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Best of the Brief

Here's an expanded Q&A with the winner of the 13th Annual Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition.

This year’s winner of the WD Short Short Story Competition is Marie Bacigalupo. In just under 1,400 words, Bacigalupo was able to tell a severely entrancing piece about a woman’s experience with breast cancer. We asked her to share some of her writing secrets with us. –Marielle Murphy

Describe your writing process for this story. (How long did it take you to write it? Where did you get the idea? Etc.)

“Excavation” began as a one-page exercise about four years ago when I was a student at the New York City Writers Studio. It’s based on what I suspect is a universal experience, namely, the alternately dehumanizing and infantilizing of hospital patients, especially women, in the name of efficiency. I filed away the exercise and left it untouched for at least a year. Then I read Jean Stafford’s “The Interior Castle,” a harrowing account of a woman whose face has been devastated in an accident and who endures unspeakable agony under the ministrations of a doctor who cavalierly probes her nasal canal with metal instruments. Her only defense against this torture is to retreat into her mind. The character’s extreme vulnerability and the hospital setting drew me back to the story that, after countless drafts and four different titles, became “Excavation.”

How long have you been writing? How did you start? Do you write full time?

If we use the word broadly, I’ve been writing all my life: as a child penning diary entries, as a student submitting literary analyses, as a copywriter producing promotional brochures, and as an administrator submitting endless reports. In 2008 I gave up all other pursuits to focus full time on writing fiction.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?

I suspect language is my strength. I’ve loved words and their sounds since I was very young. I like to play with their possibilities, exploit their power. I try to develop my craft by reading and observing how other writers manipulate language to achieve their ends.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?

Sometimes I get immersed in words and sounds, and then language takes precedence over the other fictional elements, a tendency I need to curb. My mantra is character-conflict-resolution. I also struggle with the “Are you kidding?” inner voice, as in, “Are you kidding, taking yourself seriously?” The antidote to this particular poison involves ignoring the voice and plodding on. I can’t tell you how validated the recognition of Writer’s Digest made me feel.

Describe your typical writing routine.

I rise between six and seven. I eat breakfast and read the New York Times in the blessed quiet while my husband sleeps. Once the sun has risen, I turn to my computer and ease my way into the session by rereading what I’ve already written before I continue the work at hand. If the writing doesn’t go well, I’m finished in an hour or two with little done. If it goes well, I’ll stay with it for four or five hours. I need a block of time in front of me; I can’t be productive grabbing twenty-minutes here, twenty minutes there.

What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?

I need natural light; I can’t write once the sun sets. As funny as it may sound, Daylight Saving Time boosts my productivity. The fact that natural light nurtures my creative spirit reminds me how integral to nature’s circadian cycle we humans are. When night falls, I turn to entertainments: I have film, ballet, and opera subscriptions. I do light reading; I dine with friends; I watch TV. I don’t work.

Where do you get ideas for your writing?

I remember something, read something, hear something, or see something that makes an impression on me and excites my imagination. Sometimes I’ll dump the idea into a computer file I keep for that purpose, or I’ll open my iPhone notebook and key in words, fragments, or sentences to cue my memory. When I’m ready to tackle the idea, I scribble off an inordinately rough draft. I’ll revise the piece several times, show it to my writing group, and maybe incorporate some of their suggestions. Often the finished draft bears little similarity to the original impetus.

What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work?

I want to keep experimenting and honing my skills. I don’t agree that a dwindling publishing market will stunt careers. While conventional outlets are shrinking, there is, I think, great potential for growth in e-publishing. I have an immediate and pressing goal as well: to get up that darn website I’ve been struggling with for months.

Any final thoughts or advice?

You don’t need an M.F.A. to write. Alternate routes for learning craft abound: Take noncredit courses; attend conferences; read books. I’ve availed myself of all these opportunities. I have a library of Writer’s Digest publications that I turn to again and again. If you have the will, the way is clear.

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