A Small Thing to Want
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
A Small Thing to Want is a series of stories about the tricky nature of love and relationships. It chronicles how the choices we make are often influenced by the ghosts of failed relationships and lost love. Shuly Xóchitl Cawood discusses the creation of the collection, working across genres and how to stay motivated.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you?
“They [two professors] both taught me that it was okay to write about what I felt like writing about…”
CAWOOD: Many years ago, I had two professors who were my poetry mentors. Their teachings helped shape my writing, but more than that, they both taught me a lot about believing in myself and trusting my writing. They both taught me that it was okay to write about what I felt like writing about, no matter how big or small or personal or not. When I focus on the joy I get from writing, it matters less whether it is “publishable” or not. And that has helped me weather many ups and downs of the writing profession. They have both since died, but I hope their teachings live on in me. I still think of them often, and when my next book comes out (a poetry collection), I am dedicating it to them.
AUTHORLINK: I see that you haveattended several conferences and workshops. What role have these conferences played in your development as a writer?
“I’ve learned so much about writing from craft workshops—how to use reflective voice, how to use setting and description…”
CAWOOD: I’ve learned so much about writing from craft workshops—how to use reflective voice, how to use setting and description to evoke emotion, how to begin and end short stories, how to use point of view. It’s all helped immensely, and I have also found that learning something in one genre usually helps me with the others. (I write fiction, poetry, and memoir.) By learning that it is important to use a lot of details and the senses in fiction to create believability, you can also apply that idea to poetry and memoir—that the use of details and the senses will improve your writing.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?
“Usually what comes into my head is a person or two people in a situation, and that’s all I know.”
CAWOOD: Usually what comes into my head is a person or two people in a situation, and that’s all I know. I don’t know where the story is going or even anything about the characters (yet). I let them show me who they are and what is going to happen. Recently I had two characters—a married couple—who discovered they had skunks living under their shed. That was their situation. I am still finding out what their real story is.
AUTHORLINK: What authors and stories influenced your writing of these stories?
CAWOOD: Decades ago, I read Edith Wharton’s short story, “Roman Fever.” It took me a long time to realize how much it affected me and stayed with me and influenced my writing. It’s a quiet story on the surface, about two friends talking about old times, but it has a turn at the end that I didn’t see coming, and that turn changed my whole view of the story and the characters. I like when stories do that—have that turn—and I realized in recent years that most of my stories take a slight turn at the end as well. Maybe not as good as Edith’s! But it’s good to aim high.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to develop and shape the collection?
CAWOOD: I started writing the stories back in 2014, but I was not thinking about a story collection. I was just writing one story, and then another, and then another. I wanted to get better and better at it. Each story had a lesson for me. That’s still true. Of course I have many stories I never finished. If they lost my interest, surely they would lose the readers. I’m okay abandoning stories and ideas. But the stories that stuck with me made me stick with them.
Because a similar theme ran through my writing, I realized my stories could be a collection a few years later, and I finished the collection in early 2019.
AUTHORLINK: What themes emerged in stories as you wrote? Were you surprised by what came up? Do you think the collection as a whole has a theme?
CAWOOD: I often think about and write about why we choose to love the people we do, and why we let others go. It wasn’t surprising this was the theme of the collection—it’s the theme of a lot of what I write.
The theme is not what surprised me—the characters did, though. They told me secrets I never suspected, they did things I did not anticipate. But that’s part of the fun of writing short stories for me: walking into the unknown.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing these stories and how did you overcome them?
“When I first started writing short stories, I did not have a voice yet.”
CAWOOD: When I first started writing short stories, I did not have a voice yet. I’d written memoir for so long that I had found my memoir voice, but fiction was such a new genre for me. I was just trying to get fictional characters from point A to point B. I was so concerned about plot that it overshadowed everything else. Time and writing and practicing gave me a voice in fiction.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
CAWOOD: We mostly worked on sentence-level changes, but there was one story in particular for which she didn’t like the ending—she thought it could be better. I got my defensives up, but then I realized she was right, and I rewrote it—and it was better.
“My advice for writers is to trust your own writing instinct.”
My advice for writers is to trust your own writing instinct. That’s one of the things my MFA taught me—because during that program, I got lots of peer critiques, and some of them were spot-on, and some of them didn’t feel right for me. I had to learn to distinguish between the two, and I had to learn to trust my own gut. When my editor suggested I change the ending of that one story, I didn’t want to—but my gut said slow down and listen to her.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers?
CAWOOD: Write what interests you, write what you love, and write what you feel like writing. In other words, write for yourself. I told myself long ago that I wanted to find joy in writing, and that meant abandoning being concerned what other people would think of my work, at least during the creating stage. It doesn’t mean don’t get feedback, but get feedback once you have finished your first draft.
Also, trust your writing brain to lead you to where you need to go in a piece, even if it seems strange or off the path you planned. Just follow it. It knows better than you do where to go.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
CAWOOD: I am working on more short stories and poems. I have several novels-in-progress, but they aren’t calling to me right now. I don’t know if they will again. I used to think I would be a novelist, and who knows? Maybe I will someday. But right now I am going where my writing wants me to go, and it feels like the exact right thing.
About the Author
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of the short story collection, A Small Thing to Want (Press 53, 2020); the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press, 2017); and the little advice book, 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17 (Cimarron Books, 2018). Her debut poetry collection, Trouble Can Be So Beautiful at the Beginning, is the 2019 Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry winner and will be published by Mercer University Press in 2021. Her writing has been published in Brevity and The Sun Magazine, among others. Her website is www.shulycawood.com.