Erica Johnson Debeljak is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and a literary translator. A graduate of the University of New Orleans MFA program, her work has most recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, Missouri Review, Epoch, and Common Knowledge. Her memoir is forthcoming from North Atlantic Books. She lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia with her husband and three children.
I became a writer only in my thirties, when I moved to Slovenia to marry a poet. I don't doubt that many struggling American writers would envy my nearly effortless entry into the world of letters. I began by translating from Slovenian into English, easing my way into the writing craft through someone else's words. I had the good fortune to be approached by an editor of Delo, Slovenia's largest circulation daily, to write a feuilleton about my experiences as an American living in the then-new country, born from the ruins of Yugoslavia. I wrote in English and the text was translated by a Delo staff translator; the first time I saw my own words in print they were in a language that was not my own, a distancing experience which I think has been crucial to the construction of a healthy, relatively ego-free relationship to my writing, the awareness from the beginning that it is not entirely mine—it belongs to the reader/interpreter as well.
This feuilleton eventually became my first book, and I went on to study the craft of writing at the University of New Orleans MFA program, which exposed me to emerging writers working in my own language. What I think would be instructive for young American writers to keep in mind is that that the American system of bringing up writers (through creative-writing workshops, publication in obscure literary reviews, repetitive submissions to—and rejections by—a monolithic profit-driven publishing industry) is a nearly unique experience and produces a very different kind of writing and a specific process with its own advantages and risks.
Comparing the work of the young Slovenian writers I often translate with the work of young Americans I have encountered in workshops and read in literary reviews, I would say that American writers tend to have a much better sense of craft and, by and large, produce more polished writing. They know the tricks of the trade—the principle of in medias res, the rules of POV and dialog. This is all well and good, but has a few dangerous side effects. It carries the risk of creating a formulaic outcome—the hook followed by the back story, the obligatory but often meaningless physical descriptions, all the showing but no telling. There is a safeness in this sort of writing—a fear of exposition, of putting forth bold intellectual ideas, of breaking the very rules of structure that have been so painstakingly learned, an intellectual act in itself. And also a reluctance to shock—a by-product of the nice, all-accepting, almost therapeutic atmosphere of many workshops.
As far as Slovenian (and—dare I extrapolate—European) work is concerned, it is true that I am more likely to encounter appallingly poor craft and intellectual pretentiousness, but I am also more likely to be jolted upright by a bold opening, a bold idea, a structure completely out of left field, that makes me shake my head and say, How did they come up with that? So, as is often the case when comparing cultures, the ideal lies somewhere in between the two. It would be ideal if American writers could somehow manage to hold on to the craft they learned in the workshop, tuck it away somewhere inside, and then vehemently, violently shake off the shackles of formula, the imaginary objections of all those literary magazine and workshop readers, and write stories that need to be written, that, more than merely entertain, add something new to the ongoing dialog among and between writers and readers.
The way I sometimes force myself to break free of the obvious next step is to juxtapose seemingly unrelated images or scenes, force them into one story, and see what comes out of it. This was the method, or germ, of the story "Blind Spots." I started with two scenes that interested me: the car accident that opens the story and a woman crying during dolphin shows. I also forced myself to make the two relevant, not merely incidental, to each other. The blind child and related themes of vision, perspective, and fragmentation came only afterwards, from the chemical reaction caused by the collision of two disparate ideas, from busting out of the predictability of formula.
It is a great privilege to work in two distinct cultural and writerly traditions—to collaborate with and learn from publications as different as Delo and Glimmer Train—and one that I hope I will continue to enjoy for a long time to come.
Glimmer Train has been discovering, publishing, and paying emerging writers since 1990.
One of the most respected short-story journals in print, Glimmer Train is represented in recent editions of the Pushcart Prize,
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