The restaurant business is at the heart of Michelle Wildgen’s most recent literary endeavor, BREAD AND BUTTER. Today we’re chatting with her about the new book, getting an MFA, and submitting to the prestigious Tin House literary journal. Michelle has some terrific advice for writers who’re interested in having their work in the magazine.
NG: One of BREAD AND BUTTER’s main characters, Harry, compares designing a new dish to academic writing: “It was a lot like writing a thesis, actually, that same process of gathering information around a rough kernel of thought, a vague sense of flavor combination that might lurk in the back of the mind, and then the editing and revising and re-arranging.” How does your character’s process here mirror your own process as a fiction writer?
MW: Well, that sounds about right, actually. I’m not a writer who starts with an outline and a full plan. I start with a little thing, like an image or a moment, and I try to build it up layer by layer until it has enough complication to become a formative scene, and then I just take it from there, often writing with a lot of uncertainty, and figuring out how to rearrange and edit once I have something on the page to work with.
NG: In an essay for Tin House literary journal—where you’re also the executive editor—you write that editing others’ work has turned you into a writer who “who loves to cut.” How do you decide what to keep and what to cut?
MW: It’s mostly a gut feeling but it’s been honed over the years by discussing stories with other writers and editors. Sometimes you know a section has something in it that will be needed—even if it is just an idea you haven’t managed to convey effectively yet—and you hold on to it until you can figure it out and maybe just develop it elsewhere. Or until you lose your love of it, or you see that other sections are doing the same thing better, or you realize that something just lacks life and energy and you have to cut it to free yourself to create a more lively take on it. Especially early in my writing, in my teens and twenties, I often got sidetracked just listening to myself say pretty things, and I couldn’t always figure out how to make a nice line of prose be a part of the story. So as a defense against that failing of mine, I now go almost too quickly to saying, “Cut it! Hack it off!”
NG: What strikes me the most about BREAD AND BUTTER is the fluidity with which you move between characters’ interiority and exteriority. We’re in and out of characters’ heads in a matter of seconds—in a way that reminds me of George Eliot’s masterful omniscient narrator. Why did you use this particular narrative style?
MW: First, I have to thank you just for mentioning George Eliot on the same page as my name! I love the close third person point of view that moves among characters, because it lets you be on intimate terms with them while at same time giving the writer a chance to use her own voice in a way that, say, the ventriloquism of first person cannot. And I find it a bit claustrophobic to be burrowed into a character’s head but get no idea where he is and what he’s doing, especially if their current circumstance is sparking some train of thought. So that’s why they tend to be doing something and letting the reader hear their thoughts at the same time. Also, to me one of the great joys of moving among the characters is how each of them sees the others in different ways, and hopefully you get new info about Harry when it’s Britt observing him versus Leo, or versus Harry relating his own experience. But I have to say I do all of this mostly by feeling, just staying with the character until it feels like the energy of the moment has passed, whatever shift is needed has happened, and it’s time to move to someone else.
NG: Writers pursue an MFA for different reasons. What was your reason, and in what ways did the MFA experience help you become a published author?
MW: For me, there was no question I would try to get an MFA. I needed just about everything the MFA experience gave me—the time and focus on writing and reading, the community, certainly the teachers. It’s different for everyone and an MFA is by no means a necessity for writing, but I had also hit a wall on what I could teach myself at the age of 26. I was glad I’d taken a few years between undergrad and graduate school, though, because I believe in applying for grad school when you can learn at as high a level as you can—you don’t want to use this brief shot to learn things you could have figured out on your own with a few more years of writing group. And on a more practical level, I needed the shift out of Madison, too. School took me to the New York City area (I lived in Yonkers to go to Sarah Lawrence, which was so close to the city that I could easily work and socialize there), and it gave me the chance to intern at Tin House, to experience this part of the literary world in a very educational and demystifying way, and to challenge myself personally to get to know a brand new place that initially was intimidating. I think all of this tends to seep into your writing. Some schools really set you up professionally, and Sarah Lawrence was not emphasizing that when I was there, so the actual connections, like agents and such, I found more through working at Tin House. But the flip side of that was that school was an oasis from competitiveness for two years because we weren’t all wondering who got what agent and such—we were mostly just writing. And, celebrity examples aside, you can have all the connections in the world but they usually don’t do much good unless you’ve worked on your writing first.
NG: I’m sure many of the writers on Book Country will be tempted to submit their work to Tin House. Can you share any submission tips, aside from the submission guidelines writers can read on the magazine’s website?
MW: Of course! First, know your audience. Read a few issues and ask yourself if your work is a fit—not “Am I good enough?” because who ever knows that, but if your style feels of a piece with the magazine’s, if its energy and interests are similar. Second, before you send out your work, set it aside for a few weeks and don’t look at it. Then give it a fresh look and see what stands out—that distance is what helps you realize where it needs cutting and editing before you submit. Third, look very hard at your beginning. Are you starting where the story starts, or is there a lot of what we call throat-clearing first? The nature of the beast is that you have to stand out among the stacks, and it’s hard to do that if your first three pages are descriptions of weather or background that maybe you needed to write but the story no longer requires. And finally, read your work carefully for received language and familiar situations. Every story has been written before, so I’m not saying you can’t win unless you find utter novelty. But are you hitting the emotional beats of stories you’ve read before, using the same old methods of expressing character, falling back on language and descriptions and situations you’ve come across elsewhere? We all do this to some extent, and the trick is to see it and challenge yourself to move beyond it. A perfectly made story that has no freshness won’t stand out. It has to be alive.
About Michelle Wildgen:
Michelle Wildgen is a writer, editor, and teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to being an executive editor at the literary journal Tin House, Michelle is the author of the novels Bread and Butter: A Novel (Doubleday), But Not For Long and You’re Not You (Picador), and the editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast (Tin House Books).
She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has taught fiction and nonfiction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.