On Wednesday, January 18, 2022, the Word for Word Reading Series at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) featured the winners of the annual Fall Fiction Contest. This year’s contest had over six hundred submissions. The five winners — Douglas Goff, Tim Brumbaugh, Michael Cabrera, H. Derek Pursley and Kevin Broccoli — were invited to read their work. The following content is adapted from the event, moderated by hosts Jacob Powers, associate dean of the BA and MA in Creative Writing programs, and Paul Witcover, associate dean of the online MFA. Jacob and Paul discussed the winning pieces with the authors before moving on to an audience Q&A session.
W4W: Kevin, briefly tell us how you got the idea for this incredible story, “Cage the Storm,” which takes place on a ship in a bottle.
Kevin Broccoli: I make it a point to try to write a story at least once a week to learn more about the form. I look up prompts on different websites and one was setting a story on a pirate ship. I don’t really know much about pirates, but when I was younger, my grandmother gave me a ship in a bottle from Atlantic City. I still have it on my desk, and I thought, “Well, let’s make that count as a pirate ship.” Which was nice, because I didn’t have to look up anything about pirates because they’re not real pirates. They’re characters in a ship in a bottle. And that’s how it was born.
W4W: H. Derek, what really impressed me with “Full Circle” is how you were able to switch point of views so flawlessly between each paragraph. You see one side of the relationship, and then in the very next paragraph you’re witnessing the other side, and as the narrative progresses, the scenes grow closer together until they eventually become one. Very difficult to do that, especially in such a short amount of time. What strategies did you use to keep the narratives straight?
H Derek Pursley: Having the characters in separate locations for most of the story makes it a little easier, but I wrote this for a creative writing class, and either the professor or one of my peers recommended I put breaks between paragraphs because there were points in which the narrative wasn’t completely clear. I know the people listening can’t see them, but those character breaks also really helped keep things organized. It was good feedback to get. Really helpful.
W4W: Unfortunately, Michael Cabrera couldn’t be with us tonight, but Jacob was able to read “Michael Row” on his behalf. I was wowed by the precisely chosen details, all of which just rang so true and were so beautifully consonant with the theme of the story. The overall tone and that last gesture of the grandmother was so poignant and powerful. Thank you for letting us share it with our attendees tonight, Michael, and we wish you well.
W4W: Tim, “Snowfall” is a story that deals with tough issues. There’s drug addiction, loneliness, a yearning to leave the mundane. What especially stuck out to me is how the narrative is bookended by two paragraphs of snowfall and how those paragraphs set up the pacing and tone of the piece…“The thing is, you can’t hear it in the city. There’s too much background noise. Snow is soft. Well, it’s a whisper. Turn your car off. Wait and listen.” What made you approach the subject matter of the story in that calm, meditative manner?
Tim Brumbaugh: Without the snowfall part, I had written the story ten years ago. And it was not very good when I wrote it. It was 5,000 words. It was too much. I submitted it to a couple of places. It got rejected. I shelved it for six years and didn’t even look at it. Then it snowed one night here in North Texas, which doesn’t happen very often, and I went outside. It was one in the morning, and I could hear it fall. I came back inside, and I wrote the very first paragraph and thought I have to turn this into something. A story somehow, or maybe a poem. Then I thought of the story I had abandoned. I’ve been going to SNHU and have been upping my writer’s game. So I went back to that original piece and stripped it of everything nonessential, and I added the snowfall paragraph at the beginning and something at the end to bookend it. That’s the genesis of the story.
W4W: Very inspiring to know that stories that were once abandoned can be re-explored, especially when new content comes to light. Douglas, you had mentioned in your bio that you served as a U.S. Marine and that you’re a retired federal agent. This is evident in the directive narrative of your piece, “Run Chicken Run.” Is the story also drawn from your personal experience as a chicken hunter?
Douglas: I absolutely adore animals. They’re like my favorite thing on the planet. We have a cat. We just got a Doodle dog for my son. We have 22 chickens. I like to write a lot about animals. I often wonder what they think. They’re such odd things. They’re always looking like they’re thinking about something. Chickens have small brains, but when you’re chasing them, it’s difficult. They can be very clever.
W4W: Several of your bios mention being inspired by real life events and situations. Douglas, your family purchased nearly two dozen chickens to raise. In Michael’s piece, he reflected on the loss of his grandmother. Tim, you wrote about your experiences witnessing snow fall in Northern Texas. Do you find that there’s a line between fictional works and real-life inspiration? Is it a line we can commonly cross in fiction?
Tim: For me, I don’t know if I know where that line is. It’s not a hard line. Everything is fair game. My best characters and my best stories are pulled from real life. I just find them more enticing than anything I can just make up. So the line is blurred, but as long as I remove myself completely from the narrative or the narrator, then I feel like I can do it justice.
Douglas: I have about 200 pieces online right now, and the responses are always way stronger for the nonfiction or something that’s got a hint of truth in it. And I think that’s probably because it involves more emotions. I have pieces that are completely fiction, but I notice the responses are just a lot stronger when you’ve got personal involvement in the piece.
W4W: So adding moments of personal reflection makes it’s easier for readers to connect because they can feel that emotional presence, and it seems to work equally well with humor and stories that cover more serious themes.
When did you all discover the passion to write? How did it come to fruition?
Tim: I’ve been writing my whole life. But a long time ago, when I first started writing, I’d write something, and I wouldn’t think it was good enough. So I wouldn’t write again for years and years and years. And then I’d write something else, and then after a while think, “OK, I’m going to put this away too.”
It wasn’t until I read “On Writing” by Stephen King where I learned the importance of revision. These stories that I’ve been writing, the ones that I put away when I don’t think they’re good enough, those are just the first shitty drafts. Rewriting comes from revision. Once I read that book, everything changed for me.
Kevin: “On Writing” is a formative book for many. Having a book list at the end is a big help too. I started in theater. I was an actor from the time I was eight. If you go to an audition for theater, you’re going to find every kid there reads something from those horrible monologue books. When I was out of college, I started writing my own monologues, and that transitioned into playwriting. During the pandemic, someone suggested I write prose or short stories, but I thought, no, plays are so much easier.
In theater, you don’t have to worry about covering specific details, because there’s going to be a costume designer, there’s going to be a set designer. You don’t have to worry about what the trees look like or the sunlight coming through the window. You just put words in people’s mouths. But then I started subscribing to George Saunders Story Club, and I was so inspired by it that I started working on short stories. I still highly recommend playwriting. It’s just so much easier. If you find yourself really exhausted by prose, consider whether you might want to be a playwright.
W4W: H. Derek Pursley, you have a background in marketing and sports writing, and you work as a FedEx driver. You also have four children at home. Where do you find the time to write with such a busy schedule?
H. Derek Pursley: It’s not easy. Even just finding the time for this, I planned ahead. It’s just finding little times, because you can try to plan it out, but it’s rarely going to work. I come up with a lot of my stuff as I’m driving. That’s when I get a lot of my thinking done anyway. I will come up with ideas and make notes on my phone. I’ve got a list of random ideas, so I’ll delve into them. It’s usually late at night when everybody’s in bed I can start putting things together.
W4W: It’s a great strategy, taking notes to transcribe into stories later. A good recommendation to others who might not have time to immediately sit down and write out an idea. Thank you.
There is a question here about recurring themes or motifs in each of your work. When you encounter these, what is your response? Do you lean in and try to incorporate them more into the writing, or do you lean away because you don’t want to be seen as doing the same thing over and over?
Douglas: I just won a contest about a vampire. That was surprising to me. I didn’t think that could happen in this day and age. But I think you notice [revisited motifs and themes] with other writers too. I’m not sure quite where I fall yet. People have referred to me as a 21st century humorist. I had to look that up when I first got back into writing. A lot of my stuff does have a funny slant to it or a funny twist at the end.
Kevin: For myself, I’m a podcast junkie. After a while I had too many, so I had to come up with some criteria on what to listen to, and a friend of mine recommended the insight or information rule. “Am I learning something or am I looking at something in a way I’ve never looked at it before?” Now when I write, my criteria is that I need to learn something. Or, as I work on the piece, I force myself to look at something that I haven’t looked at before. I try to look at it in a new way. Hopefully by doing that, that’s the experience the reader has as well. So it’s not so much a recurring theme. More that I want readers to walk away with a new bit of information. I can’t control if they like my piece, but I can at least say, “OK, well, they didn’t know this before, or they probably haven’t looked at this particular thing in this way before.”
W4W: I really like what you said there about learning something new from the stories that you’re writing. Beginning writers often think that they have to know what they want to say before they set out to write the story, and then the story is simply saying what they wanted to say. When you get more experience, it often is the case where writing the story is what teaches you what the story is trying to say. You don’t really know beforehand. That’s a very liberating thing — to not have to know very many things, especially about your own writing. You don’t have to know what it is about. You can let the story figure that out.
Thank you all for your time, and congratulations again on your wins!