At 41, Manuel Muñoz has hit what many would consider a stride in his writing career. He is an Assistant Professor in one of the best creative writing programs in the nation. His first novel, What You See in the Dark, was published in 2011 by Algonquin Books, following two selections of short stories: Zigzagger (Northwestern University Press, 2003) and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (Algonquin, 2007). His was a 2008 recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, has earned numerous prestigious fellowships, and his story “Tell Him About Brother John” garnered him a PEN/O.Henry Award in 2009. I sat down with Muñoz last week in his Tucson office to talk about his work, his process, and to get some general tips for writers that, like me, are just starting out on that long, lonely career path. If you are a writer and you are looking for a bit of insight from someone who knows a thing-or-two about the craft, look no further: wherever you come from, this guy has been there, and it all shows in the imagery and intimacy of his prose.
Here’s what Manuel Muñoz had to say…
…on observing new writers at work:
What’s so interesting to me be about watching (students) work through a story is knowing they’re going to get to a point where they’re going to send it out, whether it’s having the courage to send it out or having the ambition to send it out—it could be different things that drives somebody to do it—but knowing almost for certain that the piece is going to be rejected… knowing that’s the probability, but doing it anyway. Because it might cross the desk of an editor at the right time of day, if your vision has completed itself on the page, you know all sorts of different things can happen.
…on the submission (and rejection) process:
It feels to me sometimes like this sort of belief and faith that I can just keep working on my stories and at some point they will hit.
…on rewriting and drafting:
A lot of it is patience; seriously considering what you’ve done after you’ve written it, and maybe sent it out. You put it away in a drawer and maybe come back to it and you realize, well, maybe this story doesn’t have the energy that you thought it did, it doesn’t have the language, it doesn’t have the vision. Maybe I don’t think I know what the story is about yet…and being hard on yourself, in some ways, but not in such a way that it keeps you from trying… have the patience to let it sit, put it away in a folder for even just a week… but the patience is the key. Work on something else, start a new piece, but put it in a folder and whatever you do, don’t touch that story for a week, two weeks, four weeks. I had a professor that said to leave (a story) for a month always, because you can really surprise yourself when you go back and reread it.
…on trepidation about starting a new piece:
There’s always that moment, I think, of trying to edit even before you begin, and I think that can be self-defeating… I don’t think you should necessarily be afraid of that…as long as you can find a way to get moving on the page.
…on criticism, workshopping, and finding his voice:
I am a short story writer at heart. When I was in graduate school, I worked on a novel because my early experiences as an undergraduate in a short story creative writing workshop were pretty disastrous. I had great instructors but my experience in the classroom with my fellow students was really negative, and it pushed me away from material. I had a real resistance to content: not writing about these things, these places, these people, this tone. The instructors were the ones who were responsible for keeping me enthusiastic and moving, reading… and they were the ones that encouraged me to do an MFA and all of that.
But it got in my head that I didn’t understand scope and that I should be working on a novel, because that’s what I kept hearing from my peers. So I got to graduate school and I worked on a novel… it wasn’t great work, when I go back and think on it, it was pretty terrible, and that’s what I did my workshops on.
It was only when I was out of the graduate workshops—and I’ve said this before—and I thought that no one was paying any attention, it was just me, and if I wanted to work on something, why not a short story? Just try. And so I just started in a coffee shop one day just writing these sentences and it felt truer. ..
…on having room for improvement:
No piece is ever finished. You have to let it go. I look back at some stories and, well for instance, I’m really hard on my first book (Zigzagger)… it hits a lot of points that are thematically urgent, but when I go back and look at some of the stories and (now I see them as) kind of like mood pieces, but not stories. I mean, (this is) because my concept of story has changed, and that’s been a big revelation to me.
…on reading and writing for content:
Every time I pick up a new book, or I read something new, I’m never reading for content. I think a lot of people do read only for content. That’s the question (you get) at the party: “Well, what is it you write about?” and I hate that question because, and I’ve said this many times, who I write about are people that most people don’t care about, so already I have these big road blocks to an audience, you know? …So when I sit down to write about these people I have to think about form and telling, and know that that’s the big hurdle to get somebody who’s not from that community to find the story compelling, interesting, intriguing, or relatable even.
…on writing about the central California valley (where Muñoz grew up):
I’ve made a commitment to myself to write about the valley in an effort to make sure that a little piece of it can enter the dialogue. It’s not a big voice, it’s not a powerful voice, it’s not a huge voice, it’s not a voice that a lot of people are paying attention to, but it’s a record and that’s really important to me… when I get in to these moments of feeling down on myself, or when I’m struggling with my confidence… I have to step back and say to myself, ‘What kind of work do I want to put out in the world’? Even if it’s not noticed by a lot of people, it’s still now a record toward ultimately who I want to write about and the place I’m trying to define. It has to be about that. It can’t be about me.
Any of what award-winning author Manuel Muñoz had to say strike you in any way? Was there anything you disagree with? Whatever you might have to say, I’d love to hear from you! Please, feel free to leave a comment for me below!
Manuel Muñoz’s website: http://www.manuel-munoz.com/
Work by Manuel Muñoz: http://amzn.to/16nbI9U