Behind the Words: Sheila Luna

Posted by on Jun 10, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Sheila Luna

Writer Sheila Luna’s work “Unbalanced” graced issue 9 of our magazine. This piece pivots around a narrator attempting to navigate life with her aging parents. Here, Luna and issue 10 contributor, Grace Campbell, talk about how to approach broad themes inside the tiny space of flash.

Grace Campbell: This piece spans a great deal of time. How did you reconcile the necessary compressions to represent a breadth of time in such a small piece?

Sheila Luna: In writing my essay, Unbalanced, I decided that it wasn’t necessary to explain to the reader how much time had passed to tell my story. Instead, I used repetition to string the memories together to give an illusion of time passing. Repetition, in a way, imitates the memory process. I have always admired the writing style of Joan Didion–how she builds paragraphs with a wide array of shapes, various sentence lengths, and turns around and surprises the reader with an irony. She can portray a tone that takes you in one direction, and then hits you with a blow. The ebbs and flows of her prose and the repetitions – whether a paragraph or an essay, come together like music. My piece is basically about memory. It is also about loss and grief, much like Didion wrote about in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking where her expert use of repetition gives rhythm to her prose and also illuminates objects and their meanings. Losing someone you love comes with so many emotions and pain. Not only the sick feeling in your heart of missing someone, but also nagging thoughts like I should have done more of this, I wish I could have told him that. After my dad died, childhood memories flooded into my head and I wanted to capture them. For me, writing is one way to do that. Writing keeps memories alive and makes sense of the chaos of grief. The trick in writing this short essay was to narrow in on a few details about my parents and my childhood – the shoes, the tree, the kitchen, and repeat them to give a sense of movement and at the same time evoke emotion.

You reference the mother’s memories being stolen like ‘a vacuum sucking cheerios from underneath a sofa’. It struck me as the kind of perspective usually common to parents of young children, yet this piece centers around adult relationships. What made you decide to use this reference?

Watching my mother’s memory slip away day by day, month by month, was agonizing.  I went through all the stages of grief when dealing with her dementia. First, I was in denial.  For a while I was mad at the cruelty of the disease. Angry that she had it and that it was taking her away from me.  While writing this essay, the first thing that came to mind was a loud vacuum cleaner – like the one my mom used in our house.  How she’d be insistent on cleaning every crumb off the carpet, especially when we were having company. It was very disruptive—that vacuum.   And who doesn’t have cheerios under their couch? With this image, I wanted to convey a dichotomy – a comforting piece of childhood and the harshness of a sucking vacuum and how life as we know it can be sucked up in two seconds.  Through several drafts–recrafting paragraphs and changing words– I never once touched the sentence about the vacuum sucking up the cheerios. It ended up being the sentence that I worked the rest of the essay around.

How did you negotiate the balance between the time spent discussing the relationship with the mother and the relationship with the father? Did the success of the piece depend on illustrating these dynamics equally or was that an organic byproduct?

My mom and dad were like one person to me. It was always the two of them.  Their names ran together. Their lives were entwined like two trees grown together to form one big trunk.   When writing about one, it is impossible not to include the other. When my dad passed away suddenly, it crushed our family. The pain of his absence almost became a presence.  But, I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt for my mom—losing her husband of fifty years—how her heart must have split in two. In writing this piece, I never consciously negotiated how much to say about my dad versus my mom.  The balancing act in writing this piece was instinctual. This part of the writing process borders on the mystical. Unfortunately, that does not happen with everything I write.

This piece deals with both memory loss and the loss of the narrator’s parents. Is loss a theme you tend to come back to often in your work?

Loss is a theme that I return to in my work because it is part of the human condition. Everybody can relate.  One of my flash essays, The Lipstick Helps, was recently published in Longridge Review.  This piece is about losing my mom to dementia. It is also about how a simple object– in this case a tube of lipstick–can evoke memories, feelings, and connection.  While grief and loss are profound subjects to write about, I also try to convey a touch of the spiritual—how love and joy are what hold us together. Anger, shock, denial, guilt, fear are emotions of grief and loss that make us crazy.  Everyone has experienced loss in some form. And we want to know how others work through it. The writer’s challenge is to craft a story that is not mopey or isolating but one that that readers will want to stick with and ultimately learn from or be moved by.   A good essay that deals with loss is deeply personal but it should also resonate with humanity. Losing someone you love is emotional chaos. While everyone’s grief is different, there are many books from memoir to fiction and even children’s books that can offer some kind of solace.  Examples that come to mind are A Grief Observed by C.S Lewis, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, Wild by Cheryl Strayed,  The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander to name a few.

As a writer of flash, do you find yourself focused on economy of language or succinctness of the story arc or both? How do these differing focal points work themselves out on the page?

A good flash essay drops the reader into a story that is underway already.  I’ve been told in writing workshops that the most important parts of flash are the first line, the last line, and the title and that those three lines knit the piece together. So, that is how I approach writing a flash essay.  Often, when sitting down to write, I come up with a title first, and that helps me to focus on the theme. My piece, Unbalanced, actually went through a few different titles, but then I realized that the essay was really about falling–being unbalanced due to grief.    A good last line should move the reader beyond the story. Maybe that goes for every piece of writing, but especially important for flash. The flash essay is short –even shorter than a short story–so I am conscious of my choice of language, imagery, and the element of surprise.  I studied art in college, so I also see the flash piece as a small painting, not a large canvas, with emphasize on negative spaces – the things left out. Every brushstroke counts.  While writers edit and rewrite and revise, the original strokes remain.  An original stroke of my essay Unbalanced was the vacuum sentence. A great flash piece should rip your heart out. One of my favorite flash pieces is  Sticks by George Saunders.  In this very short story, Saunders describes a man by actions and detail and imagery.  And we get to know him, even feel his joys and pains. The story begins with a happy tone and then builds to heart wrenching sadness.  Achieving a punch of emotion like this in just a few well-chosen words is what I try to achieve when writing flash. It is akin to poetry.  Sometimes it is like magic.

Grace Campbell is the author of the chapbook Girlie Shorts and a founding editor/head writer at Black River Press. She is a nonfiction reader at 5×5. Her chapbook, FWIW, was a finalist for the Turnbuckle Chapbook Competition at Split Lip Press. She was awarded third prize in the Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Flash Contest (2018). She is a 2018 June Dodge fellow at The Mineral School. Her work has appeared in Gravel, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish, Two Hawks Quarterly, Santa Ana River Review and many other places. She has a soft spot for corgis and tinted lip balm.