Writing Exercise 22.7

In my previous post, I had a wonderful conversation with Erica Plouffe Lazure about her new linked-story collection Proof of Me. Today, Erica is sharing a very short story from her collection. Originally published in Swink, Erica’s story, “Re: Division Unification,” is a mere six paragraph structured in the form of an inter-office memo. I appreciate interesting narrative structures such as in this one. Another story in Proof of Me, “Azimuth and Altitude,” is told through a series of phone messages. These kinds of structure lend towards a monological confession. In other words, it’s a great way to let a character loose to better reveal their voice and their particular narrative. Read Erica’s story below, and afterwards, I’ll share Erica’s advice about how to use interesting structures in your own work regardless of genre.

RE: Division Unification

Golden Poultry Processing Plant
To: All Golden Poultry Division Employees
From: Kitty Ingram Lanford
RE: Division Unification

As you know, Boss Karpinski likes to say that we here at Golden Poultry should all aim for division unification. Better workers, he says, produce better teams; better teams make for better projects; better projects create a better office atmosphere, which brings better leadership, all of which contributes to a better, more unified division, which, in turn, makes our company succeed. The company is considered successful when it makes more money. And it is the division’s office’s leader’s team’s project’s members—each of us—who are charged with making that happen.

To motivate us into further unifying our division, Karpinski tells us to get our “ducks in a row,” to “think outside the box,” and to always leave “room on our plate.” Achieving these three goals, he says, will no doubt put “a feather in our cap.”

More than once, he has noted that members of our division’s team must “wear many hats” in order to succeed. This in particular caught my attention because I have yet to see anyone in our division, save for myself, wear a single hat, let alone several. I did a good stretch of knitting a few years back, after my father died and before my daughter joined the Marching Tigers, and those of you who work on my team in our division’s office know that I actually own and wear an extensive collection of woolen hats—although not at the same time. I’d like to know why Boss Karpinski suggests that we all wear hats, then, when in fact I am the division’s sole multiple hat wearer. I can imagine he’ll read this memo and say, “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ Kitty Ingram.” But there’s no ‘we” in team, either. Only “me,” mixed up. And wearing all the hats. And while I see boxes of chocolates and boxed pens doled to my colleagues as quarterly rewards, I—the lone multi-hat wearer of our division—have yet to see a reward, let alone a single feather, for my cap—or caps, as it were—come my way.

Perhaps the source of these elusive feathers is the ducks which Mr. Karpinski is so fond of aligning. Every time he urges us to get our “ducks in a row,” I can’t help but think we are getting bad advice. My father was a prize duck hunter out at Mattamuskeet each year, Mallard Class, and I know that, unless they are stuffed and mounted on your mantle, ducks do not readily get in rows, nor do they like to. As everyone knows, ducks in flight make v-shaped formations, which is not a row but rather an elegant, egalitarian arc. And anyone who’s ever watched ducks in a marsh could tell you they aren’t about to line up for you when they’re sitting in the water. That’s why they make buckshot. Yet Mr. Karpinski seems to believe that there is some relationship between row-friendly ducks and our mission of division unification. But to put them in rows is contrary not only to the natural tendencies of ducks, but also to the true aim of the statement, by which I assume he means: get organized.

But in order to get organized, he wants us to think outside the very object that would help us, logistically, to achieve it. It has been nearly three decades since I have been able to maneuver my body to fit inside a box, let alone think inside of one. And, unless you are compelled to place a box over your head as inspiration to get the neurons firing, thinking outside of a box is a natural, if not logical, thing to do. It begs the question why a box would even need to be present in order for thought to occur. My experience suggests that thinking happens—and should happen—when no box is present. So it makes one wonder: why the emphasis on the box? If, perhaps, the word “box” is meant to suggest my rather boxlike “cubicle,” then I heartily agree. And, since boxes tend to stay where you put them—except if that box happens to be in the supply room closet filled with staples and designer pushpins and the four-dollars-a-pop fountain pens and deluxe desk calendar—it seems a far simpler and more logical task to put your boxes in a row, and to let the ducks outside where they belong.

By solving the dilemmas of box placement and duck-alignment, it frees us, then, to consider Mr. Karpinski’s third piece of advice to achieve division unification. When I first heard him say, “don’t tell me your plate is full; always leave a little room,” I thought he was talking about the holiday all-you-can-eat chicken buffet the division pays for down in the break room. It’s advice I get from my dietician, too. And my therapist. But I always want to know, and no one ever tells me: what are we leaving room on our plates for? Ducks? In boxes? But then I realized that leaving room on a plate simply means that there is more to life than ducks and boxes and Golden Poultry, for that matter, and that you need to be ready for it. Leaving room on your plate is, in essence, making room for change, something that would mix up and rehash stale leftovers, be it food or phrase. Maybe it’s something that might inspire you to leave the division’s office for a while, even for just an hour, to take a walk in the woods to experience box-free thinking. And maybe you’d find in the woods a lake, where, if you are lucky enough, you may come across a family of ducks and observe them. You would know how unwilling they’d be to get in rows for you, how easily they spook if you rush at them, scare them a little into taking flight. I used to do this when I was a girl, on those Saturday mornings duck hunting with my dad. I’d rush at the ducks and when they flew away, a feather sometimes would fall from their fold, and land, miraculously, at my feet.


Erica Plouffe Lazure: When I wrote RE: Division Unification, I was working in an office at a university, and often had to edit the somewhat formalized and (at times abstruse) language of professional communication. And my brain is always looking for something to be entertained by—I’m a terrible punster—and so I thought it would be fun to see what would happen if one of my characters were to co-opt some of the hackneyed phrases we always hear in corporate settings, and use them to address a topic that is personal in nature while maintaining a somewhat formal tone.

I think stories that steal from other formats (with essays they’re called “hermit crabs”) can work, due to the sense of urgency (that “confessional” feel) and the familiarity of the format itself. Something that I always think about when I compose stories (no matter what format they take) is what circumstance would motivate, or even force, my character to ACT? What would push them into divulging something that they might not otherwise? Something I would caution against is using unusual forms gratuitously—there’s a fine line between coopting an unusual format to bring the writer (and character) closer to the truth of a situation, and using it as a gimmick.

As far as Kitty Ingram Lanford, we are introduced to her in the story “Marchers,” but we don’t know precisely what motivates her until she has a chance to speak on her own behalf via the memo in “RE: Division Unification.” Here we see a woman who is probably unseen and ignored at work, who dedicates a lot of time to causes she cares for, who is likely still grieving the death of her father, and who is sick of having people steal office supplies from the closet. To refer back to our earlier conversation about how I shaped my story collection, “RE: Division Unification” is a good example of how I’d reworked the names and some of the minor points of the original story (published in the now-defunct Swink journal) and found a space and voice for her in Proof of Me as Kitty Ingram Lanford.

Prompt: Start by making a list of unique structures along the lines of an office memo/email, or a voicemail. Pick one that allows a character to tell their story. Be sure to allow your character to confess something to their audience. Include a memory from the character’s past.

If you are writing nonfiction, try to recall a job you once held, and write about a time when you wanted to express something to a co-worker or boss, but didn’t. Use a memo, email, or voicemail format to recall that moment to your former colleague, and why it still stays with you.

If you are writing poetry, make a list of the objects of a workspace that is familiar to you. Then make a list of words you associate with that profession (feel free to look them up). Mix and match the words to see what story or throughline surfaces. Or, find a format within the workspace (an admission ticket or order form, for example) that you might borrow to “contain” the poem.

If this prompt helps you, I’d love to see the final product. In the meantime, please check out Erica Plouffe Lazure’s website, and don’t forget to buy her collection, Proof of Me, available from online retailers and your local bookstore.

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Conversation with Erica Plouffe Lazure

Erica Plouffe Lazure is quick to explain that she is not a Southerner nor a Southern writer. But what exactly is a Southerner or a Southern writer today? Are such distinctions based on the accident of birth? On the range of time and experience? How do perspective, talent and empathy work into the equations? I’ve heard every side of these arguments over the years. All I know for certain is that regardless of the way she self-identifies, the stories in Erica Plouffe Lazure’s linked-story collection Proof of Me authentically center on a small square of land called Mewborn, North Carolina, a place born out of Erica’s lived experience as much as from her imagination. Erica was kind enough to answer some of my questions about putting these stories together, about her submission process, and about winning the prestigious New American Press Fiction Prize.

DL: How long did it take you to write the stories in Proof of Me? Can you talk about how some of these stories link together and how those links impacted the shaping of the collection?

EPL: The stories in Proof of Me go back from when I first started pursuing creative writing—as early as 2005. Some were completed and published right away; others sat as drafts that I’d revisit and revise from time to time. I always keep a folder of stories that are “workable” but as of yet incomplete, and as I set out to help round out the stories and voices in this collection, they were integral.

I enjoy the editing process, and believe that, especially when you’re feeling stuck with a particular story, setting it aside for a while and returning to it can help shake loose its arc, and get it into publishable shape. Combing through each story one by one can help you to see how they might all fit together. Initially, I had not set out to link the stories (geographically or otherwise) in earlier configurations of the collection, but in the early days of the pandemic, I decided to dust off the collection, print it out, and see how I might more consciously connect each story to the other. I’d already written several pieces about some of the characters (like the Weaver sisters, or Cassidy Penelope), and so those stories became natural anchors for the larger collection. From there, I reworked some of the other pieces to connect more organically to other characters in the collection, or found ways to tie back stories that were set outside of Mewborn to the town itself. If I hadn’t allowed myself the flexibility to change certain aspects of the stories as I’d initially envisioned them, I’m not sure the collection would have been as strong.

DL: These stories are set in a range of locations such as Nashville and Boston and as far away as India, but each story is centered emotionally around Mewborn, North Carolina. Was it helpful in your writing process to create your own Yoknapatawpha County?

EPL: Mewborn the town is very much an imagined community, a bit of a hybrid of the small city of Greenville, in Pitt County (where I’d lived for about eight years), certain parts of Eastern Carolina, and my own hometown in Massachusetts. The name Mewborn is taken from a small crossing close to Kinston, but I chose it because I liked the sound of the name, and did not want (like Faulkner, I would guess) to have to adhere to the actual historical particulars of Pitt County while crafting a fictional work. And yet, a strong sense of place—about a small town, about how families and neighbors live and function alongside each other, about how even those who leave their hometown are still tethered to it—is what I hope surfaces in this collection. And as I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t intended the stories to be linked when I first set out to write them, but the revision process enabled me to see how I was, in fact, writing of, or about, the same place all along. And I should note that, for the record, I am not from the South, nor do I claim to be a Southerner, but I am very much a student of its literature, and I had never written a word of fiction until I moved to North Carolina.

DL: Can you describe the time between writing and publishing these stories? How did you connect with New American Press? Were there many rejections along the way?

EPL: Since about 2009, I had submitted various versions of Proof of Me to book prize contests offered by smaller presses. I like to joke how I almost renamed the collection The Bridesmaid, because it had been a finalist or runner-up in at least a half-dozen or so competitions (including New American Press, which eventually took it). But I think my effort to substantially rework the collection to make it more directly linked, geographically and thematically, worked in my favor. Rejection is part and parcel of the publishing game, and at some point, you understand that it’s not because the work isn’t any good; it’s more of what fits with the vision of the press, and the aesthetic tastes of the contest judge (or editor). I haven’t really gone the agent route—the agents I’ve had conversations with were always asking about my novel (! Don’t ask !) and were not interested in story collections. I’ve found there is certainly an interest and demand for short stories, but I guess we story writers have more work to do in making a convincing case to big publishers.

DL: Do you have advice for writers who hope to publish story collections?

EPL: This is rather technical advice, but something that helped me to envision my collection AS a collection was printing it all out (1.5 spacing, double-sided) and then read it aloud and edit with a pen in hand. I would make notes of key objects, characters or themes in a notebook, and then look for spots where those objects (sewing machines, dice, cars) might show up in another story. In some cases, I realized that, with a name change and a shift in a few key details, a story that might not have been part of the collection could be transformed into another piece of the Mewborn puzzle.

As far as submitting your work, I suggest that you research the publisher first to make sure it will be a good fit. Some publishers will want you to chip in for paying for a publicist (and there goes your advance), others might not do much in terms of promotion, or expect you to do much of that work yourself. I suggest researching a few past winners of story collections prizes of publishers that you’re interested in, and see how their books fared (via reviews, or press interest, or readings). Smaller presses tend not to have big budgets for book launches, so be aware of that.

DL: What are you working on now?

EPL: I’ve been working on a collection of flash stories under the thematic title Desire Path. It’s a term often used by city planners and landscapers to describe a “footpath made through foliage or grass by repeated traffic, rather than laid out by design.” I plan to take this literal definition in a metaphorical direction, where each of my characters will aspire for something guided by their desires, instincts and travels, and endeavor to carve a path of their own making to attain it. It is slow-going, but I’m enjoying discovering how each story might bend toward (or even challenge!) the established theme.

Huge thanks to Erica Plouffe Lazure for speaking to me about her new book. Don’t forget to order Proof of Me now. Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll share a writing exercise from Erica based on one of her short stories. Make sure you never miss a post by subscribing here: