Leah McNaughton Lederman is a writer and freelance editor from the Indianapolis area, where she lives with her husband and an assortment of children, cats, and dogs. She is the creator and editor of Café Macabre: A Collection of Horror Short Stories and Art by Women, released by SourcePoint Press, and A Novel of Shorts: The Woman No One Sees released by Mothership Press. Leah’s work has appeared in Scout Media’s A Matter of Words, A Contract of Words, Clarendon House’s Fireburst and Cadence, and Indie Author’s Press Issues of Tomorrow: A Sci-fi Anthology. In 2020 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her essay “My Bleeding Heart” in the online anthology, What is and What Will Be: Life in the Time of Covid. She has co-written a memoir Beautifully Broken: The Katy Hayes Story, with her cousin Katy about becoming a quadruple amputee, and is currently working on a memoir about the way her father’s experiences in Vietnam shaped her.
Meet HLWW Guest:
How would you describe your writing process?
There are those precious few times when inspiration strikes and a piece emerges Athena-style out of my head. If and when I’ve had them, they were birthed almost entirely during while cleaning, a task that somehow plays a big role in my writing. It allows me to relax and my inner monologue to surge. It’s possible that I have deep-seated psychosocial issues with cleaning. For instance, my nine-story collection, A Novel of Shorts: The Woman No One Sees, is entirely about a tragic and deranged cleaning woman who steals dust.
Generally, though, I use my early drafts as a means of discovery. In my creative nonfiction, I’m trying to figure out what I’m trying to say, how I actually feel about a given topic or situation. In fiction, I’m more concerned with building shaky bridges from scene to scene, or asking, what is this character’s opinion on all this? In either case, I’m just slapping ugly sentences together on the page until something recognizable begins to form…and then I’m either trying to keep up or coaxing it along. Apparently, my writing process is a lot like walking a dog.
Revision is easily the most involved and most rewarding portion of this whole fiasco. I aim to finalize and polish what was initially an exploratory tour of my own thoughts, into something that makes sense and applies to the reader. It’s painstaking but satisfying, and a fun reversal, considering I’m usually editing other people’s words.
Recently, a writing mentor recommended George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and he likens the process of revision to an ice sculptor shaving off layers of ice to form the artwork (I paraphrase). That image of ice-shaving guides me while I refine the words down to the syllable—chipping away at tiny sheets of ice.
What do you love about short stories?
Short stories are rich, something to savor. I’m fascinated and compelled by the economy of language necessary in flash and short fiction. There’s no room for extra anything. Succinct, concise, crisp…I love it.
The story has to move forward and conclude but at the same time needs to ensure that the reader receives a deep, revelatory experience. There’s a lot going on at once. And because a short story can’t sprawl, horizontally, like a novel, they reach vertically instead, adding texture and layers. It’s like tiramisu, or mountains, or a skyline. (Depending on the story.)
Why has the genre of horror taken your heart?
Strange to say, given that I’ve published two separate collections of horror stories and art by women, but I’m not entirely certain it’s taken my heart. What I love about the two Café Macabre books is seeing the kinds of things women fear and how they write about them.
Writing horror stories allowed me to explore the darker spaces within me and pull things from the cobwebby corners of my psyche. In writing about the things I feared the most, I could somehow package them into words and thereby confine them. It was cathartic in a way I hadn’t expected.
What are your favorite books/pieces of writing?
Haven Kimmel’s She Got Up Off the Couch is the book that propelled me into writing. The voice she captured was blunt and honest, youthfully observant and youthfully poignant. It covered the day to day of small town, rural living and tapped into what was happening in the culture at the time. When I read it, I saw my own voice and my own observations reflected in those words. Anytime I come across a copy I buy it so that I can give it away. The other book that stopped me in my tracks is Lit by Mary Karr. I found myself copying down whole passages into my journal and contemplating them in relation to my own life. Time and again, she hits the nail on the head. It’s worth rereading.
And finally, the poem I go back to again and again is “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens. I still don’t quite understand who in the heck Ramon Fernandez is, but the poem depicts a woman existing in a world she created for herself. When I’m feeling discouraged, creatively or otherwise, I think about this woman and know I’ve just got to keep forging my way ahead, making my own way through things whether I have to barrel through or tunnel under.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
What advice would you give other aspiring writers?
Read. You’ve got to feed your heart and mind with words so that you can put them back on the page in the order of your own story.
Make it a full-contact sport. Annotate. Look up words you don’t know (and write down the definition). In my freelance editing work, the difference between those writers who read regularly and those who do not is crystal clear.
Reading does more than improve your diction and your sentence structure, it can inspire ideas you never knew you had in you. After reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, I wrote a sci-fi short story that was published in two separate anthologies. I read Haven Kimmel’s book and realized I could become a writer, too.
I also encourage you to commit to a laid-back, low-tier writing practice. Journal. Find a penpal to email once a week. The stakes are lower so you’re relaxed, and some real gems can come out of you. A few essays I’ve had published definitely had seeds in a journal entry or an email to a friend. And it’s kind of like bench-pressing sentences. It builds up your writing muscles and makes those clauses come out a little easier. When these exercises become routine, you’ve already conquered one of the biggest hurdles in the writing life (i.e. ass in chair)!
Lastly. Open yourself to the possibility that you have a unique story and your own unique voice. I put off writing for a long time, thinking I was too ordinary; what could I possibly contribute? But if you’re curious about the world around you, like a writer—anyone—should be, you realize that there’s no such thing as ordinary. Write your story.