Spotlight: Flashversary Winner Maggie Duncan, Part II

Welcome to the second part of our Spotlight interview with 2014 Flashversary winner Maggie Duncan. (Read the compelling first half here.) Today we dive into the choppy waters of criticism and negative feedback. CAN A WRITER SURVIVE?!!?

What about the Flashversary finalists’ prompt inspired your story? 

The perspective of the photo. It was the interior of a didgeridoo, and I’d never seen the inside of one.

Unfortunately, your story, while almost universally praised for its lyric beauty, also garnered some negative attention for presuming to write from a cultural perspective that isn’t yours. How did you approach the difficult task of writing from another ethnicity’s POV, specifically the indigenous Australian culture? 

I have always said the protagonist of anything I write has asked me to tell his or her story, whether it’s my grandmother, an old classmate, or a complete stranger. Pinckney Benedict, a writing instructor of mine, and a magnificent writer, calls this “allegory of self,” meaning you express your desires through your characters; they will only do what you want. Allegory of self is the place in your work where you find yourself. That means real writing, per Pinckney, “is a sharp, unpleasant stick.” I was true to my allegory of self, and, according to Pinckney, that is inescapable.

So, when I saw that photo prompt, the protagonist “recited” his (or her) story to me. Once I had a draft, I knew I had to fact-check—yes, even though it’s fiction. I have some awareness of the treatment of the indigenous Australians by people who migrated—willingly or unwillingly—to that area of the world, so I researched the culture and the political issues. Having been one of the few women in my workforce for many years, I understand the concept of feeling like an outsider and wanting to escape that feeling.

I also understand, however, that may not be sufficient for some, but, truly, in my writing I only disrespect people who have earned no respect in my eyes, i.e., the oppressor of any ilk.

You’ve made it a habit as a writer to try walking in other cultures’ shoes; your novels feature Russian, Afghan, and many other characters from cultures other than yours. What have you most enjoyed about writing from these POVs? What has challenged you?

I’ve written from the POV of rich English women, poor Irish men (and women), minors who have been human-trafficked, and bigots of all stripes, among others. Yes, one of my main characters in my novels is a Russian man born toward the end of the Great Patriotic War, indoctrinated by Communism, and now not only living as a defector but actively fighting against his previous homeland. (He will remind me he was Ukrainian and now an American.)

How boring would it be if I only wrote about middle-aged, divorced white women, which is what I am? So I write characters from different cultures to learn, to broaden my scope, to develop my understanding of the world. That’s the fun part.

My biggest challenge right now is a very new character for me: a retired Navy SEAL transitioning from a man to a woman. Since I’m comfortable with my gender identity, that’s a difficult character to grasp, especially when I want to do her justice. Again, research and sensitivity to the issues surrounding gender reassignment are absolutely necessary. Researching this character has heightened my social activism in support of people undergoing this transition.

How has your own heritage/background influenced you as a writer?

I’m half Irish, half Scots, and both families come from a history of being oppressed as minorities in their own countries for religious reasons and in the United States for ethnic reasons. Now, I personally have no experience with severe oppression, other than my Irish grandmother’s stories and my own experience in a predominantly male workforce. However, I think that heritage has influenced me in that I write a lot about bringing down the oppressors.

Criticism is a difficult but common part of writing, especially in these days of reputations being made or destroyed by social media. How have you learned to handle criticism of your writing? What advice would you give other writers, especially newer ones, with regard to handling criticism? 

Constructive criticism is something every writer should want, e.g., this character isn’t working for me because a, b, c. That specificity helps you build up the thick skin to handle those who’ve obviously not read your work and give you one star on Goodreads. Anne Rice is on a crusade (oops, trigger warning) against these faux reviewers who only want to disparage a writer. If I may be frank, I think it’s simple jealousy, i.e., the people who disparage for no apparent or for a dubious reason see something in you they can never have and feel compelled to punish you for it. There’s no way to handle that other than ignore it.

Back to your Flashversary story and flash fiction: do you participate in other flash contests? Have you won other writing awards or had pieces published?

I’m in the middle of prepping two very different novel manuscripts for agent submission, so I’ve given up on some flash contests for a while. In addition to an occasional stint at Flash! Friday, I also participate in Press 53’s monthly 53-Word Story Contest.

I was a finalist last year for the Press 53 AWP Flash Fiction contest. In fact, the story that didn’t win Flashversary in 2013 was a finalist in that contest and later published in Prime Number Magazine. If you go to my web site, you’ll see where several of my stories have been published.

What other forms do you write?

I also write standard-length short stories. I have a 3,000+ word and a 5,000+ word story both in process now. I’m searching for the right home for them. I also have a novella and novel-length works in various stages of readiness. I actually prefer the novel length work. It lets my raging imagination go wild.

What’s next for you–what are your writerly goals?

I’d like to have a solid body of work published. Right now I’m still working on the traditional route, but independent publishing is not out of the question. I think my characters have something to say, and I’d just like them to have an audience who appreciates them and the message. Those are the goals I work toward every day.

CONGRATULATIONS again, Maggie, on your Flashversary win. Thank you for allowing us to chat with you about your life and thoughts as a writer. Best wishes for a successful 2015!

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15 thoughts on “Spotlight: Flashversary Winner Maggie Duncan, Part II

  1. Thank you for this great insight into your work, thought processes and Works-In-Progress. I’m sorry to hear you had a bad experience with critics (as it sounds like cultural appropriation is the last thing on your mind; in fact, you seem to be a writer who deals with your subject matter in a sensitive and respectful manner, and more power to you!) but best of luck with all your current and future writing. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before you’re on bookstore shelves.

  2. I also agree with SJ. A writer needs to get inside the heads of many characters in order to tell the story, so it is inevitable that the characters will have different background than the writer’s. Bravo on your success and for inspiring the new writers.

  3. This was some brilliant advice for future writers and I was really disappointed to read about the negative reception because you’re a phenomenal author but you gave a really sound way of approaching it and it’s an approach that I’ll be adopting myself.

  4. Good writers take chances, and good writing is honest. If I don’t write in the voice that the story calls for, the story isn’t honest, and as a result, it’s not very good. We often are inspired to write stories from perspectives very different than our own, and there’s always risk in trying that. Your thought process was clear, and well-articulated, and you were being honest to yourself and your story. Sometimes, we hit targets we don’t intend to, and people get upset. That can be a learning experience (I didn’t know that using x, y, or z as story elements carried that weight, and I will change how I write), or it can be a side effect of not being able to please everyone in an audience (or both). At the end of the day, only a given writer can know whether she or he is being honest to themselves and the work, and respectful of the material. As long as we’re willing to ask ourselves the questions, and learn from the answers, we are serving ourselves, the story, and the audience the best we can. I’m sorry that you had such an unpleasant experience, but I look forward to reading more of what you write.

  5. Being in the process of putting out a novel right this minute, I am keenly aware of the exposed nature of the experience – and the one-star reviews and such (I got a one-star review because someone took issue with content in my ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. I’m not kidding.) However, I will also say that if you please everyone, you may be in danger of writing the worlds dullest book. If people want to discuss and argue, that’s a good thing. Our role as artists is to get people to think and have some sort of experience – even if they don’t like it. I find it helpful to separate myself from the work, and realize that it’s my job to do the work – however if you ding me for my acknowledgements I will decide you are a goober. So there it is.

  6. Hi Maggie. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Personally, I feel that writers should be allowed to write the point of view that comes to them (within reason). As long as it is respectful and treats the subject matter with care, then I feel it is important to tell stories from other perspectives. Perhaps there are specific rules for this type of story that I (and maybe you) were not aware of when you started to write the tale. Barring any specific rules or laws, it is important that writers are allowed to tell different viewpoints – otherwise it will be real and not fiction. I am not aware of the specific issues you faced, but if they were relating to very real laws or rules then I am sure it was just an oversight and you had the very best intentions, If, however, the feedback was generic and stating that nobody should write about another race/culture/gender/sexuality/religion other than their own, then clearly this is wrong and misguided (the world would not have the greatest works of fiction if this happened). I hope you find some comfort in the supportive messages here.

  7. As others have said, I’m really glad you chose to share this with us. I think many of us forget how ruthless the writing world can be. Rebekah Postupak has created a safe place where writers can share/develop their writing without being criticized/attacked. Unfortunately, this attitude isn’t normal in the world of writing.

    Jealousy does spark a lot of hateful comments, especially in writing. As others have said, you will never obtain 100% approval. Look at any bestseller, and you will undoubtedly see plenty of 1star reviews on there books. What is not liked by some might me loved by others. Don’t let the people that dislike your writing ruin the connection between you and the reader that loves your writing.

  8. Maggie,

    Truth hurts the people it stings. You should be proud of the criticism; it means you’re telling truth.

    In the interview you mention studying the culture and the politics; exactly how does one go about studying such things? I’m struggling with this right now, as I want to incorporate multiculturalism into my current project. I’m a middle-aged white male in America and my protagonist is a 30ish French female; that’s quite a leap!

    Keep telling the truth!

    Chris F.

  9. Dear Draggony Host,

    Thanks for this article. The questions you asked were insightful and, dare I say, quite Draggony. =)

    Chris F.

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