What Are You Writing, Lisa Rubenson?

what are you writing lisa

Fitzgerald is remembered for his blockbuster-worthy works and the words within them, and while many are currently caught up in quoting (and misquoting) The Great Gatsby, one quote used among rhetoricians across this great nation is: “There are no second acts in American lives.” However you choose to interpret this, and there are many ways in which to do so, I believe at its most basic the quote implies that there are no second chances. Fortunately for the optimists of the world, this is not necessarily true. In Lisa Rubenson’s case, believing in second chances was the first step in good fortune, and good writing. Rubenson was recently the recipient of NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest award, where her theme focused on second chances, a theme that also seems to be a part of her own life. When she is not being called “Julie” accidentally at her favorite coffee shop in Charlotte, NC, she spends time with her husband and two daughters, all the while writing with intention. I invite you to read her words on chance and how it changed not only her, but also how it can change all of us. I believe in second chances, and third and fourth and eleventh—whatever it takes to get it right. “Do overs” make things like hope, redemption, and games of mini-golf possible. Why else would we have put erasers on the end of pencils and invented that whole “command Z” business? The thought that we might be able to undo at least some of our mistakes helps us get up in the morning. Otherwise, and I’m speaking for myself here, I would’ve given up after wearing a “Dynasty”-inspired jumpsuit to prom.

When I heard that the author Mona Simpson would be judging round 10 of NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest, and that the prompt was to tell a story in the form of a voicemail, I decided to submit something. I’m famous for leaving “rambly” voicemails, and I liked the idea of playing with the form. Voicemails, and that grace-filled asterisk on the lower left of our phone keypads, are all about second chances. You can record, re-record, and then record again whatever you want to say. It’s not unlike the writing process, with its many drafts and the never-ending cut-and-paste dance.

For the contest, I wanted to create a story that told itself by accident, wherein the main character struggles—like many of us—with what needs saying and what doesn’t. I also wanted readers/listeners to know more than the intended recipient of the voicemail could know. When the main character attempts to call her old boyfriend and simply say, “I’m sorry about the loss of your mother,” she unravels the thread of their whole history together.

I had never submitted anything to the 3MF contest before, so I was very surprised to win. The chance to talk to Mona Simpson and NPR’s Guy Raz about writing, then receiving Simpson’s novels and being published in The Paris Review, were exciting outcomes of the win. An actress heard the story and felt a connection with the main character, so we’re developing a screenplay for a short film. I love the idea that my little story can live on and be interpreted through the eyes and experiences of others. Talk about second chances. It was also nice to hear from so many people I did and didn’t know who could relate to the story. Apparently, there are a lot of other prolific voicemail leaver-deleters out there.

I’m entering the world of fiction writing late in the game, which is another reason why the idea of second chances appeals to me. I’ve spent my whole career writing for other people, channeling their voices and helping them shape messages. Although copywriting is a kind of storytelling, the distance between the writer and the material is too far. I want to write my own stories, and bring to life the characters that have been hanging around in my head for way too long with nothing to do.

The writers that inspire me the most are the ones that march me up to the edge of the figurative cliff and either force me to look down or show me how to live in the tension of standing there with the wind in my face. They can be hard living, whisky swillers (Hemingway and Raymond Carver are favorites), or highbrow British ladies—Virginia Woolf and those Brontës could sucker-punch you with their characters’ desires. I like to be terrified by the beauty of an image and made dizzy by the genius of a writer’s prose, which is why I spend time reading Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Junot Díaz, Karen Russell. Next up for me is a trip to the Tin House summer writer’s workshop, where I’ll soak up some “writerly” wisdom from the great Benjamin Percy. I’m also working on my first collection of stories, which will include flash and longer pieces that share a common theme.

My favorite part about writing fiction, and also about re-inventing myself as a fiction writer, is not knowing where I’ll end up. It’s like getting on a train in a familiar place, falling asleep, and waking up in a foreign country. I start off thinking I know who my characters are, what they will do and say, and then they haul off and take me somewhere else—a place I was either afraid to go or never knew existed.