May 24
A story is like any idea

Fail Better: Taming Ideas with Fiction Writer Eric Blix

Some authors earn their own adjectives. There’s Dickensian, Orwellian, and Kafkaesque, to name a few. But from the hallowed purple and gold halls of Minnesota State University, Mankato, comes this neologism: Blixian. The term describes plots so eerie that one expects, even wishes, them to shift into the fantastical at any moment. It describes characters and objects and settings that become all the more bizarre because of the matter-of-fact voice detailing them. It describes fiction by Eric Blix.

In Blix’s story “Pool Boy,” for example, the main character kidnaps the son of his employer, a wealthy, extremely fit suburban mom, to go “noodling” for catfish and feeds the boy ungodly amount of ice cream. If the stories would just become magical — become a little less real — they would put the reader at ease. But that’s not Eric’s style: As a person, he’s very nice, but as a writer, he wants to disturb you.

Eric’s creative work has appeared in Western Humanities ReviewCaketrainJ Journal, Split Lip Magazine, and The Pinch, among others. Besides earning his MFA from MSU Mankato, he’s now pursuing a creative writing PhD at the University of Utah. Eric’s debut short story collection, Physically Alarming Men, will be published October 16, 2017, by Stephen F. Austin State University Press. (But preorder it now, and it’ll be a nice surprise this fall!) He was kind enough to talk about the role that failure played in transforming those stories.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?

Author Eric Lloyd Blix

Eric Blix is the author of the short story collection Physically Alarming Men, available October 2017.

Eric Blix: The worst thing I ever wrote (that I can remember) came when I was a freshman in college, and I decided to start a novel. There were no characters, no plot, nothing interesting or remotely pleasurable about the language. What I can remember is attempting to describe a midwestern landscape decimated by agriculture. The end product was a couple pages that included a dusty garage window, some furrows, and a lot of obscure, horribly disfigured adjectives.

I knew it was bad while I was writing it, which was frustrating, because I wanted so badly for it to be good and publishable and life affirming. But it sucked, which was important! I really think that writing poorly is a crucial step in the process of determining one’s overall sense of their identity and abilities as well as the demands of individual writing projects. Everyone has to allow themselves to be awful at it for a while, even if they’ve been writing for years and years.

What was the goal of having no elements of a narrative besides setting? Maybe something deep, like to portray the sparseness of Midwest life?

EB: At that stage, at least as I remember it, I didn’t really have any concrete goals other than putting language to paper. I was just trying to figure out how words fit together, how an image or metaphor can possibly come into being. It’s interesting that you mention the sparseness of Midwestern life. There’s no doubt that I was interested in the doubleness of the landscape — at once ravaged by industry and able to inspire a sense of the pastoral. This is still something that fascinates me.

So, did trying to write the novel affirm that you’re a short story writer? Or did it just teach you that you just weren’t ready to tackle something that big yet?

EB: The main thing it told me was that I wasn’t any good at writing yet. It probably wasn’t my best idea to take a shot at a novel right away; I may have been better off focusing on poems or short stories at that stage. Like I said, on a very basic level I was trying to figure out how language works and how it can be turned into art.

Maybe a good comparison is a painter learning to draw the body. A crucial part of that is learning how to see. Once a person can really see, the vision can be recorded. Even after that failure (and at least one or two more), I don’t consider myself only a short story writer. Lately, I’ve been making more deliberate efforts to work against conventions of genre, narrative, and medium. We’ll see how that goes.

You said bad writing is part of figuring out a project. Could you talk about a story in Physically Alarming Men that was not so good at first, and how you made it better?

EB: The story “Golden Years” is a good example of a project being really bad for a really long time before finally coming into its own.

Physically Alarming Men by Eric BlixA quick summary without giving away too much: Morris Ankney, a middle manager at a Midwestern company, is one of many victims of a sudden, massive layoff. The person responsible is a mad executive, drunk on power and ideology. Morris spends most of the story puttering around in “early retirement.” He becomes a prodigious consumer of internet tabloids and cable news, by which he learns the mad executive has taken a position as the public face for a multinational corporation. With the help of his eco-agitator of a son, Morris hatches a plan to gain revenge.

I had this idea to write a story depicting the ethos of late market capitalism. My plan was to make a plot that thrust itself forward at all costs until it ultimately ballooned and toppled beneath its own weight. The costs to this approach turned out to be pretty high: Many sentences were either incomprehensible or downright ugly. The story was front loaded with information that was either irrelevant or best saved for later.

A lot of the problems were pointed out to me by other people: workshop mates and friends who edit journals. A few mentioned some of the good things that were going on, but that those good things were lost in a mire of extraneity. The revision process was an exercise in determining what information best fit where, then calibrating how much needed to be told. This is probably a really general way of describing all revision.

Two and a half years later, “Golden Years” has a streamlined plot and, as a consequence, more complexity. It wound up published in a really nice journal and garnered my first and so far only Pushcart nomination. A story is like any idea, in that it might come out with a lot of promise but also a lot of rawness. I think that, for most people, writing bad stuff is simply part of the process.

What is the most enjoyable part of that process to you — churning out words, no matter how messy or grandiose, or careful, time-consuming revision?

EB: In my experience, there are different pleasures and frustrations that come from each part of the process. I want to clarify, though, that “process” is something of a fiction. It really changes from story to story. Recently, it has felt more or less like messing around — maybe like sending paper lanterns of different sizes into the air to see which stay up and which fall. My better accomplishments lately have much more to do with wrapping my head around my current project than writing x-number of words. I spend a lot of time staring at a given passage, moving text around, reading source material, etc.

For me, the pleasures come when I discover something new either about a project or about the act of writing. Maybe the biggest thrill is discovering a question I didn’t know I was asking. This probably applies to both drafting and revising, which for me typically overlap to the point of being essentially the same thing.

For a while, I was focused on producing as many words as possible with the aim of tinkering with them later. Recently, though, I’ve slowed down a lot. This feels frustrating on some days, because progress is difficult to measure. But the sense of being in a project for a prolonged duration is something to cherish if you believe in it.

Learn more about Eric’s forthcoming story collection, Physically Alarming Men, and other recent writings on his website and follow him on Twitter.

About The Author

James Figy is a writer from Indianapolis and MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He has two cats, two rabbits, and an amateurish collection of Duke Ellington LPs. His creative work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Punchnel’s, and the anthology Bad Jobs & Bullshit. Follow him @JAFigy.