wrong with it and they either don’t know what it is, or they don’t know how to fix it. As a facilitator or a participant, it’s your job to play doctor. A good doctor can figure out what’s wrong with the patient. A great doctor can do that, plus make it better. I always ask that my students work to not only “diagnose” the problem, but also “prescribe” a solution. And I do the same.
Dr. House is my workshopping role model. He works with a team, bouncing ideas back and forth, until he is able to solve even the most complicated diagnostic puzzles, uncovering the smallest details. In stories, as in human bodies, small problems can cause big problems. As for his bad attitude, I think we all strive to be considerably more compassionate than Dr. House, but it’s never easy to hear criticism about your own work. As manuscript-doctors, we need to be able to deliver tough news without fear, for the good of the patient.
AJ: I’ve workshopped quite a few stories in the past, but I’ve never heard it put like that. That’s a great way to look at it and something I’ll have to keep in mind when workshopping stories in the future.
You said you ask your students to diagnose a problem and then prescribe a solution. Does that mean you run a workshop?
AH: Not at the moment. I’m very lucky to be on fellowship right now, so my teaching load has been lightened significantly. But I’ve taught workshop courses at the University of Pittsburgh, Chatham University and Colorado College.
AJ: You’re a writer. (Oh boy. Herbie just gave me a duh for that comment.) How did you get into writing and what are your favorite types of stories to write?
AH: Haha. Herbie is very observant.
I always loved writing, but the books I was asked to read in grade school and high school gave me the distinct impression that literature was over, that it ended with Hemingway. I entered college thinking I would study chemistry and took a fiction writing class to fulfill a core requirement. In that class, I was exposed to living writers for the first time. It was a total “ah-hah!” moment. As part of the final project for that class, we each had to send out a story to a literature magazine. I sent mine, promptly forgot about it, and then six months later got a letter in the mail saying they wanted to publish it. Having my writing recognized and appreciated felt amazing! It was just the motivation I needed to start take my writing seriously.
I really enjoy writing all kinds of stories. If I had to pick a “type,” I would say that I enjoy playing with the line between fact and fiction. Many of my stories are inspired by something that happened in my own life, something I read about in a newspaper, or a bit of science that fascinated me. Right now I’m working on a series of flash fictions I’m calling “counterfactual biographies,” fictional stories about historical figures. I’m having a lot of fun working on this project. The process is very research-intensive and I’m learning a lot of interesting facts about (among other things): NASA, biplanes, basketball, the 1919 World Series, the Gulf War, the American Revolution, and puppets.
AJ: Shhhh… don’t say puppets too loud. Herbie had a marionette once. It came alive and Herbie had to kill it. He hasn’t been quite the same since.
Aubrey, if I wanted to read some of your fiction where could I find it?
AJ: You also write an article for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Tell me a little about how that came to be.
AH: Sure. I write a monthly column, First Mondays, that appears the first Monday of every month at Flash Fiction Chronicles. We have Gay Degani to thank for that. She read my story, Amelia at SmokeLong Quarterly (in fact, she provided the beautiful artwork that accompanies it) and asked if I’d like to contribute something to the FFC blog. After reading a couple of my little pieces on craft, she asked if I’d do a regular column. It was my pleasure! I love talking craft with other writers.
AJ: Gay is a terrific woman. I really should write something for her. My problem is I am long winded.
I read your most recent First Monday at FFC about introducing the characters, well characteristics of the characters, in a first person story. Very insightful. Do you find it harder to write in first person as opposed to say, third??
AH: I think different points of view present different challenges. It’s difficult to provide objectivity in a first person story; it’s hard to deliver voice in a third person story. Etc. I guess I would say I find them both equally tough.
AJ: You’re good at Dr. Mario, eh?
AH: Uh. Understatement of the century. I am spectacular at Dr. Mario. My cousin and I used to sneak down to the basement during big family gatherings and play Dr. Mario until our brains were so scrambled we couldn’t put a decent sentence together. In college, my roommate and I made a special mix CD (the “D to the M Remix”) that we only/always listened to when we played Dr. Mario. Now I have it for the N64, which I suppose is fast becoming an antique. Whenever I play with a group, I have to set my player like eight levels higher than everyone else or it isn’t any fun. Even so, I can’t remember the last time I lost a game of Dr. Mario. Someone told me girls have an advantage at puzzle games like D.M. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But you can consider this is a blanket challenge to anyone on the Internet. I’ve got a crisp five dollar bill that says I can take you in Dr. Mario. Any day. Any time. Any platform. Best of three. Bring it.
AJ: Well, normally I would take any challenge, but you intimidate me with your confidence… so, I’ll pass. (Hush, Herbie.) Herbie will pass as well.
Seeing that I’m positive I can’t be you at Dr. Mario and you seem a competitive sort, do you compete in writing competitions?
AH: I have competed in writing competitions, but not with any kind of regularity. I like the suspense, and I like supporting literary magazines, but those reading fees can really add up.
AJ: Just a couple of more questions before I let you go. I think Herbie may have drawn enough blood for one day. Being a teacher, what would be the first thing you teach a person who wants to become a writer?
AH: Wow. That’s a tough question. I think if I were talking to a student who wanted to be a writer, I would say the most important skill to have is persistence. When you’re a writer, rejection is your whole world. The people who do well are the people who don’t give up. Your craft can be perfect and your stories can be brilliant, but if you can’t persist through the inevitable rejections you’ll never make it in this business, kiddo.
AJ: Very good advice. Thick skin is a must as well.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us before Herbie takes the needle out? He’s itching to see a little blood, yah know.
AH: My arm’s getting a little itchy, too. Are these needles sterile? I always have a lot to say, and I say it at Aubrey Hirsch.com. Come by and visit! And thanks for having me in your lovely… um… home?
AJ: And thank you for coming by. I hope the bleeding stops soon enough. Keep that band aid on and… oh wait, Herbie is actually offering you some orange juice. He doesn’t do that very often.
AH: Aw. How kind!
If you’ve never read any of Aubrey’s work, I encourage you to do so. You won’t regret it–I guarantee it.
(Herbie’s Note: Though he has never played Dr. Mario, he has considered taking it up just to swipe that five dollars away…)