A Chat with Sidney Taiko

NICHE: Welcome back to Niche. So I like starting at the beginning. Can you talk a little about what draws you to flash fiction or flash nonfiction?

SIDNEY TAIKO: Thank you so much for having me back! I think the root of what draws me to flash is the sheer challenge of such a compact form. The writer really has to get right at the heart of things and I think that’s extremely difficult to do with a restricted word count. I feel like getting at the heart of things (if I can just call it that and hope people know what I mean) is so difficult and usually takes a ton of words until a writer can arrive at the heart. Maybe all that writing is necessary to understand what the heart even is. Flash seems to just jump right in, which requires a specific skill. Though, flash can also be episodic when it’s part of a collection, which works a little differently – still compact, but you have more bursts of that compactness. The control of flash really appeals to me. It’s such a concentrated this-is-exactly-what-I-want-you-to-see media. It requires a hyper-focus, which is just hard. But when you can pull it off, it’s killer.

NICHE: The two shorts appearing in Niche, “Jorie Has a Head Injury” and “Jorie in the Hallway” are written about the same female protagonist. Are these shorts part of a collection?

SIDNEY TAIKO: These are part of a collection, yes, though I’ll admit that in the beginning, I had no real plan for them. The Jorie shorts in particular, were originally a product of blogging – or, rather, early-20s Sidney’s emo brain broadcasted on the net. Blogging was this accountability thing for me and I was trying to do the write-every-day thing at the time, because I wanted desperately to be a writer and because I was told that was the way to do it. (I don’t write every day now. It’s not for everyone.) So, I was young and earnest (naïve) and working on my degree at UIUC and trying to be a writer. (It’s so uncool to admit that, right? And I never would’ve at the time, but c’mon, it must be said.) I had my blog and was doing these little Jorie bits every day for a semester. They dropped off eventually, as graduation got closer and my attention was more divided, and they were basically put in a file on my computer and forgotten about. Flash (ha) forward a few years and I’m watching the TV show Girls. I know people have mixed feelings about the show, as do I, but what I absolutely love about it is the painfully honest portrayal of the young-20-something’s blundering psyche. Yes, the show is glammed up (that’s a very nice 2-bedroom apartment for a part time barista’s salary), but the shit these characters pull is incredibly real. The narcissism, the flailing, these are emotional trash people – and you know what? It made me feel so, so good. Who isn’t an emotional trash person at 23, etc? I have all this guilt for how I behaved and how I thought and felt when I was in my early 20s. People talk about how teenagers are shitty, emotional and hormonal nutbags, but I hadn’t heard squat about how that infiltrates your early 20s. You don’t wake up at 22 and leave all that behind. Watching Girls made me feel so much better for 20-something Sidney. Like, oh girl, you weren’t so bad. Millions of people watch this show and identify with it, so shelf your guilt and move on. You weren’t alone. At some point, the show made me think of the Jorie shorts and how they were written back when my life was basically a one-girl audition for Girls, but low-budget and in the Midwest. I went back to them and read them, cringing often. Some are just really, really bad. My initial thought was to close that file and leave it be, just as I had before. But the more I thought about them, the more I thought, why do I feel like I can’t explore this? Jorie is young and flailing. She’s melodramatic, fluctuates between sincere and glib, and wants desperately to be taken seriously. We’ve all been there. I took some of the Jorie shorts and patched them up a bit, and in the process, started to have vague ideas about a collection. Since then, I’ve added threads of three other girls/women. The pieces are episodic, can be tied together in different ways depending on the reader’s interpretation, and, of course, have yet to be finished! For me, these particular flashes have to happen when they happen, which I’m both cool with and completely frustrated with. Maybe I write four in a day, then none for months. That’s not very productive, right? Then again, what am I rushing toward? We all want to be published, absolutely – but when I’m writing about these women trying to navigate the varying degrees of mess in their lives, there’s no room for forced conclusions or wrapped bows. Or, you know, maybe that’s just what I’m telling myself to feel better about being a leisurely writer. Not sure yet. Probably both.

NICHE: You’re a published poet. Has your work with poetry influenced how you write longer works?

SIDNEY TAIKO: Poetry started it all. I was a bookworm as a kid, but it was just my preferred form of entertainment until I was 15, not much more than that. I’ll never forget walking into my English class on the first day of my sophomore year and the teacher had the ee cummings poem “l(a” written on the board. Once I read that, I was done for. That poem said everything my little 15 year old self could not articulate about my entire life up until that point. It’s almost embarrassingly sweet to think about, but don’t we all have one or two of those moments? I remember how tight my chest felt and how afraid I was that I’d cry in front of my classmates. That poem beat the shit out of my heart. Our teacher sent us home that day with a packet of CD Wright poems that I still have. After that, I was reading poetry constantly and trying to write it as best as I could.

Flash forward several years, and I’m transferring to UIUC from Columbia College. It was the summer before classes started and I was all set to write poetry, but I wanted to meet with a faculty member to learn a bit more about the program. All the poetry folks were gone for the summer, but John Griswold (a prose writing faculty member) was around and agreed to meet with me. He was incredibly informative and kind and mentioned that giving prose a shot might be a good idea. I was so intimidated by the idea of writing a short story, never mind anything longer. A poem felt feasible, good or bad, brevity was my friend. There’s so much more room to fuck up in a short story. And being green as I was, fucking up was like, the worst thing that could happen, right? I think on some level I felt indebted to Griswold for meeting with me and giving me the scoop on the program and maybe a bit like he had presented me with a challenge and ignoring it would prove some sort of weakness on my part. I had no idea how to write or critique a story. But I took Griswold’s class and by the time I got to grad school I was studying fiction instead of poetry. A lot of credit also goes to David Coyoca, another faculty member at UIUC. He gave me the right authors to read, asked the right questions, and assigned the best writing prompts. His classes were a glimpse of what grad school could be, which really pushed me to aim for getting into a good grad program.

For me, it’s necessary to write both poetry and prose. They do different things for me and I suppose you could say I feel more whole having them both. Eventually, poetry became something I did, and fiction became what I studied. This shouldn’t suggest that I felt like I didn’t need to study poetry, but for the purposes of my academic learning, I felt the need to use that space for prose. For me, poetry is an impulse. I write a poem and other than maybe a few minor tweaks, I’m done with it. That doesn’t mean it’s a successful poem – it just means that I’m shit with poetry revisions. Because, well, I can’t revise an impulse, right? I can only have another, one that maybe works better in terms of publishing. So, with this in mind, it made much more sense to me to study fiction when I went for my Master’s. Prose is much more of a process, where there’s a lot of room for error, where the tools are more concrete perhaps, and my objective as writer is perhaps more clear. I’m sure not everyone thinks of it that way, but this is how it’s worked out. Poetry and prose seem to fulfill two different but equally important aspects of what writing does for me and what I hope it does for readers. How the two come together is often a delightful surprise. I want to say that the intense focus on image in poetry is very helpful for prose. The language-play that I like to do in poetry can make for some exciting lines in a piece of fiction, though an exciting line that comes to me while I’m writing a story might be better placed in poem – might give way to a poem on its own. Most recently, I had a really badass experience where a prose poem I wrote actually turned into a short story. I could maybe say that while I felt that the prose poem was definitely finished, I wasn’t quite finished with those characters and the position they were in, so I gave them some more space and it turned into a short story. Each piece is still very much its own thing, but now I feel like one doesn’t exist without the other.

NICHE: This is somewhat related to the previous question. What’s imperative for a short piece that’s different in a longer piece?

SIDNEY TAIKO: Oh man, that’s the question, isn’t it? This is what I’ve been thinking lately: let’s take character for example. You need to create the impression, in a very limited space, that this character has a great big life outside of this glimpse we’re getting in the flash. We even need to feel like we can see some of that life without being told exactly what it looks like. Or, maybe we have two characters in some sort of relationship. We need the right details, we need them to say the right words in the right way, to show us who they are and what they mean to each other. But it needs to be so carefully crafted – the right things told and untold – and done in such a condensed space that we give the reader room. It’s like that cummings poem. Four words and I know exactly what I need to know, but I also have the room to wonder and to interpret. Flash is like this exciting balance between showing us what we need to see and blasting interpretation wide open. It feels dangerous and I love it. Some of the pieces I love the most are of these incredibly odd, but real moments – like, take the literary out of literary realism. What you’re left with is this condensed piece of writing that makes so much sense, but also doesn’t, which just fills you with wonder. And you can’t stop thinking about it and trying to figure it out. There’s a difference between significance and meaning. And knowing is the word bubble that floats above the two. I think it’s imperative for a short piece to play with those three words, but with significance and meaning in particular. A longer piece needs to tell us a story and guide us through a change. A short piece presents the story, but the change is something that happens to us after we’re finished reading.

But, I feel like someone is bound to poke holes in everything I’m saying… I don’t think there are hard and fast rules that draw a firm line between short and long pieces. I think it’s about more subtle manipulations of the “rules” that apply to all prose in general.

NICHE: You’re very good at writing images that work toward layered meanings. What advice would you give writers seeking to craft images that are doing work on both the literal and the metaphorical level?

SIDNEY TAIKO: Simply put? Write poetry and prose. You don’t have to study both, you don’t have to publish both, but try writing both. Read both. Examine how a poem interprets a situation or a feeling and compare that to a piece of prose that does the same. You’ll find layers there. Be patient. It takes time. I’ll be working on this forever. Pay attention to the little things, which is increasingly difficult with screens and other distractions every where. Take a break from being plugged in for a day. Use that day to just think and write. Good readers can pick out forced or insincere meaning from a mile away, so take the time you need to come to a real conclusion. There are pages and pages in my various notebooks of me working out layered meanings – simple little exercises, like such-n-such is the image I’m literally looking at. Now here’s a list of metaphors for how I interpret what I’m seeing. Does that sound silly? It does real cognitive work, though. Ideally, it helps make your writing better. At the very least, you’re going to learn some shit about yourself.

NICHE: What do you look for in flashes when you’re reading for your own literary magazine, Storm Cellar?

SIDNEY TAIKO: In some way, big or small, I want to be surprised. There’s no singular way to explain how that works. It could be something as small as the imaginative repurposing of a single word. It could be as big as an entire plot that feels fresh and new to me. Maybe a character behaves in a way that’s exciting – let’s use character as an example again. Short stories and novels are full of characters looking at something or each other meaningfully. That’s not a bad thing per se, sometimes it’s necessary and we’re all likely guilty of doing it at one point or another. It has a time and a place. But in all the flash reading I’ve done, I notice less of the meaningful gaze. Again, I think brevity forces writers to get down to business. Lingering can be great – I’ve been reading novels of 600+ pages lately, which has been truly lovely – but it needn’t be the thing. Sometimes, though certainly not exclusively, longer pieces have this tendency to solve a character. I don’t always want that. Flash is a bit more like, here you go. Now deal. It makes the reader do more work, perhaps. So when reading for Storm Cellar, I want to be surprised and I want a piece of flash to inspire me to do some real cognitive work with it.

NICHE: What are you working on now?

SIDNEY TAIKO: Right now it feels like I’m being pulled in a few different directions. I work on the flash collection as ideas come to me. In some ways, the flash collection is like playtime. I don’t mean that to suggest that I don’t take it seriously. It’s just that I can’t force it, so waiting for things to reveal themselves to me can be a bit fun. Low pressure.

I’d also like to put together a chapbook of poetry relatively soon, but I have a lot to learn about putting together a cohesive collection. Right now, my shit is all over the place.

My main focus is a novella I turned in as my graduate thesis back in April. If I’m being brutally honest here, I wrote a novella because I was afraid to write a novel. Afraid and just not sure how to do it (as if there was some way I could possibly know ahead of time??). I mean, I had just barely managed to make my way around a short story. I was intimidated by the scope of that kind of project, so I tried to put things in terms that were easier to stomach. 80-120 pages isn’t so bad, right? My advisor, Liam Callanan, was so supportive and helpful through that process. I think he knew, the whole time, that I was afraid. He fully supported the novella idea and worked with me accordingly, but looking back, I know he knew what was up. He very subtly pushed me forward, though he nodded along with me the whole time I was chanting novella novella novella. Then I defended and my whole committee was incredibly positive about the work, each of them asking if I had plans to turn it into a novel. That was my duh moment. The whole time, this was the beginning of a novel. I knew it and was lying to myself. Liam knew it and was letting me figure it out on my own, which was necessary. So, that’s my real focus now, finishing this novel. Even just saying that now makes me squirm a little, because I have a lot of nerves about it. But, I’m still riding the small confidence high of my success in grad school. It feels a bit like now or never, even if that’s just what I tell myself so that I’ll get to work.

This interview was originally published on Niche’s website on August 6th, 2016.

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