Fiction Reboot: The poetry and prose of Elizabeth Oness

Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot!

Today, I am featuring the work of a friend and colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Oness. It is always a blessing to be surrounded by writers, to be working with like-minded people, to have mentors and friends you can talk to about your work and your goals. It is my pleasure to present Beth’s work and her inspiring answers. (I should mention that she is also a professor of creative writing, so her advice is seasoned by experience not only with writing and publishing but with the teaching of other young writers).

More about Beth’s Books: The Works of Elizabeth Oness


Image of Dr. Oness

Elizabeth Oness grew up in Chappaqua, New York, and did her undergraduate work at James Madison University in Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Hudson Review, Crazyhorse, Glimmer Train, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review and other literary magazines. Her stories have received an O. Henry Prize, a Nelson Algren Award, and other notices. Her story collection, Articles of Faith,won the 2000 Iowa Short Fiction Prize and was published by the University of Iowa Press.

Her first novel, Departures,was published by Penguin in 2004. Twelve Rivers of the Body won the Gival Press Novel Award and was published in October 2008. A collection of poems, Fallibility,is forthcoming from New Rivers Press in the fall of 2009. She is an associate professor of English at Winona State University, where she teaches composition, literature, and fiction writing. She directs marketing and development for Sutton Hoo Press, a literary fine press, and lives in rural Minnesota with her husband, the poet C. Mikal Oness, and their son.


1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences? Your favorite work?

This might have described me as a young woman, but I’ve found that, because I’ve written a number of the books I wanted to write, I don’t feel writing is always necessary for me. I’ve lost several friends to cancer, and I feel really fortunate to be able-bodied and healthy and able to do the physical things I do, so at this point, if I have a choice between writing and going outside to work a horse, I’m going to go out and work with the horse.

I think it’s natural that, when we’re younger, we’re seeking to define ourselves or mark our mark, and as I’ve gotten older, I really don’t care about all that; I’m not concerned about my career, or what my cv looks like.

I’m a huge fan of the short story form, and I started reading contemporary fiction closely in the mid-eighties, so writers like Anne Beattie, Ray Carver, Richard Ford, Deborah Eisenberg, Peter Cameron and Andre Dubus Jr. were really important to me. Dubus’s “A Father’s Story” seems to me a great short story. Our language would be less without it.

2. Like you, I am an academic where writing fiction is wedged into busy semesters and summer breaks. How and when did you make the decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it so deserves? On a related note, how do you balance your time as an academic and an author?

I didn’t go back to work on a PhD until I was 32, so I had a lot of years of doing weird and interesting jobs, traveling, and living a city life before I settled down to a PhD program and eventually a job. I wrote a lot when I was in my early twenties, and made a lot of the writing mistakes young writers make, so by the time I was in my late twenties, I had time a little bit of experience and focus. I decided, pretty early on, that I wasn’t interested in scholarly publication. I am interested in Irish Studies, and I have some colleagues in that field who are really learned, but I’m a dilettante who likes being able to participate in that conversation. If I were to really engage scholarly work, that’s the field I’d do it in, but if I’m going to spend time writing, I’d rather write fiction or poetry.

3.As a medical humanist and as the managing editor of a medical anthropology journal, I am very intrigued by your novel Twelve Rivers of the Body. Could you say a bit about the research necessary for this novel—and also about the spiritual journey that emerges from its pages?

I didn’t do any research for the novel. I spent almost seven years working at a drug detox clinic where we used acupuncture for drug detoxification–very much like the clinic in the novel, and it was an amazing place. Being white, I was a minority in almost any room I was in, which set up a situation where I was in a position to listen & observe rather than “manage” things, which was a very great relief to me. I tend to think that I know the best way to do things, which is not always true, so I liked not being in charge.

I spent many of those years editing Jing-Nuan Wu’s translations of the Yi Jing (Book of Changes) and the Ling Shu (The Spiritual Pivot) and spending so much time immersed in these classical Chinese medical texts, and really working on the translation, was truly a spiritual endeavor.

I’ve always been interested in spiritual questions. I was raised in a very Catholic household, and I’m decidedly not that—and haven’t been since I was a child. Mostly, I don’t know what I believe in, so questions of belief are really central to my work. For me, that’s the true of Departures as well, although wouldn’t seem to be its apparent subject.

Colliding belief systems––East and West, linear and associative, anything and its antithesis––are always interesting to me.

3. You are also a published poet, and Fallibility won the 2008 Many Voices prize. How do you find the shift between genres? Does your fiction influence your poetry? Or vice versa? Do you prefer one mode of writing to the other?

I think of myself as a fiction writer who gets off the ground occasionally. I did an MFA in poetry and studied with Stan Plumly and Michael Collier, and they were both wonderful teachers. I find it hard to break out of a narrative mode, to suspend the syntax of the sentence and play with it. I love poetry, but I find it hard not to get prose-y or flat, so I never try to write poetry at the same time as prose.

4. As a poet, what moves you? Your language is highly praised for its precision, it’s careful crafting, its simplicity and depth. Could you describe your method? How do you pursue a poem from beginning to end?

My husband jokes, and I know others have said this, that if you have an idea that inspires you, it’s probably not good to write about it. Set it aside, and think about language.

I don’t have much of a method. Sometimes I can’t revise a poem much in one sitting. I’m too impatient. I make a few changes, and that’s as far as I can push it for that day. Stan Plumly said something very helpful: He suggested that, when revising a poem, don’t try to go back to what you were thinking or feeling at the time. The poem should be revised from the place you are now.

5. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?

Like most folks these days, I write on a computer, but I like to print things out, mark up the page, and then type those changes into the computer — over and over and over. I might rewrite the beginning of something 50 times, but as the story or novel finds its voice, it moves along a bit more easily.

I don’t believe in writer’s block. If you’re stopped, you should probably be doing something else – doing something for someone else. There’s a lot that’s wrong with the world. Do some service and forget about yourself, then come back to the page when you want to.

6. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism? Beta readers?

The feedback of a good workshop can be really helpful. It’s a mini-sample of your eventual readers. Mostly, my agent reads for me, and I trust her judgment. I’ve never had a true mentor when it comes to fiction, although Nicholas Delbanco was kind enough to read Twelve Rivers of the Body and give me comments, and I was so grateful for his time and thought.

Recently I published a story, “John Kerry Kills Babies to Pay for the War in Iraq,” which had been submitted to a contest, and the editors of the River and Sound Review basically said: “We like your story, but both we felt as if it makes a big left turn. Would you be interested in hearing our comments?” I said “yes” and their comments were really intelligent and helpful and absolutely made the story better.

I don’t think in terms of beta readers. I ask people whose intelligence I respect for comments when I want them.

7. We are all looking for agents. Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? What about new poets?

New writers probably shouldn’t be thinking about publishing. I usually tell people to think of embarking on a ten-year apprenticeship. Literary magazines ––those that publish work that really rocks you––are a good place to start. And agents, or their assistants, often read those magazines. There’s so much info on the web now, it’s useful to consider agents who represent the same kind of work you write. If someone aspires to be like Francine Prose, it’s worth finding out who represents her and querying him.

Poets don’t usually have agents unless the poet is really famous. I always encourage writers to develop their work, rather than their career. Given social media these days, people get terribly busy advertising themselves, and I understand the impulse, and the necessity in some cases, but it’s very boring and needy to me – kind of like an insurance salesman.

8. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)

I would say that there are books that inspire me rather than writers. I love the work of Andre Dubus Jr., but I just finished reading his son’s memoir, Townie, and Dubus was not a very good father, and it makes me sad. I think Ruth Ozeki is absolutely marvelous. She manages to address serious issues with a great deal of humor and humanity. I love certain books: Russell Banks’ Affliction, James Salter’s Light Years, Carole Maso’s The Art Lover come to mind. In non-fiction, I like a variety of voices. Michael Perry is a terrific writer – funny, moving, a real pleasure. Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is also a wonderful book.

9. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?

I don’t like reading online, so I don’t follow many blogs, although I do think there’s lots of interesting commentary by bloggers. I read the Writers’ Chronicle, which is published by AWP, because it does have a fairly wide variety of articles. Poets & Writers Magazine has become increasingly focused on the career aspect of writing, which I find a little disappointing. Once upon a time, it was published on newsprint, and my perception was that it was originally more about the work itself – but perhaps that was a youthful perception.


Thank you, Beth, for joining us at the Fiction Reboot!


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