Leonora Desar is a fiction writer, failed poet, and advice columnist. Her first foray into the literary world was at age 16. She was hired—for ten dollars—to read her poetry at an East Village café. Though it remains the most she’s ever been paid for poetic work, the crowd was unenthused and talked over her. Now, she submits work to literary magazines instead. She also gives writing advice, sometimes practical, sometimes not, in her advice column, DEAR LEO. Her work has appeared in River Styx, Passages North, and The Cincinnati Review, among others. Recently, Ottessa Moshfegh chose her as a finalist for Columbia Journal, almost making up for the trauma of those readings.
I’m very excited to present this Monster interview with Leo and then a re-publish of her very first Dear Leo column from New Flash Fiction Review!!!
Where do you get your ideas from and how do you think a year like 2020 is going to change that? Sometimes I worry the necessary isolation of the pandemic is shorting us of life experiences and by extension also material for writing.
Yeah, I worry about that, too. It’s kind of like that Twilight Zone episode (what about this year isn’t?). You have this guy, and all he wants to do is read. And then the world ends, and OMG! Books! But then his glasses break—crap! He has all this time. He has no one to bother him. No boss, no one to say, Leonora, or whatever-his-name-is, go fix that copier machine.
But it doesn’t matter. He can have zero copier machines, zero bosses, zero paper jams. Zero annoying Zooms. The man can’t see.
Similarly, we have 2020. All we have is time—that is, those of us lucky enough not to have to commute to work, or take care of kids, or work at essential jobs. But stimulation? Not so much. I’ve been digging for ideas, for spark, wherever I can find it—dreams. Memories. Old journals. I also have a list:
Leonora’s Cursed List of Stories
Which in addition to being bizarrely in third person, is also doomed. Inevitably, when an idea goes on that list it becomes untenable. I’m not sure why. Pressure maybe? An evil ghost? An evil ghost who knows that the more I think and the more I plan the less likely I’ll be to write. When an idea goes on that list, it’s like my brain takes off. Whether I realize it or not, I begin writing the piece. Unfortunately, I don’t do this with a pen. I do it in my brain—where it’s no use to anyone. And then, when it comes time for me to transcribe—brain to page to screen—the software breaks. The translation software. What was whole and genius in my brain becomes less whole and genius.
Sometimes, what works is to begin. To write faster and faster and let my unconscious sort it out—which is another way of saying, no lists. Just do it, like a sneaker ad.
These days, in the days of Zoom and Cheerios for lunch and “touch up my appearance”—I am trusting in Flannery O’Connor, what she said about childhood and writing. If you survive childhood, you have material.
When you got the idea to do the first online writers call, did you think it would still be going in November? Every week!!! Reading new material to the Monsters has been more important to me than publishing. What kind of magic is that?
No! I mean, yes, it is magic! But no, I didn’t think we’d even get to that first call. I am a Luddite, as you know. But now I get to polish my appearance1 every week. It’s amazing. The question is—when things normalize, if they normalize, will we still be monsters? I hope so. It’s not like I had a raging social life before this.
But seriously, I love our group’s comradery. Our monster spirit (!!!). On the few occasions I’ve hung out with people in real life, post-March, I have thought: why aren’t these people in little boxes? What’s missing, here? The answer is: they’re not on Zoom. They’re not flash monsters. I draw the boxes around them (in my mind). Still, it’s not the same. I can’t wear a normal top over sweatpants, for one.
You guys are rock stars. You make me feel sane—if only for the fact that you’re equally INsane. No one publishing my stuff? Fine, but I get to regale my rejected fiction to the monsters. Rejected everywhere? I get to text the monsters: woe is me! And then they—you—distract me with a GIF:
Teen Wolf! (A precursor to the B’burg Hipster)
1 For those of you not in the know, Zoom has a touch up my appearance option. Even better, this has now been refined. There’s a continuum: natural -> less natural. You can now mislead people in gradations.
Let’s talk about Miranda July. (This is known as a softball question)
So NOT a softball question! My love for Miranda is infinite and complex. It started one day at work.
I was bored, so I approached Google.
-Yeah, me too.
-I’m also a little sad. I haven’t been writing much, lately.
-Sorry to hear that, Leo. Define “much.”
-I have become a consummate fan of I Love Lucy.
-Anyways, I was hoping to enlist your help, Google.
-Can you recommend something new to read. You know, to get the mojo flowing?
-I thought you were at work?
-Ah-ha. I see, Leonora.
-Stop it, you sound just like my mom! Come on, Google, I need a break. You know, to refresh.
-Okay (inputting search terms):
“A writer who can help the fatigued, unrefreshed writer Leonora Desar goof off at work.” Let’s see what I’ve got…
Search results! Miranda July!
After Google introduced me to Miranda, I was unstoppable. She crawled out of the screen. She smelled like almonds. Her hair bounced around, like little slinkies. She perched against my desk, swung her legs. “Hey,” she said. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing work?”
She said it—But not like how Google did, or how my mom did. It wasn’t judgy. It was more like: maybe we shouldn’t always do what we’re supposed to do.
I covered her with a fig leaf, aka a spreadsheet. It was by Excel.
“Is that designer?” she asked.
“It is not,” I said.
“That’s ok,” she said. “Who is that man?”
She crinkled up her nose and pointed at my boss.
“That’s my boss,” I said.
“Tell him I’m the temp,” she said.
“She’s temping for us,” I told my boss.
He approached. His hotdog-colored tie flopped like a sad fish.
“What are you two working on?”
Tell him that you’re on it, Miranda breathed. It’s vague, but also authoritative.
“We’re on it,” I told my boss.
We were inseparable, Miranda and me. You know that book, No one belongs here more than you. Its secret, real title is: No one belongs here more than Leonora. She inspired me, Miranda did. Her words were effortless. Wise. Every phrase of hers was packed with insight. She was the Buddha meets a 13-year-old boy. On one hand, she was a yogi. On the other, a total goofball.
That is, my Miranda was. The Miranda Google had sent me. The Miranda who created Cheryl, a middle-aged woman who drives a Honda in The First Bad Man.
The real Miranda? Not so much. She’s cooler. I have to avoid looking at her. Sometimes I look her up on Insta: I feel a chill, a chill that means, this woman would not accept you. When I do this, my Miranda reassures me. She does silly poses in her spreadsheet. Jumping jacks. She covers up my eyes—
—Don’t look, she says. Don’t look at that imposter Miranda—in her non-ironic it’s-so-ironic Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and tiny shorts. It isn’t worth it. Aren’t I all you need?
And this is true—she is.
What has been your favorite Covid revisit in books or tv? What’s been your favorite Covid discovery?
Ah! That’s classified! Does The Baby-sitters Club count? The series? I mean, technically it is a reboot (and a wonderful one, I may add).
Fine, I’ll just come out and say it—I’m reading Twilight. Books one, two, three, and four. My feelings are conflicted. On the one hand, I never noticed quite how controlling all these men are. Or should I say, males. You have the stalker vamp, the goo-goo eyed teen wolf. Stalker vamp—aka Edward Cullen—climbs into Bella’s room. He watches her. In the early days, she’s not aware of him—she sleeps, he hovers. My inner 15-year-old would find this moony. My outward [redacted] year-old, not so much.
Bella, I want to say. Grow up. Go to college. Immortality is overrated—especially if you’ll be spending it with Emo Ed.
My inner 15-year-old disagrees. She’s all about Emo Ed. Or Biker Jake. She’s addicted to the storytelling, finds comfort in it. There may be controlling vampires, but at least it’s not the plague.
As for COVID discoveries, one night I was talking to my mom. Usually, I don’t listen to my mom. But then she said the killer words—“[muffled?] is a lot like House.” I had to ask her to repeat herself. All I heard was House. I love myself some Dr. House, and I was ready to watch anything with a similar kind of bend.
It turns out, Mom was right. The show in question—Nurse Jackie—WAS a lot like House. Both shows are about addicts. House is addicted to Vicodin. Jackie, Percocet (and painkillers in general). Both take place in the medical world, and both feature characters who aren’t likeable in any traditional kind of sense. In fact, at the beginning of Nurse Jackie you can practically envision the writers’ room:
Head Honcho Writer: Hmmm, how can we make this character likeable but flawed?
Head Honcho Writer’s Minion: Good question.
HHW: I know, we can come up with a formula. Jackie will do something bad, something flawed…
M:….But then we’ll counterbalance it with something good!
Jackie: Stealing drugs; cheating on her handsome husband, Kevin, with Eddie, the cute, scrappy pharmacist 😦
Jackie: Helping patients! Saving lives! Stealing drugs and then paying out of pocket to help patients who can’t afford doing a hospital stint 🙂
= Likeable (if flawed) heroine
It worked. Jackie was a flawed, nuanced character. But what worked better was when they ditched the formula. When they really started taking risks.
Minion: I’m a little drunk.
Head Honcho Writer: Me too.
M: Let’s try something different.
HHW: I’m game. What did you have in mind?
M: Let’s trash the formula.
M: Yes, let’s trash the formula. Fuck balance. Instead of worrying, is this character likeable, let’s worry…
HHW:…is she real?
Jackie wants to ditch her sponsor. This way she can continue using. In the most cringeworthy, brilliant episode ever, she tempts her sponsor—who is ten years sober—into getting trashed. Of all the betrayals, this is the penultimate. It’s worse than all those times she screwed Eddie in the supply closet while her husband waited up at home, worse than when her dealer sells her own drugs to her daughter’s friend, worse than when she’ll sell her patient’s benzos to pay her lawyer’s fee. And it felt absolutely real.
I waited for the redemption play. There wasn’t any—at least not right away.
“I hate her,” my husband said.
“Me too,” I said, “want to watch another?”
But I didn’t have to ask. The next one was already on.
PS: I don’t want to preach here (this is an interview after all, not an advice column), but writers, listen up! Nurse Jackie is brainfood. Brainfood for the writing mind, that is. You might not trust me after learning of my Twilight jaunts, but this show will change your life. At the very least, it will help you to procrastinate.
Hmmm…Flash Monster!!! marathon? Live, on Twitter?
Flash Monster!!! theme park.
Flash Monsters!!! take over Zoom.
Flash Monsters!!! are so awesome they break the Zoom Wall; that is, the box lines that contain us.
Flash Monsters!!! Bonanza television, or maybe a real, legit Flash Monsters!!! journal, or headline: Flash Monsters!!! Steal All the Exclamation Points, or perhaps we sacrifice our exclamation points to the exclamation-less, because we embody them in our souls.
A Flash Monster!!! militia, a kind one. We take to the streets like the Guardian Angels of the flash world, encouraging wayward writers.
Oh wait, were you asking about my own work?
Hmmm. I’d like to say that I’m working on a novel. But we know how that goes. As soon as I anoint it with that word—Novel—I curse myself. It is like my list, my cursed list of stories. I become as squeamish as I did as an 11-year-old kid being shipped off to camp, or when I asked (redacted!) for a date my freshman year, or as my husband is when I threaten him with my cooking.
So instead, I’m going to say I’m writing a “novel.” In the safe quarantine of quotes, and in lower case, this may actually be possible.
That’s me, in my pink wig, trying to be the COVID-era SCARJO
Pictured with (some of) the FLASH MONSTERS— ROAR!!!!
If you’re still reading, wow, what an attention span! Also, thank you!!!
As a reward, or maybe a punishment, here is the first-ever installment of my advice column, Dear Leo. Check out New Flash Fiction Review for the latest.
Dear Leo # 1
How to deal with being a failed writer, writing to get in someone’s pants, writing with the blood, and a bunch of other stuff
Truth alert! (Usually I write fiction and I lie.)
The other week I spoke to my friend’s class. Then I wrote them this longwinded thing. It’s about writing and a bunch of other stuff:
OK. So here is the part that I didn’t tell you. A few hours before I was supposed to talk to you I really, really, really didn’t want to. I had a bad day. I couldn’t write which for me = a bad day. I had been trying to write at this café and it was super annoying. For one, it smells. Plus there’s this guy there. I call him the Serious Writer (SW for short). SW makes me feel supremely guilty. For one, he always seems to be there—writing. And 2) he always has this super serious expression on his face, like whatever is going to come out of his mouth (or his fingers) is pure gold.
So as I was sitting there I felt like this fraud. Like Serious Writer should be speaking to you instead, or Pink Scarf Lady (PSL). PSL looks like the heiress to some cookie fortune—she is always flouncing around and wears these big kooky earrings and looks like she’s just generally filled with brilliance.
Anyway, the point is that published writers get stuck. And feel like frauds. And that no matter how successful you are or how many pink scarves you wear or how seriously serious you look, you will want to fuck it all and throw your laptop/notebook/whatever against the wall, Kurt Cobain style (*if you don’t know who Kurt Cobain is please abandon this right now and look him up) (and preferably listen to one of his songs while you are reading).
And after I spoke to you guys and listened to all your awesome, intelligent, brilliant and caring questions I realized that I should have told you this. The thing is I am bad at speaking in front of people which is one of the reasons I chose writing (that and I’m not very good at math. Which is a bummer. I doubt mathematicians or accountants throw their calculators against the wall).
And then I went to get some Thai food which along with ice cream is the best way to get over a bad writing day. It doesn’t cure it but you can almost trick yourself into thinking of good ideas; your brain is focused on the food and the chai and the coconut-iness and not on all the ways you failed. I would suggest this. If Thai isn’t your thing there’s Indian and Italian and long walks on the beach. Basically, get out of your head, eat something good, preferably something immersive with chopsticks or weird utensils or something you have to focus on not getting on your shirt. This way you are thinking of this, how to avoid a big dry-cleaning bill and not on your writing.
My Writer’s Block, who David Lynch fans may recognize as the Winkie’s monster
So as I was eating I thought of all your questions and how kind you were, and realized I wasn’t done yet, I had other answers and ideas. I started writing them in a notebook but my handwriting sucks and I realized I wouldn’t be able to read it later (plus writing in a notebook is hard).
Here is the basic gist—
- One of you asked about writer’s block and how to get over it. Good question. Here’s what I want you to do. Picture your writer’s block. What does he she or it look like? Describe it. Give me 300 words on it. Nothing more. Then reward yourself with ice cream
- Someone else asked about ideas. This is the million-dollar question. I want you to go out with a notebook or your phone and describe five people you see. That’s it. Or even one—the most interesting, intriguing person. Don’t think that now you have to write a story about their life—you don’t—just stick with the basic physical description. Then reward yourself with ice cream
- Back to writer’s block. This might be the most important question because it’s what all the other questions are based on—where we get ideas and stories and passion and the language to write them down. This is what I want you to do. Write for yourself. Write the weirdest most fucked up dream you’ve ever had and don’t worry about it making any sense. Don’t worry about showing it to someone. Write for yourself. Write about the way it made you feel and if this feels disturbing good, it makes you feel something. I want you to be disturbed. Impassioned. The only time you have to worry is when the writing is cold and bloodless and beautifully written. Don’t worry about beautiful writing—it will come with reading amazing books and talking to people and practice. Just focus on the blood
- The blood: I stole this from a Mozart in the Jungle episode. When you’re done with Nirvana download an episode from Netflix. It’s about music which is a lot like writing, it’s all about playing with the blood, which is passion (plus it’s really funny)
- Write to impress the hell out of someone. Yes, I know this goes directly against #3—write for yourself. But sometimes you have to change things up. Sometimes the thing that works one day is not the thing that works the next day or next week. Write to get in someone’s pants or to make them fall in love with you or see you in a different way. Then don’t send it to them. Or do. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you wrote it
- If you’re really stuck do what I always say I’m going to do and don’t. Don’t worry about imagination. That’s the hard thing about writing fiction; we feel the onus is on us, to make up something, to take something out of nothing and make it brilliant. Screw that. Take a familiar scene. Describe it. Describe the room you’re in or your bedspread or the messy socks under the drawer (the ones you forgot to put into the laundry). Here, I’ll go first:
my room’s a mess and there’s a dog toy on my bed. there is no dog though. the dog’s asleep. there’s a bedspread with some stains from god knows where and a chaise and some faint siren thing outside which I wouldn’t notice unless i was forced to find something to describe. i’m tired.
Now make something up. Just one thing. Don’t add pressure by thinking you have to make some genius story—just add something to the mix:
i’m tired and i don’t feel like cleaning these dirty socks. but sometimes they clean themselves. they put themselves in the drawer and say, leonora, why can’t you handle this?
- Write an email. This is my favorite trick. Sometimes I am completely stuck so I say, fuck this writing and email Ashley. I start talking about my day (not very exciting) but then it leads into one of those weird observations about a person and sometimes, if I am lucky, it turns into a story
- Pretend to write an email. If you have no one you actually want to email just open the email doc and write. It’s weird how the medium and feel of it will change your attitude about writing. You won’t think—this is a story—you’ll think, oh, email, I can relax. And the great thing about this trick is that it usually works even if you know it. Your brain doesn’t rebel and say—hey, I’m being tricked—it just goes with it
- When all else fails write when you’re really really really really tired. This is the best way to overthrow a rigid brain. Your brain’s defenseless or what the shrinks like to call the superego. This is that part of your intellect that wants everything in a box and for you not to have any fun. Fuck that. When you’re tired the ID takes over. The glorious ID which is all about sex and drugs and rock and roll and weird nightmares from your childhood, even if it’s not actually having sex or doing drugs—it can imagine it, write it, tap into things
- Write what excites you. Even if you don’t know why. When you feel a pull to write that’s your brain letting go and your heart pumping blood and your soul telling you to sing
- Don’t do drugs. They screw up your brain
- Seriously write sober. Let the writing sound boozy but do it with a clear and lucid brain
- Don’t go all didactic as I just did. Save it for your sermons. Let your characters speak for themselves and be ambiguous and flawed, and don’t tell us what it means
- Don’t do what I just did which was to switch to a word doc. Now I am all flummoxed
- Don’t listen to these rules
- Make up your own
- Then break them
Hailey Rutledge from Mozart in the Jungle, conducting with the blood—