For author Pam Houston, writing begins with a “glimmer” in the physical world. It could be the way the light falls through the trees, or a snippet of conversation from a couple passing by.
These “glimmers” — a word Houston uses often, but one she admits she’s getting a little sick of — suggest themselves to her, and their resonance is at the center of her writing process. Using them “gets at the buried stories more truthfully than some other model,” she told about 30 MU professors and students gathered in a classroom in the university’s Tate Hall on Friday.
Houston spoke about her craft as part of her residency with the university’s creative writing program. She read from her work for a large crowd Thursday evening and will have conferences with creative-writing graduate students while she’s in town through this morning.
Bryan Narendorf, assistant director of the Center for the Literary Arts in MU’s English department, called Houston a great and dynamic writer.
“She stands at the intersection of what we call creative nonfiction and fiction,” he said. “It comes out of autobiography, and it is fluid.”
Houston, who works as the director of creative writing at the University of California-Davis, has written two collections of linked short stories, “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” winner of the 1993 Western States Book Award, and “Waltzing the Cat,” which won the Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction.
Her stories have been included in the annual collection “Best American Short Stories” and in “Best American Short Stories of the Century,” and she has received the O. Henry Award and the Pushcart Prize.
Her first novel, “Sight Hound,” was released in January 2005. She also has written a collection of essays, “A Little More About Me.”
The title of Houston’s lecture, “Juggling an Apple, a Toaster and a Chainsaw,” refers to her process of taking what she observes in the world — her “glimmers” — and putting them together in interesting ways.
“I pay attention with all my senses and bring together chunks that don’t necessarily go together,” she said.
Houston said her intense focus on the world around her keeps her analytic brain in the background. When she writes, she doesn’t want to know where her story is going. She wants to be surprised just like her readers, she said.
Houston said her writing has evolved. She said she had doubts about writing a novel because she didn’t think she could juggle that many glimmers. When she read from “Sight Hound” — a novel with multiple narrators, including a three-legged Irish wolfhound named Dante — she said she thought of it as a book of short stories.
When she has finished writing, Houston said she lets her analytic brain out to move the pieces around and find some structural identity. Sometimes, she said, the moving can take longer than the writing, but it always comes back to her observations.
“I trust the physical world,” she said. “I’m a good observer, and I know the detail to remember.”