Instructor Q&A: Thomas McNeely

“Smart writers keep themselves open to whatever suggestions will help their work. This can be a comment on how a sentence can be reworked, a character deepened, a plot rearranged—or about the course of your whole career.”

-Thomas McNeely

A native of Houston, Texas, Thomas H. McNeely is the author of Ghost Horse, winner of the Gival Press Novel Award. A former Dobie Paisano, Wallace Stegner, and National Endowment for the Arts fellow, he has taught writing at Stanford University, Emerson College, and other universities and writing workshops. His short fiction has appeared in The AtlanticPloughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in The Best American Mystery Stories and Algonquin Books’ Best of the South: From the Second Decade of New Stories from the South. Visit his website at: www.thomasmcneelywriter.com.

Thomas is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Losing Yourself, Finding Your Voice: The Art of Revision” on Saturday, May 14, 2016 at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

thomas-mcneely-smallerScribe: How did you first learn the importance of heavily revising stories?

Thomas McNeely: I’ve written as long as I can remember. When I was in grade school, I wrote scripts for Super-8 movies, and in high school, short stories and bad poetry. I never really thought about editing my writing until I worked for The Daily Texan, writing mostly movie reviews, and when I took my first college-level creative writing courses at the University of Texas. Those courses made me think about not only style, but also setting, genre, and characters’ motivations.

But it wasn’t until I was in graduate school at Emerson College that I began really revising my work, reworking stories in draft after draft until they were done. That experience, with the extremely patient guidance of very gifted teachers like Pamela Painter and Margot Livesey, was when I realized that writing is rewriting, that revision isn’t—or shouldn’t be—a chore, but a way to discover in one’s writing new possibilities. During the years that I worked on my first novel, Ghost Horse, as a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford, I again had the great good fortune to be instructed by brilliant teachers, like Tobias Wolff, and have my work critiqued by amazing peers, like Stephen Elliott and Eric Puchner—and the message was always the same: You have to always be open to transforming your work through revision.

Scribe: Can you describe how one of your stories changed in a completely unexpected way after reworking it?

TM: My first published story, “Sheep,” started out as a movie script that involved a completely different plot and characters. Like the published story, it was based on my experience as an investigator for the Texas Resource Center, a non-profit law firm here in Austin where I worked after college, which took capital murder cases on appeal. But otherwise, it was different. The script stank, and I put it away. A few months later, in another class at Emerson, I wrote a story about a newspaper article about a shepherd in Maine who had been discovered keeping corpses of people he’d killed in his closet. At the time, I was in a fiction class with James Carroll, a teacher who had a profound influence on me, and something clicked. I wrote the story in two weeks when the city was almost paralyzed by snow storms, and no one could interrupt me. It was a perfect alignment of circumstances—but I would not have been able to write that draft if I had not written all of the previous ones and, more importantly, been willing to completely abandon them and what I thought the story was about. The story opened up for me when I let myself find the main character’s voice—a character completely unlike me—or more accurately, I let Lloyd, the character, find me, and show me how to tell the story.

Scribe: You mention that workshopping will be a big part of this class. What do you think other people’s eyes on a story add most to the revision process?

TM: They can add everything—they can save a story, tell you how to write it. You just have to be willing to listen. Not every suggestion is going to help your story, but you have to keep your ears pricked for the ones that will—and they always come. Workshop is a testing ground, and just as any performer tests their material in front of an audience, writers do the same. The idea that writing is a solitary art, or that inspiration always visits you in solitude, is just false. The work of imagining and putting sentences on paper is solitary, but writing is part of a conversation with the larger world. It’s a limiting and debilitating assumption that to be a writer, you have to work on your own, and “find your voice.” Smart writers keep themselves open to whatever suggestions will help their work. This can be a comment on how a sentence can be reworked, a character deepened, a plot rearranged—or about the course of your whole career. We’ll be talking about all of these levels in “The Art of Revision.”

Scribe: Could you give an example of a time that you’ve listened more to a character than yourself? When have you went with a risky decision that felt not at all like you?

TM: “Sheep” would have been impossible if I hadn’t listened very hard—and I mean literally—to hear Lloyd’s voice. His voice, and his sensibility, created the lens through which I understood how to tell that story. I could not have written it without his help, and I’ll be forever grateful to him. Even in short stories and in my novel, Ghost Horse, which are more autobiographical, I have found that the story does not really live until I create a character and voice that are independent from me. This allows me to take risks. In Ghost Horse, the main character, Buddy Turner, commits an act of violence which was very hard to write, because I was afraid that readers would assume that I had done something similar. Creating Buddy as a character with a separate voice and sensibility was crucial to writing that scene.

Scribe: “Losing yourself” is a very good way of describing getting into the story. Can you elaborate on what that means to you?

Some of the most intimate relationships I’ve had have been with books. I don’t pretend to be an equal—but great authors can give you the feeling of having an intimate connection with them, and with their characters. Paradoxically, authors reach out to their readers by becoming their characters—you feel Shakespeare, or Alice Munro, through the dazzling variety of their voices. That’s what readers seek – to be transported. That’s what I hope to give my readers, and in this time of sound-bite impressions, this kind of intimate connection is becoming more and more rare. That’s what writing is, to me, to talk to readers through my characters.

Scribe: You will also be doing a reading in Austin the night before your class. Can you tell us a little more about that?

TM: It’s my great honor to be reading with Mary Helen Specht, author of Migratory Animals, a nominee for the 2016 Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award, and Elizabeth Harris, author of Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, a nominee for the 2016 Texas Institute of Letters Jesse H. Jones Award, at Malvern Books, Friday, May 13th, at 7:00 pm. You can find more information on the Facebook event page.

Thanks, Thomas!

Click here to register for Thomas’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

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